Evaluating Freelance Book Editors: Step 1

If you haven’t read the introduction to this series of articles, consider checking it out here.

Step 1 is to think about why you are considering hiring an editor now. It begins with a look at why and when other writers work with freelance editors, discusses other options, and introduces some things to consider before you decide whether to start looking for a book editor.

Why Do Writers Work With Freelance Editors?

My experience is that authors really depend on editors for one thing: the truth.

James O’Shea Wade

The purpose of all editing is to prepare a manuscript for publication. Whether you are publishing traditionally or planning to put the book out yourself, you want it to be worth reading. A strong manuscript is one that readers can get into without being distracted by language errors, jumps in logic, plot holes, or wordiness. You want to eliminate anything that will pop readers out of your book.

You might think that only masochists would actually pay someone to tell them that their manuscript needs work. But it’s more than masochism that motivates many writers. It’s a hunger to improve and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the best book possible.

Won’t the Publisher Edit My Book?

Editing used to happen at publishing houses. But the conglomerization (is that a word?) of traditional publishers houses into giant multinational corporations has changed that. Editorial departments have been downsized. Publishers lose money on books that don’t sell, and they’re not in business to lose money.

It is now fairly common for individual writers to hire a freelance editor to help them get a project to publishable quality. (Some publishing houses also hire freelance editors to supplement their in-house editorial staff or to ‘book doctor’ a specialized project.)

My experience over the past decade is that both self-publishing and traditionally publishing writers hire editors.

Self-publishing writers get editing if they are serious about quality control. Writers aiming for traditional publishing do it if they are not getting anywhere with their manuscript, or if they want to get an objective assessment and specific advice to speed up revision. There are plenty of writers in both paths who don’t hire editors, but there are also plenty who do.

Author and former agent Nathan Bransford says:

A good freelance editor can help get you unstuck, give you a valuable gut check prior to pursuing publication, and can help elevate your craft to new heights.

Nathan Bransford, Blog post December 2020

Do I Really Need to Work With an Editor?

Of course not! It’s your book. You never need to work with an editor unless you are under contract with a publisher. The real question is whether you want to.

If you don’t want to, don’t do it. No editor I know wants to work with a writer who feels that getting feedback on their MS is unnecessary, or who doesn’t actually want feedback unless it’s 100% positive.

Sometimes writers are surprised when an editor turns down their project. That can happen if it’s not a good fit, or the editor’s already fully booked, or they see red flags in the writer’s approach.

Many editors have their choice of projects because the book business is thriving. Trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly reports that 2.3 million titles were self-published in 2021. In another article, PW reports that trade sales for US publishers topped $29 billion in 2021.

So let’s say you’re curious about working with an editor, not sure if you want to yet, and really not sure if you need to.

One good way to answer these questions is to ask yourself Is your manuscript ready for publishing? This article / quiz will help you figure that out.

What Are the Alternatives to Paying an Editor?

You have options for getting feedback that don’t include hiring a professional editor. These include:

  • getting critiques from other writers in exchange for critiquing their MS
  • asking free beta readers for their thoughts on your book, or
  • taking a workshop that offers feedback on your manuscript as part of the tuition, or as an add-on.

Before I was an editor myself I was a writer. For for the first two decades of my writing life I didn’t even know book editing was a job. So I swapped critiques with other writers. I met them through night school writing classes, weekend workshops, and places like the now-defunct YouWriteOn.com. This last one landed me a critique from a Bloomsbury editor, which bolstered my writing confidence for years afterward.

Free or low-cost options like swapping manuscripts or getting a beta readers can be time-consuming. Paid options like workshops can be more expensive than editing, but will include training as well as feedback.

You, too, can meet other writers through workshops (in person or online) and through online forums like Critters.org. Here’s an article from 2019 with several options for connecting with other writers.

(You can also pay for beta reading. Here’s an excellent article by Cara Trent of Midnight Quill on the difference between beta reading and editing.)

Then there’s the third option…

One example of the workshop + critique option is the famous Odyssey Workshop, a long-running program for writers of speculative and horror fiction. Odyssey offers critique services for full or partial manuscripts (currently a critique for a novel of 80,000 words is $1,200). I love Odyssey director Jeanne Cavelos’ clarity in describing the service.

Or there’s Sewanee, a long-running literary workshop hosted by the University of the South. The feedback option at Sewanee consists of being matched with a faculty member who will read your manuscript for a fee. They then meet with you to discuss it.

In both Sewanee and Odyssey, you need to attend the program as well. In fact, the main point of these programs are the workshops. Those can be an investment. Sewanee’s tuition and board is $2,000 (tuition $1,100, board $900), though you can apply for financial aid through a scholarship or fellowship. Odyssey’s application fee is $45 and the program is $2,600. Odyssey also offers financial aid and scholarships.

Both require a writing sample as part of your application. Both are competitive, with many more applicants than spots–especially for the funded spots. (In fact, it can be a great exercise to review their application guidelines and see what they’re looking for.)

If you’re aiming for traditional publishing, the benefit of attending a program like Sewanee or Odyssey is that you will meet published writers and agents, make connections, and get an inside look at what it takes to be a successful writer. If you’re aiming for traditional publishing, this is a good idea. I am backed up on this by the brilliant Betsy Lerner, who has 35 + years in the publishing business.

So yes, you can absolutely get feedback on your manuscript without hiring an editor.

In that case, why hire one?

It’s about time, experience, and expertise. Good editors will deliver high-quality feedback more quickly than beta readers, critique swaps, or workshops. They often know more about writing and publishing than beta readers or online writing friends do. And although many also teach and write book themselves, their time with your manuscript will be focused entirely on it.

What if I’m Considering Hiring a Freelance Editor?

If you’re considering working with an editor, or just want to know more, the next step is to gather information. This starts with understanding your manuscript.

Here are the factors to consider at your end:

  • the book’s content, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction
  • the book’s category and genre
  • your writing style
  • the manuscript’s readiness for editing
  • your experience level as a writer
  • your publication goals
  • your own assessment of the story’s potential issues

Once you have considered the above points, you are ready to gather information from editorial websites. You will want to get a sense of:

  • what your manuscript needs
  • how much that might cost
  • how long it will take, and
  • all the other things you’d normally research when you’re going to buy a service.

We’ll cover that in the next instalment in this series–Step 2. It explains how to evaluate and define your manuscript’s scope of work. Doing that means that when you start looking at editors, you are informed and educated. You want to avoid editors with no training. You want to avoid ripoffs and scams, or just lackluster services.

Knowing what you are looking for will help tremendously if you do decide to go to Step 3–creating a long list of editors to check out.

Fear not! You’re never committed until you sign a contract. Baby steps, that’s all it takes. If I weren’t an editor myself, I’d likely be nervous as hell about how to find one and whether it’s worth the cost. So we’ll walk through this process hand in hand.