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Freelance Editing: What You're Actually Paying For

With self-publishing on the rise, more and more freelance editors are offering their services. Along with this increase, the internet has provided plenty of articles on how to find a good freelance editor, why you need one, why you don’t need one, what to do if things go badly, etc.

In the comments on those articles, there’s almost always someone who asks why freelance editors charge so much. Many editors charge a flat rate per word or page–for example, Bear and Black Dog Editing, my company, charges $6/pg for a single editor working on a full manuscript edit. It can add up quickly, and writers often balk at the $1500+ price tag. (The Editorial Freelancer’s Association has a page detailing average rates for various levels of service, emphasizing that these are a rough guideline.)

That’s fair–it’s quite a bit of money. In having this discussion, though, I’m reminded of graphics that make the round of the internet from time to time with headers like:

PHOTOGRAPHERS
What you think you’re paying for v. What you’re actually paying for

You’ve seen them. They typically have two columns. The one on the left has one line with the bare minimum of the job (whether photographer, event musician, etc) and the one on the right goes into more detail.

I figured it was about time we went into a little more detail about why freelance editors charge what they charge, so I put my head together with some of my editor friends and came up with this list.

What you think you’re paying for:

Someone to read your manuscript and provide feedback

What you’re actually paying for:

Time spent on the manuscript itself

Yes, we do read your manuscript and provide feedback, but it’s not as simple as all that. As Kisa Whipkey, freelancer and Editorial Director at REUTS Publications, said in her post What it Takes to be an Editor: it’s not just about fixing grammar. Nor is it just providing reactions to the story, the way a beta reader does.

An editor’s job is to see the story both as a series of components and as a whole organism. We’re basically mad scientists, optimizing the whole by tinkering with the parts. This requires hours of reading, and re-reading, and absorbing, and experimenting. And it is all on a case-by-case basis. Yes, there are problems we see a lot and we do have skeleton solutions ready–but we fill those in with your characters, your story, your world, your goals.

As my business partner Ash says: “How long did you spend writing your book? How easy do you think it is to take that work apart and improve it?”

Every editing project has its own challenges, and the kind of dedicated, personal attention good editors provide takes time, often quite a lot. It can also be as draining as writing a book. Editing is neither robotic nor formulaic.

Time spent on you

We know some comments can be hard to hear. Believe me, we are incredibly aware. Most editors are interested in helping writers improve, which means that we spend a lot of time crafting comments that explain why we changed what we did or why we think such and such needs to go. We also strive to give those critiques in a friendly and helpful tone, and balance criticism with praise.

Some editors take a more tough-love approach than others. It’s important to find an editor whose critique style you’re comfortable with, whether you don’t mind harsher comments or whether sarcasm in an edit letter is not your thing at all. Many editors can adapt their tone to your preference if you let them know which end of the spectrum you’re on–doing so is all part of the time spent on you as a valued client.

Editors want to form relationships with their clients, because trust makes it a lot easier to work together on a manuscript. For those clients who are self-publishing, we hope to form the kind of bond with them that traditionally published authors often experience with their in-house editors, and facilitate a long-term working arrangement.

Time and money for undergrad or graduate training

Like most professionals these days, we went to college, and like most former college students, we spent–and are still paying back–a lot of money to do it. A lot of people assume college is a given expense these days, but let us not forget that it’s meant to be an investment, and one that will eventually be returned in wages, and then fed back into the economy as spending dollars. That cycle gets broken without a living wage, in any line of work.

Time and money spent on books, conferences, and further education

But education doesn’t end with academia. Our job is dependent on our knowledge of literary trends and we can’t do our job well if we stick our heads in the same old sand. We buy new books on writing techniques (we write new books on writing techniques), we attend conferences and connect with our colleagues, with agents, with booksellers and with writers. We take classes to expand and hone our skill set.

All that costs money.

Time watching the market and identifying trends

Market trends (i.e. what books are selling) are as important as style trends for an editor. If your goal is to self-publish, we need to be aware of where your book sits on the proverbial shelf and what company it’s in. If your goal is traditional publishing, where agents and acquisitions editors look for originality with extreme prejudice, we need to be able to help your book stand out from recent sales and best sellers.

This means subscriptions to Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace. It also means tons of time devoted to reading new releases. There’s a reason editors tend to specialize in genres or categories. There’s not enough time in the world for us to be well-versed in the market of every genre or category.

Business costs

This includes maintaining a website and paid advertising, as well as time spent marketing and networking. It also includes promotional materials, such as the free first five pages critiques my company gives away on Twitter every month. Then there’s the cost of professional memberships with organizations like the Editorial Freelancer’s Association.

On top of all of that: taxes. A substantial amount of freelance revenue goes back in taxes, since we’re responsible for tracking and paying them ourselves as opposed to having an employer handle it.

Equipment

We often don’t think of computers or software as professional equipment, but for many people, they are. The laptop I’m working on right now is nearly five years old, ancient as far as computers are concerned. If it craps out, I need to be able to go and purchase a replacement immediately, because my job depends on it.

Microsoft Word, used by most writers, is also not free despite its ubiquity.

The cost of living

My company is still less than a year old, which means that the majority of our fees go straight back into the business account to build our presence and cover those business costs I mentioned. But, eventually it will contribute meaningfully to my household income.

– – – – –

Here’s a break-down for an example job to illustrate how the high payment might be spread across all the factors I’ve just outlined.

Time spent on a manuscript can vary quite a lot depending on many factors, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll use averages. I average about six pages per hour on a manuscript. So if you have a 300 page book, that takes me about fifty hours. If you pay me $1800, that’s about $36 dollars an hour (gross, meaning before taxes).

But: I only spend two, maybe three hours a day sitting down working on a manuscript. The rest of my day is devoted to blog posts, marketing, communication and networking, market research, etc. My wage for those things comes out of the payment I receive for editing. My $70 bucks for two hours of editing is my wage for an eight hour work day (often longer), so it ends up being a lot closer to $9/hr. 

Don’t let the lump sum fool you–for the most part, freelance editors are hardly swimming in profits.

If you’re interested in a freelance editor’s services but can’t afford a full edit, don’t think that’s the end of it! I can only speak for myself and my company on this matter, but Bear and Black Dog is always very happy to work with writers on staggered payment schedules. We also have economical packages for first five pages and first chapters, and since we charge by the page we can also do specific amounts short of a full edit–say, first fifty pages, or first one hundred pages. As freelancers, we are incredibly flexible in this way. 

I’m a writer as well as an editor, so I understand the emotional and financial hesitation to pay someone for critiquing your manuscript. However, it’s important that we don’t channel those concerns into disrespect for freelance editors or their rates. Editing is a job that requires skills and time, and it must be treated and compensated just like any skilled work.

Special thanks to Kisa Whipkey, Emma Adams, and Ash Yuhas for contributing to this post!

5 thoughts on “Freelance Editing: What You're Actually Paying For

  1. Thanks for breaking down the work that goes into freelance editing. It is interesting how people really only consider the product they are getting, not the amount of work that goes into that product.

    1. Definitely. It happens so frequently, especially in creative industries.

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