Indie Authors – Should You Revise & Republish Some of Your Earlier Books?

Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredBy Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

I  often get contacted for editing by authors who have previously published a few novels, either on their own or through a small publisher with limited resources for editing. Their earlier works, while promising, were prematurely released and sales are slow, with few or mostly negative reviews.

These authors were often unaware at the time of any weaknesses in their books and just wanted to get them out there, perhaps on time for Christmas sales or for some other self-imposed time deadline. Many of these early works really needed an edit on some level: a major developmental edit for help with premise, plot, & structure; a content edit to address plot holes, inconsistencies, character motivations, point of view, etc.; a stylistic edit to address slow pacing, convoluted phrasing, too many author intrusions (backstory, info dumps, too much neutral description, telling instead of showing); or just a good clean-up of grammar and flow.

If those authors are serious about building a career as a respected novelist, leaving those books out there in the shape they’re in will only harm their reputation. And if they’re just out as eBooks on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to take them down and upload a revised, more polished version. I’ve done it several times with both of my books – quick and painless, really. Amazon doesn’t seem to care how many times I revise and re-upload the same title – I love the freedom! If you know basic formatting (here’s a how-to article on formatting your manuscript), you can make the changes pretty quickly and get the e-book back up.

Here’s an example of an email, typical of many I’ve received:

“Jodie, I have now read both of your books and your articles on point of view. Fantastic material. All of your comments and recommendations now make sense. With that foundation, I realize what an amateur job my first novel was. Maybe someday we can revisit and do major surgery or a lobotomy on [title of book].”

James Scott Bell has spoken here on TKZ about the need for “a long tail” – a backlist of other attractive titles by you that readers can choose from if they happen on one of your books for the first time and enjoy it. That’s the way to keep the royalties rolling in over the long term.

But of course this means all your titles need to be strong, of high quality. What if your earlier books are nowhere near the quality of recent ones? What if your worst, most amateurish production is the first one of your books someone reads? Do you think they’ll look for any more by you? Worse, they could write a nasty review saying they won’t waste their time with any more of your books. So you could also think of the “long tail” as a chain connecting readers to you. You don’t want any weak links to break that chain!

I’ve confidentially advised some authors, either my clients or not, to get one or more of their backlist titles cleaned up. Some agree and are grateful for the feedback, and others don’t seem to care, or even respond negatively. I don’t get that. If they’re getting bad reviews on Amazon for an early work and a professional editor suggests it would be a good idea to get it edited, why would they leave it up as it is? (And I’m not soliciting editing work here – I get way more requests for editing than I can handle.)

Some indie authors tell me they can’t afford to get their early books edited. I say you can’t afford not to, as those books are or could start dragging your reputation down and significantly reduce potential income. At the very least, If you’ve already (or since then) honed your fiction-writing skills by reading some great craft-of-writing books and/or attending writers’ workshops, here are three resources I recommend specifically for tips on revising fiction: James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-Editing, Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, and my Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. All have very useful, concrete tips, with examples, for taking your fiction up a level or two and making your story more compelling. And if you’re struggling with making your first page zing, check out some of the great first-page critiques here on TKZ (links on side column). Then, after you’ve used the advice to revise your early book(s) yourself, be sure to follow it up with a low-cost or free final proofread for typos, grammar, and punctuation.

If the process of going back and revising a whole book feels overwhelming, here’s a great step-by-step plan of action for revision and self-editing. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that right now, consider pulling any prematurely published early books out of circulation and resubmitting them later when you’ve had time to get them cleaned up or do it yourself. Don’t leave amateurish books out there where they can start collecting critical reviews and tarnish your name as a talented author. Or, if your muse just took a vacation on your WIP, take a break and use the time to revise an earlier novel.

Here’s what A.D. Starrling said in a recent comment (Oct. 22) here on TKZ:

“I have done a revised edition of Book 1 while simultaneously writing Book 3 (I know, one should really STOP rewriting once the darn thing is published, but the feedback for Book 2 was so good, I just had to bring Book 1 up to that level!).”

So my advice, as a freelance professional in the business of helping authors turn good stories into stellar ones that garner great reviews, is to take the time to make sure that at least the weakest links in the chain of your backlist are brought up to your current standards. Of course, I’m mainly talking about eBooks and self-published books here, which are so much easier to revise and republish.

Writers – what do you think? What if one of your early titles received a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon? Would you consider taking it down and revising it, then getting it edited by a professional, then republishing? Then you could always consider changing the title so you can lose the old, negative reviews.

What do the rest of you think of this?

See James Scott Bell’s excellent related post here on TKZ yesterday: Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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38 thoughts on “Indie Authors – Should You Revise & Republish Some of Your Earlier Books?

  1. Jodie, I have also had people email me and tell me their books–already up on Amazon–were getting bad reviews mentioning editing issues.

    When I tell them the problems go beyond punctuation and grammar issues, most of them don’t want to hear it. They simply don’t want to do the hard work of revising the novel and bringing it up to a professional level, paying for a developmental edit and then a copyedit,

    I have to say, although I understand budget considerations, as both an editor and an aspiring author–I just don’t understand this attitude.

    I think nothing can take your work up to professional level faster than working with a good, insightful and generous professional editor.

    • So true, Leslie. Not every book needs a developmental edit, but at least run it past a critique group or some intelligent people who read the genre, then pay for a basic (lower-cost) copy edit, or get someone who’s excellent at grammar and has an eye for detail to go over it with a fine-toothed comb!

  2. Hi Jodie,
    My short answer: yes!
    There’s another wrinkle on this question. Should you put out an ebook version of that old pbook? The answer is yes again, and maybe take advantage of making all those changes you’ve noticed over the years and call it an “ebook second edition,” so everyone notices that there’s something significantly different. (I did that with one of my books when I released the sequel.)
    I rarely have to change anything in my ebooks. Proof-reading by my formatter and me before release and copy-editing on the MS I send to the formatter catches 99% of silly stuff, and I do content editing as I write (if someone sees problems beyond punctuation and grammar issues, I’m almost positive that they’re complaining about stylistic concerns and choices, so I don’t care).
    However, as a reviewer, terrible pbooks and ebooks have been received, some so bad, like Leslie says, that I’m tempted to throw up my hands and stop reading. As a writer, I can often piece together what the author is trying to do–I’m not sure readers would have the patience.
    r/Steve

    • Steven, I think it’s a great idea to put out a cleaned-up, edited e-version of a print book and call it a second edition. My sales for my e-books are much higher than for my print books, and most of my reviews come from my e-books. It takes so little effort to make sure the e-book version is as polished as it can be!

  3. If I ever finish my draft, then my revisions, then my fine toothed combings, I plan to hire a professional editor, not because I expect the professional editing is going to make me famous and sell lots of copies, it’s because I don’t want the embarrassment of putting out a crappy product.

    Sure, I have two short stories on Amazon, neither professionally edited, but they were put up while I was learning how to use the site. My reviews (though not more than a handful I can count on one hand lol) are good.

    Would it be recommended to get a professional edit on short stories as well, even if you haven’t any bad reviews, etc?

    • Diane, you have the attitude of a writer who takes their writing and their career seriously – kudos to you!

      If you’ve learned a lot about the craft of writing since publishing your short stories, it wouldn’t hurt to look them over carefully and make any minor (or major) changes and replace the version that’s there with a more polished one.

  4. I took all six novels off sale a couple of months back. I totally agree with what you’re saying here. I was mortified when I reread the first chapter of my very first novel.

  5. Good for you, Savannah! I’d suggest gradually revising them as you find time, then get a second set of eyes, preferably a savvy person who reads your genre, or, even better, a professional editor. Then, if you’re not happy with existing reviews, republish with a new title. Good luck with the revisions!

  6. Good post and an important one, imho, Jodie. As you note, there are two reasons to go back and re-edit your book. First, typos and bad formatting. No excuse for this, absolutely none. Readers get angry about this and they peg you for an amateur. It will kill your chances. Ditto bad covers.

    A friend of mine recently pubbed his third eBook thriller. I went to Amazon to check it out with the idea of buying it in support. Not badly written at all! But on the second page, his paragraph formatting went to hell and I couldn’t read it. I don’t get it. This is not hard to fix. And if you can’t master it, pay someone who can. End of argument.

    Second kind of editing you talk about — the overhaul of the story itself — is another story. And yes, you should definitely do it. And yes, it’s hard. When we got the rights back to our early titles, we decided NOT to put our first book out because we realized, when we re-read it, it could be better. So now we are reworking it. I blogged about this last week, if anyone wants to see the “before” and “after.”

    http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2013/10/first-page-critique-last-rose-of-summer.html#.UnfKi_k3veZ

    Don’t throw crap against the wall and hope it sticks.

  7. So right Jodie! That’s one of the things I love about e-pub is the ability to fix stuff as you find it. All of my books have had revisions ranging from major to minor as problems were discovered. After initially publishing and then discovering the error of my ways (I’m no sort of English Major) I pulled the books, hired an editor, and a few months later reposted the fixed files. Still from time to time errors are found, but when I find them I try to clean them up.

    “Further up and further in!” (CS Lewis, The Last Battle)

  8. Good post, Jodie. I don’t have a good list of published titles, so while your advice doesn’t apply to my current situation, I still see it as solid advice.

    I think authors should keep in mind that going back and cleaning up old titles doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank. If your budget constraints are inflexible, then buy what you can afford. Be honest with your editor — tell him or her what you need and what you afford. If that editor can’t work with you, find another one who can.

    Correct me if you disagree, Jodie, but if an author only has a little money to spend, I’d say hire a copy editor to be sure the text is free of typos, misspellings and basic grammar errors. Come back later and modify the big stuff. As a reader, I don’t expect an author’s very first published book to be as mature as his or her 20th. If I love an author and go back to check out his early works, I’ll certainly cut him some slack if a few of the big picture elements lacking — but there’s really no excuse for having a book littered with typos and slopping formatting. It’s too easy these days to have those things fixed.

    • Look, I’m going back and re-editing my comment. 🙂

      At the end of my last paragraph, I meant to write “If I love an author…I’ll cut him some slack if a few of the big picture elements are lacking”.

      See how easy it is to fix things?

      🙂

    • Diane, I absolutely agree with you. I especially like this comment, which several others have expressed today: “there’s really no excuse for having a book littered with typos and sloppy formatting. It’s too easy these days to have those things fixed.”

      There really is no excuse, and that is so annoying to readers. I can’t concentrate on the story when I’m distracted by typos and weird formatting.

      And getting a manuscript cleaned up just for typos, grammar, spelling, and punctuation is very affordable, especially if you’re good at searching on Google. Get a sample edit, though, and have a trusted friend who’s an English teacher or whatever check it over to make sure the editor/proofreader knows their stuff!

  9. I couldn’t agree more. And, in fact, I am in the process of doing exactly this with the first book I wrote and self-published. I plan to strengthen the story, rename the book before submitting it to publishing house.

  10. Jodie, thank you for this post.I don’t have anything out or up or wherever, but the reference links you gave us are valuable. Thanks again.

  11. Very interesting topic, Jodie. Not only should writers heed your advice, they should go the extra mile to make sure their books are well-edited. Even in the professional editing process, things slip through. Imagine how much worse when little to no editing occurs.

    Poor editing sends a message, and a negative one. It says I have no respect for my readers and even less for myself as a writer. Nothing but your very best should ALWAYS be the rule, dear writers. Ignore Jodi’s advice at your peril!

  12. “Books are never finished. They are only merely abandoned.” Oscar Wilde

    Definitely revise and reissue if there are problems for the reader, but “Oy” what a can of worms if you are never satisfied with ANY book you write.

  13. Jodie, my first book came out with a small publisher March of ’12, and then they put it out in print (the publisher goes through print on demand) this past July. Since that time I’ve learned some of the finer points of style, especially a deeper POV and more active writing. I have a new manuscript I sent to an agent that is more polished than my first book. Do you think the first book will hurt my chances with any potential larger publishers? It is under contract for 5 years, so there’s nothing I can really do as far as editing at this point. Thanks for the post, and by the way, I loved your Sizzle book.

    • Stephenia, it doesn’t sound like your new book has major issues that readers will pick at in reviews (fingers crossed), and publishers realize that most authors are constantly honing their craft and improving their skills, so I’d put the published book out of your mind and concentrate on the next one. Good luck, and keep on writing!

  14. Jodie, quality is the number one reason why I waited so long before self-pubbing. My book isn’t out yet, but the first thing I did in prepping my novel was hire a freelance editor and cover designer. I’m going to download “Sizzles” today!

    • Nancy, I’ve noticed several traditionally published authors have chosen to do that when the rights reverted back to them. But I’m sure it’s not an issue for any of your books, anyway!

  15. My editor and I were just discussing this the other day. I am making a spreadsheet so we both can keep track of the last time we go through one of my MS’s. As she learns more, and I, in editing and writing, we can go over the previously published books. Because I do Print on Demand physical copies, even those can be checked over. I just think it’s smart too. If you have the ability.

    Great article. 🙂

  16. This is one of the great things about online content vs. printed content. Nothing needs to be permanent! Authors are always learning new things and this gives them the opportunity to go back and improve upon the work that was already completed.

  17. What would you recommend doing about ISBN’s? I’ve heard that any revision beyond typos should mean a new ISBN — but that could get expensive very quickly….

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