How to write a book

Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

7345133320_0dd41c6fc1_cThis post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.

1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing

– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.

As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.

Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.

But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.

guar teaching w joanna
Teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass: pic courtesy of Joanna Penn

2 It isn’t either-or.

Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.

Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.

There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)

Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.

LAF workshop
Workshop at the London Author Fair: that’s Dave looking thoughtful on my left!

3 Selfpublishing your first book

Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.

Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.

What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:

1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book

2 They might be fibbing (surely not)

3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.

I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.

And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.

Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair

What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments

29 thoughts on “Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

  1. Thanks for the guidance, it chipped away a bit of my ignorance about self-publishing. That ignorance has been holding me back from deciding to self-publish, even though I’ve been getting no real traction with queries to agents. It seems I’d be smart to go slowly and think things through as I go.

    1. Hi Bill! I usually urge writers to query agents just to test the water. But even if a book is good there’s no guarantee that it will be commercial enough for an agent to take notice, and these days they’re less and less inclined to give helpful feedback when it’s easier to send a note saying ‘not for me, but good luck’.
      In that case, your best chance of getting real feedback – and producing a good book – is working with a likeminded developmental editor. I’m not pitching for your business, BTW – for starters, I may not be right for you. But an editor will help you get your work up to standard and then you can selfpublish a book that will be a credit to you.
      And plenty of talented writers have never been able to get agents, so don’t worry about it. Onwards and upwards.

  2. Very timely advice, Roz! I can add something about editing from personal experience: if you do it right, it always takes longer than you think, because you have to be very careful about “cascading changes” — if you change one thing, however small, about a character, you have to trace the effects of that change all the way down your narrative, and sometimes it means rewriting considerable portions of your MS. Then there are always the little niggly typos that you miss — no matter how many times you’ve combed through the book, be on the alert for missspelllings!

    Also I was intrigued by the idea of a “developmental editor” — a term I’d not run across before, but one that seems pretty self-explanatory. Would I be correct in saying a DE looks at a story in terms of evaluating strengths and weaknesses of plot, conflict, character, pacing, etc? To me, if you had a person like that with whom you were in synch, that sounds like an invaluable resource, both in making a present novel stronger and in seeing yourself as a writer from a different perspective.

    Thanks, Roz!

    1. Tom, you are so right. This is where a good copy editor is worth so much. They’ll find the remnants of previous versions that you were too exhausted to remember or spot, especially as you’d been unravelling and reravelling.

      And the term ‘developmental editor’… I think it might be American, come to think of it. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of Americans in this online writing world. Yes, you’re right in your assessment of what they do – what *we* do, I should say. We don’t rewrite; we make a close assessment of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, make suggestions for sorting the problems out or indicate what you should do about them; give advice on techniques that will help. In essence, it’s a personal, in-depth tutorial on your manuscript that will stand you in good stead for all the books you write.

      And yes, it’s a very valuable relationship. Some writers in traditional publishing will leave an imprint if their editor goes and will follow them to a new job.

  3. Thanks for addressing this. I really feel I need the validation of the traditional route for my first book. I know it will need more editing than I can give it.
    I can see myself being a hybrid author once I have the confidence to know I’m where I need to be with the craft of writing to put my best work out to the public.

  4. There seems to be always something NEW in your articles (or mini-articles) on the Selfpublishing vs Non-selfpublishing. To start with:

    ■ The omission of the hyphen in the term ‘self-publishing’.

    Although English is not my vernacular language, I believe that even the British spell-checking softwares shall underline this omission with red colour. And I believe there’s an implicit message in the new word “Selfpublishing” that says it has become so much popular that such a word can now be coined for the Dictionary.

    Other novelties in this really good MINI-ARTICLE are:-

    1# Self-publishing has become, by 2014, already a ‘subject’ to LEARN.

    It now stands out not only as just a venture but as a branch of new knowledge for the Mankind, in its own right.

    2# A good warning signal to REVIEW the “Quick Fix” approach.

    Modern selfpublishing does offer it. But it is not necessarily ideal. Unless people make significantly amazing manuscript in the very first attempt. (Of which the probability is perhaps 5% which is statistically insignificant.) Or they have certain emergency kind of reasons to publish it where even quality may be compromised.

    3# It seems that even the Publishers (who are NOT writers) now need to study self-publishing.

    Otherwise, it may be hard for them to find these days Co-publishing deals i.e. Partnership deals with a Writer. Or to bring back an Indie (for a given project) in the Typical deal.

    I would advise the 2014 Writers to understand that the Publishers’ MAIN value in the Internet era has to re-analyzed. If there is STILL any value, then whether a given publisher follows it for a given project of a given writer.

    1. Hello Nirupam – thanks for dropping by – and for such a detailed comment!
      I thought long and hard about whether to put the hyphen in selfpublishing or not. You’re right that most spellcheckers wouldn’t agree, but I’ve been seeing it as one word around the Twittersphere. Indeed, in order to use it as a hashtag it can’t have any punctuation. So I felt it had been sanctioned by usage, and was allowable.
      But hyphenation is sometimes arbitrary, and a matter of personal taste. I certainly wouldn’t apply the same rule to apostrophes or wrong homonyms, where the rule is clear. (Just in case the edit police arrive in droves. I am qualified to set house style, and there will always be arguments about certain decisions…)

      To go to your other points – thank you, I’m glad they chimed with you. I do believe that selfpublishing (use or leave the hyphen as you wish) is becoming one of the skills that authors should at least be familiar with. Even if they don’t do it. And publishers need to become more aware of what writers are learning and the ways they can continue to offer value.

  5. As a book reviewer (as well as a writer) who offers reviews to indie-published work, I can definitely vouch for the fact that some people churn them out too quickly.

    I’m not just talking about poor grammar or spelling mistakes, I’m talking poor editing, weak writer’s voice, inappropriate style, over-written, under-written and in some cases seemingly having had not a single edit in their quest to reach a set-in-stone launch date.

    I feel I have learnt a lot as a writer simply from reading the self-published work of others.

  6. I so agree with your comments on leaving enough time for editing etc but I do think deadlines need to be set. I think a lot of us (myself included) procrastinate and/or could edit our own work forever. Sometimes we need to take the bull by the horns – I used a professional editor with my first book but then went and made some changes and went to publish without a second edit resulting in some typos I’d missed – I hadn’t built in time for that second edit and was up against a Xmas deadline.
    Reading tons of your posts today Roz, great content 🙂

    1. Hi Lorna! You’re right that we can’t fiddle for ever, but we need to be realistic about how much work our books need. And I’ve seen so many first-time authors make a schedule that allows, say, a month for changes after the developmental edit – which simply isn’t enough.
      Glad you’re enjoying my content – thanks for stopping by!

  7. Great adivce, Roz. I’m unpublished, but have been learning all I can about both options. To ignore one option in favor of the other is akin to a pro baseball player learning how to hit without ever catching a ball. This is such an exciting time to be a writer. All the barriers are coming down and anyone with drive and determination (and maybe a smidgen of talent) can publish with some success. Thanks for a great post.

  8. Hi Roz. I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts, and this one is full of good advice. They say life is likened to a roll of toilet paper — the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes. When one thinks about this, he can see why many would-be authors rush into self-publishing rather than seeking representation by a literary agent. For many, it isn’t just the money. Everyone, including me, wants to be remembered in some way after he or she leaves this life, and seeing one’s self in print is a guarantee that this will happen, even though only a limited number of copies of the book may sell. I am still trying to go the conventional route, by querying agents. l am one of those to whom you referred who wants the validation that someone other than myself thinks I have some talent and am worthy of publication. As far as editing is concerned, I have gotten to know you somewhat through your writing and through limited correspondence, and I know you have both the credentials, the expertise, and the integrity to do a developmental edit, but unfortunately that does not hold for all who advertise themselves as editors. Thanks again for the post, and all the best to you!

  9. It’s refreshing to see you raise the point that it’s not either/or Roz. Both sides will, of necessity, come to an accommodation with each other and we should stop seeing them as mortal enemies. Sure, it’s hard to get a trad deal and self-pub is the more straightforward way in, but one can lead to the other, as you illustrate. And I’m convinced that more hybrid models will begin to spring up once the trad publishers start to lose the fear of self-publishing.

    1. Thanks, Jon! Every time I think we’re over the ‘mortal enemies’ phase, something reminds me we’re not. It will also be refreshing to see what happens when publishers wise up to the fact that writers are quite savvy these days. If they really start to think how they can work with writers’ expertise, we’ll all make giant strides. Exciting times ahead?

  10. Hello, Roz,

    Great site and as others have pointed out, lots of wonderful info. I’ve had modest success as an indie screenwriter & director, having written for our 24 companies. As the film biz went sideways, I decided to return to my roots and wrote my third novel, Boysie Blake. My first 2 galleys sucked, this one, after having been rewritten and polished over 20 times, then edited 3 times and no, not by me, is the first that I’m publishing with my own new, tiny imprint,

    I decided to go this route after much research and gnashing of choppers and, in particular, once my ms had been summarily rejected by Lee Child’s agent. The email is on display in my office along with the numerous script rejections I’ve earned over the years, and, in truth, made me laugh out loud.

    Anyway, I’ve just signed Patrick H Moore, and am also going to publish 2 graphic novels, along with considering other submissions. Which brings me to this: although indiepub has leveled the playing field, it has, by that very vertue, facilitated a lot of authors who either shouldn’t be, or could, perhaps, if only they had worked with a great editor. The amount of writers that don’t have their work edited prior to submission is stunning, as are the numerous defensive responses, no matter how gentle the hand.

    Although cream does rise, the issue is how does one rise above the flotsam clogging the pool? I’m fortunate in that I’ve been running a small indie film company, and have applied that knowledge to my imprint, plus I’m putting a team of volunteers together to work the social media of it all, but still, it’s no small task. We have software that key phrases our books to optimize their Amazon discoverability, and are constantly reworking the SEO, however, although we can’t compete with the power that tradpubs have with marketing, we’re finding new way to launch, which we will not be doing until later this summer.

    U.S. iNDiE BOOKS will also be offering bundles, so that a customer can purchase an eBook, or audio, paper or hardcover, for a single unit price, or any combination thereof for a reduced price. Will my strategy work? No idea, but it’s a brave new world and each day provides 24 hours of opportunity.


    Max Myers.

    1. Hi Max! You’ve talked about some very important issues here. Editing is one of the first rude surprises for an author once they venture into the publishing world. I still remember myself being astonished at how many passes a manuscript would go through. But it at least gave us a chance to be better than our stumbling first drafts!
      You’re right that it’s very hard to take that advice because it does often come as a shock. And even if you’re expecting it, it can be unexpectedly hard.
      You also mention discoverability. This is one of the main areas where indies really struggle, especially if we’ve written something that’s off the beaten track. Your SEO strategy sounds sensible – I wish you luck with it and with your new venture. Nothing ventured, nothing win.
      Lastly, your remark about the rejection made me chuckle. I have a humdinger for Lifeform Three, from a complete twit at a renowned publishing house. She sniffily gave a lot of advice on what was wrong with the book – all of which is now proved resoundingly wrong by the reviews I have. I decided to selfpublish that book when a New York agent told me: ‘it’s the most original novel I’ve read in years. I loved it and I can tell you nobody will publish it.’
      Power to us.

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