What's in the price?
Updated: Sep 15
There are quite a few articles and blogs circulating around amongst indie author and editor Facebook groups on what goes into the cost of professional editing.
I don’t know if it’s fueled by frustration from indie editors, a simple desire to educate, or both. Regardless, it’s a relevant topic and one that every editor with a blog should probably write about at some point.
I can imagine the situation for indie authors searching for an editor. It’s probably bewildering to put feelers out to half a dozen editors and receive quotes back that are as variable as the weather in Houston.
While I don’t think freelance editors need to blog or write about what goes into their rate setting and pricing decisions in order to justify the cost, I do think it can be helpful to be upfront and transparent with potential clients.
A basic picture of average industry rates
First things first, I love a good chart, and the Editorial Freelancers Association has a helpful one here that lays out ranges for the average (median or middle) rate of a variety of writing and editing services. Note, this list of averages is based on data pulled from a poll of EFA members in 2020, so we should take this chart with a grain of salt.
The EFA does not say how many members responded to the poll. We should probably assume the numbers were fairly low. Not to mention, prices in general have gone up quite a bit post-pandemic, so these numbers may be on the low end nowadays anyway. Regardless, I'm using them as a jumping off point for discussion, as they are often used by editors of varying levels of expertise to provide a framework for rate setting.
So let’s cherry-pick copyediting and line editing and take a closer look. I currently offer line- and copyediting as a combined service (a topic for another day!). Already that complicates things because the chart shows the average for copyediting fiction at $0.02-0.029 per word and the average for line editing fiction at double that, $0.04-0.049 per word.
So, do I adjust to one end of the range or the other and average? Not quite. It’s a bit more complicated.
A closer look at how quotes work
If you’ve ever received a proposal from me, you’ll know that I usually quote a total project rate, and sometimes, if the client seems new to publishing, or tells me they’ve received quotes as per word rates, I’ll include that information as well.
But in the case of my business, I prefer to quote an overall project rate based on my hourly rate. So what goes into setting the hourly rate? For me, it’s three items: the averages outlined by EFA, my own experience, and my expenses.
For example, the low end of the hourly rate for copyediting is $36 per hour, and the low end for line editing is $46 per hour. In setting a starting hourly rate that straddles the two I always consider: 1) how much experience I have with the content I’ve been asked to edit, and 2) if the author and I have worked together before. With the hourly rate in mind, the next step is to time how long it takes me to complete a sample edit lifted from the potential client’s manuscript.
The importance of the sample edit
The sample edit doesn’t just serve the potential client in their decision-making. It also serves me. Just like the potential client is vetting me, I am vetting the client. A sample edit helps me see if my editing services are the right fit for the style, genre, content, and editing needs of the book.
It also allows me to determine how many words or pages I can reasonably edit in an hour. From there, it’s just simple mathematics to determine how many hours the project will take to complete (usually with two passes). Multiply that number by the hourly rate, and you’ve got the project total. As an aside, the project total can be divided by the total number of words in the manuscript to receive the per word rate.
Where variation occurs
We’re back to the beginning again with the bewildered author receiving quotes of varying amounts from different editors. A couple of factors go into the variations that I’ll briefly explore here:
First, there are different ways editors use to calculate the rates they send to authors. You may see any of the following ways of quoting the same project (a 77,000 word manuscript, for example):
“The project total is $2,150.”
“The hourly rate is $40 for 50 hours of work. I will bill at that rate for any work done over 50 hours.”
“The estimated project total is $2,000-2,300 based on an hourly rate of $40. The project total is capped at $2,300.”
“The per word rate is $0.03. Your manuscript has 77,000 words. The project total will be $2,310.”
None of these quotes are “bad.” Editors quote differently because they have different needs and because there are likely differing thoughts amongst editors about the perception each type of quote gives. I prefer to quote a per word rate, but to simplify, I will sometimes quote a project total.
Let’s talk a bit more about the different needs of editors. Part of the reason so many editors post the EFA’s rates chart is because it is a fairly updated take on what a livable wage looks like for freelance editors.
Freelance editors have to make enough money to cover not just their business expenses but also some portion (or all) of their living expenses. And we all know the cost of living right now is high! Editors likely won’t be able to edit a solid eight hours per day, so editing costs will have to cover not just the billable hours, but time spent marketing and doing the business side of things.
The last contributor to variation in quoted cost could come down to differences in the services provided. For example, I like to combine line- and copyediting, and I create a custom style sheet for each client, which are all reflected in the cost of service. Not all freelance line editors and copyeditors do that. Some do even more by putting together a detailed editorial report, and that will take more time, which adds to the cost of service.
The old adage is true: time is money. No matter how an editor quotes their project cost to you, it will hopefully reflect the time and effort they are planning to put into editing or proofreading your book. Underpaid editors, therefore, are likely to become overworked editors who rush quickly through your novel and don’t give it the time and attention it deserves.
Some practical advice for authors
All of those different variables can make decision-making quite difficult for indie authors. They want to make sure they’re getting good service for the cost. The last thing they want is to publish and have their readers discover thirty mistakes in the first chapter. Cheaper services look incredibly tempting, but the saying “you get what you pay for” is completely 100% true in this business. This doesn't mean, however, that an editor who quotes a bit lower or a bit higher than the average (as compiled by the EFA) is trying to rip you off or is offering a "too good to be true" quote. We're talking about averages here, so there will, of course, be editors charging at the far ends of the scale not included in the average range.
I'm loath to define any "red flags" for authors because there are many editors who charge much lower than the average rate, and they may have good reason. Perhaps they work more as a hobby rather than a job to support their livelihood, or perhaps they are just starting out and need to gain experience for their portfolio. However, I recommend using the average range as an anchor point in your considerations. If someone is offering extremely low rates, and you notice a lack of testimonials or a portfolio or lots of grammar mistakes in promotional material, it may be best to steer clear.
There are a few steps authors can take to ease the bewilderment in their search for a professional editor.
Start the search early.
Follow an editor’s social media or sign up for their newsletter to get to know them and their style of editing.
Send the same sample to the editors you are receiving quotes from.
Compare apples to apples – make sure you are receiving quotes for the same types of service even if the quotes are written differently (showing a per word rate, hourly rate, or project total, for instance).
Be ready to share your work, whether it’s a sample or the whole manuscript (a professional editor is not going to steal your work).
Expect editors to be ready to work with you on the price – do you need to stagger payments? Do you need to cut down the work from two passes to one pass? If the initial quote looks scary, talk with them. Editors want to help.
At the end of the day
All of the above necessitates that authors take their time in the self-publishing process. It also suggests a hard truth: if you can’t afford to pay an editor what they’re asking, or you think you can get by with cheaper service or none at all, you may not be ready to publish. This doesn’t mean you should never publish.
The self-publishing world feels a bit like a pressure cooker. You get an idea of what you’d like to write, and next thing you know, you’re on the express train to publication.
It may be helpful to slow things down. There’s nothing that says you must publish as soon as possible. For many people, self-publication is a long journey over many years. Assessing why you want to publish may help you identify what’s motivating your sense of urgency.
Is the book just for you to get your name in print, so that you can hand a few copies out to family and friends? Or is it to make a living as an author? If so, the book needs to contribute to your credibility as a storyteller and will therefore have higher costs in professional services and effort. Sometimes a mind-set shift is required here. It may help to imagine the costs of hiring professional services as a business investment.
All small businesses start with an initial investment of the owner’s time and money. It’s no different when you’re an author. While you may not recoup the money you spend on your first book, if you intend to continue writing, you eventually will.
But I get it. It’s hard to wait when you have a dream to get down on paper. That’s why we get suckered into so many things. Instant gratification sells! But quality and effort take time, and I encourage any future author to take that route. You’ll thank yourself for it in the end