Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < For Writers < Resources < On Editing < or On Publishing <

– (OR IS IT?) –


From C.M. Mayo's presentation
at the "Publish Now!" seminar
held at the
Writer's Center, Bethesda, Maryland,
Saturday June 23, 2012.

So you've written your first book. Now what to do with it? It might appear that you're about to enter the labyrinth, but no worries, we're going to take three easy steps, and then a bird's eye view at what is less a labyrinth than a conveyor belt. Finally, for those looking for commercial publication, we'll look at three key areas to consider working on immediately, if not already.


Why did you write this book? How do you envision your book reaching its reader? (Airport bookstore? Amazon.com download? Limited edition or print-on-demand? Multimedia iBook or Vook? Gifted by you personally? Sold to your clients at workshops and seminars?) What do you want this book to do for you personally and professionally? How far are you willing to go, and how much time and money can you spend, to make your ideal publishing experience happen?

Many writers, agents and editors will happily give you iron-clad prescriptions but the appropriate level of investment of your time, money (and angst) depends on your intentions.

Some authors have no intention of doing anything more for their book. For example, my dad completed his final draft of Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam, about the prisoners taken by the Japanese in World War II, just as he was in the final stages of terminal cancer, so the right thing for him was to let it go. He turned it over to his colleague, historian Linda Goetz Holmes, and let her edit and shepherd it to publication (it will be out in fall 2012 from Naval Institute Press). Like many people towards the end of their lives, having written his book, it did not make sense for him to invest in further effort. I can think of several books in this category— and not necessarily by people facing immanent death (!): a perfectly healthy grandmother leaving a memoir or children's book or family history for her family; a survivor of a war or some long-ago event, leaving testimony; and, on a happier note, there are also cookbooks intended for only family, friends and maybe neighbors.

Some writers, well, they just wanna have fun. Like me with the piano: I'm OK with banging out "Chopsticks" and "Greensleeves" once in a while. I don't have to be Vladimir Horowitz.

Some more grittily determined types want to check "write book" off their to-do list, along with, say, "plant a tree" and "climb the pyramids of Egypt," and once they've typed "THE END," they're ready to slap a cover around the pages, whatever whichway, and move on to the next item.

A writer might be facing a deadline. How about a book written in order to influence an local election? One wouldn't want to publish a book about the Mayan prophecies of 2012 in 2013!

A writer who aims to publish a thriller available in airport bookstores, however, had better be prepared to do what is necessary—possibly months or years of work— to find an agent who can place it with an appropriate commercial publisher. He or she had also better be prepared to do a marathon's worth of promotional legwork. (When you hear stories from self-publishing companies about some self-published novel that made it to best-sellerdom, that, believe me, is the nano-tip of the iceberg of books you have never, and will never, ever, not even in Oz, hear about.)

Similarly, a writer who aims for a place in the literary pantheon with Edgar Allen Poe, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Eudora Welty, and so on, had also better be prepared to do a toe-curling amount of revision. Readers, even the most cultivated ones, rarely guess at how many times a quality literary novel or memoir has been revised. The reason is simple: when the writer goes out on tour to flog their book, they have zero incentive to confess how much work went into it, no more indeed than the leading ballerina dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy would halt, mid-twirl, to shout to the balcony, "AYYY, my bloody feet!!"

Some writers' goals are business and professional success, so they don't necessarily see their book as an end in itself, but as something that supports that—a calling card, as it were, for more prestige, more clients, and, perhaps, speaking opportunities. Some examples of this would be feng shui consultant Carol Olmstead's Feng Shui for Real Life and David Allen's Getting Things Done. Dr Daniel G. Amen's popular series of books on improving brain health come to mind, and my own (long ago) finance books which, verily, did wonders for my career as an economist in Mexico. Whether self-published or commercially published, these books, to achieve such goals, need to be exquisitely well-edited.

Alas, many self-published writers, in taking on the job of professional publishers without realizing the full nature and scope of the process, make big mistakes here... more about that in a moment.

Then there are the academics aiming to share their research and, usually, also gain stature in their field and, in particular, tenure. They will most likely find a university press the answer to their needs, and so their manuscript's path through the steps we'll see below may be a little different. Mainly, they probably won't be using an agent. (Why? Because the advances against royalties for such books are too small to make them worth an agent's time.)

There are many other authors with niche books that may have an audience valuable to them, but not large enough for a commercial publisher to take interest or even if they do take interest, they might not be able to work in the author's best interest in a timely manner. Some examples in this category include Jim Johnston's self-published Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler, and my own translation into English of Francisco I. Madero's Spiritist Manual of 1911. [
Update 2014: my book is now published as Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.]

Many authors will find their intentions for their book in more than one of these categories— and, no doubt, there are categories I haven't thought to mention. It's certainly possible to change your intentions once you change or, as often happens, you find out how dagnabbit tough it can be to publish. Then again, for some people it's easy to publish a best-selling book, or, say, place their PhD thesis with Harvard University Press on their first submission. (Some people do win the lottery, too. And as far as I know, J.K. Rowling is a real person.)


There are no formulas in this "business"
; you need to figure out what's right for you, so you need to find your balance between humility and arrogance, overpessimism and overoptimism, fear and naiveté. What works for one writer and her manuscript may be wildly inappropriate for another. So stay curious, but trust your intuition.

Guys, that means, educate yourself but in the end, go with your gut.

One part of educating yourself is to read widely and, in your genre, deeply. Let's say you want to publish a literary novel. Well, then, you'd better be reading a lot of literary novels.

Compare the work that wins, say, the Pulitzer Prize, to a random selection of self-published novels, and though I am sure 10 people would have 10 different opinions about the novels that won over the past decade, in general, I am confident we could find a consensus, with perhaps one or maybe two exceptions, that the prize-winning novels have a very different quality than the others. Look and learn.

But again, there are no formulas. The publishing world is not run by all-knowing gods in the sky, but human beings. Last I checked, human beings are capable of doing and saying some really stupid stuff. And like monkeys in funny hats, many will dance to someone else's idea of music. So yes, it has happened that great books go unpublished and crap gets on the bookshelves. Godawful injustices and aesthetic barbarities plague the world every minute. I don't know about you, but unless I am able and willing to do something, I try not to dwell on them.



For more about revision, check out Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Explore many more recommended books on craft and creative process here.

A lecture on writing memoir, by Sara Mansfield Taber, author of several memoirs, most recently, Born Under an Assumed Name, for the Vermont College of Fine Art, summer 2010.


Now for the conveyor belt which, depending on your intention and circumstances, moves (maybe slowly, maybe surely) your manuscript through some or all of these various types of readers and editors. This is a stylized list, based on my own experience having had several books published by diverse houses, from corporate behemoth Random House Mondadori to university and small presses, and my own itsy bitsy tailor-made Dancing Chiva.

In most cases, even if avid readers of above-average intelligence, they wouldn't know how to critique their way out of a paper sack. Eliciting an honest reaction more often than not results in a lot of hurt feelings on both sides. I no longer ask for "feedback," or "unvarnished opinions," but rather, very specifically, for an "x" in the margin or a circle around the text itself to indicate where, if they didn't know me, they would have quit reading. Usually this alerts me to a specific problem that can be directly addressed. Manuscript improved, drama averted.

(But your loved one insists on reading it? But think: does it make sense to show your poetic literary historical novel to someone whose diet of reading is almost completely composed of thrillers purchased along with the lettuce at the grocery store? Or for that matter, a romance novel to someone who hasn't read anything but newspapers and organic chemistry journal articles in the past three decades?)

Invaluable. But park your ego outside. Be sure to thank them in the acknowledgements and give them an inscribed copy of the book. (Don't hesitate to ask for a blurb if you think you'll get one. It's never too early to start!)

Possibly useful. I strongly believe in the value of writing workshops— over the years I attended many myself, and I teach them— but the main value is not so much in any critiques you receive, but in learning how to critique others (and thus, eventually, your own manuscripts). It is rare to find a workshop that will critique book-length manuscripts, however. But not impossible. But don't bang your head against the wall if you can't find one.

Check the Writer's Center catalog when it comes out each season.
For those with a completed draft, in the DC area, Richard Peabody has led a popular novel workshop for some years.

C.M. Mayo, "Ten Tips to Help You Get the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop"

C.M. Mayo, "Writers Conferences: A Short List of Recommendations" (2008)

These are as varied as wildflowers in a meadow. Like wildflowers, most are beautiful, but some are poisonous. Ayyy, they are composed of human beings! Start one yourself if you dare. (Don't know any other writers? Go meet some! Join writers groups and associations, from the Writer's Center to the Women's National Book Association — they accept men, by the way— to say, the Maryland Writers' Asociation. Take workshops. Attend seminars and conferences.)

As with workshops, however, it is diffcult to find a writers group that can handle critiques of book-length manuscripts. In my experience, these are most beneficial for working on poetry, short fiction and short essays.

Leslie Pietrzyk, "Work-in-Progress" blog, "My Fabulous Writing Group"

Outside of the workshop, are you offering to pay the going rate for a freelance editor? It starts at about USD $35 an hour and goes up, way up, from there. If not, you are asking too hefty a favor, I fear. (Would you ask the dentist who lives next door to give your kids braces for free?)

C.M. Mayo, "To All the Many People Who Ask Me to Read Their Manuscripts"

[Update: someone in the seminar asked, "What if my next door neighbor is a professional copyeditor?" I answered, "Ask her what she charges. Since you know her, if you don't want to pay cash, you might offer to, say, babysit her kids for a month."]

One of the best ways to find a freelance editor is by recommendation from a fellow writer. You can also find freelance editors at sites such as the Editorial Freelancer Association and, more broadly, www.elance.com.

On my webpage, at "Resources for Writers," I maintain a frequently updated list of recommended freelance editors.

You may also find advertisements for editorial services in magazines such as Poets & Writers and Writer's Digest.

As you will find, editors vary widely in terms of experience, typical clients (technical, literary, genre, etc), waiting lists (or not), and the way they work. Some offer consultation, review, developmental editing, "feedback," line editing, etc. Some charge by the page, some by the word, others by the hour or by the project. Some want a check, others use PayPal.

Explore their websites, which should their policies clearly and offer a work history, samples, testimonials, and more.

Before proceeding, get a Letter of Agreement (LOA) which clearly states what you can expect / limits to services and payment. If you don't like their LOA, try to negotiate or find another editor.

If you aim to publish with a commercial publisher who distributes to brick-and-mortar bookstores, you will probably need an agent in order to get past the Himalaya-sized "slush piles" (that is, unsolicited manuscripts). Some agents will refer clients to freelance editors. Some agents will actually edit. Some agents are wise and experienced and should be heeded; others, well, I'm not sure they should be allowed to operate a motorized vehicle, never mind put a red pencil to anyone's manuscript. Remember, anyone, including your plumber, your lawyer, or your pet groomer, can put out their shingle as a literary agent. Check their credentials and track record before blindly accepting any editorial advice from an agent.

My own agent, Kit Ward, was an editor at Little, Brown, a prestigious press, for many years. She also has an impressive track record as an agent. That said, she didn't read my novel in manuscript; I sold it myself, then brought her in to negotiate the contract.

On a previous book, my former New York agent, who, though famous, shall remain unnamed, made numerous editorial suggestions. Other than obliging me to cut the clutter— which was invaluable, and for which I remain very grateful— I found it difficult to believe she read it with genuine care because so many of her comments left me shaking my head in wonder, the wonder being, which manuscript did she read? (Um, agents have a Himalaya-sized slush piles, too.)

C.M. Mayo, Answers to the 3 Most Frequently Asked Questions, #2, Do I Need an Agent?
(includes many helpful links)

This editor is the one you submit your manuscript to and he says, "no thanks," or, "revise and submit again," or, "yes, here's the contract". Depending on how many hats he wears in the publishing house, he may or may not be the one who edits your mansucript.

In a large house these may be different individuals, but in smaller houses they are one and the same. Some publishers use freelancers for different types of editing. It all depends. For example, when I published my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, the acquiring editor was the publisher and owner, Dave Peattie of Whereabouts Press, but a freelance literary translator, a very good one, did the line editing.

Like surgery, or for that matter, home renovation, some operations are minor and some require saws, chisels and heavy sedation. Generally speaking— and this is why agents often do some editing for their clients— acquiring editors prefer to buy manuscripts that come in as close to ready-for-publication as possible. The reason is simple: editing takes the time of salaried (or freelance) professionals, which isn't cheap, and the more editing that needs to be done, the greater the risk that the author will not deliver the work in an acceptable time frame or condition.

When you go the route of agent to acquiring editor to editor, nearing the end of the conveyor belt, when (ideally) both you and your editor have made the manuscript as as squeaky-clean as it can be, you will encounter the eagle-eyed nitpicker known as the copyeditor.

Copyeditors catch things like, on page 86 you use "catsup" while on page 119 you say, "ketchup"; do you want to go with "Palacio Nacional" or "National Palace"? Mr Wilson or Dr Wilson? (It's Mr Wilson throghout but Dr in footnote 3 on page 49). Should it be "carte-de-visite" or "carte de visite"? Should the "E" in Champs-Elysee have an accent? (Doesn't matter, but you need to be consistent.) They often catch commas inside, when (following U.S. style), they should be placed outside quotation marks.They make up what is called a stylesheet, which you can refer to whenever you have a doubt. In sum, copyediting adds value to your book by improving its quality. It is one of the many things a publisher does to earn their bigger cut of a book's income (leaving you the little slice of "royalties").

When you opt to self-publish, if your aim is to produce a book on par with commercially published works (as for example, if you want the book to serve as your business's calling card or to establish your expertise), you need to hire a copyeditor.

Unfortunately, few people have encountered a copyeditor or even know what exactly what it is they do (and no, it's not copywriting), and so when ambitious first-time authors who opt to self-publish learn that copyediting might cost, say, $5 a page or $35 an hour and upwards, they skip this step— to their detriment.

With the exception of the first edition of my translation of Spiritist Manual (because it was uploaded onto Kindle on a deadline, for my talk at the Author's Sala in San Miguel de Allende on its centennial, 2011), all of my several books have been copyedited and in each and every instance, after having been revised many times, and read by many readers and editors, I have been genuinely astonished at all the copyedits— almost every single page has something marked. A few corrections I disagreed with, but I have always had the chance to discuss and negotiate to my and my editor's mutual satisfaction. That said, the overwhelming majority of copyedits have been excellent and indeed, many have saved me from what could have been an embarassment. And I think most writers who have been well-published can say the same.

There is so much to say about the underappreciated yet vital profession of copyediting that, if you're serious about publishing something of quality, I urge you to buy a copy of this slender but superb book:

Elsie Myers Stainton, The Fine Art of Copyediting (Columbia University Press, 2002)

Also useful to have as an editing reference:
Chicago Manual of Style

Diana Hume George, "Copyediting. Vital. Do it Or Have It Done"
An excellent and brief on-line article.

The proofreader catches those spelling and punctuation mistakes which the copyeditor missed (it happens), as well as any formatting problems and inconsistencies. Many people use the terms copyeditor and proofreader interchangably; I've seen the definitions of copyeditor and proofreaders overlap, blend, contradict— oh well.

It's important to make sure you can review the work of the proofreader before it goes to press because sometimes they make mistakes. I had something in my collection of short stories (meticulously edited, by the way) "corrected" by a proofreader that was a misunderstaning on his part. It was a minor technical term but anyone who knows about it knows my book has it wrong. Not my fault! Grrr.

The day will come when the box with your books arrives. And you will take out the first, smelling-of-fresh-ink copy and you will open it... and you will find a typo. That's right, no matter how times and how many highly paid editors read it through from beginning to end, red pencil-in-hand, that typo will stare you in the face, obvious as a zit on the end of your nose and horrible in its immortality.

This is only one of the myriad reasons I recommend checking out all the handy tips for toughening up your mind and spirit which sports psychologists offer in a whole library's worth of books, the best of which, in my opinion, is Kenneth Baum's The Mental Edge.

You will obsess about this typo— and the others. Yes, there will be others. Some might even (gulp) appear on the cover. How about in the title itself? I know perfectly decent, dilgent, and intelligent people to whom this has happened.

The worst typo might appear, like a cockroach in the duxelle of the Beef Wellington, in a sentence wherein you pretend to assert your expertise. And you knew perfectly well what you were talking about. Really! This has happened to me. It is so awful that I cannot bear to continue to speak of it.

Many readers will tell you about your typos. Some may catch them with undisguised glee! The most gleeful among them are those who yearn to write a book (oh, they have a great idea) but they never will precisely because they are terrified of being criticized. Once you figure that out, it's not so bad.

A surprising number of people will write to you, listing, ever so helpfully, page by page, all the many mistakes. Some really are mistakes, though finding out about them, which is good if you are to reprint your book at some point, doesn't exactly make your day. And some are not mistakes; your correspondent doesn't know what the barking buffalo she's talking about. I've had people write to tell me I was wrong about the rental price of per day for palapas on a remote beach because it had since gone up (um, hello, it's a travel memoir?) and that a German song in my novel does not exist (um, it's fiction?)

Nobody is perfect. Not them. Not me. Sigh. Not you, either.

When you just can't stand it anymore, watch this.



In the past, marketing and publicity were (supposedly but not really, which is another story) the publisher's responsability. A few months after the contract is signed, but still some months before its "pub date," the book will be placed on another conveyor belt, as it were, going out to reviewers, book fairs, distributors, etc., while the publisher's sales reps and marketing staff work hard (one hopes) to interest bookstores, libraries, reviewers, bloggers, and press.

Now that readers can buy books on-line, however, search engine ranking plays a role analogous to bookshelf space. For this reason, even if they are doing a print edition with a commercial publisher, savvy writers often start their websites, blogs, and social media pages with search engine optimization in mind before the book is even written. In other words, if you're writing a book on Podcasting for Writers, it would be ideal to have your website pop up high on the screen when someone searches for "podcasting for writers."

You can see how I'm doing this for my travel memoir-in-progress, with the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project 2012-2013: Exploring Marfa, Texas & Environs in 24 Podcasts.

Savvy writers also start building their mailing lists with an automatic opt-in / opt-out newsletter service such as Constant Contact or Mail Chimp (learn about my newsletter here.).

To quote marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin, "The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you'll need later."

Seth Godin (blog), "Advice for Authors"

Seth Godin (video) "Sliced Bread and Other Marketing Delights"

C.M. Mayo, blog, "Writers' Emailed Newsletters: 6 Dos and 6 Yucky No Nos"

C.M. Mayo, blog, "Getting Started with Websites and Blogs"

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life


Some books, especially nonfiction works, but also collections of poetry, short fiction, or literary essays, can benefit from having had individual pieces in magazines prior to publication. In fact, when evaluating such manuscripts, editors almost always ask to see "acknowledgements," that is, a list of magazines in which the works (or excerpts) have previously appeared. The more and more prestigious, the better. In other words, if you can say you've had a story in the Paris Review or Zyzzyva, or an article in the Washington Post, that signals that you're serious— you've made the effort to get your work out there and some editor thought enough of it to publish it. Your piece may also be eligible for some award— and taking the trouble to enter appropriate contests could result in some helpful recognition. It is almost always a simple matter to include the work in your book, but do check your contract and always, always, include the acknowledgement.

In my own case, two of my short stories in Sky Over El Nido appeared elsewhere (Paris Review and Southwest Review); several of the chapters in my travel memoir, Miraculous Air, appeared in magazines, among them, North American Review, Southwest Review, and Massachusetts Review, and two won Lowell Thomas awards. Not bad, eh?

Novels are difficult to excerpt, but I did publish the first chapter of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire in Potomac Review. It does happen.

C.M. Mayo, on-line article, "Out of the Forest of Noise: On Publishing the Literary Short Story"

I confess I've been much less interested in placing shorter pieces in magazines and newspapers now that I have a blog. For the past few years, while working on new books, I've also become enchanted with podcasting.

The downside of all this blogging and podcasting vis-a-vis publishing in magazines and newspapers: less income, fewer readers, and no copyediting.

The upside: I am in complete creative control of the content as well as whether and when it gets "published." Plus, I don't have to deal with so many editors.

Editors are a blessing, yes, but a mixed one.

What is a book? We are now beginning to see inexpensively produced yet very beautiful and rich multimedia e-books. For example, in 2012, Apple made available the iBook Author app free to anyone with the latest operating system. It's a breathtakingly well-designed and easy to use software that allows you to drag and drop in video, images, slideshows, widgets, and more. With such tools, this is a time of tremendous creative opportunity for writers, while readers, especially younger ones, will demand increasingly rich and complex reading experiences.

In my opinion, the writer needs to be able to handle images, video, audio and graphic design to a level that may not be expert— we are, after all, writers, not cinematographers or graphic designers— but is nonetheless congruent with the style and quality of one's writing.

Chipp Kid's TED Talk: "Designing Books is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is."

C.M. Mayo, www.dancingchiva.com, "My Excellent E-Book Adventure"

iBook Author App
Be sure to watch the video

Author Kris Walderr's website with apps and e-books of beautiful design


UPDATE: See also

It's Not Peanut Butter-and-Jelly But It's Nor Rocket Science Either or, How I Made my POD (And You Can, Too)

Q & A with Michele Orwin, Founding Editor of Bacon Press Books

Ye Olde Website Tufte-esqued or, The Chocolate-Boxy Yum of Small Multiples