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How to Make a Living as a Freelance Book Editor

by P.N. Waldygo


College graduates have a rough time in today’s job market. If you’re job hunting and no one responded to the first 300 résumés you sent out, don’t despair. You may not immediately find work in your chosen profession, but in the meantime, you do have options other than unpaid internships and McJobs.

Why not consider freelance book editing? Depending on your other commitments, you can make this either a full-time or a part-time gig. Maybe you’d like to work at home after having your first child. Or perhaps you need to supplement your income from another job. It’s not necessary to have a burning desire for a career in the publishing industry. All that a freelance book editor needs are good language and writing skills, a detail-oriented personality, and a little basic training. Of course, the best editors also have broad knowledge about many current and not-so-current topics, but this is acquired gradually. The more books they are exposed to, the more expert they become in fields they once knew nothing about.

Are you the kind of person who pounces on typographical errors in magazines and newspapers and online? Are you now or have you ever been called a “bookworm”? (Translation: you enjoy reading for pleasure.) Have you always found it easy to get A’s in English, grammar, literature, and writing classes (no matter how bad you may be at math and science)? Did you keep a journal as a child or a teen? Were you the editor of your high school newspaper or yearbook?

If you answered yes to two or more of the previous questions, you’re probably a natural. Chances are, you could become a good editor.

Advantages of Freelance Editing

Autonomy: You’ll be your own boss. You can schedule your time and can work the hours you choose.

Convenience: Working at home will allow you to seamlessly switch back and forth from editing books to getting your personal projects done and responding to emergencies. If the school nurse calls at noon to say your son has chicken pox, you can immediately drive over to pick him up, without apologizing to your boss or asking a coworker to cover for you.

Economy: You’ll save money and time by not commuting to work, shopping for office clothes, dressing up each morning, or eating lunch in restaurants.

Peaceful work environment: You can avoid the stress of office politics and working under power-hungry or petty-minded bosses. Most of your communications will be via e-mail and phone calls with in-house production editors (and I have to say that after sixteen years of working with dozens of editors, I’ve never run into anyone unpleasant. All of them have been super-nice people, which is unheard of in any profession.).

Educational benefits: In most cases, you will learn a lot. Books I’ve edited have featured cutting-edge health and nutrition discoveries that I incorporated into my own lifestyle, witty political rants that analyzed current events more deeply than any newspaper or magazine could, self-help advice and psychological coaching, and other useful information.

Income: The pay is decent—not spectacular, but better than you’ll make at many jobs in this depressed economy. The more experienced you are, the more you’ll earn, generally. Publishers vary widely in what they pay. For entry-level copyeditors, it can be anywhere from $18 to $30 an hour from trade and academic publishers and up to $60 to $100 an hour from legal, medical, or technical publishers. Some publishers have set prices; others ask copyeditors to determine their rates.

Disadvantages of Freelance Editing

Possible career stagnation: There isn’t much room for advancement, unless you eventually decide to get a full-time job on the premises of a publishing house or else branch out on your own after you’ve developed a track record. If you simply stick with freelancing for publishers, your per hour rate will usually rise over the years but not as fast as the cost of living. Talented editors, however, can hang out their shingle and become book doctors or ghost writers and thus make a salary that is commensurate with their abilities.

No health benefits: Yep, you’re on your own here. However, you should be able to afford medical insurance of some type now that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is subsidizing part of the monthly insurance bills for low-income workers. If you have a high deductible, try to stay healthy, eat nutritious food, and get enough sleep, so that you won't need to visit the doctor unless it's an emergency. ("Yes, Mom.")

A feast-or-famine work flow: Until you get established, it’s good to have more than one regular publisher or at least work with several in-house production editors under the same publisher. You’ll also need to stay on good terms with your credit card companies and maintain an excellent credit rating because Visa and MasterCard will tide you over during slack periods or when paychecks arrive late.

Slow payment: You’re at the mercy of the publishers’ payment schedules. Nowadays, before I even accept a project from a new publisher, I ask about that firm’s average turnaround time for paying an invoice. An acceptable turnaround time is two to five weeks. In the past, I’ve had a few publishers that took up to seven months to pay an invoice, which wreaked havoc with my cash flow. In one case, the perpetually late payments seemed to result from inefficient accounting practices. In two other instances, small publishers overextended themselves and hired out more work than they had money to pay for. No matter what the reason, I feel that it shows lack of respect for the copyeditor, and I recommend leaving those publishers behind and seeking work elsewhere. Life is too short to stress yourself out chasing after unpaid invoices.

Self-employment tax: Even if your income is modest, as a sole proprietor of your own business, you’ll have to pay this tax yearly to the IRS, in addition to your federal income tax. It’s roughly equal to the amount of Social Security an employer would take out of your paycheck. On the other hand, you can deduct most of your business expenses on a Schedule C, thus reducing the net income that you’ll pay federal taxes on.

Loneliness, boredom, distractibility: Some people may miss the camaraderie of having coworkers nearby in the office. Also, even though many books are engrossing to work on, a few are excruciatingly boring. You may find yourself getting distracted by more interesting activities around the house, so it’s essential to be disciplined and motivate yourself. Otherwise, you may fail to meet your deadline for editing a book. This is a mortal sin because it throws off the publisher’s entire production schedule. One of the best habits you can cultivate is turning in books early, before the deadline. Your production editors will love you for it.

Where to Begin

You can seek out many other types of editorial jobs, in addition to freelance book editing. Editors are needed for online Web page content, ad copy, technical manuals, dissertations, newspapers, magazines--the list is endless. In this article, however, I’ll deal only with finding work as a freelance book editor.

You’ll need to acquire two things: training and experience. Everyone has to start somewhere, and beginners can still find work at their level, whatever it may be. Here are a few steps to follow:

1  Take a class in proofreading. Often these are one-day workshops, in which you’ll learn the basics, such as how to edit by hand using proofreading symbols and how to do red-lining. Nowadays, most book publishers require freelance copy editors to edit electronic files of books on their computers, using the Track Changes function of Microsoft Word, as opposed to editing the hard copy of a book (a manuscript on paper). Yet you still must learn how to edit by hand with a red pencil because manuscripts typed on paper will occasionally come your way.

2  If you live in a city, sign up for temp work as a proofreader in a few temp agencies. Do not let them push you into data entry, which would effectively pigeonhole you for future jobs. One way to avoid this is by doing a terrible job on the agency’s typing test. Many law firms divide up the workload among temps so that proofers mark their corrections with red pencil on paper documents, which are then given to data entry people, who input the changes on computers. When you go out on temp assignments, keep track of the names and addresses of companies you work for, because you’ll eventually add these to your résumé. While temping, remember that law firms pay much more per hour than book publishers do. It’s fine to follow the money at this point. Experience is experience.

3  Install Microsoft Office software on your home computer, and familiarize yourself with its functions. You can use either a Mac or a PC, both of which can run versions of Microsoft Word that will be compatible with publishers’ software.

4  Buy the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (currently, it’s the 17th edition). Don’t look for bargains on and settle for the 16th edition because CMS is the book publisher’s bible. Amazingly, the editors of this thick book keep changing the rules often enough to necessitate publishing a new edition every few years. As a beginner, you’ll need to look up the most recent rules on just about everything: when to use italics versus roman font; whether to abbreviate or capitalize academic, political, and military titles; what formats to use with notes, references, and bibliographies . . . and countless other details. Delve into this enormous book, to the extent that even if you don’t memorize every rule, you should be aware of areas where rules exist. Then, in the future, you’ll have a rough idea of where to look them up. You’ll use only some of these rules while temping at law firms, but you’ll need all of them if you work for book publishers.

5  Buy Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. Most publishers consider this their final authority to determine the preferred spelling of a word, when to hyphenate compound adjectives, and so on. You will refer to it often.

6  Take a notebook and a pen to the library and plan to spend a couple of hours going through a comprehensive reference book titled Literary Marketplace. Your goal is to find book publishers that use freelance, as opposed to in-house, copy editors. For a beginner, it’s often hard to get freelance work with a major trade publisher such as Random House. As you thumb through Literary Marketplace, you’ll want to look for university presses, academic publishers, and medium-size publishing houses, especially those that print books on topics you’re interested in. Note the number of books each firm publishes per year. Many small publishers put out so few books that they couldn’t provide you with steady employment.

As a beginning copy editor, you may not have the editing skills to do intensive line edits and rewrites. This is why I’m directing you to first look for work with academic publishers and university presses. Most of them ask that you do only a simple copyedit to ensure correct grammar, spelling, conformance with the rules of CMS, and so on. They don’t have the budget to pay for intensive line edits or the desire to force a more reader-friendly style on their authors, some of whom are professors and experts in various scholarly fields. These publishers allow their authors to use as much passive voice as they want, along with superfluous phrases, convoluted sentence construction, and a long-winded, overly wordy style. Because the target readers are academics, it doesn’t matter if they get a little bored. They are a captive audience and are often required to read these books for college classes or graduate studies. With mass-market books, however, books written in “academese” will not pass muster. You would also have to edit them for flow and other subtle qualities, and unless you are an unusually gifted writer, it takes years to learn these editing skills.

7  As you create your list of possible publishers to approach, write down the names, job titles, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of contact persons, as well as the physical address and the website URL of each publisher. Double-check your spelling of all names. Some publishers ask applicants to send their letters and résumés by snail mail; others, by e-mail. When you look for people to contact, focus on job titles such as “Senior Production Editor,” “Managing Editor,” and variations of those.

8  Update your résumé with an eye toward stressing your editing skills and related talents, such as technical writing. Detail your employment history and places you’ve worked, including every temp job, if relevant. You could even briefly mention high school and college writing or editorial experience, such as editor of the school newspaper or yearbook, essay contest winner, or county spelling bee champ.

9  Go to the websites of publishers you found in Literary Marketplace. They may provide guidelines for freelance copy editors to follow. Some websites ask for e-mailed applications and résumés. If a website doesn’t even hint at whether the publisher uses freelancers, call the contact person whose name you copied from Literary Marketplace or else use a phone number from the website. For the latter, you may reach a switchboard, so ask to speak to someone in the Production Department. When you are connected with this person, ask whether the publisher uses freelance copy editors, and if so, may you send a letter with your résumé to whoever is in charge of hiring? Ask for the name and title of the person to address it to, and be sure to spell his or her name correctly. It may be the same individual listed in Literary Marketplace, but try to confirm this because people do change jobs.

10  Send about ten letters with résumés via snail mail to your top choices of publishers (unless some specifically ask for e-mailed applications). Be sure to use the name of the contact person in each letter, so that it doesn’t look like a form letter. (That is, don’t say, “Dear Managing Editor.” It’s too easy for people to ignore letters that aren’t addressed specifically to them.) Keep the length to one well-written page with no typos or grammatical errors, state that you’d like to apply for freelance copyediting work, briefly mention your skills and experience, and end with something like “I’d be happy to take a copy-editing test to qualify.” Enclose your résumé.

Wait about ten days, and if you haven’t received a response, send out ten more letters with résumés. Eventually, someone will take a chance on you and send you a copyediting test.

You absolutely must ace this test. Take your time with it. Most of them are very tricky, and they recreate grammatical quandaries that will have you consulting the Chicago Manual of Style every few seconds. If you have the slightest doubt about the spelling of a word, whether to capitalize a foreign term, when to use “et al.” instead of authors’ names in notes, and so forth, look it up! You have only one chance to prove that you are skilled enough to edit this publisher’s books. Before you send the test back, I suggest keeping it for at least a day after you finish it. Periodically read over the test to see whether you’ve made any mistakes or overlooked problems. My first publisher sent me a test filled with Hebrew words and references to long-dead sages and rabbis. I went to my local synagogue and sat down with some of the reference books, until I could distinguish Rambam (Maimonides) from Ramban (Nahmanides) and was able to write intelligent comments on the test. I ended up working many years for this publisher. I learned so much about Judaica that one author/rabbi whose book I edited told the production editor, “She must be very pious.” We didn’t let him know I was a shiksa. I ended up freelancing for this publisher for many years, while still accumulating other book publishers.

After you’ve been editing a while, most publishers are content simply to see your résumé and won’t require you to take a CE test. The first book you edit for them, however, is your real-life test. In fact, this is one job where you can’t just slack off occasionally because you are judged by each book you edit. If your work isn’t consistently good, you won’t get called back. I don’t say this to intimidate you. I have a feeling that if you’re interested in this type of work, you’re already a perfectionist, and you don’t let yourself slack off when it’s crunch time.

The Test Results

A. Congratulations! You passed the test. Now you can begin your hands-on editorial training and learn as you go along.

B. Uh-oh--you didn’t pass. Try to get feedback on where you went wrong, or ask your publishing contact to send you a copy of the corrected test. You’ll learn what you need to brush up on. If you really are a perfectionist, I know you hate being wrong, so you’ll probably never make those mistakes again. Study up, and approach another publisher. This is a learning process.

When I first started, I was ignorant of some of the most basic rules of grammar—for example, I didn’t know that hyphens never follow “ly” adverbs. I still remember a production editor correcting me for that mistake. In the same vein, I’ll never forget how to spell reveille, the word that knocked me out of the county spelling bee championship in eighth grade.



When my friends heard that I planned to write this article, they asked, “Aren’t you afraid of creating too much competition?”

No, not at all. The world needs more writers and editors, so I’m happy to cultivate people’s interest in this field. Also, most newbies will be going after entry-level copyediting work. Top-level editing skills are similar to writing skills: it takes many years to acquire them. By the time my protégés work their way up through the ranks, I’ll be retired, and they can inherit the earth.


Copyright 2019 by Patricia Waldygo