Should Self-Published Authors Pay for Professional Editing?

should-self-published authors pay for professional editing

More and more often I hear self-publishing gurus espousing the view that self-published authors must get professional editing before publishing books. The justification behind that opinion is that readers today expect self-published books to meet the same quality standards that are set by traditionally published books. The recommendation that self-published books must be professionally edited has almost reached the point where it is pointedly suggested that indie authors who can't afford to pay for editing, shouldn't be publishing at all.

Let's begin with this. I think all indie authors and self-publishers should do the very best job possible when it comes to producing the highest quality book they possibly can. If you're an indie author, you should never wish to do less. But is it realistic for the self-publishing experts to expect you to do more by paying for professional editing, and in a similar vein, paying a professional designer to create your book covers?

And will shouldering those significant upfront costs automatically bring you more success as far as book sales go? The honest answer. Probably not.

There is today some very successful indie authors who sell a lot of books and some that even earn six-figure incomes from their writing. But, it's a very small percentage of the total number of indie authors out there who are writing and self-publishing books. What separates the truly successful indie authors from the also-rans, is not necessarily writing talent, amazing artful book covers, or even professional editing. The most successful indie authors I am aware of are selling the number of books they do because they understand book marketing, especially how to develop and grow a following, a tribe of readers who can't wait for the release of their next book.

Contrast the relatively small number of truly successful indies who sell tons of books with the average Jane or Joe out there who are writing and planning to self-publish her or his first book. It's possible (though very likely) that it will be the greatest story ever told since To Kill a Mockingbird. If that brand new indie author pays for professional editing and a professional book cover, does that automatically mean the book will end up at the top of the bestseller lists, even if only the top of the Amazon bestseller list?  Absolutely not. Why? Because regardless of her writing and storytelling ability, the vast majority of new indie authors have a glaring weakness. She has no platform, no following, and no email list. The days of writing a book, throwing it up on Amazon, and sitting back to watch the royalties roll in are long gone. There are simply too many books being published today.

In 2016, there were about 4.5 million eBooks on Amazon. Today, just two years later, there are about 7 million Kindle books in the Amazon catalog. How is a brand new unknown indie author going to get his book in front of anyone beyond his own circle of friends and family?  It's marketing of course. There are plenty of book promoters out there willing to help the author promote his book for a nominal fee. But wait, the book doesn't have any reviews, or maybe it has two or three. The legitimate book promoters who might actually help our mythical indie sell some books, require 10-20 reviews with an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars before they will even consider accepting the title for promotion.

Well, then he just needs to start by getting those reviews. But where will he get them? Amazon has clamped down on book reviews. Reviews by friends and family members are now a clear violation of the Amazon book review policy. And trust me on this. Amazon spares no effort in ferreting out reviews like that, and when they find them or believe they have, they delete them. Paying for reviews, while never ethical, is also pretty much no longer an option. Amazon has clamped down on those too.

Without an established following, without an email list, without book reviews, the first book by an unknown indie author is going to start plummeting like a stone in the Amazon rankings almost from the moment the author hits the KDP publish button. And, the truth is, there is really no means available for the author to do any real effective marketing that will raise the visibility of the book. According to some sources, a new Kindle book is published every five minutes, every single day. The barrier to success for new indie authors grows ever larger and more impenetrable literally every single day. Add to that the fact that folks on most of the social media platforms have grown very weary of the tsunami of book promotions that appear in their feeds. Posting "I have a new book, please buy it" on Twitter and Facebook isn't a viable marketing strategy anymore, assuming it ever really was.

Now, let me return the focus to the discussion of whether it is rational to expect all indie authors to pay for professional editing before self-publishing a book. When you take the average of all self-published books, the ones that are wildly successful along with those with average sales, and those that never sell more than a handful of copies, most experts tell us that over its lifetime, on average a self-published book is going to sell 250 copies. Some experts, more pessimistically assert that the average self-published book sells only 100 copies lifetime. But let's use the 250 copies number. If the average self-published Kindle book sells on Amazon for say $2.99, which is the most common retail price, that earns the author the 70-percent royalty rate from Amazon, or $2.90 per copy. When we multiply 250 by $2.09, that means the average self-published book earns $522.50 over its entire lifetime.

Professional editing comes in different degrees at different prices, but based on my recent research, $1,500 is a representative cost for having a 50,000-word novel edited, where the editing is reasonably comprehensive. So anyone who publishes that mythical average eBook that sells 250 copies and earns $522.50 is never going to come within spitting distance of earning back the cost of the editing, much less make a profit on the book. Hopefully, she wrote the book for the pure enjoyment she derives from writing because she certainly isn't going to earn any money for the time and effort she put into writing the book.

Clearly, it just doesn't make sense, at least from a financial perspective, for most indie authors to pay for professionally created book covers, much less professional editing. What makes sense financially for most indie authors is to do the absolute best they can at editing their own book and reducing typos and grammatical errors to the absolute minimum. If the writing is any good, the books will probably eventually sell 100-250 copies, and they will make a little money for their trouble.

I say ignore the elitists who demand that indie authors spare no expense to meet the publishing standards of commercial traditional publishing houses in the name of achieving parity between self-publishing and traditional publishing.  Such does not exist, and its unlikely it ever will. Just compare prices between self-published bestsellers and traditionally published bestseller Kindle books. The vast majority of Amazon book buyers will not consider paying anywhere close to the retail price commanded by a traditionally published book for a self-published book. Amazon has trained them to view self-published books as less valuable.

I looked at some fiction categories on Amazon this morning where the #1 bestsellers were self-published titles with retail prices of $2.99 to $3.99. Traditionally published bestsellers in those same categories and listed further down on the same bestseller lists as those self-published ones had much higher retail prices. The retail prices for those traditionally published books, even by authors who weren't exactly household names, ranged from $12.95 to $14.95. That doesn't sound like parity to me. Amazon wants to keep the average price of self-published books, the market that Amazon maintains firm control over, at around $2.99. In fact, if a self-published author sets a retail price on a book above $9.99, Amazon whacks the 70% royalty rate in half, paying that author only 35%. Amazon makes money on volume. Allowing the price of digital books to increase would reduce the number of Kindle books sold and would cut into Amazon profits. Amazon doesn't intend to allow that to happen.

The decision of whether to pay for editing is a personal one for each and every indie author to make. But, don't ignore the financial realities. Even if you're independently wealthy, and can afford to subsidize your work by paying for editing knowing you're never going to earn that money back, it doesn't mean you should do so.

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