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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