There is no step in the self-publishing process more important than writing a book worthy of reading. It’s the “product”, of course, and all other steps in the publishing journey begin with your words.
In traditional publishing the author has a team, or at least an editor, to shape the book into the masterpiece you hope it can become. But what happens when you self-publish?
In this guest post, Leslie Lehr shares a 12-step checklist every author should follow. Leslie is an award-winning author who is both traditionally published—fiction and non-fiction—and a publisher of her own imprint, GoodPressBooks. She is also a novel consultant and query letter writer for authors.
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Master carpenters have a saying: measure twice, cut once. They know what a waste of time, money, and materials it is when the parts don’t fit. Traditional publishers have an entire system of check and balances to make sure their books are perfect. But when you self publish, the burden is on you to get it right.
So get out the measuring tape. Here are 12 things to check off your list before publishing.
- Put your finished manuscript in a drawer for as long as you can stand it. That’s right, print it out and set it aside. With a few weeks – better yet, a few months – you will have an easier time seeing what’s on the page rather than what you think is on the page. Writing is a translation of ideas in your head into words, a very different language. You need separation of both time and space to see it as a product separate from you.
When my second novel went out to editors, it was praised for beautiful writing. But no one offered to publish it. Frustrated, I put it in a drawer and worked on other projects. Two years later, I was objective enough to see the problem: no narrative drive. I set to work and turned my beloved literary masterpiece into a page-turning thriller. What A Mother Knows sold quickly and was a Selected Read at Target.
- Find a test reader who is neither related, nor in your writers group. This is not to avoid favoritism, but to get someone who is not familiar with the concept. Be sure this person is an avid reader so you get a critical opinion. If it’s a fiction manuscript, ask the reader to tell you what the story is about. Note any confusion or missing pieces. If you have to explain anything, that’s a problem. Clarity is the key to readers’ enjoyment. If you’ve written a nonfiction book, find a reader familiar with the topic. Ask what makes this unique from other current books. Give your reader a few weeks, then spring for a meal that offers time to discuss it. Take notes!
- Revisit your premise and synopsis. Remember that great idea that you started with? Time to revise accordingly. When someone asks you what your book is about, you need to know the answer in one sentence. That’s why it’s often called an “elevator pitch,” something you can describe between floors. When the elevator gets stuck, you have time for the one paragraph version – the synopsis. If you are self-publishing, you need both, first to pitch the story, then to describe it on your website, on blogs, and everywhere else you promote the book.
- Hire a developmental editor/story consultant. Not only do you need to nail the story, but also the execution. Pray for a green light, but be dedicated to making this book the best it can be. Self-published books rarely sell more than 200 copies – you want to be the exception. If you are already planning a rewrite, a professional analysis can save you from months of revisions that go nowhere. So be wary of low cost consultants or editors who work from a checklist. Many popular consultants delegate to inexperienced college grads. Find an experienced editor, preferably published, who won’t just point out problems, but will show you opportunities to strengthen it – while maintaining your style and story goals.
Be open to revision. My clients range from new writers and screenwriters to authors referred by agents. One, an MFA graduate working on a Shakespeare origin story wrote such sterling prose that it hid the serious structure flaws. Her dedication to revise the story makes me certain we’ll be seeing it on the bestseller list soon. Another client, a USA Today bestselling novelist known for her great stories, was just skating by with her prose. Open to learning more, she reworked a few chapters with me until she could apply advanced techniques to the rest. Now she’s breaking ground with a new series in a more commercial genre.
- Review the chapter organization once the story is nailed down. Since every chapter is a mini-story, be sure you reestablish the setting. Readers must know where they are in the story even if it’s been a few days. If you are using chapter titles, be sure they are all there. Finally, be sure the chapters are numbered correctly. Yes, it’s tedious, but nobody wants two Chapter 12’s.
- Polish! Shine up the prose until the manuscript sparkles. Be sure the formatting is correct with one inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman font. Replace passive verbs with vivid action, vague descriptions with specific details, and clichés with original metaphors. Can you read it all the way through without changing a word? Okay, forget that, it’s nearly impossible. But once you are sure you have nailed the dialogue, the transitions, and all the other elements, try to just read it for pleasure.
- Consider your comfort zone between art and commerce. Do you want to rely an indie publisher, apply to be part of the Amazon family, or create your own imprint? Companies such as Authorimprints.com and MillCityPress.net can help with those options and many in between. For daily tasks and marketing chores, consider hiring a virtual assistant, a stay-at-home mom, or a college student to pick up the slack.
- Finalize your synopsis. Save the fluffy, promotional version for the back of a print book and write a compelling paragraph for websites, blogs and booksellers.
If you seek an indie publisher (or an agent for a traditional sale) for a novel or memoir, you will need a compressed synopsis for your query letter. Skip themes and subplots to focus on the main thrust of the story. This sales tool has one purpose: to get someone to request a sample of the manuscript. And it’s not easy. Even Mark Twain said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” An irresistible query letter—a synopsis and bio in one page—takes time and objectivity, so don’t be afraid to hire a pro. (After two decades of practice, this is one of my favorite services. So far, I have a 100% success rate.)
- Write your Author’s Bio and select a photo that makes you look smart. Publication, awards and education can be added to anything related to your topic. Be as professional—and as brief—as possible. Add a link to your website and to all your social media outlets. Present yourself as an author and do not give out personal information.
- Hire a copy editor. Typos are like neon signs that read: amateur. Copy editors charge by the word and are a bargain. They watch for grammar as well as spelling, like those picky teachers who made you cross every t and dot every i. Two I’ve used for my imprint, GoodPressBooks, are Practicalproofng.com and SerenaClarke.com. No matter what you write, be sure it looks professional.
- Collect blurbs. If you know any writers who work in this genre, or any influencers with many followers on social media, ask them (politely) if they could offer you a blurb. You already have ‘no’ by not asking, so you may as well shoot for the moon. That said, this is a big favor that takes a lot of time and risks their reputation, so don’t stress if the answer is no. Accept it gracefully – this could be you in a few years. If they agree, don’t wait until the final version when there is little time left. Traditional publishers send out ARC’s – Advanced Reader Copies – while the manuscript is being copyedited. And send a thank-you note. (Learn how self-publishers can use ARCs by reading this AuthorImprints post.)
- Write your acknowledgements. In a poll taken on my LehrList newsletter, the majority of readers said that they read these to get a sense of the author’s personality. So avoid inside jokes. Be friendly, but professional. Be sure to thank your writing associates, since gratitude goes a long way in building valuable relationships. And keep it simple—the story is what sells the books.
Finally, read it again. By now you might be sick of it, but do it anyway. You get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count. Take responsibility for all the choices you have made. Now it’s time to take pride in seeing your name on the cover.
Learn more about Leslie and her consulting services by visiting LeslieLehr.com.
Related AuthorImprint Posts:
Think Like a Publisher: Would You Publish Your Book?
Photo credit, handwriting at a desk: Green Chameleon, unsplash