Does Paid Editing Increase Ebook Sales?

WARNING: A LONG ASS POST! You can skip to the take home message at the bottom of the post.

Go to any self-publishing forum.  Most of its participants would advise you to have a professional cover and professional editing  before publishing. But the reality isn’t so simple.

Traditional publishers usually have s multistage editing process: content edit, developmental edit, line-edit, copyedit, proofreader. Perhaps you’d not recieve all of them, but the last three are crucial.    An editor presumably could do all of them, but that’s rare.  Usually you’d have 2-3 editors for the entire editing process. Freelance editors quote anywhere from $.005  per word to $.08 per word,  content/developmental edits being more expensive. A basic 70,000 word manuscript could easily cost a thousand dollars in editing expenses alone.

Covers costs are more flexible. Costs could be anywhere from  $0 or $5 from fiverr, to $20-$40 premades, to  $60-$100 Photoshop stock photo manipulations to $200-$500 for high end photo-manipulations to a few thousand dollars if you want original illustrated art that’s usual to the epic fantasy genre. Oh dear, the costs of being professional aren’t trivial.

Are these costs truly necessary in order to produce a book that will sell?

Seems like an easy question to answer, after all we can point to risible covers languishing in the ranks or underperforming books in dire need of edits.  However,  there are not an insignificant number of ebooks with self-done covers and weak edits selling well enough.

Thankfully Hugh Howey has done the hard task of collecting data that we need. He released groundbreaking report on authors earnings on the Amazon kindle publishing platform. I’d urge you to read it if you haven’t. In conjunction to his study of kindle ebooks, Hugh is running a voluntary survey of book earnings. The survey includes questions about editing and cover choices.

The data is free and available to all.  As of this posting, there are 988 responders.  If you’ve self-published or trad-published, I urge you to fill out the survey.  We’re in crucial need of data to help us understand the self-publishing landscape.

I peeked at the data, actually ran a hacksaw to it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. I’ll look at questions of editing expenses in this post, and on the next post, examine the cover art debate.

A number of caveats first!

With survey data, confirmation bias is KING. Those who make money are likely to respond than those who make nothing. (If you make next to nothing, I urge to fill out the survey). Additionally, there’s a stigma against unprofessional books among serious indies because it’s seen rightly or un-rightly that these books give indie books a bad name.  To avoid scrutiny, those who don’t pay for editors or covers are less likely to respond than those who do. And motivated indies are more likely to respond than those who upload a book to Kindle and forget about it.

Besides, people lie or their recollections are imprecise. A indie reported making $13,000,000  in the last year! True or false? A typing mistake? Who knows.  Some appeared to have published their first book six months in the future, or some reported income even though they reported publishing zero books.  There’s no specificity about fiction/non-fiction, genre or word length or whether the books are in a series.

On a more technical point, the meaning of editing is undefined.  Editing could be mean proofreading. Or it could mean a more thorough copy or line edit or developmental edit.  I’ll take it to mean that the author paid someone to look through their manuscript in some fashion. ‘Friends and Family’ (F&F) could mean editor friends and family or functionally illiterate friends and family. Which group does beta readers belong to? Among F&F or Critique Groups/Other Authors (CG)?

It’s not uncommon for self-pubbers to publishe a book that is either self-edited or edited for free, and when sales start rolling or presumably when they get bad reviews complaining about the lack of production values, they use the profits to fund a edited version or a more professional cover.  Hugh Howey himself has famously said he relied on friends and family to write Wool.  His first covers were DIY.

Well then, let’s jump into the data.

totalearnpie

Of the 878 who identify as indie, the pie chart shows the breakdown of their editing decisions. Those marked undetermined did not click a response on the kind of editing they used.

More than half pay for some kind of editing. If the survey is illustrative of self-publishing as a whole, then perhaps the stereotype of entitled wannabes foisting their unedited ‘masterpieces’ upon the masses isn’t very accurate.

How do the past year’s reported earnings compare?

Average Median Max
Critique group / Other authors $19,104.50 $725.00 $1,000,000.00
Friends and family $21,651.00 $1,000.00 $567,000.00
Hired freelance editor $93,646.70 $5,250.00 $13,000,000.00
None $31,743.60 $3,000.00 $1,000,000.00
Undetermined $2,476.78 $500.00 $10,000.00

The calculations were done on the total raw earnings of the last year.  As expected, those who hired editors did better over all since they have the highest average and median income.  But strangely  those who relied on CG’s and F&F seemed to be worse off than the self-editers (None Group).

We need to look at the data more closely. For instance, the intrepid self-editer, who reported earning a million dollars, also reported publishing a hundred books! The author who reported 13 million dollars had published 33 books.  It’s well known that earnings tend to jump exponentially with each additional books published. Perhaps a large backlist can overcome the purported disadvantages of  no-editing. 

To control for backlist bias, I decided to analyse the mean earnings per books instead of total earnings.  The mean earnings per book is the total earnings divided by number of books published.  A few data points were spurious because some authors reported income but also reported publishing zero books.

MeanEarningsPerBook

The first $1000 is a good benchmark to study the different groups. Expectedly those who hired editors did the best in that earnings bracket, as 50%  of them earned less that $1000 per book. Those who relied on F&F did second best.

Take a look at the CG group and the None group.  Surprise, surprise! While the self-editors were more likely to make nothing, they weren’t worse off compared to those who relied on CG’s. 70% of them compared to the 73% of the CG’s made less than $1000.  5% of self-editers made more than $50000 per book compared to the 0% of those who relied on CG’s.

Is the paucity of data to blame for the apparent well being of the self-editers compared to those who relied on CG’s? Probably. Nevertheless, one thing’s certain: authors with varying levels of resources are still able to maximise their potential.  Not hiring an editor isn’t the kiss of death. 

Are authors earning more because their books have been out longer?  Are they writing novels rather than shorts? Are glittering covers the reason for their success?  There’s the added fact that after a certain income threshold, time is literally money. It doesn’t pay to edit yourself. Your time is better spent marketing and writing rather than fussing over edits.

Examining mean earnings per book  doesn’t quite isolate the legacy of luck, timing, and persistence. And so I decided to look at authors who have published one book only in the last year excluding the month of December. I excluded December because I wanted books with at least a month of earnings. The data cuts down drastically to 58 points, which isn’t much but enough to tinker with.

earn3

How about their earnings? I adjusted earnings to take into account the length of time the book has been on the market. In effect, I chose to play with the mean daily earnings instead of total earnings.

earnone

8% of those who have hired editors earned zero compared to the 28% of those who relied on CG’s.  It would have been nice to see  how that compares to those who self-edit, but alas with only one data point, we can’t say anything.

Let’s take a total earnings of $1000 as the benchmark to evaluate results; this translates to 1000/365=$3.6 daily mean earnings. Here, we’re making an assumption that books have daily uniform sales, which is far from true.

Concentrating on the level of the green boxes, we see that those who hired editors and those who relied on F&F came out ahead.  Actually they did about the same. 48% of them earned more than $3.6 per day.  Those who relied on CG’s did much worse,  less than 10% earning over $3.6 a day.

The chart would show that those who relied on F&F did better than those who hired editors, especially so as their earnings are pure profit. But the raw numbers tell a different story.  Here are the averages, median and max of  mean daily earnings for the different groups.

Average Median Max
Hired freelance editor $52.38 $3.14 $520.83
Critique group / Other authors $1.15 $0.37 $7.03
Friends and family $14.94 $3.33 $109.49
None $4.00 $4.00 $4.00

The average author who hired a freelancer earned $52 per day compared to $15 per day earned by the average author who relied on F&F.

By looking at the max earnings, we see that paid editing enables the author to earn a lot more.  However, there’s a crucial caveat: To earn that first $1000, editors don’t help much–this we can can see, as half of those who paid editors earned less than $1000 in the last year.  Editing costs can easily run over a $1000 for long manuscripts. How long can you stand being in the red?

THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE

Self-editing yea or nay?  The self-edited book performs worse than the paid-edited book. AND the book  has a greater chance of earning zero dollars. I personally would think twice about self-editing.

You shouldn’t worry too much about hiring an editor either, especially if you’re strapped for resources.  You should search high and low for slaves (F&F) to massacre your manuscript. Your earnings potential  would be hurt on the top side, but the chart also shows that earnings on the low to medium side doesn’t get massacred either.  Moreover, the earnings will be pure profit that can be ploughed back into the book or to make the next book better.

As for relying on critique groups and other authors?  The data would confirm what many veterans of writing groups have long suspected. Writerly opinions on your writing might be helpful to learn the rudiments of writing, but not so much when it comes to the book you’re hoping to publish.  What writers like to read and what the ordinary readers likes tends to diverge. At some point an aspiring author has to graduate from critique groups to seeking the opinions of those good friends  or family who have a vested interest in helping them succeed.

Next post, should you pay for professional covers?

ETA: Ok I see some argumentation from my old folks at Scribophile.  I used to be active there, back in the day. Hello!

Those who paid for editing are more motivated to succeed.  I have no quibble about that.  But I’m more interested in the comparison between those who relied on F&F and those who relied on CG’s and other authors.  Who’s the more motivated among the two of them?

Even without more precise data about genre and book length and marketing, it’d seem that those who relied critique groups and other authors aren’t doing all they can to make their book succeed.  And yet those who relied on F&F seem to be able to do it.

We’re back to the sticking question.  Is the mechanics of critique groups or the writer’s lack of know-how  or is it just bad data to blame for the relative lack of performance?  I think the data points to something awry about relying on critiques groups and authors, but this is neither here nor there. We can all agree that  everyone should try, if they can, to hire editors.

As for the divergent tastes of readers and writers . Let me give an example.  Look at the Amazon top 100 fantasy bestseller list. You can tell which books are indie. And their bad reviews tend to be consistent: cliche or juvenile plot,  thinly veiled dungeons and dragons campaigns, bad editing. There’s a certain woman who’s making a killing in indie fantasy despite her reviews that ding her for poor editing.

After reading a lot of bad reviews of the indie fantasy bestsellers and those ranked well in the top 5000, it seemed to me that the average indie fantasy reader is easy to please. As long as you tell a good yarn, with clearly drawn tropes, they are fine.   The ultra-refined reader who prefers hugo-award winning stories would be appalled that selling authors are still mucking about with the messianic farmboy hero trope.  I bet the editors of the pro-paying scifi/fantasy mags would be appalled by what is selling on the top lists.

Writers tend to have more refined tastes because they tend to have read a lot more. They have thought a lot more than the average reader about the mechanics of story and character, prose and style.   A common complaint among writers is that they can’t turn off the inner editor when reading published books. They get so snagged with the badly crafted words that they miss the overall story. Readers who aren’t writers tend not to do this. While the unsophisticated reader might not care for cliche or juvenile plots, writers tend to care more. It’s my theory that critique groups can rag a writer too badly for cliches and unoriginality to the detriment of story appeal to the average genre reader.

The Roving Party by Rowan Wilson, a Review.


NetGalley offered The Roving Party in exchange for a review.  This book is a literary western with magic realism elements. The story is simple enough.  Set in the 1820’s Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land, a roving party headed by John Batman  set out to track and apprehend an aboriginal clan. Central to the story is an aborigine, Black Bill, who aids John in hunting those of his kind.

There isn’t much of a plot or page-turning action or dramatic character development. Instead we’re immersed in the dreary day to day of thugs tracking the “blacks”. Despite the slowness of the plot, the book does engage, mainly because Black Bill is such a mystery. Why would he hunt his own kind? How can he be stoic in the midst of such agressive racism?  He is a difficult man to understand, but out of the merry band of thugs, he’s the most compassionate, amazingly enough.

Needless to say, if  you’re looking for an easy story to read, this isn’t it. Racism is vicious and ugly and pervasive. Animals are killed without hesitation. Women and children aren’t spared from the cruel calculus of conquest.  I didn’t know much about Tasmanian or Australian history before reading this. Oh dear, I know now. Black Bill’s a historical figure, as much as John Batman.  They really did go out into the wild looking for aboriginal men to kill, sort of like white men in the American West hunting down Native Americans to kill and scalp–A bit like Blood Meridian, you say?

You’ll find a lot of a reviews that compare this book to Blood Meridian, and the comparison is apt. The prose shares a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s style in cadence, spareness, and emphasis on stark descriptions of the landscape. Dialogue is without punctuation, and the narrative voice exudes poetic omnipotence. However Rowan’s style does leave out McCarthy’s  overbearing forcefulness of million-dollar words, paragraph long sentences strung together with ‘and’s, and the unrelenting nihilism of violence.  I’m happy to report that Rowan Wilson doesn’t imitate McCarthy’s penchant of taking climatic showdowns off camera.

Ordinarily, this book would earn three stars because I had to make myself read through too many sections of men being inhumane. But the ending surprised me.  I think it would surprise you too.  The ending only bumps the book from three stars to four stars.

Unflinching and haunting sums it all: The Roving Party.

Cover musings …

I just released a collection of shorts, see here AmazonSmashwordsKoboBNGoogle Play. Stories range from fantasy to absurdist tales to somber literary turns, and so it has been especially hard to decide on a good strong image for the cover.  I took advantage of the free christmas giveaways of premade covers hosted by the skilled Clarissa Yeo of http://www.bookcoversale.com.  I got this below.

birdsoffortune

A simple cover that probably too staid and doesn’t quite reflect the darkly comic tone of the book, but it gets the job done. But something more dramatic is probably needed to attract more eyeballs to the short story collections. Short stories are notoriously hard to sell on the kindle after all.

I had tried with this cover. Nothing to boast about, but I do like the grumpy look of the duck.  I should mention I got that off the flickr, photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/6128825007/

angry bird of fortunelowquality

I was looking through this photoshop tutorial, and I modified it a bit. Ducks came from flickr, photo credit:  nezihdurmazlar.com. The castle from nightstock.deviantart.com.

duck and guns

As you can see, making covers are better left to professionals, but it’s fun all the same to play with covers.

Swann’s way, the Yale anniversary edition


Proust, yeah that Proust who writes books with paragraph long sentences about nothing. Many think him the example of dull indulgent literary fiction; others sing odes that somehow fail to rouse the most passionate of readers to try his books, and there are those for whom Proust is another author to namedrop in front of the pulp fiction reading masses.  When NetGalley offered a new edition of Swann’s Way (Volume one of the seven volume In Search of Lost Time, also know as Remembrance of Things Past) published by Yale University Press,  I decided I might as well see all about Proust for myself.

Yes, it is a long read, and yes, it veers towards the ponderous and the tedious, but it is not uninteresting. Even though the reading does demand a certain patience and concentration, I found myself drawn in. His observations of childhood were engrossing, more so because of his precise explorations of its exaggerated fears and the outsized anxieties. The attention to detail can overwhelm, but they do weave magical tapestry of  feeling and depth.  His explorations of characters, e.g. the narrator’s aunts and grandmother, captured humans in their most ordinary and their most captivating moments.  

An important theme of the volume is memory and its fickleness, its uncertain divagations, its distressing lack of assurances. A lot of passages were  long and impressionistic, dreamscapes so dense with images and vague feelings that I had to read a few times to comprehend the breathtaking immensity of it. Take the book cover image of a Madeleine, for instance:  the narrator’s simple act of tasting a Madeleine unleashes a torrent of feelings and flitting images that last for more than two pages.  After a while, you sense that the point of reading Swann’s way is not to consume wholesale, but to savor in piecemeal fashion–this is not a text you can read quickly like the latest pulp fiction novel.

As I understand it, this edition is a revision of the 1923 Scott Montcrief’s translation, revisions done by the editor and Proust scholar,William Carter. His annotations on French culture and French historical references were helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the text.  And the prose style was modern and readable enough for my standards. If you have been wary about trying Proust, you can do no better than trying a copy of this edition.

Kicking the Sky by Anthony Sa


I recently joined NetGalley, where you can sign up to read books in exchange for reviews. I picked up  Kicking the Sky, by Anthony Sa, a coming of age tale set in the Portuguese immigrant community in 1970’s Toronto.  The story takes places after the disappearance of twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques aka The Shoeshine Boy. The twelve-year-old narrator, Antonio Rubelo, and his friends, Manny and Ricky, make a pact to be brothers and see each other through good and bad.  They need all help they can muster in a neighborhood full of hustlers, prostitutes, and massage parlors.

Events take a dark turn when Emanuel is found raped and murdered.   Antonio finds himself, hurt, vulnerable and full of questions, but the adults in his life are too busy, too hard-pressed to guide him as they too are struggling to survive in their rundown neighborhood. The confused circumstances set stage for Antonio and his friends to come under the influence of James, whom I would describe as a one of the shadiest characters I have had the pleasure to read.

The mystery of James runs through the heart of the book.  Is he a good man rundown on his luck, or is he another pervert like Emanuel’s murderers? Antonio himself does not know what to think. And his feelings are complicated by the fact of his own awkward sexual attraction to the twenty-one-year old James. Antonio is a engaging character in his own right. He tries to do right by his friends. He tries to be the man his father wants him to be. It is heartbreaking to see his innocence tainted by the harsh world he forced to confront.

Another central theme is the Portuguese immigrant experience.  His parents try to keep alive their native culture in the face of a hegemonic culture that seeks to reduce their identity to nothing more than cheap workers.  The various aspects of Portuguese culture were a delight to read especially since I know nothing of Portugal.

Setting aside the lurid episodes of child abuse, physical and sexual, homophobia, racism, the awkwardness and confusion of prepubescent sexuality, the book does a good job of balancing the dark with hope.  There were a few exciting boys-will-be-boys episodes. The prose, however, was not to my liking because I found it too ‘simple’. Child narrators do bore me easily; however the issues in the book were far from simple, so the depth of the story easily overcame my distaste for his prose style.

If you do not mind a dark, gritty read, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

The Girl Who Played Go

In my explorations of go and literature, I decided to read the Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa translated from Chinese to English by Adriana Hunter. The book is a mishmash, part historical, part coming of age, part women’s fiction, all with the flavor of Go. The historical backdrop of Japanese invasion of Manchuria was fascinating.  I’m largely ignorant of that era, so that definitely held my interest.   The book features first person narratives of a Chinese teenage girl and a Japanese soldier.  They don’t meet till the halfway through the book to play a go game. Like a go game, the two characters circle each other, play move for move, alternate the viewpoints until the cataclysmic conclusion.

On the prose side, the writing is immersive, poetic and lyrical, certainly measured and restrained.  But it wasn’t as impressive as I hoped from reading all the rave reviews, perhaps because there wasn’t any particular imagery that made my mind sing.

Go isn’t notable for female players, and in that sense, the viewpoint of a female go player is unique and inherently curious.  However this is also a teenage viewpoint, Chinese Style, and so the adolescent angst , love fumblings, and the hackneyed criticisms of women’s lives in 1930’s China, I found wanting.  Her first love trepidations  curiously felt sterile and uninvolving and rather painful in its awkwardness.

On the other side, the male voice was just as poetic as the girl’s voice, and that felt false.  In between fighting, the soldier spent his days, visiting prostitutes, thinking of visiting prostitutes and then offer a few tired bits on  Japanese imperialism and Chinese inferiority.  But ultimately, his character was lacking gravitas and courage so much so that when the book vroomed to the shocking conclusion, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

I hoped for more go musings, more go ideas, more go something, but the sentimental peregrinations colored everything with such dullness. Characters were too wrapped up in themselves that none of them tried to go  beyond themselves and try to do something heroic.  Chaos and tragedies were rumbling around them, and yet they were all so small-minded.

On a positive note, the book is easy to read.  I’d give it a go, if you’re especially interested in the 1930’s China from a female perspective.

 

 

Hard Characters

The first iteration of Luke’s character in Love and Go
was something of a sarcastic, couldn’t-care-less character mucking about in a garden of hurt. Fun guy really. If you’re interested in reading an unedited version of Love and Go with hardass Luke, ask me. It’s probably a better rendition but there was issues with motivation and the like. And I thought I was getting too comfortable writing the same sort of characters, and then I read The Defense by Nabokov which portrayed a disturbed chess player.

And so I came up with a fucked-up Luke. I hope not fucked in a way that’s off-putting, but fucked up in an interesting way.He’s mess of things. He’s gentle, naive. He aims to please. But at the same time, he’s apathetic and can be very unyielding. It’s a challenge keeping his actions monotone and maintaining a constant tension about him.

Can’t say I’ve succeeded because readers so far complain about his lack of emotion. Unfortunately becoming more emotional isn’t part of his character arc. In some sense he’s the impact character. He doesn’t change, which drives Hao completely crazy towards the end, triggering devastating events. But Luke does have an arc, that of finding personal salvation. It’s Hao’s challenge to get over himself, ignore Luke’s strange manners, and help Luke save himself before it’s too late. Whether Hao succeeds or not is still an open question.

Subtle dialogue

I run across dialogue in which people say what they mean and mean what they say. For instance, two characters who sit and talk about their vulnerable circumstances without any hint of obfuscation. They have a heart to heart straight to the bone talk. Or the dialogue in which two characters engage in passionate duel over their beliefs without a hint of subtlety either.

I understand some readers derive some vicarious pleasure or emotions in these scenes, but really to me, they mostly feel syrupy, dull, and utterly trite.

People don’t say what they mean most of the time, especially in emotionally bare moments because people are inherently protective of themselves. We fear rejection, flouting social conventions, wronging someone, confronting unsavory aspects of our psyche, or because you know most of the time, we are not even aware of what we are feeling, we can’t give a name to it. And so we use hedge words, or outright lie, or speak laterally, or be coy and speak in code. If your characters are inherently dramatic, meaning they have inner tensions that threaten to tear them apart, they will have fears and insecurities that will inhibit them from saying what they mean most of the time.

Anyway back to being a crazy fish.

Sex is a distraction in fiction

Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re writing erotica.

Sure feeling hot and sticky and shit is nice. But I find a lot of it boring  because author’s tend to substitute sexual feeling for inner tension.  And it ends up just feeling cold and sterile.  I might as well just watch porn–easier for me get off.

I was reading Giovanni’s room the other day.  Obviously given the time period when it was written, James Baldwin couldn’t knock himself out with shooting dicks and big load of cum, he had to hide and at the same time express the truth of the occurrence  The  result is he had to get to the emotional heart of the matter. Get to right to  the emotional tension and show characters in their bare and vulnerable moment.

So look at the consummation of the relationship between David and Giovanni.

He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment , in the gloom, we simply stared at each other–with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard.  I was trembling. I thought if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I know I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed.  With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.

Nary a word about hard dicks and big blunt cocks, just pure emotions of the moment. I was touched.  No I wasn’t hot and heavy, but touched where good fiction is supposed to touch you.

Now of course if this was supposed to a fuck and dump session, the language and the line of attack will be lot different. But you still need to get to the emotional heart of the matter.  Usually that means finding the character tension even in a fuck and dump session, and making  that the forefront over all the bathroom gymnastics.

Some thoughts for the day.

The red wedding in Game of Thrones

There’s been a lot of buzz on the Red wedding. A few people had commented that they would drop the series because they can’t find anybody to root for anymore, or that the universe is too bleak to be worth their emotional investment.

Who can blame them?  We mostly read for escapism.  That’s why romance with their assured happy endings is the biggest selling genre. We read to renew our faith in the values we hold dear. So what is the point subjecting ourself to fiction that assaults our dearly held notions of a moral just world?

I think, there’s some virtue albeit insignificant in persevering through a bleak universe.  Basically, it’s a matter of faith.  The reader has to find faith in themselves to go on. Rather than depending on the book promises of a happy ending, the reader has to generate hope for themselves in the midst of the bleak world they are reading. And I believe that, in itself, is a worthy exercise for the reader.

When we do good, most do it with some expectation of a reward earthly or heavenly.  And likewise when people do bad, we generally expect punishment. But in many places in the world right now, these expectations are not quite matched. The simple notions of heaven and hell, or even the concept of Karma, get quickly dismantled. The courage to be ethical in the face of adversity and lopsided rewards isn’t so easy after all.

If you have no guarantee for a happy ending, do you give up for the self-serving side of ethics? Why be moral? You will find the answers to these to be quite personal, and I dare say, important to figure out for yourself.  Bleak universes allow us a chance to grapple with those questions intimately.