Edit – this is a very old article. A newer one comparing editing prices is “how much does editing cost and are you being ripped off?”
An author asked me today for advice about finding a book editor or proofreader. This is a big, serious, important question.
Getting your book edited is not only necessary (although you can get around it… more on that below) but also very expensive.
Editing and proofreading can easily be your biggest expense related to book publishing. So here’s a rather in-depth guide, I hope it answers some of your questions related to getting your book edited.
Why you should get your manuscript edited
Getting your book edited helps you have a better book. You are putting out a product, that will be enjoyed and judged. The easiest thing to ruin an otherwise good book is a typo or two. They’re hard to avoid with tens of thousands of words, but more than a couple and you’ll get bad amazon reviews like “should have hired an editor”. Those reviews never go away, and can kill book sales.
Typos and spelling errors mar your credibility as a professional author. In my first book, I wrote “Thrown” instead of “Throne”. Twice.
One reader was so put off about it, he trolled comments about my book and kept repeating how awful this was.
Although people are becoming more tolerant (I regularly find a few typos in trade-published books) and are willing to stretch the limits for indie authors, you don’t want to come off as unprofessional.
The difference between editing and proofreading
Proofreading is when someone goes through your book quickly looking for mistakes. Typos, punctuation errors, spelling problems.
Mistakes are clear and easy to fix (if they can be found). Sometimes you can find a proofreading service that is cheaper than editing, so if you’re sure this is all you need, you can save some money (but I advise against it.)
You can also just use a tool like Grammarly – the “free” version with “correctness” only will catch most issues.
A good editor, on the other hand, will do all of that but also fix and rewrite poorly worded phrases, sentence structure – so they are actually improving your writing and tidying things up. They will cut out (or “flag” with comments) any big problems.
(Note, some people will offer editing only but not proofreading, so make sure you know what they are doing for you. I prefer “all-in-one” services that just fix everything they can).
When I was doing full time proofreading, besides heavily editing text, I would leave around 10 comments on each page with content critique: characterization problems, plot twists, repetitive words, paragraphs or chapters with no purpose, character motivation, etc.
These are not things that can be “fixed” without a substantial rewrite – so the best I could do is leave a comment to share some writing wisdom.
Unfortunately, this leads into a rather big problem:
If you pay for a good editor, you will need to rewrite
Almost all authors think editing is the final stage before publication. They want someone to clean up their text so they can sell it.
However, the biggest problems with your book are not the typos – it’s the story.
If you had paid for someone to do a manuscript critique of your book, you would get tons of feedback on how to improve the story (which would be bad news, because you were excited about finishing and now you see all these new problems to fix).
Of course you don’t have to fix anything – but a better story will outsell a clean manuscript.
I used to feel bad, knowing I was helping authors improve their book but at the same time knowing they had lots of work to do, and that after rewriting, they would need to hire another editor.
What you need to do first – fix the story!
Join a book club or writing group. Avoid your friends and family – they won’t give you tough, critical advice (OK, some will… but it’s tough to know who is and who isn’t). You can easily set up a group on Craigslist in your city. Get five or so aspiring writers to agree to criticize each other’s work honestly. While you can ignore 1 or 2 criticisms from different people, if several people flag the same issues, you probably need to change it.
Authors are bad at handling criticism. They think they know best, because they understand things better than readers. Don’t be stubborn – listen to feedback (readers will never see the story as YOU see the story; and if they don’t get it, it’s because you haven’t written it well enough yet).
Questions to ask yourself:
- What’s the point of my book? Who will read and enjoy it?
- What happens? What’s the one, driving plot conflict?
- Are all my characters motivated in their choices? Or do they just do random stuff because they are really emotional (check how often your characters “burst into tears” or sob or whatnot. Over-emotional characters are weak and unbelievable.)
Do things happen by cause and effect, or by magical remedy?
If you’re writing fiction, check out my story plotting templates. It’s important to hit big, dramatic turning points in your story to build momentum, so that’s a quick fix. After that, you can take a look through my big list of common writing mistakes (you are definitely making most of these…)
How much should you pay for editing and proofreading?
I used to charge between 1.5cents and 2cents per word ($0.02USD/word). I still feel that 2 cents per word is average, or “reasonable”. So a 50,000 word book would cost $1000. That’s a big, scary fee – which is why I was uncomfortable charging more. However, I stopped editing, in part, because it’s way too much work for the money.
So if you’re looking for a super quality editor, 2cents per word might be too low (you couldn’t buy me at that price, and I’m awesome). These days, although I rarely take on editing work, I would have to charge at least 4 cents per word ($2000 for 50,000words).
But I know editors who charge 4, 5, and 6 cents per word as well. I don’t think they are better editors than I am, but they may have a better business model that allows them to charge more; they may also be better suited to certain projects than I am.
Price can fluctuate widely for book editing
You can *also* find great editors for much less. Experienced authors often pay $.01 or less, because they’ve done the work and found great book editors. Unfortunately, that’s a challenge.
Editors aren’t usually business owners; they’re freelancers. They have to have a website and get traffic or figure out advertising, or compete on freelance marketplaces for “gigs” often while dropping their prices.
You also need to understand that different editors have different strengths:
- Proofreaders are great at finding typos and inconsistencies.
- Line-editors improve the flow and word choice to make the writing more smooth.
- Copy-editors are meant to clean things up before publishing
- Developmental editors focus on big-picture story stuff.
Most editors wear multiple hats; and most of us charge varying rates depending on the type of editing service you need… and often offer an “editing package” that ranges from $500 to $5000 depending on lots of things. But just because we can sort of wear all the hats doesn’t mean we excel at or love every aspect of book editing.
I’m a firm believer that high-end developmental editing is great for new authors because it’ll help point out very basic, common issues that would have a dramatic impact on your manuscript… but not all editors understand story structure enough to really make a huge difference, and in most cases you could always do a better job self-editing your book yourself (because, even if we’re editing geniuses, we can’t really rewrite the book for you – that’s ghostwriting and it’s much more expensive – so all we can do is give you tons of comments and notes and hope you can sift through it all and make your own changes.)
Most authors think they only want light fixing and cleaning, and SOME authors are already brilliant so that’s really the only thing they need. But MOST new authors might be under the impression that their book is nearly perfect already and will be *happy* to pay someone to clean it up, until they publish and nobody likes it and then they wonder if they should have spend more on developmental editing or something.
It’s enough to say that editors charge different rates, for a variety of reasons, and that pricing is not always or necessarily an indication of skillset or quality.
How to choose an editor or proofreader
Now comes the hard part, actually picking someone to work with. Here are some things I would suggest:
- Ask on online forums or chatrooms for recommendations by other authors
- Check out their website and prices (factor in some of the items above – are you paying for their service or for their lifestyle?)
- Ask for a free sample. Most editors will offer this, if not, ask. For a book, try to get at least 5 pages free. Don’t “trick” them by planting a few mistakes (or do if you want) – focus on how they can improve your regular text.
- Do this for at least 3 – in the process you’ll also get a chance to see how they respond to emails and treat clients. Your “feeling” about the person is important – although not as important as their skills. A nice person may not be the best editor (I’m kind of grouchy and my customer service is lack-luster. But my aloofness helps me concentrate on improving the text and catching mistakes).
- Find 10 writers with amazing books in your genre or subject matter and ask if they’d recommend their editor.
I’ve taken it for granted that you’ll be working with an individual, which may not be the case. If you go through a big company, or Lulu/Amazon’s services, you may not know your editor until after you purchase, if at all. This doesn’t necessarily impact quality, but you should know the editor is getting about half of what you pay.
So how do I find an editor for my book?
I used to have a big list of services I recommend… I took it down. It’s very hard to vet professional editors. I try to hire good ones for my own company and it’s a challenge to shift through their work history and websites and try to find some good reviews or case studies. In the end it’s mostly about the confident editor who says they can do it, which is not an indicator of quality but you won’t find that out until later.
I wish there was one good service I could whole-heartedly recommend, but the good, cheap editors are usually booked out in advance by big authors who publish frequently and understand the value.
Red flags – by wary of vanity presses who offer to publish you, but you need to pay for editing first. Also be wary of vanity or boutique presses in general, which offer a publishing package that includes everything AND editing together.
You’re paying double for hand-holding and product management… which is totally fine if you need some help – unless they are outsourcing to low-quality service providers, in which case, one little messup can wreck your launch plans (mostly, they’ll give you an offbrand or unprofessional book cover and the book cover is everything.)
Should I sign a contract for book editing?
I tend to be optimistic and have high expectations of people. But contracts are often useful for protecting an editor and making sure the client and editor agree on the exact amount of work to be done, at what price – without one, clients can keep requesting more work and the editor can be taken advantage of.
A professional editor will probably want some kind of contract.
Authors often also want an NDA agreement signed, which I don’t think is necessary. But I’m not a lawyer and you probably shouldn’t listen to me.
If someone steals your work to publish as their own, which I think is unlikely, there are some things you can do about it.
But try to remember, plagiarism and piracy is not the enemy. Obscurity is the enemy. The risk that your book will never be found, seen or read – that’s roughly an 85% statistical chance. That’s the norm. So worrying about some unethical editor deciding your book is so great they’re going to quit their job, ruin their business and steal your idea well… it almost never happens.
While I’m at it, contracts don’t help much when an editor ghosts you – which happens a lot, and unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do. This is the nature of working with 1-person businesses who are their own boss. Most are excellent. But there is a little bit of risk involved so do your research and don’t just pick someone who you “gel” with (I have another post somewhere in the universe, that says something like – finding someone who does a good job is more important than how someone makes you feel).
Another way to find book editors!
Another excellent way to find editors is to let them come to you. Join a site like Elance, Guru, or Freelancer, and post a project. Be specific about what you need, and include a price range/budget. You’ll receive probably around 20~50 responses. Choosing one can be difficult, but you can read through their testimonials, look over their portfolio, etc.
This is usually how editors start building experience, before they launch their own site, so you might save some money by catching them early in their career (at the same time, they may have less experience….). At any rate, you usually aren’t required to choose someone for your project, so you could just use the process to get in touch with a few good options.
Most sites like this don’t support free samples, but if you find a way to contact the editors directly by email, I’m sure they’d agree to a sample edit.
Do I really need to pay to edit my book?
I don’t think it’s fair to tell someone they cannot publish because they don’t have enough disposable income to hire an editor. And there are books that have sold very well without proper editing – so I’ve learned that editing is not necessarily a sound financial investment: it won’t make or break a book’s success.
It’s a good idea, and of course it will help, if you can afford it. But if you can’t, I don’t think you should take out a loan expecting your book to earn a windfall on publishing.
If you can’t afford an editor:
I fixed my books by getting reader feedback and asking my beta-readers to highlight or flag typos. If you have a committed group of betas, before you release the book out to strangers or make it available, you might be fine.
I would still get the recommended “Free Samples” from a few editors though. If they can’t find anything to fix, you probably don’t need to pay for an editor. But they will probably show you how much you actually need to fix. 5 typos in a whole book is not the end of the world. 50 mistakes will probably upset readers and lose fans.
Join writing groups, trade edits and critiques, find a way to get some fresh eyes on your book – and be open to criticism (though you don’t have to accept all if it, it’s always helpful to see how others will react to your writing).
Self-edit your book
If you’re still here, you may feel like I’ve failed to give you the information you need (because damn, you just want to hire the best editor and wash your hands of the dumpster fire of your manuscript that’s side-eyeing you balefully from the desk).
But here’s the good news. The absolute best think you should do with your rough draft is to roll up your sleeves and invest some time in the craft of writing. Yes it’s harder, than the free-wheeling inspiration that vomited up your joyful draft… because you’ll have to learn some stuff. And the more you learn, the more you’ll see flaws and cracks and just objectively terrible writing in your book and that can sting.
But it’s also part of the process.
I’ve tried to make that process easier by creating an absolute ton of writing materials and resources for authors; and it’s not recycled garbage either. This is stuff you’ve never heard before, that didn’t exist before. I made it for you.
Here’s just a small taste but you really need to dig around to find my best resources. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. I’ll even put the kettle on.
(How to self-edit your book for almost free)
#1 use Grammarly to find typos.
#2 find and fix plotholes with my story plotting templates
#3 show don’t tell (3 simple rules to fix everything)
#4 common writing mistakes (you are definitely making most of these…)
#5 fix your backstory/infodumps (write satisfying fiction)
Get started with those… I spend 10 years getting a PhD and another ten years in the industry to begin to start understanding this stuff, and now I share it with writers for free.
But this is just the very beginning. I have a lot of content, so you might have to dig around a bit to find my best content, or check out one of my writing courses (one of them on “self-editing” is free, so grab that one while you can!)
- How to write a book in a month (34 easy steps!)
- The 6 signs of weak writing (how to tell if your book sucks)
As a last resort, I try to collect great editors at The Book Butchers. We aren’t perfect, but we’re pretty great, and we have a better guarantee than anybody else so you’re always protected.
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.