A sample edit is a short edit a freelance editorial professional might do before taking you on as a client. You can usually request one so you can get an idea of how the editor works before you hire them. Or the editor might decide to do one to calculate a fee based on how long it takes them to edit a small segment of your work. It can allow you to see if an editor will be a good fit for you – and vice versa! But there are some misconceptions around sample edits, particularly about whether you should pay for them, that I’d like to address.
Are sample edits free?
The short answer to this is: it depends. Some authors are under the impression that all freelance editors should offer a free sample edit, and if they don’t, they’re a scammer or are taking advantage. This isn’t true. Lots of freelance editors do indeed offer free samples. But there are also plenty of legitimate and skilled editors who charge for it.
I’m not sure where this misconception that samples should be free comes from. It might be because it’s common knowledge that literary agents should never charge reading fees, and if they do, well – they’re sketchy and should be avoided. The same goes for vanity publishers.
But editorial freelancers are different. We’re individuals with small businesses, and because of that, there are no hard and fast rules. We all run our businesses in different ways. I personally charge for samples. I’ll get into the reasoning behind why some editors charge for these next.
Why would an editor charge for a sample edit?
There are lots of reasons to unpack here. The most common reasons I’ve seen are:
- The editor is in high demand and has to fit sample edits around existing client work. If an editor is in demand, and doesn’t have a lot of time outside of their existing clients, they may choose to charge. If they spend time doing free work, that’s time taken away from their contracted clients.
- Schedule. This is related to the previous point. If an editor is in demand, they likely don’t have a lot of free time and don’t want to spend that on pro-bono work.
- Some authors have been known to get “frankenedits”. A frankenedit is named after Frankenstein’s monster. Why? Well, what an author will do is send lots of samples to dozens of freelance editors, from different sections of their work. They’ll get a free sample for each section. They do this in the hopes that they can get a complete, free edit if they contact enough editors. It’s quite a common occurrence in the editorial community, unfortunately. But word gets around; like agents, freelance editors talk to each other. We usually get to know if a certain writer is contacting dozens of us for freebies, and we warn each other. But some editors prefer to charge for samples to weed this practice out. Frankenedits are morally wrong, and unfair, taking advantage of the editor’s time and energy.
- The editor is a full-time freelancer. If an editor has another full-time job, and only edits for clients in their spare time, they might feel more comfortable providing free samples, since they have a secure income stream already. But lots of editors are full-time freelancers/business owners, and may choose to charge for samples for this reason. Again, not everyone does things this way – it’s really a case of YMMV!
Why would a sample edit be free?
On the other side of the coin, there are reasons an editor might choose to do a free sample edit. As I mentioned above, they may have another job that makes them feel secure enough to do a bit of free work. Other reasons might be:
- To calculate a fuller fee, which may end up including enough to cover a sample. Some editors do a free sample because, if they end up working with the client, it’s likely the full fee would be enough to cover a short sample anyway. But this may not always work, particularly if the author decides not to go ahead with the booking.
- They have a high conversion rate. If the editor knows their free samples usually lead to paid work and new clients, it may be worth it for them to take the time to do them.
- They’re new to the field and need experience. Newer editors may feel more comfortable doing free samples to demonstrate their work if they’re still building a client list. It could be considered a marketing task to them, and so worth spending time on for free.
There’s no right or wrong!
I want to finish up by saying there’s no right or wrong way of doing this. Editors who charge for samples are still legitimate. So are editors who offer free samples. I think the fact that there are more editors offering free samples has led to this idea that editors should do them for free. But the fact is, we all run our businesses differently, and no editor should be discredited for choosing a different business model.
As an author, go with what suits you! If you don’t feel comfortable paying for a sample, seek out an editor who offers a free one. If you don’t mind paying a small fee to find out if someone’s a good fit, then do that. It’s worth checking an editor’s website to see if they have any information on whether they do paid or free samples. If the info isn’t there, just email and ask what their policy is before you decide.