Ways To Afford An Editor

So you as a publisher need an editor (no, really, you do). You’ve found someone to work with[1], figured out a rate you’re both comforable with, and now comes the question of when/how to pay. You want to avoid losing your shirt, and so does your editor. What’s a creator to do?

Well, you have a lot of choices.

What Inspired This Post

There’s a great-looking panel at PAX East that, for those going (and to you all I shake my tiny fist and curse your names individually), you should totally check out. I would love to wallflower this one.

Publish Your Own RPG – And Don’t Go Broke Doing It!
Merman Theatre
Saturday, 4:00pm – 5:00pm

Want to publish your own tabletop RPG? Publishing your own game used to mean shelling out thousands of dollars for a huge print run and art, and still risk never earning your money back. Not any more. Join an all-star team of self-publishers— D. Vincent Baker (“Dogs In The Vineyard,” “Apocalypse World”), Meguey Baker (“1001 Nights”, “Psi Run”), Emily Boss (“Three Games About The Human Heart”), Epidiah Ravachol (“Dread,” “Time And Temp”), Elizabeth Sampat (“Blowback”) and Shreyas Sampat (“Mist-Robed Gate”)— as they discuss all of the tips and tricks for publishing a great game without going broke. Want to know how Apocalypse World made money before it hit the printer? How Mist-Robed Gate was published for less than $50? These are the people to talk to! Q&A welcome!

Panelists include: Elizabeth Sampat [Owner, Two Scooters Press], Shreyas Sampat [Owner, Two Scooters Press], Vincent And Meguey Baker [Owner, lumpley games], Emily Boss [Owner, Black And Green Games], Epidiah Ravachol [Owner, Dig 1000 Holes Publishing]

(And check out the beautiful flyer they have up!)

People who know their shit, for sure, but few of them have a lot of experience hiring editors. A huge blank spot for such a topic. Consider this post me throwing my two cents on that.

What I’m Not Talking About

There are probably some expectations here on what I might talk about, given I’m one of the mouthy editors in RPG land. Since I initially felt out interest on Twitter and got varying responses, I have to say that I’m not going to talk about:

What I am going to talk about is how to deal with paying an editor so you don’t fuck yourself over.

Scheduling Negotiated Payment

Let’s say that you and your editor have negotiated a rate. You’re working on a 50,000 word manuscript and you & your editor have agreed on $1000 for the work of two passes, on high-level/development/organization/rules-bullshit, and one deeper after the first revisions are done.[3]

It’s worth saying this: Don’t underpay your editor. You know the adage: you get what you pay for. But, yeah, later post. The rest of this post assumes you’re not looking to fuck over someone willing to do you a service. (If you are, uh, fuck you? I really have no idea what to say there.)

Let’s go through a short list of when settled payments could happen:

  • Up-front — when the editor starts the job
  • At completion of work — when the editor has turned in final manuscript to publisher (who may or may not also be the writer)
  • At publication of work — when publisher starts selling the book[4]
  • A term after publication of work, such as “90 days post-publication”

These can be mixed up, to break up payments. You and your editor could agree on 50% up-front, 50% 90 days post publication (which is what I’ve agreed to with some previous clients). Or 30% up-front, 30% at-completion, 40% at 90 days post. Whatever. I don’t know what companies tend to do, but I’m sure it also varies and can sometimes be negotiated.

Understanding Risk

The later an editor gets paid, the more risk he or she takes on that work done will not be compensated. But any amount paid to an editor before work is done is the publisher taking on risk that work paid for will not be done. Both sides are dealing with risk here. Recognize that, because that’ll help you determine what payment structure you’re willing to work with.

I like having some amount up-front because it commits my clients some to the idea of being serious. (That isn’t needed with all clients, but it still a good practice.) And it commits me to the work.[5] It turns into a shared-risk relationship, which I prefer.

Alternative Method: Granting Stake

If you as an editor are comfortable with taking on even more risk, you could forgo the idea of a negotiated sum for a stake in the project. There’s one project on the horizon I’ve got a tentative agreement of this sort with, but in general I haven’t encountered this. I know a couple other folks who have (but generally those details aren’t made public, because people are weird and ivory tower about compensation[6]).

Say you’re hiring a developmental editor to do a number on your manuscript, but you don’t have the money to pay. Assuming you find an editor who believes strongly in your project, you can offer a percentage of post-expense sales. Let’s say 30% of revenue after expenses (such as printing) is what you both negotiate. That could 30% of $5 or of $5000, no idea what the future holds. This is the riskiest for the editor, so if you editors take it on, know exactly what the fuck you’re signing up for:

  • A chance that your work will bring in $0
  • Being coupled with someone for the foreseeable future that you discover you don’t like working with in the long term.
  • Having to act as someone else’s marketing force in order to see personal revenue.
  • You may be dealing with a writer-publisher who actually lacks confidence in his or her work, so isn’t willing to part with a fixed sum.
  • You have to trust a writer-publisher for a much longer period of time.

With all that, let’s talk terms

When to expect payment: To know this, know when you expect payment. For instance, if you sell through Indie Press Revolution, you (at time of writing) get paid once per fiscal quarter, payment 15 days after the quarter closes (1/15, 4/15, 7/15, 10/15). Publishers, give yourself enough time to process, but remember that there’s someone else on the other end — I suggest another 15 days after that, 30 if you really need the time.

If you get paid from multiple sources, like, say, also through OneBookShelf, just gather all the payment and keep to a single schedule for your editor.

In any case, this is something to be discussed between publisher and editor.

What you need to report: By doing this, you’ve given an ownership stake to your editor. That means you need to disclose your expenses and income, and not just blindly mail a check.

Capping Payment: No one wants to deal with things forever. You could put into your terms a point where payment and just ownership ends:

  • At a certain amount, such as the $1000 above. (Though, editors, if you’re taking on more risk, demand a higher rate. The rate I ballparked is for “the work of editing and not also being a constant marketing force.”)
  • After a certain time, such two years post-publication. (Or, to be clean about it, the quarter containing the two-year mark. So you don’t have to do split-quarter math.)
  • Maybe both, the sooner of two terms. But don’t use that as a way to fuck the editor over. Use that as a way to allow a relationship that should naturally end (so new ones can begin with bandwidth freed up), well, naturally end.

Understand The Role of Marketing: If you’re doing this, editors, you’re being asked to also promote and sell the book. Publishers, this is a great way to gain allies to help sell your book. (Granted, these days if you’re an editor and you have social media, you’re probably doing that anyway. Still worth noting.)

The Advance: A way to help ease some of the risk is to pay the editor an up-front advance from percentage of sales. Say I have a term of 30%, two-years or $2000. I still might ask for, say, $300 up front. (Again, I like putting the publisher on-hook so we’re in a relationship of shared risk.) That means my advance, the $300, is part of the expenses to be paid before I see more money.

If in the first quarter the book grosses for the publisher $1000, and he has a $500 printing bill and a $300 layout bill to pay, that leaves $200…which covers $200 of my advance. Next quarter, the publisher grosses another $1000 (a steady seller!), then the other $100 is expensed, leaving $900. 30% of that is $270, which I should expect shortly. Yay! (And that’s six months in, or with 18 months or $1430 remaining — the $300 advance plus the $270 payout.)

Work For Trade

There isn’t a lot to talk about here (or is there?), but you could also trade services rather than trade monies. In doing that, ballpark the dollar values of your services so both sides feel they’re getting a fair treatment. Or do whatever’s comfortable on both ends.

Maybe this could mitigate costs rather than entirely replace. Pay $500 plus edit for a 100 page book for layout. Or whatever. It’s a possibilty, as long as the risks again are recognized.

There’s another risk here (that exists above as well): work you aren’t paying for with money cannot be used for the editor to pay for things like rent, bills, groceries, etc. So know that your for-trade work may end up getting bumped in favor of for-not-being-homeless work. This exists on both sides of the equation, not just the first person to do work.

This Could Also Work For Your Layout Artist

A comment from @EldritchFire  pointed out this thought. Layout artists might want to comment, as well. But editors aren’t layout artists (or, if they are, that’s two services you’re hiring from one person. Treat accordingly.)

Does This Make Sense?

Seriously, does it? I could clarify or example-ify in comments.

I’m Probably Wrong About Some Shit

Hey, other people with experience: comment and tell me where I’m wrong or missing something. Please! The more info we have out there, the better.

– Ryan

[1] Which is the focus of a later article, not this one.

[2] And until I have a better comment than “know people or post on a forum and pray,” I don’t think I can blog about that.

[3] For those doing the math, that’s two cents a word. Yes, later post.

[4] I know there are arguments as to whether a book is “published” or not if it’s in PDF form three montns before print. My take, as an editor: I don’t give a fuck what identity politics you use. When you start distributing a thing you’re selling, it’s publication from my wallet’s point of view. Shakespeare gots to get paid, son.

[5] Says the guy who has taken on too much editing work and is treading water in that regard.

[6] Which creates the problem of the new guy being fucked over. Whee!


21 Responses to Ways To Afford An Editor

  1. Thanks Ryan. Now that I am getting into game design it is nice to know what lies ahead from the publishing/printing end. I should start saving my pennies in a piggy bank!

  2. Graham says:

    Ryan, so, we pretty much disagree on this. I don’t like saying to people: hey, you need this extra guy for your project and you should pay them.

    I’d rather say to people: hey, you can publish your RPG easily, you can do most of the work yourself. And, for a first project, I think editing is definitely something to try yourself than to pay someone for.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      While there’s a lot you can do on your own, you can’t actually edit yourself. I suspect this is axiomatic here, because I don’t believe a single person in the world can. When people say “I’m editing myself,” I often say “No, you’re rewriting. Editing is what other people do.”

      That’s because of inherent biases of reading your own language and how communicating with yourself is not the same — linguistically or organizationally — as communicating with others. (I especially get annoyed when editors do this. I get doubly-annoyed with I misspeak and say it myself.) Let’s take this post as an example: apparently to Jonathan I communicated that you need to give up creative control, when that was so not my intent. Before his comment, I did take a pass and kill some of the typos, but that my construction was that off due to missing another caveat was, well, something I couldn’t see because of my inherent biases.

      If you’re just going to release something in the wild for free or to your friends, cool. Learn. Experiment. Do whatever makes you happy. I’m all for that. Let’s not call “re-reading your work for typos” editing, though. It shows a gross misunderstanding of what we do. I’m sure I could, with effort, find some acting analogue.

      If you’re going to ask strangers for money, and you don’t get someone else to double-check that you’re communicating well, you’re either spitting on your reader or your work — depending on whether you’re arrogant or self-loathing. I tend to give people a pass the first time they do this because the entire process of publication is one of learning a thing not particularly well-documented (or, maybe, way over-documented in a chaotic manner). After that, you’re showing contempt for people giving you money.

      – Ryan

    • Graham says:

      I agree that you should get someone else to double-check you’re communicating well.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That’s what an editor does. The proofreading (for typos), copy editing (which is where someone reads to say “this sentence needs better punctuation”, etc.), and fact checking (where you make sure that things you assert about the real world in your document are actually correct) are often rolled into the job of “editor,” but that’s not the whole of it. And, in my mind, those are the easy-to-farm-to-friends parts, if you’re on the shoestring budget.

      Often, we run into this problem because the word “editor” is actually jargon — meaning something different to people inside and outside. I attempt to bridge this by saying “developmental editing” but (a) that doesn’t often help and (b) I sometimes forget. Developmental editing is about making sure you’re communicating your intent, and that your intent is what you should be communicating. I talked about that briefly a few months back, over here.

      I may post later about what developmental editing is, as I collect my thoughts. Maybe that’ll help bridge understanding — not just for writers, but for people who think they can edit just because they catch typos.

      – Ryan

    • Joe G says:

      Totally agree, Ryan–EVERYBODY needs an editor.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I agree with Graham, especially for first projects.

    I also think that, if you’re going so far as giving somebody a share of future profits, that what you’re really talking about isn’t an editorial relationship but a full-on partnership. Like Luke and Thor, Jason and Steve, Fred and Rob, Elizabeth and Shreyas. Once somebody owns part of something you’ve created, it’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. And I wouldn’t advise that on anybody who wasn’t super committed to their future partnership or who hadn’t already tried going solo and then decided to seek very specific help from very specific people that they knew, had worked with before, and trusted.

    For example, I’d be much more comfortable contacting Brennan or Fred and working out a deal for them to provide editorial and publishing support for one of my games — like what they do for Daniel or Paul — than simply giving someone a share for editorial work. We don’t do that for visual artists, right? Why do it just for editing? So I think maybe that makes sense when talking about the wider scope of publishing related activities that creators may not want to personally handle, but definitely not just for editing and definitely not as the first choice, for your first game.

    • Fred Hicks says:

      I published DRYH mostly doing the editing myself (tho I had a few friends proofread). The end product is not as strong as it could have been, due to that.

      SOTC was edited by a friend because she had the passion to do it, essentially for free. I still don’t feel good about that. (But paying her would’ve been complicated under the terms of her day job employment.)

      I do note that Ryan lists granting stake as one alternate method above, not the only method, but of course indieland is up in arms about making a mountain out of that particular molehill.

      Chad Underkoffler parceled out a lot of “stake” for his various projects over the years, including for editing, artist work, layout, etc. And, yes, that’s a little bit like partnership, but given the very high likelihood that someone’s first game won’t sell many copies at all it is a fantastic way to make sure you don’t really pay someone what they’re worth. But with luck, maybe you’ll pay them some of what they’re worth eventually. But giving those people stake rather than flat payout also gives them something else: a financial motive to promote the product and seek to help its success. For a product very likely to see low volume sales, that kind of added motive for all participants is not exactly a disadvantage. And often you can structure your stakes deals so they’re about sharing actual profits, AFTER you’ve covered expenses.

      These days for editing and art and all I try to pay flat fees for work done. Honestly, that’s probably a bit of a money grubbing move on my part. A flat fee lets Evil Hat keep more profit in the long haul, assuming that the up front costs (higher due to this strategy) get covered in sales. A stakes arrangement would reduce the overall bottom line.

      But either way, getting and paying for an editor is, for me, about respecting your own work. If I’m honest about it, at the time i published DRYH, I didn’t, not much. I thought I’d made a weird toy that few people would “get”, and I was wrong. The book has some organizational and depth issues that could have been fixed under good editorial supervision, but mainly, it’s been copyedited. Meh.

      All of which adds up to, if you’re not willing to find the way to pay or otherwise compensate an editor, I really don’t think you should be asking other people to pay you for it. You don’t respect your creation with your dollars; why should they?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Then, uh, don’t do that? Congrats, you know why you wouldn’t want to do one of these options. That’s the point! I want to tell people many ways of doing something, so that when they’re at this crossroads, they’re all armed with knowledge and make informed decisions.

      I, for one, would never hire an editor through shares. And I would be damned wary of being an editor for one. But the option exists.

      You have good points regarding who to/not to pick for partnerships there. I may edit this post to bullet-point for publishers why entering into this is also risky for them.

      Consider this, man: if you and I both think an idea is not good, as I think we do here, which one of us would be doing more of a disservice? The one who doesn’t want it talked about, or the one that talked about it with caveats?

      The concept of terms in that, by the way, is where I think the gold of that discussion is. It’s the condom to make that partnership safer. (And yes, I just made the analogy between sex and hiring-through-shares.)

      – Ryan

  4. I agree that for any project you can try to edit it yourself. It is nice to know the process of how paying for an editor goes though. It all depends on what you want your game/product to be. No matter what you want it to be though, you still need the process of editing. You still need someone else to read through it, whether it is your friends, someone doing it free, or paying someone. Going into game designing I think you need to know what is out there and how other games have been published. If you aren’t informed then how will you know? I know what I want for my game going forward. I know I don’t HAVE to pay for editing/layout/artwork, but I do have that choice.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You can’t actually do developmental editing for any project of your own. You can attempt to copy edit — where you catch typos — but dealing with structure, organization, intent, language biases, etc. are all the domain of someone-who-isn’t-you.

      And you don’t have to pay. There are ways around it. One way around it: don’t get into the publishing game. You can totally just throw free content up on a blog and be happy. :)

      – Ryan

  5. Jason Pitre says:

    Thanks Ryan,

    While I would argue that it may be possible to do _some_ developmental editing on one’s own, I agree with you whole-hardheartedly about the importance of getting another person outside of your head involved in the dev. process.

    Oh, I would like to chat with you over a tumbler of maple whiskey at GenCon wrt editing work if possible.

  6. cassey says:

    I’m with Ryan on this, you need to have someone edit your work, you can’t go it alone. Editing yourself on something always leads to you looking back at it and going “Gah, how could I have missed that?”. Don’t believe me, think about how often you’ve gone back and fixed something on a just published blog post.

  7. Graham says:

    Ryan, something that bothers me about discussions like this is phrases like “spitting on your readers” and “respecting your work”.

    They’re so unspecific. I mean, I’d like to know specifically what an editor could do for me. I genuinely would: I’m getting to the stage where I have so many projects that I can’t do everything alone.

    But, instead of specific comments – “This is what Editor X did to Game Y” – the arguments are couched in generalities and emotional appeals.

    It’s noticeably that, when we talk about layout or artwork, it’s specific. Look what this artist drew! Look at this layout!

    So we need some way of pointing at an editor’s work and saying: look what this editor did. I think that’s more helpful than a general exhortation that You Need An Editor.

    All the best,


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sure. Like Jonathan’s phrasing, there’s some emotional language that’s perhaps not the best for talking to someone on the other side of the fence. That said, I can’t lie and say I don’t feel this way very passionately about writers who publish and ask for money without editing. But let’s check my feelings here at the door.

      You’re right that the above is unspecific. The problem is that things like layout or artwork, which you mention, is a visual craft. You can look at two version of the same layout, with tweaks, and see “ah, that’s why X is better.” With editing, you can see that on a small scale — a better-worded sentence or the like.

      Deeper editing is like software development (the other field I’m active in) or perhaps acting (if I can try to use one you’re active in to bridge the analogy, though on this I’ll likely fall short). People can see “good” or “bad” versions of that by their outputs, but there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between “here’s what you see” and “here’s what I did.”

      I would love it if we could see more redlines from writers working with editors. I have plenty that I would love to show, but since I don’t own any of that work, I can’t. I think Paul & I could show a lot of cases where my editing made positive changes. And saying “the ashcan is still online, compare that with the finished product” isn’t sufficient, even though that’s what you can do with visual things like layout & art.

      So we need some way of pointing at an editor’s work and saying: look what this editor did. I think that’s more helpful than a general exhortation that You Need An Editor.

      Yes. This. It’s something I want to do. But what I’ve come to recognize in the last few days is that this will be a slow process. I’ll be posting up case examples when I can, when it’s something I *can* post up — there are folks I’m working with right now that I wish I could show redlines & their rewrites, but I can’t. (I was hoping to get more specific stuff with my follow-up Audience Participation post.)

      I do have an editing post regarding the first page of Cthulhu Dark that I’ll do when I get a chance. Would you like me to run it by you first?

      – Ryan

    • Amanda Valentine says:

      I’d also argue that if you can look at a finished product that I’ve edited and say “Oh, I see Amanda did this, and she changed this, and here’s part where she obviously had a strong hand” then I haven’t done my job properly. It’s my job to make the writers, designers, layout people, etc. look better. I make their work smoother, I challenge assumptions, I catch errors and inconsistencies, not just on a textual level but on a whole product level. But yeah, unless you look at the many many revisions that have gone back and forth and seen the “track changes” like blood spatter at a murder scene across the screen, you shouldn’t see my footprints at all. In fact, the only time a reader notices an editor’s work is when it’s lacking.

    • Graham says:

      That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks.

  8. Johnn Four says:

    I’d argue great editors are actually a revenue source for your company.

    Solid editing results in better products that sell more because of that.

    For large projects, you ideally find, hire and involve an editor at the start. The editor can review your content plan and review drafts at milestones to put you on corrective paths or send you in more productive directions.

    That also results in a product likely to be more popular and successful with gamers.

    Great post, Ryan.

    • Graham says:

      Solid editing results in better products that sell more because of that.

      Prove it!

    • Johnn Four says:

      That’s a good question.

      I wonder what kind of tests could be done to get solid proof?

      One test might be to analyze word-of-mouth on social media on products with good and bad editing and proofreading, and note sales trends. Too many variables though, probably.

      Another test might be focus groups. But the only true vote comes at the point of purchase, so again you’d just get anecdotal evidence.

      I am stumped. Anyone have ideas on how you could prove my assertion that editing impacts sales?

  9. Jae Walker says:

    As an editor who focuses on RPGs, thank you for this.

    Jae Walker