Originally published on artsHub.

With the Australian Society of Authors announcing a new service to support authors, we weigh up the costs of editorial guidance.

After countless hours toiling away on a manuscript, many would-be authors might think the hard work is done – it’s not. As difficult as a first draft is, the path to publishing is an arduous one and the horizon remains elusive.

Like all travellers, you’ve got two options – go it alone or consult a guide. While you might know where you’re next headed – an agent or publisher – the path isn’t always clear, and taking the wrong turn can lead directly to a rejection slip.

Luckily the publishing industry is full of helpful sherpers who want you to reach the publishing peak. From some state writers centres, the Australian Society of Authors to private companies and freelance editors, there are as many guides as there are travel agents. However, along the way there’s a lot of shysters as well.

A manuscript assessment service is provided to authors looking to cast a critical, objective eye over their work. Traditionally an editor or assessor will either provide proof, copy or structural editing, or all three, as well as further in-depth analysis, all depending on their services and the price you pay. So the announcement from the ASA isn’t exactly breaking new ground.

But let’s consider what they are offering. The recently announced Manuscript Development Service (MDS) allows authors to nominate a Developmental Editor from the Editors’ Register to work with them for an initial 20 hours. ‘Editors respond to specific questions from the author and prepare a report based on a comprehensive set of narrative principles,’ the ASA website states.

The MDS was developed in response to research conducted in 2010 that identified the need for a national manuscript development service, delivered by an independent organisation.

So far so good, and a quick glance at the editors on offer through the Editors’ Register reveals an experienced and reputable roster of helpers, which is incredibly important when navigating this particular aspect of writing.

After the initial 20 hours, which is Stage 1 of the service, writers can then nominate to follow through with Stage 2, a review of the manuscript following post-assessment development, and Stage 3, review of manuscript following further development.

Stage 1 will cost ASA members $1700 and $1750 for non-members, which is standard for 20 hours service. This is mandatory, but for stage 2 and 3, writers can nominate five ($575/$625), 10 ($950/$1000), 15 ($1325/$1375) or 20 hour blocks.

While Stage 1 would cost $1700, if you wanted the follow-up offered in Stages 2 and 3, and took the most basic package, you’d be looking at $2850 for ASA members and $3000 for non-members. The most in-depth and thus expensive packages would be $5100, for 60 hours service at $1700 per 20 hour block.

Of course, this is a very extensive option and would no-doubt assist greatly, and tailored packages are available.

Alternatively, if you purchased a manuscript assessment service through a state writers centre, you’d be paying different amounts for different services. Following the ASA’s guidelines for the MDS, we’ll consider the prices of manuscripts over or at 80,000 words. This is also the industry standard length for a novel.

Writers Victoria offers manuscript assessment for $480 for members and $540 for non-members, which isn’t bad value. Short manuscripts, children’s books and young adult fiction are charged at a lesser rate. The Tasmanian Writers Centre offers a range of manuscript assessments, with the book length work also costing $480. The NT Writers Centre is a little cheaper at $350 and $420 for non-members.

The Queensland Writers Centre (QWC) has a program called The Writer’s Surgery: 90 minute mentorships, which lets members discuss their projects with an editor for $150 (members). While this may seem low compared to the ASA deal, it’s actually a little more expensive per hour and doesn’t include manuscript appraisal or editing (the ASA hourly rate in the 20 hour block is $85). The QWC program is more manuscript guidance.

Similarly, the SA Writers Centre offers a half hour introductory manuscript appraisal for members. This only covers 10 pages of your writing as well as advice and feedback on synopses and cover letters. This is at a cost of $75.

The NSW Writers Centre offers a similar service. For $150 writers will sit down with an editor for one hour to look over 15 pages of writing, a synopsis and writing CV.

ACT Writers Centre follows suit and offers a report on 4500 words for $60 (members)/$110 (non-members), or a report and face-to-face session for $90/$140. Larger amounts of words are negotiable.

Writing WA doesn’t seem to offer the service, but has a lot of good information about finding assessors and appraisers.

You could engage a commercial service like Lynk Manuscript Assessment Service or the Manuscript Appraisal Agency. For a manuscript of 80,000 words, Lynk charges $410, while the Manuscript Appraisal Agency charges $700. Organisations like Varuna also offer writing development programs for $665.

Matt Dale of betareaders.com.au tells us that he usually charges an ‘hourly rate of around $40 and payment terms by chapter, so the author can see (and pay for) progress in real time’, which might be a more economical way for a writer to determine if they want to use the service without forking over a huge chunk of change.

The differences in services can be significant, so it’s worth comparing the level of services offered by each assessor and know where your dollars are going.

With the typical advance for a publishing deal in Australia sitting at around $4000, you’d be wise to carefully consider putting a large portion of that towards appraisal. Of course publishing a book is rarely done with riches in mind, so this kind of service may prove invaluable if it leads to publication.

On that note, know that a positive assessment doesn’t ensure publication. The QWC website sums up the situation succinctly:

A manuscript assessment is a paid, commercial service. It is unlikely you can use it as a “stamp of approval” when submitting to a publisher or literary agent. The very fact that you have paid for the assessment means publishers will mistrust the independence of the report. Publishers and literary agents are rarely, if ever, swayed by a manuscript assessment that accompanies an author’s submission.

This is backed up by a survey the ASA conducted in 1999 with 13 agents and seven publishers. The survey found that appraisals were ‘a vital link in the publishing industry chain’ by helping strengthen the writing of emerging talent, yet had ‘little effect on any chances of publication’. This report, available on the Writing WA website offers a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of appraisals.

Some private commercial assessors will list the books they’ve appraised that have gone on to secure publishing deals, but that doesn’t mean their assessment report has had any real bearing on the outcome, though they may have legitimately been helpful.

You also don’t necessarily need a professional appraisal. Allowing a handful of people to read your manuscript before sending it to an agent or publisher is the tactic many authors employ, whether they’ve been published before or not. This is always an option (but don’t give it to your parents), as is being involved in a writers group.

Still, having a professional looking at it isn’t a bad idea. These services exist for a reason, but they don’t ensure success, and some offer substandard feedback and analysis.

The ASA’s MDS also has another stipulation – it’s only open to people who have already published one full-length work. They told us that the MDS is only available to previously published authors, because many still find it difficult to sustain careers, despite a publication history.

‘We feel this service is particularly relevant to our members in the current industry climate. Shrinking budgets allow authors less time with their in-house editors, which can affect the quality, diversity and ultimately the saleability of their books.’

Emerging or unpublished writers are directed towards applying for the ASA’s mentorship program, which is another route for writers looking to advance their manuscripts. Programs that offer similar opportunities for manuscript development include the QWC Hachette Australia Manuscript development program, the Ray Koppe Young Writers Residency, OzCo’s JUMP mentoring grants, and countless other opportunities that pop up, either offering mentorships or assessment via competitions (so no cost). State writers centre usually inform people when these kinds of submissions are available via newsletters.

So is manuscript assessment worth it? It can be, but it can also be a large investment for little return. Like everything in publishing, it’s best to do your homework before sending anyone anything. The main consideration would have to be the person doing the assessment, cost and outcomes.

Also remember that most assessors are professional editors or writers themselves who deserve to get paid for their expertise, so while the costs can seem high, they can inevitably be invaluable.