The cost of editing

Money gets everyone’s attention.

I can think of several reasons novice authors might not engage an editor, such as:

  • Fear of honest critique that risks being less than gushy
  • Heard horror stories that editors are demonspawn
  • Raw egotism; the illusion that no one is competent to edit their brilliance
  • Money; what we will cost is far more than what the author hoped to spend

There are different types of editing, requiring different levels of effort. Copy editing is less time-intensive than developmental or substantive editing, which can verge into rewriting and ghostwriting. The simple spotting and fixing of typos is proofreading, not editing. I believe that some editors base their charges on length, and some on an hourly rate, but in either case it comes down to a simple equation: bigger books cost more because they take much longer.

Non-fiction doesn’t take as long, because there is no questioning of plot connections, character development, and so on. The only overall question is what to leave in or remove. The bigger the fiction book, the more story issues the editor must keep straight in his or her mind. It can be an exhausting task, slowing the process by the constant need to refer back to previous material. But whatever the content: the longer you rambled on, the more this is going to set you back.

One misconception is that an editor can provide a reliable cost estimate based upon the first chapter or so. That is unrealistic, especially with fiction, because in order to provide a fair estimate, I at least must see the entire ms. If the entire ms does not yet exist, I can’t give an estimate. And if the author is planning on another large round of post-editing revisions, the author will be wasting his or her money on editing that involves actual changes to the ms, because if I’m asked to do it again, I will provide a new estimate for that service. And if the end result will not reflect my own best work, I will ask not to be acknowledged in the back matter. If your editor pulls an Alan Smithee of this sort, it should signal to you that you made a very bad decision at some point, kind of like when a doctor discharges you from the practice after repeated disregard for his or her advice.

In developmental or substantive editing of fiction, I often find that the ms is not quite ready for the red pen, but is ready for developmental feedback. I believe that serious plot problems are best repaired through the author’s own creativity. It is his or her book, the project of the author’s mind and inspiration, and not mine. I don’t belong in the spotlight and I don’t want to butt into it. If I was helpful, I enjoy a mention in the acknowledgements, provided my pen name is spelled correctly. That and the check are all I get or expect, and not until I have done my work.

Oh, it’s possible that I could invest all that effort reading and feedbacking, then have the author quit on me. Risks of the trade. The alternative would be a reading fee, which I find unpalatable. The road to scams is paved with reading fees. Unless someone asks for that up front–“How much would you charge to read this and comment only?”–I’m not doing it. What happens between first contact and the author’s agreement to engage me is marketing, and authors shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s marketing unless said authors ask to, eyes open.

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2 thoughts on “The cost of editing”

  1. I have decided to never ever again take a project where I have been assured that it “needs no real editing.” I always lose money. Value my ability or find another editor. (I have had one author come back with his tail between his legs begging me for help after he found a “cheaper” editor who didn’t work out. Go figure.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like a live and learn, Debbie. I always explain that with many English majors slaving to pay off small liberal arts college student loans wishing they could be full time at McD’s, there are a lot of literate people out there who would do it for any amount of money, but the fact it that it takes the time and knowledge and experience it takes. Can’t cut those short. Unless it is copy editing to a particular defined standard, or proofreading for unambiguous typos, editing varies in quality and scope. What is consistent: the author has looked at the work too closely, too many times, to see it clearly.

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