No two editors are the same, but editorial roles fall into a handful of categories. If you’re wondering what kind of editor you need for your book project at this point in its life, I hope this list will be helpful!
Acquisitions Editors acquire manuscripts for a publishing house. They review manuscripts and proposals from authors and agents to evaluate the commercial potential of the book. Or they might approach authors to take on projects the organization wishes to publish. Acquisitions editors review manuscripts and proposals from a high-level perspective, focusing on marketability and fit.
Developmental Editors complete a thorough and in-depth review of your manuscript, aiming to improve content and structure. For a novel a developmental editor will focus on pacing, plot, characterization, and setting. For a nonfiction book a developmental editor will focus on clarity of argument, structure, and whether the tone and approach matches the intended audience. The developmental editorial process often includes a content edit (high-level and sometimes communicated via an editorial memo) and a line-edit (sentence by sentence, often with tracked changes).
In some publishing houses, your acquisitions editor will also be your developmental editor. In other cases, the person who acquires your manuscript will not be the person doing substantial editing of it. Be sure to ask!
Some authors choose to hire their own freelance developmental editors, either before pitching a manuscript to agents or publishing houses, or before self-publishing. If you go this route, make sure the editor you choose has experience working on books that have gone on to succeed in the arena you’re hoping your book will succeed (traditionally published versus self-published, in the proper genre, etc.). For nonfiction authors seeking to work with a traditional publisher, it may not be worth the investment to hire a developmental editor before querying. Your money and time might be better spent working with a coach who can help you hone your one-page pitch, than help you revise entire chapters. If you land a publisher, their own editorial team will want to shape the book to their own direction. Peer editors or writers group can be helpful avenues for low- or no-cost editorial help before querying.
Copyeditors check for and correct errors in grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation. Copyeditors ensure consistency of format, treatment of terms, etc., and may also fact check, check for copyright and permissions concerns, or flag other legal concerns like libel and defamation.
Proofreaders work with a manuscript after it has been typeset (and sometimes after a draft printed version has been created, known as a proof!). The proofreader’s job is to check for quality before the full print run is manufactured. While there is some overlap between proofreading and copyediting (a proofreader is trained to catch grammar mistakes, for example), the proofreader’s work is primarily focused on typography—line breaks, missing text, etc. If the proofreader is finding too many grammar mistakes, that may be a sign to pause and return the manuscript to a copyeditor for a more thorough edit.
Most traditional publishers put books through a multi-step editorial process, encompassing developmental/content edits. Copyedits, and proofreading. But some publishers have had to cut back on editorial services like proofreading. Be sure to ask whether these steps will be taken for your book.
Beta Readers are test readers who give feedback to the author from the point of view of an average reader. The key here is to find someone who typifies the reader you’re aiming to reach.
Sensitivity Readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language. Traditional publishers are starting to rely more and more on sensitivity readers, so be sure to include a discussion of hiring a sensitivity reader in your negotiation with a potential publisher.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of a peer editor or writers’ group. Reach out to other authors in the writing community and support each other! Trade manuscripts and offer feedback. Not only will this improve your manuscript, but it will help you build your network of connections in the publishing industry for when your book comes out.