Everyone has an opinion about whether or not you need to pay an editor to work on your book, but the equally important question you should ask yourself before following others’ advice is:
Which publishing path are you planning to take?
There are lots of different paths to publication, of course, but in this blog, I’m going to look exclusively at the two I get asked about the most as a freelance editor. Those are traditional publishing and self-publishing. On both paths, you’ll need an editor (and the same is true of every given route to publication), but on only one of these paths should YOU be paying an editor to work on your book.
Let’s take a look at traditional publishing first. This route is notorious for its fierce gatekeeping and sought-after for the possibility of advances, royalties, and getting your name into bookstores across the world. As such, it’s the most difficult publishing path to gain a foothold on.
With that in mind, you might assume it’s best to work with an editor before submitting your book to a traditional publishing house. However, you’ll be surprised to learn that if you’re hoping to traditionally publish, it isn’t a wise investment to hire a professional copy editor or proofreader for your manuscript. In fact, you shouldn’t have to pay anyone for copy editing or proofreading at any stage of the publishing process if you’re taking the traditional route.
Well, traditional publishers will pay YOU for the rights to publish your manuscript and they will source (and fund) copy editors, proofreaders, cover designers, formatters, and everyone in between as part of your contract with them. Even if you polish your manuscript until it’s pristine-clean and grammatically, structurally, and tonally perfect pre-submission, once it lands a deal with a publishing house, it’s going to be edited again. That’s a guarantee. Whether a few minor tweaks here and there or an intensive overhaul of the plot, your publishing house will assign an editor who will want to “run through some changes” with you before sending your book to print, thus cancelling out a good portion of the edits/proofreading you’ve already paid for. Be prepared for that.
However, that isn’t to say you shouldn’t pay an editor to help with your manuscript at all before submitting to a traditional publisher. Actually, I’ve worked with many authors who want to gain some deeper insight into their plot, setting, characters, and their manuscript’s general themes before pitching and selling it to the traditional market. This service is called a manuscript critique or a manuscript review (you can learn more about my manuscript critique service by clicking here), and it’s very common for traditionally published authors to hire an editor for this service pre-submission.
Submitting to Literary Agents
And what about literary agents, you ask? They’re the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing route after all; you have to first impress them before your manuscript can get anywhere close to landing on a traditional publisher’s desk. Doesn’t it help to have a perfectly polished submission before querying an agent?
Well, yes. It helps a lot to have a meticulously edited set of sample pages—you’re trying to prove that you’re a writer worth investing in against the thousands of others who are also querying each week. (Oh yes, you read that right, thousands of other writers are competing for a literary agency's attention at any given time.) But when you query a literary agent, you’re usually hoping to land a traditional publishing deal ultimately. Therefore, the same logic applies: It doesn’t make financial sense to hire a copy editor or proofreader for a book that is going to be tweaked, rewritten, or altered to fit the requirements of a traditional house later along the line.
Beta readers and critique partners are a great resource at this stage of the traditional publishing process, and of course, it’s always worth investing in a query letter edit to make sure your first impression stands out in the slush pile. (For more information about my query letter editing service, please click here.) If you want to go one step further and pay an editor to proofread your sample pages too, just remember, you’ll need to be prepared for the possibility that any edits they make at this stage could be overridden later along the line if you secure a traditional publishing deal.
Note: A reputable literary agent will never expect you to spend money on editing your manuscript pre-submission.
So, if you’re hoping to traditionally publish your book, it’s safe to assume that you don’t need to hire a professional editor for a copy edit or proofread. After all, there’s no point in going over a novel with a fine-tooth professional comb if you’re only going to be adding in or taking away large chunks of text at a later stage. You’ll still need to make sure you’re self-editing your work as best you can, of course, just don’t buy into the idea that you need to pay out of your own pocket to get a traditional publishing deal. You don’t.
Though, when it comes to self-publishing, the requirements are pretty different…
That’s because when you self-publish your book, YOU are in charge of sourcing (and, yep, that means budgeting for) editors and proofreaders—and it’s never a sensible business decision to go without.
"But my novel is written to a professional standard already! My grammar is impeccable, and all my friends and readers say the plot is great! There’s not an error in sight! I’m good enough to publish without an editor! Why should I spend money on something I can do myself?"
Be honest: Have you ever found yourself thinking the same things? There’s no shame in it—we’re writers after all, and we’re proud of our craft. We all secretly (or, not so secretly…) like to believe that the work we’ve slaved over for hours, weeks, months, even years is publishing-ready without any more need for polishing or revision.
But listen, even if your manuscript is in pristine shape and your plot needs no further adjustments, there is one important truth you’re going to need to come to terms with if you want to make a successful business out of being an author:
There isn’t a writer on this earth who doesn’t need an editor.
Bestsellers, debuts, hobbyists, academics, you, me, that writer over there—we all need editors. Your favorite author worked with an editor, and their favorite author worked with one too. Having an editor or proofreader isn’t necessarily a reflection of the quality of your writing or an indicator that you need help in any way; it’s simply an essential stage of the publishing process that you’ll have to get comfortable with if you want to be taken seriously as an author.
Besides, if you’re self-publishing, you have a vested interest in making sure that your book is professionally edited.
Well, a professional editor is trained to notice the things you might not, including how to edit your copy to meet standard style guides and to ensure your book’s message is being delivered with absolute clarity. This is crucial because it will directly impact your readers’ opinions—and subsequently their reviews. Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective forms of book marketing (something you'll also need to pay attention to as an author), so you’ll want to impress readers enough to make them rave about yours, not annoy them with distracting errors or hidden quirks you might not even realize you’ve added in.
Arguably, paying for a good editor should be one of the most important costs in your self-publishing budget. Don’t be naïve and assume you’ll be fine without an editor for whatever reason. You’ll only be denying yourself the experience of one of the most essential parts of the publishing process if you choose not to work with one.
Without a doubt, self-publishing authors need to pay someone to edit their book. (Unless, of course, you happen to have a really good friend who is a trained and experienced editor—in which case, are you seriously going to make them work on your book for all those hours without offering up a penny in thanks? Hmm…)
But is it really necessary to pay high fees to get your book edited when there are so many low-budget alternatives available?
Now, I can’t speak for every editor here. All freelancers have their own reasons for offering services at the prices they do, and I don’t believe in canceling people out as an option simply because they’re not charging as much as others. Personally, I offer editing fees that fall below the industry standard because I know how difficult many of us find it to budget for self-publishing, and I want to ensure an affordable book editing service that doesn’t compromise on quality.
However, what I can say for sure is that if you want the reassurance your editor is working to a professional standard, you’ll need to find a freelance editor who:
has gone through editorial training (it’s important to be aware there isn’t only one fixed route when it comes to editorial training, but you do need to be sure that your editor’s certificates are from a reputable organization)
is a member of professional editorial societies/associations (such as the Editorial Freelancers Association, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, the American Copy Editors Society, etc.)
showcases stellar reviews for their editorial services (always beware of those “reviews” that can’t be linked to any named person or book…)
can point you to a list of titles they’ve edited that have been received well by readers
will take the time to complete a no-obligation sample edit before you commit to any work
Needless to say, a “credibility” list such as this one takes time and money for an editor to build, and alongside these concerns, running a freelance business comes with its own expenses too. Tax, insurance, equipment, software, training, membership fees, subscriptions, other professional/business development resources—all of this has to be accounted for, and that’s before your editor even factors in the cost of labor for the hours it will take to edit your book! Believe me, when you're paying money to an editor and trusting them to polish your manuscript, you want to be sure that they have all of the things I just mentioned, not only for your peace of mind but so that you can ensure you don't encounter legal issues later along the line. So, while freelance editors’ fees might seem steep to you, the cost of an edit has to reflect all of this.
Note: If you’d like some perspective on how much a professional editor will charge, you can view the current industry standard fees anytime by visiting this page on the Editorial Freelancers Association website.
The good news is that many editors like me will be open to discussing cost upfront and can advise you on the best service for your manuscript before you make a decision, with a view to saving you money and time in the run-up to publication.
It’s a good idea to think of hiring an editor as an investment in your career rather than an expense in the moment, since working with one will help you to grow as a writer undoubtedly. With every book, you’ll develop an awareness of those pesky quirks you add into your writing and the simple fixes you can apply to eliminate them from any future novels. You might even be surprised at some of the insight you’ll gain from those inline comments—after all, there’s a lot you can learn from an experienced freelance editor.
So, are you feeling ready to take the next step in your publishing journey?
If you’d like to arrange a free sample edit and discuss your plans for publication, I’m always happy to help. I list my editing fees right here on my website so that you’ll always know what to expect when you get in touch, and I keep all my fees deliberately below industry standard to ensure an affordable book editing service for the authors I work with.
Please get in touch today by using the contact form on my website or by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!