How editing for royalties worked for me

I was trying to finish this yesterday when an incoming email message blew it up. Booktrope is going out of business and will remove all published books from sale May 31.

I guess I don’t need to be vague about the company I’m talking about now.

My original purpose was to share what I’d learned with other editors who might be considering working for a hybrid publisher, which generally means working for a share of a book’s royalties. When I became interested in doing it two years ago, I wasn’t able to find much information.

A 2014 article at Forbes.com explained the way it works. Like traditional publishers, hybrid publishers screen manuscripts and reject some of them. They make the services of editors, designers and marketers available at no upfront cost to the author; in hybrid publishing, all these people work for a share of the royalties rather than being paid by the publisher.

Like most self-publishers, hybrid publishers use print-on-demand and e-books rather than printing hard copy books and placing them in bookstores. Also as in self-publishing, it’s up to the author to market the books (with some coaching).

Hybrid publishers do not pay advances as traditional publishers usually do; instead they pay authors with more generous royalties.

The Good

The first author I approached had written a good book in a genre I liked, and she accepted me after checking some of my work, talking to me on the phone and having me do a sample edit. She writes well, has spent years learning about writing, publishing and marketing, and is a pleasure to work with. She is writing a couple of series (a plus for marketing, I’ve learned) and occasionally publishes novellas.

Even counting a yet-unpublished novel and a couple of novellas she published outside Booktrope, her royalties so far have covered everything I would have billed her for at Editorial Freelancers Association rates. I expected to continue receiving royalties from her books. That was the deal: Team members could expect to come out ahead on some books while not making much on others.

The Bad

None of the other books I’ve worked on sold well. Some sold in the hundreds, especially during 99 cent promotions; a couple sold only a handful.

The Ugly

I did $6,175 worth of work on one book. Since it was published in October, I’ve earned $129.28 in royalties from it.

I did $2,000 worth of work on one book last year, and the author arbitrarily decided to delay publishing it. It’s too late now — Booktrope has closed all publication processes. The proofreader, cover designer and marketing manager are left out in the cold along with me.

Until now I thought my worst experience had been with an author who decided her book projects had been “abandoned” when another person left her team. She decided to stop marketing the book she’d already published through Booktrope and stop all work on an unfinished project I’d already proofed for her. I guess it doesn’t make much difference now.

Yesterday that author’s response on Facebook to Booktrope’s announcement was “I love the Booktrope model,” and she thanked Booktrope’s staff — not her team.

New ugliness is arising as Booktrope authors grapple with finding new publishers or trying self-publishing while facing confusion over their obligations to their teams. Many are trying to figure out how to get out of those obligations. I understand the time, money, emotions and ego they’ve invested in their labors of love. I wish they had the same empathy for their teams and remember we were working for money, not love.

Questions people ask me

Why did you do it?

Several things appealed to me. One was being able to choose my own projects. Another was the potential to make a lot of money on a best seller. I liked the idea of investing my time rather than selling my time because of the potential to make more money that way. And, I must confess, I thought such a publisher might be open to someone transitioning from nonfiction editing to fiction, someone like me.

I scoured the internet for more information, especially criticism of the system, but found practically nothing. I eventually concluded one piece of vital information was missing: the number of books I could expect to sell. I decided the only way to find out was to take the risk.

How much did you make on each book sale?

I made about 18–19 cents each on most e-book sales. I made about 2–3 cents on each book when the author had a 99 cent promotion. My royalty depended on the price (which depended on the length and other factors) and what I did on the project, so royalties for each e-book sale ranged from less than a cent to about 37 cents. My paperback (print-on-demand) royalties ranged from 39 to 75 cents each, but almost no paperbacks sold.

How many books sold?

It took nearly a year to learn the answer to this question because of the length of the production process and the month-long delay in issuing royalty reports. The answer is “not many.” Here are some average sales for the projects I’ve worked on. All are good books with good reviews:

  • My first author was the exception. Her four projects sold an average of 1,100–1,600 books a month.
  • Two projects sold 800–900 a month.
  • One sold 300 a month.
  • Four projects sold less than 100 a month. One of these authors has promoted her book heavily — contacting bloggers, visiting book clubs, buying ads, using social media, etc. Another has tried to market her book by contacting bloggers and seeking reviews but hasn’t had much success.
  • Two sold only one to three books a month. One didn’t promote hers at all, and the other tried to on Twitter and Facebook with no success.

Some of these averages include promotions when the books sold for 99 cents each and my royalty share was 2–3 cents each.

I tried to help with marketing by tweeting, liking and sharing the authors’ efforts with my personal social media accounts.

Should authors choose hybrid publishing to get ‘free’ editing and other services?

Not at all. It has its downsides for authors as well:

  • If their books sell well, they will have to keep sharing the royalties even after their publishing professionals have earned what they normally would for their services. To some extent, books that earn good royalties subsidize the poor- or non-selling books.
  • They might not know how to tell whether editors, cover designers or marketing people are qualified, and they can’t count on the publisher to screen them well. Booktrope accepted me even though all my experience was in technical and academic editing, never fiction. (My first author didn’t know I had a journalism degree; she chose me based on my interest and a book review I’d written. She and my other authors have all been happy with my work.)
  • Most of the good editors and cover designers leave the company as soon as they get a few royalty statements and see how few books sell and how little they make.
  • Teams aren’t locked in. Even after editing and cover design are already complete, authors still need ongoing marketing and there seemed to be a high turnover of Booktrope marketing managers.
  • I have too much pride to do less than my best, but I have heard that some cut corners when working for royalties. For example, Booktrope proofreaders complained about the poor condition of edited manuscripts and the extra work they were required to do even though they are receiving a smaller percentage of the royalties. And some editors (myself not included) started demanding a higher royalty percentage than Booktrope suggested to do a complete job.
  • If authors are counting on a hybrid publisher to sell their books for them, they are going to feel cheated. They’ll receive some guidance, but the work and any expense are up to the author.

What else have you learned about hybrid publishing and publishing in general?

  • Good books don’t necessarily sell. I agreed to work only on books I thought were good, and I’ve made them even better. They get good reviews. But it’s a struggle to get attention for them.
  • Some of the books Booktrope accepted were so bad they probably weren’t even salvageable. Booktrope’s philosophy was let to potential team members and then the public decide whether they were any good.
  • The competition is overwhelming and always getting worse. Checking Amazon, I see 144,886 releases just in the past 30 days. My favorite genre is historical romances; it already has 73,857 books in it and it’s had 1,414 new releases just in the past 30 days.
  • Free and nearly free book promotions move the book up in the rankings but don’t result in sales after the promotions end. Bookbub promotions seem to result in sales that roughly cover the expense (break even).
  • Booktrope insisted authors use social media to market their books. But Facebook now refuses to show page updates to followers unless you pay for it. No matter how many Twitter followers you accumulate, few actually read your tweets. Amazon is cracking down on reviews from people you know. And some authors refuse to learn about social media or spend the time necessary to use it effectively.
  • Blog tours were a waste of time and money for the books I worked on.
  • It’s true that sequels and series help sell previously published books.
  • Working on a team requires far more than simply editing. Authors count on team members for advice, opinions, suggestions, help with marketing and just plain hand holding. A conscientious editor can’t say “not my job” or just turn in the edited manuscript and disappear.
  • Team members don’t get copies of the books they work on unless they buy them themselves or the author is generous.

I stopped taking on new projects at Booktrope because of the low sales months ago, so my losses now are not as bad as they could have been. I don’t regret trying it, though. I intend to move forward with the good I’ve gained from it and try to leave the bad and ugly behind.