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 view that only authors who can afford editing should be allowed to publish.
I even made a free video series about self-editing your book.
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 mistakes, and maybe refreshing the content a little.
Interestingly, I’ve seen authors complain that the editors they hired took too many liberties when fixing things; and I’ve also seen authors complain that they only fixed mistakes and left developmental comments but didn’t really make significant changes.
Personally, I’ve discovered I’m best as 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 do I know when your novel is ready for editing?
Here’s a frequent gripe: I often need to spend a dozen hours fixing poor punctuation and grammar. For example, putting commas inside of quote marks. Sure there are sometimes typos and slipups that are hard for grammar tools or spellcheckers to catch, but there should be tools that fix punctuation stuff so I don’t need to do everything manually and fix the same mistakes hundreds of times in a manuscript.
I get it though, it’s very boring work and authors don’t want to do it either. I just feel like, it’s a waste of my time, as someone who spent 10 years getting a phd in literature, when anybody can just run Grammarly and spend a day fixing all this stuff. So I’d recommend, at the very least, doing that. The more you clean it up, the more your editor can focus on the big things that actually matter.
What does a book editor do for a novel?
Depending on the level of service, an editor would fix punctuation, typos and spelling mistakes; trim or rephrase to avoid repetition; and comment on larger picture story development issues. They may be a bit like a writing coach as well, helping you with motivation and positive reinforcement (not their job, but an added benefit of paying for your writing is taking yourself seriously and having something on the line).
How much do editors change your novel?
That depends. If they need to spend a hundred hours on little mistakes, they’ll be too exhausted to do anything else. And they’ll react to the work as is; if it’s a real rough draft that probably isn’t ready to be edited, all that work will be wasted when you do significant rewrites.
That’s why, I’d use grammarly for basic stuff – and then you can probably skip a proofreader, and get a developmental editor, who will point out big picture, logistics stuff. The thing is though, almost all authors make all the same mistakes when trying to write a book. And there are simple rules and best practices you can learn; but most authors just do their best to put things together. So an editor will provide hundreds of developmental comments which may be very insightful, but are also pretty common and general. Here are a couple of lists, but I have others, of common things you can learn to check and fix yourself.
- 25 signs of amateur writing (first chapter red flags)
- The 6 signs of weak writing (how to tell if your book sucks)
These are things like, starting your story in the action, sticking to one tense and POV, properly formatting dialogue tags, adding in more scene description, building up emotional payout, and limiting information for powerful story reveals (by avoiding infodumps and backstory flashbacks too early). You can learn it; or you can pay an editor to tell you that you’re doing all these things wrong, and that you should rewrite and revise – that’s a great learning experience, but it’s a lot of work.
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. (Incidentally, I don’t recommend *any* self-publishing company or service, because most are vanity presses, which means you’re paying extra for mediocre 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 book 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 (but the writing can be great, and clean – and still completely unreadable. Story and intrigue is what drives reader engagement and attention).
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 (whether or not they’ve been edited).
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:
The Master Guide to Choosing The Best Book Editor
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:
And some more information on editing:
Best writing and editing software
- best writing software and apps
- best AI writers and chatGPT3
- Quillbot paraphrase – see my full review.
- Writing prompts generator
How much do book 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.
1cents per word for proofreading, and 2 cents per word for line edits, is a decent starting rate. You can also offer to edit for free to gain some experience and testimonials. You can start out on upwork or fivverr.com, instead of having a platform, or use facebook to promote your services. Setting up and running a website is expensive, not to mention driving traffic.
But if you can get the client, book editing is a decent gig. The average project is probably around $1500, so if you do 2 books a month (count on two weeks of heavy work) it can be lucrative. What you don’t want to do, is rush through everything and do a bad job; leaving too many mistakes or typos. Grammarly (which you SHOULD use to recheck yourself, because humans can’t catch everything) – also misses some things. Just because you can write well or think you’d make a great proofreader, doesn’t mean it’s true. You don’t see all the stuff you miss, and learning how to write powerful, compelling stories is a skill that may take years of learning, practice and study.
PS. If you’re looking for a book editing job, the average salary is $30,000-$60,000… probably on the lower side until you’ve paid your dues. It can be better to become a freelance editor in many cases. There’s a lot of demand but also a lot of competition.
And, it’s worth pointing out, there are some new AI writing tools that in many cases are already better than hiring a proofreader or developmental editor, so it may be increasingly difficult to prove your worth and value, and attract high-paying clients, when they could get help from an AI tool much cheaper.
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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.
I’m a veteran of a dozen software ‘how to’ books from the software major publishers, all with pro copy edits.
1) Good copy edits fixes most of the mistakes. Never all.
2) Unsympathetic copy edits will really drive the life out of lively writing. Beware!
3) ‘Correct’ English varies. Chicago-style includes serial commas (“1, 2, or 3”) but AP-style does not (“1, 2 or 3”). Chicago is only appropriate for textbooks. Again, beware.
A good copy edit is never a waste of money. But I agree entirely with your point. If you don’t have a lot of money marketing may be a much better use of your small budget.
Yeah I don’t mean to say it’s a waste of money… at least not directly. It’s a waste of money in that you won’t earn the money back, so it’s a bad investment, even if the value of the edit is worth the price you paid.
Personally… I think an editor should catch all the mistakes. I know it’s hard, but if an editor misses a handful of typos, grammar or spelling issues, I think that’s a big problem.
I know I’m late to this party, but I genuinely enjoyed reading this article while not always fully agreeing with it. As a freelance editor, it might be surprising that I agree with you about editing being a poor investment. I would still urge independent writers to do everything in their power to get their work edited, though, even if it’s via a high number of intense self-editing drafts and a fleet of beta readers.
But anyway, the one thing I wanted to address here was this: “an editor should catch all the mistakes.”
Yes, in an ideal world I would agree. But the reality is that even editors, who tend to be meticulous perfectionists, are still human. Also, one person’s “mistake” is another person’s style choice (see the serial comma mentioned by Martin Rinehart above). Many things considered errors by some (“alright” for “all right”) are not universally condemned and might well be in the process of becoming accepted by a fluid and living language such as ours. Is every comma splice wrong, for example, even in dialogue? What about POV shifts? The use of the past perfect tense? Fiction can make these grey (or gray!) areas even larger and less definable.
It’s admittedly anecdotal, but I’ve seen it said that every book contains at least one error, and that the average number of errors in any given book is around five or six. Likewise, the percentage of “catches” made by editors is, on average, around 95 or 96 percent. Now, to be honest, that seems dismayingly low; I for one wouldn’t be happy with my work if I only caught 96 percent of errors. But while aiming for 100 percent, I still have to acknowledge there will be a few stragglers that I’ll miss, as much as that pains me to even say out loud.
To illustrate: I picked a book off my shelf the other day, one I hadn’t thumbed through in a good while. It’s titled The Use and Abuse of the English Language (I’m trying html here, but not sure it will work), and one of the authors is the well-known war poet Robert Graves. Bear in mind this is a manual on proper writing by someone with plenty of credentials. So, I opened it to the first page and, to my complete astonishment, found a misspelling in the opening sentence. And compounding that astonishment was the fact that the misspelled word was “grammar” (they’d spelled it “grammer”). Incredible. Now, I’m glad I wasn’t that editor (or the authors), because that example is excruciatingly embarrassing, but it does show how these things can happen no matter how many eyes have gone over a manuscript.
I’ll leave it there, as my comment is already lengthy. Thanks for your post, Derek. I enjoyed reading it.
I totally disagree with that. Chicago-style is the correct way. The other way is incorrect. We are not writing in a newspaper. That is horrible advice.
Amen. I don’t correct people who omit the Oxford comma, because it’s a style choice on the part of the author–as long as they are consistent. But I do judge them harshly internally. The only reason it ever started being left out was to save a little room in newsprint. For any writing besides journalism, it should absolutely be used. Advising people against it is almost the only thing I recognize as heresy (the other would be telling people to use two spaces after a period).
Here’s where this analysis fails: You assume that an editor’s opinion of my story is something I want to hear. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe I just want to tell my stories my way, publish them, and let the few people in the galaxy who like my world view find them and enjoy them. Revolutionary concept, right? My story is “all wrong,” but I publish it, anyway.
I assume, if you want to make more than you earn, then focusing on a story more people enjoy is essential. Of course you don’t have to do it that way.
But in order for your readers to decide whether they like it or not, they it needs to be comprehensible. This is very difficult for the best writers to pull off without editors.
I’ve been reading books ever since i can remember, and i’m hoping to write my own fictional book. i’m only 16 which might be a little young for an author. my parents and most of my friends don’t believe i can do it, i really want to know if i should or not, how do i know when i can write a book?
You can do it! I know several successful authors who started young.
Just make sure you learn about plotting – use my “Plot Dot” guide, it will help.
You could always start by writing a short story or two, see how they feel before you tackle a novel. And don’t be too hard on yourself – 16 is pretty young, as you say. Most writers ned to write for a few years before they feel happy(ish) with their work.
I read your article with interest but I found your insistence that an editor should catch ALL mistakes a bit much. I tend to agree with David A. and the others. We’re human. We’re not perfect. What made me choke on your response the most was the fact that you have an error in your very first sentence of this very article!
Last year I started on online controversy with an article suggesting that indie authors shouldn’t pay for editing.
It should read:
Last year I started an online controversy…
So errors will be made. And the above one will not be caught by a spellchecker. I find them all the time with online articles! It’s rather annoying. It’s because people try to proofread on the screen which is much more difficult to do. You should print the article out on paper. Proofread it. Then re-copy it or re-upload it or whatever you do to get it back up on the internet. I tend to be less critical of people making errors in chat rooms and posts like this because obviously they are just typing it on the screen and won’t be going through the additional rigorous copy editing and proofreading. But people that post articles on the internet should make an effort to have them be error free. But that being said. Don’t expect a copy editor or proofreader to catch 100% of the errors 100% of the time.
Just my two cents worth.
“The Print Craftsman”
I use StyleWriter4 and PerfectIt software to filter manuscripts after core editing – invaluable. IMHO any writer should set out to write the very best that’s inside of them, and get as many eyes on it as possible before publishing; what a gift to the world!
Glad to see this article. I recently finished an editing job where I made some major mistakes. I lowballed on the rate (I was trying to give somebody a break), and then by midway through I came to realize that a flat rate was risky from the editor’s end. The manuscript needed a LOT of work (about 2-3 times what I originally thought), and although you can say that an editor should ignore the kind of writing mistakes they weren’t paid to correct, it is very hard to do in practice.
I was able to convince the writer to pay 50% higher than the rate quoted, but that didn’t come close to compensating me for time spent.
The problem is that many indie titles are no-budget affairs and they can’t be expected to pay 700-1500 for what you call “Level 3 editing.” From my standpoint, the best way to ensure fair compensation is to edit only manuscripts you expect to get royalties from. (I run a publishing company on the side).
As I said, this person was a special case. She had an amazing life story and didn’t have strong writing skills. I’m glad I finished the edit job (even though I feel I lost money and time in the deal). She definitely got a good deal, and she definitely needed to hire an editor. But for later works, I recommended that she needs to improve her writing and editing skills where she can write tighter text. Hiring an editor fails to solve this basic problem.
I hope that she will spend time examining my edits so she will know what mistakes to avoid for next time.
By the way, I learned something else from this gig. The online version of MS Word is usable but extremely slow for long manuscripts– Always use the desktop version.
Your tutorials has been a great help, am presenting following your step by step of laying books on Microsoft Word to do a book layout for a recently acquired client. i had always used In-design, or Corel-draw or of old page-maker, but i now have to learn how to lay books for print on Microsoft word. The client is asking for cost of laying these books on word, can you please tell me what the rates are like so that i don’t over charge or cheat myself in the deal.
For this one am working on, the original word pages is up to 52 pages. Please kindly advice. Thank you for your continuous assistance.