I’m going to let you in on a secret.
Book editors are expensive.
Ooh, are you shocked? “But aren’t you One Of Them??” I hear you say.
Yes I am. But I’m also a writer. And very soon I’m going to have to hire an editor for one of my own projects, out of my own personal piggybank. And I’m dreading it. (EDIT: Since I wrote this article, I’ve hired several editors for my own books.)
So, why? Why are editors so darn expensive???
Well, sit right down and I’ll tell you a story…
The prologue: Great expectations
Once upon a time, an author went to visit an editor, and dreamed of how they’d find them in a mansion, lazing by one of the pools.
“After all,” said the author, “editing is expensive, so they must be rich. I can’t wait to eat their caviar and drink their champagne.”
But when they arrived at the address, they had to look again and again.
“My GPS must be broken again, the stoopid gadget,” said the author. “This can’t be the right place.”
And then the editor walked out in their track pants and said, “Welcome, author! Come in for a cup of tea and we’ll get started.”
Now that you’ve stopped giggling about the track pants reference (sorry fellow editors, couldn’t resist), let’s ask ourselves: If editing is expensive, why aren’t editors rich?
In all my years as a book editor — many of them freelancing — and chatting with other editors and authors, I’ve noticed two key misunderstandings about the whole process.
I even failed to grasp the full range of implications myself for quite a while, so if you have been confused about it, you are definitely not alone!
Let’s start with the first aspect of editing that tends to surprise people.
Chapter 1. Editing a book takes longer than most people think
This is an assumption I encounter: “Well I can read a book in an afternoon, so that’s about how long it should take to edit it. Maybe two afternoons at most.”
It’s an understandable mistake. Who ever really knows what someone else’s job entails?
To get a clearer picture, let’s break a book edit down into its components.
The delightful Wikipedia tells us that: “The average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. While proofreading materials, people are able to read at 200 wpm on paper, and 180 wpm on a monitor.” (I have no idea how they calculate this, but I like that paper vs monitor distinction… more fuel for my argument that it’s better to print out your book to edit it!)
How many reads?
So let’s say someone is going to read carefully (not just skim) your 100,000 word crime novel at 200 wpm. That adds up to about 8.5 hours just to READ your book ONCE.
A quality edit usually involves two readings, at least. There are many cases where this doesn’t happen these days, due to financial and time pressures — but it’s the ideal. In fact, I used to give manuscripts 4, 5 or even up to 7 passes when I was on staff with a specialist publisher.
So at that 200 wpm rate for careful reading, we’re up to 17 hours for two passes through the manuscript.
They’re not just reading, however. They’re writing as well… perhaps with a red pen on a printout, or by making notes on an electronic copy. They also need to take the time to express themselves clearly in those notes, to ensure the author will be able to understand the logic of the comments and have enough information to make well-informed decisions about the recommendations.
And a good editor will also take the time to express themselves graciously in a way that presents options and shows respect for the author. (It takes a lot longer to write thoughtful, sensitive, USEFUL feedback than to say, “I hated this part.”)
As well as all this reading and writing, editors are also doing other tasks, depending on the editing phase they are tackling.
Different phases, different responsibilities
A content / developmental / structural editor needs to read and think creatively, evaluating the book and where it’s heading and where it could go instead to make it a stronger book. They can often read fast as they are looking at the big picture rather than the small detail, but the creative side needs some time to breathe.
If they’re writing a report, it needs to be carefully put together, drawing together those possibilities for the author in a way that is accessible and actionable.
If they’re doing the actual restructuring/redeveloping, that will obviously take even more time. Lots more time. Believe me, I’ve done it, and it’s a time-gobbler.
A copy / mechanical editor needs to read every letter of every word on every page, along with every punctuation mark. No skimming. (When did you last read your own manuscript that thoroughly?)
They might be required to check sources, depending on the brief.
While they do all this, they need to think analytically, weighing up not just correct-vs-incorrect, but also ok-vs-better, in a range of areas including spelling, grammar, punctuation and expression.
A proofreader also needs to read every single letter of every word, every punctuation mark, every page number and running head, check for consistency of heading levels and that nothing is missing, possibly check references within the text depending on the brief, and make an instant judgement call on accuracy.
(For more on the different phases of editing, check out my article on beta readers and editing.)
So, about how many hours is that?
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition, p71) says:
“A 100,000-word book manuscript, edited by an experienced editor, might take seventy-five to one hundred hours of work before being sent to the author, plus ten to twenty additional hours after the author’s review.”
So that’s averaging around 1 hour per 1000 words of manuscript!
Has CMOS gone mad? Let’s double-check against the Editorial Freelancers Association. They’re saying 500-1250 words per hour for heavy copyediting, which is probably the one CMOS is referring to. For basic copyediting, they suggest 1250-2500 words per hour, and 250-1250 words per hour for developmental editing. (Under the “estimated pace” column at the EFA link, they are talking of manuscript pages that are 250 words.)
Hmmm. Seems like they are in the same ballpark, doesn’t it.
Is that slower than you thought? Go on, you can tell me.
Is this the norm?
I suspect that many books today are NOT getting that level of editing due to budget cuts and other factors, but when I started in book editing back in the mid-90s, that was certainly the intensity of editing that our projects were getting.
Yes, it’s a big job.
I’m talking from my personal experience as a specialist non-fiction editor, rather than making declarations about the publishing industry as a whole.
And I know that in my sector, publishing houses are tending to squeeze the amount of time their editors are allowed to spend on a project.
If any fiction editors are reading this, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. What do you think is an ideal amount of time to spend doing a really good fiction edit? Are CMOS and the EFA about right, or not? How does it vary between genres and into literary fiction? And have there been changes in publisher expectations in your section of the industry in recent years?
What about self-publishers?
Many self-publishers would have trouble affording a 100-hour edit. I’d have trouble affording it for my personal project, at professional rates.
If someone could edit a book in two hours, it would obviously be a lot cheaper for us all. (By the way, if anyone does offer to edit your book in two hours, may I quietly suggest you look for another editor. 😉 )
NEXT WEEK we’ll move on to Chapter 2 of this little story — the second aspect of the cost of freelance editing that catches people by surprise. Can you guess what it is?? EDIT: Chapter 2 is now live, and you can check it out here.
Are you surprised by the quote from the Chicago Manual of Style? As a writer or an editor, what is your experience with the amount of time a book edit takes?
Featured piggybank image via Bigstock/willee cole
Housing images via Bigstock/imgng and PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek