March 20, 2017

What's More Cost-effective—a Per-word Rate or an Hourly Rate? Let's Talk Numbers:

Writers often claim, whether exaggerating or not, that they are terrible with numbers. I've definitely seen this come into play when writers are trying to choose an editor while also managing a budget for their manuscript. Many questions about the cost of editing ultimately revolve around math: What's a fair rate? Should your editor charge per word or per hour? Which one ends up being less expensive? So I'm going to do some math for you! Who else is excited?

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to stick to costs for an 80,000-word manuscript, which is a pretty average word count for full-length novels.

Let's start with per-word rates. I've seen rates ranging from 1/2 a cent ($0.005) to 6 cents ($0.06). The lower range tends to be for proofreading, and the upper range tends to be for developmental editing. Copy editing is muddled in the middle—"muddled" because some editors will charge 2–3 cents/word for copy editing, but others will charge 3 cents/word for developmental editing. If someone offers developmental editing at a rate of 1–2 cents/word, they're probably either inexperienced, and therefore charging a lower rate, or underqualified and out to make a quick buck. Caveat emptor. The third possibility is that the hypothetical editor also did this math and saw how mercenary it is to charge 5–6 cents/word. Keep reading to understand why!

So far, that's just rates. Are we ready to get into some actual math?

If an editor charges 6 cents/word (the highest per-word rate I've seen) for one round of developmental editing for an 80,000-word manuscript, that comes out to a whopping $4,800. For one round of editing! It's great if your writing budget would let you afford that, but in my personal and professional opinion, that is simply unreasonable.

If an editor charges a more moderate 4 cents/word for the same service on the same manuscript, the total comes to $3,200

If an editor dips to the lower end of per-word rates for developmental editing at 3 cents/word, the total becomes $2,400.

But how does that compare to an hourly rate? For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to go with Touchstone Editing's hourly rate for developmental editing: $55/hour. An 80,000-word manuscript would, on average, take me (every editor works at a different pace) between 20 and 30 hours, and this actually includes a full editorial letter as well. Let's assume the developmental edit of our example manuscript takes 30 hours. At $55 an hour, that brings the total cost for one round of editing to $1,650. 

Let's compare:
  • A lower-end per-word rate of 3 cents/word means a total cost of $2,400 per round 
  • An hourly rate assuming 30 hours, with a rate of $55/hour, means a total cost of $1,650—a savings of $750
And don't forget, that's the higher number of hours I would expect one developmental editing round to take.


The thing is, the work always takes the same amount of time, whether you are charged per word or per hour. 
  • If I spent 30 hours but charged $2,400 (3 cents/word), that comes out to an hourly rate of $80. 
  • If the editing round only took 20 hours? The per-word rate would equal an hourly rate of $120!
  • If an editor charged 6 cents/word and spent those same 20–30 hours? The equivalent hourly rate becomes $160–$240!
      If your manuscript isn't a complete disaster, you should basically never be paying 6 cents/word for one round of editing. Save that money for other costs, whether other editing rounds, cover design, formatting, or marketing.

All of that might seem complicated, but the table below offers an easy way to compare costs at different rates:

Cost comparison for one round of developmental editing for an 80,000-word manuscript


$0.03/word$0.04/word$0.05/word$0.06/word$55/hour
20 hours
$55/hour
30 hours
Total cost:$2,400$3,200$4,000$4,800$1100$1,650
Hourly equivalent
(20hrs)
$120/hr$160/hr$200/hr$240/hr$55/hr$55/hr
Hourly equivalent
(30hrs)
$80/hr$106.67/hr$133.33/hr$160/hr$55/hr$55/hr


Of course, as I mentioned, not every editor works at the same pace, and that's a big part of the equation. As you can see above, however, the low or "less-experienced" developmental editing rate of 3 cents/word would still be equivalent to a pretty high hourly rate. In fact, you'd have to spend over 40 hours on one round of editing to come even close to a similar equivalent hourly rate, even at just 3 cents/word.

It is definitely easier to do the math with a per-word rate, since you know the total cost up front and that the total won't change. This can feel more stable. And how can you know how much editing would ultimately cost if you're charged an hourly rate? Simple: ask for an estimate. Any legitimate editor should be able to provide you an estimate that you can then use to compare to a per-word rate and make an informed decision. And experienced editors will almost always* stay safely within their estimate.
    *Exceptions do happen, depending on the state of the manuscript, in which case your editor should reach out and discuss options.

So, what if you're afraid your manuscript is that exceptional huge mess that will take 6 times longer than normal, pushing your hourly rate total into the stratosphere? In such a situation, an experienced and ethical editor who's interested in helping you (as opposed to taking advantage of you) would likely recommend starting with an editorial letter. Whether they still charge per hour or offer editorial letters at a flat rate (like Touchstone does), this would be the more cost-effective option for a manuscript that's in dire straits.

Bottom line: an hourly rate of $40–$60, which is fairly standard, may seem high at first glance. But when you compare it to standard per-word rates, especially when working with a qualified and efficient editor, that hourly rate turns out to be quite a bargain!

The explanation and table above should hopefully help you understand why the Touchstone editors feel charging an hourly rate is ultimately more fair for our writers. But if, after reading all of this, you'd prefer to pay a per-word rate, just let us know. We certainly wouldn't mind. 😉



What about proofreading?


Quickly, let's also do the math for proofreading. Because this is the final polish, proofreading is a much faster process than editing, so you'll notice a lower total amount of hours necessary. This time, we'll stick with just a quick table, but if you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments!


Cost comparison for proofreading for an 80,000-word manuscript


$0.005/word$0.01/word$35/hour
8 hours
$35/hour
10 hours
$35/hour
12 hours
Total cost:$400$800$280$350$420
Hourly Equivalent
8 hours
$50/hour$100/hour$35/hr$35/hr$35/hr
Hourly Equivalent
10 hours
$40/hour$80/hour$35/hr$35/hr$35/hr
Hourly Equivalent
12 hours
$33.33/hour$66.67/hour$35/hr$35/hr$35/hr

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