Freelance editing rates are pathetic. Successful authors and editors must aim higher.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has published the results of a survey of 1,000 respondents, 30% of its membership. My main takeaway: these rates are pathetically low. That’s not good news for editors, writers, or the quality of books.

The EFA’s rate estimator based on the survey is here.

Here are some highlights from the survey:

  • Developmental editing — basically, fixing everything about a manuscript to make it as effective as possible — goes for an absurdly low 3 to 7 cents a word, which translates to $45 to $75 per hour. At these rates, editing a 50,000-word book would cost $1500 to $3500.
  • The median price for a book proposal is $575; the average is $3,336. (This higher average indicates a skewed distribution, with a few somewhat more expensive proposals and a lot of cheap ones.)
  • Writing coaching rates are $70 to $90 per hour.
  • Copyediting rates are typically 3 to 6 cents a word; fiction is 2-3 cents a word, while legal text can go as high as 15 cents a word. This translates into hourly rates of $40 to $65 per hour.
  • Indexing is 2 to 3 cents per word, or $1,000 to $1,500 for a 50,000-word book.

What’s going on here?

Rates are depressed because publishing has shrunk, tossing many experienced editors into the freelance market where they compete with hordes of unemployed English majors.

As a writer, you might appreciate the bargains that are available. But it concerns me that the most talented editors are now competing in a sea of undifferentiated cheap labor. Just because so many editors will work so cheaply doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the right kind of help from somebody who purports to do a developmental edit of your book for $2,000. If that editor is hoping to make $80,000 per year, that’s about 40 manuscripts a year. How much individual attention will you get from an editor scrambling to generate and manage that many projects?

My perspective as a highly compensated editor

I don’t do copy editing; that’s a specialized skill I don’t have. And my indexing rates are on par with what the EFA survey found. But I’m typically charging $500 per hour for coaching (with some editing included), $17,500 to $25,000 for a proposal and $10,000 to $25,000 for developmental editing. How can I possibly get away with rates that appear to be at least five times the going rate?

  • My pedigree matters. I edited business-focused reports and highly qualified analysts at Forrester. That carries a cachet. Prominent business authors want that kind of help. So do organizations like McKinsey, BCG, and EY.
  • I only work on high-value books. That means the book is going to generate at least six figures for the author, from book advances, consulting, speeches, or workshops. Authors like that are willing to pay for experienced help.
  • I don’t just offer editing, I offer insights. Why does the manuscript have problems? Why is the author having those problems? How can we unlock the true value of the author’s knowledge? These answers go well beyond “How can we fix this manuscript?”
  • I’m absurdly helpful to authors. My service includes lots of free advice about publishing and publicity, with referrals to resources like agents, hybrid publishers, traditional publishers, and publicists. I don’t worry about extra time I put into projects, because it builds relationships.
  • I work with the right kind of agencies. If you want to be an undifferentiated resource among thousands of other similar resources, work for a large agency or through a platform like Fiverr. If you want to be valued, work with an agency that specializes in the kind of value you provide, and attracts high-end authors.
  • I come recommended. Nearly every author I work with has been delighted with the results. They recommend me to their friends (and come back to me for their subsequent books). As a result, there’s a lot of trust and a high expectation of value in every project.
  • I work fast. Because I don’t have a massive backlog of clients, I can turn things around extremely quickly. High-end authors appreciate that.
  • I wrote definitive books on writing and publishing. People who want the best tend to be impressed by that.

My advice for authors, editors, and freelancers

Authors: Don’t settle for cheap and overextended editors. You get what you pay for. Consider the value that will accrue from high-end editorial talent.

Editors: Work on the right books and with the right authors, those that will enhance your reputation and generate referrals. Fewer, more impressive clients will generate more lucrative business at higher hourly rates. Once you get a client like that, do everything possible to make them happy, so they can boost your reputation. Demand respect and don’t grovel; you don’t generate the best business by being obsequious, you generate it by behaving as a valued partner.

Freelancers: There are lessons here for freelancers of all kinds. Whether you’re a cover designer, a publicist, or a speech coach, concentrate on moving up the value ladder. You need to stand out from the massive crowd of other freelancers; delivering excellent service to high-end clients will get you there.

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  1. I’m not making excuses nor justifying what you are saying about the low freelance rates. It’s been my experience that many if not the majority of editors are women and women, typically speaking, do not do a great job of negotiating/advocating for themselves. I suspect that is what is going on and partially explains why the rates are low in this profession. I very much hope the next generation does better because its absolutely appalling. I do freelance editing on the side of my day job and I tell ya, what you reported did not surprise me at all. Its also probably part of what I’ve deemed “the Florida effect” where way too many employers get away with paying crap and have been for the last half century.

  2. I’m curious if working on higher value books is likely going to be business books? Do you know of other editors in your network that work in other subject areas and are able to fetch high rates?