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Janey Burton

PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Editor & Contracts Negotiator

The most common reason authors cite for not wanting to hire an editor is that it is expensive. I want to explain why, while editing by a trained and experienced editor is one of publishing’s larger expenses, it is also value for money.

Editing is a lengthy and involved process

Any kind of editing takes time and a lot of energy. Most editors can’t edit for more than about six hours a day, as the quality drops and they start making mistakes. Personally, I prefer four hours a day with a good break in the middle, but particularly when I’m copy editing – which can get quite intense – I may have to edit for six hours a day in order to make my deadline (and in which case I also need more breaks, so my day is longer).

Towards the end of the day, my fatigue becomes noticeable, and so at some point I have to say ‘that’s enough’ even if I haven’t done everything I wanted to do for the day. I know from experience that, if I don’t, I will spend the first hour of tomorrow fixing all the things I did wrong in the last hour of work today. It’s better to stop and write a note to myself about what I intend to do tomorrow.

Structural editing and manuscript assessments also take a lot of time, because they require a lot of creative thought from the editor in a way that copy editing doesn’t. Clarifying a tangled sentence is a different skill from clarifying a muddy narrative. Judgement and experience show much more when the focus is wider, and judgement and experience make for expensive work.

Editing requires skill, training and experience

And these don’t come cheaply or quickly. I started working in publishing in 2006 at a couple of literary agencies. Then I worked for an indie publisher, where I was one of four members of staff putting out two or three books a month, and so I did some of everything. I was the most junior staff member, but the others included me in sales conferences and asked for my opinion about the books under consideration. It was a fantastic grounding in how trade publishing actually worked end-to-end.

After that, I worked for a Big Five publisher on their ebook rights project, so that was publishing from a much more powerful and corporate point of view. I also took and take regular training courses. Then there’s my years of work on my own business as well.

An editor is not a person who’s ‘good at English’ but a highly skilled and trained professional with years of experience. Such people are expensive.

Fees need to pay for billable hours, and much more

Our fees need to cover all associated expenses, including non-billable hours, sick and holiday pay, and overheads. The billable hours themselves are also substantial: your fee might be for 60-100 hours of editing work, depending on the manuscript’s length and quality and the editor’s experience, and that’s if everything goes smoothly. If it doesn’t (and unexpected technical issues and delays pop up from time to time), the fee per hour can drop significantly. The CIEP’s suggested minimum rates are a guide, but it is not always possible to reach those rates. Editors have to find a balance between charging what the market will bear, and also enough to a) survive and b) thrive – or at least not burn out and damage our health (which would be ruinously expensive).

About half our working time is spent on tasks that are not editing: dealing with enquiries and discussing what our services include, as well as addressing individual author needs. I have written various pages explaining my services so I can just link to them, which saves some time on the general side. There’s also my admin, billing (and chasing payment where necessary), subscriptions to professional bodies and networks, and marketing. Some processes can be automated – for a fee or subscription, of course – so we need to balance the time saved with the additional overhead. It’s also vital to keep up with continuing professional development not only as editors but as business owners, and that is expensive in terms of money and time as well.    

Put it in perspective

So, while authors perceive editing as expensive – and it often is the most expensive part of the publishing process – once you understand what you’re paying for and put it in perspective, it seems more reasonable.

It is also value for money. There is no better way to help a book actually reach its potential than getting a good editor for it. An unedited book has much less of a chance to reach its audience, never mind satisfy them. Readers are put off by books which are rough, early drafts and full of typos, because they’re much more difficult to read.

Editing can help your sales, at least by not losing you customers – you don’t want to drive your customers all the way to your book’s purchase page, only to lose them when they look at the sample or read the reviews from unhappy previous customers.

Working with an editor can make you a better writer by teaching you better ways to tell your story, as well as how to improve aspects of your specific writing style.

Writing and publishing a book should be an investment for the author, and I mean money as well as time and effort. If you were making and selling jewellery, or another physical product, you would need to pay for your materials and tools. You shouldn’t expect to scrounge them all up for free and then get paid for what you manage to make out of what you scrounged. And if you didn’t have the money for the tools and materials you needed, you would save up for them. Save up for editing too.

Then, make your money go as far as possible – do as good a job as you can on self-editing, and work with other writers so you can help each other. The more work you give to an editor, the more it will cost.

You can also save money by going to an editor who just starting out and trying to build up experience, as their fees will often be lower.

I’m conflicted about places like Upwork and Fiverr, as they drive down prices for skilled work, so that the perception becomes that the work should be unbelievably cheap, and this inevitably affects the quality that can be provided. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the editing that is then available really isn’t worth much money. On the other hand, everyone has to start somewhere, and at least those sites provide a first step. When an editor gets more experienced and confident, though, they tend to get better at refusing jobs which are based on overworking and underpaying for labour.

If you’re really struggling, it can be worth talking to an editor you think will be a match for your work and seeing if we can break the fee into a few more pieces over a longer period. Some editors offer discounts from time to time in order to fill up the gaps in their calendar – I offer discounts or special offers sometimes to my newsletter subscribers, so that’s an easy way to get a deal on one of my services.

There’s an old saying: you can get something good, cheap, or fast, but not all three. And sometimes you can only choose one. Take some time to consider what means the most to you.