When I started freelance editing, the rates charged by other editors seemed pretty high to me—more than I made at my day job, certainly. I figured these rates indicated the editors’ level of experience. I’ve since realized that the rates are needed because of the nature of freelance work.
Freelance versus Salaried
My day job was paying my health insurance; freelancers pay for their own. I had a company computer at my day job; freelancers supply their own equipment: not only the computer but the constantly updating software, the Internet service, the newest Chicago manual, the Post-it notes, the coffee…. Freelancers have to fund their own time off, whether for sick days or vacation, and save for retirement. They have to spend time marketing their services and networking with potential clients. And they have to pay higher taxes (the “self-employment tax”), since no one else is contributing to social security for them. Their income from editing has to be enough to pay for all these business expenses.
Some estimates say that about half of a freelancer’s income goes to these expenses, leaving only half of the hourly rate as a true salary. Suddenly, those hourly rates didn’t seem outrageous. As I transitioned away from my day job (and gained experience editing), I increased my rates accordingly.
Editing Takes Time
I always do a sample edit so that I can make an accurate quote about how long the edit will take me. When I actually do the edit, however, there are a few additional steps.
For a copyedit, I read carefully, making corrections with the tracked changes visible. (If the manuscript is an academic paper, I also do a first read through to understand the material, before beginning to copyedit.) I pause to explain edits that the author might not understand. I often have to look up material: to understand the topic, to check the spelling, to find a better word, to fact check something that seems off, or to verify a style rule that I have not used in a while. I write queries to the author when there’s something I don’t understand, and suggest alternatives. Then, when I’ve gotten all the way through, I hide the changes and reread the entire manuscript. On the second pass, I make final copyedits (some are easier to see once the tracked changes are hidden) and reread all my comments to make sure they are as clear as possible.
For a beta read, I can read more quickly, but I make notes constantly so that I’ll be able to see patterns and to find material again, to share as examples with the author. If I’m doing what I call a “beta read plus,” I pause to leave a comment each time a sentence or even a word stands out as awkward, as confusing, or as the author “telling” the reader something instead of showing it to the reader. I type my notes into a letter to the author. And then I skim through the manuscript a second time, rereading all my comments to make sure they are clear.
So yes, editing is expensive. But many editors will try to find ways to work within an author’s budget. For example, maybe the author isn’t in a hurry; if the editor could fit the work in around other assignments with tight deadlines, she might be willing to charge less. Or maybe the editor could point out a problem that repeats throughout the manuscript, but allow the author to find all the times it occurs. I often spend a lot of time explaining grammatical edits I’ve made; if the author is on a budget, we might agree that I will simply make the changes without explaining them.
Belinda Pollard elaborates on the cost of editing in two posts on her blog, Small Blue Dog: https://smallbluedog.com/why-are-book-editors-so-expensive.html. She also has promised a post on how to prepare your manuscript to make it easier (and therefore faster) for the editor to work on; as an author, I’m eagerly awaiting this information!