Ep 18 Meet freelance fiction editor Nicola O’Shea

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In Episode 18 of So you want to be a writer, we chat about why Valerie can't go past a good typewriter, author-approved writing implements, student successes, Cory Doctorow's novel pulled from school reading programme, where to find book recommendations, the eight stages of writing a first draft, Writer in Residence freelance fiction editor Nicola O'Shea, the questions you must ask your editor or proofreader, how to check for plagiarism and more!

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

Valerie's new typewriter!

Australian Typewriter Museum

Where Valerie bought her typewriter

Author-Approved Writing Implements

Student successes

Cory Doctorow novel pulled from school reading list

Book recommendations

What writing a first draft of a novel is really like

Writer in Residence

Nicola O'SheaNicola O’Shea started her editing career in legal publishing as a trainee editor in the early 1990s. From there she moved into educational publishing, where she worked as a project editor on university textbooks in areas as diverse as economics, early childhood education, accounting and tax law. In 1995, she joined HarperCollins Publishers as an editor of business and non-fiction books. It was at HarperCollins that she started editing fiction, working on books for adults, young adults and children; and she’s been working on a mix of fiction and non-fiction titles ever since. In January 2004, Nicola set up her own freelance editing business and now works for a range of publishers, including HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Random House, Allen & Unwin, Hardie Grant and Hachette Australia. She also works occasionally with Hong Kong-based publishers Make Do Studios, who publish contemporary Chinese writers in English.


Working Writer's Tip

I am nearing completion of my first ebook and in true writer fashion I am procrastinating by thinking about who I should get to proofread and edit it when I finish. Wondering if you have any tips on finding the right person for the job? Where to look and questions to ask to make sure they are the right person?
Thanks! Nikki F.

Freelance Editors' Network
Kylie Mason
Jem Bates
Mal McClenaghan

Get paid to write eBook

Web Pick

Plagiarism Checker

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter




Nicola O’Shea is a freelance book editor who works mostly on fiction and some memoir as well. She’s been working in publishing since the early ‘90s, including six years in-house at Harper Collins and has been a freelance book editor for about ten years.

Welcome to our podcast, Nicola.

Thank you.

You’ve worked across pretty much every major Australian publishing house, who have been some of your favorite authors that you have worked with?

Well, most of the authors I work with I really enjoy working with, but I guess Belinda Alexandra is an author that I really love working with, she writes these great big, sweeping historical sagas and her manuscripts are always pretty wide-ranging and always really professionally presented, so I usually find that when they come in I end up reading the story and just racing through it, it’s just an absolute pleasure. Then I have to go back and have a look at it afterwards in more detail and such, analyze the text and look at how it fits together.

Katherine Howell is another writer that I really like, for the same reasons, really polished manuscripts and I just love the stories. She writes kind of paramedic-based crime fiction, which sounds quite specific. She’s just a great writer. Again, I race through the manuscript and then have to go back and start working other than just reading.

There’s another writer called Margaret Innes, she used to write thrillers under the name Alex Palmer. She’s writing more general fiction now. I have a really good working relationship with her. She usually sends me an early draft of the manuscript that she’s working on. I read it and email her some thoughts. Then we have these fantastic phone conversations where we just talk through the characters and the scenes and what she’s going to do with the story. Often we go off on all kinds of tangents and enter into all kinds of interesting charactery. Somehow those conversations end up with Marg finding a way to approach the next draft, something that might take it in quite a different direction from what I’ve just read, but still fits with what she’s wanting to do with the book in an organic way. I find that a really exciting process, because it’s so much fun for me, I get to throw around all of those ideas with Marg, and get involved in the creative side of the editing process, but then it’s Marg who goes off and does all the work afterwards, does all of the hard work. I just get to go off and have a cup tea and think about how much fun that was.

That’s quite a collaborative approach. Some authors, obviously, work very, very closely with an editor right from the beginning of the process. Is that just to get a different perspective or to — why does Marg do that, do you think?

I think it’s a sounding board. Her husband doesn’t read her work until it’s published. We’ve built up a good rapport when we’re working, I used to work on her books when I was at Harper Collins and then freelance after that. We’ve just built up a really good rapport. I guess you build trust. She trusts that I’m going to give her useful feedback, but I also trust that she is going to take that feedback, you know?


It is always quite scary when you send off your thoughts. If something’s not working, it’s always a bit scary to send of those thoughts to tell the author that. You kind of wait thinking, “Oh God, how are they going to respond?” It’s really, really exciting to have someone like Marg who just kind of absorbs it and goes, “Let’s find a new way to make this happen.” It’s really fantastic, and there are a few other authors that I work with like that as well that really like to — I think it depends on the author, I think it depends on their process. Some authors really like to work collaboratively like that and bounce ideas off each other. I mean they’re still doing work, like they’re the ones that actually make the words come out in the pages. They have a chance to talk it over, and kind of open it up, I suppose, like break open the manuscript in a way.

Then there’s other authors that send me the manuscript, I write my letter or my nights, and I send it back. I always have the option for a follow-up phone conversation. A lot of authors don’t necessarily want that, they’re quite happy to just work from the written notes. It depends on the author. I try and work with whatever the author wants to do, you know?

As a freelance editor, you also work with unpublished authors to get their manuscripts ready for submission. What are some of the things you’re seeing in those manuscripts over and over that need to be ironed out before the novel is ready to even submit?

Yeah, there are a few recurring issues. Point of view is sometimes problematic, so once you’re at fifty or so pages into the manuscript you can really tell when the author’s got control over the point of view framework. They know which characters are telling the story, and which characters are carrying the story and taking the reader with them. So, head hopping is one of those things, that I always try to help the author to fix.

Head hopping is when the point of view will change within a scene from one character to another, right?

Yeah, and often to insignificant characters, so the scene might be from the perspective of a main character, and then suddenly the author will dump into like the waitress’s head, if the main characters are in the restaurant, you know, having dinner.


It just creates this jarring effect, and you know, a lot of readers might not actually be able to say what it is that’s causing them to feel confused, but that’s often what it is. As a reader you’re trusting the author to have control over that kind of stuff, over the dynamics of telling the story. Head hopping is quite a common one.

Sometimes manuscripts are just too long. Sometimes I’ll get authors emailing me and they’ll say, “Well, my manuscript if 250,000 words,” and I just think, “Why?!” Really, I think 130,000 words is probably where you want to start thinking about how can you look at cutting it back. Sometimes there might be too many plotlines, the author’s just got too much going on in their manuscript, in the one manuscript. There might actually be three books, you know, packed into the one manuscript. Or if it’s historical, they’ll have really long descriptions about the clothes, or the food, or the historical backdrop, which really clogs up the story telling.

Telling is another really common problem, so where the author’s telling the reader what the characters are thinking and feeling, rather than letting that come through on the page. Often I find myself picking out key scenes and saying, “Can you dramatize this scene?” It’s really useful, I think, I hope it’s useful. I have this analogy of saying to the author, “Imagine that your characters are up on a stage, but instead of moving around and talking, you’re standing there reading this fiction to the audience, and the audience is looking at you as you tell them everything and the characters are standing there doing absolutely nothing. You want those characters to come alive, to start moving around on the page. Turning telling into showing, which is a bit of a cliché phrase, but it’s really important, it’s really important for how you tell a story.

Particularly with newer authors, who have maybe just completed their first manuscript or something, is having those conversations and learning how to take those editing notes and actually apply them, is that a skill that needs to be learned as well? Is that something that authors learn as they go, do you find? Are some people very, very good at being edited and some people not?

Yes. It’s really interesting when you work on a series. You work on book one and you give lots of feedback, then you get book two’s manuscript, however many months later, and you can really see whether the author has applied the things that you worked on in book one into book two, or are you going through the same things again and again. Some authors do that really well. That’s quite exciting as an editor, you go, “Oh, that’s so great.” The manuscripts get better and better each time they send them in.

Then there are other authors who just never seem to get it. I don’t know why that is, I don’t know if that’s because they’re not very good at — I guess some people are good at reading instructions and then applying them, in a practical sense. And some people are just hopeless at that. Maybe that’s a similar kind of process, or maybe they just can’t see the things in their own work. I mean some people are good at analyzing other people’s work, but they’re not necessarily good at being able to see those problems in their own manuscript.

I shouldn’t really say this, but sometimes I think people are just a bit lazy. If they get used to being edited and they get used to the editor really helping them to turn the manuscript into something better… I guess if you’re really busy and you’re writing a lot of books and you don’t have a lot of time it might be quite tempting to just go, “You know what…” in fact, I’ve heard authors say, “My editor will fix that. Ideally, it’s always nicest to work with people who do learn and do apply things, because then the manuscript is getting better in a crafted way. It means they can do more exciting things above that, if you know what I mean. They can bend the rules or they can break them or do really interesting things, whereas if you’re still doing the fundamentals of just getting the story to work you don’t have as much of a launching pad, I suppose, for new stuff.

I always find that phrase ‘my editor will fix that’ to be quite funny, because in my experience the editor picks out the problem and then the author has to fix it. So, I don’t see…

Well, yes, ideally.

If you can, try to fix it in the first place.

Yeah. I guess it depends on the types of problems. I guess those things come up more when you’re editing for the publisher. The publisher might want a particular type of book, and maybe the author hasn’t written that type of book, so a lot of the editing process might be about helping the author to turn what they’ve written into something different and then that would go through the different stages of the process, so you do work a structural stage, you do more work at copy editing stage, and you might even do more work at proof reading.

Can you tell immediately if you have a book in your hands that publishers are going to want, if you’re looking at perhaps a new author’s manuscript getting ready for submission?

Oh, I wish I could. I’d be some kind of super agent if I could do that.

Yes, I wish you could too.

I can tell if a manuscript has a really strong voice, and I can tell if it’s working really well and all of the elements are in place, but, unfortunately, that’s not always enough to get a book published. There are all kinds of reasons why a book might be appealing to a publishing company. It might be more to do with the author, whether it’s more marketable than it has to do with the author’s writing skills. Or the publisher might be looking for books in a particular genre and this particular manuscript just doesn’t fit in with what they want at the moment.

I think most people who work in publishing or certainly in editorial would say they’ve noticed in the last ten to fifteen years there’s been a real shift towards less risk. The publishers aren't as willing to take a risk on something that doesn’t easily fit into a category or might be a bit out there in terms of the content, or is difficult, it is not an easy read, so it’s going to challenge readers. They’re just not as prepared to take those risks, those kinds of books often end up with a smaller independent presses that are prepared to take those risks because they don’t have to publish as many books as the large publishing company does. The large houses, they usually have a cut off point for print runs. So if they don’t think a book is going to sell 10,000, I’m just pulling this number out of my head, 10,000 copies they won’t do it because it doesn’t work out to be commercially viable for them, whereas a smaller press might have much lower print run capacity — they’re willing to go with a smaller print run and invest more in marketing, promoting a book. Or they want to have a list that does different kinds of fiction, they might be willing to build a list that does challenge readers rather than something that’s very mainstream and very commercial.

That’s a really hard thing, when authors send me their manuscripts and they say, “I want to submit it to a publisher, do you think it’s good enough to be published?” It’s really hard for me to answer that question. All I can do really is help them get it to a publishable standard, but then it’s really luck whether it gets picked up or not. Some manuscripts do, I’ve had quite a few authors who have gone onto get published, but then there are others who’s work I think is really great and they just haven’t been picked up.

There’s a new avenue now for authors who don’t end up getting traditionally published, I certainly find that it’s much easier to talk to authors about their work — they’re not a failure, I suppose, it’s not like there’s only one path now and if you don’t get picked up by a publisher you’re a failure, that’s not true. You can go on and be very successful by self-publishing. That’s really opened that up for me, it makes me feel more able to be encouraging.

Which is great. It brings us neatly to the next part of our interview, because as you say self-publishing or indie publishing is very much an avenue for people now. I think that one thing that has come out of the last couple of years of people’s experiences with e-publishing and indie publishing is that the realization that just because you self-publish doesn’t mean that you don’t need an editor. We’re seeing a lot more people talking about the importance of that, and you’re part of a new endeavor called ebookedit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ebookedit is a service where the authors sends us their manuscript and we can edit it for them and convert the Word document to epub and mobi files, which they can either upload to etailers like Amazon and Smashwords, or they can sell through their own website.

We’ve tried to make it as flexible as possible, so it’s up to the authors which services they want to choose. For example, they might have a structural edit only, and then go straight to the file conversions, or they might have a structural edit and a copy edit, and then use someone else for file conversion. Or they might come to us just for the file conversions and they already have the manuscript edited somewhere else, or they’ve chosen not to have it edited at all.

The idea is the author gets flexibility, but the main thing for us is that the author retains complete ownership of the text and control over how they sell the book. Ebookedit isn’t a publisher, it’s a facilitator, I suppose.

An assistance program?

Yeah, an assistance program, exactly. I just feel really strongly about that idea of the author having control when it comes to self-publishing. There are companies that provide self-publishing services to authors, they’ll give you the ISBN, they’ll upload the files for you, they’ll organize the design, and they’ll do some marketing as well, which is great, if you don’t want to take control of all of those things yourself, but if you — they set the price, so it means you don’t have control over the pricing strategies, they also charge you if you want to use books for the promotional copies. If you want to send books to reviewers, or you go to an event and you want to have books there to sell to readers you have to pay for those. It’s a little bit like the arrangement with a traditional publisher.

We didn’t really want to get involved in that kind of thing, we just wanted to help the author make the product, make a good, high-quality product, and then hand everything over to them at the end of the production process and they get to make all of the decisions about how much the book is going to cost, changing the pricing if they want to, working out the promotion strategy, where they’re going to sell it, what they’re going to give away for free, all of that kind of stuff. Yeah, I guess it’s a little bit different in that respect.

Given that, people have talked about the benefits of indie authors working with professional editors, if someone does come to you for a structural edit or perhaps a copy edit would you tell that author, like as a professional editor, if you didn’t feel their work was ready for publication?

Yes, absolutely. I think that’s so important. It works both ways, so obviously if an author submit to a traditional publisher I’ll tell them it’s not ready, because you only get one chance and that kind of thing. It’s just as important for indie authors, I think. I mean if you value the editing process anyway it’s not really to your benefit for someone to just tell you your work is fantastic when it isn’t, you’re paying that person to read your manuscript anyway and give you professional feedback. It’s really important that what they’re giving you is true feedback and honest feedback. I mean it has to be given in a constructive way. Sometimes people send me their manuscript and they say, “Just tell me if I’m wasting my time.” I just think, “There’s no way I’m ever going to say that to you,” because it’s never a waste of time with writing, you always get something out of the process, even if the manuscript doesn’t get published.

The author doesn’t have to take my advice. I give my advice and it’s up to them whether they want to actually implement those changes or not. If they don’t, that’s fine, it’s their book, it’s their decision.

If I’ve a done a structural edit with someone and they haven’t changed anything at all, and then they want me to do a copy edit, I think I’d find that quite hard, because all of the problems would still be in the manuscript and I wouldn’t really be able to do a very good job on the copy edit if the big problems haven’t been fixed. In that case I would probably recommend they don’t have a copy edit at all and just go straight to file conversion, or maybe it would be better for them to work with another editor who doesn’t feel the same way about the manuscript as I do. You want to do a good job, you want to do the best job you can for an author. If they don’t want to do that as well, then it’s probably not going to make for a great working relationship. That’s never happened so far.

It is always quite amazing to me that people ask for feedback on a manuscript, I might often be telling them that they need to go away and rewrite it completely and they will happily do that, and pay me for that advice. Then come back and ask me to read the revised draft and then want to work with me again on the copy edit. I guess I must be doing something right if people keep coming back. I think that it’s a question of integrity, isn’t it? I can’t do my job properly if I’m not able to be truthful about what I think about a work, and that’s an objective opinion, it’s based on years of experience of reading and editing, it’s not as if I’m just reading it subjectively and saying, “I don’t like that because I don’t like people who eat fish…” or something, you know?

How many clients do you work with each year on average?

I have to think about that, probably between 50-60, but some of those might be repeat clients. As I said, I’ll do a structural edit and the author might send the manuscript back to me to read the revised draft. Some of those clients are publishers as well. So the client is a publisher, even though I might work with several different authors within that one client group.

It’s also a mix of structural editing and copy editing. There would probably be about 65 percent structural and 35 percent copy editing, at the moment.

What sort of costs are people looking at if they want to work with ebookedit?

One of the things that was really important to me was to put our costs up on the website. I really hate it when you go and have a look at a website and they don’t tell you how much anything costs and you have to email to get a quote. I just hate it and I won’t do it. I won’t go with that company. I had a look around when I was thinking of setting up ebookedit and quite a lot of people don’t tell you want their rates are. That was important to me, so I put the rates up.

It’s from $70 an hour for structural editing and $65 an hour for copy editing. Obviously, the higher the word count the longer the manuscript and the longer it takes to read. For a structural edit we’ve kind of put together some maximum fee guidelines. A manuscript that’s 80,000 has a maximum fee of $1,200 for a structural edit, but that maximum fee is the absolute most an author is going to pay. I keep a timesheet when I’m editing and I only charge for time spent, so even though we’ve set the maximum fee of $1,200 it might actually come in at $750, depending on how much work is required.

Copy editing takes a lot longer because it’s much more intensive work, so that costs more. I’ve got a couple of examples, again, I’ve got estimates up on the website. I always edit a sample chapter when I’m putting together a quote for an author for copy edit, so that gives me a much better idea of what the author’s writing is like, the kinds of things that are going to come up in the edit, so I can make that quote much closer to how long it’s really going to take me to do the copy edit.

Recently I did a copy edit on a 90,000 word novel, it took me 28 hours, that cost the author $1,820. I did another one that was 95,000 and that took me 52 hours, so that was a lot longer, even though it was only 5,000 words more, but I actually quoted the author for 42 hours, so that what I charged him, so that came in at $2730.

I know it’s a lot of money, so I’m really conscious of trying to keep the costs down. I’m also conscious that my rates are probably higher than a lot of other copy editors out there, but I’ve got a lot of experience and the way I work with an author is — I really try to leave as much decision-making as possible in the hands of the author. When I do a copy edit I ask lots of questions and suggest things that could be cut, or suggest changes and leave it up to the author to make the final decision. I don’t just go in there and rewrite the text, or —

With a red pen?

Exactly. Well, I edit on the screen, it’s not, you know…

Yeah, it’s exactly that idea. I don’t just go in and impose my own preferences on the text. But, when you edit that way it does take longer, so if I did do it, just the slash and burn kind of edit, it probably would be cheaper for the author, but they might feel bruised.

Yes, they might — they would feel bruised, trust me.

Yeah. I guess that’s why it’s important for us to be flexible. Somebody might say, “Well, I’ll have a structural edit with you, but I’d rather use a cheaper copy editor,” and I’m really happy to recommend other copy editors.


I just think the main thing is that they’re experienced and they’re experienced in the genre that the author is working. I know there are people who charge less per hour than I do, and that’s fine. If an author wants to work with them I’m really happy to do that. I just think the important thing for me is that the author is getting value for money. If they feel they would get that with a cheaper editor then that’s fine.

The file conversions are a flat fee, so they’re tiered according to word count. If a manuscript is 80,000 words it’s $149 to convert to epub and mobi files, and then it goes up to $199 for manuscripts up to 150,000 words.

We’ll put the website in the show notes that outlines all of that stuff as well, so that people can get an idea. As you say, I think there’s a lot of — there’s not a lot of hard information about costs and things out there, so people may be looking indie publishing and have no idea exactly how much it’s going to cost them to do a professional job like that. I’ll put those in the show notes.

The costs do add up. There’s no getting away from that, they do. But, I suppose the advantage is that you get a higher percentage of the sale price when you actually sell the book, with traditional publishing the standard is 10 percent.

That brings us to my next point, as a person who’s been in the industry for a long time you have seen the changes in the expectation on the author to sell their own product, would you agree with that? Is there more expectation that an author will help?

Yeah, very much so. I went a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival which was on that, on how authors are expected to promote their own work so much more these days than they were just four or five years ago.

I think you’re expected to have an author platform, lots of online presence, whether that’s a website, or a blog, or you’re on Twitter or Pinterest. You’re expected to be really active and out there, so that when readers come across your book they can google you and find out more information about you and other books you’ve published or your personal history. The onus is on authors to do that, definitely, even when they’re being traditionally published.

The more successful the author, the more publishing companies are going to invest in marketing, promotion of their book. For most authors the marketing spend is pretty small. I was listening to your conversation with John Purcell from Booktopia. He was talking about the way he sees how the books are promoted from the other side, from the bookseller. I think a lot of first time authors, in particular, are often disappointed by how their book is marketed. It can really disappear, there are so many new titles coming out each month, it’s really easy for their book to just disappear.

When they take on that process themselves, or if they choose to self-publish, I mean it’s a lot of work. I mean I think that’s what authors who have been traditionally published realized if they do their own book they realize how much work actually goes on behind the scenes. You just ring people up and contacting people online and whatever. It is hard work and it can be daunting when you don’t know anything about how to industry works or who to approach. But, there is a lot of information for indie authors out there already. There’s lots of fantastic websites and articles on independent publishing. We have a resources page on ebookedit’s website which has a long list of links to articles on different topics like design and marketing and selling, and how to promote your book, winning competitions, doing blog posts, you can do digital signings, things like that. There’s lots of things you can do, but you do have to be prepared as an indie author to actually do that research and then get out there and do the hard work yourself.

Would that be your first tip for authors who want to self-publish? Like, you need to do the research and you need to be prepared to do that work?

Yeah, I think you definitely need to do the research before you even engage an editor, or look at getting someone to do your file conversion. You need to understand what’s involved in the process, you need to understand how etailers work, and where you can sell your book, the different options of selling your book and how to produce it, how to get your cover done, print on demand options — there’s a lot. There’s a lot to think about. I think it’s a certain kind of person who makes a successful indie author, somebody who really believes in what they’re selling, what they’re writing, but also has the confidence to go out and do that kind of thing, and the energy, I suppose.

Yes, and the time.

Yeah, it is a full time job. I mean it’s a full time job being a writer anyway, even if you’re not writing full time. When you publish with a traditional publisher you’re expected to put in a lot of work in a quite short timeframe often, without any reference to the fact that you might have a full time job doing something completely different, or you’ve got a family, or whatever.

Yeah, I think any type of publishing does involve a lot of energy and time. But, yeah, I guess as an indie author you really need to go that extra mile, I suppose.

Fantastic. All right, Nicola. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been really, really interesting and you’ve given us a whole lot of food for though there. Thanks very much.

I will put, of course, all of the links to websites, I’ll also link to the John Purcell podcast interview that we were discussing, I’ll link you through to that one as well, because, for me, that was quite an eye-opening discussion from the bookseller perspective.

Yeah, that was really interesting.

I think everyone should have a listen to that.

Thanks again, Nicola. It was really, really great to talk to you.
My pleasure. Thanks very much.


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