7 Things I’ve Learned about Being a Book Editor

Jan.11, 2024

As a freelance book editor, I’ve had a lot of “a ha” moments over the past year. If you’re a fellow editor or entrepreneur, hopefully some of my a-ha’s might resonate with your early days in the biz.

1. Asking clients for money is still a bit weird.

Before entering the business-owning world I taught grade 5, and the only time I asked adults for money was when I planned a field trip to the space and science centre, or the local ski hill. Now part of my gig is putting a value on the editing and writing services I personally provide, setting a price, and baring my soul for all to see. Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

It's a declaration of what I think my services are worth (and what people are willing to pay for those services). And even though it still feels a bit weird and uncomfortable, it is getting easier. I get some ‘no’ replies, but I also get a lot of ‘yes’ replies too. Like Oprah says, “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for” and who doesn’t love a good Oprah quote?

One of my editing instructors from my days at Simon Fraser University, Heidi Turner, always has gold-nugget posts about setting boundaries, asking for what you’re worth, and general freelance editing things. 

2. The manuscripts I’ve read have broadened my lens.

This is one of the reasons I got into the business of editing books—each project is unique (and personally, the more unusual the topic, the better for me). So I get to learn something new, and dive into a topic that I never would have chosen off the bookshelves otherwise. I get to take a deep dive into the author’s perspective and gain insight. 

Seriously, the manuscripts I get to work on are inspirational. Motivational. And sometimes, they’re heart-wrenching or downright terrifying. Readers will catch all the feels when they buy the book, but I’m the lucky one who gets to know the author and their manuscript on a deeper level.

3. It takes a lot of time and effort to build a successful business.

When you’re busy and the work is rolling in, it’s tough to imagine things getting slow. And the work drying up. Then drying up some more. And just when the anxiety peaks and you think you might have to apply for that Job You Said You’d Never Go Back To, a new project comes your way. Then another one, and you feel like you can breathe a big sigh of financial relief.Freelancing can be a barreling roller coaster (which is exactly what they warned me about in Book Editing School), but until you’re living it, you just don’t know. And here’s where the stick-with-it-ness comes into play. If you enjoy what you do, and it lights you up, like it lights me up, then you dig a little deeper and push onward. Onward.

4. Marketing is half of the job.

Consider this a “part 2” to my previous point—that it takes a lot of time and effort to build a successful business. Marketing and networking (even when you’re busy) keep projects coming your way a bit more regularly. We try to hang out in the rooms where our target audience might be, shaking hands, and hopefully getting potential clients to “know, like, and trust” us. I’ve found that it's also about keeping your audience in mind, and who that one person is. Is it 52-year-old Cindy who has two kids, a golden Lab, a white Toyota 4Runner, and lives within a 10-minute walk from your shop? I’ve discovered that the more specific the description you can formulate, the better your understanding of who you’re selling to, and who will most likely buy. Keeping our websites updated also helps, along with new testimonials and a transparent description of what exactly you can offer clients.

5. Style sheets are worth every minute spent creating them.  

Now granted, I have a pretty solid template that I use for my copy editing projects, so that saves me time. But no matter how long a style sheet takes me to create, it’s worth it. It highlights my professional qualities as an editor, and ensures that my work is consistent. No need to wonder how the CMOS handles ellipses

(spaced like this . . . or closed tight like…this). I looked it up and noted it on the style sheet. Boom. Case closed.

Then, when it’s time to submit my work to the client, I send the style sheet too. The client is impressed with the extra care I’ve taken to ensure consistency within the document, and everybody wins.

6. It may take longer than I thought to fund my glamorous remote work trips.

Lounging in a hammock in Nicaragua watching the sun set, sipping a cocktail… I thought the jet-set freelancer life was right around the corner. Alas, building a foundation for my editing business will take more time than I thought. These trips will happen! It just likely means another year or two of saving before spending on those big-ticket trips.

7. Chat GPT is not the Dark Lord for editors, after all.

I went to an Editors Canada webinar hosted by Perrin Lindelauf called “Editing with Chat GPT: A Practical Standpoint” and wow, what an eye-opener it was. Here are a few pointers from Perrin on how to make Chat GPT to work for you:

  • Use prompt engineering and context to train GPT to fine-tune its response for you. (For example, you can tell GPT: “You are an editor, looking for grammar and punctuation errors in sentences, misused words, and poor structure in articles.”)
  • In any piece of writing, it can detect changes in style, voice, or tone.
  • It can simplify sentences or paragraphs for you, without changing the meaning.

I think it’s doubtful Chat GPT will be replacing editors anytime soon, but the landscape is changing quickly, there’s no doubt. As Perrin suggests, the day when Chat GPT is doing the majority of copy editing and proofreading work may not be far away. However, structural and stylistic editing will remain in editors’ capable hands.