#SaystheEditor Royalty-based?


One in an occasional series

When I came out of retirement a few years ago, my mentor told me to avoid working for publishers who paid royalties. It was the equivalent of doing the work and then tossing dice when it came time to be paid. As someone who needed to support myself, working for a royalty-paying publisher wasn’t the best idea. I’d be fine if a book sold a million copies (but really, how many do that?) but … well, most don’t. And since most publishers pay freelance editors scant amounts even compared to my posted rates (which are only a third of what my mentor charges!), I was basically looking at giving a lot of work away for free.

She, of course, was right on the money. This is why she’s my mentor, after all.

One thing she didn’t mention to me — maybe it wasn’t an issue then — was a new practice that is struggling (thankfully) to take hold: independent authors who offer to pay their editors a royalty.

Maybe she was silent because from where I sit, surrounded by red pens, this is a no-brainer. There’s no way I could ever consent to do this.

Here’s why:
1. Finances. Everyone knows how rough it is out there for authors or all ilk. I have edited some outstanding books, books that deserve to be in everyone’s libraries, yet my authors struggle. I don’t know their exact numbers — I tend to ask, “How’re sales?” and get an equally vague response — but I do know that it’s the rare author these days who can break through the chatter and sell hundreds of books a month. And those who sell thousands? They are charmed.

2. I am a hired gun. That’s right: You hire me to do a job. I do my job and while I develop a relationship with my favorite clients that often has me going above and beyond the strict rules of being an editor, at the end of the day, I walk away and leave your book in your hands. YOUR book. YOUR hands. Not our. Your.

3. Your book is your baby. No one is more vested in your book than you are. This ties into the above reason, absolutely. Even if you hire me to hold your hand while you write and help brainstorm as words hit the page, it’s still YOUR book, not mine. I’m here to help make it the best ever, but when I’m done with your book, I’m moving on to the next. I’m not helping market it or trying to find reviewers. I’m editing the next book in the queue. Sometimes, a client will come back to me a few weeks or even months after I’ve worked on their book and I’ll have to reopen the file and refresh my brain. About YOUR baby.

3. Honesty. While I don’t walk into relationships with my authors expecting them to take advantage of me, if I am going to walk into a royalty-based situation, I need to be 100% sure that there won’t be any funny math happening. If a Hollywood movie can gross millions and net nothing, what’s to say this accounting won’t trickle down to an author or two? Or ten.

4. More work for me: I would have to carefully monitor every statement that comes in to make sure I’m being paid. Or better yet, I’d have to hire someone to do that because, hey, I don’t run an accounting business over here. I run an editing and author services company. Authors want me to edit for them, and they are willing to pay me to do the job. They don’t want to hear I’m unavailable a certain week of the month because I have to double-check royalty statements for books I didn’t write. (And, hey, where’s MY income for that week?)

5. Plenty of other authors want me. Why should I take work on spec when I have a stable full of writers who have no issues with my Pay Up Front policy? And believe me when I say the fear of having to face an unhappy client who wants his or her money back is in the back of my mind, spurring me on to be an ever-better editor.

I get it. Believe me, I do. Editing is expensive, and when I run my own work past a professional editor, it’s my mentor I turn to. Go back to the start of this post, where I mention her rates are triple what mine are. Think about the ramifications of that statement for a minute.

I know it’s tempting. Your success is my success. Accepting a royalty structure makes me more motivated to help you sell books. And you don’t have to shell out money up front.

But from where I sit… it’s a gamble. I have a roof to keep over our heads over here, bills to pay. I can’t risk that in the hopes that you are the next author to break out of the mainstream, even if when you do, I’ll make millions, too. Because what happens, then, when the publisher wants you to pull your book from the market, break our contract, and then reissues it themselves? What happens to my vested interest in YOUR book then?

I can’t be left out in the cold. Literally or figuratively.

No royalty-based finances here, thank you.



  1. India Drummond

    March 20, 2014 6:04 am

    I have to agree that this would be a bad idea for everyone involved. One of the biggest reasons for me (that you didn’t mention), is that the author and editor would be tied for life. For LIFE. Does the author really want to have to be writing cheques and doing accounting to pay an editor twenty years from now? In my experience, when that happens, if the book doesn’t sell all that well, they just quit talking about it and nobody gets paid.

    What if there’s a falling out? Sad to think about, but it does happen. Does the author really want to be writing cheques to someone they don’t get along with? I doubt it. It would be a process full of resentment if that were to happen. (Because, let’s face it, indie publishing is much more personal than a company that can just get their accounts payable department to cut the necessary cheques.)

    Then there’s the lawyer fees to draw up the contract, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to do a structure like that. Who is going to pay for that? The editor? Nope. Lawyers cost a LOT more than editors, believe me!

    And there are so many things that can happen in the life of a book that are unpredictable. What would happen if you edited a book for someone that they then went on to publish with a big publishing house? Would you get a cut of their advance? Plus their royalties as earned from that publishing house? What would happen if the author decided to make that book perma-free (like I did with Blood Faerie), relying on it to bring readers to further books in the series. Does that mean the editor would earn nothing on that project? These are only a few of the things that might happen.

    Cover artists also get asked to do this sometimes, and it’s really not a good deal for them either.

    I’m fortunate that my books sell well enough that paying for the required services (including you!) isn’t a problem, but even when I first started, I quickly discarded the idea of asking someone to work for royalties. It just isn’t a good deal for anyone.

  2. Dana Griffin

    March 24, 2014 10:53 am

    Unless you like living under a bridge, It’s a good thing you didn’t get paid on royalties for my books. But, I know (and keep telling myself this will happen) I will break free and become a household name. When that happens, too bad you didn’t get paid based on royalties for editing my novels. Just kidding.

    I agree with your points here. Paying an editor royalties would change the relationship. I don’t think it’d be for the better.

  3. Anna

    March 28, 2014 8:09 am

    Huh, never heard of that arrangement before. Sounds pretty dodgy.

    anna @ Deeply Shallow

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  4. A Bonus #SaysTheEditor post! » West of Mars

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