I get a lot of questions from people asking how they can become a book editor or proofreader. These questions are often about how to get started, and how to find work. It can be difficult to know where to begin, and the amount of information out there is overwhelming to say the least! I thought I’d write this blog post to help anyone who is looking to set up their own editorial business, taking on authors and publishing companies as clients.
Disclaimer: This post is based heavily on my own experiences and focuses on being a self-employed editor and starting an editorial business. No two people – and no two business owners – are the same. What worked for me might not work for you. It’s difficult to give specific advice because your circumstances will be unique to you. Adapt this advice if you need to, and if something doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to try something new.
I want to become a book editor! Where do I start? What qualifications do I need? How do I get experience? How do I find clients?
I’ll cover all these questions as best I can. Let’s go!
Learn to edit – Training and qualifications
If you want to become a book editor, it goes without saying that you’ll need to learn how to do the job properly. My own “training” if you like started with my degree in English and Creative Writing, and my years of experience reading and writing fiction. That gave me a solid foundation for working as an editor, which I built upon with other editing courses.
But you don’t need a degree in those subjects. Plenty of freelance editors have different degrees or no degree at all. The most important thing is that you get some form of editorial training so you know what you’re doing. It’s no good hanging up your shingle as an editor if you don’t know how to edit, because that can lead to a bad reputation and a lot of unhappy clients.
Training can come in many forms. There are widely respected courses available that you can do. The two providers I recommend are:
I’ve done courses with both of these institutions, and they are excellent and well-regarded by publishers in the UK. If you want to work with publishing houses directly you will need courses like this to show them that you know your stuff. Other course and training providers include:
- ACES: The Society for Editing (international)
- Editors Canada
- The Editorial Freelancers Association (US)
- Sophie Playle’s developmental editing theory and developmental editing in practice
When choosing your training courses, think carefully about the type of editing you want to do, and also your preferred specialisms. Do you just want to proofread, or do you want to offer developmental editing? Do you want to be a copyeditor? Would you like to work on fiction? Courses tend to be focused on one area of editing (such as Sophie Playle’s developmental editing courses for fiction). Choose your courses mindfully. There will be room to expand your offerings later if you want to.
If you can get on-the-job training in some way, this can be a big help. For example, when I was at university, I worked for the student newspaper and learnt about style guides. When I graduated, I took on a job proofreading IT content and then textbooks, and I was trained by senior editors. This isn’t an option for everyone, though, and these job opportunities are hard to come by. This is where mentoring schemes, like the one offered by the CIEP, can come in – although do be aware that most of these schemes cost money.
There are also ways that you can learn by yourself. Reference books will be essential to you and you’ll use them throughout your career. Start by learning the basics of some styles guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style for US English, or New Hart’s Rules for UK English. Read books about being a good editor. If you want to copyedit, I recommend Butcher’s Copyediting. If you’re interested in working with fiction, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King is a must-have.
Read – a lot
It goes without saying that if you want to become a book editor, you need to read. If you want to edit and work with books all day, but you don’t read, then I’d be wondering why!
It’s especially important to read widely in the genres and/or age categories you want to edit. This is how you get to know the conventions of that genre. Read as much as you can get your hands on!
If you want to do story editing or development, read books as if you were studying them. Pick apart the story and the author’s choices. What works about the book and what doesn’t? Why do you think the author did something a certain way? What could be improved? What are the different plot beats and are they satisfying?
Aside from reading fiction, read books about the craft of writing. Read books on publishing, editing and running a small business. You’ll learn so much from craft books to help you with your editing. Knowing the ins and outs of publishing will help you better advise your clients. And learning about running a business can only bring you growth and improvement as an independent editor.
This is where the catch-22 comes in: people want editors with experience, especially publishers, but how do you get that experience in the first place? How do you get someone to take a chance on you when you’re just starting out? How do you secure those elusive editing jobs, and keep them coming in?
It’s a difficult one to answer, because the truth is, you’ll probably have to do a little pro-bono work, or work for your less-than-ideal rate, to begin with. I’m aware that this is not an option for everyone, but pro-bono work or volunteer work can be a good starting point if you can afford to do it.
If you want to work with fiction, you can get your feet wet by offering to beta read or critique for authors in exchange for testimonials. Join writing critique groups or online workshops to practice giving feedback to authors.
Some smaller publishers or presses may be more willing to take a chance on newer freelancers as well, particularly if they are qualified. If you’ve got editorial qualifications, any publisher is more likely to give you a chance.
Marketing is how you will find work, and what will help you keep the jobs coming in, so I’ll go into that next.
Finding clients and marketing yourself
It’s crucial as a small business or freelancer to dedicate time to marketing yourself. This is how you’ll make yourself visible to clients. It’s often the thing that people struggle with the most, though, as there are so many methods, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
I suggest keeping a separate Word document to track your marketing efforts and how well each approach works for you. That way, you’ll know where to focus your time. For example, I decided to drop websites like Fiverr early on because they weren’t sustainable for me, but I found I had a lot of success joining editorial organisations.
Keep your eye on publishing job boards and other job boards for freelance opportunities (this is how I found one of my first clients):
- The Bookseller freelance jobs
- Publishers Lunch Job Board
- Independent Publishers Guild vacancies board
- Indeed (try typing in “freelance editor” or “freelance proofreader”)
Lots of these job boards advertise full-time positions, but you may occasionally come across a freelance role, so they’re worth a look.
If you’re a member of professional editorial organisations, they will have job opportunities in some capacity as well. For example, the CIEP has an IM Available list for intermediate members to offer their services for available jobs, and an “Announce” email list for job opportunities for professional members.
Content marketing can be useful, although it takes time and a lot of effort. It means creating resources that will help your ideal client: blog posts, podcasts, videos, ebooks and downloadable resources. This isn’t a necessity, but can help clients find you and your website, and it shows that you know what you’re talking about and can help them.
If you want to work with publishers, contacting them directly (cold-calling or cold-emailing) is more worthwhile, as they’re highly unlikely to find you by themselves (although this does happen from time to time). Call them up and ask for the person who manages freelancers, or send them an email asking about potentially being added to their freelance list . Offer to take an “editorial test” to demonstrate your skills, as publishers commonly test their freelancers before working with them.
Networking is a crucial part of being a successful independent editor. And the good news is, you can network just as well online as you can in real life. But first, let’s talk about the real world.
Attending publishing and book events can not only help you learn about the industry, but you never know who you’ll meet. I attended a writing conference once and met a production editor there. I contacted her afterwards about freelance work, and that publishing house is now one of my regular clients. These events can also help you learn more about the industry so you’re better equipped to do good work. There are plenty of virtual events if going in-person isn’t an option.
I also recommend getting to know other editors. Join editorial organisations and get to know your colleagues. One thing I’ve learnt is that editors are kind and generous people. If they have a full schedule, they will often share opportunities with others on message boards and forums. (Just don’t go around asking people for their client list or leads – that’s rude!) Here are some places you can get to know other editors:
- Business + Professional Development for Editors (Facebook group)
- EAE Backroom (Facebook group)
- Fiction Editors of Earth (Facebook group)
- EAE Ad Space (Facebook group advertising opportunities for editors)
- Editors’ Association of Earth (Facebook group)
- Editorial organisations such as the CIEP
Networking often leads to word-of-mouth referrals which is how a lot of editors get the bulk of their work. You’ll find that if you network, these will come your way naturally.
This is tied into my networking tip . Get on social media. You’ll be largely working online as a book editor, and that means tapping into the writing and editing communities so people know who you are and what you do.
Twitter is a great place for keeping up with the publishing industry and the writing community, in my opinion. Follow publishing houses and editors and get involved in hashtag discussions such as #amwriting and #amediting. Follow editing organisations and other book editors.
I don’t use LinkedIn much myself, but I’ve heard others have had success there, so it might be worth a go. You can join groups relevant to your interests and connect with other editors.
There is no quick route or fast-track if you want to become a book editor. It’s going to take time and work – and you have to be prepared to put the work in.
This isn’t true for everyone, but some people set up shop and immediately panic that they don’t have enough clients. Don’t panic! This is normal when you start. It’s why a lot of people start out by doing it on the side, before transitioning to full-time.
Most of your work in the early days will be in honing your skills as best you can, and in making yourself known.
There will be luck involved – but also hard work. Sadly, some things will just come down to luck. I was lucky to secure a role proofreading IT content and textbooks which gave me a leg-up before I switched to fiction and creative non-fiction. But the rest? Hard work. Effort. Perseverance. Trial and error. As I mentioned above, there’s no fast route here. You’ll have to work hard for quite a while before your efforts start to pay off. That can be discouraging, but don’t give up.
Learn the business skills you need.
Don’t forget that as a book editor you will be responsible for your own taxes, expenses and invoicing. This is a huge topic to cover so I won’t get into it too much here, but you’ll need to do your research on this before you start accepting clients and getting paid. If you’re in the UK you can visit the HMRC website for advice on setting yourself up.
Do good work and be good to your clients.
If you do good work, people will remember you – and they’ll tell other people about you (remember what we said about word-of-mouth)! If you’re nice and professional, even better. When I say “be good to your clients”, I don’t mean be a doormat: you don’t have to start offering extras for free or answering emails at 2am. Just be kind, friendly, and professional. For authors especially, it’s scary sending their work out into the world, so your kindness will be appreciated!
And that’s all my advice on how to become a book editor! It’s a lot to take in, and I’m sure there are things I haven’t covered here. This topic could fill a book in itself, and as I said, there are no clear-cut answers. But what you can do is use this advice as a starting point to plan out your route. With some hard work and perseverance, you’ll be well on your way.