I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book – e or p – that I have bought or read that doesn’t have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no ‘penalty’ for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor’s suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I’ve discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity — at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I’ve suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can’t individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author’s responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn’t issue a ‘seal of good editing’ to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you’re for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, ‘How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?’ The answer is another question: What does the editor ‘pay’ to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

(Via An American Editor.)


  1. I have my doubts about such a certification, for a few reasons: One, as you pointed out, it is difficult to insure that the certification will be a guarantee of quality, as not all editors are the same; two, such a certification would by implication shut out the many authors who, contrary to popular belief (or any editors’ belief, at any rate), are quite capable of editing and proofing their own work… not to mention those authors who are not able to contact or afford an editor on the certification list (foreign or third world authors, for instance), and authors whose style is so unique that a “certification-standardized” editor might not do it justice.

    Third, and possibly most important, it creates another bottleneck to replace the major publishers’ bottleneck that we are only now casting off.

  2. To Steven Lyle Jordan: Any semi-competent writer can avoid grammar and spelling mistakes.
    On the other hand, no writer can really edit their own work, if only because real editing (tightening the plot) can only be done by someone else, by a fresh gaze.
    There is real value in such editing, and you can sometimes even spot a famous author changing editors (usually for the worse, otherwise the author is credited with the progress).

  3. And another quibble:
    Which TYPE of editing are you discussing? It sounds as if you’re talking about copyediting.

    Frankly, I worry less about that, than about a deeper, structural type of editing, or at least line-editing. I can look past the errors that a spell-check doesn’t catch, most of the time, but the mistakes in plotting, the problems with description, dialog and characterization that a good editor can help a good writer fix — those things drive me up the wall, and totally ruin novels for me.

    And on the non-fiction side, there are the problems in laying out the flow of ideas, and building toward a conclusion, let alone the exposition, that can make a book useless.

    Editors, not copyeditors, fix those things.

    Perhaps we need two levels of certification? And a mechanism for the editor to quote on the job, so that really bad writers know how much they’ll be letting themselves in for?

    But, yes, some sort of self-pub certification system has been batting around for decades now. It used to be that the Small Press Department of B&N, until they downsized, and the IBPA/IPG programs were a good proxy for this. But in the brave new world of ebooks, there’s no longer any such filtering system.

    I LIKE this idea, if only we can make it work. Then again, I consult on finance and managing publishing companies, not on editorial issues, so my opinion is undoubtedly missing a few dozen important points!

  4. Marion, I’m not sure that any books receive the kind of editing that you are talking about any longer. That’s a concept from the golden age of publishing when highly literate editors worked closely with authors to help them develop and hone their skills. But today books are just commodities to the big publishing houses. Like all corporations they only desire to maximize short term profits. This ideal type of editing will not be coming back I fear.

    What concerns me the most is the shocking lack of even the most rudimentary proof-reading and layout editing. I’m currently reading a kindle book on the Napoleonic Wars. There are hundreds of small errors, the most jarring of which are dozens of times where a date like 1794 is transposed to 1974. Really throws you for a loop when you are reading history and can’t trust the dates.

    Besides the typos there are large quotes from various historical sources that are supposed to be offset as block quotations. Instead many of them were not properly formatted and what should be a block quotation just flows directly into the main text without any kind of quote marks or indent or anything. It takes a major mental effort to sort out what is a quote and what is not.

    This is not just sloppy. This shows a despicable lack of respect for both authors and readers!

    The cost of picking up errors like this would be very small. A couple of college kids could do a single read-through and catch 95% or more of the problems. But Penguin press, like the other big publishers, just doesn’t care. Short term profits are all that matters and that means quick automated conversions to ebooks with no money wasted on niceties like proof-reading and layout.

  5. I’ve long been concerned about articles/newsletters/books being updated without the “paper trail” that indicates what changes were made by whom, when, and why. Reputable newspapers have, within the past few years, begun to insert italicized blurbs near the top of the article indicating a change was made to the story.

    Perhaps if the standard was set for all “e-anything” to follow, any necessary certification would fall into place. (Not sure if certification’s required. You wouldn’t necessarily require a copy-editor to be certified today…but you might not hire them if they didn’t have a trackable lineage of stellar work, either.)

    For instance, perhaps a collapsible running sidebar of changes/date/author of change on html pages. Same information on the Properties tab of a PDF doc.

  6. – “What does the editor ‘pay’ to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors?” –

    The shoddy editor shouldn’t “pay” the consumer any more than a substandard author does. Rather, both suffer the economic consequences of their respective deficiencies: with their reputations publically diminished through reviews and word of (social media) mouth, neither can expect to continue generating sufficient income from their work.

    Consumers won’t receive immediate gratification from their disappointment — they don’t now. But the overall and long-term effect could produce an improvement in writing and editorial quality from the threat of those career-thwarting financial penalties.

    As a long-time advocate for quality editing and first-rate editors, however, I’m fascinated by the general idea of certification. A centralized agency certification — along the lines of the Good Housekeeping Seal — seems to me doomed from the start by the many bureaucratic, political, and opinion-related hurdles it presents. But a voluntary, self-monitored professional movement? I could really get behind that!

  7. Binko,
    I keep hearing that song, but I know from my own experience in-house, and from working with my clients (small presses), that it’s not completely correct.

    Book publishing is a business, and one that has minuscule margins, but if you can invest a small amount (a few thousand) to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, and you have no other way of signing the silk purses, it’s a viable approach.

    There are even some larger houses (FSG, Knopf, etc.) where editors with real skills at this sort of thing find congenial homes. They don’t get to put this much time into every book, but each great editor does get to use their magic wand (aka red pencil) on a few books a year.

    And free-lancers with this sort of skill are around, too. I know some. I’ll bet any old-hand out there does.

    Don’t give up yet!

  8. You could have an info box in the ebook details, with each completed category ticked:

    This ebook has been edited for:
    pace and flow

    Customer ratings could include feedback on this.

  9. Perhaps this is a service ebook retailers could offer. A self-published author submits a work for a ‘premium’ listing – the seller submits the work for feedback from an online reading forum – then the author gets accreditation (or not). After all, it is the retailer who stands to gain the most.

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