Why is editing so expensive?

As part of my job, I talk to a number of authors who are publishing for the first time. One issue that seems to come up with great regularity is the cost to self-publishing authors of editing services. My prices are on the very low end of normal; most professional editors I know have fees that run into the thousands for a novel. Self-publishing is a relatively new process, and many authors are taken by surprise at the costs involved. Doesn’t self-publishing mean it’s free to get a book out there?

Well, no. At least not if you are looking to produce any kind of quality or make a name for yourself as a legitimate writer.

Where do these costs come from, and why is editing so expensive? First let’s look at the model of traditional publishing, the way you would get a book to market ten or twenty years ago. You (as the author) successfully pitch the story to an agent. The agent sells it to a publisher’s acquisitions editor. That editor (who does not do any editing, usually; the title means two very different things) usually hands the best manuscripts off to a project manager, who shepherds the book through a developmental editor, line editor, copy editor, than a proofreader. Once the proofs are ready a formatter and layout designer coordinate with a cover artist to get the entire thing ready to print. Then when the printers are done, marketing specialists sell the book to stores and libraries and so on.

All of those people involved in the process needed to be paid, and traditionally this was done by retaining a percentage of the book’s profits. When you self-publish, you don’t pay a publisher anything: you keep all the profits yourself. But you are also taking the entire workload of creating a marketable book on yourself. You are doing or outsourcing every one of those jobs. Since no one can be a trained and experienced professional in all fields, self-published authors hire freelancers to do the editing, cover art, marketing, and so forth while they do the writing. It’s a very different model to traditional, but we should be honest about what it means. The process is essentially the same regardless of who’s organizing or paying for it, and bringing a professional product to market still requires a lot of work and professional expertise.

Speaking of which, a professional editor didn’t just get a decent grade in high school English class and decide to hang out their shingle! When you’re hiring an editor, you’re paying for years of specialized education, experience, and knowledge of the publishing industry. You’d pay your doctor or mechanic a living wage for their expertise, and editors are no different. With minimum wage for uneducated teens at $15/hour in many places, an editor with years of education and knowledge is being very reasonable when they charge $20-$30/hour.

I have come across some authors in online forums who claim that editing is expensive and therefore not necessary for the production of a professional book, and I strongly disagree with this. Not only because I am an editor, but because I am a reader! I have read books that had so much potential, but needed changes in organization or character to become emotionally satisfying and a “good read.” And nothing is worse than picking up a book to find it full of errors, which ruin the experience. If I read a book that is poorly written, I’m not going to spend money on another book by that author, and neither should you. It’s a low-grade product and waste of your time and money. If you want to make a living as a professional author, you need to be putting high-quality, enjoyable books out there. That’s true whether you publish traditionally or independently.

But most authors aren’t rolling in money. So what should they do to help manage the costs of publication? I'll give you some ideas in tomorrow's blog post.

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