By Paula R. Stiles
It’s called the Project Management Triangle. Most people know it as “Fast, cheap or good.” The principle is that you can do something quickly, cheaply, or well. At best, you can do two of those at once but not all three.
It’s almost a mantra among professional editors. I run into this conflict with clients because writers are frequently strapped in their budget, but they’re also in a hurry to get their book out, whether to a publisher or an agent or self-published. Naturally, they also want it to be good. But they don’t understand why they can’t have all three.
I regularly see authors on sites I shan’t name offering to pay $100 or less for novels of 80,000 or even 100,000 words. I’ve seen people who want “just a last-minute go-over” (they mean a proofread, really), offering $20. I’ve even seen $6, with the idea that I’d be gaining valuable experience working on their manuscript. Um … no. I’ve been writing for, tutoring, and editing English students and clients since the late 1990s. I really don’t need that kind of experience, anymore.
So, why doesn’t that kind of offer work? Why can’t it guarantee you a good edit? Sure, a proofread is different from a copy edit, let alone a substantive edit, but it still requires that I read your book to do it.
Let’s look at a 100,000-word book. The industry standard is 250 words per page, which comes out to about four hundred pages for that word count. How long does it take you to read a page? One minute? Two? Six? Ten? If you, say, read 60 pages per hour, that takes you 6 hours and 40 minutes to read a 400-page book. If you pay me $20 for it, that’s $3 per hour. If you pay me $6, it’s less than $1 per hour. Even if you pay me $100, that’s still only $15 per hour – somewhat over minimum wage but still not that great. And how much do you think I’m going to catch reading one page per minute?
A more realistic number would be 10-12 pages per hour for a proofread, 5-10 per hour for a copy edit (what suffices for your average fiction novel without significant structural problems). It can be as little as 1-2 for a substantive edit or an edit of a particularly complicated piece of writing (such as an academic book with footnotes) and the hourly rate for that actually goes up because editing at that intensive level is hard. These are professional standards as set down by the Editorial Freelancers Association. The EFA also lists $30-$40 per hour as the lower end for editing. The Writers Digest figures are even higher.
So, if you calculate that out, you can see that a single edit of the average decently self-edited fiction novel should range between $1000 and $2000. At least. If you’re getting a substantive or a particularly complicated type of edit (such as for a book with footnotes, index, graphs, and such), it can be even higher. By “single edit,” I don’t mean a single pass (read-through) but a complete edit by one person, which should include more than one pass over the manuscript, scanning for different types of problems. Ideally, after you’ve edited your manuscript as well as you can, you should employ a copy editor and then a separate person for proofreader. The more people who look at your manuscript, the more nits they will find and the cleaner your manuscript will be. Nits — like coat-hangers — they breeds in the dark, my precioussss ….
But you may ask, Why such a high starting hourly rate? Well, there are a few reasons. One is that editing is a skill. It’s a skill that requires experience and training, and it requires more experience and training to keep it sharp. It also requires that I set up my own office. So, you’re paying me for my skill and my experience and my tools, just as you would a plumber or a contractor to work on your house. In this case, your manuscript is your house.
Another is that editing is an intensive job. Most editors I talk to say they can edit up to four to six hours. Some can only do two. It’s hard on the eyes and hard on the brain. After a while, if you push it too much, everything starts to blur. Editing in a blur is no fun and doesn’t tend to produce good work.
For me, four is my usual limit. What do I do with the other hours? Quite a bit — answering emails and otherwise interacting with current clients (because working on your manuscript also means getting to know what you need), advertising, prospecting for new clients, blogging, research, and training to keep up and increase my skills. That can easily put my work day over eight hours, but those other hours often don’t make any direct revenue on their own. Some of them I even have to pay for. Yet they are essential to my business and my ability to make your book as good as I can.
A third is that if I’m earning a decent wage from your project, you have my full-time, undivided attention for that period of time. I don’t have to scramble to find other projects to fill in the blanks and pay the bills, especially if I get half from you up front. I can concentrate fully on your project because that’s what you’re paying me to do.
“Good” isn’t something on which I’m willing to compromise. If I don’t do the best I can manage within the parameters of the project each time, it will eventually affect my clients’ satisfaction and my business. Yes, there’s a difference between a proofread and a copy edit, but that difference is not one of quality. In addition, I’ve been an indie publishing editor for seven years and I throw in advice for free about where you can send your manuscript or how you can spin it for an editor.
That leaves “fast” and “cheap.” If you want it fast, well, it’s definitely not going to be cheap. But there are limits on both. To do a really good, thorough edit, depending on the manuscript, I will generally need two weeks to a month for a project of 100,000 words. And much less than $1,000 for that size of a project is therefore not going to be worth it for me. You can certainly find cheaper editors on the internet, but look at the above calculations and ask yourself what corners they have had to cut to make that model work for them.
Now, I understand that authors are not made of money, even those who budgeted for editing (which many make the mistake of not doing). I’m an author myself; it’s one reason why I like working with them. If your book is smaller, of course the fees will be less. A cleaner manuscript won’t require as much work as a rough one (though in my experience, authors often think their work is more finished and nit-free than it really is).
Not sure you want to work with me? Try a sample of up to 2000 words for $20. Need time to pay for the whole project? I can do the manuscript over time in installments. Not sure your manuscript is ready for prime-time editing or what you should be editing? I can do a pass over it and give you an evaluation for $40 per hour. Need British or Canadian English? I’ve done that. Need Australian English? I know someone I can recommend who can help you. Working on a thesis? I’ve done two — one at the Masters and one at the PhD level — and I’ve tutored a lot of people in English and essay writing. Have other languages in your manuscript? I have a degree in Classical Languages and a background in French and other Romance languages. I’ve even studied Old English.
And, of course, whatever changes I make (with tracking, unless you ask otherwise), you can always undo. It’s your book. I’m only helping you with it.
So, if you’re looking for a good editor, drop me a line, either here or at thesnowleopard(at)hotmail(dot)com.