What is editing worth, to self-publishing authors? To business people? Editors are painfully aware that most potential clients don’t know the actual dollar value of editing, independently of the actual charges.

Authors may know they need an editor, but may not be able to hire one. And thanks to digital self-publishing, they aren’t compelled to do so. Editors are only too familiar with self-publishing  writers who maintain that that their MS needs only “a little light copy editing,” and they have a friend or family member who will do it free. The writers’ efforts are so devalued when these manuscripts make it into print or ebook with all their errors preserved.

What’s the value for readers?
Does copy editing really matter to readers? Would the odd misspelling or ungrammatical sentence really make a difference?  By now most web users have seen the proof that severely misspelled words – letters in seemingly random order–can be understood if the first and last letters are correct, as in “I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg”

Stylistic and substantive editing might be a more critical need. Paragraphs that do not follow, a narrative that confuses, or headings that don’t make sense, will generate frustration.  Readers don’t finish the book, and won’t recommend it to friends.

On the web, poor grammar and spelling are often taken as indicators of spam or scam–or at least, a lack of credibility.

Gifted authors, of course, can get away with not using editors. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is well known for his dislike of copy editors.

Although Taleb’s book is a hit, the text has some uncomfortable quirks that, in my opinion, show he would have done better to hire a copy editor. Would an editor have improved his sales? Not likely. The originality of his investment advice guarantees him a large readership.

The unique punctuation style of Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago  uses only periods and commas. This draws admiration from some  and frustration from others. Yet even the stratospherically talented Caramago used an editor–his friend Zeferino Coelho.

Does editing help sell more books?
For the majority of self-publishing authors, is there proof that professional editing will help sales?  Getting the data to prove it starts with the right questions. I asked marketresearch.com for a report that showed the value of editors for self-published writers. I wanted a comparison between sales of books whose author s hired editors, and sales of those who didn’t. The CSR was “…unable to locate publications that would provide you with the information…”  And even simpler numbers, like the proportion of writers who used editors versus those the number who didn’t, were not available in a report.

It seems to me that such data on editing would be very valuable, given the recent huge increase in self-publishing   and hence the need and opportunity for freelance editors.

The costs of self-publishing may be low, but authors still need to recoup their investment from sales. While the number of published titles has increased, prices of ebooks have fallen, although recently there’s been a slight increase. To cover costs of production, authors–and these are the best sellers–are making less per sale than a few years ago. Do they achieve breakeven on investment?

What services will authors pay for?
What do authors think is worth their money? The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest survey of self-published authors asked for spending priorities on outsourced services. As Dana Beth Weinberg summarized in a May 2014 blog on Digital Book World,  just less than 50% of the 2,197 voluntary respondents had hired services to help them self-publish.

“Among those who hired services, the median expenditure was in the range of $500- $999, and the median number of services used was 3. The most popular service outsourced by authors was cover art.”

Of the services hired, copy editors were hired by 21.5%, content editors by 16.9%, in fourth and fifth position after cover art, (34.8%) formatting 24.4%) and print on demand 22.8%).

As Weinberg notes, the voluntary nature of the responses may not adequately represent the full spectrum of self-published authors.

The full report on the study (by Dana Beth Weinberg and Jeremy Greenfield) is available as a download for $US295. Looks like it has information that editors might be able to use, but I can’t see any freelancers forking out that amount. Who funded it? I’d guess that traditional publishers did. The authors disclose, “In this report, we take a close look at the case to be made to the author community in favor of traditional publishing as well as the areas where traditional publishers might enhance what they offer their current and prospective authors.”

How do businesses value editors?
As you’d expect, companies want to know the value of the editors they employ. The nearest hard data I found was about company web pages, not books. Even at IBM, it seems, editors aren’t properly valued. James Mathewson, Editor in Chief at ibm.com, found that edited web pages “make a 30 % difference in visitor engagement” (number of clicks to desired pages) over unedited pages.

Engagement on web pages is much easier to measure than the link between editing and book sales. Mathewson doesn’t translate the 30% into dollar figures, but presumably it was enough to silence (for a time?) the critical voices in his company who view editors as “an unnecessary step in the content process.”

Should editors re-brand their craft?
To make their value comprehensible in business, should editors re-brand themselves as “quality assurance technicians?” Maybe that would help management perceive them in a higher category of cost and value.  Associating with quality assurance technicians might be difficult for editors, of course. Due to the flexible and changing nature of language, editing is subjective, and can’t be reduced to fixed procedures.

The best editing is invisible. For people who write the cheques, it seems that the value of editing is also invisible. Freelance editors not only have to sell their individual services, they have to do the same for their entire craft.

Let’s prove the value to business and authors
Freelance editor Geoff Hart explores five possible ways in which editing brings value to business. Some might be expressed in hard cash, and others only in intangibles like reputation:

Elimination of reprinting costs
Defence against lawsuits
Reduced translation costs
Defence against embarrassment
Ensuring clear communication

Hart makes the case for research by organizations like STC (Scientific and Technical Communicators)    I see an opportunity here for the Editors’ Association of Canada. Time for me to contact the head office.