A former bookstore owner, Sherry Gottlieb knows what sells; her own books have been published by Forge/Tor, Viking and Warner, one has been aired as a TV movie. Her clients have subsequently sold their books to Knopf, Harper-Collins, Berkley-Putnam, St. Martin's Press, Greenleaf Book Group Press and Jossey-Bass.
After being friends with Sherry for more than a decade, I finally turned to her for advice on my latest book (in frantic progress), THE BLOODIEST QUEEN. What an idiot I was to wait.
THE BLOODIEST QUEEN will be my thirty-third published book; I've grown lazy and jaded and had thought there was little anyone could teach me. (Hah!) I went to Sherry just to see her reaction to a particular scene — whether I was able to pull off a fast one on the reader or not — and wound up being blown away by her editorial acumen. She understood all the nuances of the scene in question better than I did — and pointed out exactly what wasn't working, and why. She then gave me a suggestion which was nothing short of brilliant in terms of making the whole thing work beautifully. (And then gave a dozen other suggestions which will make the book so much better...) Long story short: Sherry's going through the entire manuscript for me. And I'm so impressed that she's going to be my best pal during the writing of my next book, too.
Trust me, Sherry is an honest, top-notch professional editor.
Whether you're an aspiring writer or an established professional,
if you're writing a novel and could use some help, please consider
— Jeanne Kalogridis, author of I, MONA LISA, THE BORGIA BRIDE, and dozens of other published novels
Selecting Sherry Gottlieb was one of the smartest
moves I've ever made. Most so-called book doctors seemed more interested
in keeping you happy than transforming your work into a publishable
manuscript. Sherry, on the other hand, provided an edit that was
thorough, incisive and, where necessary, brutally honest. She is
a real professional and a gifted editor.
— Anthony L. Iaquinto, author of NEVER BET THE FARM (Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint)
I went to Sherry Gottlieb for advice while rewriting
my first novel, TRUST. Her help was timely and effective. Sherry
takes the words "tough love" to a new level, pushing you to write
better than you think possible: I’m sure my novel wouldn't have
gone as far as it did without her expert advice and (sometimes not-so-gentle)
— Charles Epping, author of TRUST (Greenleaf Book Group Press) and A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD ECONOMY (Vintage Books, Random House)
I just finished the first seven chapters, adhering
to 99.9% of your edit, and I can't believe how much better they
sound. Initially, the red ink kept throwing me off (and I was cursing
and screaming) but once I typed in the changes, then read the final
copy, I was awestruck. You are an editing genius, probably the best
thing that has ever happened to me. Thanks a million!
— Lee Chavis
I hired Sherry through my literary agent. In my case, we were looking at a major rewrite and she cut the book in half. Sherry recommended that I switch heroes, remove a rather contrived romance, scratch the preachy ending, and change the title; in other words, we had a lot of changes to make on my book.
What I like most about Sherry's work was that she worked fast and she didn't pull any punches. An editor is there to fix what is broken, not be your best friend and tell you you're the next Faulkner. What you get with Sherry is a very hip English teacher; the grammatical error, the forgotten quotes, the mixed metaphor — she catches them all. You might forget what you said earlier in the text, but she won't. Dialog that doesn't sound right, self-indulgent rambling, unnatural plot twists — Sherry scratches them all with her heartless red correcto pen. If your error is more complicated than the simple removal of the offending passage, she puts a Post-it on the page with a brief explanation of what you need to do to correct the problem. Sherry also provided suggestions for spicing up the book so that it was much more interesting.
By the time we had finished, I felt I not only had a better book, but I had learned how to be a better writer. Sherry conditioned me to be aware of flowery language, superfluous description, and getting in the way of the story. If I didn't agree with her analysis, I was free to argue my case.
With Sherry you get more than mechanical editing, and her critical
review helps bring a ring of truth to the final product. Sherry
is a no-nonsense editor who obviously knows what it takes to make
a good story, and she brings that understanding to her editing.
As far as I'm concerned, the money I spent for editing was a very
— Stephen B. Carr
Sherry Gottlieb worked with me on my manuscript
for my novel Glint, published by
St. Martin's Press. I do not hesitate to say that without Ms. Gottlieb's
help and suggestions, I might still be trying to figure out what
I should be doing. In other words, her editing accelerated my learning
curve by at least a year, if not more. I don't know how to put a
value on it, except to call it immeasurable. I am grateful for having
had the opportunity to work with her and I hope to work with her
again in the future.
— Joseph Valentinetti
As an agent, I have noticed that as the fiction
market has become ever more competitive and the lists shorter, that
it is up to us agents to represent fiction that is virtually publishable,
or at least in a final draft. Existing conditions now force me to
use a book doctor for some work that shows great promise, but is
not quite there. If you have a novel that needs some reworking,
please consider using Sherry Gottlieb for the job.
— Sandra Watt, Literary Agent
I received your edit and critique of my partial manuscript today, and I have to tell you how impressed I am with your editing skills. I combed several sources (the LMP, online directories, Web indexes, and personal recommendations from writers) to find the best and most qualified editors for my work, and came up with four names that, as far as I could determine, were the "cream of the crop." One of these editors was too busy to take new work, but I hired all three of the others (you were one of them) to go over the first part of my manuscript. I have also worked as a professional book editor, and so I did a final self-edit and critique for comparison, and asked several amateur writers on the Internet to critique the manuscript as well… You were the only editor who caught all the things my own self-critique caught, and several more very important points that I (and all the other professional editors and amateur critics) missed completely. Your line edit was also by far the most thorough and on-the-mark. Nearly every one of your edits was clearly necessary to tighten, sharpen, and smooth out the pacing of the work. Every place you suggested a change did indeed need a change – if not always exactly the solution you proposed.
You were the most expensive of the editors I hired when measured on a per-page basis. But considering the outstanding quality of the job you did, you were a bargain compared to the others…
In short: Bravo! As an experienced author who has both worked
as a professional editor and worked with many professional editors,
I would recommend Sherry Gottlieb immediately to anyone who thinks
their manuscript deserves "the best."
— Sincerely and gratefully, Dick "Cedar" Oliver
Recommended by literary agents: Sandra Watt, Toni Lopopolo, Julie Popkin, Judy Semler, Ken Atchity (AEI)
I am one of the honorable and hardworking freelance editors called "book doctors" (I will get to those book doctors who might not be quite so honorable in a bit). I have been a book doctor for two decades, and have edited nearly 400 books, mostly first novels. Some of my clients have subsequently sold their books to major publishers, including St. Martins Press, Knopf, Harper-Collins, and Berkley-Putnam; two have gotten movie options. I am going to explain what a book doctor is, what we do, why you might want to use one, how to find and work with a competent one, and how to avoid being ripped-off.
WHAT IS A BOOK DOCTOR?
Ideally, a book doctor is an editor who helps an author rewrite his manuscript to a publishable level, to produce a manuscript which a publisher’s in-house editor will want to acquire for publication. You may have thought that whipping a promising manuscript into shape for publication to be the job of the acquiring editor, but those days are long gone; in-house editors no longer have the time to work through intensive rewrites with an untried author. There are far too many manuscripts out there, and too many already-established names who do not need a lot of work, for publishers to spend time and money on a manuscript which is not yet ready. It makes more sense to them to just reject such a manuscript and move on to the next one. Agents, too, are under increasing pressure to submit books which are in a final draft, so to even get representation, one must have a manuscript which is virtually ready for publication.
There are three primary ways in which a book doctor is different from an in-house editor:
- Employer. A book doctor is hired by the author, not by a publisher. A book doctor is involved in the project only until a final draft has been produced, whereas an in-house editor will usher a manuscript through all stages of the publishing process after it has been acquired by the publisher.
- Extent of Power. A book doctor has no power to acquire a manuscript for publication or for representation by an agent. However, many book doctors are happy to refer clients with good, saleable manuscripts to agents or acquiring editors when they know someone who would be interested.
- Scope. A book doctor works more intimately with both the manuscript and the author than an in-house editor is able to do. When you sell your book to a publisher, the in-house editor will make some requests for changes—please understand that no editor has ever said about a manuscript, "This is just fine the way it is"—but those requests will be general, not specific. An in-house editor might say, "Chapter six doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Please rework it." The book doctor can not only identify the specific problems, but pinpoint every place where they occur and guide you to solutions.
A book doctor figures out exactly what’s wrong with your book and explains to you how to fix it. S/he can diagnose plot holes or derailments, convenient coincidences, pacing problems, poor characterization or conflicts in point-of-view, stilted dialog, organizational problems, punctuation and syntax errors, and explain what you need to know to get your book back in line.
WHY WOULD ONE WANT OR NEED TO USE A BOOK DOCTOR?
- Current state of the book market. It is more difficult now than ever before to sell a first book. Therefore, to be noticed in the thousands of submissions each year, you have to have a manuscript which stands out and demands to be acquired. Having a fine concept is not enough if your execution is flawed. A book doctor finds and fixes those flaws so you submit the best possible version of your manuscript and therefore have the best possible chance of being considered for publication.
- To get a fresh perspective. As you undoubtedly have discovered by now, after you’ve worked on a book for a while, rewriting and reworking, you lose perspective. You can no longer tell if you’re communicating what you want to the reader, you can no longer tell if your humor is funny, or your suspense suspenseful, or if you’re making things too obscure or too obvious to the reader. While you can certainly ask your friends and family to give you feedback, they are not trained to be analytical readers…and they are afraid of hurting your feelings, no matter how honest they promise to be—after all, they know how hard you’ve worked on this book, and how high your hopes are. A book doctor will give you objective feedback of great value when you can no longer see the forest for the trees.
- Learn skills which you can use on future works. What you learn from working closely with a book doctor on one manuscript will be applicable to future books you write. You are not working just on one book, because you will be developing your writing skills, like pacing and characterization, and on your ability to conceptualize and execute your concepts. You will be unlikely to repeat on subsequent books the mistakes you have had to fix laboriously, one by one, on your first manuscript.
- Second chance. Often, an agent or editor who has passed on your manuscript with an encouraging rejection (a "near-miss") will be willing to look at the manuscript again if it’s been significantly reworked with a reputable book doctor. How can you tell if your rejection is a "never darken my desk again" or a "near miss"? If the letter you received was personalized, and not a form rejection letter, and the agent or editor has said, "I really liked the idea, but..." or "After a promising start, it just kind of fell apart" or something similar, you can probably petition for another chance. Understand, however, that you will get only one more opportunity with that particular agent or editor (if that), so don’t waste it by resubmitting a cosmetic rewrite you’ve done on your own again—get some professional help before you go back to them.
AT WHAT POINT IN THE WRITING PROCESS SHOULD I WORK WITH A BOOK DOCTOR?
There are two ways to work with an editor:
The first is when you have completed your best draft on your manuscript but it’s been getting rejected, either by form letter or with an "encouraging rejection". In this situation, the book doctor will help you rewrite the book you have already written to improve its marketability. Depending on what you’ve written, that can be a simple matter or a complex one. One of my clients had received many rejections on his novel in spite of his obvious talent, but he was ignorant of some important facets of fiction; it took only minimal reworking under my guidance for him to sell his novel to St. Martins Press. But salvaging an already-written book can be a somewhat difficult proposition if you have fundamental flaws. However, even those have the potential to be solved if you are willing to do major reworking of the manuscript, which could involve stripping down the book to its basic premise.
The second way to work with a book doctor is in stages throughout the process, which will save you substantial time in the rewriting process by preventing fundamental flaws before they occur. Those who have worked with a book doctor before will invariably choose this method the next time. What this involves is a consultation with the editor at each of these stages:
- Concept. A review at this stage is to make sure it’s viable and commercial and has no inherent flaws. The book doctor might make suggestions about making it more or less complex, and brainstorm with you about the best ways to approach it and develop it.
- Outline. The framework is where the editor can identify organizational or plotting problems and help you to rethink them, while making sure the book is structured for proper pacing. This is also a good point for you to write profiles for the main character(s), developing personality traits and background, and deciding how that character would best fit the story.
- First two chapters. This is to make sure you’ve got the book off on the right foot. Once you have the beginning down right, and the outline is good, it’s comparatively easy to write the rest of the book. If you haven’t got the right tone, or aren’t beginning at the right place, it’s much better to find that out after 30 pages than after 300.
- Completed first draft. It is at this point that substantially all of the major line-editing and much of the fine-tuning will be done. With luck, the rewrite you do after this editing will result in the manuscript you will submit to agents and editors; if you’re lousy with spelling and punctuation, you might wish to have the editor proofread your rewrite also.
The clients with whom I have worked in this stepped manner have never needed another major edit after their rewrite, whereas several who have come to me with completed manuscripts have. In the long run, it is to your advantage, both financially and artistically, to work with an editor at each stage.
HOW DO I FIND A COMPETENT BOOK DOCTOR AND AVOID BEING RIPPED-OFF?
There is no licensing board for editors; anyone can be a book doctor—just like anyone can be a literary agent. There are many honorable professionals, but also some who will take your money and not deliver what you are paying them for. Obviously, it is to your benefit to learn some ways to tell if someone is legitimate and competent.
There are two common ways of finding a book doctor: through the Literary Market Place (the LMP) and through referrals.
The LMP is a reference work, updated yearly, which you can find at any library; there is also an online edition. It covers publishers and agents, among other book business professionals, but we are concerned here with the Editorial listings, because that’s where you will find book doctors listed, under Manuscript Analysis. Just being listed in the LMP is one level of legitimacy, as one must submit three letters of recommendation from other LMP entrants to get in. While being listed is no guarantee, I would be wary of a professional who is not listed there.
Referrals to book doctors can come from several sources: literary agents or publishing houses to whom you have submitted work, teachers at seminars and writing classes, word of mouth from other writers, etc. When someone has referred you to a specific editor, take into account who is doing the referring and what vested interest they may or may not have in sending you to someone. If a publisher says they will take on your work only if you hire a specific person to edit it, or if the book doctor is on staff at the literary agency who refers you, it could be an indication that there is some financial collusion. Legitimate book doctors do not pay kickbacks to those who refer writers to them.
ON WHAT BASIS SHOULD I CHOOSE?
- Location doesn’t matter. Some writers choose whom to contact by location, mistakenly thinking the editor should be close to where they live, or close to the publishers they eventually wish to reach. However, book doctors work on manuscripts by mail, without having the author present, and all consultation is done by letter/e-mail and by telephone, so location should not be a factor in your choice.
- Expertise. What should be a factor, however, is the editor’s area of expertise. If you’re writing a cookbook, interview editors who have experience with that field. If you have a novel, it is imperative that you contact editors with fiction experience, as fiction editors need specific talents in characterization, dialog, plotting, and pacing which nonfiction editors do not. The best book doctors for fiction are female, short, overweight, with ultraviolet hair.
- Track Record. This is very important: Ask the editor if any of his/her clients have subsequently gotten agency representation and/or sold their books – and to whom. Again, if you are not familiar with the names, look up the agencies and/or publishers in the LMP to make sure they are not subsidy/vanity presses (where the author pays to have the book published). If the editor has had some successful clients, there is a better chance you could be the next one.
- Cost. Although some book doctors will negotiate
a flat fee per manuscript, often somewhat dependent on length,
most work at an hourly rate, so the less work your book
needs, the less it will cost you. Rates tend to range from
a low of about $30/hour to a high of about $95/hour. Those
rates may sound to you like we’re overpaid, but most book
doctors can edit for only about three hours a day; after
that, one loses the ability to discern between a good sentence
and a bad one. How many pages an hour an editor does is
a highly individual thing—I usually average 8-10 pages/hour
over the course of a manuscript; it goes slower at the beginning.
Sure, it’s expensive, but consider the cost as an investment
in your career, rather than as an expense for one manuscript.
While it will certainly be a factor in your choice of editor, cost should not be the primary one. As with many things, you get what you pay for. If an editor’s price seems to be half of what everyone else is quoting, you should be wondering why. Edit Ink was one of the more well-known, less-than-scrupulous book doctor services; I believe they’re now closed down, but there are others like them. They paid their editors $6/hour, so they could afford to quote low rates to prospective clients. Out of the perhaps thousands of books they edited, I am unaware of any sales to mainstream publishers, and online writers’ newsgroups are filled with angry posts from their dissatisfied clients. If you have a choice between hiring them at $750 or someone with good references at $1200, either put that $750 toward attending seminars and conferences or on a partial edit, or spend the $1200 and get something for your money.
Working one-on-one with a reliable editor can be the wisest move you could make in terms of your writing career.