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Show Me the Money: Breaking down the cost of editing

I have read a lot of posts on various author-related websites recently about the high cost of editing. These authors felt that the fees some editors were charging weren’t justified. I thought I’d write a little bit about that here to give you a better idea of why editing costs what it does.

The first thing that confuses a lot of people is that there are many kinds of editing, and rates will vary depending on the type of editing you want or need. Unfortunately, the definitions for the different kinds of editing aren’t always clear cut and different people describe them different ways. Basically, if you want a big-picture edit (plot pacing, character development, voice, point of view) you need a developmental or content editor. If you are looking for someone to help you at the sentence and paragraph level (word choice, sentence flow, transitions, grammar issues, as well as pointing out areas that may be confusing to your readers), you are looking for a line editor. If you want someone to focus on spelling, grammar, and punctuation (things that are objectively right or wrong), you want a copy editor. Some editors use different terms or provide a combination of services, so make sure you talk to your editor about what you are looking for and what services they provide. Of the different types of editing, a developmental edit takes the most time and requires the most experience and training, so it is the most expensive. Line editing is usually less expensive, with copy editing being the least expensive of the three.

OK, on to the money! Editors set their rates in different ways. Some charge by the hour, some by the page, some by the project. I prefer project rates because the author knows exactly what they will be paying ahead of time, and I don’t feel rushed by the tick-tock of the clock. But for more open-ended projects for which project hours are hard to calculate, an hourly rate can offer more flexibility for both the editor and the author. You may feel more comfortable with one form of billing over another, and you should discuss this with any editors you are considering hiring. Many editors are willing to bill in a variety of ways depending on the project and client preference.

I think one of the main reasons that people think editing is too expensive is because they don’t realize how much time an editor typically spends on a manuscript. Let’s assume your book is 75,000 words. Using the industry standard of 250 words per page, your book is 300 pages long. An editor doing a line edit can typically edit 6 pages an hour (at most), so a book that is 300 pages long will take at least 50 hours. (For a developmental edit, it will take even longer.) I recently saw a post from someone on a forum that said that anything over $400 for an editing project was a rip-off. But an editor who spends 50 hours on a 300-page novel for $400 would only be getting paid $8/hour, hardly an excessive rate. Even an editor asking $1000, a number that is certain to seem high to many people, would only be earning $20/hour. For professional work, that’s a pretty reasonable rate (and far below the common editorial rates listed on the Editorial Freelancers Association website).

Some authors feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for an edit when they can just use free beta readers and friends and family to help them out. I definitely encourage authors to use all the free resources they can before hiring an editor, but a trained editor will be able to guide you in ways that your best friend won’t. To use myself as an example, I have a copy editing certificate from UC San Diego, and I have taken several courses in developmental editing. I learn something new that I can apply to your manuscript with every class I take. Family members just don’t have the same knowledge about writing that a trained professional will.

Now, obviously, if you don’t have $1000 to spend on an edit, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good deal or if your editor has taken fifty classes, and my intent is not to say that everyone should spend that on their manuscript. How much you spend depends on your personal circumstances and your goals for your book. But an editor with training and experience will provide a high-quality edit, and that is a valuable service, especially if you are hoping for commercial success for your book. The best deal is not always the cheapest. And it’s impossible to put a value on what an edit “should” cost. That depends on the length and quality of the book, the experience of the editor, the type of editing you need…far too many variables for a one-size-fits-all number.

One way that you can save yourself money on editing is to make sure your manuscript is as good as you can get it before you hire an editor. An editor will determine their fee based on both the length of your manuscript and how much work it needs. The more you do yourself before sending it off, the less time the edit will take, and the less money you will have to pay. Rewrite your manuscript several times; the first draft is very rarely where it needs to be. Send it off to beta readers for some initial reader opinions and make any changes that seem valuable based on this feedback. Once you’ve done all you can do, research several editors and get sample edits to “test drive” their services. Then pick the editor who provides the highest quality work while still falling within your budget. You’ve invested a lot of time into your book. Make sure it gets the professional attention it deserves.

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