Editorial obligation to nitwits

Dear Miss Snark:

I'm a sometimes freelance editor, and I've been working with a client to polish a nonfiction book. At first I thought she wanted to spruce it up before submitting it anywhere. Then, after the work was well underway, I learned that she already had a publisher -- her exact words were, "I already paid them and everything!" The POD press had asked her to get the work professionally edited before sending it to them for printing.

What I'm wondering is, am I complicit in ripping this woman off? I'm not affiliated with the publisher, so they're not scamming her on editing services, and I know that POD doesn't necessarily equal skulduggery, but the problem is that my client believes that she's been accepted for publication because the editors truly believe in her work and her mission, and that this book is going to make her fortune for her.

I doubt enlightening her would do any good, since she's already paid them -- and, frankly, because she's completely batty (though a fine client) -- so I guess I'm just wondering what you think.

First, you are not complicit in ripping her off. You're doing the work she's paying you to do, and we'll assume for the sake of pleasant discussion you're not making the manuscript worse on purpose or anything.

She hasn't asked your advice or opinion. She's not in imminent peril (and please let's all agree POD won't actually kill you). Those are the two times when you're obliged to speak up.

It's clear you think she leaped before she looked. The world is full of people like that. There's a reason AuthorHouse makes money and it's not cause they're selling books in bookstores.

The information is easily available for anyone who googles the words "how to get published". In fact the first four things that pop up, after the sponsored ads are pretty good sources of info. It's not your responsibility to save her from her own nitwittery.


Anonymous said...

wow, this is such an interesting dilemma. a tough position to be in!

Anonymous said...

Making your client's book the best it can be will not harm her in any way.

Your situation reminds me of a local pediatrician who penned a novel, then self-published it. I wasn't embarrassed for the guy because he chose that method to see his stuff in print. However, the two misspelled words on the first page and the really cheesy opening scene -- those make me cringe every time I see him.

Katharine said...

Situations like this are why, when I work directly with authors rather than publishers, I ask authors why they want to use my services. Whether they plan to self-publish or to shop their ms. to agents, I tell them that my editing their work doesn't guarantee that their ms. will be accepted by publishers and that it doesn't guarantee huge book sales. If they still want to proceed, I'm happy to edit their prose.

kitty said...

But should the editor say anything to the client?


Darwin said...


I recently took a position in Bloomington, Indiana. The hotel I stayed in temporarily was just up the street from the headquarters of AuthorHouse. Their building is absolutely lovely, lots of windows that reveal high-quality interior accoutrements and sports an outdoor, high-end patio with gas grill. The parking lot is full of newer cars.

I leave it to the readers to take what they will from such information.

Janny said...

There are times when, as a freelance editor, you have to speak up. If you see work that's clearly libelous, obviously plagiarized, or in some other way has the possibility to land not only the author, but anyone associated with said work in court...then, clearly, it's in both of your best interests to say something.

But Miss Snark is right; if you're not cheating this person in any way, just doing the job she hired you to do, you're not "complicit" in anything. Had she asked your opinion ahead of time (and dog bless those who do!), and you deliberately steered her into a vanity press or the like when you could have told her to do something better, then you'd be at least somewhat responsible for sending her to a second-best route. In this instance, however, she'd already decided to part with her money to the POD firm, so there was nothing you could have done to change that. If it's not within your power to change it, you don't have to feel guilty about it, either.

The good news is, if you make this book the best thing it can possibly be, it's a win-win. She gets a good book, people enjoy it, she maybe gets a few more sales than she would have if it had been dreadful :-), and you've helped spare us all from a piece of POD excrement. Not bad work when you can get it!

And think of it this way. You do a great job for her, she likes you and respects you, and next time maybe she asks your opinion about where her new book should go. Then you can give her the benefit of your wisdom, and she can take it or leave it, and she's still happy.

I know it's hard not to feel like you're "part of the problem," but you're not in this case. You're actually in a position where you can contribute to a good solution for everybody.

There, now, doesn't that feel better?



Dick Margulis said...

I do a fair amount of freelance editing for self-publishing nonfiction authors. I consider it absolutely my responsibility to educate them about the publishing process and to help them avoid the pitfalls of vanity publishing. If they've already signed and they're committed to going forward, I'll still do the editing for them; but I try to avoid that situation. I've turned down more than one job on the basis of the client's cluelessness.

[Word verification csnrxkkk contains snrk in that order, oddly enough.]

Anonymous said...

I'm a freelance editor and have worked with a couple of people who are self-publishing. You know, they were happy with it. They had a specific project in mind, wanted it to see the light of day, and for them, POD was close enough. I really wouldn't worry about it. "Amateur" writers (ie, vanity/POD people, heh heh) are happy to have a book in hand, regardless of how it got there.

Marion Gropen said...

I agree that you have no need to feel guilty. She's an adult, and made her mistake without your input.

If you do want to try to help her, I have some ideas. You probably have thought of all of them already, but just in case . . . . (I don't work with anyone using a subsidy press, or with subsidy presses, but I am a listmom on two of the largest listservs for small publishers, so I confront this frequently.)

First, you need to know what her goals are. There are many, many people who simply want to be able to give copies to friends and family. THAT a POD press can help them achieve. And your work will make theirs into something that isn't cringe-inducing.

If she (I think it was a she) has been suckered by that old favorite "your book will be available in major chains" you might let her know that this means it can be special ordered by the customer, NOT that it will be on the shelves. Enlighten her about the standard terms of trade and what you need to do to get onto those shelves. (Ingram availability, pricing, returns, discounts, real marketing plans, etc.)

Suggest that if she really wants to sell through bookstores (and if this is fiction, that may be her only route to significant sales), she may want to pull the book from the POD publisher. It is perfectly possible to print POD on your own, if she's stuck on self-publishing. I recommend, however, that she think about how she'll finance an offset run if her test marketing works.

Suggest that she buy some books on the subject, if she insists on trying to publish herself. She needs to understand marketing, design and production, and the infrastructure issues. (I have a list available if you need it.)

Suggest strongly that any book that can succeed commercially as a self-published book can also get a traditional publisher and succeed in a larger way through them.

Marsupialis said...

It's not a tough position to be in at all. Regardless of where the book ends up, you've been hired for your editorial experitise. As Miss Snark says, if you're giving your best professional efforts -- the same efforts that you would be giving any other client -- then there's no problem, no ethical dilemma. The fact that the client has chosen to self-publish her work isn't your concern. That was not what she hired you for.

JM said...

Thanks for your advice, Miss Snark and everyone. (Janny: I do feel better!)

Since the author firmly believes that God is going to make her book a success because she's His prophet (this is THE most entertaining editing project), maybe this whole POD thing is a moot point. I'll just concentrate on making it the best damn crazy rant about the end times that it can be.

Dave Kuzminski said...

This was an enlightening question and an absolutely instructive bunch of answers. I'm impressed. Thank you, one and all.

Sherry D said...

That's very sad though, isn't it.
I'm amazed at the people who don't know anything about getting published and don't bother to look or ask before getting suckered. Nitwittery is a wonderful word. I picture little fluttering birds with brains the size of baby peas.

Dick Margulis said...


Completely by coincidence, I'm working on a "crazy rant about the end times," too. Get in touch by email (click my signature for contact info), and we can compare notes. Maybe our authors can cross-endorse or form a support group or something.

Anonymous said...

"Since the author firmly believes that God is going to make her book a success because she's His prophet"

Well, I've seen the bumper sticker "Jesus Is My Co-Pilot". I guess this woman's should read "God Is My Publisher".

And most likely (though not definitely) hers is a project that really should remain POD.