The Cost of Editing & How to Stay in Your Budget

Authors often lament about the cost of editing on social media. And I don’t blame them; editing isn’t cheap.

I get how tempting it can be to find the cheap editors charging rock-bottom rates.

But you get what you paid for. Those rates most likely won’t get you quality editing.

It helps if you understand why many editors charge what they do. They aren’t ripping you off, like it might seem when compared to those editors charging rock-bottom rates. They are good editors who need to actually make a living.

But in the end, you need to decide if that investment is worth it and feasible for you. If it isn’t, I have also included tips on how to stay in your budget.

Why Editing Is Expensive

1. Specialized skill

Contrary to popular belief, editing is a specialized skill. Good editors take training courses and spend time and money learning how to edit well.

No, not anyone who has passed a college English class can be an editor.  Oh, you are good at spotting typos? Good for you; that still doesn’t mean you can be an editor.

First, editing is more than just finding typos and punctuation and grammar errors. But even if that were all it entailed, English classes do not go into depth on grammar and punctuation.

I know this because I used to be an English teacher. Other English teachers came to me for questions on grammar and punctuation, and I still didn’t know all I needed to know to edit well until I took some editing training. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Then as mentioned, editing is more than just punctuation and grammar. Editors also edit your prose to ensure it is fluid, clear, and pleasurable to read, fine-tuning word choice and sentence structure. And the style of prose changes based on the genre, so editors also study that.

For big-picture editing, editors study story craft for fiction and organizational and content strategies for nonfiction.

Just as you would pay a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, a carpenter, etc. for their specialized skill, an editor should be paid for their specialized skills.

 

2. Time it takes

On average, editors can edit four–ten pages an hour, depending on the type of editing, the type of material, the state of the original, and the speed of the person in general. (Note: a page is defined as 250 words.)

That adds up to a lot of time spent editing one manuscript.

Additionally, since editing is a cognitively demanding task, editors  can only spend about four or five hours a day on actual editing. The rest of their work day is spent on tasks they may or may not be billing you for.

Some editors do bill for admin time like email communications, invoicing, bookeeping etc. But even if they bill for that, they won’t bill you for time spent learning their craft, marketing to find clients, and maintaining a website or a blog (see the hourly rate broken down chart after the next section). All editors have non-billable hours.

 

3. Freelancers have other expenses

If your editor is a freelancer, they have to pay for their computer, editing proficiency software, subscriptions to style manuals and dictionaries, invoicing software, website domain, and more.

Then whether or not they are freelance or employed, they did pay for or are still paying for editing classes, editing craft books, and editing conferences.

Additionally, if they don’t have a spouse who works at a company providing insurance, they have to pay for their own insurance.

So they have to charge in such a way that ensures they still make a profit after paying for their expenses (see the hourly rate broken down chart below).


Hourly Rate Broken Down

*Quick note: While many editors charge per word (I do) or per page so that the total is known ahead of time, they configure the estimate for each project based on what they want to make hourly.

When I first starting editing, I thought charging more than $30 an hour was ridiculous. Even $30 sounded ridiculous, but that’s what I charged when I was first starting out, per some recommendations. But who needs to make more than that in one hour? It’s just an hour. Or so I thought.

Well, freelancers are not pocketing their full hourly rate because of time spent on non-billable tasks and money spent on business expenses.

I polled some editors to get accurate averages.

    • 22 percent of their work day = non-billable tasks

(for me, since I have only been doing this for three years, I am closer to 34 percent as I’m spending more time on marketing and business learning than those who have been in the business longer.)

    • 30 percent of their income = business expenses and taxes

(for me, I am at 41 percent as I am still spending money on editing courses.)

 

For example, let’s say your book contains 50k words, which is 200 pages. And let’s say you are paying an editor for one type of editing service and the editor edits at a pace of seven pages an hour, meaning your book will take them twenty-five hours. Using the average non-billable tasks and business expenses listed above, let’s see how the math works out.

*If you get both big-picture editing and word- and sentence-level editing, it will cost more as it will take the editor longer. And the speed of the editor really depends on the natural speed of the editor, the type of material, the type of editing, and the state of the original. So this is just an example.

What they are charging youInitial Hourly RateHourly rate after non-billable tasksHourly rate after business expensesTotal daily income on this project if edit 5 hours a day
$200$8$6$4$20
$500$20$16$10$50
$750$30$23$14$70
$1250$50$39$24$120
$1500$60$46$32$160

How to Stay within Your Budget (if it’s limited)

Ok, so now that you understand that paying something like $200 or $500 for 50k words is not a living wage, and isn’t even minimum wage, let’s talk about your budget. You may not be able to afford the $750, $1,250, or $1,500 that is fairer for a 50k word book.

(Again, a 50k-word book could cost even more depending on the speed of the editor, the type of editing, how many rounds you are getting, if they are charging more per hour, and the state of your manuscript. While I average seven pages an hour, I have edited as slow as four pages an hour for a manuscript that needed more editing.)

 

1. Pay rock-bottom rates *not recommended

The editors charging rock-bottom rates may be doing so because they haven’t really been trained in editing, and they don’t understand it is a specialized skill. So if you pay those rates, you may not end up with good-quality editing, and it will honestly be a waste of your money.

I wouldn’t go this route to stay within your budget unless you find an editor who meets the situation outlined in the next paragraph.

Some editors who are retired and don’t need the income charge less to give back to the community. Or perhaps their spouse makes great money, so they are just doing it on the side and don’t care if they make less than minimum wage. So if you know the editor is well-trained and you’re going to get good quality work, then go for it. This is rare to find at those rates. So, seriously, I do not recommend this route at all.

 

2. Find editors charging starting out rates for your first book

When I first started out, I was charging  $30 an hour. Because I am a faster editor, the overall cost was quite affordable.

Editors just starting out don’t have as much experience or training, but if they aren’t charging rock-bottom rates and they have some training, then they understand editing is a specialized skill and they take it seriously.

Their rates are lower as likely the quality won’t be as good as someone with more experience, but it will definitely be better than someone who thinks they can call themselves an editor just because they passed their English class and can spot typos and grammatical errors in their family’s work.

While they aren’t as experienced, most newbies have taken some training, but they need clients to build their portfolio, so they are charging lower rates to attract clients and get their business off the ground.

Make sure to find out what credentials they do have. You don’t want to pay this amount for someone who truly isn’t qualified and has no business calling themselves an editor.

 

3. Change the scope of work

In my opinion, all books, especially those by first-time or relatively new authors, should go through big-picture editing (called substantive, developmental, structural, or content editing) and both types of word- and sentence-level editing (called copyediting, stylistic editing, or line editing—note many editors include both types in one service [I do]).

But to save money, you can change the scope of work. That could mean reducing the amount of rounds or not getting all levels of editing.

I list various options below for changing the scope of work.

You need to know your audience and your weaknesses to know which option is best for you. As a reader, I can forgive word- and sentence-level issues more than I can big-picture issues.

If your story has underdeveloped characters, plot holes, odd dialogue, too much info dumping, etc., then I will not finish it. If it has more errors than a published book should have, I will still read it if the story is good.

Same with nonfiction: I can’t get through it if the ideas are disorganized and the content is repetitive or not well explained.

So if I were your audience, paying for the big-picture editing would be more important. But if you know that you can fix the big-picture issues with just an in-depth manuscript assessment rather than actual content editing, then that is a cheaper option.

Option 1: Free beta read or cheaper manuscript assessment, then just pay for full copyediting.

If you can’t afford both a big-picture edit and a word- and sentence-level edit, then get free beta readers to give you some big-picture feedback, read craft books, and/or pay for a manuscript assessment (it goes by other names, such as manuscript evalutation, editorial report, etc., but this is a service where the editor doesn’t make any edits or comments in the text. Instead, they provide you with an in-depth overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript with suggestions on how to improve it).

If an editor does your beta read, they will give you more in-depth feedback than a non-editor beta reader.  Many editors do charge for this, but it is much cheaper.

I did a free beta read for an author and I let her know about some plot holes and some issues with the characters, but I didn’t suggest fixes.

A free beta read, or a paid beta read pay a professional, is not the same as a manuscript assessment.

Manuscript assessments will suggest how to fix some of the issues in a manuscript; a beta read will not. While the editor will not point out the issues in the text as they occur (remember, this service doesn’t include any markings in the actual text or margin of the text), the letter should be detailed enough for you to find those areas yourself.

If your manuscript just has some big-picture issues but you feel confident in your content and organization overall, this would be a good route to go to save money.

After the beta read and/or manuscript assessment, pay for an editor to do the word- and sentence-level edit. (Both types: stylistic and fixing errors. Again, some editors list these as separate services; some have them in the same service.)

Option 2:  Free beta read or cheaper manuscript assessment, then just pay for light copyediting.

This is the same as option 1, but with a lesser copyediting service.

A lighter copyedit will just focus on fixing and correcting actual errors rather than also improving the word choice and sentence structure.

So while the editor won’t fix wordy or awkward sentences or other infelicities, they will fix actual errors. So at least your published manuscript won’t be riddled with errors.

Option 3: Pay for full big-picture editing and use software to find as many grammar and punctuation errors as possible.

Get full big-picture editing (this is called either developmental, substantive, structural, or content editing) to ensure the content is strong. Or at least get an in-depth manuscript assessment, not just a free beta read for this option.

Then, skimp on the copyediting. There are programs out there, like Grammarly and ProWritingAid, that can help spot some errors. These programs do not replace an actual editor. Many times they suggest changes that are wrong, so unless you do have a good grasp of grammar and punctuation, I wouldn’t suggest this route.

No problem will find nearly as many errors as an actual editor will, and like I said, they often suggest incorrect fixes.

You could also enlist friends and family, but be warned they don’t know the rules like they think they do. Many people think things are incorrect when they are correct, and correct when they are incorrect. There are a lot of grammar misconceptions out there.

These programs and your friends and family will never replace a professional editor, but if you are needing to save money, they can spot some of the more embarrassing errors.

Then after you get some sales, use the profits to then pay for a full copyediting service, so your next version of the book is better.

Again, if I were your audience, I would be quite forgiving of errors as long as the content was strong.

Option 4: Skimp on the editing for your first book, publish it, then use the sales to go back and pay for full editing

Many successful self-publishing authors have done this. They just get free beta reading to get some readers’ feedback, but no real big-picture editing. And they use friends and family or rock-bottom rate editors to catch as many grammar and punctuation issues as possible.

Some have even included notes to the reader to let them know this book has not been edited by a professional yet.

After they get some sales, they then use that money to pay for a real editor, and they republish the new and improved book.

 


If you have the money, I would pay a trained editor for full big-picture editing and word- and sentence-level editing, especially if you are a first-time or beginning author. It takes money to make money. So look at it like an investment!

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