The Guardian Sees Crowd Sourced Editing as the Next Frontier, But They’re Actually Confusing Beta Readers With Editors

2233349300_9646c5864e_b[1]With some indie authors convinced that they don't need a professional editor and more than a few major publishers skimping on the costs, developmental editing is unfortunately becoming more of a luxury than a requirement in producing a book. In some circles it is often confused with simple proofreading, and a recent article in The Guardian certainly isn't helping that trend. On Saturday this newspaper published an article which looked at a new digital publisher's beta reader program and confused it with crowd sourced editing.

Now, a publishing startup has entered a new frontier: crowdsourced editing. Advance Editions aims to “make good books better” by drawing on the wisdom, knowledge and proofreading skills of readers around the world.

An Advance Editions title is professionally edited before being soft-launched as a low-cost ebook, with the first half available to download free. Readers are then invited to suggest ways the author could improve the book, before it is finally published a few months later in ebook and print versions.

While I applaud this publisher's novel way of involving readers in finding errors, this isn't really editing. It's closer to proofreading, and it's not new.

Difficult Book Club

What Advance Editions is doing here is a modern example of an idea which has been around for decades if not a century or more. Publishers have long used beta readers as the final step in the publishing process, so aside from The Guardian confusing this program with actual editing there really is nothing new here.

That said, I think that confusion is a sign of a worrisome trend. Book editing is an often invisible addition to the quality of a published book, so it is difficult to show that it has value. This has led some to discount what a developmental editor can add to the finished product.

Luckily for me, I do have an example of just how much a good editor can contribute.

In 1974 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a book called The Mote in God's Eye. Before they sent the manuscript to the publisher, they first sent a copy to Robert Heinlein and asked him to critique it. He responded with a 14-page letter which shows just how much even successful, professional authors can benefit from the assistance of a developmental editor.

He effectively rewrote the book by advising them to discard the first 100 pages and change several key plot points. He also caught numerous errors which only an expert would notice.

You can find that letter in the The Virginia Edition of Heinlein's collected works, and it can also be found in the sample PDF which has been floating around. If you are an author or simply interested in literary analysis, it is well worth your time to read.

images by Benson KuaEditor B

About Nate Hoffelder (11466 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

9 Comments on The Guardian Sees Crowd Sourced Editing as the Next Frontier, But They’re Actually Confusing Beta Readers With Editors

  1. Quoted from above: “With many indie authors convinced that they don’t need a professional editor …”

    Actually I’d say most indie authors are convinced they can’t afford an editor. In my experience as an editor, many of them WANT at least copy editing, but either can’t pay for it or decide against it. Of those who decide against it, it is very common to hear they are going to have others read it (beta readers). It’s less common for writers to want a developmental editor (although a developmental or storyline editor is probably even more important) but part of that is because they have never had one. Once you have a good one, you don’t ever want to do without one (I speak that last part as a writer, not as the editor.)

    I don’t think Crowdsource editing can make a serious long-term go of it. It may work for a while, but editing is hard work. It takes a lot of hours to fully read and think about a manuscript. It takes a lot of reading of many genres to get a feel for what might be wrong with a story and what simply might enhance a story. Readers know what they like and what they don’t, but not all of them can pinpoint where a story went off the rails.

    So while “Beta reading for free” might be fun at first, that quickly dies away. It sounds like another attempt at a shortcut that won’t benefit writers or readers.

    • I changed it from many to some. Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t mean to slight anyone; I just made the mistake of listening to the loudest voices.

      And I appreciate the nuance you added concerning the cost. That is a point I hadn’t considered.

  2. You need a cool avatar for your comments, Nate.

    No offense taken. Speaking from the inside, a lot of indie writers ask about editing, but it’s not cheap. And generally speaking, many a good editor starts out with low prices, but because of the time involved, they are either going to quit or raise their prices. I’ve been unable to use one of my very favorite storyline editors for my last two books because her prices got too high for me. She’s good. She’s VERY good. But I’m in a spot where I know about how much each book generates in its first year. And her prices just so happened to get ahead of my sales!

  3. Echoing all Maria’s points.

    But the big question for newbie writers is, on top of affordability, actually knowing if an editor is any good. Lots of people – English teachers, English majors, librarians, etc – seem to be offering their services as editors but from what we see few have the faintest idea of developmental editing, and for English teachers especially there is a worrisome tendency to apply their teaching rules to novel writing.

    But using as many colourful adjectives as possible and fifty alternatives to “said”, while an excellent exercise in the classroom, is a disaster for a novel.

    Another problem is that far too many indie titles, although appallingly written, can get a boost in the algos thanks to some fancy footwork with SMP to get it noticed, and by being given visibility sell a few hundred or even thousand copies before anyone has actually had a chance to read them. Boosted of course by an early flurry of five-star reviews from friends and family.

    The author is then convinced the work is fantastic and their standard is high (when you’re new, a few hundred sales is a major achievement, not a disaster) and they just carry on churning out more of the same. previous sales history keeps the lie afloat and they enter a slow spiral into oblivion, convinced the one-star reviews are all personally written by JK Rowling, who sees them as a threat.

    • In defense of English teachers everywhere, one of my writing coaches is an English teacher. :>) That said, she very rarely comments on developmental editing. She is totally awesome at what she does and has taught me a lot.

      And, yes, there are a lot of editors who put a shingle out and don’t know any more about the various levels of editing than the beginner writer. It’s a learning process and one that never stops.

      Too much early success for the wrong reasons can be a death knell, not heard until it is too late to be understood.

      On the flip side, many very good books never rise to the top of their game.

    • Quite right, these are all good points and a real danger for indies (who also escape the trad-pub slush pile through direct publication- I mean, it’s not apples to apples here). I hardly know how I would trust a person’s advertizement to be a “developmental editor”- I’d be surprised if well-known authors were willing to lend their name to a statement like “I turned Goblet of Fire into a coherent narrative” or “Feast of Crows didn’t have half as many deaths until I got my hands on it”. Without that, it’s either take the plunge (spending money and hoping it pays you back), or settling for copy-editing (which many indies feel they don’t need since they’re, you know, already writers). The crowd-sourcing idea is hardly the worst to come along, provided the author once again doesn’t have to pay for it. Chicken Soup for the Sentence, maybe.

      • I work from referrals only–so other authors do recommend my services. I do referrals for my English writing coach as well. Most of us do a few pages to give an author an idea of what type of work we do, but it is very important to find an editor you trust and can work with. Editing is very personal. You have to have the confidence to sort the suggestions from the editor and know which ones are going to work for you. A good critique can be very difficult to accept too–I’ve been on both ends of that!

        And as for the editor, there are always going to be things she prefers (certain genres, certain level of writing, etc). It’s a business relationship, and it’s important to find someone you trust and like.

  4. It is worth noting that the Guardian article was talking about slush pile manuscripts. I raise that point because slush pile books are a lot different from books that are only a smidge away from the quality necessary to be grabbed by a “traditional” publisher.

    As Nate notes, the group editing idea is nothing new. The idea has both positives and negatives.

    On the positive side –

    1. it is cost-effective for the casual author

    2. it gives slush authors an opportunity to improve their book and maybe move the book up one notch from the slush pile

    3. as in the example given in the article, it provides cheap, easy research for an author, especially for a lazy author

    On the negative side –

    1. it assumes that an editor does little more than spell-check; a professional editor does significantly more than that (on the positive side, however, there are a vast number of people who call themselves editors who do little more than spell-check and if an author planned to hire based on price alone, the author is likely looking to – whether intentionally or not – hire just a spell checker, and so this would be as good a route as any to accomplish the same goal)

    2. there is a reason why a book is in the slush pile and in today’s publishing world it is not because it is a first-time or unknown author – it is because the book generally deserves to be there

    3. crowd-sourcing of editorial functions will not change mud into diamonds; at best it might remove a pebble or two from the mud to make the mud pie prettier

    The basic problem, as Nate noted, is that editorial input is invisible input. When you pick up a well-written novel that makes you want to finish it in one sitting, you, the reader, have no clue what role a professional editor played in making that novel rise to that level. Sometimes the editor has no role; sometimes the editor transforms the work. Crowd sourcing won’t work because there is no single guiding voice that has an overall view of the book or series. It is like a map – the further away you are from the map the more you can see where the little village fits in the geographical scheme; the closer you are, the less likely you can tell that it is bordered on the north by insurmountable mountains and on the south by impassable desert. Professional editors give both macro and micro perspectives; crowd sourcing cannot do that.

    Of course, as Maria points out, quality professional editing is not inexpensive. But if one’s dream is to be a successful author, one needs to use all the tools available. We used to read about authors who gave up things in order to pursue their art; today, no one gives up anything.

  5. Hi Nate

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful response to the Guardian piece on Advance Editions. I am the founder. May I respectfully correct a couple of points?

    “While I applaud this publisher’s novel way of involving readers in finding errors, this isn’t really editing.” — It’s not just about finding errors. We’re hoping contributors will suggest interesting new things to do with characters or plotlines as well. I’d argue that’s a form of editing, even if the contributor is only concerned with one section of the book rather than the entirety. Take a look at this thread as an example:

    The second point is more a misapprehension in some of the other comments. This is not some kind of cheap way of doing editing. We hire professional structural editors and copy editors to work on each title before the book goes anywhere near the “crowd”. The total editing bill for each title is several thousand dollars. The crowd-editing (or beta reading!) is an additional refinement on top of that.

    Thanks again, Nate. I really hope you’ll give Advance Editions a try. We’d love your input on either of the pilot titles.

    Very best

    Hector Macdonald

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