Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Is Professional Editing Worth It In Self-Publishing? A Case Study

Cover for Gideon Marcus's book Kitra via Goodreads

Last week, I argued that professional editors were not necessary for self-publishing authors. I feel that the fate of the story has largely been decided before it would ever get to an editor. To produce a commercially viable book these days, it must be targeted at a commercially viable readership, delivering the tropes, the story beats, the cover, and the blurb that those readers expect. No amount of editing will sell a story by someone who doesn’t know how to write, nor a well written story, if the writer has not done their research and/or lacks the resources and/or know-how to market their book.

This week I’m going to use Marcus Gideon’s YA science fiction book Kitra as an example of my premise. As I said last week, he drew the short straw because I recently read his forceful advocate of professional editing, has published a book, and has shared some sales results that will allow us to examine the proposition.

So to start, here is Marcus’ “get an editor” pitch:

I’ve written thousands and thousands of pieces in my life. I compose almost as effortlessly as breathing.

I always have an editor go over my work. Sometimes several editors. You should too.

Here’s why:

When you have an audience of one, you know exactly where your characters are, their motivations, their traits. You’ve got a clear idea of the universe. You know what you’re trying to say. Until someone else reviews what you’ve written, you don’t know if “someone else” knows what you’re trying to say.

So for anything you want to publish, and especially stuff you expect to get paid for, you need an editor. And not just any editor. You need, at the very least, an experienced writer to bounce your ideas off of. Otherwise, the best you’ll get out of them is a vague, “I liked it!” or a “It needs something, but I don’t know what.”

It may be tough finding the editor that works for you, someone who 1) you can work with, 2) offers good advice, and 3) is affordable. I’m still reeling from the loss of one of my favorite editors, who is coping with a chronic illness. But when you find the right editor, your work will ascend to the next level.

Finding the experienced editor (or several) is the first hurdle. The second is your ego.

No one likes to be told that their magnum opus doesn’t work. No one likes to spend months pouring themselves onto a page only to have to rewrite the whole damned thing.

Let me tell you something: when starting out, you will spend more of your life in editing than writing. If that bugs you, you’re in the wrong business.

Sure, eventually you’ll get good enough that you can work out a lot of your bugs prior to the editing process, but that first book? It’ll go through the wringer.

Kitra, for example, essentially went through four drafts until it was good enough for the public. It’s doing pretty well. Folks like it. If I’d released any of the earlier drafts?

Three sales on Amazon.”

He offers some valid points. Every writer would likely benefit from some sort of feedback on their story. It should be proofread. But does it need a "developmental editor" to go through and fine tune the story similar to the process in traditional publishing? And is it worth the money?

Marcus Gideon is a professionally published writer. He is the proprietor of the website Galactic Journey, and the small publishing house, Journey Press. The quote comes from a blog entry entitled “Time in Service” on the Journey Press blog section. You can find the complete blog post here: Journey Press Blog

Strictly speaking, Marcus is not a self-publishing author, but the founder of a small press that published the works of others, besides himself. His SF anthology Rediscovery features stories by women SF writers from the 1950’s & 60’s. Marcus is well known in SF circles, and the subject matter of this book generated a lot of free publicity upon its release in SF circles. Much more than any self-published author, no matter how popular on Amazon, could expect with any new release of their own. In addition to publishing Kitre, he has also reissued a 1964 B-side ACE double story by Tom Purdom, I Want the Stars. For some reason. He has spent the last year or more building up a network of some 500 independent bookstores that offer his books. And owning a website that is visited thousands of times a month which he uses to promote his books, I think it is safe say that he’s pretty solid on both the distribution channel and publicity side of selling books. So with those very important ducks in order, you would think that the sky’s the limit for his professionally edited debut novel. But, ah… not so much.

As it turns out, the YA non-dystopian, non-post apocalyptic science fiction market is not a vibrant market, according to Alexa Donne, who should know. She has had two YA non-dystopian, non-post apocalyptic science fiction novels traditionally published, and knows the YA market backwards and forwards. She offers weekly videos on that market on Youtube which you can find here: Alexa Donne Videos In several of them she has talked about her experiences as a YA non-dystopian, non-post apocalyptic science fiction writer. From what I could gather, a runaway best seller in that market would be a disappointing release for a YA fantasy book. Fantasy sells, while non-dystopian, non-post apocalyptic science fiction books are lucky to sell a couple thousand copies. Whether this is because there is no interest in them in the YA audience, or because traditional publishers don’t know how to promote them she feels is an open question. But the fact is that the ceiling is low for the type of SF story that Kitra represents. And Marcus seems to have been aware of this, since he writes; “Let’s face it — YA is often associated with dystopia, grim stories where the evil Queen or the fascist government is the big bad. Kitra is a hopeful story, one in which teamwork and perseverance see the characters through. There’s a hunger for these kinds of stories now.” That last line strikes me more as wishful thinking that market research. In any event, his sales so far fail to justify that optimism.

Kitra was release in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, he reports that his company was selling around 200 books a month – which would be the Rediscovery title with its significant free publicity. During the pandemic, sales have dropped to around 70 copies a month, split between the three titles. Much of that decline, can certainly be blamed on the pandemic. Still...

Both versions of Kitra are offered on Amazon. The ebook version on Amazon’s bestseller list is ranked in the 1.5 millions when I looked it up for this post. That translates to a copy every month or so. Trust me, I know that from experience. The paperback version is in the 2 millions, so it has sold a non-zero number of copies on Amazon. These are in line with the results you could expect from a debut novel without an Amazon focused advertising budget.

On Amazon, Kitra has garnered six reviews from actual purchasers of the book, four 5 star, two 4 star reviews in eight month. It has a total of 22 rating/reviews, but the other reviews likely come from free copies of the story given in exchange for reviews. This technique is common in the trade to spur sales with lots of reviews upon release. However, there are too many incentives for all parties in the system to favor good reviews, so I don’t consider them completely valid. It also has 31 ratings on Goodreads, with 26 reviews for an average of 4.06 stars, again with at least half the reviews coming from free copies, plus Marcus Gideon’s own 5 star rating.

So the book is well received. I’ll leave credit for how that is divided up between the author and editor to them. However, even with good reviews, I think it would be hard to make the case that its professional editing has done much for sales. Certainly not enough to overcome the handicap of writing a book for a small, low demand market.

All of this is not to say that Kitra is a failure. It is a modest success to date, and has many years to earn out its cost. And, with future sequels, it may do… Okay. Sequels can stir interest in the previous volumes, but they inevitably sell less with each sequel.

However, if you’re in the business of writing and publishing stories to make folding money, I think it is fair to judge a book as a product and a product by the money it earns. As a product, Kitra, with all its editing, does not seem like a product with much promise by that metric. Not because it is poorly written or edited, but because there’s relatively little demand for this type of story. The publishing business, self-publishing or otherwise, is a very competitive business, and I don’t think anyone is going to succeed at making money in it, if one doesn’t shot for the stars. And that means identify and mastering a potentially lucrative market, and writing to it.

So I say, first know your audience, and then trust your talent. Critique partners, and beta readers can offer much of the feedback an editor would provide. If you have money to spend, spend it on a good, proofreader and a cover artist. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Are Professional Editors Useless in Self Publishing? (Part 1)

People are always telling self-publishing authors who dream of making money writing, that that they need to hire professional editors to lift their stories up to a professional level. In most cases this is pure BS. I understand that the big publishers are laying off editors right and left, and that editors need jobs, but well, life is hard. The last thing a self-published author needs to do is to spend money on a professional editor. That money is more wisely spent elsewhere. Like in advertising.

Why? You ask. You did ask, didn’t you? Well, the simple reason is that it comes too late in the game to save the day, if the day needs saving. Editors in traditional publishing have hundreds of manuscripts to choose from. They, and the marketing department, can select from these hundreds, the ones with the greatest potential to sell a lot of copies. However, when a self-publishing author hires an editor, they must work with what that author has written, and by that time, the story's fate is already sealed. So, short of rewriting it, an editor isn’t likely going to make enough of a difference to change this fate.

To understand why this is, you have to go to the head of the production line. If an author is going to be commercially successful, they need to identify a market that has the potential to provide a profitable business for the writer. It doesn’t have to be the largest, but it needs to have a large enough pool of avid book buying readers to provide the potential for selling thousands of copies.

Having identified such a market, an author needs to study what exactly this audience expects in the books they buy. What are the tropes and story beats that all the best sellers in the genre serve up? What is the formula? This is discovered by reading, and studying the bestsellers with an eye to their similarities and structure. Once they have deciphered the formula, they then need to write to that formula, giving it their own distinctive variations, while making sure that readers get what they expect to get.

If an author has done their homework and understands their potential readers – and written a story that meets their expectations for both the story and the basic quality of writing – they shouldn’t need an editor to polish it further. The fact is that if one is writing for avid readers, the literary bar isn’t all that high. Potboilers sell, and always have. Avid readers are not discerning readers. They don’t have the time for being fussy.

I should mention here that we're talking about editing, not proofreading, which is something different. Some sort of proofreading to eliminate typos is a necessity. Polishing prose isn't, if the story meets the expected standard of the genre. Which, if the homework is done, it should.

Plus there are more pressing issues that need a self-publisher's money. The main one is getting readers to notice their books. What good does it do you if you have the perfect book but no one can find it? The money spent on editing is likely better spent on advertising and promotions, which are sad necessities in self-publishing world these days. Without advertising of some sort, one's chances of making more than pizza money in the trade is close to nil. So, in that respect, money spent on an editor is actually counter productive.

Don’t believe me?

Well next week I’m am going to use a concrete example of a professionally edited book that targeted at a relatively small market, namely, YA non-dystopian, non-post apocalyptic science fiction. It’s a market that even big traditional publishers have a hard time selling more than several thousand copies – at best. The book I’ll use is Kitra, by Marcus Gideon. Marcus draws the short straw because he is the most recent advocate of professional editing that I’ve come across. And he happened to provide some ballpark sales figures for his professionally edited book which we can use to get some insight into how much, or how little, professional editing drove sales of his book.

Saturday, December 12, 2020



I can’t spell. Never could. Still, my attitude is that the only way someone knows that I misspelled a word is that they know the correct spelling and thus the misspelled word did it’s job. It may’ve taken a split second to translate it on the part of the reader, but it still conveyed the meaning of the correctly spelled word. Which is all you can ask of a word. I may’ve used a crowbar to hammer a nail down instead of a hammer but it got job. You gota work with what you got.

I’m not a person who learns by rote and memorization, and there is no way to learn spelling, or indeed the ins and outs of the English language except by rote memorization. And to put it bluntly, the English language is a hopeless clusterfuck. There is no logic in its spelling, and for every so-called rule, there are exceptions, so there are no real rules. No real guides. Perhaps the most annoying thing about the English language is that some people think its unalterably sacred. I find it hard to believe that the gods of the English language handed down the word “nevertheless” to us. (I Googled it to save your the trouble. It likely comes from the Middle English word neverthelater and means notwithstanding.) Nevertheless, I have to believe that at some point some Middle English people just started stringing the phrase “never the later” altogether, whether the high priests of the English language objected or not. And then someone, some time later, just slipped nevertheless into its place. Who knows if the high priest of English objected or not. If they did so, they failed to put a stake through its heart. 

In that spirit, I think I’m going to invent a word myself. A useful word – atleast. Atleast is atleast as useful a word as nevertheless, if not more so. The gauntlet is down. And I don’t care if there’s a red line under it. There’s a red line under “neverthelater” as well. And that’s a good Middle English word.

Given my attitude, one has to wonder how it is that I’m a writer. Or perhaps, how good a writer I am.

I’m okay at it. It’s a journey not a destination, but we’re on the road. As for my lack of qualifications in the English language, well I’ve got a crutch. A computer to do the spelling for me. I hate writing by hand these days. But on a more general note, my attitude is that I am not an automobile mechanic and yet I can drive a car. All the illogical messiness of the English language can stay under the hood, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need to know it. Sherlock Holmes didn’t want to clutter his head with useless knowledge, like the earth circling the sun, for fear of filling it up with useless knowledge at the expense of useful knowledge. That’s my attitude as well. In the place of rules and diagrams of sentences, I have read maybe two thousand books in the past half century. And  from that experience I have distilled what I think is good writing and storytelling looks like. And I try to apply what I think is good to what I write.

Attitude is one thing. But it takes one only so far. You gotta respect your audience as well.

In 2015 I self-published the three novels I’d been working on during the previous five years, starting with A Summer in Amber. In doing so, I decided to lay my strengths and weakness as a writer out there for anyone to see. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. However, I realized that there was no great risk in doing so. If I did made a fool of myself, I’d only be a fool in the eyes of a few, maybe a hundred, strangers. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In doing so, I learned a lot. One of my major lesson was I discovering just how blind I am to typos. I read, like most people, what I expect to read. Just as long as the shape of the words more or less match expectations, I'm good to go. And because they were my words, I hardly had to read them at all. As a result, I would give my wife what I considered a clean manuscript to proofread and she’d find five or six hundred or more mistakes. And still not catch them all. And I didn’t help my cause by making revisions after the manuscript had been proofread. So there were a fair number of typos in my first books, though, as I said, many hundreds less that if left to my own devices. This sad fact was mentioned in the early reviews, which was fair enough. However, what was encouraging is that they were, for the most part, still good reviews, so I knew that I’d done the most important thing right. I just had to do other things a lot better.

In the five years since I first published these works, I’ve made many revisions to correct those problems. I had a year’s worth of Microsoft Word that had a more robust grammar checker than the LibreOffice program I use to write. I went through the books I'd written at that time using Word to find mistakes we’d missed. It helped, but the real solution came when some of my readers stepped up and volunteered to send me lists of the mistakes they found when reading my books. And some of them have stayed on to be volunteer beta read for all of my subsequent books as well.

The process is rather eye opening.

My wife, a retired high school teacher who knows a lot more about English than I do, is my first proofreader. And as I said, she finds the first five, six, seven hundred or more mistakes I make. After making corrections, I send the manuscript off to my four or five beta readers. They find an additional 50 to 100 mistakes. They all get the same copy, and yet, there is remarkably little overlap in the mistakes each of them find. It seems that everyone reads a little differently, and each get tripped up by different words. The process, however, delivers a pretty clean copy, and I am ever so grateful for their efforts. I don’t get complaints about all the typos these days, thanks to them.

However, I want to give my readers the best possible experience (within my budget) and I noticed that while typing emails in gmail, it would highlight awkward grammatical phrases, and such. I wondered if Google Docs would do the same thing. So I uploaded my latest book to Google Docs, and sure enough, it worked the same way, finding double words, missing words, and those correctly spelled wrong words that slip in, the its and it’s, where and were, discrete and discreet – my usual suspects.

As a result of this experiment, I’ve spent the past week running all of my works through Google Docs and making corrections that this process found – when appropriate.

I found many things to fix in my earliest works, though almost no misspellings. But in those early works, I wrote in a rather telegraphic style. I wrote them how I heard my characters speaking, and I often skipped little words like “a” or “the” that were almost understood without speaking in speech. And I would think that they’d not be missed, when in the flow. However, this time I put them in.

I found a few other interesting points going through my work. Google prefers that my characters look “at” each other, while I prefer that they look “to” each other, i.e. “I looked at her” vs “I looked to her.” I also found that Google prefers that when a character did something, did another thing, and then says something, it prefers it written as, “I looked down, jumped back, and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s a snake!” Whereas I prefer prefer to choreograph the action, i.e. “I looked down, and jumping back, exclaimed, “Hey, that’s a snake!’ I kept my way in both cases.

These revised versions of my books are now available in all the bookstores. My Google books now have the 2020 covers as well. If you’ve already read them, it’s water over the dam. But if you have some sitting around yet to be read, swap them out for the new editions, if you can. I’m confident that they are now perfect(ish). At least as perfect as they’re ever going to be – though I will, of course, make any corrections readers send to me.

Bottom line; no looking back now. They are what they are. And I think they’re good enough for me to sleep well at night.

Monday, December 7, 2020

All But Keiree are FREE on Amazon


Them algorithms. For some reason Amazon has decided to price match all my books, save Keiree, and have reduced the ebook versions to FREE. I can't say how long this will last, but if any Kindle readers have been hesitating to sample my books, now is the time. The cool thing is that most of my most recent books, Sailing to Redoubt, The Prisoner of Cimlye, and now The Secret of the Tzarista Moon are all FREE for once.

I've written a whole blog post on why I sell my books for FREE when I can. The short story is that I don't spend more than $50 out of pocket on any book -- for paper copies to my beta readers -- and my incidental sales cover much, if not most of that expense. So I can afford to sell books for FREE and not end up in the poor farm.

While writing a book takes a lot of effort, it's not work. It's fun. I don't need to be paid to have fun.

My attitude towards books is that if I want a book, I'll by the paper version. But if I want to just read a book, the library is my first choice. So, for me, reading a book is a free experience. This makes my free price on ebooks seem natural to me, since I think ebooks are reads -- not books in the physical sense.

Amazon decides when and for how long they will price match books. I don't know how long the free prices on any of these books will last. So get'em while you can.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

My Library -- House Plan & Architectural Books


Some thirty years ago now, we managed to scrape together a down payment for a house. After looking at several houses in town, and realizing that we’d likely have to not only make do with one feature or another that we weren't completely happy with, but would also need to put money into these older houses on an ongoing basis to fix this or that, we decided to build a modest new house. One that would not need modernization for several decades. And since we were going to build a house, we might as well design it to suit ourselves. Which we did, having a professional designer draw up the actual plans and blueprints. All of this sparked an interest in house designs and I began to acquire books with house plans to see how things could be done.

Dover Books offered – and still offers – a ton of books with old house plans from the turn of the last century to the Twenties and Thirties. Dover Home Plan Books Many of these books are reprints of house plan catalogs offered by architectural companies and building associations. I believe that people would order the blueprints and material lists that their builders would use to build the house. Some of the catalogs offered mail order kit houses, like the ones sold by Sears. In that case, all the material for the house would arrive on a rail car to be erected on the prepared foundation by local tradesmen.

Even after we had built our house, I found it interesting to go through these old catalogs to see all the variations in houses and floor plans – as well as the common patterns. Some of them also included sections about the appliances, furnaces, and plumbing that was modern in the 1920’s. All very interesting.

To these catalog reprints I added some architectural books devoted to certain types of residences – shingle style, prairie style, Victorian, and a lot of books on my favorite style – bungalows. I have number of books on bungalows down through the ages. Including the classics of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman style homes and missionary style furnishings. Plus a book on Charles & Henry Greene’s famous California bungalows dating from the turn of the last century. One of their most famous bungalows was used in the Back to the Future film. I even have several years worth of American Bungalow magazine.

While the plans are interesting, I also enjoyed many of the books for the drawings and art that the architects used to showcase their house designs. I’ve included a few samples above, but there were many more that evoke a bygone age.

I often wondered what it would be like to live in houses like these, but wondering is as far as I'm ever going to get. Oh well.

The bottom picture on the above page is a large open room on the second floor that I thought would be really cool, especially if it was on a lake... And my little steam yacht was docked, down, beyond the terrace.

The book on the far left is called A Pattern Language, Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, et al. It deserves a blog post of its own. If you're ever going to design a house, it is a book that you should look through. What they did was have people go all around the world and note the characteristics that made them feel comfortable, starting with what makes a city livable and working down to houses. From this study they proposed 253 "patterns." For houses these patterns range from #181 "There is no substitute for fire (i.e. fireplaces) #180 Window seats -- who doesn't like curling up with a book in a cozy seat next to a window. #196 Doors in the corners of rooms  so that the traffic pattern does not run through the center of the room and conversational area. #203 Child caves .All kids like small places -- closets and such to hang out in. And all sorts of other observations. As I said, it's a blog post in itself. But it makes one think, and so often it made me say, "Yes, exactly. That's what I find attractive." 

Anyway, that's my shelf of house plan books. One of those little passions of mine from my own bygone age. Though I have to admit it was fun paging through them again. I'll have to bring them out more often.