As a professional member of the publishing community, I frequent many author groups for both new and established writers. I find the perspectives refreshing and am often able to offer a nugget of wisdom here and there. In these forums, no matter the genre, I see the same questions being asked, along with the same comments: Why do editors charge so much? Is hiring an editor worth it? Do you need to hire an editor as a new author? An editor will cost you thousands, and you'll never break even. Why pay for an editor when you won't ever make any money at writing anyway? Only hire an editor when you are making money from your writing. You don't need to hire an editor...Just ask a retired English teacher to look at your work. Just run your story through ProWritingAid. That's all an editor will do anyway. The list goes on and on.
The amount of misinformation circulating through these groups is astounding, but more often than not, the authors making these statements are defensive to any form of discussion or argument...especially from an editor. And I fully understand why. It's mentally difficult when you know in the pit of your stomach an editor would make a world of difference in your writing, but you are too overwhelmed by the sticker shock and fear of the unknown. What if the editor you hire tells you that your story isn't up to par? What if the editor you hire isn't really an editor at all—just someone who has scammed you out of thousands? What if your book still doesn't sell after it has been professionally edited? Why does it feel like editors charge so much? What do editors do anyway? All editors do is spellcheck and look for missing periods and commas, right? I'm hoping this blog post might help put some of those questions and assumptions to rest.
What is the difference between a professional editor and an...editor?
You're going to see me mention "professional" editors often within the rest of this blog post, and it is because I do differentiate between the editors who have invested their time and resources into credentialed training, ongoing education, and the proper knowledge foundation versus the editors who have read a number of books, found a stray comma here and there, and then given themselves the title. While this might sound elitist, I'm actually approaching this from the perspective that working with a professional in the industry protects both you and your work. And, to be frank, protecting you and your manuscript is more important than anything else.
When you work with a professional editor, you aren't only hiring that editor's eyes on your manuscript. You're essentially hiring an expert in the Chicago Manual of Style—the leading style guide used by both traditional publishing houses and self-publishing authors. If a reader notices that the structure or style of your book is unlike the others on the market in the same genre, they're most likely noticing where you have deviated from the guidelines set within the CMoS. This can often lead to negative reviews because you're just not meeting those reader expectations for quality, and that's something we want to avoid. An editor who has not invested in their own training will not know these editing nuances, which leads me to my next point.
A professional editor will know these grammar and style rules so well that they'll be able to effectively break them in order to achieve a greater sense of tone and pacing to further enhance the read of your novel. An editor who has not received the appropriate training will most likely simply try to conform your sentence structure and word choice to their own because that's the only foundation they have to work from. This results in what we call "taking away an author's voice."
Aside from the basic mechanics of editing a novel, professional editors usually also have a much more streamlined business process. These editors will have schedules, sometimes booked months in advance, and they will have contracts outlining their expectations for you as the author and for themselves as the editor. These contracts protect your rights to your manuscript and determine what parts of the editing process or your novel as a whole the editor can share. For instance, my contracts strictly dictate that I cannot share the details of my clients' edits with anyone except for the authors. No one else in this entire world will see what that manuscript looked like before I worked on it. Readers will only ever see the polished form because it's my responsibility to make sure I exhibit you and your manuscript in the best light possible. However, if your editor does not have this business structure, you are always at risk.
When you hire a professional editor, you are essentially retaining the skills of a master manipulator. Though, don't worry. That isn't as ominous as it sounds. Self-published works get a great deal of pressure to live up to the bar set by novels published with the big traditional five who set a lot of the fluid trends in the publishing industry. Currently, there is a movement of inclusivity within the industry which is inspiring the removal of all genre-specific word forms. Think blond vs. blonde. There is also a decrease in the use of vertical punctuation, such as semi-colons and colons, and we no longer put a comma before "too" or "also" at the end of a sentence.
The difference between a professional editor and an editor is this: I knew those trends because I follow the industry...The other editor didn't know that information until they read this blog post.
What do editors actually do?
Now that we've established the difference between a professional editor and the rest of the industry, what do editors do? They just find stray commas and missing quotation closings, right? Wrong.
A professional editor will fact check to make sure the details you listed throughout your novel—most often of the anatomy kind in horror—are factual and will not make a more discerning reader pause. For instance, it's simply not plausible to insinuate that the beating heart ripped from the chest of your victim remained beating throughout the main and secondary characters' lengthy dialogue. Yes, I have done research on how long the lingering nerve impulses in the muscle tissue will cause a heart to beat after it has been traumatically removed from the chest cavity.
In case you were wondering, the answer is about two minutes, but the longest known instance was documented at fifteen minutes. You're welcome. I often joke that I'm on an FBI watch list because of my clients, and I'm incredibly okay with that.
I go through and remove extra spacing in the document, then correct all of the most common editing mistakes I find, such as "alright" instead of "all right" or "ok" instead of "okay," to name a few. I'll also make the common changes between U.S. and U.K. English, such as "gray" versus "grey" or "toward" versus "towards." You'd be surprised how many authors don't know which is preferred within their own country, but then again, that's what you hire a professional editor for.
Then, I'll begin the actual edit. While I'm reading, I'll gauge each sentence for flow, sentence variance, and consistency. I'll make sure all of your subject and verbs agree, you are only beginning a sentence with a participial phrase to maintain first word uniqueness, and each of your descriptions is not repetitive or redundant. I'll catch chronological issues and detail inconsistencies, and I'll point out where I see you making the same error frequently. I'll identify your crutch words, eliminate filler words—such as "he heard" or "he saw"—and I'll remove excessive uses of "that" or "as." I'll also point out where certain parts of the story might not make sense, even in a line and copy edit, just to make sure you put out the best possible story you can. As an added bonus, when I first start working with a client, I also explain almost all of my editing suggestions to help teach my clients the grammar and style rules. I find that the more my clients work with me, the cleaner their initial drafts are and the more efficient we both work through subsequent novels. This allows my clients to publish at a quicker pace.
This only breaks the tip of the iceberg of what a professional editor does, but the difference between the manuscript when it first hits my desk versus its form when it leaves it says volumes.
Why do professional editors charge what they do?
The subject of rates is never an easy one for an editor to have with a client. We realize many authors are just starting out and haven't done their research on what an editor will cost. And believe me, professional editors completely understand that it might be incredibly daunting when you're quoted more for the editing of your first book than you expect to earn from it.
But there's one thing we know that a new author doesn't yet...
A great resource I always direct new authors to is the industry rates survey findings published by the Editorial Freelancers Association annually. They send the survey to professional editors each year to determine the average rates and completion times for the different levels of editing. You can find that rate guide here.
Let's look at copyediting. On this chart, the average editor charges $0.02-$0.029 per word and works at a rate of seven to ten pages per hour—assuming an average page has approximately 250 words. This does not take into consideration the experience of the editor, which might result in them working faster, or the overall condition of the manuscript, which might result in the editor working much slower. Many editors newer to the industry might charge less than this average rate, while many editors who have decades of experience might charge much more.
To put this into perspective, my rates for copyediting range from $0.015 to $0.021 per word. But we'll say my fictional client has submitted an 80,000 word werewolf fiction, and I will be charging them $0.015 per word. My normal editing speed is around industry average, so at the fastest, I'm probably looking at about thirty-two hours of thorough work for one read-through of this novel. I've charged my client $1,200 for this copy edit. If I don't take into consideration the second and sometimes third read-throughs I do, answering of client emails, and the final pass once all edits have been incorporated, this comes out to $37 an hour. If I were to add the additional ten to twenty hours I normally invest in my clients' work, this hourly rate decreases substantially.
Keep in mind, you're working with a professional editor who has invested in the education needed to polish your work to where it can effectively stand against the works produced by the traditional publishing houses. Often, this amounts to bachelors and masters degrees, certifications, and ongoing testing, or sometimes even decades of experience in lieu of education. A professional of this level is not going to be able to give you the thoroughness and expertise this level of education and experience brings to the table for a rate that will dip them below American minimum wage.
I've seen some editors offering to edit full-length novels for $350 to $500. At $350, that equates to $11 an hour. At that price, your editor is most likely going to reduce the number of hours they spend on your manuscript, which also reduces the thoroughness and attention your story receives. Is that a tradeoff you're willing to invest in?
Can ProWritingAid, Grammarly, or your retired high school English teacher replace a professional editor?
The answer to this will always be a vehement no from me. ProWritingAid and Grammarly are based on preset algorithms set to recognize the normal function of the English language. However, there are only so many exceptions to the rule that can be incorporated into the code. These algorithms cannot take into consideration tone, context, or character intent. They only recognize the most commonly used versions of those structures of words. And quite often, the programs' suggestions are wrong. For instance, Grammarly will tell you that the comma in this sentence is incorrect: "The dog didn't growl, but barked." To Grammarly, the comma before "but" shouldn't exist unless the phrase after "but" is a complete sentence. However, in fiction, the comma can go before "but" in front of a dependent clause when the preceding clause is negative. I did, in fact, run this sentence through ProWritingAid to see what it came up with, since it seems to be more effective than Grammarly at times, but it still told me the sentence is using too many "glue words." The most commonly used glue words are: in, of, to, by, there, from, was, for, some, or much—none of which are in my example sentence. I could restructure it to say, "The dog growled, not barked," which would remove "did" and "but," but this changes the entire intent of the sentence. The restructured sentence simply says what the dog was or was not doing. But the initial example sentence shows the importance of the comparison between the two, putting the emphasis on the fact that the dog did not do the expected action and did something else entirely. Likewise an English teacher might tell you this is a comma splice: "I often get so carried away in my edits, I sometimes fail to take time away from my desk for lunch." However, a professional editor will tell you the comma is taking the place of "that" and is an acceptable usage for clarity purposes, while also removing a repetitive instance of "that." Many English teachers are not versed in the nuances of fiction editing and have not had continued English education outside of a classroom instruction setting. Think of an English teacher as a form field on your author website. When a reader is filling out the necessary boxes to subscribe to your newsletter, they're often limited to what they can type and how much they can type. Everything is uniform and structured, and each reader's submission form looks very similar in style. It's an effective teaching method but not so effective with editing.
Will your book sell?
While pursuing my creative writing bachelors degree, I stumbled upon an article by Written Word Media—the organizers of Freebooksy and BargainBooksy—who lay out the habits of $100K authors. Here's the fantastic article if you'd like to read it. I found it truly eye-opening.
The information obtained from these authors indicates that many of them have been writing for three or more years, often around five before they experienced any real monetary success. After reading a few discussions from the wonderful members in 20Booksto50k—incredible Facebook group, I might add—all information also points to the fifth stand-alone novel or the third book in a series before the author begins to turn a profit, as long as all essential boxes have been checked.
Will your first book that you hire a developmental and line/copy editor for make that investment back on its own straight out of the gate? Most likely, no. But will you recoup those costs in the long run if you focus on the quality of the work you produce, the effectiveness of your marketing, and identifying your target audience? Absolutely, yes. It's all about setting and managing expectations.
Do you need to hire an editor as a new author? Should you wait to receive substantial income from your books before hiring an editor?
These two questions go hand in hand. So will my reply. Initially, my answer to this would be a resounding no. Absolutely not. But I do have to take a step back and realize that not everyone has the same publishing goals as the next author on Amazon. It might be enough for Author A to simply get a work out there that they can share with friends and family. It's a fun pastime...a cool thing to say you're a published author.
But Author B approaches his author career like a business. Author B is like the authors in Written Word Media's article—the $100k+ authors who almost all exclusively hire professional editors. He's forging a product and attempting to sell that product to the masses. He's hoping that his audience loves the product so much that they buy the next...and the next...and the next...and the next. But in order to ensure that that happens, Author B has to make sure that the first product is eye-catching right out of the gate. He knows that that first product will be the standard by which he is judged, how his future work will be viewed and anticipated.
As authors, we have limitless opportunities to edit and re-edit, launch and relaunch, our stories. We can change the covers as many times as is necessary to keep our stories fresh. But we don't have that many chances with our readers. All too often, accompanying that one or two star review is a disgruntled reader testimony which says they will give that author one more shot to show that they have put the effort into their work. If that author has not thought enough of their work to invest in it themselves, why should the reader?
That reader is not wrong.
Let me repeat that.
That reader is not wrong.
They are not being harsh or judgmental. They are not being too discerning or simply looking for something to complain about. That reader is your audience, your consumer, who has thought highly enough of what they see of your cover or your blurb to want to invest their hard-earned money into your book. You as an author owe it to them to make sure that that money is well-spent. Your story may be better than anything Stephen King ever wrote or dreamed of writing, but if it's riddled with errors and inconsistencies, that reader will not have a pleasurable reading experience and won't be returning. You've missed out on a future chance with that reader and the income that reader would have given you across your lifetime of publication. You've lost the ability to leverage that reader in your newsletter subscriber list when you're looking to swap with your peers. You've lost a fraction of effectiveness of your preorder strategies, which can affect book rankings on lists like the USA Today Bestselling List. One reader may not make or break you in this regard, but a substantial number of them could be devastating to your career goals.
Will it stretch your finances? Yes. Is it hard to spend that much when you are just starting out? Yes. Does a professional editor have options to decrease costs and make things more affordable if you simply ask? Yes.
What if your editor believes your story isn't ready for publishing?
This is okay! Do not be combative with your editor over it. You've hired their expertise for a reason, and if you've followed the guidelines in my other blog post here about finding the correct editor for both you and your manuscript, you should be able to trust those suggestions.
This is why I never advise new authors to set up preorders or do any other launch planning prior to working with an editor. It isn't always needed, but a developmental edit or manuscript evaluation to identify the strengths and struggles of your story are exceptional plans, if nothing more than to make sure you're on the right tract, are writing effectively, and your plot lines aren't falling flat.
Just keep in mind that a developmental edit, or even line edits, are not going to take away your voice. Instead, they will laser-focus your text, give your character and storyline richer development, and align your work with more specific reader expectations.
Remember...building a successful author platform is a marathon, not a sprint. You have the time to work on it. Focus, breathe, and put out your best work possible. Above all else, keep writing!
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