Master carpenters have a saying: measure twice, cut once. It’s a waste of time, money, and materials when the parts don’t fit. Traditional publishers have an entire system of checks and balances to make sure their books are perfect. But when you self-publish, that burden is on you.
So get out the measuring tape. Here are twelve things you must do before practicing your autograph.
1. 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 time, you will see 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. It takes time and space to need to see it as as a product separate from you. Only then you can stop being defensive and get down to business.
I learned this lesson the hard way. The manuscript I thought would be my second novel was praised for beautiful writing. But no one offered to publish it. Frustrated, I turned to several new projects with a more commercial eye. When I returned to my beloved masterpiece, I had the objectivity needed to revise it. What A Mother Knows became my third novel, a Selected Read at Target, and continues to earn royalties.
2. Find a test reader who is neither related, nor in your writers group. You need a fresh pair of eyes from an avid reader to get a critical opinion. Give them time, by turning to business issues like cover art and marketing plans. Then take your reader to lunch and ask ask, “What’s the story about?” If you have to explain anything, that’s a problem. Clarity is the key to readers’ enjoyment. If you’ve written nonfiction, find a reader familiar with the topic. Ask, “What makes this unique?” Take notes.
3. Revisit your premise and synopsis. Remember that great idea that you started with? If it has changed, you need to revise your premise accordingly. You still need this one sentence description, 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 longer version – the synopsis. This is vital for your website, booksellers, blogs, and everywhere else you promote the book. So forget themes, subplots, and comparisons to other books to focus on the main thrust of your story. That elevator could start moving at any time.
4. Hire a developmental editor/story consultant. Not only do you need to nail the story, but also the execution. If you or your readers have any doubts at all, this is a wise investment. 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. Be the exception! If you are already planning a rewrite, a professional analysis can save you from months of revisions that go nowhere. Be wary of low cost consultants and editors who work from a short checklist. Many delegate to minimum wage college grads. Find an experienced editor, preferably published, who won’t just point out problems, but will show you opportunities to strengthen it according to your personal style and story goals.
Serious writers don’t hesitate to get help. My clients range from new writers to agent referrals, Pushcart Prize-winners, and Pen nominees. 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 sure we’ll see it on the bestseller list soon. Another client, a USA Today bestselling novelist known for her compelling stories, was 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.
5. Review the chapter organization. Readers must know where they are in the story at all times. Even if no time has passed in the story, weeks may have passed for the reader. Each new chapter is a mini-story that requires a new introduction. If you are using chapter titles, be sure they are all there. Finally, be sure the chapters are numbered correctly.
6. Polish! Shine up the prose until the manuscript sparkles like a jewel. 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.
7. 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.
8. Decide whether you need a query letter. If you seek an indie publisher or want to test the waters for a traditional agent sale, you need to compress your pitch, bio and synopsis into one page. This sales tool has one purpose: to get someone to request a sample of the manuscript. And it’s not easy. Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” An irresistible query letter 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 – and so far, I have a 100% success rate. Put your focus where it counts: on the manuscript.
9. Hire a copy editor. Typos are like neon signs that read: amateur. Spell-check is unreliable. 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. There can also be unexpected formatting changes when uploading an e-book file from Word to PDF. Two copyeditors I’ve relied on are www.practicalproofing.com and www.SerenaClarke.com. There are many others, but ask for recommendations. Why work so hard to write a great book, only to have it look sloppy?
10. Collect blurbs.If you know other writers in this genre, or any influencers on social media, ask 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 time and risks their reputation, so don’t stress if the answer is no. If they agree, don’t wait until the final version when there is little time left. Even traditional publishers send out ARC’s (Advanced Reader Copies) while the manuscript is being copyedited. Do send thank-you notes.
11. 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 brief as possible. Add a link to your website and to all your social media outlets. Do not give out personal information. This presents you as a professional.
12. 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.
Unlike those carpenters who “measure twice and cut once” to build furniture, you are creating a book that will last forever. Why not be certain you’ve done everything in your power to make it count? After all, that’s your name on the cover.
Ready, set… publish!