You’ve written a book, huh? Congratulations. That in itself is reason to celebrate. As you have now realised, writing is damn hard, and you stuck to it. You were stubborn enough to keep going, even when it was hard, even when you didn’t have time or inspiration, and now you’re finished. I hope you have celebrated this milestone, because the hard work isn’t over yet: publishing (or self-publishing) a book the right way can be as hard as writing it.
That being said, I want to make things easier for you. I have written and self-published my debut Epic Fantasy novel Seeds of War in May 2023, and then a shorter prequel novella (Ruins of Smoke) in September 2023. Since I launched my debut six months ago, I’ve sold over 1,500 copies across all formats, and got a translation deal with a foreign publisher. I’m not here to tell you how successful I am: there are self-published authors doing MUCH better than me. They’re selling hundreds of copies every single day, and there are so many ways to reach success in self-publishing.
You know what they all have in common, though? None of them started with the success they have now. Publishing is a long game and requires work, research, preparation, luck and, well, some money. Think of it as starting a business and investing your own funds into it. You, the author, become the face of the company. You are the brand.
I will say, however, that I can only talk about my experience, which is in commercial fiction. If you’ve written a non-fiction book or a literary/experimental novel, the advice in my self-publishing guide might not apply to you at all. If you write contemporary or historical fiction, romance, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, horror, or any sort of blend of these, then there are good chances are you will find this guide very helpful, or at least parts of it.
So, let’s stop wasting time, shall we? You’ve finished your novel. You have it all neat and tidy in a Word document, you have a title for it, and you know you want people to read it, but you aren’t sure about the best way to go about it. In the world of the internet, there are so many ways of publishing your book. You can query literary agents the traditional way and hope they’ll like your book and offer to try and sell you book to traditional publishers. You can go to Wattpad, RoyalRoad, AO3, and other websites that publish serialised content, and you publish your whole novel there, one chapter at a time. You can also self-publish it on Amazon and on all other major retailers.
My self-publishing guide focuses exclusively on the last one. But self-publishing is hard too, and it takes time, money, or a combination of the two, so this isn’t a decision you should make lightly. I want you to ask yourself serious questions first:
1) Why do I want to publish?
2) Do I need to be validated by the traditional industry?
3) How bad do I want this book to be successful? And how hard am I willing to work to make that happen?
The last question is undoubtedly the most important one because it allows you to measure just how ambitious you are about this book and your future writing career, as well as how much time, energy, and money you have to invest in it. If you decide that you’re happy with just having a copy of the book in physical format in your hands, this guide probably isn’t for you. If you just want to have the book published somewhere for your friends and family to go and buy it, this guide is probably also not for you. Now, if you want to keep writing and publishing novels regularly, want to make a career out of it, then this guide will give you some points in the right direction, especially if you are taking your very first steps.
So, from this point on, I’m assuming that if you’re still reading, it’s because you are truly invested in picking yourself up from nothing, and working to build your publishing journey, your author brand, and give your books a chance of being bought and read all over the world. Exciting, isn’t it? Buckle up! The hard work never stops. You’ll notice this guide also mentions that I’m giving advice on how to publish and “do it right”. By that, I mean I can hopefully help you avoid beginner mistakes in terms of your strategy to give your novel the best shot at publishing success that it can possibly have.
Damn, this introduction is already way too long, isn’t it? Ok. Now, it’s really over.
Step 1 - Editing
You might have written the best novel ever. Maybe you’re a literary genius. Maybe you have a degree in English Literature from Oxford. Maybe you are Jane Austen’s long-lost heir. But want to know something?
You still need to have your book professionally edited.
And I’m not talking about your old English teacher, your mother, or that friend of yours who says he has a very keen eye for grammar and punctuation. I promise you, even the best and most successful authors that ever lived have or had their books professionally edited. And I can also promise you that all of those books you love were made better BECAUSE they were properly edited. If you want to self-publish your book and do it right, that means you want it to be indistinguishable from a book published by a traditional publisher, which means you need to hire a professional editor.
Now, there are different types of editing, so if you’re looking for professional editors, you need to know which is which.
1) Developmental Editing: This is when a developmental editor reads your book, usually twice, and sends you something called an ‘edit letter’, where they make loads of comments and notes on the development of the book, usually tackling things like character development, plot, setting, pacing, voice, etc. This edit seeks to make your book as best as it can be on a developmental and structural level. The issue with this kind of editing is how expensive it is. If you hire a good, trustworthy, reputable developmental editor who reads, understands, and loves your genre/subgenre, this will most likely set you back at the very least $1,000, but probably more. What a lot of writers do, me included, is get critique partners and beta readers to indirectly help you with the book in its developmental stage. Critique partners are other writers with whom you swap manuscripts and give each other feedback, and beta readers are readers and potentially bloggers/reviewers, who read your book before it’s ready for publishing and give you some feedback on it. Because they’re not editors, you can take their feedback with a pinch of salt, but if many of them are making the same kind of comments, you might want to implement those suggested changes... Generally, you don’t have to pay for critique partners or beta readers, but I will say it can be slightly difficult to find good and trustworthy ones online, so just be patient and keep trying. If you want to save money, you will have to accept this will be a trial and error situation. The added benefit of working with a critique partner is that you will also be expected to give feedback on their work (and please do that, don’t flake on someone!), which can actually make you a better writer as it forces you to read as a writer and with a developmental lens on, which will help you a lot in the long run.
2) Line/Copy Editing: This might just be the most important kind of editing you may have. While line editing usually focuses on the flow, pacing and whether each sentence makes sense within the book, copy editing is a lot more focused on making sure something you wrote on chapter 30 doesn’t contradict what you wrote on chapter 4. Editors usually do both of those together, but when hiring one, make sure that this is what the service includes, and for the love of God, ask for sample edits before you pay anyone anything! Real, trustworthy, and reliable copy/line editors will be happy to edit a sample of your book so you can see if their editing style gels with your novel or they’re familiar with tropes and conventions of the genre. If you don’t know where and how to find a line/copy editor, open any self-published book that you liked and thought was well edited in your genre, go straight to the Copyright page, and usually the author will write there who the editor for the book was, and you can go online to find them. Usually, you can also get free samples of books on Amazon who will display the Copyright page where you can see this. For a novel of about 100,000 words, you can expect to pay at the very least $700 for a good line/copy editor, but depending on who you want to hire, it can go up to $2,000, so something within that range is fair and you’re not overspending. Please, this is most definitely not the place to be cheap and cut corners. If you are not willing to spend $700 on a line/copy edit, you have to re-think your whole approach and whether you even want to self-publish at all. If your book is badly edited, you might have people buy the book, but you are much less likely to retain readers for future books. Don’t be short-sighted: you want read-through, not just sales.
3) Proofreading: If streets need to be cleaned and domestic waste needs to be collected and thrown away, then your manuscript also needs to be proofread by a professional. Chances are, you have read the book from beginning to end multiple times, and so has your editor, so neither of you will catch all the typos, bad grammar and other pesky mistakes. Again, there will be typos and mistakes no matter what. This is true even for traditionally published books, but many readers are already prejudiced enough against self-published books, so you don’t want to give them ammunition. If your book is full of typos from beginning to end, some people will put the book down, others will not be compelled to read the next books you write, and their general view of you as an author will suffer. Remember, think like a publisher, like a business: you’re trying to put out a professional product. In this case, that means you’re putting out a properly proofed book. My original proofreader wasn’t good enough, and I ended up having to hire (and pay for) a new one, so once again, cheapening out on this one might cost you a lot in the long run and you won’t even know about it. You can probably get reliable proof-readers for $300 for a manuscript of about 100,000 words, but chances are you will have to go higher, closer to $450-600.
That’s a lot to take in, I guess it. So, let’s re-cap. If you’ve decided you will outsource your developmental edits to critique partners and beta readers, and then hire a line/copy editor and a proof reader, the final and ready-to-publish version of your novel will probably set you back at the very least at $1,000, if we’re being optimistic.
I know, that’s a lot. Doing things right (or professionally) costs money. But as I mentioned earlier, you are now a brand and as a self-publisher. You, as an author, are now a business too. That means you are the project manager who hires the editors, the art director who commissions the cover, the marketing director, the CEO whose face is in the billboards, and also... the main investor. It’s a micro-company run by one individual only: you.
Just like starting any other small business, you can scale this depending on your ambitions. If you’re really ambitious, and got lots of cash to spare, you can invest more upfront. If you’re more cautious, you can try to do all of this yourself and save costs by learning things as you go, but editing just really isn’t something you can cut corners on. To self-publish a book the right way and retain readers after they buy your book, you need to have it properly edited by a professional.
(Continues in Part 2!)