Death Of the Free Sample Edit

Shalamar’s purpose is to serve as an advocate to new writers, and our newest project to that end will be this: Killing the free sample edit.

There is a prominent myth in the publishing world, especially among aspiring self-published authors, that editors offer free sample edits to give potential clients a sense of their editing style. There’s also a prominent myth among aspiring editors that offering free sample edits allows potential clients to decide whether an editor is right for them.

Let’s look at why both of those myths are false.

Here’s the first truth: Editors do not offer free sample edits. At least, professional editors don’t. The idea of the free sample edit was born from, or at least propagated by, the community of aspiring editors who are largely untrained in the field and are forced to price themselves lower in order to be competitive. You find these editors on discussion boards like Goodreads and Craigslist, and they charge around $100, but never more than $250, for a full manuscript edit.

The vast majority of them are not skilled enough to actually edit manuscripts. Here is another harsh truth: Being an avid reader does not make you a good editor. A professional editor is trained in at least a few of the editing styles (Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, etc), knows how to develop style sheets, can explain the differences among the different types of editing, and understands how to apply style guides without damaging each author’s unique voice.

There is definitely a market for low-priced editors, since many self-publishing writers can’t afford to pay the standard fees of professional editors. Shalamar’s rates are aimed at these writers, and we are the lowest-priced professional editors around (unless you count grammar-checking software). And to be sure, there are skilled, trained editors operating in that lower rate space, usually because they are freelancers and have to compete with amateur editors, and because they rely on the editing revenue for part or all of their income. This is where Shalamar’s editing services were born, and where we earned many of our repeat clients, who still come to us to this day, even with our raised rates.

But here’s the thing: Editing a manuscript is a time- and resource-intensive process. It is not simply reading a book and pointing out the mistakes. Editors have to make sense of the structure and the grammar in the context of each manuscript. Language and tone are important to each author and to each story; you would not edit a high fantasy novel the same way that you would edit a romance story.

This takes days, if not weeks. If it takes an editor one week to edit a manuscript, at a forty-hour workweek, then an editor who charges $250 for her efforts is making $6.25 an hour. And one who charges $100 for that work is making $2.50 an hour. That’s even less than the standard hourly wage of restaurant waitstaff ($3.30/hour). And it’s part of the reason for Shalamar’s rate increase earlier this year.

Editors, please do not charge writers less than you are worth. Doing so creates a loss of profit for you; those forty hours could have been spent making more money in a different way, or at least doing something of value, like looking after family or just taking care of yourself. Also, your lowered pricing lowers the standard for all editors on your level, meaning that if you’re making $2.50 and operating at a loss, then everyone forced to compete in your space is operating at a loss as well.

And it isn’t even worth it. This brings us to the second myth: The writers that you’re trying to court with your low rates and your free sample edits have little to no interest in working with you. Indeed, there are honest writers who do use the sample edit to decide which editor they would prefer. But, much like the professional-grade editor who charges only $100 for quality services, the writer who genuinely uses the sample edit as a tool of fair judgement is the exception, not the rule. Our experience, and that of the editors around us, is that there are more scammers who go to different editors and ask for free sample edits for different chapters, and they get their stories edited that way. It’s an amusing situation, because even professional editors have slightly different styles and follow different guides and make different decisions. This means that writers who try to take advantage of this system end up less with a coherent, smooth reading experience and more of a patchwork quilt.

As for the writers who genuinely use sample edits to find the right editor: One edit of a few chapters will not give you a clear sense of any editor’s style. As mentioned before, editors have to work within the full span of the story. What makes sense at the beginning of the story does not always end up working throughout; for example, the editor might realize halfway through that a character is speaking oddly because he has a plot-relevant speech impediment, and then the editor has to go back to the beginning and un-correct the writer’s attempts at using lisps. So an editor who corrects the lisps in a sample edit might anger you (the writer), but it was simply because they weren't working from a full understanding of the story. So why would you judge an editor after arming them with only a few chapters of what they need to know?

This may seem like a tall ask. We’ve stated that writers should not ask for free sample edits, that writers should not expect editors to work for free or less than their worth, and that editors should charge higher rates and risk not finding clients at that pay level. Editors, be assured that clients do exist in the high hundreds and even the thousands. Indeed, we have found that writers who invest more money in their manuscripts are far easier to work with. They are less demanding, less quick to anger or take offense at being corrected, and far more polite and considerate.

By the way, if the membership fee is within your reach, we highly recommend joining the Editorial Freelancers Association. They have a strong community and lots of resources for improving your techniques and finding clients.

But what about writers who simply can’t afford to pay hundreds and thousands? There will always be services priced somewhat lower for these writers, by Shalamar and other service providers with goals similar to ours. Shalamar has a team of editors, not just one freelancer; we can take on multiple jobs at once and generate more revenue than independent editors can. Writers can always reach out to us and make payment arrangements as well (but, writers, please don’t ever ask an editor to work for a percentage of your potential future royalties. That’s just cruel).

Also, please consider your reasons for writing. Writing is never a get-rich-quick solution. You cannot create an ebook in a few months and expect to post it online and make lots of sales. All writers must expect to spend thousands of dollars on their books, not only for editing but for printing, ebook formatting, cover design, and most definitely marketing. Without a strong marketing plan, you will not sell books.

So if you can’t afford to pay an editor or cover other publishing costs (and many of Shalamar’s team members and founders have been in that position), you will benefit greatly by taking things slow. Save up your money, or even try crowdfunding to get yourself financial support for your project; you can spend that time polishing your manuscript. There is never a reason to rush your publishing journey. This is an industry that is slow to adapt and slow to react. Trends don’t change and topics don’t become irrelevant as quickly as you think they do.

And for the writers who use free sample edits to find good editors: There are other ways to discern whether a particular editor is right for your project. The easiest and most straightforward is to look at the editor’s website. Even if the editor didn’t write their own website copy, they will have exercised some control over the grammatical correctness of it. If you see grammar errors, then you can be sure that they are not well trained and would not give your project the attention it deserves. Other signs of poor editing quality are ugly and low-quality images and a confusing website layout. These also display a lacking attention to detail. If the editor doesn’t have a website at all, not even a free Wix or Weebly site, then run in the opposite direction.

You can also ask an editor for their resume, and some editors provide lists of past projects that they’ve worked on, if the projects are well-known. If the editor is also a writer, looking at a bit of their writing will give you a sense of their priorities as well.

In publishing, just like in any other industry, you will get much farther by investing time, resources, and money in your project. You’ll impress more people and get a much better return on your investment. If you don’t have the money yet, take it slow and look for alternate sources of funding. If you’re an editor, don’t settle for less than you’re worth, and don’t waste your time and effort on free sample edits that don’t serve their intended purpose anyway. And if you’re a writer, don’t ask an editor to give you a free sample edit. It’s demeaning to them and to you, and it won’t even help you in the long run.

So to rephrase an old saying from a great philosopher:

This is death of the free sample edit. Moment of silence.