This question comes up fairly frequently on social media and in writing groups: should you hire an editor before submitting to agents or publishers? Is it necessary?
In self-publishing, you tend to have to do everything yourself, including finding your own editor. But traditional publishing is different. Let’s first look at how traditional publishing works.
If you want to publish traditionally, you’ll usually need to find a literary agent first. Some smaller publishers and indie presses accept unagented submissions, but most traditional publishers are agent-only.
What happens editorially when you sign with a literary agent? You can expect to work with your agent on a series of broad revisions – otherwise known as developmental editing – before you go on submission to publishing houses. If you get a publishing contract, your publisher might do another round (or more) of developmental work with you. When the foundations are in place, your publisher would then provide copyediting and proofreading for you, alongside all the other usual production tasks such as cover design, layout, formatting, and so on.
You don’t need to hire an editor before submitting to agents and publishers
Because many of the editorial stages would be provided for you in traditional publishing, you don’t need to hire an independent editor before you send your work out.
If an editor tries to convince you that you absolutely must hire them before submitting to agents/publishers, or you won’t stand a chance, you should think carefully about their motivations.
Having said that…
Hiring an editor for developmental feedback or advice could improve your odds
Publishing is so fiercely competitive, and being in the slush pile is rough. Submitting to agents isn’t easy, and some elements of a submission package like a query letter and a synopsis can be difficult to get right. Hiring an editor to get some bigger-picture feedback on these things, or advice before sending your work to agents, can be helpful. Editors who are familiar with the traditional publishing market, how agents work, and your genre are well placed to guide you.
I’ve worked with authors on submission packages to get their material into good shape; I’ve also critiqued books for authors before they submit. When agents are interested in your work, they may request the full manuscript, so it can be helpful to get a professional critique or evaluation to make sure your work is as strong as it could be, and as suitable for the market as possible.
Sentence-level editing is not required before you submit
You don’t need any sentence-level editing on a manuscript if you’re going to submit to agents/publishers, because that would be taken care of for you by the publisher. If you’re particularly concerned you may have clunky sentences or problems with flow, POV, etc, a line edit might help, but it’s by no means a necessity. My advice would be to work on your self-editing and writing craft skills as that will benefit you in the long-run if you’re pursuing traditional publication.
You want your work to be in good shape, so be sure to go over all your submission material carefully before it goes out. You can also find critique partners and beta readers in the writing community to help you check over your material.
A final word on red flags…
Be wary of anyone who says you need to spend lots and lots of money on editing before you submit. If you want help with your submission package or a manuscript critique, that’s fine, you might want to hire an editor before submitting to agents and publishers. But if anyone tries to convince you that you need a developmental edit, a deep copy and line edit, and a proofread – the whole shebang – be careful.
I also wanted to add a last note about money when you’re dealing with agents and traditional publishers. Remember that literary agents and legitimate publishers never charge the author money to represent or publish them. Money always flows to the author in traditional publishing. Be wary of any agent or publisher wanting to charge you a fee. If you’re offered a traditional book deal but you’re expected to fork out an obscene amount for the costs of publishing, you’re probably being scammed. You can use the Writer Beware page to learn more about literary scams and red flags. There are pages specific to agents, publishers and editors.
Have you been through the submissions process? Has an editor helped you get your material into good shape for the slush pile? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!