How much does copyediting cost? And why can’t you give me a firm price?

[8-minute read]

I see, going for the big questions, are ya?

I always tell people I cost less per hour than a plumber. Well, than the plumbers I’ve encountered. So let’s dig into the factors that make up my price for a job.

What the editor needs to know to start working out a price

When I get an email asking for a price, the information I get varies from the non-existent to the scary. I’m not fond of opening files from strangers. Nor should you be! I quite often won’t open them at all. I am fond of opening emails that tell me the basics of what I need to know:

  • What is it that needs copyediting? Journal article, book, annual report, something else?
  • What is it about? (There are some subjects or topics that in fairness to you I wouldn’t even contemplate, such as the hard sciences and craft books.)
  • What is the word count?
  • Are there tables or other artwork? How many?
  • How many references? What citation style (e.g. author-date, short title)?
  • Are the reference included in the word count you gave me?
  • When do you need it by?
  • Where did you hear about me? (I always like to know which marketing channels are earning their keep!)

This all starts to tell me whether there’s even any point in calculating a price – if you need it finished before I’m free to start work, I can just tell you sorry, but I’m fully booked.

If, on the other hand, your timescale fits with my schedule, then I can look further.

How do I start thinking about a price and timescale?

First, I’ll probably come back to you and ask a few questions.

I’ll ask what it is, precisely, that you want done.

I might ask which draft the text is up to (hint: if you tell me it’s the first, I’ll tell you you’re not ready for a copyedit yet. You’ve not finished clarifying your ideas and working out the best way to present your argument, and you’ve not begun to polish your text; if you tell me it’s your second, I’ll still have reservations. You might do better to work with a development editor or at least beta readers. Third or up, now we can talk).

I’ll ask you what style guide you’re adhering to, if any, and what style of referencing you’re using. You might be following the intended publisher’s style guide for authors, which may, or may not, be based on Oxford/New Hart’s, APA, CMOS, MLA or something else. I’ll need to know.

For a book, I’ll ask you for a sample so I can judge the level of intervention needed. I’ll probably ask for a couple of thousand words from the middle of the text, plus a page or two from the references list and one of the longer tables. From that I can judge the condition of the writing, and the accuracy of the referencing with your intended style.

For an article, I may as well see the whole thing.

I’ll treat any sample you send me in the strictest confidence, of course, and from that I’ll also be able to see whether the manuscript is in Word (it had better be!).

I might ask you, too, to send the publisher’s style guide, if that’s what you’re working to.

With that, I start to get a much better feel for the job.

Assessing the job

Now I’m starting to get together a list of the things that make up the price. I’ll know:

  • How many words
  • How many references
  • How many notes
  • How many tables
  • How much artwork – and whether it will need editing. Graphs probably will (if only to straighten out spelling and hyphenation), photographs won’t
  • What condition the writing – and the typing – is in
  • How closely you’ve managed to stick to the intended style guide in the text and in the references.

Deciding what’s needed

Now I can start working out what I need to do to the text. The processes involved are more straightforward for a journal article than for a book, as a book will need more in terms of checking table of contents, illustrations lists and so on back to the rest of the text, and more work to ensure consistency from start to finish. The word lists tend to be a lot longer, too. But the tasks will include most of – if not all of – this baker’s dozen:

1          File clean-up (removal of iffy typing; fixing of headings, captions, note style, paragraph style, quotations etc.)

2          Editing the references (verification of the facts, checking links, editing into the required style)

3          Editing tables and other artwork (tables can be really time-consuming, especially if the author has used spaces instead of cells for indentation, has used hyphens instead of minus signs etc.)

4          Checking and styling the contents pages

5          Applying tags or styles throughout the manuscript ready for the typesetter, as required

6          Reading and editing the text, including modest fact-checking where something looks not quite right

7          Raising author queries – whether sending them to the author after the principal edit of chapter is done, or cataloguing them in comments bubbles, or some other method, as required

8          Taking in author’s responses, if required, and updating the text accordingly. Resolving any issues that arise from the responses

9          Compiling the style notes as to the house style relates to this particular piece of writing

10        Cataloguing the exact reference styles used in a variety of scenarios, so the proofreader knows what to look for

11        Compiling a word list of spellings, including italics, hyphenation, capitalisation, proper names, unusual words, and which variant of words with alternative spellings have been used

12        Reviewing all the files and running a series of end-of-job checks to ensure nothing unpleasant has crept into the text with the answers to author queries, or fumble-fingered editorial typing

13        Preparing handover documentation and returning the files, ready for the next stage in the publication process.

Getting closer to a price

Getting to know your requirements and the state of the manuscript means I can now judge, against a record of all the jobs I’ve already completed (separate for books and for journal articles), how fast I will probably be able to work.

A good-condition manuscript with attention to detail and strong language skills, can probably be edited through all the stages at around 2,500 words per hour. Ish. Indeed, very ish.

If you’re a publisher or pre-press company offering a job for a fixed fee, then this investigation and thought process may well happen after delivery, when I can assess the job against the budget of time and money. If you’re an author wanting a copyedit before submitting your work to a publisher, then this assessment would happen in order to calculate a price.

To give an idea of how I work out how many hours are needed, I see, historically, that I can get through a book at somewhere between 1,200 words per hour, and 4,500. My long-term average is around 2,500 words per hour.

So I can take the length of the book, check my stats for other books of a similar length, and a similar number of references and notes, and tables and figures, and perhaps number of authors, and see what my speed looked like for similar jobs. Then I can multiply up by my current notional hourly rate and produce a figure.

My stats will also tell me over what kind of period I can edit the job, and my schedule will tell me when I can fit it in.

If you want to see these figures in context, there’s a post on the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading’s blog with other editors besides me talking about speeds (although you may recognise the second contributor – ugh, that’s an old photo!).

For journal articles, I’ve occasionally hit nearly 5,000 words per hour (usually for short and sweet editorials, rather than research articles), but the average is a little higher than for books, but only a little – maybe 2,600 words per hour, but on one inglorious occasion 1,100, because of problems with the artwork.

Then I can come back to you with an estimate of time and money.

Estimate? Not a quote?

Why not a quote? Well, I’ve only seen a sample, and I’ve not edited it in depth. The production of prices is unpaid work, so none of us can spend undue amounts of time.

There’s always an element of risk. Who knows what may be lurking elsewhere in the text? Three large tables that need rekeying because we only had them as images? That’s nearly four hours of my life I’m never getting back.

Take the book I’d just started on at the time I was drafting the initial text for this post. Sixteen tables, no figures, they said. Cool, I said.

I get the files.

  • Several of those sixteen tables are two- or three hundred rows long.
  • Two of the tables have more than two hundred footnotes each, and they’re all links, so will need checking, not just reading.
  • No figures? What about the one I’ve just found at the end of Chapter 3?
  • The book is meant to be in UK English. Why are all the references styled with US punctuation?
  • Oops, they said, sorry, here’s an extra 6,600 words of front matter we thought we were cutting but have decided upon mature reflection to keep.
  • Double oops! There’s artwork in it!

Yes, the price was renegotiated. But not the timescale, in this case.

When the client sets the price

For publishers and pre-press companies I work for repeatedly, we really have a trust system. They tell me their budget and the basics of the book, I assess it when it arrives and decide whether we need a conversation about that budget, whether of time, money or both. So in that case, the client is, in effect, producing the estimate for me.

More uncertainty – and how I deal with it

It’s a truism, but you can’t really be absolutely sure how long something is going to take until you’ve finished it, which is a bit late to give your client a price. So I give an estimate whenever I’m asked to price for something, although it’s based on stats and years of experience, so it’s usually pretty good.

I estimate with a twist, to share the risk.

If I feel there is uncertainty about the amount of effort needed for the job (usually, the shorter the piece, the less uncertainty there is), I will give a price for the worst-case scenario, and offer to charge proportionally less if I take less time on the key assumption that the sample is representative of the whole. That gives the client a degree of assurance that the price won’t skyrocket mid-job. If the rest of the manuscript turns out to be materially different from the sample I’ve seen, then, of course, there’ll be further discussions. In practice, that has rarely happened.

Yet some jobs aren’t as advertised, and yes, I will be coming to you to explain that mid-job, and to renegotiate the price (hence estimation, not quotation). Why might that be needed?

Why the price might go up, mid-job

Some authors don’t really understand that the manuscript they submit to the publisher is finished. All done, bar sorting out things I may query. Yet a few declare, after a chapter’s been edited, that they want to replace it.

On too many jobs, I have authors asking to replace sections, or just paragraphs. One said there were a couple of small changes they wanted made, and could I accommodate them. Sure, I said. The changes arrived. Yeah, there were a couple of small changes. On every page.

Let’s not even think about the two books I was well into editing when we discovered, via the queries I was raising, that the wrong version of the files had been sent to the publisher, or by the publisher to me. The reworking needs to be paid for. (Incidentally, this is another good reason for me to stick, wherever possible, to my practice of sending queries after each chapter – we find these kinds of blunders all the sooner, and time is money, I’ve heard it said.)

The other half of the pricing question is what goes into my notional hourly rate. I call it notional, because I very rarely work at a simple hourly rate (OK, I have one client who insists on it, and that’s fine, because it means if one article is a particular trial, I get paid more for slogging through it. And for perfectly straightforward articles, all is sweetness and light).

What does the price include?

The price includes:

  • my time
  • the expertise and experience I bring to bear on carrying out that baker’s dozen tasks, and
  • the outputs from those tasks – an edited manuscript with a decent handover and the other outputs – style notes, word list and, if appropriate, a tags list, enhanced art log and whatever the job demands.

From this I have to pay for a whole raft of things, before we even get to the ordinary costs of living. Some of these things are, in the salaried world, paid for by the employer on top of staff salaries. In the freelance world, I have to pay for them all myself, and this is something to remember when comparing the cost of a freelancer with the cost of an employee. It’s not just my hourly rate versus their headline salary– it’s my hourly rate versus their headline salary plus all the employer’s on-costs. I’ve asterisked the things that don’t come out of an employee’s salary.

  • income tax, National Insurance (with no employer contribution;* in addition, many editors and proofreaders will also be paying for their pension, again with no employer contribution*)
  • my professional memberships and continual professional development,* and to cover the time I spend training and keeping up to date with industry developments*
  • my software subscriptions*
  • my equipment and consumables*
  • office space, even if it’s in my own home rather than hired*
  • a rainy-day fund against a period of drought in the flow of work, or my computer blowing up*
  • the equivalent of sick pay and holiday pay as there is no statutory sick (or maternity) pay for the self-employed and, obviously, no paid holidays*
  • the usual overheads of running an office.*

You read it right: aside from my income tax and National Insurance (and the upcoming Health and Social Care Levy) and, with some employers, my professional memberships, everything in that list is something the employer pays on top of an employee’s salary.

What’s left after I’ve paid for everything in that list forms my salary, to pay for everything else I need to live. In short, I need to earn enough to make it worthwhile being in business. I do love being a copyeditor, but not enough to do it for peanuts!

1 thought on “How much does copyediting cost? And why can’t you give me a firm price?”

  1. Pingback: The value copyediting brings to the text

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