The Editor’s Fedora (Part 2 of 2)

Guest post
by David Antrobus

[This is part 2 of a 2 part post. See part one here.]

Now we arrive at the crucial topic of cost, and the seemingly arbitrary variations in same. Some editors are so brilliant that they really can and do charge top dollar. I know someone who can quote $5,000 for editing an 80,000-word manuscript. Before you gag on that, two things: at that rarefied level, it’s an incredibly skilled and precise and comprehensive service that almost literally dots every I and crosses every T. Each word is examined, plus the context of the words amid the whole. Each punctuation mark is carefully considered. For example, did you know that Microsoft Word will turn smart quotes the wrong way if you type them after an em-dash (something that’s quite common in dialogue)? A good editor/proofreader will catch every instance and flip them back the right way. Same with the single quote you get when you type an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, as in ’80s. Or double spaces between sentences. Consistent indents. Catching homophones. POV shifts. There are myriad ways in which a good editor’s eagle eye is essential. Done well, it truly is the greatest hybrid of art and science. But the writer’s job at this point is simply to ensure that prospective editors are as good as they claim. Feel free to test them. Send them a sample rife with errors and see if they catch them all. If they miss a couple, that’s not disastrous—no one catches 100 percent—but if they catch only half or two-thirds, politely move on.

But anyway, back to price. How do editors determine this? Sometimes it’s fairly straightforward. For each type of editing they set their rates by the word, so they might charge $0.01 per word for basic proofreading (this skill is actually not inferior to copyediting, it generally takes less time, hence is cheaper), $0.02 for copyediting and $0.04 for content developmental editing. Then you simply multiply it by the overall word count and you’re done. Others charge by the page, which is a standard page of 250 words. Others figure out an hourly rate based on how many pages they can edit an hour (which they estimate using the sample, so you need to ensure it’s representative). Here is a handy table (courtesy of the Editors’ Association of Canada):

• Developmental, substantive, structural editing, rewriting – one to three pages per hour

• Heavy/medium copy editing, stylistic editing – three to six pages per hour

• Medium/light copy editing, stylistic editing – six to eight pages per hour

• Proofreading – eight to ten pages per hour

• Manuscript evaluations – eleven to fourteen pages per hour, plus evaluation report

Then they insert the values into a formula based on the hourly rate they charge (hat tip to Arlene Prunkl):

100,000 words (for example) / 250 words per page = 400 pages

400 pages / (insert editing speed here, say 8 pph) = 50 hours

50 hours x 15% project management time = 7.5 hours

Total hours x hourly rate = total cost

And if you want to know the range of hourly pay for editors, here’s a handy chart at the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Bear in mind a standard rule that whatever hourly rate a freelancer settles on, you can estimate their annual salary by multiplying it by 1,000. An editor charging $35 an hour will make $35,000 a year.

The thing to remember above all is the cliché, “you get what you pay for.” If an editor’s rates fall significantly below these figures they are probably not editors, but beta readers deciding to make a little extra on the side. Sadly, I’ve seen the damage a poor editor can do to a novel and it’s heartbreaking. Someone offering ludicrously low rates is not confident of their work. Run away from them. But also, don’t hesitate to negotiate with someone at the higher end; see if you can get a discount based on potential loyalty, for instance.

I don’t mean this contentiously, but there really is no excuse for writers not knowing this stuff. It’s literally at your fingertips—Google’s been around for fifteen years, folks. Recently, I was approached by a writer who has published numerous books and I simply assumed he knew the industry well enough to have some idea of what it would cost him. He even asked for a structural edit, initially, but I talked him out of that and told him I could cover a little structural stuff but mainly give his MS a medium-to-heavy copyedit, thus lowering his costs right there. I even reduced my rate further, but when I quoted him the estimate, he balked. To me, that is astounding, that someone with so much published material was apparently unaware of the real costs of editing, and it felt insulting that he’d expected me to do such exacting and time-consuming work for even lower than I’d already gone. I’m sorry, but that moves beyond ignorance and into exploitation territory. Which, of course, can go both ways, depending on what hat you happen to be wearing.

Anyway, my fellow writers, if you want to see me in a metaphorical fedora, my services are called Be Write There, but there are plenty of other excellent editors around these parts, too. The choice quite literally is yours.

David Antrobus is a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, and a graduate of the University of Manchester, England, with a B.A. (Honours) in English and Philosophy. He is an alumnus of Simon Fraser University’s certificate program in creative writing, The Writers Studio, in Canada.

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41 thoughts on “The Editor’s Fedora (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. David, great article generously shared and beautifully written — wish I could afford an editor of your caliber….but then, as a writer of eastern spiritual fiction (novels), it can be tricky working smoothly with an editor not completely passionate about the subject…can you say a few words on this? Meaning, if the editor has no background in such a subject at all (in this case, eastern philosophy), can he/she still do an excellent job of getting the primary work across without affecting the author’s message/style? Thanks!

    1. That is a truly excellent question, Mira, and my answer is: maybe. 😉

      I think when an editor is out of their comfort zone, in terms of genre, they will need to be even more respectful and show even more humility toward the author. But that’s also the wonderful thing about Track Changes and most electronic markup tools: an editor can change it, but the author need not accept that change. I tend to err very much on the side of suggesting rather than altering (perhaps to a fault, sometimes), as I’m very conscious of the author’s voice, but especially in an unfamiliar context I think I’d be extra careful. Done right, it can be very much a two-way relationship and very rewarding, as long as there’s mutual respect and good communication.

      Oh, and a last thought: Although an editor may not necessarily be passionate about the subject matter, he or she will *always* be passionate about the language itself, so there’s that.

      Ha, I loved this question!

        1. David, wonderful response, thank you – I will save and digest for when the time rolls around again. By the way, my question originally arose during the final phase of fine-tuning my first novel — when I worked briefly but intensely with an editor who had no foundation in e. phil — and this became a bit of a problem — not to mention that our styles clashed as well. As for your “verys”, being Indian, I love drama and emphasis! I’m a “very” person myself…. oh. and by the way, if you can give me a rough figure for final editing on say a 350 page (1-1/2 line spaced) novel that has already been heavily author-edited, I would much appreciate it — perhaps this requires a private conversation…if so, let me know. Best, Mira

          1. Ha, I love it: a “very” person. 🙂

            Not because I’m being coy, but yeah, it would be difficult to give any kind of fair estimate without seeing a sample of the manuscript. To that end, yes, feel absolutely free to email me at digitalis @ and we can talk more.

  2. One thing: A low-ball price does not necessarily mean the person doesn’t know what they’re doing. Some folks do try to keep things affordable, knowing that most indies are of the starving-artist variety, and don’t like seeing folks get screwed over by vanity publishers.

    1. True, Rich. But there’s low-ball (keeping it affordable, like you say, a camp I definitely fall into) and then there’s *low-ball.* There are instances of the latter that simply devalue the editing profession altogether, while undercutting the countless good people who are only trying to make a living by asking that they get paid fairly for a specialist and exacting skill. I’m talking freelancers here, though. Not publishers.

  3. This is great, David. It certainly takes out a lot of the mystery around this issue. I do have an additional question, though. Do editors, or do you, in particular, adjust a price for the quality of the manuscript? That is, if an author has done a lot of editing and provides you with an exceptionally clean ms do you charge less. Or is that a loaded question you will only answer on an individual basis? I don’t mean to put you on a hook here.

    1. No, it’s a great question, Yvonne. And yes, the cleaner the MS, the less I personally charge. I always balance the assumed poverty of the writer (ha ha) against my *own* potential for abject ruin and, well, homelessness if I don’t make next month’s rent. That’s a kind of sad reality in this business. But yeah, I have never *ever* overcharged anyone for this and probably undercharge way too often; but then again, I’m a bit of a karmic hippie type sometimes and I do believe in good faith and all that good stuff. That said, anyone reneges or doesn’t pay me, and I got connections, ya know? 😉

  4. David, thank you for this information. I did want to comment on a few things:

    When you said that the author balked at your price for editing but he has published many books, could it be that he was with a publisher for his other work?
    The reason I ask is because up until a month ago, I was with a small press publisher. She was responsible for my editing. Up until a month ago, I never had to hire an editor on my own and had no reason to explore this subject on Google. I will admit that I SHOULD have, especially since the publisher I was with did not do a great job at hiring editors who knew beans from Brussels sprouts, if you get my drift. My point is that I didn’t know much of anything other than marketing when I went out on my own.

    Lastly, when you say that you get what you pay for, I do agree in most circumstances. However, we are Indies and we have to do this all on our own – every cost is paid for by us. Speaking for myself, I have two kids and no job outside my writing. My husband is the only one with a steady job. It’s hard to pay $2000+ for editing for a single book for me. I do want the best editing I can get, but it has to be what I can afford. It’s a Catch-22. I can’t afford the best editing for my books because my books aren’t bringing in the money to pay for the editing. Sigh…
    Once again, thank you for shedding some light on this. It is greatly appreciated!

    1. Yeah, the whole thing can be a minefield, Nickie, for real. But no, this author hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, was a hundred percent indie as far as I know. And I don’t know enough about small presses to comment, unfortunately, or even about the big six (or five, or whatever it is now, lol).

      Right. The Catch-22 thing. All I can say is that, personally, I’ve been editing novels almost exclusively for five years now, but I’ve edited academic papers, nonprofit websites, and business web copy going back well over a decade, and I will never try to gouge anyone or take liberties that way. I am almost certainly good enough to charge twice what I do, but I choose not to, as I don’t want to make this whole thing prohibitive for people who are basically in the same boat as I am. Which probably makes me a goddamned communist or something. But I also need to make a living, and when people charge ludicrously low amounts to edit or worse, “edit,” they are not only undermining my means of survival but diluting the quality of independent writing everywhere, and *that* I take both seriously and personally.

      Ha, sh*t got real there, for a minute. 😉

      1. I hope you don’t think I was accusing you of over-charging. I wasn’t. I just wish (and I am sure others have felt the same) that there was a way to make it all work. LOL! Where’s my magic wand?

  5. Great job, David. I’d also like to point out that editors work at different speeds, too. Which is why many freelancers I’ve spoken with don’t charge by the hour.

    1. It’s funny, I used to have a real problem with hourly rates because a) the client has to trust you’re putting in the time you claim you are, and b) the point you just made. But the algorithm or equation I included in the post takes care of that completely. Because when you edit the sample, you can gauge the number of pages per hour it’s likely to take and factor that in with your hourly rate. Seriously, it’s foolproof.

  6. Great info, David. Now all I need is a winning lottery ticket and I’ll be ready to publish. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
    (clearly, I’ll need the $5000 edit)

    1. I know the feeling, Alan. The thing is, ideally, ask yourself what your hourly rate should be, based on the chart I linked to in Part 1 and on what you think a fair yearly salary ought to be, then use the calculation I included in this article and tweak it as necessary until you’re able to arrive at something that balances fairness to you as a professional with specialized skills with consideration for the authors whose budgets may not stretch particularly far. It’s a delicate balance and I know I for one lean toward cheating myself rather than others. I’m still tweaking, in that sense. (No, I’m not a meth head.)

  7. I’m doing far less editing and a lot more typesetting these days – and cover design. I’m enjoying it a lot more … sometimes better than writing creatively. I guess I’m going through a phase.

    1. I’ve grown to love editing, the sheer exuberant variety of the English language, almost as much as I love writing. But you just reminded me of something else, Rosanne: freelance editors are also having to spread themselves even thinner via having to learn a fair amount about formatting, especially e-formatting. The danger is that we become jacks/jills-of-all-trades and masters of none.

    1. Really glad you enjoyed it, Melissa. Feel free to pick my (mostly scattered) brains in the future. I’m far from an “expert” but I live this, and am constantly learning new and fascinating aspects of the editing process.

  8. Cool article. I like the list of everything we look out for. I’ve known for a long time that I am seriously undercharging! 🙂 But then it’s impossible to charge independent authors the same amount that you can earn by working at a publishing company.

  9. Speaking as someone who wouldn’t have known where on earth to begin when choosing an editor, both of your posts have been of tremendous interest and help. I shall be printing and pinning to my bulletin board for future reference too. :)))

    1. Very happy to have apparently done what I set out to do with these posts: to demystify, without adopting some phony “expertise” pose or stipulating yet more black-and-white rule-setting. Thanks for the feedback, Jo.

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