Home : What’s a Professional Editor Worth?

value of an editorWhat do you think a professional editor’s pay scale should be? Assume that a proofreader would be at the bottom of the scale and a developmental/line editor would be at the top. An examination of the work editors perform sheds some light on the matter.

An accurate proofreader—not a full-blown editor but a reader capable of ferreting out problems with spelling, grammar, and style—has spent years learning the details of language and even typography (knowing when and how to use hyphens, endashes, and emdashes, small caps, and other typographical conventions is part of the job description). Clearly, we’re talking about a skilled, educated and experienced professional here, even if the editing is done only at a technical level. Isn’t that person worth $50,000/year—at least?

Next add to these skills the ability to read a narrative deeply, find inconsistencies, recognize overused patterns, understand the fine points of language and storytelling, and convey these to an author as useful, sometimes hard-hitting but never insulting critique. This kind of professional is difficult to come by—this editor understands both the left-brained, technical points of fine writing and the right-brained art of communicating stories, ideas, emotions, experiences, and streams of consciousness and perspective for which there are no names. We’d sell this talented person short by offering $100,000/year but let’s use that number for the sake of discussion.

Divide $100,000 by 50 weeks to calculate a weekly rate and then divide by 40 weekly work hours to get an  hourly rate of $50/hour. Now, take into account that editing requires immense concentration. Can we realistically expect an editor to work five eight-hour shifts each week? There are plenty of tasks I can focus on for 8 hours, but when it comes to editing, I can only stay down so long. Even a five-hour day is quite a lot to ask of a professional editor. Brain-power, even brilliant brain power, has its limitations. A four-hour day would double the rate to $100/hour in order to earn the professional salary. Or do we split the difference, assume a six-hour day, and set the hourly rate at $75/hour? I know editors who charge that kind of money and others who charge a fraction of that.

Ultimately, editing fees are set by many factors other than what a professional’s skills are worth. What constitutes a professional salary is a matter of opinion, and the number will vary considerably by region, but I’d be skeptical of using a $15/hour editor. How can that person survive? Why isn’t he being paid a professional rate? Can she work accurately for the number of hours required to turn $15/hour into rent, bills and groceries?

I’ve read many comments by self-publishers who think themselves “competent to edit their own work.” Some have had bad experiences with editors. Others don’t like that the real expense of editing shatters the loveable idea of “cheap” self-publishing. Some writers won’t hire an editor because they believe erroneously that they’ll lose creative control over their work, and some “won’t try it because they already know they don’t like it.” But working with a great editor is perhaps the best learning and growing experience you can ever have as a writer. A half-dozen round  of revisions, style-checking software, and a group of smart friends who review your work can’t compete with the professional’s touch; I spent the money and did the comparison.

  • Real editors do not rewrite your work and send it back to you changed the way they want it.
  • Real editors do much more than catch errors in grammar, style, and punctuation.
  • Real editors collaborate with writers to pressure-test nuances of plot, timing, character development, narrative tension, and tone.
  • Real editors guide writers to create stories and characters that appeal to readers (and publishers) of specific genres of literature.
  • Real editors—at least the right one for your book—give you tough love. They protect your book from you and push you to do your best.

Admittedly, not everyone will be able to afford to hire a pro. If you can, wait until your fortunes change. If not, work with a writing group. Use software tools. Put your manuscript away for a while so you can re-read it with a fresh perspective. Sail around the world alone if you want—it’s been done successfully—but as with all things related to self-publishing, understand the trade-offs of every compromise you make.

Some publishers are preoccupied with getting their books out quickly and cheaply. Others are more concerned with making their work as polished as possible. If you’re in this latter group, a professional editor is expensive but necessary—no matter how talented you are as a writer. Find an editor whose interests align with your subject matter and genre (try book-editing.com or the Editorial Freelancer’s Association) and embrace the journey. Editing talent costs money. Your book is worth it.


Comments

What’s a Professional Editor Worth? — 34 Comments

  1. Hi Dave
    As a member of the Queensland Society of Editors (Australia), I was fortunate to come across the link to your article What’s a professional editor worth? on their website recently. As a professional editor myself, I found your article exceptional. Thank you for so succinctly expressing the value of a highly qualified professional editor in enhancing an author’s book through collaboration. It is the best article I’ve read on this subject. Cheers!

  2. You nailed this topic well, Dave. Thank you. As a professional book editor for the last 25+ years, I’m amazed at writers who forgo the editing “because it costs too much”. How much costlier is it to miss book sales because your manuscript is full of holes?

    As an independent writer and publisher, as well as editor, I find it helpful to point out that writers are “investing” in their work. If they’re proud enough to want to share it, they ought to back up that pride by sharing the best work they can. Investing in yourself (by independent publishing) provides the best returns to authors — as long as they are offering a great product (book). May I point my writing students and friends to your site — and this article?

    • Thanks for your comments, Val. You’ll see elsewhere in this blog that I define a publisher as “someone who invests in a book.”

      And of course, feel free to share links to anything posted here. I’d be honored.

  3. I’m a writer and editor. I wrote a book on self-editing for writers, and on the first page I emphasized that while writers ought to self-edit, they also need editors. Even editors need editors. Becoming a good self-editor means not that you outgrow the need for an editor, but that you hand off a cleaner, better draft. Thanks for a great article that every indie writer should read and take to heart.

    • I agree. You can save big bucks on editing by not paying a pro to clean up the big messes. Self-editing is necessary—as long as it’s part of the larger process of prepping the work for a professional’s input.

  4. Great article, Dave. You really lay out the economics of editing (and free-lancing in general), which most people don’t think about. One important thing to add: the cost of health insurance. People with jobs often get coverage through their employers and may pay nothing for it or just a percentage. Free-lancers have to buy it on the open market and…OUCH! That eats up a big chunk of one’s yearly income.
    I also want to add that editors (if they come from the publishing world and are not living on a tropical island) are not only good wordsmiths but also often have a good sense of what’s commercial, what publishers are looking for, what’s likely to be salable, etc. For instance, many of my clients don’t realize how important it is nowadays that a novel be kept to a reasonable length (about 70,000 words).
    Keep writing your terrific articles!

  5. I like to think of myself as a dry cleaner. As a book editor, I help make the author look his or her best and remove the schmutz from the tie or soup spill from the shirt. Without a little cleaning up, most manuscripts are rumpled and unkempt and readers know it. Poorly edited manuscripts and their authors are not taken seriously.

    I presented on this very topic at the Independent Book Publishers Association conference in Chicago last month. Happy to send my slide share to anyone interested. In it, I discuss why paying an editor hourly isn’t the best way to go.

    We book editors are indeed undervalued. Under appreciated. Under paid. Thanks for an enlightening post.

    • In general, I don’t like hourly charges. The best and fastest workers end up doing more per hour in order to bid competitively. Usually better to assess the work and provide a project price. However, there are some jobs where you just can’t tell how long they’ll take. In these cases, better to let the client take the risk.

      • Charging by the hour is a grey area.

        I’ve returned to charging per hour because a cold manuscript is tricky. It can start out seeming well-written, because most authors edit the front of their books many times before calling a draft finished, but it’s only deep inside where the problems begin to mount and an editor has to cross-reference and track the errors. This takes hours. Days. Long days. And since other services I have to pay for estimate their fees in a math equation of some sort, I do as well.

        There have been times I have completed a complex project where I ended up being paid very little for weeks of painstaking extra work. And since I had quoted an overall fee, I stuck by it to be professional. The lucky author received a thorough edit for next to nothing and I learned the hard way.

        My time is worth as much as my expertise. That said, I have decided to charge a modest rate. If I did not, most new authors would not be able to afford my services, which serves neither of us.

        Dave, thank you. This article was a treat to read. I enjoy all of your offerings. Thank you for your time to create them; it’s worth a great deal to us (your appreciative readers who make the time to read and respond to good posts) Bravo.

  6. I know that editing is worth the money. I am actually in the process of getting my editing certificate. I know what I need as a wage to make it work for me, and having been self-employed for the past 14 years, I know all too well the difference between gross and net income, and income after taxes. Working for less than $40-50 per hour, seems crazy to me. However, if I lived where houses cost $150,000 and not a million plus, maybe I could do it for less.

    It is always a shock to an indie author when it comes to the price tag for editing. It is hard when you have no money to publish, let alone for editing, and no guarantee you are going to sell even 100 books. The retail platforms don’t make it any easier for a newbie to get their book noticed either. They are still driven by the money from the big publishers who pay to market their titles, which leaves an unknown author left to swim in shark infested waters. So I do understand the impetus to find editing for as little as possible.

    I think part of the problem is the self-publishing platforms. If they included professional editing as part of the package, the quality of indie author writing would improve immeasurably. When they are charging thousands of dollars just to process your manuscript and post it on retail sites, it leaves authors with the choice of publishing or editing, but not both, in many cases. I know, I’ve personally had to make this choice.

    I would like to see this change, but until it does, you are going to continue to have issues with authors not understanding just how important editing is, what editing actually is, and why they can’t live without it.

    • Thanks, Sandra. One of the problems with so-called self-publishing services (if they’re publishing you, how can you be self-publishing?) is that they do offer editing and design services. But when you consider markup tacked on to on every aspect of the process, you can deduce that they’re not paying much. They either pay a flat fee or they must be “cracking the whip” and watching the clock. With a middleman between you and your editor, typesetter, or designer, you’re paying good money for someone willing to work for low wages. That doesn’t always translate into bad work—some people are grateful for steady income or they’re conscientious while they bide their time and hunt for better opportunities—but the law of averages suggests you’re unlikely to get what you pay for. Additionally, the editor assigned to you is probably not going to be that “perfect match” you’re better off hunting down on your own.

      Cheers, Dave

  7. What an interesting and thought-provoking article! Seeing the numbers actually on paper (online paper, as it were) is great. I appreciate your time on this. I can think of a few people I’d like to share this with!

  8. I honestly don’t have the money for a pro, but my oh, my how I’d adore to have one ^_^. I think editors are amazing and I would like to have one as a friend and have them go over my work. I go over my novels time and time again, but I know I am not perfect. I’d honestly like to have someone at my side, looking over my work with a trained eye, telling me what to fix. I’d feel on top of the world ^__^
    ~~Amber

  9. Editors are far and away the most under-appreciated part of the creative process. One of the measures of professionalism is a writer’s willingness to seek out and work well with a good editor. Dilettantes tend to consider their works of genius inviolate and bristle at anything more than a cursory copy edit. But great writers tend to develop close relationships with great editors and seek out the most incisive feedback they can get (from editors whose insight, understanding of storytelling, and taste they trust, that is.) I frequently edit other writers’ work, but I would never put out something of my own without first passing it by a trusted pair of eyes other than my own. To assume that we can see everything in our own work is not just arrogance, it’s folly.
    I believe the publishing industry did itself great harm in moving away from the kind of in-depth quality editing that actually nurtures projects with potential into something much better than the authors could have produced on their own. Publishers moved away from that nurturance toward relying on production economies of scale and marketing muscle as the path to publishing success. But now all their advantages under that model have evaporated as design, production and marketing have been democratized by cheap computing power and social media, and the industry finds itself in an existential panic as the paradigm shifts. With barriers to entry into the publishing industry at zero, cultivating great editors is one way the big houses could keep an edge. I’m not sure they’re doing that. Maybe some of you have insights I don’t on that subject.
    Finding the right editor can be like finding (and keeping) the right spouse — difficult but well worth the trouble. While looking for that perfect match, the next best thing I’ve found is a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King (Kindle version here: http://amzn.to/13dVHlX) Despite the title, it’s also valuable for nonfiction.

    • You had me until the self-editing part. I’m sure the advice is good; writers do need to self-edit before turning their work over to a pro, but there’s no substitute for a real editor. See my article about my own experiments with that. Like learning to fly a plane, making books is one of those things that is best done with a qualified guide. Worst-case scenarios is the editor reads the book and hands it back as “perfect.” Why not pressure test your assumptions? The consequences of not doing so are potentially dire.

      • I’ve been curious about that book.

        My goal is indeed to do all the self-editing I can. And then get a pro in.

        I suspect that it’s NOT like bringing in a mechanic or plumber after you’ve tried to fix it yourself. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll pay the price.

        • The magic phrase being, “…and then get a pro in.” I’m all for doing everything you can to send polished work to the editor. Why spend good dollars paying a pro to clean up your typos? As usual, we’re on the same page, Joel. Always a pleasure to have you weigh in here.

  10. As a book reviewer, I see this all the time, and it’s one of the hardest parts of the work. Often, I can see the author’s intent and imagination coming through in places, but the overall delivery falls far short of their vision. This means that even if they have a fascinating story to tell, few readers will ever hear it, which in some cases is a real tragedy. Editors are worth their weight in gold.

  11. Joel,

    Your thoughts about the worth of professional proofer/editors are encouraging, but I wonder what you think of those of us who are freelancers.

    I majored in Music Education in college with a minor in English, but my qualifications are comprised of a lifetime as an avid reader, an Ezine writer and a Christian novelist. I seem to have an eye for good sentence structure and the flow of the story; and I despise typos, missing letters and spaces, not to mention inane ragged sentences…embarrassing!

    I am retired and have established a good reputation globally(so to speak)by bidding through Elance.com. The bidding is often quite crowded, with some bidders even participating from third world countries.

    I sometimes work for less than I should but it does keep the money coming in. Moreover, as a published author I am keenly interested in helping other authors to publish clean, error free text content.

    I am currently working on a project for a client from Dubai. The last one was from Spain and the one before that is in Kazakhstan; the point being that I truly enjoy exchanging ideas and practices from around the world. Many of these clients have begun to request that I bid exclusively on their projects. Some are even becoming friends of mine:)

    After less than a year as a freelancer I have built my reputation and therefore my earnings to almost the level of my retirement income.

    Thanks Joel,

    ~lance knight

      • Freelancers may be just as talented as full-time professionals, but people who edit to supplement an existing income or fortune aren’t really an apt comparison. They can charge what they want or work for free. Professionals operating a full-time business don’t have that luxury. If the industry can’t support editors at a professional wage, nobody will go into that business; that’s just math. Cruising sailors and backpackers hoping to earn a living with a tablet and a wireless keyboard may be just as talented but they’re in no position to set standards for working man’s wages.

  12. Thank you for doing the thinking and the numbers crunch. As a professional editor, I work very hard to make sure my clients know what aspect of editing they are hiring me to do. No point in offering developmental editing when all they want is proofreading! I strongly discourage proofreading when a developmental edit is needed, however — wastes my time and their money!

  13. Dave, you did an excellent job of distilling the numbers regarding earnings; however, you left out a couple huge factors.

    1. Self-employed professionals are rarely able to bill 40 hours a week, regardless of the brainpower aspect. There is all the non-billable time necessary to promote your business, respond to inquiries, other communications, do the books and other admin, network, keep up with the industry (education), and much more. Yes, some of this can be outsourced, but then that’s still drawing from the money from billable hours.

    2. There’s overhead and taxes. Although some of this can be written off, write-offs are not free money; you’re only benefiting from the amount equal to your tax rate. If you buy and write off a $100 printer, and you’re in a 35% tax bracket, then you’re still effectively paying $65 for that printer.

    I know you know these things — I’m just adding them for people who need further understanding as to how $75 an hour doesn’t equal $150,000 a year, as an employed wage-earner might presume.

    I once had a candid conversation with a physician, not that many years ago, who told me he only had a “personal” income of about $60,000 a year, after taking into account all of his overhead and other expenses. In other words, if he quit and took a regular job, he could take one at $60,000 and maintain his lifestyle. But yet, on the face of it, he was making nearly $200,000 a year. (Most of it, by the way, was sucked away through all the various insurance — business, malpractice, etc. — that he needed.)

  14. Dave, I think you framed the issues well. There are other factors to consider, too. First what a person needs to make and what a market will bear are two separate things. An editor with a professional office and store front has more overhead than an editor working out of a home office. The overhead alone triples the price. A house in San Francisco cost 1 million dollars while the same house in Ohio could be bought for $150,000. (Property taxes not withstanding). We have too long looked to Manhattan publishing people who demand 6 figures. Agents and all have very expensive overhead.

    I am a writer also entering the publishing business, As an English teacher I never made much money. Even as a college professor in I taught 15 course from English Composition, Technical Writing I & II, Developmental English, Educational Computer Administration, and Adaptive Technologies., I was paid $20/hour if I do the math. In English Composition, I probably made a dime and hour with all the endless grading. As a tutor I made $20-30 an hour for my expertise. The skill set for editing if you have the skill is comparable. A person working at home in an economical part of the country with a home office posting a Schedule C on taxes is equivalent to $50 per hour. Given a choice between editing and college or classroom teaching, I choose editing.

    I plan on hiring very good displaced instructors and teachers with editing skills and staying in the 20-30 range giving subcontractor 1099s. There are a lot of people who can’t get jobs in some places in the country and their talents are going to waste. There are a lot of stay-at-home moms, retired teachers, etc. that would love the work. My focus is on indie writers and their pockets are most often empty. My current book took 4 years and I have at least 1/4 of a million dollars of my time in the work without getting a dime for it yet (won’t until the release and sales).

    My point is fees are relative. You can pay what you want. My developmental editor lives on a tropical island and is happy with $20 an hour and she is really extraordinary. I have confidence I can find all the quality editors I need in the $20-30 range if I go find them.

    Harold Jay Fannin

    • I know someone talented who charges $10, and I know graphic designers who charge $15. There are jobs out there that pay $20/hour and people who work for them. I love the steadiness of my teaching job; it costs me money sometimes but it has sustained me when freelance work dried up. However, the $20/hour editor who puts in 20 hours a week is making $20,000/year. You’ll find talent at that level but you’re not likely to find much loyalty when better opportunities come along. It may be just the ticket for cruising sailors and tropical island dwellers, but your pool of steady professionals will be limited by the economics.

      • Hi, Dave. A very interesting article on a subject that more and more authors and editors alike are finally taking seriously. Let me identify myself as an editing and indexing free lancer of more than 25 years. I have worked (and continue to work) for individual academics, think tanks, a small university, and just plain folks who write. As always, when speaking of people, generalities should not be made. Editors — like authors — come in all sizes and shapes, all backgrounds and foregrounds, with sunny cheerful dispositions and with bossy pedantic ones, with rates that vary from $0 to the often-described and very-rarely-if-ever-seen $75/hour. Editors — like authors — are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes honest and sometimes not, sometimes loyal and sometimes simply out for the biggest buck for the bang. Authors should choose their editors with the same care that they choose their babysitters, their baby of a book, after all, having had probably a longer gestation than the 9 months required for their first or last born — and the best editors like the best babysitters cannot be discovered or rejected simply by the price they charge.

  15. Another great article, Dave. Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers need to learn this lesson the hard way. But maybe you’ll reach someone at just the right moment.

  16. Dave, you’ve done it again, only this time you’ve given all of us editors a reason to smile—and smile BIG. I, myself, just finished a three-part blog series on editing, and I appreciate so much your putting the time into writing about this topic too. I don’t know why there’s such a block in understanding the importance of quality editing, the time it takes, and the myriad elements we must focus on to achieve an impeccable book … but it seems we must consistently defend our position and why our job commands the rate that it does. Bless you for putting our field in perspective for writers, and for making a case for the compensation we deserve. Your posts are always fantastic—thank you!!!

  17. I know, unequivocally, that the greatest way I shortchanged my first 10 books was self-editing. It began as an ego choice and ended as a financial choice. I’m mostly over both nowadays, and plan to get the right editor for the mystery I’m working on now.

    Always an educational pleasure to read your musings and deductions, sir. When I finally make it far enough south, the beverages are on me.

    • Thanks, Joel. My novels went through a rigorous editing process with talented, well-intentioned, brilliant people. And AutoCrit helped immensely. But the upcoming book had the professional’s touch on top of that and I learned what I was missing. When I finish the current project, the novels will all get professionally edited. They’re good but I think they can be great.

      • Yeah, I forgot to thank you for pointing out AutoCrit some time back in the Jurassic Period of my writing life. I’ll be springing for the Palmer Johnson Yacht version of it before I hand my work off to an editor. $120/year to get that level of editorial detail out of software is, as my buddy Pegleg would say, imPRESSive.

  18. I could hug you for this article! (Not surprisingly, I’m an editor.) But I’m a writer as well. And when I publish my book, I’ll even be hiring a professional editor, too. It’s nice for our talents and value to be recognized publicly. Also, most professional editors will sample edit a first chapter for free. I do this to make sure the author is comfortable with me and my editing style, and can also see the value I bring. Thanks again for the great article!

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