Why Does Editing Cost so Much?

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I remember, many (many) years back, I logged into Tumblr wanting my dose of writing advice from my usual go-to source of information, a developmental editor. Her latest post was promoting her website and editing services, which, on a whim, I checked out. I was curious what the service entailed; this was before I had any clue about the publishing process, you see. When I saw her ballpark quote for a round of novel editing…

I. Was. Gobsmacked.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting but I wasn’t ready for was the cost to be in the thousands. It was an obscene amount, I thought. And any inclinations towards one day booking those services were dashed. This was before I had any clue about how much money and effort it took to publish a book. Now I’m a little wiser.

That kind of price tag can still be a bitter pill to swallow, even if you understand the reasoning behind it. If, however, you’re uncertain of what components make up editing quotations, then allow this post to help clarify the matter.

Book editing takes time

All types of editing take time. Proofreaders, for example, are trained to read slowly – far slower than a ‘normal’ reading pace. They use several methods when working to assist with this: they make the text bigger, recheck a sentence upon finding an error, and some even go to the lengths of placing a ruler on the screen to improve focus on the line they’re on.

Proofreaders read every word, sometimes muttering them out loud (at the cost of anyone overhearing us questioning our sanity!), to catch those errors that slip past the untrained eye.

We do this because the brain is lazy. Once it’s familiar with the words it’s absorbing, the brain will cause the the reader to skip words they know, glossing over words/letters they assume are correct. I’m sure you’ve come across those posters which duplicate a word in each line, pointing out how you missed the mistake, and the next, and the next. Did I catch you out with the double ‘the’ above? Although your spellchecker will likely pick that up for you, it’ll miss trickier mishaps like ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ or ‘compliment’ instead of ‘complement’: Word rarely flags words that are spelt correctly but used in error.

We’re also on the lookout for inconsistencies, deviations from a style guide, and ambiguity, while ensuring the message matches its intention. Proofreaders also check every element of design and layout – such as fonts, headings, and scene breaks – are consistent, ensure there are no missing chapter numbers, check information in the front and end matter are correct, and so much more!

A good amount of thinking time is required of copyeditors on how to best reword unwieldy sentences while retaining authorial voice, or of developmental editors who need to patch up a plot hole or find a solution for poor character development. Time is precious for editors; even those who charge by the word, every 1000 words, or page still need to work as fast as they can to ensure they’re earning above the minimum hourly wage (and what they’re worth), while providing a solid service.

Microsoft Word rarely flags words that are spelt correctly but used in error.

A freelance editing business is expensive to run

Freelance editors lack something – employee rights and benefits. They have to pay for absolutely everything to keep their business running. Things that would normally be the employer’s responsibility. For example:

  • CPD (continual professional development) such as training and attending annual conferences. Not only is this essential to keep up to date with knowledge, but editors are required to give proof of CPD to progress to higher levels in their…
  • memberships. While memberships for editing organisations bring tremendous value to editors, they are costly
  • utility bills – something which hits even harder during the cost-of-living crisis at the time of writing
  • annual leave
  • maternity/paternity leave
  • sick pay
  • marketing which, while can be achieved mostly for free, takes precious time away from the day. This is especially true for content marketers who regularly create resources and blog posts
  • equipment costs for a PC/laptop, ergonomic chairs, Microsoft Office/Dropbox renewals
    website domain and hosting services
  • benefits! Many companies offer benefit packages, including healthcare and discounts (freelancers are allowed to take a breather and treat themselves too, after all)
  • pension scheme

I’ve definitely missed out others from this quick list I’ve cobbled together, but this provides an idea of how much investment goes into being a freelance editor. These all have to be accounted for in the pricing strategy editors use, all while making sure their profits reflect what they’re worth. When hiring an editorial professional, you’re not just paying for the work completed. You’re also paying for their accumulated knowledge and experience.

Editors are allowed to charge what they want – it's their business

Deciding on what to charge clients involves consideration and trial and error. Guidance for new editors range from using rate charts to comparing colleagues’ rates to finding the hourly wage of an in-house employee of the same role and doubling it (to account for the expenses above). However, while such guidance is helpful for considering a baseline fee, it’s not the be-all and end-all.
Talking about rate charts, here’s the CIEP’s minimum suggested rates (from 2024):

  • Proofreading: £29.85
  • Copyediting: £34.70
  • Substantial editing, rewriting, developmental editing: £39.90

Bear in mind they’re exactly what the CIEP says they are: suggestions.

The most important decision editorial professionals – and most other freelance business owners – make on their fee is relatively simple: does their rate cover what they need to earn to make a living (and a comfortable one at that)?

Taking that decision into account, as well as what they believe their experience is worth, will provide a vast range of prices across the board. You may come across two editors who offer a similar service but charge significantly different fees. Does that mean the editor with the lower fee is less experienced or worse at their job than the other? Not at all! When an editor charges less than the minimum rates suggested by rate charts, does that mean they offer a subpar service? See previous answer.

Ultimately, it’s the freelancer’s choice because it’s the business they’re running. Of course, for any professional, charging what they’re worth is important, and I’m by no means advocating that they charge less, but if personal circumstances allow editors to charge a lower-than-expected rate, so be it. If an editor charges something you feel is through the roof, it’s not up to the editor to modify their price scheme to match your budget. (What they can do is modify their service to reflect what you can afford.) Rather, if that editor can convince their target clients to pay their price, that’s what matters for them.

It's not up to the editor to modify their price scheme to match your budget.

Editing is difficult work

There are stories in editing circles where a client, not long after receiving their newly edited book, comes back to the editor claiming a refund or discrediting their work on social media.

Why?

Because a friend of theirs who is good at ‘spotting errors’ tells them there’s loads of ‘mistakes’ missed, or the editor didn’t fix comma splices (where two complete sentences are separated by a comma – a mark not strong enough to hold that link). But was their friend aware – as the professional would have been – that comma splices are acceptable in fiction and replacing those commas with full stops or semicolons would ruin the rhythmic flow of those scenes?

And those grammar rules that were supposedly broken? They were, in fact, ‘franken-rules’: Supposed ‘rules’ that don’t have any real backing and exist purely because of preference. Starting a sentence with a conjunction – like this paragraph – and ending with a preposition are among these.

Does the friend follow the ‘if it’s good enough, leave well alone’ mantra that stops editors making changes that are purely down to subjectivity?

Developing good editorial judgement and the restraint to not change something simply because it’s not how they would do it is the mark of a good proofreader and takes time to cultivate.

It’s this kind of knowledge, accrued over years of study and experience which makes editors worth their salt.

Final thoughts...

Editing often comes with a hefty price tag. Because of this it may be tempting to seek out the cheapest editors or even skip the process altogether, but it’s expensive for a reason: it’s an invaluable service! A service that any author, new or seasoned, needs to use to get their book ready for publication.

Now you know what goes into the costs of editing your novel. Here’s a recap:

  • each type of editing has its own problems to solve, which takes time
  • proofreaders and editors are trained to read slower to catch errors
  • it takes money to build and run an editing business
  • personal circumstances affect the editor’s pricing strategy
  • editing is difficult work, so the price ought to reflect that
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