Throughout the 20th Century, book publishing was a gated industry. With few exceptions, if an author wished to publish a novel he or she needed to endure the rite of passage. Agencies and ultimately publishers decided if a book had merit and sale-ability. If the content and writing were good enough, the publisher ensured the book appeared to the public in its “best” form. That is, beautiful cover, full editing, compelling book blurb and supported by some marketing. Published books still might not meet with readers’ love, but technically they met certain standards of readability if not enjoyability.
Self-publishing provided a method to circumvent these gatekeepers for both good and bad. Still, with few exceptions, most authors want to ensure their published works are well-received. Is my book good enough? Have I made any errors? Should I put it out there? These are the questions that haunt self-published authors…or should. A healthy dose of uncertainty and insecurity go a long way to driving writers to improve if not their books then at least their craft.
The truth is no one can tell you if readers will enjoy your book. Look at any book’s reviews, and you’ll observe a variety of thoughts and feelings on the story. The second truth is no one can tell you not to publish. And therein lies the third, somewhat ugly and often hurtful truth. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.
I think of self-publishing like reaching the legal drinking age. Just because you can legally drink doesn’t mean all the other drinking rules are off the table – a fact most folks learn before they reach the legal drinking age. So any advice on knowing when your book is ready has its limits. What I offer is not any set rules because there aren’t any. Instead, I’m going to provide a little advice, so you don’t show up at your new job Monday morning stupid drunk. Again, it ultimately falls to you to decide if your book is ready for prime time but here are some things to help guide that decision.
1. Are you an avid reader? I’m surprised when I discover someone who writes a fiction novel and self-professes that they have never been a fan of reading. I’m not surprised however to find that their story is poorly written, filled with cliched characters and over-used prose. In never knowing what has come before, this non-reader doesn’t have a grasp of the art form. Reader’s expectations proceed story arcs. If you can count the number of books you’ve read, on one hand, you’re going to have to be a natural storyteller to pull off that first book.
On my next point, many authors will disagree with me, and some will be downright angry at the suggestions. However, I stand by these thoughts. A part of your reading material should be Classics. You don’t have to go out and write you own, but understanding the nuances of how these “Greats” weaved their tales, the way they embedded important human themes in their narratives, and their ability to master both complex and simple sentences will make you a better writer. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t anything to learn from present day authors, but the saying, the crew never rises above the captain is a real consideration for any author. To be the best writer you can requires a comparison to the best writers who have come before.
2. Do you know your genre? Like a story arc, genres have certain “rules” and expectations. If you wish to write Romance, you should understand how Romance stories play out, and the same applies to every other genre. Unique is great. Original is also a good idea, but if you break off completely from the genre’s expectations, your story may not be well-received. The rules I speak of aren’t like grammar or mechanics. They are more subtle than that, and an easy way to think about this suggestion is to consider it in terms of the environment. The mountains look much different than the beach. You dress differently when visiting each; there is a different feel, a different mindset, and difference in what you expect to encounter.
Genres all fit into the writing world, but each has a “unique” feel that you should understand. The best example of why this is important is observed in JK Rowlings’ work. Here the master of children’s literature struggled to be likable in her attempts at adult fiction. Maybe that’s because of reader expectations or maybe adult fiction was a world she didn’t fully understand.
3. With focus and attention, each writing attempt improves. The brain is an incredible muscle, and like all muscles, it grows stronger through exercise. I’m not suggesting you need to write novels to be ready to publish books, but if your first draft is the thing you plan to release I would warn that it’s a mistake. The good news is writing is writing. Many novelists have never penned a short story, but they were journalists. Many non-fiction authors have years of experience in science or business writing. Even blogging counts toward that writing practice.
Before my first novel I had written volumes of business papers, dozens of short stories and enough term papers that I felt comfortable with my ability to write fiction. Looking back, I’d still like the opportunity to revise my first novel simply because my skills have improved. If you’re limited in writing experience, then you might want to consider a couple of further revisions before you publish.
4. Even if you’ve been writing for years, even if you believe you’ve written the best story you can muster, it is best to take one more shot at revisions before you publish. Some authors suggest hiding the manuscript in the drawer for six months and then returning with a fresh set of eyes. Personally, I’m not that patient. I spent too many years putting aside my short stories to want the same for my novels. But that aside I don’t publish first versions…or second…or thirds.
For each author, the required revisions will differ. Dean Koontz doesn’t leave a page until it’s perfect. King does the “see you in six months” routine. SK Anthony revises about hundred times. I revise, revise, revise, beta, revise, edit, revise, edit usually by chapter. The important takeaway is that a good measurement for publication is that it has gone through at least a few revisions and as we’ll discuss in part two, that you aren’t alone in the reviews and evaluations.