Choosing an editor is a difficult thing to do. There are, by my count, eleventy bajillion editors in the world, all of whom claim to be the best editor in the world, except for Arthur Biggs from Dorchester, who claims only to be fairly mediocre*. (*This was a joke. If you really are an editor called Arthur Biggs from Dorchester, I do apologise. I’m sure your work is exemplary.)
So what’s a writer to do? You’ve got your manuscript, your baby, the result of your blood, sweat, tears and many, many hours of staring at your computer wondering why all words have vanished from your brain. You don’t want to entrust it to just anyone. And you certainly don’t want to shell out hundreds of pounds to someone who promises the moon on a stick but in the end delivers a small piece of cheese wrapped in cling film.
Obviously, the first thing you should do is just stop looking and hire me. I’m quite clearly awesome, and now you don’t have to search any further! Yay! Job done.
I jest, of course. You might not want to hire me. Not everyone does (shocking, I know). You might decide there’s a better person to edit your historical crime thriller set on a golf course than a mainly contemporary romance editor who would probably recognise a golf club if it hit her in the face, but only just. Which brings us to the first question you should ask your editor: Do you know my genre? An editor doesn’t necessarily have to have a huge amount of editing experience in a genre to be able to edit it well, but they do need to be familiar with its quirks and the expectations of the readership.
The second question is What kind of changes will you make? All editors work slightly differently. Some have lighter touches than others. Some are more prescriptivist than others. It’s important that you understand the kind of changes an editor will want to make to your manuscript, so you can decide if you’re happy with those changes. The best way to determine this is by getting a sample edit. Many editors offer a free sample of a few pages, and it’s a great idea to get a few samples from different editors and compare the results.
Samples also give the editor a chance to see what your manuscript is like and estimate how much work it’s likely to take to edit it. If an editor offers you a per-word or per-page rate without doing a sample, be cautious. It could mean that they don’t care how much work they have to do and if they end up working for the equivalent of seven pence an hour. Or it could mean that they don’t plan on spending more than a certain number of hours on your manuscript, no matter how much work it needs, possibly because they aren’t sufficiently experienced to understand how much work editing can really be.
This leads us to perhaps the most important question for many authors: How much are you going to charge me? This is always the stickiest one. Every editor approaches the issue of rates slightly differently. Some editors have their rates on their websites; some don’t. Some charge by the hour, others by the word or page. A very experienced, highly trained editor may quote you thousands of pounds for a comprehensive edit of a very long manuscript. Someone else might say they’ll do it for fifty quid and a packet of Quavers regardless of how much work it is (and as I’ve said above, treat such offers with caution).
I wish I could tell you that editing will always cost x amount and any less will only get you rubbish editors and any more is a rip-off. But it wouldn’t be true. How much an editor is likely to charge you depends not just on the amount of work the manuscript needs, but on the skills, experience and circumstances of the editor. But here’s something important: it is not unreasonable for an editor to want to be paid enough to live on. I know that, particularly for new independent authors, the cost of editing can seem staggering when you have no idea if your book will even sell one copy. And if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money. There are good editors out there who work very cheaply not because they don’t know what they’re doing, but because they don’t need to live on the income and just really love what they do. If your budget is tighter than a pair of Primark jeggings, you may be lucky enough to find one of these editors by doing your research and paying very close attention to the sample edit so you can be sure you’re getting quality work.
But most of us freelance editors are trying to run a successful business that allows us to at least pay our mortgages. And to do that, we need to make sure we’re being adequately compensated for the hours we’re putting in. While every editor works differently, and every manuscript is different, an average, rule-of-thumb kind of speed for copy-editing a manuscript might be 2,000 words per hour. This means that a 100,000 word manuscript would result in around 50 hours of work. If you were to pay the SfEP suggested minimum rates for copyediting (£27.15 per hour), that would mean a total cost of £1,357 (or a per-1000-word rate of £13.57). Some editors don’t necessarily expect to get an hourly rate that high (I don’t, for example, as I’m still relatively early on in my career), but editors aren’t being greedy if they do.
Editing is a skilled job. It’s mentally exhausting, and requires you to do a lot of research and training to develop your skills and keep your knowledge current. Using the 2,000 words per hour rate again (which is very much a tentative guide – a very light edit of clean copy can be quicker, and it wouldn’t be at all unusual for a more comprehensive line edit of a manuscript with a fair few grammar issues to slow down to half that), if you are paying under £375 for a manuscript of 100,000 words, the editor will be making less than minimum wage. It’s not fair to ask that of trained professionals.
And there’s also a question that you need to ask not your editor, but yourself: Is this person the one for me? Not that way. You don’t have to marry your editor (although I would pay good money for that romance novel). But you need to ask yourself if you click with this person. Someone could be the most experienced editor in your genre, they could have worked on award-winning books for the best authors and publishers in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if they don’t *get* you and your work. The author–editor relationship is about trust above all else – you need to know that your editor will be able to see into the heart of the story you’re trying to tell and help you tell it. And when you get that right, it’s a magical thing.