Why Does Editing Cost So Much? (Part 2)

It’s the rare book that doesn’t require a good stiff edit.

–Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

The Breakdown

With the importance of editing well established, it’s time to find out how editors figure their fees. It may seem mysterious, but it’s really quite a simple formula:

amount of work × rate of pay = the cost of editing

Different editors may charge by the hour, by the word, by the page, or a flat fee. However, all of these metrics translate into an estimate of how much work will be required of them. The other variable in the equation, rate of pay, is based on the service requested.

Here’s a breakdown of how the two variables are determined.

Amount of work

Length, complexity, schedule, and level of edit are the main factors in determining how much work a particular manuscript will demand. Very long manuscripts, even the well-written ones, take a lot of time to read and edit. Very complex manuscripts, such as those with a significant number of references or large amounts of artwork, take a lot of time and even more brain power to keep the details straight. Short deadlines mean the editor may have to put other projects aside and work nights and weekends to finish on time. A stiff developmental edit, which covers high-level issues such as arrangement of individual chapters, transitions from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph, and organization of the book as a whole, requires vision, attention to detail, and an impeccable ability to work with authors at their most vulnerable.

An editor evaluates these factors and balances them against her experience as to the amount of effort it will take to complete the project on time and with the highest possible quality. Cost estimates based on word count, page count, or a flat fee all attempt to capture this amount of work. Pay by the hour is easiest for most people to understand, and often these other metrics come down to how much of the editor’s time a project will take.

Rate of pay

Different services are charged at different rates. Often the rate is commensurate with the amount of work required, so developmental editing is more than copyediting, and copyediting is more than proofreading.  Why is this? As I mentioned in part 1 of this post, the cost of editing tends to be a question of value added. If your book is in terrible shape, the value your editor brings to the project increases significantly. At times it would seem the editor deserves coauthorship. In place of that, the editor is paid up front for her work.

For standard rates you can expect to pay, see the Editorial Freelancers Association rate chart. These rates are based on a national survey of what publishing professionals charge. If they seem high to you — “$45 an hour? I wish!” — remember that the self-employed pay higher taxes and are responsible for their own health insurance, a significant burden for some.

When looking at rates, particularly per page or per hour, it’s important to note that your editor does not skim through your work. I recall one author saying to me, “Four dollars a page? I can read a page like that!” as she snapped her fingers. That may be true if you’re simply reading for pleasure. Editors, conversely, who question every word and every sentence as they read, are generally able to edit between 5 and 10 pages an hour. This takes into account the two or three passes through the manuscript needed to ensure as many errors as possible have been corrected.

How You Can Save on Editing Costs

Look at what the variables are that drive cost. Which of these can you control? For example, is the length of your book on target? Does it pass the bikini test — short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the subject? Is your art program (photographs, drawings, charts, and graphs) appropriate for your genre? Have you set aside a reasonable amount of time for the editing to take place? Have you done everything you can to achieve a manuscript in tip-top shape?

Some of the more expensive aspects of your manuscript may not be up for debate. If you are writing an exhaustive history book, for instance, you probably need a long manuscript with lots of artwork and plenty of reference material. In that case, to save money you need to have a flexible schedule and to prepare a manuscript that is as clean as your ability allows. If you opt not to perform a thorough revision of your own work yet want a high-quality product, you are essentially choosing to pay someone else to do those revisions for you. If you are concerned about costs, do your part to alleviate some of your editor’s work.

As with all services, you are encouraged to request bids from multiple editors until you find the one who can both meet your needs and meet your budget. Part of finding the right editor is finding someone you trust is earning what you are paying her.

(Read Part 1 of this post here.)

Like this blog? Look for Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, coming Fall 2014.

8 thoughts on “Why Does Editing Cost So Much? (Part 2)

  1. scieditor October 9, 2013 / 11:37 AM

    It’s really not a mystery when you explain it that way. My clients also appreciate that it is reasonable to command a living wage or even a good wage, considering the level of expertise and experience a professional editor has.

    I recently took flak from a prof who wanted to know why journals could do the work for a fraction of the cost. “Because journals are notorious for paying half the wage I can get at a cafe and for relying on peers to do the work for free,” I replied with what I hope was a jovial laugh showing how hilarious I find the whole situation to be. (“Peers who have themselves _paid_ to be published in the journal,” I then added.)

    Think I am ready for the stand-up stage?

    • popediting October 9, 2013 / 12:30 PM

      It’s great to know your clients understand the value of editing. Those are the clients I adore!

  2. Sophronia Cay October 9, 2013 / 12:51 PM

    Was there a Part 1?

  3. Stan Faryna October 10, 2013 / 9:02 AM

    I appreciate a great editor.

    In the face of failing economies, the lower standards/skills of the average reader, and pressing/pending market adjustments, can an editor expect to get $45/hour? Perhaps, rates should also be considered in the light of the stakes, the objectives and the forecasted outcome of the material.

    • popediting October 10, 2013 / 9:18 AM

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I believe editors should be paid for their work, not for the potential earnings of a particular book. We cannot rely on authors to do the required work to market the book in order for that book to reach its full potential and we are not paid royalties. As some writers write on a work-for-hire basis, so do editors edit under this model. You can find editors who charge $15/hour, but you better double-check the quality of that work.

  4. Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) October 10, 2013 / 10:41 AM

    Even considering making the following comment makes me light headed, and I do have a counterpoint, but here it is: typos don’t hurt sales. Or don’t seem to, by many reports.

    Therefore, proofreading does not add value to a great number of products. (I sense it matters more for “promotional materials” and nonfiction, including reports and marketing bumpf.) And that makes “pricing according to stakes” an absurd proposition. That is not a living wage.

    Professional experienced editors across the markets command a mean of $45/hr according to the latest survey by the Editors’ Association of Canada, with an appreciable number commanding much higher rates.

    The 2011 survey by the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario shows proofreaders earning an average of $65/hr. This quality control service is billed out at an average of $88/hr!

    Links to each of these reports: http://www.copyediting.com/how-many-errors-trigger-reprint

    It is possible to find a an editor on fiver. As Katherine said, you get what you pay for. You might have better results swapping manuscripts with a friend or getting feedback from thousands of readers on Wattpad.

  5. susannah wight October 14, 2013 / 5:30 AM

    At least some of my editing is dealing with basic grammatical and style points that the author would probably have noticed if she or he had bothered to read the text more than once. First drafts of articles or books take a lot longer to copy-edit than second or third drafts.

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