Last week, I went over all the different tasks required to turn a manuscript into a saleable book. While it’s true you can do many of those tasks yourself, there is wisdom in hiring professionals. I mean, you could stitch a gaping wound in your own arm, but it’s probably not a good idea. For one, it’d hurt like a bitch. For another, you’ll probably leave an ugly scar. You might get an infection. You might fail to seal the wound properly so it can heal. In self-publishing, things like proofreading or writing cover blurbs can be just as painful, self-editing can be just as unhealthy, and doing your own cover art can end in results as unappealing.
So if you want to set yourself above the rank-and-file and compete with the professional service package you’d find at a publishing house, hire the pros.
Sounds Great, but What’s It Going to Cost Me? (And What Will I Get for My Money?)
Short answer? You get what you pay for.
Long answer? Is long. Long enough to break into several posts. Bear with me. Today I’m talking exclusively about developmental editors, whose critical functions I discussed last Friday in my first post.
The best developmental editors are both trained and experienced. That doesn’t mean your cousin Vinnie can’t give good feedback about the structure of your novel; it just means that the best of the best could (and may very well) teach workshops and use their own clients’ successful books as examples.
A good developmental editor (DE) will take the time to understand your vision of the book as a whole, as well as the purpose and vision of each chapter, scene, and paragraph. They’ll talk with you. A lot. They’ll question the value of every scene, every character, every primary and secondary plot point. They’ll quiz you about themes, and messages, and motives. They’ll seek to understand both your characters’ desires and your desires as a writer. They’ll make sure you’re getting your point across without jamming it down your readers’ throats. They’ll say, “I think this is what you intended to say,” and if you agree, they’ll work with you to make the text say exactly that.
Understandably, this is a painstaking process. You and your DE might go through four, five, even a dozen rounds of edits. If you’re very lucky and your text is already very clean, you’ll nail it in two or three.
The upper echelon of DEs may charge by the word or by the hour—usually somewhere between $.07 and $.15 a word, or $50 to $100 an hour. (Most will work in the $50 to $75 an hour range. I work for $60, if you’re curious.) They are professionals. They have worked in Manhattan publishing or a professional equivalent. They’ve been thanked in the acknowledgements of successful books, and have significantly contributed to said successes. They do not bullshit with you about how long the process will take or how taxing it will be, nor do they promise that their efforts will lead to a bestseller or even a publishing contract. They do not work on every project that comes their way; they’re busy enough to pick and choose, and know better than to edit a manuscript outside their field of expertise.
Nervous about paying by the hour rather than the word? I promise you, a professional will only bill you for the time they put in. When I first started hiring freelancers by the hour, I had some misgivings about this: How will I know how much time the job actually takes? How will I know if they’re screwing me? The answer is that reputation is worth much more in this business than a single project, and true professionals won’t throw their reputation away for a few hundred extra dollars.
Less-expensive DEs will work in the $.04 to $.06 per word or $25 to $50 per hour range. As I said at the top of this section, you get what you pay for; I’d give 50/50 odds that a person you hire in this cost range will be qualified to do the work—at least enough so to justify their fee. Not getting your money’s worth would be unfortunate, but not nearly as unfortunate as an editor who is actively destructive to your vision. Even worse, you may not realize that’s happening, or that you’re being ripped off—which can happen even when the editor has the kindest heart and the best of intentions. This kind of work is so specialized and difficult that many early-career writers don’t quite know how to judge the efficacy of someone’s developmental edits.
Anyone charging less than the prices I’ve quoted is very likely not qualified, although of course there are always exceptions. What you’ll find in the lower cost ranges are often professionals, but of the wrong kind: people with advanced English degrees, or journalists, or freelance magazine writers—people who think that these experiences qualify them to do developmental work. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. Even most successful authors will tell you they don’t feel qualified to do professional developmental edits on other people’s work. If you’re going to pay someone for this job, make sure that someone has actually done developmental edits in a professional capacity and has a track record to prove it.
As for how long the job actually takes? Well, that depends quite heavily on the state of your manuscript and your receptivity to being edited in such a fundamental way. Try to remember that the DE is your project’s greatest ally; she only wants what’s best for the book while staying true to your voice and vision. (Keep that in mind when you feel like she’s flaying you and your literary babies alive; this process is not painless.) In my experience, a 75,000-word novel will take anywhere from 30 to 150 hours to developmental edit. (At $60 an hour, that’s a serious investment—between $1,800 and $9,000!) This is a huge span, I know, but like I said, it all depends on how much work your manuscript needs and how adept you are at addressing the issues.
If you have $1,800 to spend, but not $9,000, you may wish to pay for an evaluation first. By which I mean you pay a (qualified!) DE to read your manuscript for the sole purpose of identifying issues. She won’t fix them, but she will point them out. She’ll leave you with an actionable list (either written, via phone call, or both) of items that need fixing, and she’ll be able to tell you (more or less) exactly how much it would cost to retain her services for said fixes. If her list doesn’t ring true to you, you probably don’t want to hire her for anything more. But if you keep nodding your head and going, “Ah, yes,” then you and she are likely to work well together.
Costs for evaluations vary widely, but a good rule of thumb is $1 to $3 per page. A “page” is generally considered 250 words, so an evaluation for your 75,000 word manuscript would cost roughly $300 to $900. WORTH. EVERY. PENNY. If nothing else, you can use her list to self-edit to the best of your ability.
If you’re on a fixed budget, you can ask prospective editors if they’re willing to do a less-detailed job for a specific cost. If an editor is willing to do this, she’ll prioritize issues to address the most pressing ones within the time you’ve given her.
If developmental editing is out of your price range, your next best bet is to hire the most brilliant copyeditor you can find. I’ll talk about those obsessive-compulsive workhorses of the publishing industry—and I say this with the utmost love, as someone who’s both performed and depended on this skill for almost a decade—in my next post.
Rachel is an M/M erotic romance author and a freelance writer and editor. She originally dipped her toes into cable news and book publishing, decided the water was cold and smelled kinda funny, and moved on to help would-be authors polish and publish, write for websites and magazines, and ghostwrite nonfiction.
Currently she has a contemporary BDSM collection (Sublime: Collected Shorts) and two M/M erotic romance novels (a high fantasy adventure titled Counterpoint: Book One of Song of the Fallen, and a modern-day slavery alternate universe story titled Anchored: Belonging Book One) in print. Her third novel, Crescendo: Book II of Song of the Fallen, will release in the fall of 2011 with Guiltless Pleasure Publishing; and her first novella, an M/M cyberpunk story co-written with Aleksandr Voinov titled Break and Enter, will release with Samhain Publishing around December of 2011.
You can find Rachel at RachelHaimowitz.com, tweeting as RachelHaimowitz, chatting in the Goodreads forums, and blogging at Rachel-Haimowitz.blogspot.com. She loves to hear from folks, so feel free to drop her a line anytime at metarachel (at) gmail (dot) com.