Why Are Book Editors So Expensive?

There is an article with the above title in the IBPA Independent magazine, December 2017, written by Belinda Pollard which is of interest because I often wonder about the size of the bills I receive from editors, both structural and copy.  Belinda Pollard is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant based in Brisbane, Australia .

Belinda Pollard

She says: “In all my years as a book editor and chatting with other editors and authors, I’ve noticed two key misunderstandings about the whole process. First, editing a book takes longer than most people think. Second, an editor’s fee covers much more than their salary.

Good Editing Is Time-Consuming

Wikipedia tells us: “The average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. While proofreading materials, people are able to read at 200 wpm on paper, and 180 wpm on a monitor.”

So, let’s say someone is going to read carefully (not just skim) your 100,000-word crime novel at 200 wpm. That adds up to about 8.5 hours just to read your book once. A quality edit usually involves two readings, at least. At the 200 wpm rate for careful reading, we’re up to 17 hours for two passes through the manuscript.

Editors are not just reading, however. They’re writing, as well—jotting down changes as they make their way through the draft. Editors need to take the time to express themselves clearly in their notes to ensure the author will be able to understand the logic of their comments and have enough information to make well-informed decisions about the recommendations. A good editor will also take the time to express themselves graciously, present options, and show respect for the author. It takes much longer to write thoughtful, sensitive, useful feedback than to say, “I hated this part.”

A content/developmental/structural editor needs to read and think creatively, evaluating the book in terms of where it’s heading and where it could go to make it a stronger book. They can often read quickly because they are looking at the big picture rather than the small details, but the creative side needs some time to breathe.

A copy/mechanical editor needs to read every letter of every word on every page, along with every punctuation mark—no skimming. They might be required to check sources, depending on the brief. While they do all this, they need to think analytically, weighing not only correct versus incorrect, but also OK versus better. This applies to a range of areas, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and expression.

About how many hours is that? The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition, p. 71) says: “A 100,000-word book manuscript, edited by an experienced editor, might take seventy-five to one hundred hours of work before being sent to the author, plus ten to twenty additional hours after the author’s review.”

So that’s averaging around one hour per 1,000 words of manuscript! Has CMOS gone mad? Let’s double-check against the Editorial Freelancers Association. They’re saying 500 to 1,250 words per hour for heavy copy editing. For basic copy editing, they suggest 1,250 to 2,500 words per hour, and 250 to 1,250 words per hour for developmental editing. Seems like they are in the same ballpark.

An Editor’s Fee Is Not Their Salary

The second misunderstanding I encounter is that people often compare editing fees to the hourly rate of their own wage or salary. Only a small portion of a freelance editor’s fee goes to pay their salary. It also has to cover a range of business expenses, and many unpaid tasks that are needed to run a business.

When I first started freelancing back in the late 1990s, I didn’t understand this. I worried that the rates recommended by my national association seemed too high, and that no one would pay them. I charged too little, and ended up working 60 to 80 hours a week for less than minimum wage, even though I had two university degrees and a significant amount of experience.

I burnt out, got cranky and depressed, and got a job at a company. They used to charge out my services to clients for $110 an hour (and this was about 10 years ago, so adjust for inflation). I was astonished. It seemed like a king’s ransom. Of course, they didn’t pay me $110 an hour. I finally grasped that the hourly rate they charged to the client needed to cover the whole cost of employing me.

Freelance editors need to do something similar. A freelance editor doesn’t have the large overhead of a big company, but they also don’t have lots of people to share the costs, or the tasks. Just one person has to bear all those financial burdens, and either do those tasks themselves or pay someone else to do it.”

(She gives a long list)

“For many freelancers this can easily add up to $20,000 a year or more, for someone working at a highly professional level. And if that isn’t bad enough, on average, freelance editors find that they can only spend half of the hours in the week actually doing what are known as “billable hours.” Those are the hours that are charged out to clients. The other half of the week is spent running the business, doing administrative tasks, interacting with clients and potential clients, and building the business.

I’ve had times when it’s taken me up to eight hours just to prepare a detailed proposal for a potential client—without any guarantee of income from it. So, out of only perhaps 20 to 25 “billable hours” per week, a freelancer has to pay their own salary plus many expenses.

If you find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t have to pay for all those things,” the follow-up question is, “Well, then, who should?” It has to be shared around the freelancer’s clients; that’s the only way.

I’m not going to lie to you—I’d love to get someone to do a great edit on my books for a tiny price. Who wouldn’t? And I have found it a financial burden to come up with the editor’s fees on my own indie books. But, having been on the other side of the fence, I have to show integrity, and try not to be one of those people pressuring an editor to live in poverty. Editors are expensive, yes, but very few of them are overpriced. It’s just an expensive and necessary part of the publishing process.”

On reflection, I think the best solution for me is to find the right freelance editor who will do a more thorough and less expensive job than the workmanship I’ve experienced with agencies.

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