Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Interview with Editor Susan Tunis

I get a lot of email from writers asking me to recommend an editor. Here's one I do. Years back, Susan read through my unpubbed novel Origin and gave me some great tips. She's now taking on freelance editing work.

Joe: How did you get started editing?

Susan: Back in the mid-nineties, a publisher acquaintance of mine offered me a job editing his magazine.  It was a successful four-color glossy sold on newsstands around the world, and I had no relevant experience.  It also happened to be April 1st and I thought he was joking.  He wasn't.  On my first day he handed me a reference book on copyediting and I learned on the job.  I later asked him why he had hired me and he said, “I thought you had the right qualities to do the job.”  He had good instincts and it changed my life.

After leaving Discover Diving magazine, I spent a few years freelancing and working as a columnist for other dive, travel, and in-flight magazines.  Subsequently, I worked as an editor in the film and television industry and in higher education.  On the side, I began doing freelance work with novelists as fiction was always my first love.

I’m an avid reader; I read 148 books last year.  I’m a successful book reviewer, book blogger, and book group leader.  I eat, sleep, and breathe literature.  I have no interest in writing a novel of my own, but nothing gives me more satisfaction than helping an author strengthen and refine his or her work.  Sometimes a little distance is required, and I can provide that.  Over the years I’ve worked with writers you’ve never heard of, writers you haven’t heard of yet, and a few you’ve probably read yourself.  Among them are James Rollins, Christopher Moore, Elle Lothlorien, Matt Richtel, Boyd Morrison, Lissa Price, and a guy named J.A. Konrath.

Joe: What services do you offer?

Susan: I offer full editorial services from basic proofreading to project development and substantive editorial feedback.

Joe: What do you charge?

Susan: I charge between $25 and $40 an hour, depending on the work required for a job and, truthfully, the means of the client.  I’ll give you an estimate of how many hours I expect the work to take, and am perfectly willing to put a cap on fees.

Joe: Do you accept all clients?

Susan: I won’t take on a client if I don’t believe I can help them.  It’s not one size fits all, and not every editor is the right fit for every project.  Before starting, I’d like to see three chapters of your work in progress (or more if the chapters are very short) and a synopsis of the project.

Joe: What's your expected turnaround time for finishing an edit?

Susan: Turnaround time depends on the needs of the client and my current workload and commitments.  Generally, some time between two days and two weeks.  If I’m not able to turn you around within two weeks, I’ll let you know before accepting your project.

Joe: What is your editing process?

Susan: If you have a completed MS, I’ll do an initial read taking notes on things like structure, plot, prose, and character.  Additionally, I’ll clean up the MS with regard to grammar, typos, and consistency as needed.  Once done, I’ll send you a marked hard copy along with detailed written notes.  In addition, I’ll want to discuss the notes in greater detail on the phone or face-to-face.  Once that initial feedback is offered, I’ll generally stay involved as changes are explored.

When an author has a work in progress, the collaboration tends to be more interactive and improvisational.  Basically, it depends on the writer and the project how we work together.

Joe: How can writers get in touch with you?

Susan: I may be reached at stuniseditorial(at)gmail(dot)com.


bettye griffin said...

I already work with an editor, but I was kind of surprised to hear that the client's financial situation plays a role in the price they are charged. It's noble, yes, but is it really fair to charge different people different rates? Then again, as a minority, maybe I'm having difficulty wrapping my brain around well-meaning folks like yourself making an effort to cut the less well-heeled a break and those underhanded folks who use ethnic and gender criteria to charge people more--car dealers, for instance.

At any rate, I wish you continued success! With the indie publishing explosion, you'll probably get more work than you can handle.

Anonymous said...

I recommend Susan very highly. You will see in my acknowledgments that I'm thankful to have her insight on my books. She's excellent at pointing out plot holes, typos, lapses in consistency, confusing action, and unbelievable character choices, all of which are very difficult for a writer to see in his or her own work. Susan is also willing to tell you like it is, which is very important for authors who may be getting only the good news from their friends and family. I believe she has made each of my novels much stronger than they otherwise would have been. Thanks, Susan!

Anonymous said...

For some reason Blogger did not post my display name in the previous comment. The whole-hearted recommendation is from Boyd Morrison.

J.P. Kurzitza said...

I really admire editors. Never want to be one, but really respect them. Truth be told, I can't stand reading, which makes me a bit of an anomaly being an author. So if I can find someone to take on the tedious tasks of reading, rereading, proofing... ugh... I can't even write about it.

Thanks, Joe, I'll check her out.

David Gaughran said...

I think many indies don't invest enough in editing. As Seth Godin says, it's far cheaper to design marketing into the product than to advertise it afterwards. Some indies will skimp on editing and covers, then waste money on ad spots, and can't understand why their book isn't selling despite that promotional push.

I think it's far more prudent to take that cash and spend it on, say, a good editor - especially when you are starting out.

Susan Tunis said...

Hey Joe,

Thanks for this!

@Bettye, Here's the simple truth... If you're at the top of the bestseller list or you're Random House, I have no problem whatsoever charging you my very reasonable top fee. On the other hand, if you're an unpublished writer who's never made a dime on your craft, I might be able to cut you some slack. That's all.

@Boyd, Thanks for the kind words!

@J.P., Thank you also for the kind words. I have to admit I'm surprised by your attitude towards reading, LOL. But you're hardly alone; you're just more honest about it. Get in touch anytime.

@David, I couldn't agree more!

Jim Thomsen said...

Hi, Susan.

This is a heartening post. I'm in the same business as you, though I have few brand-name clients. I started out a year ago as strictly a Chicago Manual-based copy editor and proofreader, and have since branched into story editing as I've attracted a steady clientele of self-publishing authors looking for — and even craving — more substantive help. It's been a pleasure, and I found I have a knack for finding weak spots in narrative development and helping writers find their way to their own solutions.

I too base my rates on a client's circumstances and needs, but I was surprised to see your hourly range — mostly because it mirrors mine. Many editors, I believe, would say it's too low. I come from a newspapering background, and was constantly told by book-editing peers to shake off my newspaper-economy-of-scale mindset (I was paid $24 an hour in my last newspaper-editor job) and insist on being paid "what we're worth."

I'm not sure what that mythic figure is, and the back-and-forth will continue without resolution, but it's nice to see a pro several stratas above mine operating in my wheelhouse.

Congratulations on your successes, Susan.

Jim Thomsen

Judith H said...

Susan, you were so lucky to be offered that first job at the magazine. I want a job like that!

Maybe one day. Hope you get a lot of freelance work!


Susan Tunis said...

Hey Jim,

If you feel heartened, that's good. But I have to tell you that your editorial peers aren't wrong. Our rates are pretty reasonable. Definitely not "too low.". They're within an accepted range, but we could both probably charge more. And one day I may have to. But today this works for me.

It's nice to encounter a like-minded colleague. It is a great job we have! Thanks for your kind words, and best wishes as you grow your own business.

Susan Tunis said...

Hey Judith,

I WAS lucky, but as it happens I was rather uniquely qualified for that job. Plus, the publisher got me for a song! (Maybe that's why my rates are still so reasonable today?)

Jim Thomsen said...

Thanks, Susan. I'd be interested to hear other book editors (and authors) weigh in on the topic of rate-setting and range.


A.P. Fuchs said...

The importance of an editor is critical if putting out one's own work.

I remember not doing so for my first book and to this day, though I stand by the story (the what-it-was-about), the writing really needed a polish and even now I don't point readers to it as a result.

Everything I've done since then has had an editor, however.

Susan's rates are pretty good, especially if a book--depending on length--only takes 4-5 hours. There are many editors out there that charge $700+. Wow.

On a side note, I posted some Kindle numbers regarding my Kindle Exclusive experiment. We're still "in process," but for those who are figure junkies, you can check out the entry here: Canister X Blog.

A.P. Fuchs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.P. Fuchs said...

I'd be interested to hear other book editors (and authors) weigh in on the topic of rate-setting and range.

My current rates are as follows and is catered to self-pubbers price-wise. My personal take on it is a serious self-publisher isn't scared to spend a bit of money on production because their faith in their book is enough that they think/know they'll earn their money back.

20-40k = $125

40k-60k = $175

60k-99k = $225

99,001 and over = $275

Note on experience: I've edited over 60 books and anthologies and have been writing since 2000.

Also, the above prices are for a straight editing. If the book basically needs rewriting, then it's more.

Jude Hardin said...

Nice interview. I believe every author needs an editor, and I've had the good fortune to work with some great ones.

Susan, if I were in the market for a freelance editor, I would want to know your price for a comprehensive edit on, say, a 60K word novel. On average.

I imagine a lot of self-published writers are going to experience sticker shock when they here what a real editing job costs, but I know how much time and effort goes into it. There's no way anyone could really do it for $175, for example. At least I wouldn't. I wouldn't even proofread a manuscript for that amount. Maybe add a zero to the end of that figure for a comprehensive edit...

And Susan, could you give us a link to your website?

Jude Hardin said...

*hear. LOL.

Jon VanZile said...

Hey, Ninja ... (and great interview Susan) ... I'm also a freelance editor and partner in an editing service, so I can talk a bit to rates. As Susan pointed out, different editors work differently, and not every editor is the right match for every project. The relationship between an editor and an author can be pretty personal, especially for newer authors who aren't used to criticism (I believe it's a skill to accept criticism, just as it's a skill to give constructive criticism).

Anyway, about rates, from my experience, Susan's hourly rates are totally reasonable. I've seen editors charge $75/hour. Personally, we charge by the word, with rates that are comparable to the POD companies, but we offer an initial edit, comprehensive editorial letter, and follow-on edit after the author has made revisions based on the editorial letter. The standard rate is $0.017 per word. Because our process involves two full edits and a revision, it can take somewhat longer and depends a lot on the author's revision time.

Lastly, I strongly recommend that ALL authors looking for editors get an editing sample. First, you want to see your editor's technical skill and the kinds of things he or she will change. Samples should be short (10 pages or so), but it's an important tool. Second, the editor/author relationship really does matter—and a sample will give you a chance to see how your prospective editor works. Are they responsive? Do they leave helpful comments? Do they demonstrate good editorial judgment? Mostly, do you feel you can trust this person?

Anyway, that's my two cents. I personally am a huge believer in editors. I myself am a better writer for having worked with good editors, and I think any decent editor should be your toughest advocate, if that makes any sense.

Jon VanZile

Susan Tunis said...

Hi Jude,

That's some excellent self-editing, LOL. (Isn't it awful? I'm typing on an iPad, and I feel like I'll lose all credibility if I make a typo!)

So, you're asking the question that I don't want to get hemmed in by. Each and every project is different. Some are a breeze, and others are real challenges. That's why it's difficult to say that a 60K novel costs such and such. That's one of the reasons I look at sample chapters.

That said, and in order to try and answer you in good faith, I'd estimate that job costing between $500 - $1000 dollars. Most likely somewhere in the middle. It really depends. Are we talking about a single read through? It could be less. That's not a long novel.

But you're quite right. I can't do it for $175. Though I might be able to do a simple proofreading job in that ballpark.

You also asked for a website. Jude, I've never had one. I pick up clients generally through referrals and word of mouth, so it's never been a priority.

Susan Tunis said...


Thanks for your comments. You're so right. Especially about the relationships between editors and authors.

Likewise, samples of work can surely go both ways, and that is often a good test to see how you'll work together and if your styles mesh.

Jim Thomsen said...

Wow. I'm starting to think that Susan is my more successful separated-at-birth twin.

Most of my jobs bill in Susan's ballpark. I would say that the average copy-edit of the average-length novel (70,000 words to 110,000 words, in my experience) takes me between twenty and thirty hours. A developmental edit can run forty hours or more, depending on how much of a teardown is called for.

My M.O. for the typical copy-edit is to read each MS twice — once to get a handle on the writer's voice and stylistic peccadilloes, and a second time for what I call a "Hard Chicago" line-edit.

I would bill $175 only for a) a light copy-edit on a cleanly written novella; or b) a proofing job on a cleanly written novel. And, probably, the individual circumstances of the client would figure into it as well.

I would add that the sliding scale is not just about the financial means of a client. I have sometimes offered discounts to friends, or to clients who have several works they want to publish and I want to strategically position myself for a long-term relationship that rewards both of us.

There are lots of variables, including how I'm compensated. For instance, if I did a pretty intensive job for a client who doesn't have much money, I have allowed them to work out a payment plan. One client-friend paid me $75 a month for nearly a year to pay off a $700 bill. I didn't mind, and she was grateful enough that she hired me again to handle the rewrite of her novel. And paid me much the same way.

Every circumstance is different, just as very job is different. And I'm all about celebrating the differences. There is such a thing as being so professional than you drain everything personal out of the relationship. That's not what I'm about.


Also, like Susan, I've never had a website. Why? Let me answer with a question: What would I put on it? Editing samples? All that would do is embarrass my clients. Rates? As I've said, those vary by individual circumstance. A blog? Not sure what I'd blog about. LIke Susan, I get my clients by word-of-mouth and by making connections (social media, writer's conferences, ingratiating myself into the author community in Seattle, where I live, etc.).

Jude Hardin said...

Are we talking about a single read through?

I'm talking about the kind of edit you would expect to get from a traditional publisher. A letter pointing out major and minor concerns, a line-by-line commentary written on a hard copy or through track changes, another letter pointing out more concerns after the first revision, and as many back-and-forths as it takes to get the manuscript in optimal condition.

That's the kind of editing self-published authors need to look for, IMO. Of course the amount of work is going to vary from manuscript to manuscript, but I would guess most first novels (for example) would take quite a bit of time to get right. I know mine did.

David L. Shutter said...

I second what Dave G. says.

I was on a thread elsewhere and some fellow aspring indies were lamenting that they couldn't afford an editor. It can be a pricey proposition but I've networked with some whose rates are very reasonable. I defer that it's an element you can't afford NOT to have.

I rationalized that Kindle Boards are full of "woe are my sales" individuals whose covers and blurbs were clearly skimped on.

I'm selling crap on Craigslist to cover my editing/design costs against a tight budget at home but that's just me.

Or you could go for the gusto like Dave G. and Crowdfund!

Writing Trip

Jim Thomsen said...

Jude's right.

An editor who does everything in one pass-through is going to miss a lot, guaranteed. Just as every writer needs an editor, every editor needs a proofer. And sometimes, a second editor. In my newspaper days, most local news stories got at least two reads by two different editors, and often more in the page-proofing stage.

I read through once, making notes and some edits (almost always in MS Word and in Track Changes), Then do my Hard Chicago the second time through. And if the Hard Chicago was really intensive, a third read-through often catches things I missed the second time. We're human. Our eyes blur and sometimes bleed. Sometimes you need a day or two or three between read-throughs, just as writers need breaks between revisions and rewrites.

Then I write a document with notes separate from the dozens (or more) than I make in Track Changes, summarizing the major and recurring things I've done and making suggestions intended to help the writer through the revision or rewrite.

It takes time. I would hope a client would never see that as soaking them for extra time, and so far, that's never been raised as an issue. One good-faith gesture I often make to that end is to strongly suggest that the author for whom I've done a line-edit hire a proofreader who is NOT me. Proofing should be done with fresh eyes.


JA Konrath said...

An editor who does everything in one pass-through is going to miss a lot, guaranteed.

Then you pay the editor to do a second pass-through.

Or you learn how to write.

Don't mean to be a dick, but if a book needs major editing, the writer screwed up. Anyone who knows about story arc, narrative structure, and characterization doesn't need an editor to fix major plot problems. There won't be any.

We can all use a second set of eyes to catch mistakes. But if you're relying on that second set of eyes to rewrite the book for you, you need to go back to Craft 101.

Jude Hardin said...

Don't mean to be a dick, but if a book needs major editing, the writer screwed up. Anyone who knows about story arc, narrative structure, and characterization doesn't need an editor to fix major plot problems. There won't be any.

I know you and Barry Eisler disagree on this point, and I'm with Barry on this one. A competent editor can guide a writer to dig deeper and turn a good story into a great one.

Did F.Scott Fitzgerald need to go back to Craft 101. Hemingway? Steinbeck? Most people would say they are among the greatest writers of the 20th century, yet they were heavily edited. Hmm...

A.P. Fuchs said...

Seems like everyone's jumping on my price list, lol.

Anyway, to clarify, that's for a single go-through, notes made, grammar/spelling issues, plot issues, etc.

A second go-through would cost extra.

I do agree with Joe--because I've been down this road--that if an editor basically needs to rewrite the book, change the plot, etc. then the writer goofed and needs to go back and revise before hiring an editor again.

I define "rewrite" as a) every 1 or 2 lines need a revision (not just a grammar oopsy), b) story points are all over the place, c) the editor basically feels like he/she is writing the book instead of the author who gave it to them.

Though everyone's experience in this business varies, having worked the publishing ropes for a good while now, I've seen too many writers who rely on the editor to basically "fix" the story instead of trying to do a great job themselves on it. Like I relayed to one author once: my job as editor isn't to build your car. My job is to give it a shine and make it ready for the showroom.

Jim Thomsen said...

I didn't mean for us to get hung up on this.

Let me make clear that I have occasionally sent back manuscripts to would-be clients and said, "Sorry, but as much as I'd love to take your money, this book just isn't ready for me." I'd offer a few notes, and tell them that if they want more, in more detail, I'd be happy to take on THAT job.

In such cases, I get the impression that I'm looking at a first draft, and the writer didn't want to take a second run without at least some rudimentary feedback.

And then I offer to refer them to somebody who's better at developmental editing than I am. This comes up maybe 5% of the time, in my experience.

But I think it's good to line up as many fresh eyes as you can use. I always recommend at least three: One set of eyes from a story editor/beta reader/critique partners (though it's better to have more at this stage); one set from a copy editor; and one set from a proofreader.


Ramon said...

I think it's great that you are so reasonable, Susan. Truth be told, my work is too lengthy for me to afford and editor at this stage of my (building) career. Since my work typically hovers between 120k-230k words, it would be quite costly.

Once my financials improve, however, I know where to turn. Best of luck to you!

Tim Myers said...

I use Red Adept Editing, and they are excellent. I would not hesitate to send folks toward Lynn and her able and gifted crew of editors.


David L. Shutter said...

Most people would say they are among the greatest writers of the 20th century, yet they were heavily edited. Hmm...

The more of a commercial fiction deity Rowling became...the less and less she seemed to have been edited. Books 6 & 7 could have been trimmed down quite a bit. IMHO.

Jude Hardin said...

That's a good point, David. Just because an author thinks s/he doesn't need much editing doesn't mean that's truly the case. And just because an author makes extensive changes based on editorial suggestions doesn't mean s/he needs to go back to Craft 101.

To me, it's all about making the finished product as good as it can possibly be. You have to put your ego on the back burner sometimes and carve away everything that isn't Story. You have to "kill your darlings," as Faulkner suggested.

Kelly Robinson said...

My current project is non-fiction, but I can pass this along to some folks I know will be interested. Thanks.

David L. Shutter said...


I've e-mailed with Lynn and her services and rates seem exceptional. I'm still shopping but she's my front runner right now. She was referred to me by Stepehen Knight and I would look at her and her gang if you're in the market.

Jim Thomsen said...

The more of a commercial fiction deity Rowling became...the less and less she seemed to have been edited.

One of the stranger things in book publishing is the idea that the bigger an author gets, the more he or she "earns" the right to less editing. (Stephen King is the classic and oft-cited example.) I've never understood this. I would hope that if I became as big as Rowling or King, I'd earn the right to monopolize the time of my publishing house's rock-star red-penners.

jvin248 said...

Since independent authors write with no guaranteed up-front payment themselves; and starting out authors are the least likely to have sales yet the most need of an editor's care .. what percent and cap would be appealing? Example: 2% of the books sales until $500 cap is achieved? Or 5% or $300? Or what might be the number? Not talking the editor is deep into it like "author #2 rewrite" on the project, but fixes the first read-through things noted above (light grammar and logic problems: "how did he call Rose in chapter 2 without the phone number he didn't find until chapter 12?").

Elle Lothlorien said...

Susan Tunis has edited both of my self-published romantic comedies (the first of which, THE FROG PRINCE, became an Amazon best-seller), and she is an incredibly talented and thorough editor who, as I like to say, "is never afraid to criticize with gusto." She will make your book a better one, but I will caution you that she is a true, professional editor. In other words, gird your loins; you're not paying her to tell her what a literary genius you are, but how your novel can be improved. If you're not prepared for a "real" editorial critique, have your mother read it and give you feedback instead. ;-)

Elle Lothlorien said...

I should've used her to edit my Google profile so my name would have been spelled right in the above comment. Sigh.

Elle Lothlorien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elle Lothlorien said...

I just read Boyd Morrison's comment, and--YES! Susan has an uncanny ability to spot continuity errors that are hundreds of pages apart, even innocuous ones that don't necessarily impact the plot. She will say, "The main character's brother's mailman's friend's car is green on page 4 and it's white on page 425." It's a version of eidetic memory that is mind-boggling! I have no idea how she does this...

I give workshops and presentations on e-publishing several times a month, and never fail to recommend Susan for editing services to attendees.

Trickaduu said...
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Susan Tunis said...

Wow, the last 24 hours have been crazy busy! I needed to step away from the computer and get some actual work done. However, I have been sneaking glances at the discussion here. I'll try to rejoin the conversation a bit later tonight.

For now, I just wanted to say, Thank you, Elle. You're so awesome.