Editor Salary: Can Your Editing Skills Pay the Bills?
A desk piled high with manuscripts, brushing shoulders with authors at glitzy book launches, getting a first glance at the freshest fiction around — working as an editor is a pretty dreamy prospect for lots of people. But how do you know if the money’s right? In this article, we'll look at the range that editor salaries fall into, and what factors contribute to it.
Average in-house editor salaries
A middleweight editor in a traditional publishing house will earn approximately $55,491 according to indeed.com — a figure that is based on the aggregation of 802 salaries (as of March 2021). Similarly, The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number at $61,370 per year (roughly $29.50 per hour).
These median salaries are constitutive of the wage a person could earn if they’ve been working in the industry for a number of years — though it’s worth remembering that starting salaries in many publishing houses (even the most prestigious ones) are notoriously low, as many will gladly accept a lower wage to work in a desirable industry. It should also be mentioned that many editorial professionals start with unpaid internships.
That being said, editor salaries are certainly nothing to scoff at, considering they come in around the average wage of a US worker.
Of course, real life doesn’t fit into neat boxes in the way that data does. Like the majority of industries, the salary publishing houses are actually willing to pay you is subject to negotiation. Those working at the bottom of the ladder will probably not earn a significantly higher income than the minimum wage, though they do get the chance to learn and develop their skills. On the flip side, the more experience you have, the broader your skillset, and the more advanced you are in the career, the greater the possibility of earning better salaries, especially if you take on the extra responsibilities of a managerial role.
Big city editors get bigger bucks (in general)
What you earn also varies from city to city, partly because of different costs of living, and also depending on how concentrated publishing houses are in certain cities. According to this Forbes article, the highest salaries can be found on the East Coast, with Massachusetts coming in at first place ($89,280) and New York a close second ($83,070).
The differences across states can be stark — with the lowest annual salaries mostly being found in the West and South: Montana ($41,030) and Louisiana ($42,340). This unsurprisingly reflects differences in costs of living and where centers of commerce are located.
Top publishers don't necessarily pay top dollar
The Big 5, for those not up to speed with publishing parlance, means the industry heavyweights (in the US, at least) — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan.
Many would-be editors are attracted to these big publishers because of their glittering backlists, company perks, and industry clout. However, these bells and whistles don’t necessarily mean they will be paying more. As of the publication of this article, mid-level editorial jobs at Hachette are paying $45,000, whereas graduate roles are around the $30,000 figure — the latter of which is an industry standard, whether you’re at a boutique firm or a publishing juggernaut like Hachette.
One thing to note is that managerial roles at the Big 5 often pay more because of the scale of production the editors would be involved in, even if base salaries are similar across the board. What’s more, Indie publishers tend to have smaller workforces, so chances of them having vacancies are usually lower. Though, once you get in, you will be working in more tight-knit teams that could give you chances to increase your responsibilities and have a more varied work life.
Freelancing: figuring out your finances
With the ability to set your own rates, pick projects that align with your interests, and employ a flexible schedule, working as a freelance editor is an increasingly attractive prospect for many professionals in the publishing industry.
However, you need to view your income differently if you go it alone. Unlike a salaried in-house employee, you’ll get paid per project, and certain factors will impact what you can charge (and thus earn) — namely your skillset, experience, and editorial niche. Let’s break this down.
A steady income is not a given
It can be hard to know what to anticipate earnings-wise. Former Big 5 (now freelance) editor Alyssa Matesic says that “your earnings are going to fluctuate month to month, especially if a client needs to postpone or cancel their collaboration”. Setting freelance editing rates can be a tricky one if you’re not up to speed with industry standards, or have editor friends to consult. There is one salve — Reedsy’s editing cost calculator can help you establish what your peers are charging on average, per project.
It’s worth noting that it’s not just your skillset, but also the specific niche of editing you work in, that can affect what you might charge. To give one example, a YA novel set in a high school is a different beast to a scholarly tome on French naval history. The scope of the project, the skills required, the target market — all of these differ greatly in these two examples, and so each will call for different rates. Naturally, editors with more specialized knowledge can ask for a higher price, since they can offer services that few other editors can.
Indie clients still pay good money
It should be noted that freelance editorial rates, whether you're working with a publisher or indie authors, are often in line with those earned by in-house editors. The only limiting factor is often the freelance editor's ability to line up projects. (Read on to find out how Reedsy can help you do this...)
Don't undersell yourself
As a newcomer, you might feel like you should make low offers to secure more gigs— but low-balling yourself is inadvisable, warns veteran editor Cara Stevens. “Never under-bid on a project just to win the business. You not only short-change yourself, you also cheapen your brand and lower the standard rates for your peers.” Providing quality service costs money and time, so make sure you don’t undersell yourself just to have work on your roster.
Freelancers can still work for traditional presses
Another factor affecting the income of a freelance editor is their client base. If you're someone who's worked in in-house positions before, you may find that there are ties you can use as you transition into full-time freelancing. For Tracy Gold, a Reedsy editor who stayed on at her in-house firm and got paid on an hourly basis as a freelance consultant, this was made easier by the fact she was able to migrate some clients over to her own freelancing business. “I quickly picked up enough new clients to make about 30% more than I did working full-time in about 50% of the hours”.
Of course, not everybody will be able to utilize this, and it can be difficult to source work with no support. As Jasmin Kirkbride notes, “I wish someone had told me how many clients you need to create a reliable flow of work, and that it could be a couple of years before you start being able to see where your income will be coming from six months in advance.”
Go where authors are looking for the best editors
But that doesn’t mean all hope of developing a strong network of reliable clients is lost — Reedsy is a freelance platform that connects publishing professionals with over 500,000 writers in search of editorial services. If you’re looking for a low commitment means to slowly build up a freelance business as you move away from in-house editorial work, Reedsy is for you.
Don't forget your business and insurance costs
It won’t be lost on you that healthcare insurance is something that needs to be accounted for as a freelancer, who won’t be covered by a company plan. Tracy stressed that it’s vital to remember that “if you get sick, there's no such thing as sick pay. If you can't work, you don't make money. I always try to have several months of living expenses saved just in case.” You can check out our ultimate freelancer guide to insurance for more details about what kind of coverage you need and which firms are providing the best package for the self-employed. Funds you spent on this should be covered by your income, so take that consideration as you decide on your rates.
Julie Artz points out that “the administrative side of running your own business takes up about half your time no matter how efficient you are. That admin includes bidding on jobs, doing sample edits, working on your website, creating blog and social media posts, creating and maintaining a newsletter, developing course content, continuing education, invoicing, doing bookkeeping/taxes, and anything else that you have to do to run your business, but do not get paid for.” At least, that is, not directly. You can make sure that you get paid for all that work by tracking non-billable hours and accounting for that as you write new quotes.
As long as you understand the crucial differences between in-house employment and freelance life, respect your own time and plan for emergencies, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t successfully earn a living without having to rely on an in-house editor's salary. Like Jasmin says, “if you can make it all work, it’s worth it: being a freelancer has wonderful flexibility, and you get to collaborate with a really broad range of businesses and writers." Sounds good to us!
Do you have any questions about making the move to freelance editing? Drop an email to our team at Reedsy at firstname.lastname@example.org.