Indie Author & Indie Editor
"Do I really need an editor?"
I see this question pop up on Writer Twitter almost every day. And often more than once.
It's usually asked by someone in the midst of a small panic attack because they were told they MUST hire an editor if they want their book to do well, and of course they want their book to do well, so they've done some research and found out how much editors cost, and since they can't afford to gamble that much money on something as nebulous as publishing success, they're now wondering if they should just give up.
This breaks my heart every time it happens.
Now--full disclosure--I am a freelance editor. My livelihood depends on authors deciding the answer to this question is yes, so obviously my own answer to the question is going to be... YES. GIVE ME YOUR MONEY. MY RATES ARE VERY AFFORDABLE AND MY WORK HAS HELPED MANY AUTHORS GET BESTSELLER TAGS AND FIVE STAR REVIEWS.
That being said, I will admit the topic is actually a lot more nuanced than my personal desire to pay bills and eat tacos. In the six years that I've been charging people for my services, I have worked with authors across all stages of their careers, and the truth is that none of them needed an editor for the exact same reason. In fact, I would argue that one of the greatest benefits to hiring an editor is the journey of self-discovery a good editor can take you on. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
"Do I really need an editor?"
Do you intend to publish professionally?
By that, I mean do you intend to seek traditional publication or pursue self-publication? Some people choose the latter, but then tell themselves it's just a hobby so they don't need to invest in professional services like editing, formatting, and cover design.
If that's you, then stop right there, pal. The second you ask someone to give you money in exchange for your words, your writing is no longer just a hobby. It's a promise to the person clicking the 'Buy Now' button. A promise to value their time and money by providing a truly enjoyable reading experience.
So, if you intend to publish professionally, whatever form that might take, then I have to tell you there's really no way around it. You do need an editor. You may even need a team of editor types: Developmental Editor (pick me!), Copy Editor, Proofreaders, Beta Readers... Am I leaving anyone out? You get the idea.
The reason for this is simple. No matter how thorough you think you are, your eyes know your story far too well to catch every misstep you've made. And you have made them. My own most embarrassing fail? The first copies of my novel Chicken were sent out with numerous mistakes that hadn't been caught (and I had an editor and four proofreaders!), including one in a pivotal scene where instead of saying "air conditioning" the narrator said, "HAIR conditioning."
Yikes. I had to frantically contact my editor, fix the errors, resend the document so he could redo the print and digital files... it was a mess that never should have happened. And to make matters worse, even after all that, there were still mistakes in the corrected copies!
Editing is hard, y'all. Things can go very wrong when a writer is transmitting the thoughts and images and voices in their head through their clumsy fingers onto a keyboard that maybe has a few sticky keys. That's why you can pick up the hottest best-selling novel of the year and still find a typo or two within the pages you shelled out $27.99 for.
If this happened to me with an editor and four proofreaders on board, just imagine the things that might slip through in your novel if you skip this step altogether. Don't risk it! You can fix the files, but you can't erase the one-star review from a disgruntled grammar cop.
And that's just talking about the proofreading department so far. When it comes to story issues and stylistic issues and continuity issues... just trust me, okay? You're going to miss things. You need an editor.
The real question is: Do you need to HIRE an editor?
Now that's where it really depends.
What are your career goals? What are your values as an artist?
For me, I decided that being the sole owner of my creative efforts was more important to me than hardback new releases and bookstore shelving. Maybe it's not to you, and that's okay. Indie publishing is hard and often thankless. Heck, I'll admit that even I usually read trad books over my fellow indies. Why? Because when I cough up money for a book, I want to know that it has been thoroughly edited! And unfortunately, that's not guaranteed when you buy indie. I've been burnt, y'all. Burnt. (And I live with the guilt of knowing my own indie book may have burnt others.)
So if you want to do it the old-fashioned way with query letters and contracts and advances, great! Go for it! And the good news in that case is that no, you probably don't need to hire an editor. If you ink a deal with a legit publisher, you'll have an editor built in, and they will have their own vision for how to make your book its best self for the shelf.
But to increase your chances of getting that deal, you should absolutely be building a team of proof and beta readers to make sure your book is putting its best foot forward when it leaves home to mingle with agents. Whether you pay for those services or not is entirely between you and those readers.
Of course, you absolutely can hire an editor before your manuscript goes out on submission. It might give you an extra boost, and if you want that and have the money you're willing to spend, then go for that too! But please don't let anyone guilt you or shame you into believing this is a necessary step on the road to traditional publishing.
But if you're like me, if you crave that complete control over your creative work and financial future, and you've chosen to go it alone, then I'm going to tell you that yes, you're probably going to need to hire an editor.
And I want you to forget that I ever said anything about being an editor. Because I'm telling you this now as a fellow author. You cannot erase bad reviews.
If you rush your novel out the door without making sure everything is as perfect as you'll ever get it, and people spend money and time on that novel, you are going to get some bad reviews from unsatisfied customers. And they're going to stay there long after you've realized your mistakes and uploaded new files correcting the complaints. Your book will be married to those reviews for as long as it lives.
Of course, hiring an editor does not guarantee you won't receive any bad reviews. No one can make your book suit every single reader's taste. But it can absolutely cut down on you having to live with a bunch of complaints about poor formatting, too many typos, weird continuity mistakes, badly tagged dialogue, weak characters, and plot holes big enough to break a leg in. Among other things.
Books are like babies. It's always easier to see the flaws in someone else's. If you want to publish a book with as few flaws as possible, you need to find that someone else who can see them clearly. And preferably, who can explain to you in an equally clear fashion why they are flaws and how they can be fixed.
But why do I have to HIRE an editor? Can't I just use my friend with an English degree?
Sure you can. If you really think they care more about your book than preserving your friendship. But... they probably don't. Unless you already have a special cutthroat relationship, your friend may not be willing to say everything you need to hear. They may be more worried about protecting your creative spark than launching your career.
So this one is entirely between you and that friend. If you go this route, you need to make it clear that YOU won't take their feedback so personally that it damages your friendship. You need to make it clear that YOU are genuinely willing to take criticism and either implement it or form a more substantial defense of your decision not to take it than, "Well, I LIKE it this way."
This is why the most important advice I can give you about going this route is to make sure the person is actually qualified to give feedback on a book in your genre. If your friend only reads the classics, they might not be able to give you the right feedback on your space opera. If your friend only reads fluffy romance novels, they might not be able to give you the right feedback on your bloody horror show. This could lead to your reflexive criticism of their inappropriate criticism causing strain on the friendship.
For many authors of limited means, this may be the only option. In that case, take it and don't feel bad! Only you know what you can afford to invest in your writing career. If the answer is truly nothing, then by all means, ask a friend. BUT... please, please, please offer them something in return. Don't just expect the pleasure of reading your book to be reward enough. If you can't pay, offer a trade. Do they need a babysitter? Someone to watch the dog while they're away for a weekend? Can you mow a lawn or knit them a nice scarf or cook them a meal?
Editing is hard. It takes time and focus and no small amount of eye strain and neck ache. That's why some of us have chosen to make it a career. Because it is WORK. Don't feel bad if you really can't pay someone with cold hard cash--voices with money aren't the only voices that deserve to be heard! But don't be a jerk. Always ask what you can do to help a free reader in return.
I hate my friend's bratty, snotty children and wouldn't babysit them if they paid me a million dollars, so you've talked me out of that plan and I'm going to hire a professional editor. How much should I pay?
Good question. Can't really answer it.
For starters, there are many different types of editors as mentioned earlier. They all have different going rates. And individual editors may set their prices by standards that don't make obvious sense to you. Because some may take on only a small handful on top of another day job, while others (like myself) may be out here hustling day and night because we're doing this full-time.
For me personally, I don't believe an editor should cost you more than you can realistically expect to make back in your first three months on the market. I know how much I made during that time period, and so I've set my rates below that number. To do anything else would feel like running a racket to me personally. But I'm not here to run other editors down for what they're choosing to charge. Some people feel more secure paying more for the service; others just want to pay for what they can. Either way is totally cool!
Indie publishing is a tough road to hoe. Success will require some investment, and only you can decide what is the right number for you. How much of a gamble can you afford to take? How much will you not beat yourself up over if the book still doesn't perform as well as you'd imagined? Do you want to pay with money you have or are you okay with using credit? It's your life, your book, your budget.
Fortunately, there are many talented editors out there looking for clients. This allows for a great range in pricing. Once you find one with a rate you feel good about, don't be afraid to ask questions. Have they read in your genre? How long have they been doing this work? Do they have political or moral biases that might interfere with the work? These are just some of the things to consider before any payment is made.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you feel good about your decision and that your book is in safe and capable hands. If that means paying thousands for the most highly recommended editor out there, then you do you! If that means paying someone a few hundred because that's what your budget allows, then you do you! If that means asking your friend with the English degree because you really are broke and you don't mind spending a few afternoons chasing their children around the park, then you do you!
TLDR: Yes. You do need an editor. You do need to repay them for their time. Whether it's a trade with a friend or money to a professional. Value other people's time and effort if you want people to value yours. But don't get yourself in a financial pickle.