People often ask me how much a professional book editor costs. The answer is simple: I don't know. Or, more precisely, I can't say. Numerous variables go into book editing, and no two editors are alike or think, work, or charge the same. So, after thinking this one through for a while, here's what I've come up with.
Unfortunately, there's no pat answer to what hiring a professional book editor will cost. What an editor charges to edit a book-length manuscript depends upon several factors, including what type of editing you want done. Is it simple copy editing or more complicated line editing? Is it complete structural editing or is it complex substantive editing?
Knowing that most inexperienced authors aren't sure what types of editing they require—and knowing from experience that virtually all of their works could benefit from a combination of all four edits plus proofreading at the end of the process—I'll presume the question is how much does a comprehensive edit cost. Knowing from experience that one newbie author's work is very similar in its literary shortcomings to another, I'll focus my answer on an editor who can do it all. Here, then, is the bottom line of what you can expect to pay, based upon an editor's qualifications:
- Is the editor very experienced and capable of doing the job? If so, he or she will command considerably more money to edit a book than a less experienced or capable editor. There is a world of difference in the caliber of editors even among top-tier professionals. Some simply know more about editing than others because they've seen (and solved) more of the problems that have come before them.
- Is the editor in high demand? If so, he'll be less likely to cut you a deal when it comes to pricing. Tom Brady is in high demand; Tom Jones isn't. Guess who draws a larger paycheck!
- Does the editor have tons of experience, both editing freelance and for corporate America? An editor who has worked in book, magazine, and news;paper editing is likely going to be far better equipped to handle even the toughest problems a writer can throw at him. It's one thing for an editor to contract with a freelance writer to edit that writer's book. It's quite another for him to land a job and work for fifteen years at the New Yorker, five years at The Washington Post, and seven years at Doubleday. When someone hires you to show up each morning at eight a.m. and expects you to work long and hard until 5 p.m. that evening, and the editor does it for years on end, you can say he's earned his stripes. And his paycheck. He's not only ready for his solo flight; he's ready for Top Gun.
- ls the editor experienced in editing your particular genre? Someone who has spent the last forty years editing nonfiction books isn't likely to be very adept at tackling the Great American Novel and vice-versa. Seek out someone with solid expertise editing books similar in genre to your own.
- Has the editor any experience in teaching writing, journalism, and editing? That may seem an odd prerequisite, but if you hire an editor who simply can't get his thoughts across to you effectively (like, say, a teacher can), you've just wasted a whole lot of money. End of story.
- Does the editor have a boilerplate Contract/Agreement to share with you, and is it straight forward and easy to understand? If not, don't let him anywhere near your checkbook. Never, ever enter into an editor-writer agreement without having everything down in writing. And knowing what it all means.
- Does the editor guarantee his work, and, if so, is that guarantee enforceable to your satisfaction? lf an editor fails to perform and leaves you in the lurch after spending most of your money, you're going to have to prove that failure in court or in mediation to get out of your contract. Often, such disputes between two parties is settled by an independent third-party arbiter such as a respected literary agent. Even that can cost money, though; so, it's best to avoid that possibility by paying attention to the fine print from the start.
- Does the editor have a schedule that allows him to take on and complete your editing project on time—or are you flexible enough to work with him on setting up a date in the future? If so, you'll have better success in entering into an agreement with him than with an editor who is perpetually strapped for time.
- Is the editor's job finished once the manuscript has been edited, or will he continue helping you toward your ultimate goal of publication with a conventional publisher? For me, the fun is in the editing of the book, but the thrill is in seeing it published. That's why I always work with my client-writers even after the editing is over to make sure the book gets pitched properly to an agent or a publisher and that my role isn't finished until it's accepted by one or the other. Don't expect other editors to offer the same deal, though. I do it only because I've sold more than 250 my books to conventional publishers in my life, along with tens of thousands of short stories, articles, scripts, and features, to conventional publishers. I'vew done the same with dozens of other authors' books. I've also worked in all areas of publishing; so, I know what a publishable manuscript looks like as well as how to get it into marketable condition.
Now, with all this preliminary stuff out of the way, you probably still want to know what you're likely pay to get your literary "baby" edited, don't you? Here's my ballpark guesstimate based upon editors I've hired over the years to help me with my own backlogged material.
- For a full-length manuscript in reasonably readable shape and fairly well constructed, requiring relatively few structural edits, $2,000 - $4,000.
- For a manuscript in horrible shape, requiring massive help, triple that, or $6,000 - $12,000.
- For a manuscript that's in the worst shape imaginable, one that most other editors wouldn't even consider bidding on at any price because they're incapable of salvaging it, triple that again, or $18,000 to $36,000.
How can you tell which category your book-length manuscript falls into? Simple. Find the strongest, most experienced, most knowledgeable editor you can who meets all of the above criteria, and ask if he'd be willing to take a look at your project and give you a price. If he says yes, and he comes back with a fee that doesn't knock you off your feet, congratulations. You've just landed yourself a top-tier book editor. And, hopefully, a future publishing contract.
See how simple it is? And you thought this was going to be a hopeless task. Not at all. And not a particularly "cheap" one, either. But, if your book means to you what my first book meant to me, you'll find a way to make your dream happen. Until it does ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His blogs appear on his Website at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast," at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)