Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest Post: Michael J. Sullivan – Editing: Traditional vs Self-published

Please welcome Michael J. Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations fantasy series which is now being released by Orbit. The first Orbit release is Theft of Swords which collects the novels The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. Just read it and found it to be quite awesome.

In any case, both Mihir and I are glad to have Michael here as he shares with us his experience with the editing process:
Michael J. Sullivan – Editing: Traditional vs Self-published

Hello, my name is Michael J. Sullivan, and I’ve written a six-book fantasy series, The Riyria Revelations. I’m one of the few authors that have seen both sides of the publishing fence. I’ve self-published five of my six books and now these same works are being re-released by Orbit as a trilogy.  Bastard, (wow it’s strange typing that without feeling like I’m being insulting), asked me here today to peel back the veil and talk a bit about editing…in particular how it differs between the two worlds.

To understand the editing process, I’d like to first take a minute to talk about the differences between talent and skill. While I’m sure people could debate the subtle nuances all day, let me at least lay out my particular beliefs so you know where I’m coming from. By my definition talent is something that you are born with…it is inherent in you and cannot be taught. Skill, on the other hand, is the component that you learn, and in fact it improves with practice. When you learn techniques, you are adding to your skill set. The ability to conceive an idea from nothingness is a trait that all sentient beings possess, but not all people can take an idea and develop it into a compelling medium.  A person can imagine a beautiful scene in their head, but to be able to recreate that on canvas, so that others can experience the same image, requires talent and skill.

So, why did I bother bringing up talent and skill? Well as it turns out, for me at least, it aligns pretty nicely with the types of editing that every book should go through.  The first type of editing is developmental and revolves around the story as a whole. The developmental editor’s job is to make sure that the books are well paced, the characters are realistic, and any potential plot holes are firmly plugged. The developmental editor is primarily focusing on the talent portions of the book…basically concentrating on the storytelling elements.

Copy editing (or line editing) concerns itself primarily with the skill portion. During copy editing, an awkward sentence may be restructured, homophone errors corrected, and commas are added and removed in great number. It is the copy editors job to make sure that the books are free of all grammatical errors and reads smoothly.

There is a debate these days about whether authors should self-publish or go traditional, and there are valid points on either side. Self-publishing provides for complete freedom and a higher per book income, but traditional rules in two very important areas: distribution and editing.

To even consider the possibility of self-publishing I think you have to have a hearty dose of talent…in other words your storytelling better hold up well on its own without the need of much developmental editing. Most self-publishers rely on a trusted partner (in my case this is my wife), and fellow writer friends, generally through critique groups. To hire a developmental editor, if you can find a good one, is VERY expensive. In many ways, it’s like the posh restaurant with no prices…if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. If you look critically at your book, and conclude you need a developmental editor, then I don’t think self-publishing is the right choice for you.

Copy editing is another matter altogether. This is a skill that many people do, both full- and part-time, and it can be hired at a reasonable cost. While most often this work is done by professionals, I’ve also found some of the best line editors come from astute readers with a high sensitivity to errors. The problem with copy editing is that I’ve never found a single person that finds ALL the little nits. When you think about it there are literally millions of possible errors in a book of 100,000 words.  Everything from punctuation of a dialog tag verses an action tag, to making sure that titles in apposition are lower case while those used in direct address are capitalized.  To have a well copy edited book will require more than one person, and hiring multiple people will drive up the book’s cost.

Traditional publishing is going to have both types of editors on staff and working to make your book the best it can be. I’ve read many a blog post where authors rave about the contributions of their developmental editors, and how their books were tremendously improved because of their hard work. To be honest the Orbit books are actually very similar to my self-published versions, but there are a number of reasons for this: a tight deadline, existing fans, interwoven plot elements, and the fact that I liked them the way they were ;-). Still, there have been some nice changes that came about, and I can’t adequately sing the praises of just how good the copy editing and proofing folks were.

So there you have it: Editing 101 from both a self-published and traditional published viewpoint. For me, writing a book is easy, but it is the editing that takes the real time.  I’ve been known to write a book in a month, and then spend six to nine months editing it. For any aspiring authors out there I hope this helps…and please, if you do plan on self-publishing, don’t scrimp on the editing. You have the responsibility to put out a book of the highest possible quality…yes it will take a great deal of effort, and that is one of the disadvantages of self-publishing, but it is a crucial component and one corner you simply can’t cut.

Thanks Michael once again for stopping by, it's appreciated. For those of you who haven't bought a copy yet of his books, make sure to do so: Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron.

Please visit his website and blog for more information.


  1. Very good info Michael. I'll be checkingmout your series at some point for sure.

  2. I have read all of this series except for the last one as it has not been released. I wonder if I would notice the differences between the self published and the traditional published ones.

    I agree with Bastard as I really enjoyed the series and I will buy he last one when it is published in January.

  3. I want to pre-order Percepliquis myself, though I don't know how much of a limited run it will be as I want the old format version, and I don't know if Amazon, for example, can guarantee me a copy if I do buy from them. So I'm keeping my eye out to see if they'll be provided elsewhere too.

    I've only read Theft of Swords, so looking forward to reading the rest soon.

  4. Really a wonderful post on editing! Thank you Michael. I do wish you all the best with Orbit and over seas. :)

  5. This is a fantastic, thoughtful post on editing. I think self-publishers should realize that even if they can't possibly have more than one editor, it's important to at least have one good one to work out the major copy editing issues. Readers and reviewers are more likely to forgive a single stray comma than a book full of them.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...