The Cost of Editing

The Cost of Editing

This afternoon, I received an invitation to submit a proposal for a job posted on Elance, one of the freelancer sites where I sometimes bid for editorial work. Here’s the job description:

I have a 35,000 word eBook that needs to be proofread for grammatical errors, spelling errors, edited and copy edited where needed. I also need deep line editing for syntax. The book is in a word document. You will have to submit two documents back to me. One with the track changes where I can see where you made the changes and a final corrected version. I need this project back to me within two days. Budget: $40-60.

Let me summarize. This writer is asking for an editor who will perform three distinct editing processes—copyediting, line editing, and proofreading—and track the changes and make the corrections on a 140-page manuscript within 48 hours at a rate that will equate to less than the hourly wage that a six-year-old sweatshop worker will earn making knockoff Nikes in a third-world country.

My rates are $30-45/hour depending on the type of editing I’m doing, and these rates are at the low end of the industry standard because although I’ve been editing for years, my editorial service is in its infancy. Let’s pretend that I was going to write an actual quote for this job. Let’s say that I’m only being asked to perform a single type of editing for this manuscript, proofreading, so my rate is $30/hour. And let’s assume that the manuscript is quite clean so I can work at a fast pace of 13 pages per hour. (Just for simplicity of math, so that we don’t have to factor in a second read-through that is significantly speedier than the first, let’s say that I only read the manuscript once.) And let’s also assume that the writer is only asking me to track changes, not go through the document and actually accept all of the changes. Even under these conditions, with a low hourly rate, a speedy pace,  and a much smaller task than what’s listed in the Elance post, this job would take eleven hours, or $330. Let’s reiterate: $330 at low-end industry standard rates for proofreading alone. (And realistically more because I’d read the manuscript twice.) To complete all of the tasks listed in the job post, the cost would probably be well over $1,500.  And in 48 hours? Impossible—at least, impossible if the editing is going to be even remotely decent.

Needless to say, I declined the invitation, selecting the “budget too low” option from the drop-down menu asking why I’m not interested. This is not the first time I have declined an invitation to apply for a job with an insanely low pay rate. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Elance, Upwork, Guru, and Freelancer are flooded with writers offering low-ball rates for major jobs. There are much easier and faster ways to earn $40-60, and yet twenty-nine editors applied for the job before it was awarded to a Canadian freelancer. A few of these editors were from places like Malaysia and the Philippines, where $40 certainly stretches further than it does in my neck of the woods, but more than 2/3 of the applicants were either from the United States or Canada, where $40 will barley cover a teenager’s after-school shift at the local McDonald’s. It makes me wonder who these “editors” are.

I’m always surprised by the number of people who contact me for a quote (either through my business or through a freelancer site) and then are shocked—absolutely shocked—that professional editing costs more than a few dollars. I don’t understand where this shock comes from. Professionals have extensive education, training, and experience, and a paycheck that provides a living wage** is our reward for that.

You wouldn’t do your job for less than minimum wage (or for less than the low end of the industry standard), so why should I? You’d be leery of a surgeon who offered to perform your open heart surgery for less than 10% of the going rate, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. The low price tag is a red flag that something major is amiss. Surgeons who can afford to operate at such low rates aren’t paying off med school loans or buying malpractice insurance or writing checks to cover annual license renewal fees. The same is true of an editor. Why on earth would you trust your book, your baby, this beautiful thing you created, to an editor who works for 10% of what her peers charge? Do you really want an uneducated, untrained, inexperienced editor performing “surgery” on your manuscript? Absolutely not. You, and especially your book, deserve better.

A cliché seems oddly appropriate here. You get what you pay for.


** Keep in mind that many editors are self-employed, so we have to take 40% off the top to cover our social security taxes, self-employment taxes, and health insurance; $30/hour doesn’t provide the same standard of living for us as it does for someone earning $30/hour through an employer that pays a portion of the taxes and health insurance.

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