Hiring a Freelance Editor

Recently my beloved editor L.J. Sellers told me she could no longer take in freelance work. As her own novels have exploded in popularity, it has grown more and more difficult (and less profitable) for her to take time out of her schedule to edit for someone else. I completely understand. I too don’t take on editing anymore, except for existing clients.

I lucked out when I found L.J. She’s a real pro and I chose her based on reputation and her professionalism, but without doing any vetting. She’s an amazing editor and I was so lucky to have found her.

But the truth of the matter is, anyone can call themselves an editor. Sadly, many who do aren’t qualified. Now that I’ve been in and around publishing a little longer, I’ve started hearing horror stories of people shelling out hundreds of dollars to an “editor,” only to find the person acted as little more than a paid beta-reader.

Because I didn’t want to regret my decision, I made a plan.

Step 1. Made a list of every editor I could find.

I have a lot of people in my various networks, including some bestselling indie authors. I wrote to them and asked if they had an editor they could recommend. I also went to online groups and searched for authors who have raved about their editors. And then I went through my own friends list on Facebook, looking at anyone who listed freelance editor on their profile as their “workplace.”

I did NOT place an open call saying, “Hey, I need an editor. Who wants a few hundred bucks to go over my manuscript?” I wanted a list of professionals, not people who were doing it on a lark or who thought “hey, I can do that” on the spur of the moment because they saw my post, or writers who weren’t qualified, but needed the cash.

So over the next week as authors started writing back to me with their recommendations and I kept at my search, I realised I had quite a long list. This drove home to me that folks who say, “but I don’t know any editors,” as an excuse not to hire one aren’t really trying.

Step 2: Narrowed this down to twelve impressive professionals

I narrowed this list down to twelve, based on recommendations and their online presence. If their “professional” website looked like it harkened back to 1995, I crossed them off the list. Why? Surely editors aren’t expected to be web designers too! Well, again it comes down to professionalism.

So then I wrote twelve letters. They went something like this, but each one was different, based on how I’d found them:

We’re friends on Facebook (in case you don’t recognise my name.) I’m a self-publishing fantasy author. Sadly, I’ve just found out my editor is no longer taking in freelance work, so I’m in the position of forging a new relationship with an editor. (I wanted to point out the importance of the relationship. This isn’t a one-night stand for me. I want someone I can work with for years to come.)
I know you do some freelance editing, so I’m wondering if you:
1. Have experience with fantasy / spec fiction? (As much as I loved L.J., fantasy wasn’t really her thing, so this time I wanted someone who felt comfortable with the conventions of fantasy writing.)
2. Are available some time in May for a freelance job? I have a finished draft and will be working on it with betas over the next month or so. (No point in finding someone only to discover they aren’t available!)
3. Have references from editing clients I could contact? (I’ll get to this in more detail below.)
It would be a bonus if you are comfortable with British English. It’s not mandatory that you have perfect “Queen’s English” skills, because most of my beta readers are British and my last editor was an American, and that worked out fine. That being said, my books are written with British spellings/expressions. (Be sure to point out any special requirements like this or concerns you have. You don’t want to go through all this only to find out the editor isn’t comfortable with some tangential element of your project.)
And also what are your rates for copyediting? What I need is someone to help me achieve the final polish before self-publishing, to hunt out typos and errors, of course, but also let me know if I’ve done things like repeated words or if a passage is clunky or confusing. (I included this because different editors use different terminology. What one calls copyediting, another may call proofreading. What one calls line-editing may be another editor’s copyediting. I’d recommend being clear what level you’re looking for to help combat miscommunication.)
If you don’t think you are the right person for my work for whatever reason, can you recommend anyone you think will be a good fit? (Always a bonus to ask… many editors know other editors and if the rest of your list falls apart, this could be a good way to find additional candidates.)

Step 3: Based on the replies, I narrowed it down to three top candidates.

Actually, this isn’t as difficult as you might think. A couple of people wrote back saying they weren’t taking on any new clients. Some wrote back with astronomical quotes. (I was prepared to stretch my budget for someone whose skills blew me away, but some of the quotes were just way beyond what I felt comfortable with.)

Here are some of the reasons an editor might have gotten crossed off the list at this stage:

  1. Charging more than I felt I could afford.
  2. Not feeling comfortable with the fantasy genre.
  3. Snarky comments about, well, anything. This isn’t the stage in a relationship for sarcasm.
  4. Replies with obvious grammatical errors.
  5. Refusing to engage in conversation, instead referring me to a website for answers
  6. Refusing to provide references
  7. Not wanting to deal with someone outside the US.
  8. Not accepting paypal.

In many ways, I was surprised how quickly the editors crossed themselves off the list.

But, I narrowed it down to three qualified, professional editors and was ready to procede.

Step 4: I checked references

Now, the next two steps were simultaneous. Each of the top three candidates provided references and offered a sample edit. While I was preparing my first chapter for them to take a crack at, I checked their references.

But, I didn’t just write to the people they provided. I googled the editors names along with the phrase “editor” and “my editor” and “freelance editor” and “indie editor”. I tried all kinds of additional phrases like “unprofessional” or other complaints I thought an author might make about an editor. I found names of people who had used them. Because honestly, they’re mostly going to give me names of people who have great things to say about them. Right?

Well, you’d be surprised.

Here’s the letter I sent to the references (phrased differently according to how I’d found them, of course):

X gave me your name as someone I could contact as a reference about her editing services.

I have a few questions, if you don’t mind.

  • What did you like most and least about working with her? (Gives them an opening to give something other than glowing praise)
  • Does she communicate clearly about issues in your manuscript? (Very important!)
  • How does she handle follow-up questions?
  • Do you generally use all her recommendations, or do you take some and leave some?
  • Would you say her main strength is flow, structure, pacing, grammar/technical, spotting errors…or something else? (This allowed me to find out if the type of editing I needed was the same type this person had received.)
  • Is it easy to book a project with her, or do you find you’re having to be squeezed in around a busy schedule?
  • What do you receive on a full-length manuscript? A report? A document with tracked changes, etc? If a report, how long/detailed is it?
  • Do you recommend her and plan to use her again?

Thanks very much for your time.

I have to confess, the replies surprised me. Even the people whose names had been given to me by each editor didn’t contain 100% glowing praise. Although I didn’t cross anyone off the list based solely on these replies, they did rearrange the top candidate’s standing in my mind. If someone were to go to the trouble to tell me in a letter of recommendation that their editor was incredibly qualified (and otherwise wonderful) but could be difficult to deal with, I would listen, believe you me.

Step 5: I asked them for a sample edit.

While I was waiting for replies to letters of recommendation, I polished up my first chapter and sent it to each of the editors for sample work.

Honestly, I expected them all to come back with virtually the same results. After all, a mistake is a mistake, isn’t it?

Well, no, it isn’t. Editing is incredibly subjective.

I was truly surprised at the difference in the marked-up manuscripts I got back, but so glad I went to the trouble of doing this. As I said, all of the editors were qualified, but comparing these was very useful in making my final decision.

In the end, I not only chose a new editor (I’ll give you her name as soon as we hammer out our agreement–gotta make sure the feeling is mutual first!), (See the end of the post!) but I also have some fall-back editors, people I would feel confident writing to again if I’m ever in this position again.

Along the way, I was 100% clear with all my candidates where I was in the vetting process even up until the stage where I was getting samples, because I wanted people to know that I had other candidates. This was NOT to engender competition, but because I wanted to be up front about it. If someone didn’t want to be considered in a situation like this, I don’t mind. But you know what, NONE Of them minded when I let them know I was getting samples from others. In fact, most seemed to appreciate that I wanted to make sure I had a good fit.

So, if you’re in the position of hiring an editor, take your time. Be thorough. Listen to your gut. The best part of it is that I never felt like I was picking someone out of desperation. I felt like I had a lot of qualified candidates and could choose one out of a truly great field.

EDITED TO ADD:

I spoke to my new editor, and I feel 100% confident that we’re on the right path. So I can blissfully announce that Susan Helene Gottfried will be working on Enemy of the Fae, and I hope she will continue with me for many many more books to come. Her rates are incredibly reasonable, her sample edit was amazing (I’ve already incorporated 97% of what she suggested into Chapter 1), and I’ve found her professional on every level–and yet friendly and easy-going at the same time. If you’re looking for an editor, check out her page and read this list to see if she works in your genre.

As much as I’ve already come to respect and appreciate Susan, I’d still recommend you contact several editors and get sample edits. Susan is a perfect fit for my work, but you need to find the right editor for you. But yes, absolutely, drop her a line and discuss your current projects. I’m certainly glad I did!

 

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30 comments

  1. India, thank you! That was a most interesting, informative and above all, timely post! I’m thinking seriously about editors at the moment and although I wouldn’t have jumped into the decision making process, I think I might have been a little subservient before reading this, a case of, ‘oh gosh, will they want to do a job for little me?’ This is a timely reminder that it’s my money I’m spending and going with the wrong editor could prove costly in many more ways than just financially.
    Thanks again and don’t worry, I’m sure your almost-signed new editor feels the same way about you!

    • You’re very welcome! I am glad you found the post helpful. I just remind myself that it’s my name on the cover, so I’d better be a pro when it comes to making sure my book (inside and out) reflects well on my name! If that means I have to be tough, then so be it!

      [ Follow me on Twitter:

    • Jackie:

      I’m the sort of editor who would prefer to work with “little me” than with a big name or a big publisher. If you decide you’re ready, I’d be glad to do a sample for you, and provide any other information you’d like (following India’s lead would be most welcome in my world, for instance).

  2. Glad to know you found an editor, India. Good luck with your book and future endeavors.

  3. Wow, this is well thought out, and extremely helpful. I love how detail oriented you were with your search. So often authors “settle” for the first editor that quotes a price they can afford. Of course, this also happens with agents and publishers too. But I never would have thought to ask a lot of the questions you mentioned in your “query”, or to contact references. This posts is a refresher that being a writer is also a self employment venture, and the contacts should be as professional and well researched as any employment interview.

    This level of attention to detail shows in your writing India. I enjoyed Blood Faerie mostly for the story itself, but I appreciated that I didn’t have to slog through a lot of technical/formatting errors for a smoothe read. In fact, I didn’t even know Blood Faerie was self-published. Obviously you had an excellent editor (not that I think it needed it) and reliable feedback support systems. Very important to any author, but essential to an indie-pubbed. It is no wonder that I was able to focus all my attention on the story when I read the novel.

    I know there are a couple sequels to Blood Faerie, and I’m looking forward to reading them. I haven’t enjoyed new fantasy fiction in a long time, and your novel engaged me throughout the reading.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you for an author interview/guest post regarding your writing journey for Blood Faerie. I am expecting to post a review of the novel over the next few weeks – I’m actually late on my review as I finished the novel about a month ago – but I’d really like for you to do a guest post along with the review.

    You can check out my blog archives to see how I conduct guest posts/reviews, and if you are interested, please contact me at donnahole (at) gmail (dot) com.

    And BTW; good luck with the new editor prospect. I can’t imagine all this hard work and extensive research not getting you the best person for the job.

    …….dhole

  4. This was really interesting (and informative) to read. You are impressively thorough!

  5. If you treat it like you’re hiring someone, you’ll be much more satisfied. The steps you outlined are the interview-hire process. That’s a fine way to think about engaging with an editor.

    It also shows how much importance you put on the editorial process. It is ~not~ something to be taken lightly, especially for a self-publisher, or an indie.

    Good editors are very, very hard to find. You are right about that!

    But they’re also worth finding.

    – Eric

  6. What a great process, india. Thanks for sharing!

  7. WOW, India. Thanks! And I’d like to second what you said: finding an editor isn’t like walking into the grocery and buying food. It’s more like shopping for apples: you need to find the kind you like, and you need it to fit your purposes (are you making baked apples? Applesauce? Eating them smeared with peanut butter and Nutella?).

    However, anyone in need of an editor should feel free to contact me. I only came out of retirement less than a year ago and have room on my list still.

  8. Thank you. I’ll be looking for an editor of my Indie suspense/mystery novel and will take the advice you offered in this post to heart. Thank you for sharing this. I found it very informative and well written. Good luck with the new editor, and book.

    Dana Griffin

  9. Michelle d Evans

    Thank you India, loved reading about your process. I have found it hard to get recommendations out of people, perhaps I’m asking the wrong writers.
    Xxx

  10. Just wanted to add my praise for this post – I’m about to start looking for an editor for my book and plan to use this post as a guide on how to go about it. Thanks for helping make my hunt that little bit easier! :-)

  11. Excellent, very informative post, has answered many of my own questions. I would never have thought of asking for references in such a rigorous way, but you are right, it’s much more scientific than just word-of-mouth casual recommendations.

  12. Jim Thomsen

    I’m a freelance editor, and found this blog post to be fascinating. I really appreciate your methodical search for the right fit. All those little things matter — conversational chemistry, comfort level with a genre, willingness to provide timely aftercare, etc.

    We probably wouldn’t have been a good fit because I am not a fan of sci-fi/fantasy and as such don’t understand the genre as well as Susan and many others, but it was heartening to look at the rest of your criteria and know that I would have measured up otherwise. This was a great “market value” reality check for me as I continue in the “ramp-up” phase of my business.

    To wit:

    1. No, I don’t have much experience with fantasy/spec fiction. (While I believe “good storytelling is good storytelling,” I know that each genre contains specific market-friendly requirements. I better understand these in the romance and mystery genres.)

    2. I wound up being pretty tightly scheduled in May, but I always make time for promising new clients.

    3. Yes, I have dozens of references I could provide, and I’m pretty confident I’d get glowing testimonials.

    4. I have, I would say, a moderate level of comfort with British English. I read some books from the UK, but I’d have a hard time saying I’m completely conversant in British idioms and slang.

    5. Not sure if I cost more than you can afford. I recently raised my rates from $35 US to $40 per hour, in keeping with the low end of the market-rate structure per a recent survey by the Editorial Freelancers Association. My general invoice range for a novel of 60,000 to 110,000 words ranges from $500 to $850 US. I base my estimate on a sample edit, and how much time that takes, pro-rated into the overall word count.

    6. I do know other editors I could recommend.

    7. Happy to provide a sample edit, at no charge.

    Also, I do accept PayPal, and work in Track Changes mode.

    Thanks, India, for this opportunity to reflect on how I measure up in the open market.

    • Thanks for the reply. I think your charges sound fair, depending on the level of edit that involves. When I hired Susan, we hammered out exactly what we both expected as far as what she would be looking at and what she wouldn’t. I always recommend doing that so no one is disappointed with the outcome. I also wouldn’t want to pay someone by the hour, but that’s just me. I wouldn’t want to authorise what could, in effect, become unlimited charges… especially with someone I didn’t know.

      [ Follow me on Twitter:

  13. It is funny how sometimes you find the right article at the right time. I’m at a stage where I’ll soon be in need of an editor, but I wasn’t sure how to approach the process. I’ve already started a rudimentary search. It’s a big step to find someone who is professional enough to remain objective without sacrificing quality advice. I tend to think that it also makes sense to have a relationship with an editor that will last longer than one project. Given the nature of writing, it makes sense to. From my side, I will need to determine what kind of editing I require and whether one ‘experienced’ editor is all I need.

    This post of yours gave me some context. Thanks.

  14. Thanks for posting such a detailed breakdown of the way in which you searched for the right editor. As a freelance editor myself, I found this post very interesting.

    However, I’m curious about your criteria for ‘professional’. If it were me looking for a professional editor, I’d have gone first to professional organisations like the Editorial Freelancers Association (in the US) or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (in the UK) who have directories of qualified, trained editors who specialise in fiction editing. Once I’d created a long-list from these sorts of sources, then I’d have gone looking for recommendations and what not.

    I have to admit that I’m a little crestfallen that time/effort/money spent doing professional development courses, getting training and being an active member of a professional organisation seems to count for so little.

    • For me, I suppose I equate professional with “has professional experience”. I did talk to a couple of people who had serious credentials, but they were astronomically (four to six times) more expensive. I found I could get good, quality work from experienced editors with my search method without having to pay more than I could afford. This method worked for me, but if someone feels more comfortable with people who belong to a professional association, that could also be a good way to find someone qualified.

      [ Follow me on Twitter:

  15. Great advice, just tweeted about it! It’s so important to get one’s work properly edited and too many self-published authors rush to publication without going through the editing process and it’s a real shame. It hurts them of course (who wants to buy another book from someone who’s accumulated typos and inconsistencies?) and it also hurts the reputation of Indie authors.

    Thanks for sharing the way you went about trying to find the best possible editor. Very useful tips!

  16. Thanks for the mention, India. I don’t think anyone has ever called me beloved before! I haven’t met Susan in person, but I’ve networked with her online and she seems professional, energetic, and upbeat. Best wishes! And for anyone reading this, India’s novels are terrific.

  17. India, I love this post. I found it because of The Passive Guy, but I’m glad I clicked over for the entire post. I’ve been telling indie writers and traditional writers who are afraid of indie that they can hire editors. And you’ve spelled it out beautifully. Thank you. I will be linking to this.

  18. Gayle Gardner Lin

    I enjoyed your article and learned from it. I’ve edited several books with few, if any, complaints.
    I’ve never tested to see how many pages I read in an hour, so I don’t know how my fee fits in the price range.
    I charge 50 cents a page, which seems more than fair to the writer.
    I do this because I love to read and I have the ability to do it right.

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