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Laura Bontje

Editing for Authors on a Budget

Illustration of a long-haired person in red heels and a tight red dress over a white collared shirt walking a tightrope. They hold a long bar for balance: a clock is hanging from one side, and a dollar sign from the other.
Illustration of a long-haired person in red heels and a tight red dress over a white collared shirt walking a tightrope. They hold a long bar for balance: a clock is hanging from one side, and a dollar sign from the other.
Copyright: phittavas

As a freelance fiction editor, I find it incredibly rewarding to help an author shape their story or find their voice. And as an author, I know firsthand how transformative the insights of a strong editor can be.

But professional editing can be expensive, so what do you do when an author has a limited budget?

If the client is a fit but their budget isn’t, there may still be ways to accommodate them without sacrificing your own business needs.

Suggest free first steps

For many editors, the cost of editing a manuscript increases relative to the amount of work it needs. The opposite can also be true: a more polished manuscript may cost less (up to a point).

If your quote is higher than a client can afford, consider whether there are preliminary steps that they could take for free. Would they benefit from working with critique partners or beta readers prior to a developmental edit? Are there key areas of self-editing that the author could work on prior to a stylistic or copy edit?

These free interventions aren’t a replacement for the depth and value of professional editing, but they can help an author strengthen their manuscript — and hopefully reduce the cost of editing it in the future.

Wait and see

Authors who plan to query literary agents do not have to hire an editor first. Agents are looking for strong, polished work, but they’re not expecting perfection. Many agents offer editorial feedback to their clients, and if a book is acquired by a publisher, it will go through additional rounds of editing. However, many authors do choose to refine their work with an editor prior to querying.

Some clients may elect to save money by delaying the decision to hire an editor. More than once, a client has sent me an inquiry, decided to begin querying instead, and then returned for editing down the road.*

Be honest with your prospective clients. If you truly don’t think their book is ready, then don’t encourage them to jump into querying. But if it’s a closer call, then the author may feel more comfortable testing the waters before deciding to make a bigger investment in editing. (This comes with risks: since every query could be the one that gets the “yes,” every query that’s sent before the author is fully confident in their manuscript may be one less query that they can send after editing.)

*Note: There’s no “magic number” for querying: an author might find their perfect match after five queries, fifty, or more. Hiring a professional editor does not guarantee that an author will find an agent or a book deal, but it can help the author trust that they’re putting their best work forward.

Prioritize the greatest need

One way to accommodate an author’s budget is to triage your edits. In the best-case scenario, every manuscript would move sequentially through the editing process, receiving as many rounds of thorough editing as needed at each stage. But that’s not always possible.

If you offer a triaged edit, make sure your client understands that it will not yield the same results as your regular editing practices. If a client is not comfortable with that compromise, then they may prefer to seek an editor with lower fees.

Skipping stages of editing

When faced with a tight budget, some authors choose to skip stages. If you’re comfortable taking a shortcut for a particular manuscript, how would you choose between, say, developmental and stylistic editing? Think about where you can add the greatest value.

The prose is polished and the voice is engaging, but the pacing drifts? Offer a developmental edit.

The plot is solid enough, but the line-level writing needs refinement? Offer a stylistic edit.

Reducing the scope of the project

Another way to triage is to reduce the scope of work.

For example, if your developmental edits typically include both in-text comments and a separate memo, you could offer just one or the other. You could limit your edits to a particular topic: an aspect of characterization in a developmental edit, perhaps, or repetition in a stylistic edit. If an author can’t afford a standalone copy edit, you could focus only on the most significant errors.

For authors pursuing traditional publishing, reducing the scope could also mean reducing the length. In a “submission package” edit, I edit the query letter, the synopsis and the excerpt of the novel that will accompany the query. The author can review the edits and, hopefully, apply what they’ve learned to the rest.

Find your own balance

Finances are extremely personal — for your clients and for you. No matter how rewarding editing is, it’s still a business, and treating it as such doesn’t mean you’re not sympathetic to an author’s situation.

If you prefer not to adjust the scope of your work to fit different budgets, you don’t have to! Not every editor is a fit for every author.

And if you ever offer some of the options above — or even a discretionary discount — that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to do so for every client who could benefit.

Whatever you choose, be confident in your value and find the balance that’s best for you.

How do you decide when to work with an author’s limited budget and when to part ways with a prospective client?

___

Previous post from Laura Bontje: The Pros and Cons of Sample Edits

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About the author

Laura Bontje

Laura Bontje is a freelance editor in London, Ontario. She specializes in fiction editing, with a particular focus on children’s literature. Laura also provides editing and content writing services for businesses and nonprofits. She is the author of the palindrome-packed picture book Was It a Cat I Saw? (Amicus Ink, 2024) and the forthcoming story When the Air Sang (Annick Press, 2025).

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6 Comments on “Editing for Authors on a Budget”

  • Excellent info here. You tease out the nuances nicely. I’ve had one client who had a few chapters of a book done, and the writing was excellent. I trusted her when she said she had low funds, and so I did the editing “pro bono.” (It was not the full book.)

    I agree also about being honest with clients. A former one asked me this week whether he should give up his job to write. Could he do it financially? I advised him that very few people are able to make a living at writing, either traditional or indie.

    Thanks for this piece!

    • Thanks, Wayne! I agree about the difficulty of making a living as a writer; giving up a job requires a financial safety net or a high tolerance for risk. It can be true of editing too: I’m open about the fact that when I gave up my 9–5 job to become a freelancer, it was my spouse’s salary that made the decision possible in my situation.

      It’s kind of you to have done some pro bono work for your client! I’ve done the same on occasion; I know that not all authors have equal access to editing resources.

  • Robin Larin

    says:

    Great post! It’s actually rare that I will lower a quote on a project due to a potential client’s finances—at this stage of my business, I’ve learned from other editor coaches that my time is worth what I decide it’s worth, and I don’t want to wind up resenting putting in more time for less income. However,I will happily suggest an alternate/less expensive edit if it’s clear that the writer doesn’t need as much as they are asking for. Sometimes, however, they do need more :). If the client isn’t able to pay my fees, then they are not the client for me, and I will politely let them know before parting ways.

    • That’s a great approach, and I completely agree about recognizing your own worth!

  • For me it all depends on the details of the circumstances. In the case I was referring to, it was an intelligent, educated young woman who moved to a new city to escape a husband who was abusing both her and her young daughter. The woman had health issues but was trying to work so as to get off welfare. She was not supported (financially or otherwise) by her parents. And she was not only passionate about finding the the right forum to tell her story, but her writing was exceptional. I wanted to help to the extent I could someone in such frantic circumstances. At no point while this was going on, and certainly not since, did I feel I was compromising my self-worth. Quite the contrary actually. I was helping her find the best way to get a traumatic story out of herself and into print. I knew what my time was worth, but I also sensed her desperation. It was an easy decision for me, in which I felt I could donate the value of my time and expertise to someone who would not have been able to afford it from any editor. This was not the purpose of course, but if anything my sense of my value and self-worth increased.

    • Laura Bontje

      says:

      I’ve felt the same way for some of the projects I’ve done at reduced cost or pro bono. In fact, I’m currently brainstorming ways to formalize those opportunities more so that I can be more open about the fact that I want to increase access to editing (without overextending myself and jeopardizing my business).

      I haven’t settled on a system yet, but I’ve been thinking of offering a set number of pay-what-you-can offerings per year, and setting aside some specifically for authors from demographics that have been underrepresented in publishing. (That said, I most often work with picture books and middle grade novels, and the higher turnover rates there can make it easier to accommodate occasional reduced-rate projects than it might for someone who works with longer novels.)

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