Filed under:

Rosemary Shipton

Those Unpublishable Manuscripts

We’ve all had them – those manuscripts that arrive on our desks that should not be published. They have little merit in either content or expression, and our initial impulse is to return them immediately. How do we deal with them?

If the project comes from a trade publisher, the contract with the author was probably signed more than a year before, based on a proposal. In the intervening months, the writer may have experienced personal problems or simply been busy with other things. That explains why the manuscript is hurried, incomplete or a raw first draft. The publisher could reject it, but if this book is needed to balance either the publisher’s seasonal list or its budget, the firm is loath to delay it. Ideally, the publisher sends it to a “book doctor” kind of editor who specializes in reorganizing and rewriting texts and in partnering with authors to make the final drafts as good as they can be (see “Should Editors Be Able to Write?”). These projects might require hundreds of hours of work compressed into a couple of months, but what if the publisher’s fee won’t stretch so far?

Some of the most elaborate books published today originate not with publishers but with companies, institutions or individuals who, for professional or personal reasons, want to make a book idea into a reality. The subject usually focuses on the history of the sponsor or on some special interest, such as art or astronomy, and the volume is almost always heavily illustrated, beautiful and expensive to produce. It needs a team of expert writers, editors, designers and image researchers to “package” it and make it attractive to a traditional publisher. Problems arise when the initiators don’t recognize the limits of their writing and publishing ability. What are our responsibilities when we’re asked to edit one of these manuscripts and we know that the text, even after a skilled edit, can never be brought up to standard? Even if the institution attempts to publish the book itself, the final product will embarrass everyone associated with it.

Today, anyone can self-publish, and indie publishing is expanding. Some talented writers choose to go this route because they want more control over their books and a higher percentage of the revenues. Other writers, however, lack experience and natural ability, and their novels or nonfiction texts need much more development and revision before they should ever be published. How should editors respond to requests to work on these not-yet-ready manuscripts? It’s easy to say no, but should we also offer brief cautionary advice to these writers?

These tough questions involve judgment and ethics, but they are not new to editors — the traditional gatekeepers of what got published. We can no longer play that role in today’s open publishing environment. But if we see ourselves as professionals rather than as skilled craftspeople, what is our role in the print and online publishing market today? If we are independent operators, how do we balance our need for clients and projects with our understanding of what would really be best for each particular manuscript? What do you think?


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Shorten It!

The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.

Discover more from The Editors' Weekly

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

About the author

Rosemary Shipton

Rosemary Shipton edits trade, scholarly and art books as well as commission of inquiry reports. From 1990 to 2007 she was the founding academic coordinator of the publishing program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

25 Comments on “Those Unpublishable Manuscripts”

  • Glenna M. Jenkins


    I recently edited a badly conceived and written YA “science fiction/romance” novel. The author (am I using the term loosely) had no concept of what good writing is and simply took pleasure in getting her book out there. She approached me to edit her second novel in a series and sent me a copy of her first novel so I could get up to speed on the story. She also thought I would enjoy it. When I opened the package I was shocked to see that the artwork on the cover was of two naked people entwined in an embrace. And this, for a YA novel! Then I opened the ‘novel,’ read the first two pages and stopped. It was replete with errors in spelling and grammar; run-on sentences; cheesey dialogue, few if any descriptions of settings, poor character development, and phrasing one would expect from a writer in fifth grade. This was surely not a novel worth publishing, yet there it was. Amazon had is listed under ‘erotica’ and there were no book sales. My immediate suggestion was to take it out of circulation and have it undergo a thorough copyedit. My client insisted she had already paid her publisher’s editor $2500 to do so. So I suggested she ask for her money back. I then received an irate phone call from the publisher who informed me that this novel had undergone a structural edit, that the editor suggested to the author that she hire a copy editor, and the author had chosen to do the copyedit herself (and obviously made a hash of it). Further, she informed me that I did not understand what self-publishing was all about. That is, that some people simply take joy in seeing their book out there, regardless of its quality. My view is that no self-respecting publisher would ever put their brand name of something this bad. In any case, I tried my best to get the manuscript up to a more-or-less acceptable standard and then sent it back to the author in Track Changes. I also insisted she go through it, leaving Track Changes on, and accept or reject my additions and suggestions, which included adjusting some of the atrocious narrative and cheesy dialogue, and wrapping up the story in a final chapter, then send it back to me for a final read. The author went through the manuscript. But I have no idea what she did with it because she said she wanted to send it back to the publisher right away and get her book out there so she could concentrate on the other two “books” in the series, which she had apparently knocked off inside of one month each. She also said she did not have time to write a final chapter. So, here is my take on it: I charged her my highest fee, billed her and got paid. I also asked her to not mention me in the acknowledgments because I could not sign off on it without doing a final read. I’m quite sure the novel is complete dreck, albeit not quite as bad as it was when she first sent it to me. Nevertheless, my fees will help me pay for renovations to my kitchen and that is my compensation for having to suffer the agony of working on this ‘manuscript’. And if I didn’t do it, surely someone else would. So I might as well make a bit of money for all that trouble.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Your author sounds quite reckless, Glenna, in the way she behaves and in the money she spends in getting her books “out there.” You obviously tried to guide her and give her the opportunity to use your services to a more positive end, but she went her own way in that open world of self-publishing. It seems incredible that her “publisher” would put out books of this calibre – especially if that final chapter is never written. You have missed out on the satisfaction that comes with a good book, but at least enjoy your new kitchen.

      • Glenna M. Jenkins


        Thanks, Rosemary. I tried my best. I told her that her first book establishes her reputation as a writer. I have had discussions with other editors about self-publishing. I am astounded at the fact these companies will take people’s money and seemingly print what they send them, regardless of how bad it is. One editor I spoke with said, ‘But that’s not the point. The point is these people want to produce a book. So if one company won’t take their money, another will.” In any event, my client tells me that she is learning a lot about fiction writing. Hopefully, the next book in her ‘series’ will be better than her first.

    • susanedits


      “My view is that no self-respecting publisher would ever put their brand name of something this bad.”

      Publishing services companies don’t deal in self-respect. Publishing services companies can’t deal in self-respect. Refusing to publish the worst writing won’t help them compete with traditional publishing companies; it only sends more business to their real competition, which is other publishing services companies.

      If your terrible author’s publisher had told her she had a bestseller on her hands, that would’ve been a serious ethical violation. But they did the right thing: they said the manuscript needed more work and made recommendations for further services. If the author didn’t listen, that’s on her.

    • I don’t accept clients like this. I tell them their manuscript is not ready for professional editing and to join a writers group to learn their craft instead. I will bluntly tell them that this novel is not worth the investment in editing, and to come back when they have had more practice. I warn them that publishing their ‘practice’ novel could hurt their career long term, when they get better (not that this sounds like one of those that will ever get better.) I have ethical issues with taking money from someone I essentially cannot help produce a decent final product; I can’t risk them telling other potential clients that I was their editor; and working with such a manuscript is not pleasurable, so why would I take that on? I DO take on terrible writers who demonstrate that they are serious about getting better and who show some minimum potential, but I make it clear that the current novel probably isn’t going anywhere, and that they are hiring me as a writing coach/instructor and we are going through this novel as a course case study to learn skills which will hopefully then be transferable for the future. But only 1 in ten of the terrible manuscripts that come in show the right attitudes and potential for me to take that approach. Otherwise, I just stick to authors who actually have a publishable novel in there somewhere, even if it takes a bit to dig out; or who have clearly limited goals for their memoirs or nonfiction book like ‘for friends and family’ with no expectations of commerical success. And fie on ‘publishers’ who charge for editing–that’s a vanity press in new self-publishing guise.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Maybe you ask, “Is the author of the bad book Dan Brown?” Then it’s a go. Someone else? Rejection. 🙂

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Oh yes, not to mention Fifty Shades and the handful of other surprising success stories. Still, for every one like that, there must be a thousand other titles that editors have ploughed through.

  • When I first dipped my foot into the publishing world, as an intern at the University of Washington Press, I was asked to give opinions on new manuscripts. The lesson of what sort of submissions were deemed publishable by such a high-quality press is one I’ll never forget.

    It is indeed a tricky situation when the book is one for which the author has a contract with a publisher, and the publisher hires an editor–in-house or freelance–to bring the book up to the publisher’s standards. The editor has to do a balancing act, knowing the publisher believes the book has value and that the publisher is only able to pay for a limited amount of editing. Maybe the value is its local history (grant dependent, an important consideration for a publisher’s list). Maybe the author’s already known for previous books (that other editors have brought up to snuff) and the publisher knows the author’s audience is a large enough market to just break even, or to at least justify the book’s existence, if the publisher’s list also includes other really stellar books that balance the losses of the ‘bad’ book. Sadly, most of these considerations are not known to the freelance editor, though, so what they see is just a poorly written manuscript with an overwhelming number of problems and an inadequate budget.

    I think a key part of the editor’s job is to sort out editing priorities. Consistent documentation is important for history books, and this can take a long time to straighten out. Facts are important too, though here again the editor doesn’t really have much time to check facts. And stellar writing is thus lower on the list of priorities. The priorities are not easy to determine, so I think it is critical that the managing editor of the publisher convey their expectations to the editor, and if that hasn’t been done, then the editor must inquire.

    I think this is an ethical thing: if expectations are not properly communicated, then the editor can become stressed and doesn’t make enough money, the managing editor can wonder at the pace, the author can get upset at the amount of changes they didn’t expect, and so on.

    These are all very different considerations than the ones that face editors of self-publishing authors, of course. Then good writing seems to be a higher priority, as is a developmental edit. But communicating about expectations is still important–maybe even more, because the author is paying for a service directly.

    Just a few observations from the trenches…

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Very interesting observations from the trenches, Lenore. Yes, publishers, institutions, and authors all have their own and often quite different expectations, and the more the editor knows about them, the better it is for everyone. Speaking generally, scholarly publishers have a mandate to issue books that make an original contribution to knowledge, so that aspect is a key consideration in their decision to publish. Trade publishers, in contrast, are more concerned with potential sales figures, so look for manuscripts on themes that will attract many readers and for big-name authors. Institutions, government departments, corporations, and nonprofit agencies want publications that make them look good. In other words, all these groups want to release books or reports that will bring them credit – and they expect their editors to raise the manuscripts to that standard, even when the budgets allowed don’t always cover the time required. Most editors do that work, simply because they want to continue working for these firms and they enjoy at least some aspects of the manuscripts they are offered.

      The editors I know who work with self-publishing writers tell me that, yes, they believe everyone has the right to be published, and they are happy to help these authors achieve their goal. Sometimes the writers come back with a second or a third book, but most times the expectation is for just the one book. As such, with no long-term relationship to preserve, the editors tell me they expect to be paid for all the time they spend on the job. They tailor what they do to the amount agreed on in the estimate. The novels and the nonfiction manuscripts can sometimes be quite good, they say, but others would never be accepted by a traditional publisher.

      And that’s the point of this discussion: When we are asked by a publisher, an institution, or a self-publishing client to edit a manuscript that, without a lot of work, is really unpublishable, how do we handle it? What should we communicate to the managing editor or the writer? If we feel that the text is truly unsalvageable, what should we suggest? And how do we negotiate or respond to the fee, especially in cases where it is not enough?

  • Candas Jane Dorsey


    This is a terrible dilemma to any of us who make our living by editing–or teaching for that matter.

    My first book edit was a terrifying non-fiction item where it had to be taken apart sentence-by-sentence and reassembled in a different order. It was a necessary historical research document from a completely untrained writer with no research experience but much enthusiasm. On the plus side, it is now widely used as a resource, so my colleague and I must have managed something, even though the author refused to finish his index and added three incoherent pages at proof time (which we never saw). But we got paid well, which helped. It was definitely a baptism by fire.

    That was a long time ago and a lot of editing of bad writing under the bridge. There have been times I was so broke that I had to edit really, really bad work, and what it amounted to was individual writing lessons. Sometimes it worked. Occasionally the author disobeyed me and thanked me in the acknowledgements. All I can say in my defense is “You shoulda seen it before.”

    Sometimes, I simply refuse. Sometimes I even try, in a pleasant way, to explain why, but in cases that are as hopeless as Glenna’s above, I say I’m too busy. Unless I am so broke I really have to do it. Sometimes I’ve also fallen for the puppy-dog eyes and promises of someone who said they really wanted to improve, then made every bad sentence or punctuation mark a hill to die on.

    We have to remember that for all the “empowerment” inherent in this new writer-directed e-book world, it is also an open door for vanity press. It used to be a LOT harder to get a vanity book in print, harder and more expensive. But it happened and it was just like Glenna’s experience. People said, “Who would DO that?” but the answer then was printers who wanted the money, and now it is people who learn how to e-format and see a gold mine. And they cry all the way to the bank. Gatekeeping is more difficult in this electronic age, and has been out-sourced to the reader.

    Those who are passionate about the empowerment of the e-book revolution actually believe that it is possible to achieve quality control without gatekeeping. Apparently by a kind of osmosis. I don’t see it happening. What I see is a great deal of bad stuff let loose on the world, and a requirement to writers of all stripes that we (I am a writer as well as an editor) now must do all the work that publishers did, in our copious spare time. And this includes even traditional publishers now requiring an edit before submission, or strongly encouraging it. This is good for our incomes, perhaps, but not for morale.

    Perhaps of interest is that I have the same dilemma about teaching introductory writing classes. Every term I do it I loose 12 or so more beginners on the world, and I just know that some of them have no idea what quality writing really means. What they must do to produce it, how to judge it.

    Those who are familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the research that led to it might find some insight there as well.

    We are in a fairly new experiment, only perhaps 200 years or so in the European world, with universal literacy. Much of what we have gone through in the last 100 years and are going through now in the transformation of books and print has to do with this experiment, acted out on various technological platforms.

    And now, back to editing someone’s book on transposition. This week I was also sent a book by a colleague needing Beta readers, and it was SUCH a relief to read something EXCELLENT for a change. It is not good for the psyche to read too much bad writing…

    • Candas Jane Dorsey


      p.s. By “good for our incomes” I mean for editors, of course. Writers having incomes? Ha.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      You’re right, Candas – it is discouraging to edit one poor manuscript after another. A mix is best – some challenging, others quite good, and all with prospects for success. I’ve always thought, given budgets and schedules, that an editor can raise the level of a manuscript by one notch on the typical grading scale – a C+ to a B+, a B to an A kind of thing. So to have enjoyable careers, we need variety.

      Not everyone has the talent or the temperament to be a writer – or an editor – but everyone has the right to try. If people register in a semester- or year-long course, they can experiment with their dream in a safe environment. If it works out, good; if not, they at least have an answer. And, like all those children who take music lessons but never become professional musicians, you hope that these literary hopefuls gain a greater appreciation of the written word that will enrich their lives.

      As you and others have said, the self-publishing writers presumably derive pleasure and satisfaction from creating their books, especially if they find a helpful and supportive editor to guide them. Some of them will undoubtedly achieve moderate if not great success. In the process, they all provide valuable income for many editors as they establish their freelance businesses and widen their client base.

  • Thoughtful responses from Lenore and Candas. And thanks, Candas, for making me aware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I can think of a certain politician it applies to. 🙂

    I’ve worked mainly with self-publishing authors, and the manuscripts I’ve worked on for publishers have all been of decent quality and/or I’ve been hired only to do a copy edit or proofread. So I can’t really speak with any kind of authority on that kind of scenario.

    In terms of working with self-publishers, I don’t think there’s one solid answer for this dilemma of what to do when an unpublishable manuscript comes in. The only real answer is “It depends.”

    1. It depends on the editor’s skill level and experience. An experienced editor may be better able to cope with poor writing. An experienced editor may have an excess of work and is able to cherry-pick their projects, taking on only writing that has potential.

    2. It depends on the editor’s need for work. This is probably the toughest moral issue to deal with. As Candas says, there were times when I was so broke that I was eager to take any work that came my way, some of it awful writing, and I had to cast aside my ethical misgivings and just do the best work I could, all the while thinking, “This really should never be published.”

    3. It depends on the author’s ability to learn writing skills. Again, as Candas says, often my editing work turns into a teaching job, with extensive margin comments explaining the elements of fiction or other aspects of writing. Some authors are quick to grasp the principles, and their revisions can be a pleasure to work on. Others simply will never get it — they just don’t have “it.”

    4. It depends on how badly the author wants to see their work in print. Some will do a botched job of revisions just to quickly get the book in print. Others (I have several of these right now) will labour over every comment I make and every word they revise, and they won’t publish until they’ve neared perfection. These are the best authors to work with — particularly if they have talent to begin with and money to spend on editing.

    5. It depends on the author’s budget. Too often, self-publishing authors have only enough money for a “quick copy edit” when what they need is developmental or substantive editing. If I have a gap in my schedule and the money is okay, I’ll sometimes take this work on; however, it’s rarely satisfying, and I often end up spending more time and making comments at the substantial level.

    6. If I’m going to turn down an author because the writing is poor, how I do that depends on the feeling I get from their initial e-mails and sample. Sometimes I just can’t warm to them, and I’ll simply say I don’t have time, or I’ll quote so high that if it backfires, and they accept, well, at least I’m getting paid well. I don’t use that tactic often because I don’t feel good about it — it feels a bit unethical. If I feel they are truly looking for honest answers, I may tell them the work simply isn’t ready for editing. I’ll recommend reading resources and tell them to join a writing group, then come back to me in a year.

    To me, there are so many variables when dealing with a self-publishing author that almost every situation is unique. There are many grey areas to consider before taking a job or turning it down.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Very interesting points, Arlene – with your understanding, it’s no wonder you have built up such a successful and expanding freelance business.

      I’m so glad we’re having this interesting exchange of ideas. The other editing discussion groups I check on every now and again focus entirely on quick questions on grammar or expression, with the occasional complaint about a client or perhaps a quote from a compliment received. Some queries get forty or more replies within twenty minutes, so obviously these sites have a huge following. But there never seems to be any in-depth discussion of issues in editing, of the nature of what we do as editors, and I’m not sure why. So thank you all for your comments here. I hope you’re enjoying the exchange as much as I am.

      • Rosemary, I agree — it’s often so hard to get an in-depth discussion going on the finer points of editing as a career and a business. I just posted your article in the EAE Backroom on Facebook. Let’s see whether we can get a discussion going there too. I tagged you in it, so hopefully you’ll see any responses that are added.

        • Rosemary Shipton


          Well, thank you, Arlene. Let’s hope lots of members join in there too – it could be interesting …

          • Why not join in the Facebook conversation, Rosemary? There are a couple of replies so far — interesting ones.

  • Anita Jenkins


    “But there never seems to be any in-depth discussion of issues in editing, of the nature of what we do as editors,” Hear, hear, Rosemary. The only kind of discussion that interests me. I get quite weary of the posts that essentially say, “The language is changing and I don’t like it.”

  • I think most writers have one or more of three basic motivations to publish, and that motivation dictates how I proceed with the book.

    1. To inform
    2. To entertain
    3. Vanity

    (Yes, I know that list isn’t parallel. This is a comment on a blog post, eh?)

    If the motivation is to inform, I start by looking whether it is meeting that goal. Is it even needed? (I once had to tell the writer of an introduction to blackjack that there were over 25,000 on that topic on Amazon, and none of them were selling.) Is a book the best format for presenting the information? What is the intended audience and how do you reach that audience?

    If the motivation is to entertain, I start with the intended audience and consider how well the manuscript meets that audience’s needs and expectations.

    With either of those two types of manuscript, if it isn’t ready for editing, I suggest a manuscript evaluation, writing coaching, or a creative writing course.

    Vanity projects are different. In most cases, the writer wants to be able to say, “I’ve published a book.” Quality, sales, and so on aren’t the intention. With most vanity projects, I simply try to keep the author’s costs to a minimum.

    My aunt was an absolutely appalling poet. She “published” a book with one of the self-publishing services, and was intensely proud of it. Money spent on editing that manuscript would have been utterly wasted. She had no real intentions of selling the book, having readings, or any of the other things that poets do. She wanted to be able to say that her poems had been published. It made her really happy. Was that wrong?

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Very good to have a comment from someone who’s in the business, Greg. Obviously you provide both sound advice and services – once the client author has made an informed decision. That’s the best solution for everyone concerned.

    • I really like your breakdown, Greg, of 1) information, 2) entertainment, and 3) vanity. And your example of your aunt is perfect. No, she certainly isn’t wrong. If that’s how she wants to spend her money and it makes her happy to see her poems in print, she should do it. No one has a right to complain about how she spends her money. Vanity authors who do decide to hire an editor deserve to have the best editor possible to meet their needs — as long as everyone agrees on the scope of the project.

    • Glenna M. Jenkins


      In response to Greg, my client also just wanted to get her book out there. But the first attempt was so appalling that I encouraged her to take it out of circulation. I then proceeded to try my best to ‘fix’ some of the problems. However, I never did see whether the ‘author’ had taken any of my advice. She merely went through the revised manuscript, accepted or rejected the changes, and sent it back to the vanity press, which very kindly gave her a significant discount for her second attempt. This is a woman with stories that ‘just come to her.’ She has also had a head injury, so she struggles with a lot: spelling, grammar, using Track Changes, remembering what she has written, not remembering what she has read. But getting her book published gives her pleasure as does having a writing coach and learning how to be a fiction writer. The latter will never happen for her. And I suspect this will all become an expensive hobby. But she does derive pleasure and joy from it and I do feel that I am helping her along the way. So, no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to publish a poorly written book of poetry or prose as long as the process is an honest one and the customer is happy with their book and realistic about who will pick it up and read it.

  • Thank you, Rosemary, and thanks to everyone else who responded. I, too, appreciate the in-depth discussion, which reflects my own experience. I have finally learned, when I get a manuscript that is not ready to see the light of day, to communicate my opinion to the writer, then offer the services that will make it better. Those services might include an evaluation, heavy copyediting with extensive comments, and recommendations for learning craft. Most important, I have learned to charge for my time. Sometimes the cost weeds out the faint of heart, but not always. If they want to learn, I’m happy to work with them. It helps to know, as one commenter said, that most manuscripts can only be improved by one letter grade. And the writer still has to do the hard work of revising, assuming they even hear my suggestions.

    • Julie, I was the sixth editor on one major best-seller. I did my best to make it more entertaining. And two editors worked on it after I was done. I think each of us improved it by one letter grade.

      But that was years ago, and few books have that kind of editing budget these days.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      And after the hard work of writing comes the even more difficult task of promoting the book!

      As for my “editing improves the overall quality by one grade” comment, that applies to one edit within the normal budget and time allowed. If the circumstances are different, you can make enormous improvements – by hiring a ghostwriter, for instance, or, if you’re a writer as well as an editor, by rewriting the text yourself. I know of a couple of books in this category that have gone on to win prizes, become bestsellers, and be very well reviewed.

Comments are closed.

To top