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March 18, 2016

How Do Freelance Editors Get Paid?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A couple of weeks ago, I received this question:
I'm desperate for some good information here. I'm dealing with an editor who is asking me to sign a contract with a percentage of my future sales as part of the deal. I have never heard of this. Is this actually legit? She's asking for 10%.
Further questioning revealed that the editor was also asking for $75 per hour.

My instinct, based on everything I've read and heard: No, this is not legit--for editing work, anyway--and it's pretty damn greedy, too.

For one thing, $75 per hour seems steep, even for heavy developmental editing (my correspondent didn't say what kind of editing was being proposed). For another, while ghostwriters sometimes ask for a royalty stake in addition to a fee, freelance editors typically charge only a fee for the work they do.

See, for instance, what the Editorial Freelancers Association, a professional organization for US-based freelancers, deems common editorial rates. The UK's Society for Editors and Proofreaders also suggests minimum editing rates. Writers' Market provides an in-depth look at editing rates, and here's what the Editors Association of Canada has to say. Whether they suggest that editors charge by the hour, by the word or page, or by the project, none of these resources advise freelance editors to demand a share of the author's future sales.

There's nothing like getting information directly from the source, though. So I posted a question on Twitter:

I quickly received replies. Several of the editors I heard from didn't want to be publicly quoted, but their responses were similar to these:

There you have it. If you run across a freelance editor who wants to stake a claim on your future sales, run away. (And watch out for overcharging, too.)


Janeen O'Kerry said...

I am a ghostwriter and do some freelance editing, but it's all done through one of the freelancer bulletin boards like Elance. You can see what others charge and what the going rate is. I'm doing copyediting for a penny a word right now, and no percentages LOL! The client pays into an escrow account which is released when satisfactory work is turned in, and if they don't pay the site can release the money. Anyone can use it. I'd never work freelance any other way.

Anonymous said...

Don't a lot of the author mills pay editors just on percentage of sales of books they edit? I feel like this may be bleed over from that, though charging by the hour on top of the percentage screams of double dipping.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, I suspect you're right--I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that this editor (whose name I never learned) does or did work in the small press world, where paying editors and designers royalties is common (I think this is a predatory practice, BTW), and that's why she thought it was normal. On the other hand, there's the $75 per hour, which is really steep. So maybe she's just greedy.

Iola Goulton said...

$75 an hour is well above EFA rates. I'm sure some people can and do charge that, but they'd be "name" editors who charge that much because they are in demand.

I know of a couple of small presses that editors a royalty in lieu of payment, which I thought was off - I didn't realise it was a common practice.

The problem with that is the reliance on honest reporting from the publisher (and that they don't go out of business), and the question of whether the book would actually sell enough copies to cover the editing cost.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've written for small press before and while I had to share royalties with the illustrator, I've NEVER had to share with the editor. Never. Maybe it's an American thing?

I suspect that with all the self publishing going on, for every experienced person who knows what they're doing, there are several eager first timers who can be persuaded that this is the way it works. It's big business these days!

Jules Jones said...

First thing I thought of was that this was someone from the small press world, who is used to being paid by a share of the royalties, but is fed up with that being unreliable and wants an hourly rate - without giving up the royalties side, just in case the book turns out to be the next 50 Shades of Grey. In other words, someone wants to have their cake and eat it.

Some of the small presses pay a flat fee based on mansucript length, plus a share of the royalties - but if this person is/was a small press editor and expects to get $75 per hour as equivalent to the payment they were getting for editing a book, it speaks to how much time they were spending per manuscript for the small press.

Sue, it's fairly common for small press editors to be paid by royalties for some or all of their compensation, but that comes out of the publisher's share of the sale price, not the author's. Or it should - any publisher that suggests otherwise should be touched only with a very long bargepole.

Dennis Latham said...

I used to charge by the page, usually about one cent a word based on 250 word pages. Sometimes, 3.00 per page if it was from an agency. Or sometimes the agency would pay me that amount per page and charge a little more to the writer to cover their end. I couldn't believe the prices people charge now.

Victoria Strauss said...

Echoing what Jules is indeed pretty common for small presses to pay editors with a royalty. Where that happens (and I personally consider it a red flag--a publisher that's either short on finances or shifting risk away from itself and onto authors and employees), the editor's royalty should absolutely come out of the publisher's share, but I have seen contracts where editing was provided only at the publisher's discretion, and the author and the editor had to split what would normally be the author's royalty.

It's the Wild West out there in the small press world.

mad said...

I'm going to weigh in here with an alternate view: I wonder if the person who emailed Victoria gave her all the information. Sure, there are greedy people out there preying on new authors, but there is also a lot of naivete among those same authors as to what constitutes "editing." I was once asked to provide a quote to an author who had been told by an agent the book was too long, so the author wanted me to "edit" the book down by 10-15% "without losing the story or other essential elements." When I told him that was not an edit, that was a rewrite, and therefore subject to writing fees, I never heard from him again.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Jules, Victoria: Then perhaps it's a self publishing issue. Because even if the editor WAS used to getting a share of the royalties from small press, they might want more of the same and of course, in that case the author IS the publisher, perhaps best for the author to research some standard contracts that reflect their situation and *negotiate* based on what they know others have done.

Paul FM Wallis said...

Just what ever writer needs - A reason to get a lot less money. I've paid for edits which weren't much value for me, too. You can understand that editors and small press guys want to eat, but there are so many "inside processes" in publishing, and so many of them hit the bottom line. There ought to be something like Writer's Equity, to establish industry parameters and de-clutter the traps for those of us who do this for a living, at both ends.

Allison K Williams said...

Hi Victoria! I'm a freelance editor and a former member of the EFA (no skulduggery, I just wanted to work less this year and do my own writing).

An editor asking for a royalty is definitely not kosher. Usually we get the opposite--writers with a good healthy belief in their own work who want the editor to work for a percentage of future royalties with no up-front rate. But most editors are doing work-for-hire, and royalties are not appropriate unless it's a major ghostwriting contract. Basically, if it's a big enough deal to get royalties to anyone other than the author of record, then it's a big enough deal that everyone's agents and attorneys are working that out.

Something else to consider, though, is that the EFA rate chart is based on a survey of members, it's a few years old, and it doesn't reflect independent/self-publishing for fiction. This is something being discussed among the membership right now, and while the rate table is a great guideline, it's more of a median than a mean. Many authors charge by the word, some by the hour, many by the page (but with the page being a "standard" of 250 words which doesn't reflect reality any more and tends to be confusing and leads to authors sending work in 10pt type).

What authors can do to protect themselves and get a rate they believe is fair is get a sample. Get a sample, get a sample, get a sample. Some editors charge for samples, many do them free. So narrow down to your top 3-5 based on their website and testimonials, or recommendations from other authors, and then send your pages and get a sample.

Not only do you then get a firm rate quote (even hourly editors should give a range of "I think it's going to take between x and y hours to edit your book and I'll notify you at a defined point if it's going to take longer") but you know the editor's tone and style. Do you want every single issue marked? Big-picture only? Proofreading only? Many editors are also pretty good about letting authors know if what they want is actually what they need. For example, I'd say the majority of first-time novelists come to me for proofreading when what they actually need is a developmental/read-and-respond and to go write another draft.

I've written two blog posts, one for the literary magazine Brevity and one for The Writers Bloc, that writers may find useful. (Yes, this is blatantly self-promotional, but I trust your judgment so please let me know if this was inappropriate and I can re-comment without them).

Make Professional Editing Work For You covers why editing can be so expensive and a bit of what it's like from the editor's side.

How Many Drafts Must a Writer Draft gives some process guidelines for writers to consider going through a number of drafts before spending money or using up favors on an edit.

Thanks for all you do here!

Dennis Latham said...

The best thing any writer can do is learn to self-edit. That solves the entire problem of having a line or content editor. For line editing, the editor only needs a few sample pages, but for content, submit an entire sample chapter. Word count, or page count, can still be based on the 250 standard page rule no matter what font is used. You take the entire word count and divide by 250 for number of standard pages.

Brent Tharp said...

As to the first question, about percentages—it's greedy and unethical. I never charge a percentage unless I'm actually publishing, and in that case I don't charge for my editing, layout, or anything else. As for the rate, it depends on the market and how good the editor is. It's not unusual to charge upwards of $100/hour, and I personally charge close to the rate quoted in this post, but the quality of my work is also better than that of most editors out there. But a percentage? No way.

Darmit said...

I usually charge $50/h if it's english content. If it's Danish then I can go up to $70. You can check some of my samples here if anyone is interested.

Konsgaard said...

$75 per hour really sounds like a lot! I'd say that around $50 makes sense but only if it is done by a professional editor who has been working in the publishing industry (or is aware of how things in the publishing world work). Having said, I know that online you can find much cheaper rates very easily. Either way, the best thing is to always ask for a free sample of course.

Victoria Strauss said...

Just want to say thanks to all the editors who've commented--it's very helpful to have this information!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to ask a question from the other side of the fence. I have offered to help an acquaintance edit his book. In my opinion, the language will need some work so this will be quite in-depth. I want to do it because the book interests me but he says he can't afford to pay me a fee. He's offering a share of the royalties... a risk I think I'm willing to take because the experience will do me some good, but what percentage would you say is fair?

Victoria Strauss said...


It's an unusual situation, so I can't really say. However, from what I've seen, publishers that pay their editors in royalties (rather than a salary or a flat fee) seem to typically offer 10-15%.

Victoria Hay said...


I do scholarly and technical editing, as well as indexing of scholarly books. Occasionally I'll edit a piece of fiction, if the author is willing to pay my rates: $4.50/page and up, depending on the difficulty of the content. I rarely provide coaching in writing plot, character, setting, and the like -- if the author doesn't know those things, he or she should take a few writing courses at a community college or university. I am a member of the American Society for Indexing, Author's Guild, and the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

Asking for a cut of royalties goes way beyond the pale. In the first place, so few writers earn anything on their book publishing ventures, demanding a cut is a waste of effort and the paper on which such a contract is written. In the second place, it's working on spec: doing the work up front on the off-chance that someday you'll get paid. And in the third place, it's as nonstandard as nonstandard gets.

In the past, I have done ghostwriting. My fee for a book-length work was $20,000. When the author's agents offered a cut of royalties, I declined -- it seemed better to take the money and run. The book turned into a best-seller; he earned $1.5 million in sales the first year and $1 million the second. Before you let the stars in your eyes blind you, though, bear in mind that those revenues came from sales of ancillary products, which included videos, workbooks, and various speaking fees.

I would not work for a penny a word on a bet. You can earn better money teaching freshman comp on an adjunct basis or cleaning house. An independent contractor has to put food on the table and pay the overhead -- which includes twice as much FICA and Social Security taxes as a salaried employee pays. Expecting people to work for pennies is self-defeating: you get what you pay for.

On the other hand, you have to be a responsible consumer, which means knowing what the going rates are and being careful not to get ripped off. Check the Editorial Freelancers Association rate page: This post by Miranda Marquit, a prominent web content provider, is telling: Among Arizona contractors who do editorial consulting for businesses, I've heard of rates up to $120/hour. As a practical matter, in a flyover state $60/hour will pay the bills, if the person has steady work. In a major city where the cost of living is high, expect to pay higher rates.

Michael LaRocca said...

I've never heard of an editor charging a percentage of sales. Some of us charge by the word and some by the hour. I don't know which of those two is more common in fiction because I moved into business editing about ten years ago. But I do know that we all charge a set fee, agreed to in advance.

(I agreed to edit for a percentage of sales about 15 years ago, but that was for CrossroadsPub, who vanished without paying me a cent. That unfortunate education was my payment.)

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