We may be talking about different services. I’m referring to a full read that usually creates a 5-10 page edit letter–no in-line editing. Or, perhaps we’re just working in different corners of the market. I’m around those who are freelance editing pre-query for writers hoping to traditionally publish their genre fiction, not the kind of rigorous editing a self publishing author would need, which should rightfully be much more expensive! It’s true that most people doing freelance editing at the lower rate/rigor aren’t doing it full time. It’s an optional step for those traditionally publishing, and the prices reflect maintaining access for those writers, I believe.
Unlike most other basic “proofreading” packages, ours includes copy-editing where needed, light revision, rewriting and improved word choice, as well as a one page summary of some big picture issues that can be improved. If we see something that looks bad, we’ll fix it – but we won’t wrack our brains trying to solve bigger issues like plotting, character motivation, story architecture, etc.
Working with a professional is always the best choice, so if possible, then save up to work with an editor. But of course, some writers can't afford this, in which case there are some other options. You can barter with other writers in the same genre, editing each other's work, or providing other services you might be more skilled at e.g. Marketing tasks.
Definitely not unreasonable, Frank. However, you have a couple of options. Rather than pay for a full developmental edit on what you have written so far, you can ask the editor to do a manuscript assessment – which includes a detailed written report. An MA is usually done for a fixed price based on the word count. Alternatively, you could ask the editor to do a sample/developmental edit on one chapter only. Using track changes, they can go through and make edits and comments. It’s good that you are already thinking of hiring an editor before you complete the MS. It will help guide you with the other 40% and revisit what you’ve written so far, so that once you are finished, the MS will be in much better shape for the next stage of editing.
Editing is one of those skillsets that many people claim to do well but which few actually do. And while it’s probably the most important service an author can solicit (second only to book cover design), it’s often undervalued. Furthermore, most authors have no idea how to assess an editor’s work, and the result can be catastrophic, ranging from an editor who introduces new errors to an editor who changes the intention of your writing.
You draw distinctions that use idiosyncratic definitions of some fairly standard terms. For example, Chicago defines the terms “manuscript editing,” “line editing,” and “copyediting” as synonymous with each other, and none of them as synonymous with “mechanical editing,” although that is one element of them. Certainly, I agree that an author has a right to expect more than merely mechanical editing unless that is specifically what they have requested. However, I cannot agree that the only route into competent and appropriate freelance editing is internal employment within a publishing house, and that the only clients who should be counted as a relevant part of a freelance editor’s curriculum vitae are those who are traditionally published.
If neither Sally nor myself feels quite right for you, then I suggest you browse the bookstore or even the public library for books published in the last few years that remind you in some way of yours. Check the Acknowledgments page to see if they thank an editor. If not, see if there is any information to contact the author and ask if they used a freelance editor and if so, would they recommend them.
Next, it is possible to follow the road to traditional publication without hiring your own editor, with editing being done at the publisher’s expense. However, you have to be a very good writer and self-editor to get on that road, and what you write has to fit into a very marketable niche. You also need to be very patient and willing to weather plenty of rejection along the way. Don’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that this option is closed to you. Do your research carefully. There may be a small press that is just right for your book and that will be happy to help you make it the best it can be while paying YOU rather than making you pay them.
It’s always sensible to follow due diligence in submitting your first draft of your book to an editor by making as fool-proof a copy as possible for you because first, it is your own creation, and secondly, a horrid draft sent your editor can end up frustrating both you and him or her. Make your own corrections to the extent you can, so that will make the job of your editor that much lighter and the end result would be a lot more effective.