I wrote an article for ALLI about book editing that got posted with the title Do Novice Authors Really Need an Editor?
It’s stirring up a lot of debate, because it suggests that some authors may be better off not paying for an editor.
However because the article was too long, a lot of the original details, including the cost and service comparison, got cut out.
I’m going to post them here instead.
How should you choose an editor? How much should you pay?
Although these questions on editing have been tackled from indie authors who have worked with several different editors on their own books, as far as I know there hasn’t been a quality article from the other side (from the editors themselves) besides trivial and pointless posts meant to drum up new business.
A bit about me.
I started an editing company in 2006 while studying my MA in English Literature. I was tired of teaching and preferred the work-from-home lifestyle. Over the next four years, I edited thousands of documents, essays, academic articles and resumes, but the most interesting (and difficult) work was editing books. Now I manage two different editing companies and employ about 15 editors. We edit as many as 20 books a month. As such, although my opinions may not mesh with the standard self-publishing credo, I have far more first-hand knowledge of the book editing process than most authors.
The main source of discussion on my guest post is the (shocking) claim that editing can be skipped, when most publishing experts claim that it’s necessary.
In short, my arguments are these:
Editing a bad book will not make it become a good book.
If the story or content is flawed, no amount of cleaning – even if you make every sentence beautiful – will fix the book’s commercial viability.
And since editing is often the largest publishing cost (often over $1000, whereas cover design, formatting and everything else together can be had for much less) editing is the biggest decision and largest investment you will make self-publishing your book.
If you are an established writer and you have experience with book sales, and an audience of hungry fans, and the money to afford editing, of course you should do it.
A good book editor will significantly improve the writing and catch all the mistakes.
But if this is your first book and you have no following, and you’re on a tight budget, I don’t think paying for an editor is an absolute or obvious decision.
Something like 90% of self-published books will never earn back the money they invest.
So for a lot of authors, recommending they pay a lot of money for editing is encouraging vanity publishing (doing it for yourself, not for income).
And although a polished and clean book improves your chances of success, as I mentioned, it won’t save a badly written story. If the book isn’t selling and nobody is reading it, the money you spent editing was wasted.
Skipping editing, or using a variety of free or cheap options to get it pretty clean but not immaculate, and then spending some money on marketing or advertising, might work better for you if you have a limited budget and have to make tough choices.
Does higher price mean better quality? (Sometimes, but not as much as you believe)
When we’re talking about book editing, we’re actually talking about a variety of different things. We could be talking about a manuscript review which includes comments and feedback on bigger picture stuff. Or the kind of editing that includes significant rewriting, improved word choice and restructuring. Or the “line-edit” or careful proofread which catches all mistakes and typos, especially focusing on punctuation – and even these terms are often confused or used differently by different websites or services.
Just as a basic rubric for pricing, take a look at selfpublishing.com’s list of services.
A “Level 1 Edit” helps to prepare an already well-structured manuscript of any genre for publication. This is just a basic “fixing” of grammar and spelling, but doesn’t include rewrites or restructuring.
Price: $0.03220 per word
Cost $1610.00 for a 50,000 word document
A “Level 2 Edit” is recommended primarily for manuscripts needing attention to organization, presentation, and sentence structure to clarify meaning and smooth the flow of the text. It fixes story, flags bigger issues, and is more ‘in-depth’ than just plain editing.
Price: $0.0400 per word
Cost $2000.00 for a 50,000 word document.
They also have a “Level 3 Edit” which includes 3 stages of writing and rewriting, with a final pass before print.
Price: $0.0868 per word
Cost $4340.00 for a 50,000 word document
Createspace has basic copyediting at just 0.016 per word, but this is just for typos, grammar, errors – no rewriting or improved word choice (so they should really call it ‘proofreading’).
Their comprehensive copyediting is $0.021/word, which includes “Recommendations for improving the structure and flow, as well as review for consistency in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.”
And then there’s the “Comprehensive copyediting plus” for $0.028/word, for authors who want “intensive editing and assistance with the most fundamental aspects of their manuscripts. With this service, a professional editor will focus on basic sentence structure and overall composition and suggestions to improve both the content and technical elements of the book.” This is a good deal, but it’s still just one pass.
The problem with most editing services is that they will fix the trees, but not the forest: they will clean up the book but won’t address the real problems that will kill book sales.
With my first editing company, Paper Perfect Editing, I assumed most indie authors were price-conscious and needed the best possible editing service at the lowest possible price. So we do one round of editing that includes copyediting, proofreading and tons of comments on big picture stuff like plotting, character motivation and consistency.
Comparatively, 50000 words of editing costs only $900 and is at least a “level two” by Self-Publishing.com’s standards and on par with Createspace’s Copyditing Plus.
The problem with “one pass” editing is that the most important things are the problems we flag in the comments, and authors will need to heavily rewrite after reviewing our comments, and they will likely need more editing once they’ve finished. The process is backwards: what should happen is that editors read the story first and help authors fix the big problems and improve the story or organization, and only after the rewriting is done, go through for a careful line edit.
While PaperPerfect is a good, affordable option to editing, with impeccable quality and well worth the price, the site isn’t setup specifically to help authors.
With that in mind I’ve recently put together a new site that is a little more “highbrow.” I’ve focused on providing the options that authors really need the most, in the order that they need them.
We call ourselves The Book Butchers, and you can check us out at www.bookbutchers.com.
Our lowest option is “The Quick Kill” at 2cents per word, which is a rough industry average (assuming a standard page is 250 words, that comes out to $5/page or $20 per 1000 words).
That price involves a proofread/copyedit/line-edit – including improved word choice, rewriting and restructuring.
But we offer packages that include more for authors who can afford them. Our highest price is “The Perfect Murder” at 6cents per word, which has three rounds – a manuscript review for feedback, followed by a close round of copy editing, followed by a final proofread.
If you’re publishing a book, and thinking about paying for editing, make sure you get something that addresses the major problems with your story first. You could also be using a reader group for this. If you haven’t gotten any feedback on the story, or had any reviewers other than your friends and family take a look, paying a lot of money just for someone to clean up the writing is probably a waste because it won’t improve book sales.
Your book’s success depends on the story, not necessarily the writing – readers will tolerate a few typos in a book; especially if you acknowledge in the front matter that you’re indie publishing and don’t have a huge budget, and you’d appreciate if they tell you about any typos they find. (I do this on purpose actually, because it makes me seem more human and increases reader engagement. Make people feel included, admit that you’re not perfect, and you’ll find people are much more tolerant of your mistakes).
Of course too many and they’ll never finish the story.
Same thing if the writing is too bad.
It’s possible (but in my experience unlikely) that you have an incredible, life-changing story but can’t spell or put a sentence together or have terrible grammar. In that case, the money spent on an editor would be well-worth it.
Paying for something like The Book Butchers – a service that looks at your story and helps you tell it powerfully – could help book sales. But most editing services just clean up the writing without actually improving the story, in which case the money could probably be used in more beneficial ways. At the very least, you should get some free sample edits from a few book editing sites to see what they change and recommend.
I don’t like taking money from people unless I’m making them even more money.
So even though I’m involved in several book editing companies, I would never advise all self-publishing authors to dish out money for editing.
First I’d want to review their book and see the potential earnings (based on the quality of the book and the popularity of the genre).
Then I’d identify how much editing/revising/rewriting the book actually needs, and what type of budget the author has.
I know a lot of self-publishing authors who are having trouble supporting their families and they see their book as their golden ticket: publishing advice can turn into financial planning advice, and I don’t gamble with people’s lives. If I take someone on as a client, I want to help them make money.
Getting a book professionally edited does not necessarily result in more book sales and higher earnings.
Is it a good idea? Yes.
Should you do it if you can? Probably, yes.
Do I personally do it for the books I publish? NO – never.
I self-edit well and ask my readers to pick up stray typos, there are always a handful. I save thousands of dollars I can put into book marketing to make sure my books hit the bestsellers lists and stay there.
Is it a complicated and gray area, depending mostly on the variables for each book and author? Absolutely.
Are people going to comment on this post declaring that they believe all authors have a responsibility to pay for editing because they need to “raise the bar” and project a certain level of professionalism before people take them seriously? Yes, most likely.
Opinionated people have a lot of opinions. They are wrong about half the time.