Why NOT “à la Carte”

Publishing one’s own work is a complex task. Clients often ask us if we can help them do a discrete piece of it—just the copyedit or the cover design, for instance—and we almost always decline. My email responses to these requests are necessarily brief, but today I’ll take the room to explain why.Authors who have their manuscripts acquired by a traditional publishing house are automatically given an “in-house treatment”—meaning that an entire dedicated team of experts will work together to make sure their final book is high quality and well launched. Publishers know that acquiring good material is only the first of many important steps to success, and the integrated production team that develops the raw manuscript into book form is critical. In no publishing house ever does a manuscript come in, get laid out in design with a cover slapped on, and get a quick proofread before publishing. But many self-publishing authors seek exactly that: a piecemeal approach to editorial and design. There are several good reasons why à la carte production does not serve up the best book:

1.  Your text will be rife with errors. The production process that a manuscript goes through to become a book is like a funnel. If you skip over the initial developmental editing stage, which addresses lots of big picture issues (even the most talented writers are too close to their work to view it with fresh eyes), then those big picture problems remain and trip up a copyeditor, who should be focusing her energies on a more granular grammar and style level. But a good copyeditor will also flag stray developmental problems—so if there has been no dev edit, the copyedit pass will be unreasonably heavy. Heavy copyedits always mean that more work is left over for the proofreader, who will have a tall order to catch the hundreds of issues remaining. Hundreds?! Absolutely. A heavy proofread of a standard-length manuscript often has upwards of six hundred errors to fix—and with that many problems on the final pass, the likelihood that more errors will slip through to the published version is much greater. To put it another way, asking for à la carte editorial services for your book is like building a car yourself and then hiring someone to double check the quality of the exterior paint job.

2. Your design will suffer. Design is woven tightly into the fabric of this highly integrated process. Interior book designers should not be making any decisions about your content—but when a manuscript comes their way that hasn’t been through a proper editorial process, it forces them to interpret things (such as the intended relationship of subheadings that are set in inconsistent font sizes. This means you could wind up with what you wanted to be a subheading under the main chapter header looking as if it’s the start of a new chapter altogether—because the designer wasn’t clear on how you wanted that piece of text styled). Manuscripts that have not been through the editorial and styling process are a disastrous mess formatting-wise, even though they may look okay to the untrained eye. This formatting inconsistency makes for a more manual layout process, which can introduce significantly more design errors. Pairing design with professional preparation of the text ensures that editorial intentions are clearly and consistently communicated to the designer, and this ultimately results in a much lighter proofread and a more polished set of final pages.

3. The experience will make you want to tear your hair out. In-house at a traditional publisher (and at Girl Friday), there’s a person whose job it is to manage the team and expertly shepherd the book through the production process. When you self-publish and decide to cherry-pick services, you have to fill this role, acting as the sole communicator between the various members of your disconnected team as well as foreseeing all potential problems yourself. It’s not only frustrating but also very expensive to make mistakes of poor foresight—such as finding out just as you’re ready to upload your final files that the trim size you imagined for your book is not supported by the platform you’re using.

It’s an exciting time to be in book publishing, and self-publishing has disrupted the industry in ways we never could have imagined ten years ago. But there are some things about traditional publishing that are worth keeping—and having a team of expert professionals work together to create a book is at the top of the list.