What 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.