Beginner rates for copy editing?
June 9, 2019 7:13 AM   Subscribe

What rate should I charge as an amateur copy editor for fiction?

Yesterday, an author friend mentioned that she does her own copy editing, as she can't afford to pay a professional to do it.* I offered to copy edit her latest manuscript.** She said she'd love that, and asked me to let her know my rates. Help! I don't have rates.

I have no qualifications in copy editing, but I have a sharp eye and a good grasp of English spelling and grammar. As a native English speaker in Switzerland, I'm often asked to proofread texts at my workplace. I've been thinking that this could be a useful skill to have, if I had more experience, which is why I offered.

I definitely don't want to be the hobbyist who undercuts people who do this for a living, but it also seems wrong to charge a full rate as an amateur. Besides that, I don't even know what a full rate would be, never having paid anyone to edit my own work. This is a novel-length manuscript, about 85k words. What should I be asking?

* She has had two books published, and has a general editor at her publisher as well as an independent editor she commissions for structural/plot advice.
** I know there will be advice not to mix work and friendship. In this case, though, I don't think it will be a problem. I've beta-read her work before and we're both mature and even-tempered people.
posted by daisyk to Work & Money (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have only ever copy edited full time, so I can't speak to what a specific freelancing market rate might be. But based on proofreading texts at work, do you have a general idea of how much text you can comfortably copyedit in a given timeframe? That could give a sense of A) How many hours it will take you, B) What a comfortable per-hour rate to charge may be and C) The scope of the work you're taking on. Manuscripts are pretty darn long, so once you see the workload you may feel less uneasy about charging a "professional" rate to do it, since your time is worth as much to you as to anyone else's.
posted by space snail at 8:08 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Editorial Freelancers Association publishes rates. Maybe start at the low end? My personal experience of what freelancers charge is based on very experienced people doing scientific copy editing for a peer-reviewed journal, and for that, I think their rates are pretty low. But they seem right to me for what you’re doing, though from reviewing freelancer work, it’s also my experience that lots of people who call themselves professional copy editors are really bad at it.
posted by FencingGal at 8:13 AM on June 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm a professional copy editor who works in fiction. I think the best tactic here is to divorce yourself entirely from the world of actual copy editing rates. She can't afford to pay a professional and you're not a professional, so call it "having a smart friend go over your work" and have her pay what she can afford.

As an experienced copy editor, I know an 85k manuscript would take me 5 days as a first pass. I'd then return the manuscript to the author for their feedback, and they might do a little rewriting to address issues I've pointed out or had questions about. Then I'd do another full, 5-day pass. So, 85k for me = 10 days of work.

I'm basing this estimate on the idea of a competently written manuscript. If the writing is weak, or the author isn't a native English speaker, each pass would take longer. If you're trying to get an idea of how long it'll take, have her send you 20 pages and see how long it takes you to do that.

Lastly, remember that when dealing with novel-length fiction, as the copy editor you'll have to ensure the continuity within the story, which is probably quite different from the English texts you review at work. Depending on the story, this can be very time-consuming. You'll benefit from learning about how to build a style sheet...but again: time-consuming.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:07 AM on June 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

Just a quibble: if you get paid for it, you're no longer an amateur.
posted by caryatid at 4:59 PM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

There's no such thing as a beginner rate. You can either do the job, or you can't. In terms of what the rate could be, it depends entirely on you. How much revenue do you need to pay all of your bills each month, and then put aside a little for a contingency fund? How many hours are you willing to work to achieve that revenue? That will result in your hourly rate.

With these sorts of projects, however, it's best to quote by the project rather than by the word or by the page, or by the hour.

Also best to avoid a fixed-bid, since the project may take more time than you estimate. You could instead consider offering a retainer, and then tracking your hours against that retainer for the first month. Then, let your client know how much time they have left.

I generally avoid talking about hourly rates with clients, though, since it shifts the focus to the wrong thing -- my hourly productivity -- rather than what's most important, which is the project itself.

But please: there is no such thing as a "beginner copy editor." You can either do the job, or you can't. There will be nobody overseeing your work and fixing your mistakes. You're the expert. You're the boss.
posted by JamesBay at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2019

It's a different country (Australia) but when I was a grad student about 10 years ago, our university press would outsource copy editing to grad students and paid about $1500 for a book-length manuscript.

Of course, wages have gone up a little in the last ten years, and Australian wages are always kind of high on a world scale, but I think Switzerland is too, so maybe it's still a helpful benchmark.
posted by lollusc at 6:54 PM on June 9, 2019

Thank you all so much for your kind and helpful responses! I'm going to mark a couple of best answers, but you've all helped a lot.
posted by daisyk at 4:02 AM on June 10, 2019

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