Editing is expensive. There’s no denying it.
Just because I’m an editor, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that.
There have been countless times authors have asked me for a quote, and when they reply that the fee is more than they thought it would be, I can almost hear them cringing on the other side of the email.
I cringe, too.
Because I know professional editing costs a chunk of money. It’s probably one of the most expensive parts of the publishing process. But it’s also essential.
You probably envision editors rolling around in bank notes, laughing, after spending a short afternoon running a quick spell check on your manuscript. But I assure you – that really isn’t the case.
So, why is editing expensive?
Let me shed some light.
(Settle in with a cuppa. This may take a while …!)
What an editor can do for you
Before we go into the nitty-gritty of why editing is expensive, I’d like to just point out the value of editing, and why it’s considered such an essential part of the publishing process.
Hiring an editor is mandatory if you want to self-publish professionally, and it can help you on your way to traditional publication, too – especially if you work with someone who can help you get the big-picture elements of your story right and help you polish your submission package.
1. Editing can help you sell more books.
Little or bad editing can negatively impact sales, especially now online marketplaces can let potential buyers read a sample before they buy.
2. Editing can help your writing career.
No matter how much marketing you do, in the end your career as a writer is only as strong as the novels you produce.
3. Editing can help your book reach its potential.
It’s frustrating to read a book containing more than a handful of typos, inconsistencies or formatting errors. Editors help make sure that doesn’t happen to your readers.
4. Editing can help you become a better writer.
By tapping into your editor’s knowledge, you’ll learn a great deal about where you can improve your writing – which you can apply to everything you write.
5. Editing makes you look like a professional.
Professional writers understand their craft and their industry, and produce good quality books that sell more. No reader fell in love with a book written by an amateur.
What would you pay someone to help you achieve these things? What is the professionalism of your book and the path of your writing career worth to you?
What would it cost you not to have someone help you achieve these things?
Now we’ve covered how editors add value to a book, let’s look at those reasons why it costs what it does.
Reason one: Editing takes time
Some people can read a book in an afternoon. So why does it take so long for an editor to go through your manuscript?
Well, editing is much more than just reading, for a start.
Different paces for different services
There are lots of different types of editorial services. A proofread (after a manuscript has been edited and is in a near-publishable state) will take a lot less time than a substantive or developmental edit for a manuscript of the same length. This is because there’s a different level of work involved.
Careful reading is slow reading
An editor will need to read your manuscript s-l-o-w-l-y. This is especially true for copy-editors and proofreaders, who must pay attention to every single letter of every single word. No skim-reading here.
Many editors go through the manuscript more than once, for various reasons: to get a feel for the writing style and understand the details of the plot before they begin editing; to make sure they haven’t missed anything; to check that their suggestions are correct and flow well with the writer’s style; and so on.
Thinking and writing time
It also takes time for an editor to decipher how best to fix any discrepancies they notice, and then more time to carry out the edit or write the comment. (A well-written, considered comment takes more time to write than a rushed, potentially ambiguous note.)
Err … where was I? Oh yes! It takes a lot of energy to maintain the high level of concentration editing needs. I know from experience and talking to my colleagues that it seems pretty much impossible to edit for more than around six hours per day without risking quality. For others, it may be even less than that. (I personally aim for around four.)
How many editing hours an editor can fit into their day (without risking damaging the quality of the work they do) will have an impact on the number of days an editing project may take.
How long does it take?
So how long does it take to edit a book?
It’s impossible to give a definitive answer because of two main variables:
1. The working speed of the editor
Different editors will naturally work at different speeds. This might be down to a number of things, including how thoroughly they do their job, to the effectiveness of the tactics and software they use to assist their work. But also, people are just different and work at different paces.
2. The shape of the manuscript
If a manuscript needs a lot of work, it will take more time to edit. This is out of the editor’s hands – but luckily for you, you can do something about this. Because many editors quote based on how long it will take them to do the work, it’s in your financial interest to hand over your manuscript in the best possible shape you can make it. (Tip: When you sign up to Liminal Letters, I’ll email you my ‘Self-Editing Your Novel’ guide to help you do this.)
Keeping in mind why and how editing speeds can vary, there is some rough guidance available on how long different editing services can be expected to take.
Personally, I’ve found I can edit between 1,000 and 3,000 words per hour (editing fiction), but this depends on the level of editing needed. Other freelancers I’ve spoken to report similar rates.
The following information is taken from The Editorial Freelance Association’s website (accessed 13/01/15) to give you a very rough indicator of editing speeds. Note: one page is 250 words double spaced.
Do these speeds surprise you? Let me know in the comments.
Reason two: Businesses take time and cost money to run
It’s crucial to remember that what an editor charges does not go straight into their pocket. (This is why we don’t roll around on beds of bank notes.) Freelance editors are business owners – and businesses cost money to run.
Here are just some examples of running costs an editor has to account for:
- Tax and NIC
- Personal pension savings
- Computer, printer and other equipment
- Computer software
- Stationery and books
- Office furniture
- Utilities (heating, electricity, Internet, etc.)
- Professional insurance
- Accountancy fees
- Professional memberships (e.g. SfEP)
- Continued professional development (e.g. courses and conferences)
- Marketing (e.g. business cards, adverts, etc.)
It’s also important to note that as individual business owners (or freelancers), editors are responsible for their own holiday pay. In the UK, employees are entitled to 28 days paid annual leave. Whatever holiday we decide to give ourselves must be covered by what we earn.
Businesses also take time to run, which means we’re unable to spend every hour on billable work. Responding to enquiries, writing estimates, computer housekeeping, buying supplies, going to and from the post office, keeping accounts and marketing our services all takes time.
The bottom line: as with any business, editors must make enough money to keep their businesses running, and not every hour in the working day is billable.
Reason three: Editing is a specialist skill
Editors are highly trained in a specialist skill, sometimes educated to degree-level or higher. It can take several years to gain the knowledge and experience needed to be a good editor.
For example, I have two degrees: a BA in English literature with creative writing, and an MA in creative writing. I took an intensive, comprehensive copy-editing course run by The Publishing Training Centre, passed an editing test created by The Society of Editors and Proofreaders and have attended several of their conferences (which include several practical workshops and seminars). I even have experience working in-house for publishers and running my own literary magazine.
I don’t say this to brag, but to demonstrate all the time and effort that goes into adequate training.
Anyone can call themselves an editor, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. You should always study the credentials and experience of an editor you’re considering hiring. There’s truth to the old saying ‘you get what you pay for’.
How does an editor decide what to charge?
There are a number of ways an editor might decide to charge for their services: a fixed project fee, a fee per page, a fee per thousand words, or a fee per hour.
At first glance, these methods seem drastically different, but they actually all pivot on the same critical piece of information, no matter how it’s presented to the client: the fee per hour.
Editors know what they need to make per hour
Every editor needs to know how much they need to make per hour (and by extension, per month and per year).
Rich Adin, of the popular blog An American Editor, recommends that freelancers work out their Effective Hourly Rate – the hourly rate they need to achieve in order to run their business profitably. He outlines the process for doing so in his post ‘Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand’.
When an editor is faced with the task of deciding what to charge their clients, knowledge is their friend. To work out their fees, they not only need to know the hourly rate they’re aiming for, but also their editing speeds.
Editing speeds inform rates
An editor can understand their editing speed in various ways.
They might use external information as a guide, like the guide from the EFA above. Better still, an editor will work out their editing speed from their own experience, either by tracking their speed over the course of their career in relation to different types of project, by conducting a sample edit (free or paid) and timing it, or by using a mixture of both.
An editor might chose to provide you with an estimate or range depending on how long they expect the work to take, or they might charge a flat fee.
My personal approach is to offer a fixed project fee, as I like everyone to know exactly what to expect. Because I track my hours and always assess a sample of the writing, I’ve become more accurate at working out how long a project will take, which allows me to work out the fixed fee using a little bit of maths:
Total number of words / expected words edited per hour = expected number of hours.
Expected number of hours x effective hourly rate = fixed project fee.
Understanding a fair rate
What an editor decides to charge will differ from one editor to another.
This could be for a number of reasons (type of service, speed they work, etc.) but at the end of the day what an editor decides to charge is completely up to them.
So how do you know if you’re getting a fair deal? What’s the ‘normal’ or ‘average’ cost of editing? What’s the going rate?
Rich Adin, again, has this to say:
A problem with the query about what to charge is that the asker believes in a false assumption — that there is a “going rate.” There really isn’t a going rate in editing. It is true that many publishers pay similar fees for work, but if you look at what work is required, you will see that there is a great variance among publishers. In the case of authors, there is no rate similarity that is author imposed. Authors deal with editors on a one-to-one basis, and negotiate rate[s] one-to-one.
— Rich Adin, An American Editor, ‘Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I)’
As a writer, this might strike a little fear into your heart. If there’s no going rate, how on earth can you know whether or not you’re getting a fair deal? Is the editor trying to screw you for as much money as possible?
Working out what makes a ‘fair deal’ is probably more difficult than working out the ‘going rate’. Both are based on arbitrary or unquantifiable information.
Hopefully, by this point you understand why editing costs what it does. And why editors really aren’t rolling around in beds of cash.
In my experience, most editors want to help you. (But beware, because there are rogue editors out there – and I’m not talking X-Men style.)
My advice on deciding whether or not you’re getting a fair deal is as follows:
- Take the time to find an editor you like.
- Understand why they charge what they charge. (Check! You’re reading this post. But also: you can ask them.)
- Go with your instincts. (If it feels dodgy, it probably is.)
The bottom line really is how you feel. If you understand why hiring an editor is important and know that the best editors don’t come cheap, feeling comfortable that you’re paying a fair rate for a decent job is the main thing.
How you can lower the cost of editing
Yay! It is possible.
An editor’s fee is often based on the following:
- Type of service (proofreading, copy-editing, development editing …)
- Word count
- Shape of the manuscript
- Working speed of the editor
Some editors will always charge a flat fee no matter what. And that’s fine – it works for them, and everyone knows exactly what to expect in terms of money.
However, some editors use several factors to give you a tailored fee. (This is why editors have those dreaded lines on their websites: Get in touch for your personal quote!)
This isn’t necessarily a sales trick. They’re not just trying to get you in the door to give you the hard sell. (Well, maybe they are, but there’s also another reason for this way of pricing.)
You can’t control what service your manuscript needs. (You may decide to go for just the proofread when your manuscript really needs a development edit, but that’s a different kettle of fish.)
You can’t really control the word count of your manuscript. (You’ve written it to the length it needs to be.)
You can’t control the working speed of the editor. (Though hopefully you won’t hire an editor who is painfully slow, nor one who’s suspiciously fast …)
But you can control the shape of your manuscript. To a degree.
The more time and care you take in shaping your manuscript to the best of your ability, the less work your editor will have to do, and the lower the fee will be. (I’ve written a free guide to help you whip your manuscript into shape. )
So when you see an editor asking for details and a sample of your work before they tell you their fees, know that it’s likely they are only trying to give you a fair quote.
What to do if you really, really can’t afford editing
If self-publishing professionally is important to you, I would whole-heartedly urge you to try and save some money for editing. If you can’t afford it now, wait until you can.
I also understand that the cost of editing is simply impossible for some. So here’s my advice on what to do. You won’t get the same value from these methods, but you’ll still get some important feedback that will help you improve your book.
Are you sure you can’t afford editing?
Really, really sure? It is a lot of money. I completely understand. Maybe you just don’t want to spend that amount. Think about the value you’ll get from editing. Think what it could cost your writing career if you didn’t get your book edited. So are you sure?
Writing groups and beta readers
Fellow readers and writers can’t substitute a copy-editor or proofreader (unless they are professionally trained as such, of course) but they can offer you valuable feedback on your book as a whole. (See: What are Beta Readers?)
They’re unlikely to have the level of knowledge of a professional book critique or a developmental editor, either, but it’s always valuable to have several pairs of critical eyes assess your manuscript and help you understand your weak points.
Quid pro quo
Not all editors will be open to this arrangement, but if you have a highly specialised skill that could be helpful to your editor, they might be prepared to make a trade. For example, if you’re a graphic designer, could you offer to create a logo for your editor? If you’re a web developer, can you help them improve their website? Worth a shot!
Pay for what you can
If you can’t afford to have your whole manuscript edited, pay to have a smaller section edited instead. Talk to your editor. They’ll be able to give you the best value for your budget. For example, perhaps you could pay to have 10,000 words edited, and have your editor provide more extensive notes of explanation than usual. Use this feedback to help you self-edit the rest of your novel.
Why editing is expensive: it’s a business that requires time and skill
So that’s the crux of it. Nearly three thousand words later (congratulations if you’ve read all of this!), we’ve covered the main reasons why editing is so expensive. In a nutshell, it’s because editing takes time and skill, and editors also need to support their businesses.
I’ve written this slightly epic blog post with the aim of helping you understand the cost of editing from the other side of the computer screen. Editors are here to help you, and this is why we charge what we do.
Remember when I said you could save on the cost of editing by making sure your manuscript is in the best shape you can make it?
If you’d like to say something about this post, please leave a comment below. Are you a writer? How do you feel about the cost of editing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!