How to Make a Living As a Freelance Book Editor

College graduates have a rough time in acim job market. If you’re job hunting and no one responded to the first 300 resumes 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 you need 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

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

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. (I have to say that after seventeen 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.)

5. 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.

6. 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

1. 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.

2. No health benefits: Yep, you’re on your own here. If you can’t afford standard medical insurance, try to stay healthy and take advantage of low- or no-cost state or federal insurance programs, clinics, and medical services based on income.

3. A feast-or-famine work flow: This is why it’s good to have more than one regular publisher or at least several 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 Master Card will tide you over during slack periods or when paychecks arrive late.

4. 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.

5. 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 bright side, you can deduct most of your business expenses on a Schedule C, thus reducing the net income that you’ll pay federal taxes on.

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