Need a Book Editor? 4 Factors to Help You Find the Perfect Fit

Need a Book Editor? 4 Factors to Help You Find the Perfect Fit

If you’re a writer hoping to self-publish, choosing a freelance book editor to help  fine tune your manuscript is a crucial step.

As a freelance editor as well as a published author, I’ve worked with many indie writers.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that finding the right author/editor fit is crucial to your finished product.

But how do you find that fit? It sometimes seems like a gamble.

When I take on a new book-editing project, I’m always slightly nervous.. Often, a book edit can take weeks, if not months, depending on the shape the book is in to begin with, and that’s a lot of hours spent collaborating with someone I may never have met before. What if we don’t like each other?!

I conduct a “sample edit” before I ask myself or the author to commit. A sample edit means I edit a small portion of the book — perhaps the introduction or one chapter — tracking my changes and inserting comments in Word or Google Docs so the client knows exactly what I’m doing.

Here are a few ways a sample edit helps an author determine whether an editor is a strong fit.

Editing style

Different editors come from different schools of thought when it comes to grammar and punctuation.

I use the Chicago Manual of Style as my editing bible and honed my craft through a UC Berkeley editing program, both of which preach simplified language and insist upon serial commas. I can omit a serial comma if it’s the preferred style, but my natural inclination is to include it.

Other editors adhere to the AP Style Guide and always omit serial commas.

It’s a personal preference, but if you have an opinion, make sure you’re very clear with your editor up front.

The type of book

Most editors tend to specialize in editing a general category of books.

In my case, I generally edit non-fiction books like memoirs, self-help and cookbooks. Sometimes, authors will approach me wondering if I have any experience editing a very specific type of book, like bento-box cookbooks or memoirs of horse lovers. If you can find an editor with a portfolio full of books about the exact thing you wrote about, by all means, go with that person!

But in general, the same basic editing rules apply to most books, regardless of topic.

On the other hand, it’s great if you can find an editor who specializes in the type of book you have written — within a broad category. For instance, I don’t typically edit fiction, so if someone approaches me to edit their novel, unless the subject matter feels comfortable and familiar to me, I will often defer  to someone who specializes in fiction.

The estimated cost

Cost, of course, is the crux of the matter. What indie author has thousands and thousands of dollars to throw at an editor?

A sample edit helps me create a ballpark estimate of how long it will take to edit an entire manuscript. I bill by the hour, but most clients understandably like to know roughly how much they’re going to be spending before they commit, so I time myself on a chapter in order to estimate my hours on the whole project.

Some editors charge by the word, and can therefore give you an estimate up front without having to assess your manuscript.

You think you need your manuscript proofed, and you hire an editor who charges by the word for proofing. But when he or she dives in, it turns out your plot has some pretty serious holes (you need developmental edits) or your grammar is shoddy (you need a line editor).

Now, you’re spending way more money than you initially anticipated.

The thing is, you’re not all that familiar with the nuances of these types of editing, and you’re also way too close to the book, at this point.

All of this said, there is one caveat: If you are looking for potent feedback on the overall plot arc and narrative development , any editor will need to read all or at least most of your manuscript. That’s another thing to keep in mind when doling out your dollars.

Communication style

Communication cannot be ignored.

How you prefer to communicate is so important when working with an editor — or any other freelancer, for that matter.

Personally, I tend to work best over email, with occasional phone calls, and rarely meet clients in person. Partly this is because I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and my clients are scattered all over the country. But even when I lived in the Bay Area and had a client base that was 90 percent local, I still rarely left my house. (It requires putting mascara and shoes on — two of my least favorites activities.)

I do like to have at least one initial verbal conversation with a client, either over the phone or by video chat, so we can “meet” in a more intimate way than email allows. But I generally find email to be a highly effective way of communicating amidst dueling schedules.

If you’re a phone person and prefer the intimacy of auditory and in-person connection, respect! Find an editor similarly inclined.

Hiring an editor is an investment in your writing. A sample edit helps ensure you and your editor’s working style jives and sets you up on the path to publishing sucess.

Have you ever worked with an editor on a sample edit? Share your experiences in the comments below.


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  • As a freelance editor, I, like Joslyn, give an estimate only after editing a sample from the manuscript. However, I have found that most of the authors I work with are more comfortable with per-project pricing than hourly, so even though my estimate is based on how many hours I expect it to take, I provide a flat rate unless the author requests an hourly one. Different strokes for different folks!

    When I started my business, it took a while to define my “niche,” but when I did, it was very satisfying to know that I would be working with the authors to whom I could be the most help: those whose writing is in some sense “spiritual.” Sometimes that means the subject matter is explicitly religious, but often it means that the subject or even the act of writing itself is more generally connected with the author’s sense of ultimate meaning. This niche, simultaneously broad and narrow, has allowed me to work on a wide variety of projects written by people of a wide range of backgrounds.

    One piece of advice I would give to authors is this: From the time you start your project, budget at least several hundred dollars (a thousand or two is better) for editorial services. It can be heartbreaking to find that the editor who seems like a perfect fit is out of your price range.

    I can’t speak for other editors, but I know that I am always willing to be the one who takes the risk of being “the first to name a number” by giving an estimate before the author reveals his or her budget, because I don’t want them to feel that I am taking advantage of them by charging more than I otherwise would. And if my estimate is outside their budget, I am always happy to hear a counteroffer so I can see if there is any way we can find something workable for both sides. I believe most editors are similarly open to negotiation.

    But there is only so high any author can go, and only so low any editor can go. If you budget too little, you are not going to have as many editors to choose from, and you may not be able to get the person who is right for you and your book. If the job ends up costing less than you had set aside, wonderful! You can always spend more on marketing.

    I wish everyone success with their projects. May each of you find the editor who is perfect for you!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • Yes, Trish, so well said! I agree with you that most authors want to know how much they’re going to pay up front, and that’s why many editors will quote a flat rate. I prefer to work hourly because I often get involved in the beginning stages of the sculpting of a book, and these types of project can be quite mellifluous. Often, an author will hire me to “just proof it”—but along the way we’ll decide to rework some stuff, or they’ll ask me to stay on and help them come up with supplementary marketing materials and social media ideas once the book itself goes to “press,” so to speak. And yes, niche is so important. As much as I want to say “yes” to everything, I definitely have a solid skill set in one or two genres.

    • Great response to the article Trish. I am looking for an editor and have similar thoughts.

  • Good article, Joslyn. Another thing I would add is to find an editor who uses the same version of English – or if you’re using another version of English, make sure they are familiar with, and experienced in, localisation. For example, if an Australian writer hired an American editor to edit a manuscript written in Australian English, they might run into trouble with spellings and colloquialisms – and vice versa.

    • Fantastic point, Sally! I would add one “tweak” to it: It’s sometimes more important to choose an editor whose language matches your target market’s usage rather than your own. If, for example, you are an Australian writer but are publishing a US edition, you may actually want an editor who not only will use US spellings, but will ask, “What does this mean?” when you’ve used a colloquialism that will not be familiar to your readers.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • YES. Really good point I wish I had thought to put in the article. I’ve had British authors hire me to edit their book, and I’ve had to do some quick boning up on British English! In this global economy we’re now living in, it’s complicated, too, because rarely is a book intended for an audience as segmented as “just Americans” or “just Aussies.”

      • I edit books written by Australians for the US market and I do a lot of localisation work as I have US clients who need work ‘translated’ for the Australian market. When editing fiction, I often pester my US editor friends to make sure the end product is ‘authentic’. It can be tricky because there are so many different slang words and colloquialisms for each state – even city – in the US. The same is true for every country, of course. And while I do agree that it’s best to write for your market, sometimes it doesn’t work well. For example, if the story is set in Outback Australia with Australians using Aussie slang, I think it reads awkwardly if US English is used. I read a book like this recently where all the characters were Australian, but US English was used, and I found it an annoying and distracting mix.

        • Yes, fiction has to be credible, and a mismatch in language usage can be distracting to the reader. A US audience would not notice the mismatch and would probably even understand it better than if it were fully authentic, but even then, I think it’s good to have a reasonably authentic “flavor” of the locale where the story is set.

          If a book set in Australia is to be marketed to an Australian audience, certainly the bar is a lot higher, and a US author is going to need a lot of help from an Aussie editor in order to get it right. But even if the book is set in the US, if it is being written for the Australian market, I would think the US author would want an Australian editor to be able to point out words or passages that a typical Australian would not understand, so that some way can be found to clarify the meaning while keeping the flavor of the US setting.

          Interestingly, in my niche I have had this come up with regard to religious differences rather than national ones. It can be incredibly difficult for even a very gifted novelist to write credible dialogue for a character whose religious beliefs are different from the author’s. I have occasionally had to contact clergy of specific faiths to ask, “Does this sound like something a (fill in religious group) would really say?” This kind of attention to detail and respect for differences can make a book much stronger

          Trish O’Connor
          Epiclesis Consulting LLC

        • I rarely edit fiction, so I did not think about this from the point of view of writing in a way that sounds credible for a character in terms of dialect, slang, etc. That is a really good point. Authentic is certainly best, in those cases!

  • Taren Randal says:

    I found this article helpful, but are there websites that will help us find an editor? Maybe one with reviews or example projects.

    • As an editor myself, I can only speak to this from my own experience, but I don’t generally participate in websites that help match up editors and authors for one reason—they tend to take a pretty big chunk of the payment. I actually think this topic would make for a great article, so thanks for the idea 🙂

      I can tell you how clients have found ME:

      1. Google (I try to keep myself findable on the web with a fresh website and participation in social media.)

      2. LinkedIn has some great groups for authors and editors. I particularly like the group Book Publishing Professionals.

      3. Word of mouth is probably my main way of connecting to clients. So if you have a friend who has written a book, too, that might be a great place to start! Or, ask around on social media.

      To speak to your “reviews or sample projects” comment, that IS one thing that’s useful about those “editor farm” websites. However, there are other places you can look for reviews. I have client reviews on my website (arguably self-curated), as well as on LinkedIn via their recommendations function. But you could always ask a possible editor if it would be okay if you spoke with one or two of his or her past clients! Why not, right?

  • Faith S says:

    As someone who aspires to be a freelance editor, how would you advise someone starts out? Create a website? Join some sort of networking group?

    • I have so much advice on this… will have to restrain myself so you don’t get overwhelmed 😉

      Here are a few of the things that really worked for me in the beginning:

      1. A website, yes — You can create a free site on Weebly, Square Space, or WordPress, but I highly recommend buying a domain name and paying the fee to “mask” the free domain with your paid domain. This makes you look more professional.

      2. Start blogging regularly on your website, about basically anything. The point is to keep your site fresh and alive—this is imperative for SEO. (I know there’s a good article about SEO on this site somewhere.)

      3. Join a local networking group like BNI. It’s painful, but it really works.

      4. And along those lines, you may have to do a few pro bono jobs at first to start building your portfolio.

      5. Social media: partake.

      Hope this helps!

  • I thought that the article was very well done indeed, pointing out the many different types of issues that can come up, but applies mostly to fiction.

    I write non-fiction and I am trying to communicate quite complex, system-level ideas to those who are spiritual but not Religious (a growing audience indeed). I often wonder if a paid proposal might not make sense in my case since I doubt that there are many editors who can deal with some of the difficult problems that my ‘either/or/but-on-the-other-hand/yet-this-might-need-consideration style of system level writing is often found even in published books that attempt to present system level conundrums!

    NB: my website is presently under major revision!

    • I believe my Systematic Theology professor would have said that “‘Either/or/but-on-the-other-hand/yet-this-might-need-consideration” sounds an awful lot like Thomas Aquinas!

      I personally don’t charge for estimates, though I can’t speak for other editors of spiritual writing. I would suggest checking out the websites of some editors (hopefully including mine, as I work in your niche) and see who you think might be a good fit, both for your kind of work and for you as a writer and as a person.

      I wish you success!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC

      • Jim, I actually rarely edit fiction. I mainly edit self-help and memoir-style manuscripts. And the sample edit does work well in those cases, in my experience. I do charge for sample edits, however, because they generally take a few hours, at least, of my time.

        It sounds like you and Trish (above) might be a good match. She seems to specialize in just your niche!

  • Colin says:

    It’s bound to be a bit hit and miss when you don’t know an editor. An editor who is also a fiction author would be a likely good choice for a novelist. Even with fiction writing research is required and this eats up writing time. More so with non fiction. Your editor needs to understand the market place you are venturing into. This apart from commenting on your presentation, grammar usage etc… There is the gender factor with character portrayal and what works in print. With over sixty per cent of readers being female-in particular readers of novels, from a male perspective I value the edit and critique of a female editor. Your readers will later further inform you of their likes and dislikes. A good editor gives insights in his/her comments, which hopefully improves the readability overall. A reader ultimately likes or dislikes your writing. Crucially opening chapters and progression of the story line can be enhanced by you, the writer, with good editorial advice. That elixir ability you to keep the reader turning the page.

  • Thank you for sharing your wonderful blog .I liked the way that you wrote and presented this information.

  • Joslyn, great to see you here! Lots of good counsel in your post (and in the comments), even for experienced editors. I have continued to fiddle with my fee model, having gone from per-word (and sometimes per project) to hourly and back to per-word, because I’m a fiddler. And I work with both fiction and nonfiction books because I write both, but yes, they are different animals (and sometimes different creatures within the same species), and take a different mindset.

    Hope to work on a project again with you sometime, Tom

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