Last year I started on online controversy with an article suggesting that indie authors shouldn’t pay for editing. What I mean in the post, which you should read (the comments too!), is that paying a lot of money to get a book edited may not be a smart business decision if your book isn’t going to sell. I also disagree with the elitist view that only authors who can afford editing should be allowed to publish.
Or watch this rant I made in Thailand wearing my dinosaur shirt.
But let’s say you have some money and have decided on hiring an editor for your book.
How do you pick one? How do you know if they’re any good?
There are different roles: there’s the person who can see what’s wrong with your book and how to fix the story or structure (rare); the person who knows the market and knows how to position and package your book to sell to your audience (also rare); and the people who are great at English and can help you sound smart and eloquent (copyeditors) and the people who can spot typos and mistakes (proofreading).
Usually, when you hire an editor you’re getting a copyeditor or proofreader.
- Note: People also refer to line-editing or LineEdits. I’m not great with rules and punctuation so I will never, ever punctuate that term consistently. A line editor generally will freshen up the word choice or sentence structure with an eye for stylistic issues.
- A copy-editor will sometimes also do this, but with more of a focus on punctuation and correctness.
- Generally, editors do a bit of both and line-edits and copy-edits are frequently meshed together into a messy category of just fixing all the shit.
I myself, I’ve discovered, am a passive developmental editor: I can absolutely find all the typos and improve all the writing… but I’ll sulk and hate it because I desperately want the power to fix your story… to such an extent I only accept clients who just want to allow me to use my best skills and provide detailed manuscript critiques and a review of big picture issues, without wasting time with all the little stuff that is probably going to get cut anyway.
How much should you pay for book editing?
For editing and proofreading, it can be difficult to choose an editor. They probably won’t have a gallery of samples you can look at – nor will they share stories of unhappy clients (only glowing reviews). Most editors work as single person businesses, with usually unprofessional looking websites (which doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing, so look past that). Or you can get editing services through a big company, but they are paying the editors much less (better to pay an editor directly if you can).
And every editor is different, and we all miss things or catch different things. Ideally they will be a much better writer than you are (but maybe not). I was a book editor for several years, and now I manage a book editing company. It’s a difficult business.
We try to pair up authors with the best editors for their project. We hire only the best editors. But books are so long, and often the things that matter the most (the story) are beyond help, as the author thinks they are finished and aren’t open to major rewrites.
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 had 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.
My first editing company, was a good, affordable option to editing, but the site wasn’t setup specifically to help authors. With that in mind I recently used my publishing contacts to recruit some talented editors, and set up shop as The Book Butchers. We’re getting close to our 200th happy client.
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 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.
Editing a bad book will not make it become a good book.
EDIT: I don’t mean that your book is “bad” – just that it may not have a story that appeals and satisfies enough readers to have it earn money.
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 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 95% 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).
If the book isn’t selling and nobody is reading it, the money you spent editing was wasted. (“Wasted” is too harsh. It’s a valuable life experience… but if you were expecting to earn a return on investment, you’ll be disappointed).
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.
For a big list of high quality book editors, check out this post on Kindlepreneur:
Improve your book without an editor
Editing is a big expense, and it doesn’t usually solve the main thing: the content or story. Even the greatest editor can’t rewrite your book for you, they can just improve what you’ve already got. That’s why it’s SO important to study the craft of writing and story architecture yourself, to at least forge the rough shape that an editor can polish.
Here are some unmissable writing resources:
- 25 signs of amateur writing (first chapter red flags)
- The 5 stages of book editing your manuscript needs
- How to write a GREAT book in a month
And some more information on editing:
How much do editors make?
If you’re here thinking about hanging out your hat and becoming an editor, great! There’s a big need for your services. I have been meaning to organize some resources to help editors get trained and ready for clients, but you can help yourself by going through my writing resources and making sure you understand the basics of writing quality fiction and nonfiction (everybody/anybody can find typos. If you want to be an editor, you need to be able to offer much more).
– start building a reputation with low pricing or free samples
– get testimonials and reviews
– make sure you know how you’re different/better
– charge accordingly (this will be a balance of the type of people you’re attracting and their budget).
Authors pay an average of $2500 to edit their book, though that skews towards new/uninformed authors. Legacy authors publishing lots of books probably have editors that edit books for around $500… but these are *great* authors writing commercial fiction which means it really does just need a quick fine-tuning; as opposed to most authors first-draft first-ever manuscripts which are a complete mess will take months of heavy, mind-numbing effort.
Honestly the brain power to get through a first rough draft and actually try to fix or edit it… don’t underestimate the amount of mental and psychological pressure you will face trying to do this for a living; and don’t feel bad when you end up procrastinating and eating your feelings. Editing can be fun and easy, or it can be brutal and soul-destroying.
That said, every project is satisfying when you finally get it done and see how much better you’ve made it.
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I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.