Should You Update?

This is a question that comes up on a regular basis in writer forums. You published a book four years ago and now you’re looking at it and wondering if you should update it with what you know now.

There are four general categories of updates that I can think of.

Content/Editing

The first is the actual content of the book. The words on the page. This is the one that comes up probably the most.

A lot of times someone’s first book is not their best book, right? Maybe they didn’t have it edited and that really shows. Or maybe they’ve learned more about story structure and they can now see flaws in that book that they didn’t notice when they initially published. And with non-fiction the material can become outdated.

This one is the most complicated to decide on. I rewrote my first novel after I’d written a million words of other material. I’ve also rewritten one of my short story series and I’ve done second editions or new versions of some of my non-fiction. I also had a second in series book where I did a light editing pass to remove filter words like “she heard” that had snuck in there when I could’ve just said, “the shriek of the banshee filled the air.”

(An example. I have never written a story involving a banshee.)

Based on that experience…

If an early title is a standalone title and you think it is just not that good and are embarrassed to have others read it, unpublish it.

If you can do a light edit, like the one I did where I removed filter words as I was reading book two in preparation for writing book three, go for it. That’s probably just the time it takes to read the book and input the edits.

If you have based your entire writing career so far on a book with a lot of issues and there’s a whole series that comes after that, you probably should rewrite it. But. It will probably take just as long to do so as it would to write a brand new novel. And it’s probably not going to sit well with book two. Your best bet may be to unpublish the entire series and just start new with a brand new series, but chances are you won’t be willing to do that.

If the material for non-fiction has become outdated then it’s down to sales. Because it will likely take you just as long to write the updated book as it did to write the original. For my AMS books it actually took almost twice as long to write the revised edition as it took to write the original and it was also about 30% longer.

So for non-fiction I either update (because I don’t want a book out there with bad information and the book sells well enough to justify it) or I unpublish because I know updating that book will take as long as writing a new one on some other topic and I’d rather do that.

Editing an existing title is usually time intensive and often for fiction the flaws that need fixed are not something that can be fixed at the sentence or paragraph level.

If a fiction title sells well, no matter how much you hate it now, don’t touch it. You may well lose the magic that makes it sell because you wrote something in a raw state and now you think you’ve learned the rules and edits may just take what’s special away. Cash your checks, read your fan mail, and never look at that book again.

Blurbs, Ad Copy, and Categories

The second category of updates is your metadata. That’s your book description, your one-liner tagline, your book categories, your subtitle. All of the things that you have to include when you list a book for sale.

These I say change as often as you want. Experiment. Often times authors don’t know what they’ve written. I’ve even seen people mistake fiction for non-fiction. And if you learn that your book is not a book about X non-fiction topic but is instead a novel that involves that topic as a theme, you should definitely update your targeting and descriptions to reflect that.

My YA fantasy I targeted early on as a romantic fantasy. Readers did not agree, and I would’ve been a fool to keep targeting readers who wanted romantic fantasy when what I’d written was an adventure fantasy with romantic elements.

Your blurb, ad copy, and categories should all work together to target the correct group of readers. Which means they all need updated when you decide to change the audience you’re trying to reach.

That leads to the next category of updates.

Covers

I firmly believe in updating your covers. There are absolutely trends in covers and you don’t want to be left behind and look stale with an old cover design. Also, your eye improves over time. You have a better feel for what sells or what doesn’t if you’re watching your competition over the years.

And sometimes a new cover brings in new readers who didn’t really jive with your old cover but do with the new one.

But…I have also wasted money and time on cover updates. And if you’re buying nice covers that can add up.

Here are my two YA fantasy covers for my first in series:

I had the first image, the girl on the horse from 2015 to 2020. And then I had the second image with the moonstone necklace from 2020 to last month.

I do think going with the new cover refreshed the series, but I ended up switching the covers back to the original cover during a promo in March because I thought the first cover better conveyed adventure fantasy with a female protagonist.

The second cover would’ve worked beautifully if I were a known author. And it did sell, but I think people had to search for more information with the second cover. I can tell fantasy from it, but not YA, female protagonist, horse, etc.

Ideally I would’ve actually moved to a third set of covers for this one, but they’re expensive and they eat up all my profits for a while each time I switch them out so I just went back to the originals for the ebook. And these covers are beyond my ability to create myself, even the one on the right that seems simpler but is not.

Titles

That leads us to the last category of changes, which is the title. For fiction, unless the book just has not sold at all, I’d personally leave the title alone. Because you never know when someone will try to talk about your book to a new reader and tell them the title and then they can’t find it so they can’t buy it.

With my YA fantasy series someone published a very popular biker romance book using the exact same title two years or so after I published my book. But it just didn’t make sense at that point to switch things out even though that other author’s title is always the top search result for my title now. Sometimes it is what it is.

For non-fiction I have definitely changed up titles and been pleased to do so. Writing for Beginners and Budgeting for Beginners both started out with much more complicated titles that didn’t connect with readers and sold better after their title change.

Just recently I changed another one. I had a title, Data Principles for Beginners, and it had sold some copies–more than I realized–but not many.

I still believed in the content but I decided that the title didn’t convey what the book covered. So I went for a more wordy and direct title.

It’s too early to see if it will help, but now that book is How to Gather and Use Data for Business Analysis. I also changed the cover. Better, I think, yeah?

The issue with changes to your title is that Amazon now requires that you publish the book as a new title. It used to be that you could change an ebook and not have to republish, but now they want both ebook and print to be republished as new titles.

So you start over when you do that. And risk confusing readers who had bought the prior title and didn’t know there was a title change and buy it again because of the new ASIN/ISBN.

It’s not something I’d recommend for a best-selling series. But for one that never quite caught on, it can make all the difference.


In summary, I think there are times when making any of the above changes can really move the needle. And since often writing the title is the biggest time commitment a simple blurb or cover tweak can be a way to earn a lot more money out of something you already created.

It is never too late to save something that didn’t sell well originally. That’s why advertising can be a boon, too.

Assuming, of course, that the project wasn’t just fatally flawed, which can be the case. Sometimes there is no real audience for something and no amount of changing things up will fix that. Or the audience range is 50-100 people and you’re trying to change things up to get to an audience of 1000 that doesn’t exist.

So you have to weigh changes like this against spending that time on creating something new using everything you’ve learned.

I tend to alternate between creating something new and then stopping and consolidating and making changes to my old material and then creating more new material, but it will really come down to personality what makes the most sense for you.

In general, I’d say make easy fixes and skip the big ones. If it’s six weeks of re-writes? Write something new instead.

Oh, and just because I hadn’t shared them yet, here are the other new covers I did last week. All of the books were already available except for Sell That Book which used to be Achieve Writing Success.

If nothing else I was able to learn some new tricks for image manipulation. It’s all about the incremental improvement.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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