Let’s get real for a minute: authors are very poorly compensated. It’s amazing really, considering the industry wouldn’t exist without them, but that’s the reality. Most authors don’t earn very much from the work they create, and so they have to be economical when it comes to what money they will spend to get their book ready.
Following that thread, one of the common topics I see come up amongst writers is how expensive copy-editors are and whether they are worth paying for. So that’s what I’d like to cover here.
How much does a book editor cost? Well, it depends…
No two editors are the same
It’s practically impossible to give a number for how much a book editor costs because every editor is different. There are industry standard rates (more on that shortly), but some copy-editors charge more than that and some charge much less. Some like to charge by the word, some by the page, and others prefer a flat fee.
However, this estimate can also vary depending on the level of editing required.
What kind of editing?
There are two parts to this point. First, there’s the question of which type of editing you’re after: developmental editing, line or copy-editing, or proofreading. Generally, developmental editing is the most expensive and proofreading the least – that is because the level of intervention required at each stage is significantly different. Developmental editing is a big task that involves overhauling your manuscript. Proofreading is sweeping up those last few typos that you missed.
Second, there’s the question of how much of a certain service you need. For instance, I may have two authors come to me for copy-editing an 80,000-word novel, but one could require much more editing than the other and so I would charge more. If it will take more time and work on my part, I have to account for that.
Fast, cheap or good
You’ve heard this before, right? You can have something fast, cheap or good but you can only pick two. If you want it fast and cheap, it won’t be good. If you want it good and fast, it won’t be cheap.
On average, it can take me between 25 and 40 hours to edit an 80,000-word manuscript (again, depending on the level of editing required). That involves two pass-throughs, one for intensive edits and one to double-check after the author has made changes. I can only do about four or five hours of good editing in a day (it’s intensive work!), so those 25–40 hours are usually spread out over about two or three weeks, depending on how quick the client is to review the first pass-through.
If I have to speed up that edit to get it done faster, then I’m either going to have to compromise on the quality, do only one pass-through, or I have to increase the price because I’d be working ‘overtime’.
There are a number of organisations for copy-editors and proofreaders, and they all have their own suggested rates, though there is some overlap and consistency. Two main bodies (CIEP and EFA) suggest the following (correct at time of posting):
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP)
Proofreading – £25.40 / $31.22 per hour
Copy-editing – £29.60 / $36.38 per hour
Developmental editing – £34.00 / $41.79 per hour
The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA)
Proofreading – £24 / $35 per hour
Copy-editing – £32 / $40 per hour
Developmental editing – £36 / $45 per hour
Unrealistically low rates
I’ve seen editors who charge, say, £100 to edit an 80,000-word novel. Let’s take that figure and leap back to my metrics above. Assuming the manuscript requires lighter copy-editing, I’d be looking at 25 hours for this job. That works out to £4 per hour – minimum wage in the UK is currently £8.91.
Even if I was able to squash those 25 hours into one week, and did four of these jobs in a month (hello, burnout!), that would give me £400, which would just cover my share of the rent (it wouldn't come close if I was still in London), not to mention my bills or food costs. Taking a wider look at finances, being self-employed, I also have to account for the fact that if I get ill or have a family emergency, there's no paid sick leave, so any day off comes at a cost.
Then, as an Intermediate Member of CIEP, working towards becoming a Professional Member, I need to keep my skills updated by doing regular training and attending events. These things are not free. I'm not listing all of this so that you'll feel sorry for me – I chose to go self-employed, and authors have their expenses too – I just want to highlight what I have to factor in when I draft a quote.
Believe me, I wish I could charge next to nothing for my editing services, because I would love to see so many of the fantastic stories out there get published and shared with the world. But I can’t, because I have to be economical too.
By no means do I want to discredit the editors who do charge these low rates. I don’t mean to imply that they edit to a lower standard – it could be that they have a separate stream of income that allows them to do editing for much cheaper. But me, I’m in this full time and so these rates truly are unrealistic for my situation.
Do you need to pay for a copy-editor?
If you’re aiming for the traditional publishing route, then no. You can still hire a copy-editor if you want to give your book the best shot, but lots of agents work with their authors to edit a manuscript, so it will see that level of review anyway – probably many times over – and that expense doesn’t have to land on the author. In these cases, it might be more beneficial to go for a query package edit or a manuscript critique instead.
If you’re aiming for self-publishing, then yes. At least, it should be something you strongly consider, because all books need editing and you can only do so much yourself. As an editor, even I don’t think I’m capable of competently self-editing my own fiction because I’m too close to the story.
For self-publishers, you are effectively taking on all the roles of a traditional publishing house – editing, cover design, marketing, sales – and that means bearing the cost of those services, too.
Can you reduce the cost of copy-editing?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve talked on this blog before about how you can prepare your novel for an editor, so if you want to reduce the cost of a copy-edit you should follow these steps and do as good a self-edit as you can. The less work your editor has to do, the cheaper the job should be.
Of course, there are some aspects that can’t be edited out. For example, it would still take me a good portion of time to read 80,000 words, even if they required very little editing. Short of slicing your manuscript down to a novella, that time is fairly fixed, but there is a lot that you, the author, can do to your own manuscript before sending it off.
For a quick summary, here are some things that will help:
Check your formatting. Honestly, one of the things that takes me the longest to correct in a client’s manuscript is inconsistent formatting.
Check for consistency. Have you spelled your main character’s name as Stephen on one page and Steven on another? Have you been consistent with your US or UK spelling choice?
Cut redundant words. ‘He nodded his head’ can be cut to ‘He nodded’. ‘She shrugged her shoulders’ can be ‘She shrugged’.
Correctly punctuate your dialogue. There are a number of things to cover here, so I’m going to defer to my Writing Stronger Dialogue blog series.
Another thing to bear in mind is that many editors will be willing to offer payment plans to independent authors. If you really like a particular editor, don’t be afraid to ask if they are open to spreading the payments over the course of the project to make it easier for you.
Editors want to help
I can’t speak for every editor, but I got into this business because I love stories. I love looking at them with a forensic eye and figuring out why the good ones work and why the bad ones don’t. I also adore working with authors and showing them how to improve their craft in different ways. Editing a manuscript isn’t just a task for me, it’s a journey that I go on with the author, and we overcome the obstacles and celebrate the successes together.
But while I do this for the love, not the money, it is my job. I still need to make a living from it, as much as you want to from sales of your book. And while none of this changes the fact that authors are under-compensated, I hope it helps you to see it from our side.