I work for the author. Period.

Penn State University Libraries

Book publishing nearly always requires a team of people: editors, copy editors, designers, publishers, publicists, researchers, and so on. But when I’m hired as a developmental editor, a coach, or a ghostwriter, I have only only one rule:

I work for the author.

Life is just simpler if you serve only one master.

What does “I work for the author” mean?

The author has goals. One may be to sell a lot of books. But the author may have other, more important goals, such as to make a statement, to get speaking gigs, to generate leads, or just to get a book out with their ideas and their name on it.

My goals are the author’s goals.

Publishers have a different goal: they exist to sell books. This goal may be at odds with what the author wants.

Sometimes people in a position of power, like the author’s boss or the editor at the publishing house, have a particular agenda that may differ from the author’s. But I don’t work for them, I work for the author.

Sometimes publicists have a great idea about how promote the book, if only it were x or included y. That matters to me only to the extent that it matters to the author.

If the author is having a problem because of differences with such folks, I consider it part of my job to help the author navigate those challenges. Because I work for the author.

Working for the author goes beyond writing and editing

Working for the author includes two tasks. Most freelance editors and writers only understand the first.

My first task, naturally, is to make the book the best it can be. “The best it can be” means one thing and one thing only: the best possible representation of the author’s ideas. This can take the form of suggestions on ideas, structure, language, storytelling, words, and pictures. No matter the suggestion, I can always back it up by describing how it will better help the book accomplish the author’s goals.

My second task, which is less well understood, is to help the author navigate the publishing landscape. Why are they jerking me around on cover design? Why are they having problems with the title? What do these deadlines really mean? What does a publicist do? Should this be a hardback or a paperback? What are the pros and cons of hybrid publishers? Is it time to put up the Amazon page? These and a hundred other questions are part of my work. Just based on my experience, I know more about these things than an author working on their first or second book. Helping the author select and deal with all the other people on the publishing team is an essential part of my work.

I don’t charge for this. I simply charge enough for my editing and writing work to cover the extra time it requires. This second task solidifies my relationship with the author, which is both immediately valuable and pays off in the long term. It builds trust.

This, by the way, is why my book for author is only half about writing. The other half is about dealing with all the other elements of the publishing landscape.

This rule applies regardless of who pays me

Typically, but not always, the client who pays me is the author. But sometimes it isn’t. Who pays me doesn’t change my loyalty.

I’ve done several ghostwriting, proposal development, and editing jobs for a ghostwriting agency. That agency sets up the relationship and then gets out of the way. I send my invoices to them and they pay me after the client pays them, minus their fee. But they are generally happy to let me work out all the nonfinancial details with the client on a day-to-day basis. That’s less overhead for them, and makes both me and the client happy.

I have done several ghostwriting and editing jobs on contract to publishers. As with the agency, the publisher sets me up with the client and processes the invoices, but delegates the work of the manuscript and the ideas to me. Because of who pays me, I try to accommodate the needs of the publisher and keep them in the loop, but if there is a conflict, I will side with the author’s needs. If this gets me fired (and so far it never has), so be it.

If you work with books on contract, you should aspire to this

Inexperienced freelance writers and editors may have to defer to more senior staff at agencies or publishers. If you don’t yet know a whole lot about how publishing works, this will inevitably be the case. Take the opportunity to learn what you need to, and to gain experience in how books actually get made and published.

Take note of the times that the author’s needs and your boss’s needs are in conflict. Is the author being unreasonable? Are the agency or the publisher behaving unproductively? What could you have done to spot the conflict earlier and prepare the author for what was coming?

If you can get to a place where you work for the author, the authors will admire and love you for it. They’ll refer you to their friends. You’ll have a steady stream of business. And you’ll have clarity on every decision, because you can just apply my primary principle: “I work for the author.”

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    1. Generally, above a certain point, raising the price lowers the sales and the profit. There is a prevailing price point for any book. I haven’t had the experience you’ve had, but I suppose it does happen.