Why is Editing So Expensive?

Sophie Playle

You probably envision editors rolling around in bank notes, laughing, after spending a short afternoon running a quick spell check on your manuscript. But I assure you – that really isn’t the case.

There have been countless times authors have asked me for a quote, and when they reply that the fee is more than they thought it would be, I can almost hear them cringing on the other side of the email.

I cringe, too.

Because I know professional editing costs a chunk of money. It’s probably one of the most expensive parts of the publishing process. But it’s also essential if you want to publish professionally.

So, why is editing so expensive?

Let me shed some light on the topic.

What an editor can do for you

Before we go into the nitty-gritty of why editing is expensive, I’d like to just point out the value of editing, and why it’s considered such an essential part of the publishing process.

Hiring an editor is pretty much mandatory if you want to self-publish professionally, and it can help you on your way to traditional publication, too – especially if you work with someone who can help you get the big-picture elements of your story right and help you polish your submission package.

  1. Professional editing can help you sell more books. Little or bad editing can negatively impact sales, especially now online marketplaces can let potential buyers read a sample before they buy.
  2. Editing can help your writing career. No matter how much marketing you do, in the end your career as a writer is only as strong as the novels you produce.
  3. Editing can help your book reach its potential. It’s frustrating to read a book containing more than a handful of typos, inconsistencies or formatting errors. Editors help make sure that doesn’t happen to your readers.
  4. Editing can help you become a better writer. By tapping into your editor’s knowledge, you’ll learn a great deal about where you can improve your writing – which you can apply to everything you write.
  5. Editing makes you look like a professional. Professional writers understand their craft and their industry, and they produce good quality books that sell more. Poor quality control is a barrier that stops readers falling in love with your books.

What would you pay someone to help you achieve these things? What is the professionalism of your book and the path of your writing career worth to you?

What would it cost you not to have someone help you achieve these things?

Editing is expensive because it takes time

Some people can read a book in an afternoon. So why does it take so long for an editor to go through your manuscript?

Well, editing is much more than just reading, for a start.

  • Different editorial services take different lengths of time to complete. There are lots of different types of editorial services. A proofread (after a manuscript has been edited and is in a near-publishable state) will take a lot less time than a developmental edit. This is because there’s a different level of work involved.
  • Careful reading is slow reading. An editor will need to read your manuscript s-l-o-w-l-y. This is especially true for copy-editors and proofreaders, who must pay attention to every single letter of every single word. No skim-reading here.
  • Multiple readings are often required. Many editors go through the manuscript more than once, for various reasons: to get a feel for the writing style and understand the details of the plot before they begin editing; to make sure they haven’t missed anything; to check that their suggestions are correct and flow well with the writer’s style; and so on.
  • Thinking and writing time is crucial. It also takes time for an editor to decipher how best to fix any discrepancies they notice, and then more time to carry out the edit or write the comment accompanying that edit. (A well-written, considered comment takes more time to write than a rushed, potentially ambiguous note.)
  • Maximum concentration can only be maintained a few hours a day. It takes a lot of energy to maintain the high level of concentration editing needs. I know from experience and talking to my colleagues that it seems pretty much impossible to edit for more than around six hours per day without risking the quality. For others, it may be even less than that. (I personally aim for around four.) How many editing hours an editor can fit into their day (without risking damaging the quality of the work they do) will have an impact on the number of days an editing project may take.

So how long does it take to edit a book?

It’s impossible to give a definitive answer because of two main variables:

  1. The working speed of the editor. Different editors will naturally work at different speeds. This might be down to a number of things, including how thoroughly they do their job to the effectiveness of the tactics and software they use to assist their work. But also, people are just different and work at different paces.
  2. The shape of the manuscript. If a manuscript needs a lot of work, it will take more time to edit. This is out of the editor’s hands – but luckily for you, you can do something about this. Because many editors quote based on how long it will take them to do the work, it’s in your financial  interest to hand over your manuscript in the best possible shape you can make it.

Keeping in mind why and how editing speeds can vary, there is some rough guidance available on how long different editing services can be expected to take.

Personally, I’ve found I can line and copy-edit between 1,000 and 3,000 words per hour (of fiction), but this depends on the depth of editing needed. Other freelancers I’ve spoken to report similar speeds.

The following information is taken from the Editorial Freelance Association’s website to give you a very rough indicator of editing speeds. Note: one page is generally considered 250 words, double spaced.

  • Proofreading: 9–13 pages (2250–3250 words) an hour
  • Basic copyediting: 5–10 pages (1250–2500 words) an hour
  • Heavy copyediting: 2–3 pages (500–1250 words) an hour
  • Substantive or line editing: 1–6 pages (250–1500 words) an hour
  • Developmental editing: 1–5 pages (250–1250 words) an hour

Editing is expensive because businesses take time and cost money to run

It’s crucial to remember that what an editor charges does not go straight into their pocket. (This is why we don’t roll around on beds of bank notes.) Freelance editors are business owners – and businesses cost money to run.

Here are just some examples of running costs an editor has to account for:

  • Tax and NIC
  • Personal pension savings
  • Computer, printer and other equipment
  • Computer software
  • Stationery and books
  • Office furniture
  • Utilities (heating, electricity, internet, etc.)
  • Professional insurance
  • Webhosting
  • Accountancy fees
  • Professional memberships (for instance, I’m an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders)
  • Continued professional development (e.g. courses and conferences)
  • Marketing (e.g. business cards, adverts, etc.)

It’s also important to note that as individual business owners (or freelancers), editors are responsible for their own holiday pay. In the UK, employees are entitled to 28 days paid annual leave. Whatever holiday we decide to give ourselves must be covered by what we earn.

Businesses also take time to run, which means we’re unable to spend every hour on billable work. Responding to enquiries, writing estimates, computer housekeeping, buying supplies, keeping accounts and marketing our services all takes time.

As with any business, editors must make enough money to keep their businesses running, and not every hour in the working day is billable. What we charge has to cover this.

Editing is expensive because it’s a specialist skill

Editors are highly trained in a specialist skill, sometimes educated to degree-level or higher. It can take several years to gain the knowledge and experience needed to be a good editor.

For example, I have two degrees: a BA in English literature with creative writing, and an MA in creative writing. I took an intensive, comprehensive copy-editing course run by the Publishing Training Centre, passed an editing test created by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and have attended several of their conferences and training days. I also have experience working in-house for publishers and running my own literary magazine.

I don’t say this to brag, but to demonstrate all the time and effort that goes into adequate training.

Anyone can call themselves an editor, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. You should always study the credentials and experience of an editor you’re considering hiring. There’s truth to the old saying ‘you get what you pay for’. Often, the more expensive the editor, the more training and experience they have – meaning they’re much more likely to provide you with an excellent service.

How does an editor decide what to charge?

There are a number of ways an editor can present their fee: as a fixed project fee, a fee per page, a fee per thousand words, or a fee per hour.

At first glance, these methods seem quite different, but they actually all pivot on the same critical piece of information, no matter how it’s presented to the client: the fee per hour. Every editor needs to know how much they need to make per hour (and by extension, per month and per year).

Rich Adin, of the popular blog An American Editor, recommends that freelancers work out their Effective Hourly Rate – the hourly rate they need to achieve in order to run their business profitably. He outlines the process for doing so in his post ‘Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand’.

When an editor is faced with the task of deciding what to charge their clients, knowledge is their friend. To work out their fees, they need to know the hourly rate they’re aiming for and also their editing speed – so they know how long an edit will take.

An editor can work out their editing speed using a few different methods.

They might use external information as a guide, like the guide from the EFA above. Better still, an editor will work out their editing speed from their own experience, either by tracking their speed over the course of their career in relation to different types of project or by conducting a sample edit (free or paid) and timing it, or by using a mixture of both methods.

An editor might chose to provide you with an estimate or range depending on how long they expect the work to take, or they might charge a flat fee.

My personal approach is to offer a fixed project fee, as I like everyone to know exactly what to expect. Because I track my hours and always assess a sample of the writing, I’ve become more accurate at working out how long a project will take, which allows me to work out the fixed fee using a little bit of maths:

Total number of words / expected words edited per hour = expected number of hours.

Expected number of hours x effective hourly rate = fixed project fee.

Understanding a fair rate

What an editor decides to charge will differ from one editor to another.

This could be for a number of reasons (type of service, speed they work, etc.) but at the end of the day what an editor decides to charge is completely up to them.

So how do you know if you’re getting a fair deal? What’s the ‘normal’ or ‘average’ cost of editing? What’s the going rate? Well … there isn’t one.

A problem with the query about what to charge is that the asker believes in a false assumption — that there is a “going rate.” There really isn’t a going rate in editing. It is true that many publishers pay similar fees for work, but if you look at what work is required, you will see that there is a great variance among publishers. In the case of authors, there is no rate similarity that is author imposed. Authors deal with editors on a one-to-one basis, and negotiate rate[s] one-to-one.

Rich Adin, An American Editor

As a writer, this might strike a little fear into your heart. If there’s no going rate, how on earth can you know whether or not you’re getting a fair deal? Is the editor trying to screw you for as much money as possible?

My advice on deciding whether or not you’re getting a fair deal is as follows:

  • Take the time to find an editor you like.
  • Understand why they charge what they charge. (Reading this post is a great start, but you can also ask an editor directly.)
  • Go with your instincts. (If it feels dodgy, it probably is.)

The bottom line really is how you feel.

If you understand why hiring an editor is important and know that the best editors don’t come cheap, feeling comfortable that you’re paying a fair rate for a decent job is the main thing.

At the end of the day, editors want to help authors create their best books, and charging what we do allows us to do that.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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Insights into the world of fiction, from the desk of an editor

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