How to Find a Professional Book Editor

Karin Cather
Last updated May 21, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. Identify Editing Needs: Understand the different types of editing available—developmental, copy editing, and proofreading—and determine which one aligns with the needs of your manuscript to ensure it reaches its highest potential.
  2. Search for Qualified Editors: Focus on finding editors who have a strong track record and specialize in your book’s genre. This specificity helps in ensuring that the editor is familiar with the genre’s conventions and can provide targeted, effective feedback.
  3. Assess Editor Fit: Consider an editor’s feedback style and communication approach, which are crucial to a productive working relationship. The right match can enhance the editing process and ultimately the quality of your book.
  4. Budget Accordingly: Be aware of the potential costs associated with hiring a professional editor. Costs can vary widely depending on the editor’s experience, the level of editing required, and the manuscript’s length.
  5. Prepare Your Manuscript: Conduct a thorough self-edit before submitting your work to a professional. This can reduce the extent of editing required and potentially lower the overall cost of the editing process.

The Editing Process

If you are here, it’s because you’ve made a wise decision to hire an editor.

But hiring an editor for your novel or non-fiction manuscript can be a scary process. What are you getting into? How do you pick one? And what should you expect? And … most of all, what promises should editors make? And when are an editor’s promises gigantic red flags?

Picking an Editor

There are more editors out there than there are home service providers.

A professional editor is supposed to do the equivalent of making sure the house is structurally sound, meets fire code, and is clean, not ripping your house down to the foundations and building another one. We absolutely should not be tracking our metaphorical footprints through your house.

How do you go about this?

Start with the Editor’s Credentials

What’s the editor’s background? Maybe they worked in a traditional publishing house first. If they didn’t, and many of us didn’t, do they have formal education? A person cannot wake up and decide to be an editor just because they have a literature, journalism, or creative writing degree or even if they have published their own work. I didn’t do that, and I practiced law for almost twenty years. An editor without education or training doesn’t know what they don’t know.

It helps if the editor is a member of at least one editing association. Editors who have joined editing associations show that they consider themselves professionals.

In terms of experience, I know some relative newbies who are very talented.

Look at the Editor’s Background

It helps if your editor has some background that enhances their ability to catch factual errors, even if it’s demonstrable research skills in various disciplines. Is the editor a former prosecutor? Does the editor have combat training? Do they have any other experience demonstrating that they are subject matter experts?

Evaluate What the Editor Can Control

Should the editor have worked on best sellers?

Not required. To begin with, an editor cannot control whether the author takes their advice. I did a line edit of a book so good I still grieve the end of the project. The book very definitely needed my help. I helped a good book with problems become what could have been a great book. Unfortunately, there was a dynamic between the male protagonist and the female sidekick that was problematic. It was the one barrier to this book’s success. I fairly begged the author to take my advice. The author even communicated with an agent, who told them the same thing. I checked in with the author some months later, which is when the author told me that they liked the dynamic as it was. That book might have, with the marketing all books need, sold a lot of copies, although no one can predict if any book will be a best seller.

Another barrier to success is also beyond the control of an editor: whether the author markets their book. A book that is not marketed will not sell. Word of mouth is not enough.

What is more, it takes a substantial amount of time to market a book. In fact, even the average traditionally published book will sell about two hundred copies over the life of the book, often because the author didn’t market the book.

So an author can be brilliant, but the author has no control over what happens when the edited manuscript goes back to the author.

Get a Diagnostic or a Sample Edit

The editor should look at your sample and give you a diagnostic. Often, a book isn’t ready for a copyedit, because there are other issues with a book that need to be addressed first. A trained editor should be able to assess this and tell you what they think your book needs and why.

In addition to that diagnostic, it’s occasionally helpful for an editor to give a 500-word sample, which should be free. On the other hand, if you’re asking for a structural or developmental edit, a 500-word sample isn’t feasible.

The longer a book is, the more likely it is to have issues unrelated to spelling, grammar, or typos, even if it is a very good book.

Often, the grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation are just about pristine but, for example,

  • names of people, places or things inadvertently change
  • sentences need to be tightened up
  • there are pacing problems
  • there are factual errors
  • there are time problems—John and Ralph have lunch, chronologically speaking, after Ralph has died, or a character who was thirteen in Year 1 of the book is twenty-five in Year 3 of the book
  • there are dialogue problems—two grizzled, veteran homicide detectives talking alone sound like Mr. Rogers talking to a high school vice principal, the eight-year-old talks like a Supreme Court justice, and someone talks with a fake “Southern accent.”

An editor should be able to give this diagnostic respectfully and knowledgably. Do not work with an editor who comes off like they—ugh—silently judge your grammar. A good editor does the equivalent of telling you that you have spinach in your teeth before you go to the job interview. A good editor teaches and does not judge.

While it is possible for an editor to get a feel for what a book needs from a ten-page sample, the editor is going to need the whole manuscript to confirm it.

Make Sure You Like Their Approach

Do they communicate with respect? Are their comments helpful? Do they know to leave well enough alone? There are rules you can “break” in fiction, but you can’t break all of them. If they have given you a line edit sample, does it completely change your writing style? It shouldn’t.

Send the Whole Manuscript

In a Word file. For a copyedit, line edit, structural edit, etc., the industry standard is the Word program.

We need to take a “core sample” to make sure there aren’t significant differences in quality between the beginning and the end and get an accurate work count. We need this to give an accurate estimate.

Once you’ve picked your editor, you are not finished.

Agree on Price and Scope of Work

Often, the editor quotes a fee when they return the diagnostic. I always do. If an author wants to pay less, they are going to have to get less work done. After all, you wouldn’t try to ask any other service provider to charge less for the same work. Your lawyer, your dentist, and your veterinarian all quote fees, and if you don’t like them, you look for a cheaper one.

On the other hand, you just did months or years of work. Do you want to hand that work over to someone who merely treats editing like a side gig for quick cash?

Arriving at scope of work is essential, at it is the most fertile source of conflict between editors and authors.

Sign Your Service Agreement

A service agreement? Yes. A good service agreement, among other things, identifies the specific document, scope of work, payment schedule, and completion date. One of the things you will need to resolve is the number of passes. Once you get the finished product and accept/reject changes, you may want more work done. You don’t want any confusion between you and the editor about whether you have to pay for that.

As a side note, if your editor gives a developmental or structural and/or line edit, they will either have to send you to a second editing professional for the copyedit, or several months will need to elapse.

The Editor Gets to Work

Often, an author will want to have a lengthy conversation so that the editor can understand the book. While it’s important that the editor and author agree on things like the presence (or not) of strong language, a book has to stand on its own. The reader will not have the author there to answer questions, so the editor has to evaluate and work on that book as it stands on its own.

You should be available if the editor has questions, but the editor may go through the entire project without a single question.

The Editor Returns the Completed Manuscript

You might be able to have a conversation with the editor afterward. You can accept non, some, or all of the editor’s changes.

Red Flags

There are many red flags. If you see any of them, run.

The Editor Promises to Make Your Book a Best Seller

They are promising something that neither of you can control.

There are too many variables. Will you follow the editor’s suggestions? Will you market the book? Is the book best-seller material? Is the book best-seller material today? Not all books are, no matter how amazing they are.

The Editor Promises Your Book Will be Accepted by an Agent

There aren’t enough agents to go around. Traditional publishers have thin profit margins and consequently a low tolerance for risk.

Am I saying your book won’t be accepted by an agent? No, I’m saying that there’s no way to know.

The Editor Promises to Make You Rich

No, no, no, no, no! Do not consider your book an investment! The average book sells about two hundred copies. Odds are, you will not even recoup your expenses.

Maybe you’ll luck out, with marketing and more marketing and additional marketing. Or maybe you won’t. Publishing a book is a labor of love. It’s something to be proud of. That doesn’t mean you’ll be the next John Scalzi, Karin Slaughter, or Stephen King.

I’m not saying don’t try, I’m saying don’t count on it.

The Editor Uses Generative AI to Edit

There are so many problems with AI, but the biggest one is copyright/protection of intellectual property. Furthermore, AI is not a substitute for judgment, and editing requires judgment.

You should demand a term in your service agreement that prohibits your editor from using generative AI to edit your book.

Next Steps

Your next steps are to

  1. revise your book and send for a second pass if desired;
  2. make sure your book is copyedited;
  3. hire a book designer;
  4. hire a cover designer;
  5. self-publish, almost certainly, as most authors do these days.


Market, market, market!

About the Author

Karin Cather, with her background as a former prosecutor and a Krav Maga black belt, uniquely blends her skills in editing and ghostwriting. She specializes in detective, dystopian, select fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. Karin also brings her expertise to forensic psych reports, providing valuable insights into behavioral health issues. Her focus is on preserving the author’s voice and balancing creative expression with writing conventions, making her an excellent choice for those seeking a comprehensive and insightful editor or ghostwriter.

Learn more & contact Karin Cather

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