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Why Are Book Editors So Expensive?

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by Belinda Pollard, Publishing Consultant —

Belinda Pollard

An editor and author break down the two main reasons why the cost of editing services is so high.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Book editors are expensive. And, yes, I am one of them, but I’m also a writer. Every time I have to hire an editor for my own projects, I dread it. Why are editors so darn expensive?

Once upon a time, an author went to visit an editor and dreamed of how they’d find them in a mansion, lazing by one of the pools. “After all,” said the author, “editing is expensive, so they must be rich. I can’t wait to eat their caviar and drink their champagne.”

But when they arrived at the address, they found themselves standing in front of a simple shack. “My GPS must be broken,” said the author. “This can’t be the right place.” And then the editor walked out and said, “Welcome, author! Come in for a cup of tea and we’ll get started.” If editing is expensive, why aren’t editors rich?

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

This is an assumption I encounter: “I can read a book in an afternoon, so that’s about how long it should take to edit it. Maybe two afternoons at most.” It’s an understandable mistake. Who ever really knows what someone else’s job entails?

To get a clearer picture, let’s break down a book edit into its components. 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.”

Editors are also doing other tasks, depending on the editing phase they are tackling.

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.

If they’re writing a report, it needs to be carefully put together, drawing together possibilities for the author in a way that is accessible and actionable. If they’re doing the actual restructuring/redeveloping, that will obviously take even more time.

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.

A proofreader needs to read every single letter of every word, every punctuation mark, every page number, and every running head, as well as check for consistency of heading levels and that nothing is missing. They might also check references within the text depending on the brief, and make an instant judgement call on accuracy.

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:

  • My salary
  • Holidays/vacation and sick leave
  • Superannuation/pension fund contributions (compulsory in Australia)
  • Computer and software
  • My percentage of all the infrastructure of running a business (buildings, desks, cleaners, coffee and tea, insurances, phone and internet connections, and so on)
  • All those support staff whose employment cost they couldn’t charge out directly to any client, such as admin, IT, accounting and human resources.

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.

These are some of the expenses that most freelance editors need to cover:

  • Computers and software
  • Internet and telephony
  • Professional assistance from accountants, lawyers, and coaches
  • Insurance of various kinds
  • Holidays/vacation and sick leave
  • Retirement savings
  • Professional development
  • Business development, marketing expenses, websites, and stationery/business cards
  • Their professional library, subscriptions, and memberships.

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.

Belinda Pollard is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant based in Brisbane, Australia. A version of this article was originally published on her website, smallbluedog.com.

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