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. 

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