Hiring a Fiction Editor, Part Two

Marnie Lamb

2. Set a budget.

Hiring a professional editor is expensive. As with hiring a professional contractor, working with an editor will cost at least a few hundred dollars and possibly up to several thousand, depending on the service and the amount of work your manuscript requires.

Some editors charge a flat, per-job rate. One benefit of this approach is that both editor and writer know exactly how much the job will cost from the outset. However, from an editor’s perspective, a flat rate can be problematic because it requires her to estimate the time involved in editing a manuscript, including time for administrative duties. Even for experienced editors, estimating is an imprecise science, particularly if the editor and writer have never previously worked together. To guard against over- or underestimating, some editors present a range of fees, with a minimum and maximum.

Other editors bill by an hourly rate. This is often easier for the editor because it saves him the conundrum of estimating. Yet for the author, an hourly rate can be risky because the ceiling price is unknown. You can try to negotiate for a flat rate instead, but be aware that some editors won’t agree to a per-job rate. I once had an editor tell me that she didn’t believe in flat rates. Her perspective was that her time was worth a certain amount per hour, which is completely valid.

So what are the average hourly rates charged by editors? On its website, the Editorial Freelancers Association in the United States provides a chart of common rates. Copy editing starts at a rate of US$30 per hour, substantive editing at US$40 per hour (see https://www.the-efa.org/rates/). Editors Canada does not publish suggested rates, but I can share anecdotally that most Canadian editors will charge rates comparable to those of their American colleagues.

Two points mentioned in part one of this article are relevant here: First, a manuscript page is usually defined as 250 words (though for proofreading, this number is closer to 400 or 500 because a formatted page will be single spaced). Second, Amy Einsohn generalizes that copy editors work at a pace of anywhere from one to nine pages per hour; Editors Canada estimates the editing pace for structural or stylistic editing at one to three pages per hour (see https://www.editors.ca/content/what-do-editors-charge). If you multiply the number of hours needed to edit the manuscript times the hourly rate… well, you can do the math. Flat rates won’t necessarily be cheaper because they are based on the editor’s hourly rate times the number of hours that she thinks the job will require.

Don’t forget about tax. Like hairdressing or repairing cars, editing is a service for which practitioners can charge tax. In Canada, once an editor has earned an annual total of C$30,000 per year from his editing business, he must register with the federal government to obtain an HST number. Thereafter, he is required to charge tax for his editing services. Some editors choose to apply for an HST number even before they’ve hit the minimum threshold of earnings. In Canada, a Canadian editor working with a Canadian author will charge federal tax based on the province in which the author resides. Hence, an Ontario-based editor will charge 5% tax (GST) to an author who lives in British Columbia but 13% tax (HST) to one who lives in Ontario.

As you can see, a budget of $400 will not suffice in most cases. Unless your manuscript is short, has already been through a critique and several substantive edits, and requires only a light copy edit, which is not the case for 99% of manuscripts, you’re better off spending that $400 on a writing course or a writing coach.

3. Research editors with whom you might want to work.

Researching an editor’s specialties and contacting only editors whose skills and interests match your needs saves time for both writer and editor.

An excellent way to find editors is by using the free Online Directory of Editors (ODE) from Editors Canada (https://www.editors.ca/ode/search). (In the United States, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a similar directory.) The ODE lists each registrant’s editorial skills (e.g., copy editing), media or genre of specialty (e.g., fiction), and subject fields in which she has worked (e.g., family). You can choose from a drop-down menu in any or all of these three areas or type keywords into a general search bar. One word of caution: Searching for a skill, media, and subject field all at once will show you editors who have experience in all these areas but who don’t necessarily have experience in the intersection of these areas. That is, editors who come up in a search for “copy editing,” “fiction,” and “family” may not necessarily have copy edited fiction manuscripts about families.

Therefore, it’s wise to conduct further research by reading the profile statements and looking at the websites of editors who pop up in search results. For example, my ODE entry includes substantive editing as a skill. I have experience substantive editing journal articles, grant applications, and resumes. While I enjoy this type of editing in certain contexts, I’ve chosen other editorial services as the focal points of my business. My website showcases these services, including manuscript evaluation and copy editing. If you’re seeking substantive editing for your manuscript, contacting an editor who lists experience in “substantive editing” and “fiction” is completely fair. But because those terms are likely to yield dozens of potential candidates, digging into the backgrounds of some candidates should help you narrow down the list to those editors who are the closest matches.

If you’re interested in hiring an editor to undertake multiple types of editing, as some self-publishing authors are, then be sure to look for editors who can handle all the kinds of editing you need (e.g., structural editing, stylistic editing, and copy editing).

While you’re digging into an editor’s background, double check whether his ODE entry and website contain spelling or grammatical errors (surprisingly, I’ve found a few). Also consider how long the editor has been in business and what sort of testimonials he has garnered.

When you’ve decided on a group of editors to whom you’d like to reach out, limit your first round of emails to no more than five or six people. Emailing thirty editors is tantamount to sending the same resume and cover letter to thirty employers: the broader the target, the less likely you are to hit the bullseye. If the first round of queries doesn’t yield a hire, embark on a second round, again of only a few people.

4. Craft a detailed introductory email and prepare a sample from your manuscript.

Write a detailed, courteous (see point five) email introducing yourself and your manuscript and answering the questions I posed in part one of this article.

During the initial negotiations, an editor may request a short sample from your manuscript (perhaps ten pages) so that she can assess which type and level of editing are required and how long the job will take. Although you should have a sample available before contacting an editor, don’t send your sample when you first reach out to her. Don’t presume that an editor has the time or desire to read your manuscript. Remember that at this point, you’re only querying. You and the editor haven’t yet agreed to collaborate. Also, many people will not open unsolicited attachments from unknown individuals, and emails containing such attachments may end up in the receiver’s spam bucket.

If you have a deadline (e.g., you’re writing a family memoir and want it completed for a relative’s eightieth birthday), by all means share that with the editor and make it a parameter of your agreement. But in that case, plan ahead. Editors can’t necessarily accommodate a quick, urgent turnaround. The more experience an editor has, the more likely he is to be booked weeks or even months in advance. If you procrastinate and then want your manuscript edited immediately, you might get lucky and locate an editor who has the right credentials and is available right away. You might have to compromise by hiring someone whose experience and background are not exactly what you’d been seeking. Or you might have to jettison your original deadline to respect your chosen editor’s availability.

5. Be courteous in all your interactions and give each editor a final response.

Editors talk. We have associations with conferences, monthly meetings, and email discussion groups. Many of us are friends as well as colleagues. If you’re sending out a slew of emails that sound unprofessional, suspicious, or generic, editors might pass on this information to one another as a warning (e.g., “Has anyone else received an email from a guy looking for an editor for his 200,000-word manuscript on a rebellion by Martian dry cleaners?”). The greater the number of editors who are contacted, the less likely each particular editor is to be hired for the job. Hence, many editors don’t want to spend time responding to queries that sound as though they’ve been sent to dozens of other editors (failing to include the editor’s name in the salutation screams mass email). If your query falls into this category, you might find yourself receiving a lot of nos or no responses.

It’s astonishing how many people lack basic email etiquette. Often, I don’t receive a final response from writers who have queried me about editing their manuscripts. I’m fine with not being hired. The editing market in North America is a free one, and writers are at liberty to choose whomever they’d like to work with. Both writer and editor must be comfortable with their mutual arrangement. If a writer feels that I’m not the best match for her, then our working together is not a good idea. But I do get a bit grouchy when I’ve taken the time to correspond with and offer advice to a budding writer, only to have that person go silent and leave me dangling.

So regardless of whether you hire a particular editor, if you’ve corresponded with that person, be sure to thank her for her time and let her know your decision. Editors are busy professionals, and any time spent corresponding with you may not be billable even if the editor is hired and is definitely not billable if she isn’t. So be grateful that you’re getting free advice and respond accordingly.

6. Recognize what an editor can—and cannot—do for you.

An editor can provide an honest, unbiased, professional assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript. An editor can offer practical suggestions for improving your manuscript. An editor can help you make your manuscript the best it can be.

Note the word “help”: the onus is still on you. An editor can provide an insightful manuscript critique, but if you choose to ignore parts of it, that may result in the manuscript not realizing its potential. Likewise, an editor can suggest edits to a manuscript, but you have the final say as to which ones you accept. Certainly, you should act on and accept only critiques and edits that make sense to you and with which you’re comfortable. But be aware that rejecting too many of the editor’s ideas defeats the purpose of having hired an editor in the first place.

An editor cannot guarantee that a traditional publisher or agent will accept your manuscript. While having an editor assist you is likely to increase your chances of getting published, it’s important to understand that an edited manuscript offers no promises. Many other considerations, mainly surrounding the marketability and potential sales of a book, come into play in a publisher or agent’s decision to accept a manuscript. Be suspicious of any editor who makes promises about your manuscript being published—unless he owns a publishing company and is telling you that he will publish the manuscript himself.


You may be thinking that hiring an editor seems like a lot of work. Perhaps, yet consider this: How many years of work did you put into your manuscript? Surely, your manuscript is as important to you as a kitchen renovation, so why not take the same amount of care in finding the right person to help you take your project to the next stage? Even if you plan to self-publish and don’t need to worry about polishing a manuscript to please a publisher, think of your readers. You have only a single chance at that all-important first impression. Do you want a weak structure, confused paragraphing, and multiple typos to be part of that impression?

Lest you think that all of this advice is coming from the perspective of an editor only, let me share a personal story. Ten years ago, I was a published short story author who had a book-length manuscript, a young adult novel. The manuscript had grown out of the thesis I wrote for my master’s degree in creative writing. I’d been shopping the manuscript around to publishers without success and wanted an honest, non-academic perspective on the story. After searching the ODE, I found an editor and hired him to conduct a manuscript evaluation. His enthusiastic feedback confirmed that my manuscript had value outside of an academic institution. The evaluation included a few suggestions for structural improvements, which I implemented myself.

Several years later, after having sent the manuscript to several more agents and publishers to no avail, I heard that my manuscript evaluator had started his own publishing company. Resubmitting my manuscript to him in the hopes that it would be published seemed like fate. Last spring, The History of Hilary Hambrushina was published, after an eighteen-year journey from academic thesis to published book.

My story is proof that working with an editor can be a rewarding experience that ultimately results in success in finding a publisher. I hope that it will inspire you in your own publishing journey.

Happy editor finding!

© Marnie Lamb

Marnie Lamb is a Gemini incarnate: half writer and half editor. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Windsor. Her short stories have appeared in Journey Prize Stories 25 and various Canadian literary journals, including filling Station, The Nashwaak Review, and The Dalhousie Review. Her first novel, a YA book named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, was published by Iguana Books in the spring of 2017. She pursues her other love, editing, as the owner of Ewe Editorial Services, which offers copy editing, manuscript evaluation, indexing, permissions and photo research, and proofreading services. When she is not writing or editing, she can be found cooking recipes with eggplant or scouting out fashions—preferably ones with polka dots—at Toronto’s One of a Kind Show.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.