by Michael Bedford
Published at 2023-04-19
Authors preparing to submit their manuscripts for publication in today’s market often find that the process presents more challenges than they anticipated. With the book-buying public’s increased access to international talent, and self-publishing authors increasing in number every day, competition in today’s book market is fierce. So, hiring the services of a professional editor remains one of the best ways to ensure that your manuscript stands out.
Although the adage about a set of fresh eyes being helpful applies, editors do more than simply provide authors an additional reader. Editing involves methodical work, and, depending on what kind of editorial work your manuscript needs—substantive editing, copy editing, or proofreading—costs and timelines for completion will vary from manuscript to manuscript. So, if you are asking for an editorial estimate for the first time, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Having an editor review your manuscript will give you the best idea of what kind of editing services you need, but if you’re asking for your first quote or estimate as a ballpark, having a general understanding of the types of editing on offer is in your best interest. Once you know what different levels of editing cover, you can make a more educated guess as to what services your manuscript will need when you speak to an editor.
Substantive (or sometimes called “developmental”) editing is the first level in the editing process, and it can be helpful to think of it as “big picture” editing. Rather than focusing on sentence-level mechanical or stylistic issues (as is the case with copy editing), a substantive edit improves thematic elements of the author’s manuscript with an aim to highlight strong ideas while trimming away extraneous or confusing elements. In a nonfiction book, this might mean changing the structure of the book to make information flow better, such as switching the order of chapters. In a fiction book, this might mean examining character development arcs, or the progression of plot points. It’s important to note that in this process, the editor typically won’t make any actual changes to the manuscript themselves. Instead, they compile their suggestions into a report for you to review as the author, acting as a sort of road map for you to enact the changes yourself.
Because of its somewhat abstract nature, substantive editing might seem to be the most involved of the three facets of editing, but there is no reason to assume that substantive editing will necessarily be an author’s biggest expense. Every manuscript is different and will require different levels of service.
Copy editing involves reviewing the manuscript at the sentence level. An editor will look to remove spelling and grammatical errors, while also fixing issues with tone, syntax, style, and word choice.
Proofreading occurs further downstream in the editorial process, acting as a pre-publication check for formatting and reproduction errors—basically, anything that might have been either missed at the copy editing stage, or introduced in the formatting and layout/production process.
The best person to consult on what kind or kinds of editorial work your manuscript would benefit from is the editor you’re considering working with. Each editor sets different rates depending on the type of work involved, but their billing systems generally work one of three ways: flat rates, hourly billing, or a price per page/word.
A flat rate can be a great deal, but make sure that what’s on offer is comparable to or, preferably, slightly lower than the price per page being offered by the editorial competition. For instance, if a copy editor is charging $15 per page, and your manuscript is 200 pages, the cost for copy editing would be $3,000 plus HST. Substantive editing is likely to be approximately $15 per page or higher, with proofreading figuring in at around $8-15 per page. So, for a 200-page book, all-in costs for all three levels of editing will likely run around $7,000 plus HST or, quite likely, more.
If an editor is offering a flat rate of $5,000 for substantive editing, copy editing, and proofreading of a 200-page book, a savvy author should think twice before signing anything. Editorial work isn’t something that can be rushed, and rates that seem too good to be true generally are. Editing is, by its nature, methodical work that involves extreme attention to detail, so skimming to save time or cut costs is not an option.
Getting two or three different quotes or estimates from editors that look like a good fit for your project will help you ensure you are paying a fair price. Just getting one quote and not having anything to compare it to means that you’re missing out on useful information. Getting a few (but not too many!) quotes means you are armed with more knowledge and can make a more educated decision.
As mentioned, editing really isn’t something one can do a rush job of. Editors set their own paces by determining how quickly and efficiently they can ensure that a manuscript is free of all errors. Although one editor might promise quick and inexpensive results, the editors who provide longer timelines are often more reliable as far as the quality of their final product is concerned. What’s that old adage again? “Fast, cheap, and good—pick two!” If you really want to get your money’s worth, make sure your editor has enough time to complete their work properly.
Some authors worry that working with an editor will feel like being back in school, getting reprimanded for having bad grammar or not being able to write a perfect sentence. The reality is quite the opposite—the relationship between author and editor is best when it’s built upon mutual respect for what the other party does. Then, the editorial process feels like teamwork, with both parties mutually invested in producing a good piece of writing.
Remember, you hired your editor because you want your book to be the very best it can be. The editor has the same goal, to make your book the best it can be. Yes, receiving criticism and feedback can be difficult, and as an author, it can be easy to become defensive when it comes to the manuscript you’ve been working on for months. However, just remember your shared goal, and know that your editor has the best interest of your book at heart.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.
For more tips on budgeting for an editor, check out our March/April newsletter Editors’ Tip!