More and more writers are using editorial services - hardly surprising when in any one year there are apparently one million manuscripts trying to find a publisher in the UK and two million in the US - but a full editorial report is very expensive, and I'm always anxious that writers should know what they're getting, and get what they need. So here are some thoughts, garnered from my own and other editors' experience, and from the many friends and students who've told me about the reports they've had.
First, it's never, ever essential to get one of these reports. All that's essential for you to write a publishable novel is you, a stack of paper, a pen and a very large library: your own or someone else's. And I'd always suggest that you take your work as far as you can on your own, and only seek feedback when you're stuck. I do understand the desire for an early 'Is this worth pursuing?' kind of feedback, but if you're still unsure what kind of a beast it is yourself, then you're not in such a good position to decide what to do with the feedback you get.
And no, an editorial report can't get you published. But then nothing can, except writing a book which a commercial publishing company thinks will earn enough money to make it worth it, and then finding an agent who thinks that and knows which publishers will too. Editorial reports are one way to help you write that book, while talent, hard work, perseverance and luck have even more to do with it.
SOME GENERAL THINGS TO THINK ABOUT, when you're considering a particular editorial agency. If you can't find the information on the website, then ring them up.
Who are their editors? Good publishers' editors are wonderful, but busy: 'a publishing professional' may be an editorial assistant (though maybe a star editor-in-the-making), a literary agent's assistant, or from the marketing department. And the focus may be different: there are lots of things which agents and publishers say about a book which are perfectly true, and perfectly unhelpful to the writer, because publishing is about product. But, as all published and unpublished writers know, writing is all about process: what you're looking for is help with the process of making it a better book. Writers are ideal in many ways because they know the fine detail of reverse engineering - how to work backwards from the problem on the page, towards what to do instead - and of course many writers are also teachers of writing and used to communicating it. But it doesn't go without saying: all writers will be able to say what they would do with the problem on the page, but not all are so good at offering you a range of solutions, and ways to think about it, so that you can find your way. (Mind you, that's true of editors too.)
How long will the report be? Roughly how much about the book and how much about the market for the book? How long will it take? A few weeks is reasonable, several months is not.
Can you talk to the agency about what you need and whether they can supply it? Can they do that, or do they have a one-size-fits-all approach? If they're not helpful and friendly, as well as sensible and professional, then you don't want to give them your money, let alone your writing.
What is being offered? Is it possible to follow up on a report, either with a query, or with a proper conversation by email, or better still by phone? An editor makes their best estimate from the manuscript of, for example, how much technical vocabulary to use, but it can only be a guess (I've had people who needed show/tell explained in detail, I've had people who didn't need 'prolepsis' defined...) so there will always be things in the report which you could do with asking about, as well as some things which you'd like to discuss in more detail, or an idea of a solution to a problem which you'd like to fly by the editor.
Do they have relationships with literary agencies, if they think your book might be ready for that? 99.99% of manuscripts any editorial agency sees are nowhere near ready, but you never know. An editorial agency's reputation is on the line when they send a book on, so if they've got any sense they only send on the ones which they're confident are fantastic. That means that a literary agent will really read it properly. You must make sure, though, that you understand the basis on which this is done. First: do they insist on controlling all your submissions? I'd be very wary of an editorial agency who did this, because it's one thing to make use of their links to literary agencies, but quite another to find yourself restricted from doing what you choose to do with your own work. And how is it all paid for? This process costs the agency time and money, and most of the editorial agencies get a small finder's bonus from the literary agency if the latter take a book on, and another if it actually sells to a publisher. Some may charge the writer a further fee for this further process. And at least one takes a percentage of the writer's advance if it sells, which is a very different thing.And if you're really feeling cheeky, you could ask how much of what you pay goes to the editor - though they may well not tell you. With many agencies, the editor only gets 1/3rd of what you pay, with others it's 2/3rds. We really want to help, but we do also have to eat: we juggle this work with all the other bits and pieces we do to pay the mortgage, since, as Hilary Mantel said at the Booker the other night, writing novels alone certainly doesn't. What you're paying for is the editor's time and experience, and to some degree you'll get what you pay for.
WHEN YOU'VE DECIDED TO USE AN AGENCY
Decide what you want the report to focus on, and make that clear in a covering letter (not just the 'here it is' email, which may not get forwarded to the editor). It's true that in some ways you want to know how the novel strikes the editor without, as it were, anticipating that. But it's hugely helpful to us to have a bit of a steer. Do you want to know how to make this book its own best self, or do you want to know how to make it fit the market? The two are very different goals. Do you want to know if you should give up on this book, or keep going? Do you want to know if your linked short stories work as something that would sell as a unit, or not? And so on.
Having said that, there's not very much point in an editor giving detailed tweaks to fit the genre demands of a very particular market, if the whole novel is nowhere near good enough to get the time of day from an agent: a good editor will discuss your concerns, but will also be very upfront about what they think the novel needs. We've all had the experience of a writer who is dreadfully worried about some aspect (characterisation, say) which is in fact absolutely fine: the characters are great, but the structure means there's a huge sag in the middle, and the prose really isn't up to scratch.
WHEN YOU GET THE REPORT
It hurts. It always does, even if they say lots of positive things. I don't know about you but, deep down, secretly, when I get feedback on my work I'm hoping that my agent or editor will tell me that it's completely wonderful and I don't need to change a word. Only it never happens, does it? And, actually, how much use would a report be if it did? So be aware that your first reaction may be furious resistance, especially if the editor has, sensibly, spent much of the report on what isn't working yet. I would suggest that you leave the report on your desk, and go to the pub. At least, that's what I do.
When you come back to it, bear in mind that, yes, it's one person's opinion. But it is an educated, informed opinion from someone (hopefully) with a knowledge of the craft of writing as well as how the book trade works. And you've paid for it. So try to read the report with an open mind. There are usually some 'Aha!' bits, as in 'Aha, they're right, though I hadn't seen it clearly.' And there are some bits which you just disagree with. You may well be right, but bear in mind that it could be the resistance talking. If you really feel that from top to bottom the editor has mistaken what kind of book it is, and based the whole report on that wrong assumption, then talk to the agency.
Equally, don't be so humbly grateful to have your work read and heard - and it IS a thrill to have several thousand words of professional attention directed at your work - that you meekly do everything it suggests even though part of you is screaming that it's killing the book.
If you do use an agency which offers follow-up contact by phone, have a think, before you talk, about what you want to ask. Even email a few outline questions first, perhaps? We engage deeply with your work, but if it's a few weeks since we wrote the report, your work will have had other books piled on top of it in our memories, and it takes a few minutes to bring yours back up to the top. And though it's tremendously important to digest the report and think it through first, if you're going to get the most out of such a conversation, don't leave it too long before you ask for that contact, because the longer you leave it, the less helpful an editor will be able to be.
In the end it's your book: as with any feedback, from anyone from your best mate to a copy-editor when the novel's in production, you have the choice: accept, adapt, ignore. Accept means 'Yes, they're right, I'll change it as they suggest.' Ignore means, 'Okay, but I think even a gently-bred Victorian lass would, actually, hit him. So the punch stays in.' Adapt is the interesting one. If someone you trust says something doesn't work, then you have to listen. For them, as a representative reader, it doesn't work: they're right, by definition, for them. But the solution they suggest may be completely wrong: they may suggest cutting it, when actually you need to do it better (go back and make the character's buried anger more apparent, so it's believable when she hits him). They may suggest a big family row when actually your character would drag his sole enemy to a lonely moor. One important thing about learning to be a writer is to learn to hear feedback fully and open-mindedly, judge the quality of the feedback not by whether it feels good but by whether it's useful and who's giving it, and learn to grow your own solutions.
A MORAL TALE
Sometimes I see a previous report on a novel that's come to me, and it can be stunning how much the writer has brought the book on with that feedback. But one report I did was the second of three by three different editors on the same book. There was a lot right with it, and a lot wrong: it had huge potential and huge flaws. I saw the other reports, and each one said the same things as the last. That writer had spent the best part of £1500 - half the cost of a Masters - and changed almost nothing each time. And s/he already had an MA in writing, so it wasn't lack of experience of how to deal with feedback. I can only assume that at some level s/he was deeply resisting the changes that s/he ostensibly wanted to make, so that each time s/he got back into it, a little voice was saying, 'But that's okay' and 'Well, it's got to be like that, hasn't it...' and s/he ended up waxing its legs, instead of doing major surgery. It was very frustrating, because it was one of the very rare books which was the beginnings of something which I could absolutely see on a bookshop table...