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Posted on Nov 11, 2019

How to Find the Right Nonfiction Editor (to Take Your Book to the Next Level)

If you’ve got a cookbook, self-help manual, or piece of creative nonfiction in the works, you might just be asking yourself how to find the right nonfiction editor for your project. Scouting one can be as tough as online dating — a process filled with equal parts anxiety and hope. You want an editorial meet-cute over Track Changes with your literary soulmate. But you’re afraid of landing a dud, someone who will drain your wallet without improving your book.

Don’t worry! Once armed with the right knowledge and mindset, you’ll be able to find the nonfiction editor of your dreams. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the benefits of getting a trained professional to work on your nonfiction book, complete with a worst-case scenario of doing without. Then we’ll show what you can expect once you’ve hired one — and how much you should set aside for their editing services.

Finally, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step process for landing the right nonfiction editor for you. Just follow them, and you're sure to find someone to bring out the best in your book.

The importance of nonfiction editing: a case study

Earlier this year, nonfiction writer Naomi Wolf was living the dream. After a nearly three-decade-long career penning international hits like The Beauty Myth, she’d carved out a place for herself as a scholar whose name carried weight — and whose books sold — outside the ivory tower.

This past May, Wolf embarked on what looked like a victory tour to promote her ninth nonfiction book, a popular history of homophobia called Outrages. She had every reason to believe she’d written another bestseller. The Oprah Effect was already on her side: O magazine named Outrages one of the summer’s best books by women. The next stop: an interview on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking.

That’s when it all went wrong. On live air, presenter Matthew Sweet pinpointed a devastating error in her book — one that put Wolf’s whole argument on shaky ground. Just months after that fateful interview, her US publishers have cut her loose — and cancelled Outrages’s release stateside.

For aspiring nonfiction writers, the outrageous (pun intended) story of Outrages is a fairy tale-turned-cautionary tale. The book’s early promise showed just how far a title with a powerful premise can rise — all the way up to Oprah’s good graces. But its fall from grace proves how risky it can be to let a project out into the world without doing your due diligence.

Want to avoid a dustup like this one when it comes to your nonfiction book? Make sure you find a great nonfiction editor. Ideally, you should look for someone who can not only refine your arguments and polish your prose, but comb through your manuscript for major factual errors.

But before you meet your editorial match, let’s go over what nonfiction editors actually do — and how to set a budget before you search for one.

What does a nonfiction editor do?

Editing isn’t the kind of job that draws glory-hounds. Any bookworm can reel off enough authors’ names to fill a pop song’s worth of airtime. But how many editors can you name, just off the top of your head?

It wouldn’t surprise us if you’re hearing crickets. That’s because when book editors do their jobs well, they’re basically invisible: they efface themselves and their labors to let the author’s voice shine through. Great editors will push their writers fiercely. But that’s to help them carry out their authorial visions perfectly, not to break their author’s will.

Think of the editing process as polishing a gemstone rather than decorating a Christmas tree: it’s less about adding extraneous ornaments than about removing blemishes — letting the natural luster of a project shine through.

Now, all this goes for editing fiction as well as nonfiction. But nonfiction specialists make use of some genre-specific skills in their editorial practice. Let’s take a look at a couple of ways their expertise is unique.

Fact-checking their authors

Nonfiction book editors have increasingly taken on the responsibility of fact-checking their authors. This used to be the sole province of newspapers and magazines, with dedicated teams trained to verify every statistic and double-check every quote. But, in the wake of book publishing outrages like Wolf’s, fact-checking can no longer be limited to short-form writing alone.

Many nonfiction editors available for freelance work — including on the Reedsy platform — have experience in academic publishing, where airtight accuracy is nothing short of essential. Scholars stake their professional reputations on what they publish through university presses.

As a result, the editors on staff are prepared to help them turn out manuscripts that can stand up to the strictest scrutiny. Many of these nonfiction editors boast world-class subject expertise within their niches — some even hold relevant PhDs.

Working on book proposals

Beyond fact-checking, nonfiction editors are also experts in the art of the book proposal — a crucial component of selling your nonfiction book to a traditional publishing house. Mainstream presses, after all, tend to buy nonfiction off the strength of proposals rather than full manuscripts.

A good nonfiction editor can shape your ideas and unique perspective into a compelling proposal, a genre unto itself. While written within a specific set of constraints, a book proposal shouldn’t read like a dry summary of the facts that’ll show up in your manuscript. It should work as a piece of storytelling about your storytelling. A strong proposal not only sums up your book, but proves that you’re the right person to pull it off.

A nonfiction editor can help you craft the perfect book proposal because, chances are, they’ve read more than their share of them. They’ll be able to teach you exactly what’s expected on the other side of the slush pile.

Budgeting for a nonfiction editor

Even if you are sold on hiring a nonfiction editor, you might be dreading the inevitable next step: figuring out how much it’s going to cost you. Based on data sourced from professional editors on the Reedsy marketplace, nonfiction books aren’t the cheapest projects to edit. But take heart: they’re also not the most expensive. As far as editing rates go, nonfiction falls between romance on the low end and children’s fiction on the high.

Of course, the amount you pay for nonfiction editing will vary based on a number of factors: your word count, your editor’s experience level, and the type of editing you’ll need — more on that later! But, in general, for a manuscript of roughly 60,000 words, you can expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000.

If you’d like a more fine-grained tool to help you budget for editorial services, we’ve created a handy pricing calculator to see how much you should set aside. Just select "Non-fiction" under genre and type in your word count, and you'll know exactly what to expect budget-wise.


How to find the right nonfiction editor in 7 steps

You’ve got a sense of what nonfiction editors do — and how they’re different from their colleagues working on novels and short story collections. You know what to expect on the budgeting side, and you’re ready to start looking for your editorial match made in heaven.

Maybe you’re hoping to score a book deal with a Big 5 publisher. Or maybe you want to turn out a polished indie title — something that won’t look out of place on the shelf next to Simon & Schuster’s latest nonfiction bestseller. Either way, here’s how to find the right editor to bring your project into the world fully formed.

1. Figure out what type of editing you need.

Before you start browsing through editors’ profiles with the zeal of an online dater, you’ll have to take a hard look at the state of your project. That way, you’ll be able to figure out the type of editing you need to take your manuscript to the next level.

Editors can get involved at all stages of the writing process, whether you’re still working through the kinks in your argument, or putting the finishing touches on your prose. That’s why it’s important to be honest about the state of your book.

If you’re unclear about your book’s structure, or unsure if your argument really lands, you’re probably best off getting a developmental edit. On the other hand, if you’re confident in the overall organization and direction of your book but feel like your language could use some fine-tuning, then you’ll be looking at a copy edit instead.

What if you’ve spent so much time reading your own manuscript, you can no longer tell a typo from a title? Then you’ll want a proofreader to catch the pesky mechanical and formatting errors that have slipped past your glazed-over eyes. And of course, if you want someone to rid your book of potentially devastating errors, you’ll need an editor who can fact-check.

2. Pinpoint your book’s position in the market.

It’s important to find an editor who can give your book the exact kind of treatment it needs, whether that’s a gimlet-eyed proofread or a thorough developmental edit. But it’s just as crucial to engage someone who understands your niche.

Celine Dion and Yo-Yo Ma might both be masters of music, but you wouldn’t listen to her sawing out the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 — or him belting out the chorus to “My Heart Will Go On.” The same logic applies here. A certain hotshot may have edited a true crime hit that landed a movie deal, but that doesn’t mean you should ask them to take on your vegan cookbook.

Needless to say, finding an editor who knows your niche means knowing it well yourself. That means looking beyond your genre of nonfiction, to the exact position you envision your book occupying in the market. Nonfiction books can be as different as legal textbooks and tell-all memoirs — even titles in the same subgenre might not be targeting the same audience.

Let's go back to the example of the vegan cookbook. Is it for stressed-out professionals, who barely have time to pop an Amy’s Kitchen veggie burger into the microwave? Or is it for hardcore foodies who miss cave-aged cheese above all else — gourmands ready to be convinced that going vegan doesn’t have to mean giving up decadent flavor and Michelin-worthy technique? This audience will impact everything from your cookbook's cover to your eventual marketing plans.

Besides your target audience, you’ll also want to think about comp titles — other books on the market that, well, compare to yours, sharing the same projected readership and niche. Making a list of comp titles will help you evaluate editors when you get to that step. You’ll be able to look through their portfolio and pick out any books that resonate with your vision.

Looking for a world-class editor in your niche?

The best nonfiction editors are on Reedsy. Sign up and meet them today.

Learn how Reedsy can help you craft a beautiful book.

3. Understand how you work best.

The previous steps involved getting to know your book project inside and out. But this one’s all about you. You had to be honest with yourself about the state of your manuscript — whether it needs a thorough copy edit or some structural TLC. Now you’ll have to turn that same unflinching gaze on your habits as a writer. Not only that: you’ll have to consider how you work with others. After all, you’re trying to bring on a collaborator!

Are you allergic to anything that smacks of micromanagement, or do you crave the security of structure? Would you prefer regular check-ins, or does the very idea of constant progress updates make you feel stifled?

There’s no right or wrong way to structure an editorial relationship. You just have to be okay with having someone keep you accountable — and vice versa. The key is to be transparent about the kind of work style that brings out the best in you. That way, you’ll be able to home in on editors who are on the same page.

4. Consider the editor’s body of work…

By now, you’ve done enough soul-searching to figure out what you want in an editor. It’s finally time to dive in and start looking at some potential editorial matches.

This is the fun part, but it can be a little overwhelming. When you’re scrolling through a list of editors’ profiles, everyone can look intimidatingly credentialed and cool. This one’s logged 15 years at a top press, and that one has a PhD from Harvard. This other one edited your favorite viral memoir.

Don’t get too distracted by all the shiny accolades. They can be strong indicators of an editor’s talent and experience, but what’s most important is their body of work. In fact, the editor with the right experience, attitude, and rates for your book might not have an awe-inspiring profile at all.

In the end, a shelf-full of NYT bestsellers in another subgenre isn’t as good as a solid list of titles similar to yours. Also, look out for less eye-catching qualities like strong reviews and a solid response rate — and always keep your budget in mind!

5. But take note of your first impressions.

Ideally, you want an editor who knows your niche inside and out. But in a working relationship as close as this one, credentials aren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. Having strong professional chemistry can be just as important. You’ll need to be on the same page when it comes to work pace and communication.

Of course, first impressions can’t always be trusted. But they can tell you a lot about how you’re likely to get on with an editor. Does their humor strike you as confusing or abrasive? If so, they might not be the best fit for you, even if they’ve published some of your favorite titles. Do you find their bluntness refreshing or deflating? Do you feel that you can be honest with them, and do you trust their honesty in turn?

A nonfiction editor may offer a free sample edit.
Many nonfiction editors, such as Maggie Lyons, offer free sample edits to prospective clients.

6. See if you can get a sample edit.

Not all nonfiction editors are willing to offer a free sample edit, but many do — including several on the Reedsy marketplace (as seen above). If you can take advantage of this, definitely do! There’s no substitute for getting an actual taste of an editor’s work-style before you sign them on.

The terms of a sample edit vary from editor to editor. But in general, you can expect them to go over a small — maybe 15-20 page — excerpt from your project.

You’ll get a sense of what they tend to focus on, and how well they adapt to your voice. On the flip side, they’ll also gain some insight into the current state of your manuscript. That way, they can give you an accurate quote for a full edit.

7. Don’t rush the process!

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find the right editor in the first few days of looking. It may take several rounds of back-and-forth, maybe even multiple sample edits, before you find the right person for your manuscript But in the end, you'll get someone who understands your project and your hopes for it — who understands you.

Once you do find your perfect nonfiction editor, it’ll be more than worth the wait. You’ll see your project growing in ways you never even imagined, and once it finally lands on the shelves, it will be everything you dreamed and more.

Have you found your editorial match, or are you still searching for the one? Let us know what you look(ed) for in an editor in the comments below!