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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

Google Play here we go!

Good news! Google has revamped its publishing site for self-pubbers.   The previous platform was a clusterfuck of yuck, damningly incredible for a company as big and innovative as Google.  Glad that’s behind us.

However, there’s still some hesitation about uploading to Google.  For one, I hear Google has a very unkind discounting policy.  Basically, they can choose to discount your novel, whenever and however.  You hear horror stories of books being discounted to 33 cents on Google.  Which might not be so bad because nothing sells there, but then Amazon price matches the discount, and suddenly you find your novel being trundled away for pennies on the biggest site of all.

For someone like me who doesn’t sell much anyway, I’m not so worried about Google’s rogue discounting techniques.  I’m still trying to find readers for my weird brand of fiction.  Nevertheless I’m not that excited about the Google platform.

As we all know the name of the game is book discovery.  If readers can’t find or get readily what they are looking for, they’ll look somewhere else. Sadly, it’s not easy finding books on Google Play.   Romances are easier, but every other genre gets the boot.

If I wanted to find fantasy books, I need to go to Fiction and Literature and then look at fantasy.  Even then it doesn’t list the different subgenres. Instead I get a general listing of the best selling fantasy. No new arrivals or the fancy lists you get on Amazon.  I have to wonder if this lack of functionality is because I’m  checking from a India-based location.  Anyway you readers will be sure to tell me.

Also the platform doesn’t let you the author pick keywords for easy searching. It seems you need to make sure the description or the subtitle hits those keywords you need.  On the other hand, it seems you get an unlimited number of categories to slot your books, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

As much as it’s nice that you can do text searches on google books, I’m not sure that’s such a great deal for fiction.  Text search is perfect for finding the right non-fiction for research purposes.  But I have never used text searches to find fiction books. Well, perhaps you do.

At the end of the day, I’ll still upload to Google. I could always use more pennies.

The Kindle and Literary Fiction

I will readily proclaim that some fiction is popcorn as compared to others.  Does this mean I don’t read popcorn? No. It just means that I’m honest with myself.  I won’t try to make all fiction equal in its intellectual value, or decry some books as uppity or pretentious because I’m insecure about my intelligence. I certainly won’t try to claim some kind of plebeian virtue over my popcorn tastes

That said, kindle self-publishing has been a boon to popcorn fiction market.  It’s so much easier to succeed if you’re writing romances or erotica as opposed to writing literary fiction.  And I suspect that the hurdle of succeeding in literary fiction in the self-publishing universe, is much harder than getting your literary book traditionally published for a modest advance.

There are a few reasons for this.  Literary fiction has never really been a money maker.  It is the prize winners that get exposure, everything else sinks.  Trad publishers used their profits from the blockbuster fiction to subsidize the serious books.

Also literary readers tend to be more conservative about books.  They still hold prefer paper over ebooks.  I understand the preference.  I prefer to have a paper version of Absalom, Absalom. It gets tiring to read long sentences on the screen.  Also kindle is great for fast reading.  Slow reading is a chore on the the screen.

It is for this reason, I wish the trad publishers get themselves together, find their footing, and finally become the curator of literary culture they are so quick to claim to be.  Self-publishing would not yield the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon.  Yeah yeah, their books are hard to read. It’s their own damn fault that they write book stoppers instead of riveting stuff. True, but not all literature should be riveting stuff.  It would be a shame if the literary culture is dominated with Read-and-Forget-it fiction, the  Fifty shades of grey equivalents.

kindle nay-sayers.

There is a bit of bruhaha these days on two articles, first was the article Jonathan Franzen that lambasted the self-pub revolution and Amazon. He came off as a caricature of literary types, arrogant and contemptuous.  He made rather stupid and far-fetched political analogies.

And there was article by Ewan Morrison that compared the ebook phenomenon to a bubble– a very wrong and ill-conceived comparison.  The ebook phenomenon is a  gold rush with deflationary pressures on pricing.  A bubble is a gold rush with a inflationary pressures on pricing.  All bubbles have something in coming, skyrocketing prices.  Dot-com bubble, stupid stock prices.  Housing bubble: housing prices went through the lroof.  Tulip bubble: you guessed it.  So you have skyrocketing prices fueled by cheap money.

This is emphatically not what is happening with ebooks.  The pricces are trending to zero. Supply outstrips demands. Last  I checked the Amazon stocks aren’t skyrocketing. Ok sure Amazon stands to make a lot of money even if individual authors don’t.  However, Amazon is entitled to make a profit on their investment.  They made the technology, they have a high traffic website. They deserve their money.  Now you may say, in this ebook revolution, books are being devalued.  There may come a point when  the public would refuse to read books anymore because they are afraid of stepping on self-pub bad eggs.

Not true.  If anything, it would make trad pub more valuable in the long run.  Not only that, you can’t underestimate the intelligence of the crowd.  Already, we have book clubs, book bloggers, reviewers.  A lot of the self-pub works are hidden from sight.  If your book isn’t featured on the bestselling lists of Amazon, your books is effectively hidden from the average reader.  It isn’t hard to avoid self-pub.  Just buy the 12/13 dollar ebooks, or the ebooks where it says “price set by publisher”

The market is increasingly bifurcated between the masses who muck in the dollar-three dollar ghetto and  those who buying the ten dollar ebooks. I fail to see the Armageddon argument here. The sky isn’t falling.

I personally don’t understand why criticisms against self-pub involve glamourising the gatekeeping function of the big publishers  These ebook detractors want messiahs, or saviors who will lead the masses on the good books to read and the bad books to advoid.  But they equally forget about the trad-pub well-edited but shitty books that are ignored by the public everyday.  The books that bookstores return to the publishers to be pulped and forgotten.  The books that sell for pennies in thrift stores.  They forget the sheer waste of the publishers they like so much. They forget the celebrity books, the fluff books.

They betray a snobbery of masses.  Believe me, Joe Plumber can decide for himself what he’ll read.  He knows what is a good yarn and what is bad yarn.  If he’s too afraid to decide for himself.  He asks his friends for recommendation, or consult book bloggers.  See right there, magic, wisdom of the crowds.  Joe Plumber found himself a book read.  If the book is badly edited, Joe Plumber can either return it, or tell others to stay away from the author.  See, the beauty of the market.  Cream rises to top, albeit cream that a billion Joe Plumber’s want not the cream that a few hundred literary types from New York want.

Arguments about the evils of self-pub boil down to snobbery and envy. If you don’t like self-pub  books, don’t read them.  Go buy the ten dollar ebooks.