Using Readers as Unpaid Proofreaders

And why this is a Very Bad Thing …

There are self-publishing authors out there who take the publishing process seriously enough to pay – PAY – for a proofreader. Proofreaders are not cheap, but they are an essential part of the publishing process – can you imagine Hodder or Penguin sending a book to print without having it professionally proofed?

There are other self-publishing authors who don’t. Pay, that is. They still manage to get their books proofed though, but cleverly they get it done for free. How, you ask? What is this amazing tip which saves you at least £300 and puts you into profit so much sooner? It’s called publishing your book as it is and then asking readers to let you know if they find any errors.

These aren’t Beta readers, mind. These aren’t people participating voluntarily in a blogosphere community of reviews and comments. These are readers who have downloaded and paid for a book, and are, it’s reasonably safe to assume, expecting a book that has already been corrected of all but the tiniest and hardest to spot mistakes. (I say this as even after having my own book professionally proofread I found two minor errors on my gazillionth read-through. They can, and do, slip through the net – proofreaders are only human.)

These readers are not there to act as a free proofreading service. Yes, it’s lovely of them to let you know if they find an error, and of course, the nature of Kindle allows us to update and revise a book based on this feedback. But I would urge – Urge! – self-publishing authors to pay for a professional proofread before uploading their book. I know I won’t make many friends like this, and I know I keep harking on about it, but Come On Guys … Let’s make those mainstream publishers and booksellers sit up and take us seriously. By being as good as, if not better than, them.


Filed under Self-publishing

26 responses to “Using Readers as Unpaid Proofreaders

  1. And you’d be surprised how many professional publishers seem to be less circumspect about proofreading on ebooks than they are with paperbacks. I don’t understand why!

    • No, you’re right! I read an ebook which had obviously been scanned in, and the language conversion software was rubbish! Perm Station instead of Penn Station, for example. Laughable x

  2. And of course, we should ignore the third way, which is to use qualified, conscientious beta readers who are willing to do it for free. I’m getting somewhat tired of people beating the drum for pay, pay, pay. There are many of us who can’t afford to pay, unless we think proofreading is more important than eating. But we would never sink so low as to make paid customers do the work for us. Believe it or not, there are people who do enjoy tasks like proofreading, but it takes work (just like every other area of writing) to find them.

    • Hi Cantana,
      Thanks for your comments. Far from ignoring wonderful beta readers, if you read the post again you’ll see I wrote “These aren’t Beta readers, mind. These aren’t people participating voluntarily in a blogosphere community of reviews and comments.” I agree 100% that qualified, conscientious beta readers who have agreed to proofread one’s work are worth their weight in gold! It should be crystal clear, however, that I am talking about authors who have demonstrably not used any type of proofreading prior to the book’s publication, but are instead using readers as an unpaid and involuntary proofing service.
      You’re getting tired of people beating the drum for pay, pay, pay? I don’t belong to some secret society to promote the cause of impoverished proofreaders – I merely want to see self-published books put up for sale to the same quality as traditionally published books. If an author can get this done gratis, fabarooney. In my humble opinion, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
      As for proofreading being more important than eating … I’m scratching my chin and thinking … yes, actually, it is. If you want to be a published author, if you want to, in the words of Mark Coker, ‘honour your readers’, then it certainly should be at the very top of the list.

      • Thank you. I’m afraid I let a knee-jerk reaction get out before I could call a halt. I’m a fanatic about proofreading, but it’s mostly on my own shoulders. Whether it’s more important than eating — maybe that’s easy to misinterpret as a metaphor if you don’t live on the edge of poverty. And it’s a real dilemma for those writers who do care about quality, but aren’t able either to do their own editing or pay for it. I’m just fortunate that I have a background (aide to an English instructor) that stands me in good stead now that I’m a writer.

      • That’s OK :) You and your knee-jerk reactions are welcome on my blog anytime!

  3. Good points made – I’ve just noticed this on Twitter – thought you might be interested –

  4. I am lucky enough to be married to a professional editor who put his proofreading skills to work for free on my first book. I’m not sure our marriage will survive another round of that, however, so for my novel-in-progress I plan to either pay or explore a barter arrangement with another writer.

    And I agree about the lousy editing for e-books! I was dismayed to find more than a handful of errors in the electronic version of “The Hunger Games.” Not that the book’s intended audience would even have noticed. :-)

    • Hi Audrey,
      You are indeed very lucky! My husband’s a forensic psychologist and it would be so very useful if I wanted to write gritty, serial-killer crime fiction. Which I do not! I know nothing about The Hunger Games, but I’m slipping down the page now to pacify Emma …

  5. I think you’re right Jo. It’s not very professional publishing shoddy work in any format, especially if you want to be taken seriously, so proofreading should always be done before hand.

    I’m sorry Audrey, but what do you mean by this: “I was dismayed to find more than a handful of errors in the electronic version of “The Hunger Games.” Not that the book’s intended audience would even have noticed”…Are you saying that the targeted younger audience are incapable of detecting errors?

  6. Very true. Sorry, but if it meant what I thought it meant, it was a bit of a sweeping generalisation…

  7. Ok, here’s goes – head well and truly above the parapet… I’m a freelance proofreader and editor, who gets paid by authors (and academics, and publishers) to pick up errors in their work.

    I love my job, even though I only do it part-time, but one of the reasons I trained as an editor was because I got so UNBELIEVABLY FED UP with errors in published books – and not just e-books and self-pubbed works, either. At least once in every book I read I would throw it down in a rage because there was a typo, or a plot malfunction, or an apostrophe in the wrong place, or SOMETHING that dumped me out of the story.

    Part of my fury was that I felt the authors had been let down by their editors and publishers. Books should be the best that they can be, for everyone’s sake, and glaring errors simply make the author look bad and the publisher look amateurish.

    So now I offer my services to pick up these errors, working for self-publishing authors as well as publishing houses and universities. I still find errors in books I read for pleasure (in fact, I probably find more now!) but at least I’m doing my bit… Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s very difficult to edit one’s own work – you see what you intended to write, not always what you actually did write. As an author myself I know the incredible value of beta readers, but I also know that a professional eye can also make a huge difference to a manuscript.

    (And Audrey – I found more than a few errors in my paper copy of The Hunger Games, never mind the e-version…)

    Back below the parapet… :-)

    • Hi Louise,
      I just found your comment in my automatic spam filter so I’m sorry it hasn’t shown up before – thank goodness I always check so-called spam before I delete it! I think you’re absolutely right that the problem with errors is not the error itself, it’s the fact that it throws you out of the story with a bump! And that is so frustrating. I’ve often thought how nice it must be to be someone who didn’t notice things like badly placed apostrophes – you’d never have your reading experience destroyed so easily.
      Great that I’ve found some new proofreaders/editors by doing this post, and I hope some work comes your way x

  8. Hi Joanne!
    I can sympathize with every point made so far in the comments and in your post! Nothing ruffles my feathers more than discovering typos—especially in my own work!

    In my first day of Publications Production class, my teacher wrote this rule on the board:
    No matter how hard you try, there WILL be typos. (Just make them minimal)

    I’ve so far found that rule to be true for every project over one page long.

    Other experiences:
    -During each and every one of my professional editing classes, we found (usually major) mistakes in the instruction books due to typographical errors.
    -When one editor is completely lost, another editor thrives (and the lost one won’t tell you).
    -A good editor seems to maim your work (but it’s better for it).
    -The best editing doesn’t have to do with apostrophes and commas, it’s about getting the story right.

    I love to see a well copy-edited book, but what really annoys me is when that is all the editing that happens. Jo, I think you’ve done enough workshops to understand what I mean here (so this doesn’t apply directly to you), but what really, really irks me is when there is an opportunity to build the plot with one sentence or add tension by swapping the order of two paragraphs, and it doesn’t happen. Sometimes, telling a story is like telling a joke. Get the order wrong, or say everything to grammatical perfection, and the whole joke falls flat and is ruined. So what if you have to break a grammar rule to make a knock-knock joke? Same deal with books. I feel like recently, editing for grammar is the only thing that’s been happening with several mainstream novels I’ve read.

    Sorry, long comment! But we’re talking about editing, and I’m a little passionate about that. I hope you understand what I mean about content editing as well as copy editing.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Yes! I agree wholeheartedly. There are some things that do have to be correct, but other rules are fine to break if you know what you’re doing and the effect you’re trying to achieve. It’s the typos that need weeding out – and I would also add that consistent formatting (or the lack of) is one of my personal bugbears. Mind you, having produced a Kindle book myself, I know how hard it is to get the Kindle version to ‘look’ right, so I’m a bit less critical now :) x

  9. Susan Buchanan

    hi Jo – couldn’t agree more with your comment about writers proactively asking readers to correct their errors. How amateur is that? On the various interviews I have given to date, I have always stipulated, have your work proofread/corrected/edited to within an inch of its life, if you want to be taken seriously. I do some beta read work too, as I enjoy it, but like you say, you can’t expect paying readers to be a subsitute for betas. Great post. Sooz

    • Thanks Sooz, personally I’m rubbish at proofreading. I’d be happy to do beta-reading for plot structure, characterisation etc but proofing? Not my bag :) I could fill a book with all the typos and missing words and spelling mistakes I’ve made in my own novels so far. And when it’s your own work you’re even less likely to see it! x

  10. May I just make a really precise and probably too-picky comment that what most people think of as “proof-reading” is in fact editing? Editors are the ones who can do anything from a line edit (picking out grammatical, spelling, word choice, etc. errors) to substantive editing (pulling the whole thing apart, suggesting changes to character development, etc.). As a side note, most of us charge different amounts for those kinds of service, so if you are just keen on not embarrassing yourself, you can go for the cheaper line edit.
    A proof-reader, on the other hand, will check your book as it’s ready to go to print (or electronic print), making sure all the page numbers are there, there aren’t any instances of a word left all on its own on the top of a page, etc. This is less necessary for e-books, of course, as Kindle resizes every page according to the type size the reader has requested, etc. But it is necessary if you’re doing a pdf version of your book.
    And most decent editors will nowadays offer a different, reduced rate for individuals who are self-publishing.
    On typos in one’s own work, as a paid editor, proof-reader and writer, I can tell you that I can guarantee to have at least one typo per handful of blog posts on my own blog! So do get a fresh pair of eyes to check your work.
    If you’re interested in the difference between editing and proof-reading, I have written a blog article on this subject (I promise I’m telling you this to be helpful rather than to evilly drive you to my blog and force you to buy my services!)

    • Hi Liz,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s a bit tomato/tomato it seems – I know my own proofreader calls what she did for me proofreading but in effect it was more of a line-by-line copy edit. I think the most important thing, as you so rightly point out, is for the service user (writer) to know the difference so they know what level of service they need, and then to be able to ask the right questions to make sure they are getting exactly what they need to make thier book the best it can be – on the budget they have. Love your site, thanks for the link,


      • Thank you for your reply, Jo, and I’m glad you liked my site. I call it “proof-reading”, to be honest, if the client does, although I explain up front what I’m going to do and make sure we both understand the parameters of the project and my input into it. There are decent editors like me among the people and sites that profit from novice writers (it’s even worse in the world of student proof-reading!) and a good, reputable editor will take the time to answer your questions, reassure you, and provide a price quotation up front. If they don’t, have a look for someone else! A good editor, even if they’re fully booked, should always be able to recommend you to a colleague, too.

  11. Hello Joanne,
    Thank you for the timely and down-to-earth blog. I am an Australian-based accredited editor (there is an accreditation scheme for editors in Australia, developed and implemented by IPEd). I have mixed feelings about this issue. I am fascinated by the developments in book publishing; it is exciting, but also slightly scary. I support both traditional publishing and self-publishing (and e-books, whether published by authors or traditional publishers); however, I do hope that we continue to ensure that e-books are well edited and proofread. I think readers deserve it.
    I have shared your blog on my Facebook page:

    • Hi Wendy,
      So good to meet you on here, and thanks again for sharing my blog on your Facebook page. I’ve been along and liked it and left a little comment too :) I think you sum the issue up, really, when you say that readers deserve it. That is my view in a nutshell x

  12. Pingback: I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts lately « Estherlou's Blog

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