I employed Kirkus Editorial, the editing wing of Kirkus Reviews Author Services, to edit my novella, To Thee is This World Given, in December 2014.
I chose Kirkus Editorial to edit To Thee is This World Given both because of the reputation of the Kirkus brand and because I could not find any negative reviews from those who had used the service (to be honest, I did not find any reviews of Kirkus Editorial at all; I did, however, find reviews of Kirkus Reviews’ pay-for-review service for independent authors and micropresses from Alli and Michel Sauret— both discouraging others from using their service).
The idea that the Kirkus Editorial staff would provide oversight and trouble-shooting in the editorial process appealed to me. But in hindsight, I realize that assuming this would be the role they would play was my projection of the role I hoped they would play, rather than the role they advertised they would play.
Reviewing their website in light of my experience, I concede that the only service they claim to provide is to job manuscripts out to an free-lance editors and collect the fees for the service.
My first word to the wise — at no time in the editorial process with Kirkus Editorial are you allowed to know who is editing your manuscript or what their credentials are, nor are you allowed a new editor if you feel uncomfortable with the assigned editor’s abilities.
My second word to the wise — Kirkus Editorial is part a family of services created by a company that does not give the customers of these services equal treatment and the same level of respect it gives others in the world of publishing.
My third word to the wise — the “Big 5” is not an employer. An editor may have done work for particular houses and imprints that make up the “Big 5,” but if they have, they will likely say that they have worked for such-and-such house or imprint, not the amorphous “Big 5.”
Before I continue, I want to share some of the comments the editors at Kirkus made about To Thee is This World Given, to assure you that my account is not simply a case of sour grapes. The response I received from both editors was overwhelmingly positive:
“The descriptions are visceral and sensory”
“The dialog is generally outstanding”
“The characters are vivid and believable”
“The story’s pacing is excellent”
“The zombie element is handled with great skill”
“Brilliantly imagined and skillfully executed”
I opted to go with Kirkus Editorial’s three stage pro-package.
This package begins with “collaborative” editing. I assumed that this was their name for substantive line-editing, but this is not what they provided. The manuscript received a very light edit, similar to what one expects from a beta reader. In fact, the editor did not catch anything more than my two betas did. And in the case of one of my betas, she caught substantially more than Kirkus Editorial’s first round editor did.
Particularly troubling was that the editor failed to catch a series of continuity errors that ran over 3-4 pages in the last chapter, nor did he catch point of view lapses that occurred throughout the story, including a lengthy lapse in chapter 2. I had specifically requested that the manuscript be read for this because To Thee is This World Given is written in third person objective, which is a very strict, difficult point of view to write in, making it easy to slip out of (there can be absolutely no “telling”).
Also troubling, the editor changed all of the “laids” to “lay.” By doing so, he was only exchanging one incorrect word for another. Both “laid” and “lay” are versions of “to put or place.” In all instances in question, the action being performed was reclining, so the correct word was “lie,” as in “lie back.” Admittedly, I had made the same mistake, but this was exactly why I had hired an outside editor.
[For a quick and easy reference guide on the proper usage of “lie” and “lay,” see my post here. ]
The 2nd phase of Kirkus Editorial’s pro-package is the copyediting phase. After making the changes from the first round of edits, you submit the updated text for copyediting.
What one expects from copyediting is pretty straightforward — a manuscript returned with primarily mechanical mark-ups, i.e. punctuation, dropped/transposed/repeated words, grammar and usage errors etc. What was returned, however, was a very lightly edited manuscript with bizarre, highly questionable edits and very few true copyedits.
As with the first editor, the copyeditor did not know the proper usage of “lie” and “lay.” This editor changed the “lays” back to “laids,” thereby altering the tense, but not the action of “putting” in situations where the intended action was “reclining.”
Additionally, the copyeditor missed obvious mistakes, such as where the word “shadowing” was used where “shadows” was clearly intended (ex. “their shadowing ran ahead of them”). Yet while missing obvious errors, the editor made inexplicable changes, such as inserting dialog tags and filler words; changing active, “showing,” sentences into passive, “telling,” sentences; inserting sentences that popped a given section out of the 3rd person objective into the 3rd person subjective; and insisting on the incorrect usage of various words.
I contacted Kirkus Editorial about these problems, along with my concerns that the copyeditor was not competent, very quickly — only twenty-three pages into my review, and before I had reached the end of the 2nd chapter. The Director of Kirkus Editorial stood by every edit, insisting that each was correct. The Director’s responses were dismissive — always some version of “if you don’t like it ‘stet it’ or reject it.” Her responses were also tone deaf — I hadn’t voiced my concerns because I “didn’t like the edits,” I did so because I wanted my manuscript to be edited properly, rigorously, and thoroughly. My concern was that based on the copyedits made, the assigned copyeditor did not possess the skills necessary to do this.
Of particular concern to me, because the point of view the story is written in is so critical to the story itself, was the Director’s response regarding the insertions that changed the point view. Her response strongly suggested that she did not understand the difference between the two types of third person points of view and that she was not able to discern the difference between a “telling” sentence and a “showing” sentence.
The final round of editing in Kirkus Editorial’s pro-package is called the “final polish.” My manuscript did not go through the final polish, so I cannot comment on what it entails.
At no point did Kirkus Editorial acknowledge my concerns as legitimate. After contacting them a second time with additional problems I uncovered by the half way point in the story, the Director offered me a nominal refund for the final, 3rd stage of editing, which had yet to take place, and let me know that I could go find another editor somewhere else. I declined the refund and the “opportunity” to find another editor due to impending deadlines of which she was aware.
In the same communication in which I declined the refund and the “opportunity” to locate a new editor, I informed the Director of Kirkus Editorial that the copyeditor, whom she was defending as “one the best, who had worked with the Big 5,” did not know the proper usage of “lie” and “lay.” The next communication was an email from another individual at Kirkus Editorial summarily terminating my contract and refunding me $1,000.00 of the $1,500.00 I had paid.
At no time did I ask to terminate my contract or receive a refund. In fact, I expressed my desire to continue on to the 3rd and final stage due to my quickly approaching production deadlines. I expressed my hope that between the copyedits that were made, my own review, and the final round of editing, all of the errors would be located.
A thousand dollars is a lot of money, and while it was nice to suddenly have it back, what I needed and what I wanted and what I paid for was top-notch professional editing, and I did not get that. Throughout, the attitude of the Director of Kirkus Editorial came across as patronizing and condescending. She appeared to have disdain for micropresses and independent authors, and she appeared have assumed she was talking to a thin-skinned rube with hurt feelings and bruised pride, not someone who had worked in the “Big 5” in the late 1990s.
In order to not forfeit my reservation on the typesetter’s production calendar (which would have required at least another six weeks to be re-slated), in the end I had to copyedit the manuscript myself, submit it to the typesetter, locate a proofreader, work with the proofreader to locate problems in the proof, along with any mistakes I missed during my rushed self-edit, make the changes, and pay to have the proof corrected.
The pubdate for To Thee Is This World Given was pushed back at least one month; I missed the deadline for the Writer’s Digest Book Contest; and I missed the window available to me for a reputable, not-for-fee, review. These are things that cannot be compensated monetarily.
Looking back on everything, I realize that one of my mistakes was not insisting on terminating the contract after receiving the disappointing 1st round of edits. I received them early enough in the process to have allowed me to seek a new editor and still make my deadlines.
But my ultimate mistake was in choosing a service that does not allow the customer to know anything at all about the person editing their manuscript. This was particularly galling in this instance given the appeal to “the Big 5” by the Director of Kirkus Editorial in her defense of her anonymous editor’s skills. I believe that one forfeits the right to extol the credentials of one’s staff or contractors when you refuse to release any information as to who they are.
I hope my experience helps you form an informed opinion about whether to use Kirkus Editorial for your editing needs. I am happy to provide copies of all of my communications with Kirkus Editorial, as well as the edited manuscripts and editorial reports.
While it is no replacement for a human editor, I highly recommend AutoCrit, an online editing program for works of fiction. You can read my full review of AutoCrit here. One thing AutoCrit can be helpful with, in addition to its editorial function, is in gauging a prospective editor’s skills. You could have the editor submit a short sample edit and compare it to AutocCrit’s sample. This is what I will be doing in the future. Additionally, I recommend my proofreader Chereese, who helped me at a moment’s call. She is affordable and pleasant to work with.
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