Copyeditors vs. Formatters: Explaining the Difference

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So you’re just starting out in the publishing industry? Maybe you’ve been in the game for a while and aren’t completely sure the nuts and bolts of production. There are many people waiting to help authors: copyeditors, formatters, cover artists, marketing managers, virtual assistants, etc. But often, some of these people get confused. In my experience working as a freelancer, there’s been publishers, authors, and other freelancers that don’t understand the full scope of specific jobs.

The issue I’ve found over the years is publishers and authors get confused between a book formatter and book copyeditor. I’ve heard formatters talk about authors who insist that if they “read the book, you’d know” where dialogue tags go, or where to place quotations, or where story breaks belong. They are confusing book formatting with copyediting, so I’ve put together this handy little list to help show the difference between copyediting and formatting, and to help you choose a book editor that will work well with you.

Book Copyeditor

Copyeditors can appear on the stage during many stages of your process. Most authors like to hire them as a “final eyes” before they publish their book. Copyeditors are handy people who can help you find glaring mistakes you may have missed. Most often what a copyeditor is hired for, the job they’re paid to do, is the cheapest level of editing they offer. One thing to remember is to make sure you understand the job you’ve hired your copyeditor to perform (if it is a light, medium, or heavy level copyedit); most will not work outside of the scope they are hired for because they are not being paid to do so. Unfortunately, publishing is a costly endeavor, and every business cuts corners.

Most often I’m hired for a light copyedit, which checks grammar, spelling, usage, and style. But a copyeditor can also make sure your paragraphs are uniform in appearance, rewrite or suggest a rewrite so passages flow well within the piece, and can help smooth out transitions between paragraphs and sections of a piece. Formatters may also alter the appearance of paragraphs by adding spaces between, justifying, and spacing between sentences, depending on the publisher’s or author’s specifications.

Editors Do:

  • Check grammar
  • Check spelling
  • Check uniformity in usage
  • Check uniformity in style

Book Formatting

Book formatters design the interior of your book. They work closely with the publisher or author to ensure the final product has the look and feel the publisher or author wants their readers to experience. Formatters know the specifications for printers and e-readers to make sure the book comes to life, and is easily read by the channels that will deliver them to the reader.

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Formatters can also make corrections depending on what the author wants. Unfortunately, some of my formatting friends tell me that the most corrections they make are errors an editor would have caught had one been hired. Once a project is done, authors will often contact their formatter about editing issues. Sometimes it’s just a few corrections, which is understandable and could have been missed during the various stages of development. But other times there’s a huge list of things a good copyeditor would have addressed.

Formatters Do:

  • Eliminate hidden characters within the document that interfere with printers or devices.
  • Create headers and footers for print books that may include book title, author name, and page numbers.
  • Create chapter names and graphics to give specific flare to the piece.
  • Maximizes (or limits) spacing in the piece that works well with targeted audience or genre.

Finding a Good Book Copyeditor

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Finding a team that works well with you may take time. Just like authors, copyeditors often have specific genres they consider their comfort zone. This doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of copyediting romance or erotica. If a copyeditor is a fan of fantasy and horror, it just means story suggestions they make to a genre they’re comfortable with could be more in-depth than one they’re not comfortable with. Some copyeditors have a listing on their site of genres they accept.

Asking questions is a good start. What formal training does the editor have? Who have they worked with? Do they have testimonials from past clients? Do they provide a sample edit to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for (or asking for)? Do they have a portfolio that is accessible to prospective clients?

More than anything, when you’re hiring your freelancers, you’re looking for people that not only get the job done but also people you can work well with as a team. This doesn’t mean a friend that you can go have drinks with, but, instead, someone that is professional, timely, and does the work you’re expecting with a level of accuracy you can count on.

A good copyeditor will also use a style sheet so you (and they) can be sure things don’t change between books in a series. Authors tend to forget specific words they may have capitalized, what color eyes a secondary character had, or the exact name of the street or bakery their characters frequent.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a truth, since indie-publishing has become so popular there’s been an outpouring of people offering you “services” that aren’t up to par. Editors, publishers, and cover artists that have little experience in the field can devalue the work of those who have sought training. It’s integral, as you move forward in your career, to find those people who can offer you quality and expertise that makes your work stand out.

For more information of people to steer clear of, please check out Writer Beware, and Absolute Write.

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