Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
About Book Doctoring
Q: Is one month a typical/acceptable length of time for editing a 230-page manuscript?
A: It depends on many factors. How much time can you spend on it each day? If you have other projects, errands, duties and obligations to handle, as well, then it may not be enough time, but if the project is the only one you must tackle, one month is more than enough time.
I cannot edit more than fifty pages a day; I have to relieve my eye strain and keep my thinking fresh, so I edit about ten pages, take a break, edit ten more pages, take another short break, etc., until I get about fifty pages done. After fifty pages of editing, I must do something else, or my eyes grow too weary to be of any use.
I don’t always get all fifty pages done each day. I have other obligations. I wear all the hats in my business. I give presentations and must prepare for them, which includes preparing and printing handouts. Each month I write an e-zine and an "Ask The Book Doctor" column. I have several book projects of my own, as well. I also have e-mail to answer, accounting to handle, and day-to-day business duties, including answering questions from writers. All these tasks aside, I have social obligations, a dog to walk, and meals to prepare. I am supposed to exercise three times a week, too, but I’m lucky if I get in one session a week.
With all those obligations in mind, here’s how I estimate turnaround time: When a manuscript arrives, I look at the number of pages and see how many days it would take me to edit it based on the ideal of fifty pages a day. I add a few more days for incidents and interruptions, plus one day to write the report. The resulting figure tells me how many days it will probably take me on that one project. Let’s say that for a 230-page manuscript, I would estimate six days of work. I next look at my backlog to see when the manuscript before the current one is estimated to be returned. I add the days together, to arrive at an estimated return date. If the one before it was estimated to be returned December 1, a Thursday, I add six business days to December 1 and come up with December 9 as the estimated return date.
After more than a dozen years of being in the manuscript-editing business, I’ve found that my turnaround is about six to eight weeks; sometimes less and sometimes more. Sometimes I get ahead of schedule for a while, which is a rare pleasure, and I enjoy it when it happens. When I get behind, though, I feel awful, even if the client is in no hurry.
Q: I’m just getting into the book-editing business, so I gave my first client, a friend of a friend, a big break on the price. After a month he wrote me irate, threatening letters and said it was taking too long and he wanted his money back. Where did I go wrong?
A: First, never cut your prices; you’ll never be able to charge that client full price again.
Next, keep clients informed. I had a similar situation when I first started, because I did not understand the value of putting expectations down in writing. At first I did not give clients an estimated return date, and I did not have them fill out an Editing Request Form, which has boxes they check to clearly tell me what level of service they expect. My second or third client did the same thing that happened to you, down to demanding the (very bad) manuscript and the money back. Fortunately for me, by the time she reached that point, I had already put the edited manuscript in the mail. From that bad experience I to ask clients to fill out an Editing Request Form (see mine at http://zebraeditor.com/editrequest_print.shtml). When the manuscript arrives, I send the client an estimated return date. Later, if I find I am running behind schedule, I let the clients know. No one complains, now, because I keep them informed.
A word of advice: Do not wait to cash the check! I deposit the check before I begin editing, to make sure it clears. I have gotten bad checks from a few clients, but almost every time, I found out before I began editing, so I did not lose anything but the bounced-check fee. If a client’s check bounces, I subsequently accept only money orders or cashier’s checks from that person. One time the manuscript was so amateurish that when the fellow tried to pay me in cash for the check that bounced, I said we had a company policy not to work with clients who wrote us bad checks. I wished him well and returned his manuscript. It didn't occur to him that I am "the company."
More advice: When a potential client complains about a long turnaround time, ask how long it took to write the book. Explain why you did not want to rush and do a poor job on something that took months or even years to write. It helps people understand. When clients want a rush job, I tell them I offer two types of jobs: Good jobs or fast jobs. I can't do both at the same time.
How do I edit for a living? With patience and waning eyes. I still love the puzzle of pulling a manuscript into a more marketable form. I love suggesting things that make it better.
You were a dear to help out a friend of a friend and so cheaply, too. It proves the sad adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
Here is a fantastic Chicago Manual of Style Web site I just discovered, useful for all book doctors and writers of books: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org. It includes a searchable database for the Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition. It also has a great Q & A section for lovers of editing details.
—Free reports for writers! Go to http://www.zebraeditor.com and click on Tools for Writers.
Do you have questions for the book doctor? Write to Bobbie at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.