How to write a book · self-publishing

Publishing schedule for indie writers – who to hire and when

I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.

Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.

But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?

Here’s a critical path.

1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.

2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.

3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.

Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.

4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.

What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…

5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.


Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.

With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.

Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).

Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.

Thanks for the pics John Kannenberg and Ron Dough

Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.


68 thoughts on “Publishing schedule for indie writers – who to hire and when

  1. I agree with all of this. I’m in the cover design phase right now. The only thing I would add is to allow extra time for each phase. My editor moved towards the end of the process, which wasn’t fatal, but slowed me down a bit. I just decided on my ebook and print release dates today, after a guarantee of when my cover will be done. I built in extra time between the cover completion and launches, because stuff happens. I fully expect, now that I have a team in place, that the subsequent books will take less “production” time; for example, this is a series, so the cover design is a template – only the text changes.

    Another thing I would add is don’t have too many beta readers. For a first timer, lots of different opinions can be confusing and distracting. You have to be secure in what you’re writing to stand up to people who might think you should go a different way.

    All of these services are so necessary! I wish everyone committed to them!

    1. Hi Victoria! Building in extra time is very sensible. An edit might turn out to be deeper than you think, and if you’re able to make your own schedule (rather than fit in with a publisher) you might as well take advantage of the leeway to make the book as good as you can.
      And you’re right, subsequent books don’t take so long because you know the ropes. In many cases your first is like the ‘training book’.
      And yes, I agree that too many beta readers can be confusing. Especially when they start making suggestions. You have to get good at looking past the literal comments and finding out whether there’s a deeper problem.

  2. Hi Roz

    Great points on clarity in the production steps for the text – even if, somehow, a writer does not always opt for external help. Fresh eyes are needed, including the writer looking at the story, as told (and not what they think they are telling), in different ways. Takes time.

    Your point about the cover made me stop, and appreciate. Yes, the versions done earlier – ie before draft is finished, and also before production steps are completed – might be motivators only. Perhaps they should be rethought, or at least reaffirmed, for the cover is part of the blurb, the pitch to readers.

    A few years ago I attended some courses by a great instructor – Blake Snyder, sadly missed – and part of his approach to get to the nub of the tale, and get at the feeling to be evoked, was to think what the movie poster of the story would be like, including tag lines. Always an interesting memory, and an important additional tool in the early stages of developing a story – and later, too, which would, I hope, also help to sharpen the editing.

    Cheers, Patrick


    1. Hey Patrick! I didn’t know Blake Snyder had suggested thinking of the movie poster – what an interesting suggestion. Loglines are hard – as are blurbs. They’re only mere snippets of text compared with the whole book, but they take a lot of thinking and revising.

      As for covers, I hadn’t thought about them as motivators, but they certainly help you feel the project is properly in progress. Funnily enough today I sneaked a look at the cover rough I’ve designed for NYN 2 and decided it was rubbish. So it’s back to the drawing board. But thankfully I have another concept up my sleeve.

  3. You are always crystal clear m’dear. A really valuable order list for those of us who got it wrong, although in my case for non-fiction. But talking of fiction one of the difficulties for what (here goes!) is termed ‘literary’ or ‘thought provoking’ is deciding whether the professional editor and the author are a good fit, in terms of all sort of undefinable things. I am sure general critiques of plot, tension, depth, character etc would find an accord across many genres, but ‘sympathy’ for the underpinning intention may not. I had such an editor, referred by a well known agency who, on paper, ticked all the boxes. With regard to those mentioned aspects she made useful suggestions, but the almost savage comments in the margin, on any use of metaphor, or digression of interest to a character, made me doubt her sympathy for the work as a whole. Once that was in doubt, the suggestions themselves became questionable as possibly serving her, not my vision. It was as though the metamorphosis required stripped out any provocation of thought, and left a narrative shell. For a different author she would have probably been fine.

    So editors being too busy to jump through an audition hoop, how to establish that accord before the £700-800 has been spent? I feel a whitelist of editors posted by authors could be a great help. It would need to be both pointed and searching, and I suspect gratitude ( such as I feel for a recent editor) would prompt a desire to spread their gifts.

    1. Editors within a traditional publisher usually specialize, so that you don’t get a thriller manuscript dealt with by somebody who is more at home with lit fic, and vice versa. To be effective, an editor ought to be familiar and in sympathy with the kind (I don’t want to say “genre”) of book they’re looking at. Indie editors should list that information as part of their resume.

      1. Hi Philippa – I see Dave got to you before I did! (Have you two met? Let me introduce you…)
        How awful to have an editor who isn’t in tune with what you want to do. One of the things I’m very careful with when I take clients on is to explore what kind of book they envisage – and I turn down a lot more work than I ever take on.
        A whitelist is a good idea. Everyone’s book is different, and every editor has their different strengths. And stuff they can’t stand 🙂

      2. Dave, out of tune editors happen all the time even in professional houses. They’re often just as miserable as the writers saddled with them. The great advantage of hiring an editor rather than being assigned one is that you can talk with them about what they think should be in a book in your chosen area, and see if you’re in basic agreement. When I was starting out book doctoring I took on too many books I should not have, because I didn’t ask the writer enough different ways (or directly enough) “What do you want to get out of this? Here’s the kind of thing I do, how does that fit your goals?”

        1. John, I agree it can happen. J K Rowling chose her publisher for The Casual Vacancy on the basis of the editor she wanted to work with. Of course, the rest of us may just have to lump it with who we’re given.

          I’m sure it can work when the author is the one paying the editor, but I suspect that a lot of would-be authors won’t listen to the advice they’re given. I know a self-publisher who has been given very good advice by several people but he’s still hell-bent on doing it “the indie way”.

      3. Sorry Dave I did not find your comment until today, but thanks for the reply. I think the problem was a non-congruence of philosophy ( no belief in the numinous, or characters which implied it) rather than ‘field of interest’ which was ostensibly science but of a ‘new’ kind ie consciousness not material! That would probably not easily be revealed by a mini editorial biog but might emerge from a writer’s whitelist.

  4. Great time line, Roz. The process you describe is very similar to what I do. It really makes a difference in the quality of the book. Also, as you pointed out, I believe getting feedback from other people is absolutely essential.

    But it isn’t easy. The process I use requires a minimum of 4 drafts (alpha, beta, editor, proof), which means I’m critically reading through the entire manuscript and revising it at least 4 times. Revision of my first book took longer than the original writing! It takes patience and concentration to revise properly, and you have to constantly fight the desire to just be done with it and move on to something else.

    A lot of authors hate revision, but I discovered that I love it. The book gets so much better with each draft. I expected revision to be boring, but I find it exciting to read over a revised passage and see how much better it has become. I’ve been known to pump the air with my fist after successfully cleaning up something that has been bothering me. By the time I’m done with the final draft, I feel confident that I’m releasing the best work that I can into the world.

    1. Hey, Daniel! I’ve always found revision takes much longer than the writing, but I regard it as part of the creative work. As you’ve found, it’s so rewarding to see what you can do with a story when you tackle it critically again. The production and feedback process then comes after this, with possible rewrites.
      This is one of the reasons that traditionally published books are so polished – because of the number of times someone goes through them. (Although I’m well aware that trad publishers also cut corners these days. I certainly wouldn’t use some of their proofreaders, they’re not fussy enough for my liking.)

  5. Yes, even those who call themselves editors and charge $40 an hour, or whatever, are often no more than copyeditors. Check with previous clients. I would even go so far as to ask for examples of their work. Sometimes they will graciously give you a page or two or five of editing for free; if so, take it, then scrutinize whether what they’re offering is nitpicky typo stuff, or meaty character and plot and voice stuff. Other option is to ask them to edit only the first chapter or so, pay them their fee, check out their work, and decide if they’re really on the job or simply moonlighting as a proofreader while calling themselves an editor.

    From someone who has heard all the hard luck stories from authors via PYP.

    Good article, again, Roz.

  6. Thanks for the insight, Roz. We’ve been our own editors for quite some time now, and it seems things keep slipping through the cracks. We’ve contemplated the idea of hiring someone to edit, but have been hesitant handing over our babies. Great post, so helpful. 🙂

  7. Very good article, and I’ll echo the comments from Chila. I work as a freelance editor, and I only promote copy editing and line editing services. While I’m comfortable doing big-picture editing on nonfiction manuscripts, I don’t currently feel qualified to do developmental editing; I believe I need more experience and more practice working with fiction. I won’t hesitate to refer a client to another editor if he or she needs more than I’m qualified to do, and I believe any truly professional editor would do the same.

    Chila’s advice is good: if you’re a writer looking for an editor, don’t hesitate to ask questions to determine if that editor is the right fit for you, and don’t be shy about asking the editor to do a sample edit so you can see what you’re getting. (Keep in mind you can’t really do a sample developmental edit; you need the entire manuscript for that!) Or, consider asking the editor if you can hire him/her to edit only the first couple of chapters if you’re unsure about committing to the entire project right away.

    The professional editors I know understand the value of the right author-editor fit and are committed to helping authors make their books better, even if that means referring them to another editor.

    1. Absolutely, Diane – I ask a lot of questions when a client approaches me and frequently turn work away if I think I’m wrong for it or they’re not ready.
      I actually don’t do a sample edit. When I have tried them I’ve ended up saying ‘I wouldn’t start the story like this, but it might be that if I read further I would completely understand why you did that and how to suggest you tweak it’. But usually people come to me because of my blog, so they have an idea of the kinds of things I’m likely to pick them up on and what I’m sensitive to.

  8. One of the points you touch on time and time again, and is greatly appreciated, is that of time. It takes time to create anything, especially something as complex as a book, but that’s fallen by the wayside during the indie revolution. And it shows in what’s being offered. Writers whip up a book in a matter of weeks, send it to their “editor” to work their three-day magic, then up it goes on sale. I wouldn’t trust an editor with a turn around time of three days, especially when so many books need a good developmental editor.

    I did work in that capacity at one time, and it was delicate territory. It took a lot of time and consideration because I had to go over the manuscript many times and ask myself if I was looking at an utter mess or something groundbreaking that needed guidance, patience, and a tremendous amount of time on my part. At the development stage, editors always run the risk of squashing something fresh and exciting if they don’t stand back and stretch their thinking beyond the status quo. They’re worth twice whatever they’re paid, and there has to be a good personal and working relationship established.

    All forms of editing are an art form unto themselves, and not everybody has the talent for it. The last thing I want is an editor who doesn’t understand their own value and rushes through the work as a secondary task on their to do list. When we put our work out there, it stays there. Measure the amount of time making it the best it can be against the time it will remain in the public eye as the ruins of hasty work, and time spent on the layers of editing will always win. I wish more would understand this irrefutable fact of publishing life. And I’m so grateful you’re here to remind us.

    1. Cyd, you’re so right – as always. Everybody underestimates the time factor. Unless you’re writing something so straightforward it’s virtually painting by numbers – but even then, a book like that can’t be properly finished in a couple of weeks.
      And editing is exhausting. I always quote at least six weeks from the point I get the manuscript. Much of that time is trying to understand what intentions are under the roughness, and it can take me quite a while to work out what I should be telling the writer and guiding them to do. When this works, the relationship you build with them is very rewarding.
      I had one client who was writing a religious thriller, hoping to get a book deal, but under the genre tropes I suspected a much finer sense at work – and in my report I said so. I think it’s given him the confidence to stretch a little further.

      You mention that once a book is out, it’s out for ever. Oh my goodness, yes. What a pity it would be to ruin something because you rushed it -your book only gets one chance to make an impression.

  9. TIME is a major ingredient in writing.

    Time gives you distance to find the flaws in the plot and to make the characters more interesting. Time is needed for you to see the otherwise “obvious” typos and Time is needed for editing, copy editing, beta testing and more.

    I’m a fast writer, but I’ve learned that I have to slow myself down and take a breath (more like a month or two of breathing) between drafts and to allow time for the input of beta readers and copy editors.

    We all want writing to look like it does in the movies. LOL… fantasy, not life!

    1. ‘What writing looks like in the movies…’ that would be a post of its own. Writers in movies type ‘the end’ and we know it’s going to land on an editor’s desk. They struggle with a blank page, not a page of tangled rubbish with a few lovely passages you can’t bear to throw away. Great observation!

  10. Amen, Amen, Amen!

    As a freelance and professional editor, I can’t tell you how much I love this post.

    One of my current clients — under contract by my publisher — simply cannot or will not see that, yes, she will have to do a rewrite rather than but the literary version of Band-aids all over the manuscript. The patches are faster and easier; the hard work takes too much time and mental energy.

    Crazy thing, though: as a writer who used to hate editing my own work, I’ve grown to view it as enjoyable as, if not more enjoyable than, the original creative process.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. That’s a very good point about revision; in-depth revision usually requires you to be prepared to disembowel a book. Not always, but you have to be willing to follow a hunch and unravel a lot in order to find a true solution. As you say, patches are only superficial.

      1. Hey Roz,

        I’m replying here because I can’t get the normal Comment box to accept text (dunno why). Thanks for the post: the combination of your comments about the book cover conveying the essence of the book and Victoria Mixon’s post about the climax being the point of the story, both combined in my head to make a Ta Da! moment. I now know what was wrong with the ending I had planned and how to fix it.

        Can’t wait to try out that other idea you had about a finished novel – sounds a bit weird but I’ll try it.


          1. Don’t worry, I was being self deprecating – the idea of me ever getting to the point where I can take my book to an editor seems fanciful at best..

  11. Absolutely invaluable advice, thank you so much for this blog post!

    Just out of curiosity, what’s a rough idea of a timeline for this process end-to-end? I realize that this would vary substantially from writer to writer and book to book, but it always helps me to get a sense of it. Even a range would be helpful. Is 1-2 years for the entire process too aggressive a timeline? Too conservative? Just wondering how long others usually take to go through this entire process so I can see where I fall in the continuum of things :).

    1. Jen, that really is a difficult question to answer, but I’ll try.
      First, writing and revising. If it’s your first novel, you’ve got a lot of learning to do. You might change your mind a lot about the kind of novel you’re writing and not discover your niche until quite a few false starts. When you get feedback, that might cause you to make drastic changes. Then of course you need to get a fresh round of reader responses and you might still have work to do. That’s normal, even for novels that are being considered in traditional publishing. There’s often a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with editors’ comments before an offer is made and the manuscript is considered substantially okay for the next editorial stages. This can easily take 4-6 months.
      If you’re aiming for a particular genre the writing is relatively easy because the genre itself gives you rough guidelines on how you should shape your material. Genre writers I know take the longest over the first book, but once they’re in the groove they can trot the rest out much more quickly. It’s even easier if they’re writing in a series because the world and characters have already been developed. So looking at that as the fastest possible scenario, you can easily produce a good-to-go manuscript in a year, or perhaps even six months, including polishing stages. (I once did 4 in a year. It was hell. 😦 )
      At the other end of the scale are the writers of less straightforward work. With these there’s often a period of discovery like there is for beginners, but revisions etc take longer because they’re more exploratory. In that case, a writer who’s got a good grasp of the basics would need at least 2 years to get the most out of a manuscript. An editor’s feedback might change a lot too – to do those changes might be at least 6 months. (On the other hand, they may not!)
      So now onto the cosmetic editing etc. Copy editing and proof reading are meticulous, although an editor can turn a manuscript around in a week or so, depending on their workload. Finding a reliable person who can fit you in may take time, though! How much work does the writer have to do afterwards? Depends. The copy editor may unravel some plot impossibilities, so fixing them might involve tricky reworkings. If they don’t, though, the mistakes spotted will just be niggles you can sort out in a week at most.
      Proof-reading shouldn’t give you much extra work to do afterwards – just check the changes and accept them. Allow a few days for this, depending on your personal tolerance.
      After that, if you’re self-publishing, you need to think about formatting for ebooks and, if you’re doing it, print. Ebooks are relatively easy to sort out – especially for straight novels. You need a day to do it at most. Print books take ages to prepare – more about it here
      Hope that’s helped! And thanks for all your lovely tweets – much appreciated.

      So that’s the

      1. Super helpful, thank you!!

        Thankfully, I’ve got my learner novel out of the way, although in many ways, this feels so much like a first novel again, if only because I’ve got such a different approach this time around. I was very much a pantser with the first one, whereas with this one, I’ve got an extensive outline, spent a great deal upfront thinking about structure and identifying my key story milestones, and am powering through the first draft, saving revisions for later stages (see, I am already applying all the principles from Nail Your Novel :)).

        With the first one, I thought reading years’ worth of writing craft books meant I knew what I was doing. Ha! I powered my way to the finish line on sheer will–sometimes it felt as though I was doing so just to prove that I could see it through. But I did it in the most inefficient manner, editing/polishing as I went along (which doesn’t do squat if you haven’t laid out the whole story yet) and doing this to death, so no wonder it took me 6 years to finish the first draft of that first manuscript. Not surprisingly, I was so sick of it that I had to put it away for 4 years before I could look at it again, and when I finally did, all the time and emotion I’d invested in it kept me from truly making the necessary changes. I must confess I didn’t do nearly the amount of revision I should have before I started querying it and lo and behold, it hasn’t gotten many bites.

        But we learn from our mistakes, and this experience feels vastly different than the first. First of all, I’m writing in the genre I truly have passion in (the first one was a one-off in chick lit, a genre I do read and while I *did* have passion for that particular story, I knew that long term, I wanted to write in sci-fi/fantasy). And second, I unleashed my inner plotter and realized that far from shackling my creativity, extensive plotting and outline has actually freed it and the words are flowing like water–I’ve written more in the first month of working on this first draft than I did in TWO YEARS of working on the first novel. No joke. Of course, it helps that I feel as though I’ve struck gold with this story idea and I am so in love with this world and its people that it’s truly a pleasure getting to work on this first draft (even if, as first drafts go, it’s… shall we say, rough :)).

        Anyway, compared to other writers, I’m sure I’m still a bit slow, but we’ve all got our own rhythm to find. I have a feeling, though, I’ll be able to wrap up this first draft in less than 6 years ;). And since this is a trilogy in the making, I’m hoping books 2 and 3 will be much easier for me to produce, once I’ve got my feet wet with book 1.

  12. Good advice.
    what always makes me l!ugh are the writers who come to me and say, I just spent twice your fee on an editor who was terrible, so can you give me a discount on your rates?

  13. This is such a valuable post. One of the biggest problems with self-publishing is that beginners think they can publish a salable novel after having only one person read and “edit” a first draft. Often they only want to pay an editor for proofing. Paying to proof an unrevised beginner novel is a waste of time and money. And you’re right about cover designs, too. Beginners tend to like titles like “A Woman’s Journey” or “Hope and Faith” that are hopelessly generic and say nothing. It takes a long time to find the right title. Great post.

  14. Thanks for the article, and yes, I will take your advice to heart on the cover! There is something infinitely tempting about having a cover to showcase the manuscript that you are working on – but as you said, follow the tried and tested schedule.. 🙂

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