Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

I've been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven't gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I'm wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author's customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book -- e or p -- that I have bought or read that doesn't have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no "penalty" for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor's suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I've discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity -- at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I've suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can't individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author's responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn't issue a "seal of good editing" to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you're for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, "How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?" The answer is another question: What does the editor "pay" to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can't hurt to try.

24 Comments on Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

  1. Not a bad idea, but who would then certify that the editor whose name is listed is an actual editor? I find the free sample the best way to screen out the truly bad writing in many self-published books, especially now that you can usually read the sample online, without even downloading it. It doesn’t assure that the author has mastered pacing, plot, and character development, but it does tell you whether they can string sentences together into a meaningful paragraph.

    • “who would then certify that the editor whose name is listed is an actual editor?”

      University English departments and standards boards. Like every other profession.

      Editors should “certify” their work by creating a prominent brand. Big old logo on the cover that says “I stand behind this”. It works as long as you maintain clear standards and CONSISTENTLY use them.

  2. Agreed. The best way to check the editing is to read the free sample. And if there isn’t one, don’t buy.

  3. Certification is common practice in many professions but it only works in those professions with Certification/Licensing boards that police the standards and practices of the profession.
    That in no way shape or form ressembles publishing, does it?

  4. I think the major flaw in this idea is that as the author I can choose to ignore the advice I receive. If you want a book certified, will the editor demand that all the advice is taken? If that’s true, then we take the story away from the Author.
    Do I want my book to be ‘correct’ or ‘real’?

  5. I think this idea is workable, but not on the level of individual editors. Instead, the fact that an ebook is coming from a “press” (whatever you define it to be) should suggest that another set of eyes have proofread it. However I mock the publications of the Big 6, at least I can be assured that there are no obvious typos.

    I consider myself a good editor of both my own and other people’s stuff. When publishing an ebook by another person, I was horrified to learn that my last batch of edits didn’t make the final version. I had to scurry away and re-edit everything twice just to satisfy myself that it was properly edited.

    OT: I read in one of the OKCupid data dumps that the statement “spelling and grammar mistakes bother me” was a good predictor of whether a person viewed himself as religious. I can’t help wondering if tolerance for typos vary among people. I for example value great literature as much as anybody, but a typo or two doesn’t faze me … as long as it’s not more than once per chapter.

    I think bad writing is a more grievous a sin than typos anyway — although I will add that this short post would have had 3 or 4 typos were it not for Firefox’s red squiggly lines.

    • “However I mock the publications of the Big 6, at least I can be assured that there are no obvious typos.”

      Unfortunately, you can’t be assured of that at all, especially with ebooks, not even from the Big 6. Harper Voyager (HarperCollins) released the latest Raymond Feist novel in hardcover with all sorts of errors in it, first in the UK and then in the US. Tor (Macmillan) published Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest with the first line missing, among other mistakes.

  6. Le Crayon Bleu // 9 May, 2012 at 1:27 pm // Reply

    Editing should be the standard, not the exception. It isn’t a bonus; people should be able to expect that a book has been edited, not get excited that is has! Bridges are checked by engineers and books are edited.

    • As a Civil Engineer, I’m offended by this comment.

      Sure, free body diagrams and the moment-beam equation are boring, but they aren’t easy and certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted.

      Thanks for saving your life every day.

  7. It would be much easier to do a certification that deals with the basics (e.g., spelling, punctuation, grammar). More abstract mechanics (plotting, dialogue, narrative, description) can’t be made systematic, and I think it would be counterproductive to try.

    But you might envision a “self-publisher’s publisher,” whose only job is to read a book over, suggest changes, fix spelling and grammar, and (if the book meets their standards), allow the author to mark their book “Quality Assurance provided by SirPressALot Publishing” or something. Their stamp of approval would basically be saying, “If we were publishing, we’d be happy to publish this.”

    Some will develop a reputation for stamping “Grade A Time Travel Adventure” on anything that comes with their $150 service fee included.

    One problem will be, how to pay for this service. If they ask for payment up front, they have a strong incentive to get authors to submit books, no matter how craptastic. If they ask for a share of royalties, they can just approve every damned thing and gamble that a few of their books will take off without their help.

    In the end, I don’t see this being much more useful than paying someone to do (honest) Amazon reviews for you.

    • What if, to ensure honest reviews and discourage rubberstamping, you asked them to place a large monetary deposit on the future success of the book.

      For example, they could pay an “advance” to the author’s that they feel are good enough to publish that would be paid back out of the future share of royalties.

      Oh, wait…

  8. >>>Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, “How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?”

    No, it’s, “What is an editor?”

    Really, do you expect those who pick up a book once or twice a year to even know what an editor is — or that there is even *proofreading*? Do you think the people who made Amanda Hocking a millionaire gave a damn?

  9. I am not crazy about this idea. It sounds great on the surface, and even if writers didn’t go muck up their books after editing, there are other problems. First, it’s an elitist expression of an editor’s self-importance, the idea that no one can possibly create a readable book without the assistance of a certified editor. Some manuscripts are very clean before an editor ever sees them, and in other cases, the manuscript is so bad that all the editor can do is put lipstick on a pig. There are books that can’t be saved, now matter how talented the editor is. Second, projects backed by money will always get certified. Rich self-publishing writers will always be able to find the editor equivalent of Michael Jackson’s doctor, while some kid with a great story, who does a good job self-editing and getting help from friends will never be able to afford to hire a certified editor. Last, as a certified editor would want to make sure a manuscript is as clean as possible before giving it a stamp of approval, stylistics and experimentation will be discouraged (in an era when books already sound far too much like other books). Novels that push the linguistic envelope simply will face long odds of getting certified. Speaking as an indie novelist with two books, zero experience in self-publishing, and a bit of a subversive streak, the only badge I would want is that my books flunked editing certification.

    • I am a writing coach/editor. My latest client, K.R. Sands, just pub’d her short story collection with an innovative new publisher; “Boy of Bone” by Siman Media Works. Extreme ebook and iPad app coming in June. When she asked her pub. whether they would supply her with an editor, he replied, “You’ve already got a great editor!”

      I’m not showing off. But I have a story to back my claim that I do a good job.

      Rich, what you describe is copy editing, which could be standardized. But how would you standardize the kind of substantive editing that many writers seek? –How to grapple with the blurring of fact and fiction in memoir? –a plot that runs over the characters, flattening them? (as E.M. Forster describes in Aspects of the Novel) –lovely, overwordy writing with NO plot? –the value of subverting a given genre in a MARKETABLE way? (NOT that my client above had any of those issues)

      Etc. There’s FAR more to editing than catching typos and inconsistencies.

    • I didn’t mean my reply (below) to sound obnoxious. ACK!! Richard, there are a lot of writers out there who see it the way you do. I am slowly coming around to the notion that a literary writer can and should be an “authorpreneur.” That means, among other things, being a professional, and seeing help as part of taking responsibility for your own typos. Keep the faith!

  10. Hmm, speaking as an editor, I think the prospect of a “Certified” stamp would cause a lot of nervous breakdowns in the profession. 🙂 And my heading is spinning wondering how you would withhold a “Certified” stamp tactfully for books you’re just not happy with – where the author has rejected most of your suggestions, for example.

    • A “certified” stamp would be meaningless to me. I want to look at the manuscript. Period. If a writer can’t see a difference after a good edit, well…is that person really a writer?

    • Yeah, there’s that too. How do you explain to an author that yeah, ok, you’ve edited the book, despite telling them it’s got tell versus show, and their dangling participles are going to really hurt if they don’t accept that it needs to be fixed, and they’ve still paid you, rejected the edits and want the seal. Wouldn’t it be just as easy for someone to set up a review site and stamp them at that end?
      The more I think about it though, the more I think of the trouble it’s gonna cause. I already get it at the sharp end because I’m both writer and editor (I bet a lot of us are) – and I’ve had to say several times on forums, after editing a book (where I was active before and a big fuss made of me editing the book by the author) that there are some things editing doesn’t fix. And it’s the same stuff that many of them yell ‘gatekeeper’ about – and that’s what this seal would be seen as.
      Not to mention, I’m not keen on paying dues to another org.

  11. I stand by my edits.
    Always. BUT…
    Unlike publishing house editors, indie editors have no control over whether the book is ‘ready’ to go to print. We can’t pull the other parts of the publishing process aside and say ‘well, he’s refusing to accept x or y and that’s an embarrassing mistake’. We are in fact at the mercy of the writer, who in the experience of others I’ve seen at least, turns round and tries to blame their editor for their mistakes when it comes to light later.
    So, that seal would only mean anything *if* the writer accepted all major edits and the editor in question saw that before the book went to proof. Which only ever happens if we’re the ones editing, formatting, uploading in my experience. I’ve yet to meet an indie editor that emails the document from them to the formatter, which is the only way to be sure, but I guess it could become more common.

    But if there’s going to be ‘central’ certification for writers and edited books, then there has to be a ‘central’ recognition for poorly behaved writers too. Beyond one star reviews, I mean, because the writers I’ve met that would fit into this category quite neatly sidestep it by claiming all sorts. That would probably mean more to readers than ‘this book was edited to that person’s standards, and that person’s standards meets the certification level of our group’.

    • Yup. (I presume by “indie” you mean “freelance”?)

      But it’s an in-house problem as well, since authors still have the final say on editorial matters (at least in the places I’ve worked).

  12. The answer you’re groping for here, people, is (shock!) a publisher! You want a stamp of approval plus quality control… Duh!

  13. Nice post and thoughts. As director of Exciting Press (Independent. Digital. Literature.), one thing I was very concerned about was demonstrating quality control. That’s why I partnered with Hannah Blum, whom I met while studying fiction and screenwriting at USC. Which means she has a master’s degree from one of the top universities in the nation.

    To “certify” our titles (as having been professionally edited, formatted, and designed), we list Exciting Press as a contributor. All our titles list the primary author as the primary contributor, of course, but Amazon allows one to list several contributors. And one of the functions it’s possible to choose is “Editor.”

    We’re not sure most readers even really notice, but we think it’s important. We’re partnering with our authors, and we’re contributing to their books with guidance in not only development, editing, and proofreading, but also through things like cover design, lay out, and promotion.

    But, like the reply to the first comment here suggested, we’re “certifying” the novels we publish by establishing a prominent brand that’s backed by all the things it could be. Quality stories and writing, credentials from top universities, and a commitment to exciting literature.

    And I, for one, really applaud the questions you’re asking and the discussion you’re prompting. It’s one that needs to occur.

  14. Certified? That’s perhaps several steps too far. But there’s nothing wrong with crediting the editor in the book, perhaps on the copyright page (which is where we put out editorial credits). It doesn’t “guarantee” anything, except that the listed editor is taking some responsibility for the book.

    A publisher logo on the spine doesn’t mean much, until the publisher itself has earned some respect. Ditto for the editor’s name inside. So why don’t we start with accepting credit (or blame) for our work?

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