In this article, I take a look at proofreading for self-publishers, and the conundrum that can arise when the author hasn't invested in previous rounds of editing.
If you’re a proofreader, it’s likely that you’ve been asked to proofread for a self-publishing author who hasn’t had their work taken through professional substantive, line and copy-editing. I certainly have.
This situation may have arisen for one of several reasons:
So, if he or she wishes to, should a proofreader work with clients who fall into the above categories? Before answering that question, it’s worth considering what we mean when we use terms to describe editorial skillsets, and whether our clients have the same understanding.
Says the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), “After material has been copy-edited, the publisher sends it to a designer or typesetter. Their work is then displayed or printed, and that is the proof – proof that it is ready for publication. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up” (“FAQs: What is proofreading”, SfEP).
Of note is the fact that the proofreader is not directly editing the files; rather, we are annotating them (this applies to both paper proofs and PDFs). See “Not all proofreading is the same: Part I – Working with page proofs” (Proofreader’s Parlour) for a more comprehensive discussion of the process of traditional proofreading.
However, these days, many clients such as academics, businesses and independent, self-publishing authors want something rather different. Often, they’ll supply raw-text files and want the proofreader to directly amend the text.
They may ask the proofreader to format the various text elements, make the majority of style decisions, even tweak awkward sentences. This is referred to as proof-editing in some professional editorial circles.
In such cases, “[t]he proofreader has to explore what is required and negotiate a budget and schedule that allow for more editorial decisions and intervention” (“FAQs: What is proofreading”, SfEP).
Client understandings and usage
Those of us who own our own editorial businesses recognize that the professional terminology we use to communicate how we can solve a client’s problems doesn’t always match the client's understanding and usage. Consider the following:
It’s for that reason that I don’t use the term “proof-editing” on my website to describe the service I offer to self-publishing authors, even though it’s exactly what I do for many of them. Instead, I offer them a “proofreading” service and I refer to myself as a “proofreader”.
In contrast, when publishers contact me about proofreading work, I know I’m usually going to be working with page proofs and that my brief will, broadly speaking, require me to carry out the kinds of pre-publication checks that proofreading, traditionally defined, demands.
Should the proofreader accept or decline non-edited proofreading work?
My view is that this is the wrong question. Rather, the questions should be:
If the answer to those questions is yes, and the client and the proofreader agree mutually acceptable terms (of level of intervention, fee, schedule, etc.), I see no reason why a proofreader should not work for self-publishing authors who haven’t hired an editor beforehand.
Offering a professional service
Offering a professional editorial service involves:
Listening and talking to the client
If the author has commissioned a structural editor and copy-editor before hiring the proofreader, is the text in better shape?
Assuming these editors were competent professionals, I think that in almost all cases the answer is yes. However, that isn’t always what the client wants (and, occasionally, dare I say it, it may not even be what the client needs, though that is beyond the scope of this article).
Here’s a fictive example, but one that I’m sure will chime with many of us in real-world practice.
The thing about me is that I know how to drive a car, keep it clean, ensure the oil is topped up, mend a broken headlight, and change a tyre. I also know when the brakes aren’t working properly. However, I don’t have the skill to fix the brakes – for that, I need a qualified mechanic.
What do I do?
What does she do?
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a goer. I’ve made it clear what I can and can’t do. She’s made it clear what she wants. We’ve agreed terms.
Will the book be as good at it could have been? No. But she knows this. This is a journey for her, a first stage, an experiment. Right now, proofreading is good enough for her.
And it doesn’t actually matter whether someone else thinks she absolutely should have invested in an editor; she has the right to put her work out there anyway. She’s chosen to do so in a way that has attended to the micro issues that a proofreader deals with rather than the macro issues that an editor could have fixed. That’s her informed choice.
Me? I’m delighted to have secured a new client, and to work with her in the only way I’m able to – as a proofreader. I’ve done my best to provide guidance so that she’s better informed next time around, and I’ve respected her choices this time around. It’s a win–win.
This isn't always the outcome, of course. There will be times when the proofreader, after an assessment of the sample provided by the author, feels so overwhelmed by the task in hand that there is no option other than to decline the work. In this case, it is not in the best interests of either the proofreader or the client to proceed.
Cost-effective client education for the editorial business owner
One of the problems editorial professionals face is the cost-effectiveness of educating inexperienced authors. Time is money, and I’m running a business, not a charity. If I spend an hour providing one-on-one detailed guidance to a potential client, that time is unbillable.
And if that detailed guidance involves encouraging them to commission other editorial professionals who have the appropriate skillsets, and I’m successful in my recommendations, in effect I’m paying for a colleague to be hired. That’s great for the author, and great for the colleague, but for me it’s like throwing money out of the window – I could have used that hour to do paying work.
If that’s a problem you find yourself running into, consider creating generic resources that explain the issues at stake, and then refer your potential clients to them. This will enable you to reduce the amount of unbillable time that you spend on education.
Placing those resources on your website will also reflect your willingness provide accessible value-added content that demonstrates professional expertise and the desire to help. Examples might include:
You might also like to read a related post published on Rich Adin's An American Editor blog: The Proofreader’s Corner: Untangling Proofreading.
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). I abide by its Code of Standards in regard to my status as an independent writer.
Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.