So you’ve written a book. Great! You finally have a complete manuscript, possibly after years of working on it. Are you finished? Absolutely not! You now have more work to do to make sure you publish the best book you can. And why would you not want to make that effort for something you have poured so many crumpled pages, late nights, and rants to your pets into?
Why then, do I so often hear writers ask the question, “Do I really have to <fill in the blank>”: “Do I really have to have a development editor?” “Do I really need to build a social media following?” Yes, you really do. Whether you plan to self-publish or publish traditionally, if you want to be successful as an author, there are a number of corners you simply cannot cut. Here is a list of seven of the most critical ones, gleaned from 20 years in the publishing business.
Step 1: Getting Beta Readers
You have a finished draft! Congratulations! You have already succeeded where many fail—you have completed a manuscript. Now, see if you can get someone to read it, and give you their thoughts—what bugs them about the book? What do they really like? It can be anxiety inducing to seek feedback on your work at this point, but it is vitally important. Make sure you choose beta readers who will be honest with you—friends, family, or colleagues you trust. It is important to note that this is not at all the same thing as having your book carefully and thoroughly edited by a professional who specializes in this. This is just to see if your story has legs, if there are any major issues that appear to a casual reader, and how you handle getting feedback on your work.
Step 2: Development Editing
Your beta readers liked your book. They gave you some thoughtful feedback, and you took it well. You’ve revised your manuscript again. Now you need a development edit. Before you self-publish or submit to publishers and agents, you must have your manuscript thoroughly reviewed by a professional. There are many freelancers who specialize in this. Development editors look at every aspect of the book, and tell you clearly what is working, what isn’t, and why. They will tell you what will fly in the current publishing landscape, and what won’t. If you’re writing a novel, they will find plot holes; they will find inconsistent characterization; they will hone your dialogue. If you’re writing a memoir, they will point out the places where you need to dig a little deeper; where things may not ring true; what they think you’re not telling your readers—and why you need to. A book may look substantially different after a development edit.
Step 3: Copyediting
Once your book is development edited, it needs a copyedit. If you are published traditionally, they will typically handle this step for you. If you intend to self-publish, you will need to contract with a freelancer to do this. Copyeditors look for different things from what your DE looked for. They will make sure your characters’ names are spelled the same at every appearance; they will make sure the car you remember as a Chevy Citation actually existed in the year you say it did. They will look for (and fix!) punctuation, spelling, and grammar issues. After a good copyedit, your manuscript should look very spiffy indeed—polished up to a high shine.
Step 4: Thoughtful Design
If your book is traditionally published, they will design the cover and interior for you, over which you will have a say (but may need to be prepared to compromise on—publishers have in-house experts who live and breathe book packaging—trust them). If you self-publish, you cannot skimp on this part of the process. Your book’s interior design should make it easy to read, and look professional. Your book’s cover design is critical. It has to convey what your book is about and draw readers in, and it generally only has seconds on an Amazon page or in a bookstore to do so. A good book designer will produce a cover and interior that will show your content to its best advantage. You may be tempted to save some dough and throw it into a layout program yourself, throw some type on a stock image and call it a cover, and throw it up onto Amazon. If you do this, you may as well make one last throw of it—into the trash. If it looks cheaply or unprofessionally done, you won’t get it into bookstores, and Amazon shoppers are increasingly more savvy about buying self-published books. Done right, a self-published book is indiscernible from a traditionally published one—this is worth the investment in your work.
Step 5: Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Aren’t copyediting and proofreading the same thing?, I hear you wonder. No, they are not. Proofreading should not be done until the book has been laid out by a designer. Proofreading is the final step before publication. This is your last chance to make sure there are no errors in your text, no glitches in your layout. It should always be done by a professional who has never seen your work before—fresh eyes are critical to catch any last little thing. And there are always last little things!
Step 6: Building Your Online Platform
If a book lands on Amazon but no one is there to see it, does it make a sale? No, no it does not. Step 6 is really a step that you should be doing concurrently with steps 1–5—you want to have a platform and following before your book comes out if you self-publish, and before you submit if you plan to traditionally publish. Use your website and social pages to drum up excitement about your work. Give previews (but don’t spoil anything!). There are many examples of authors who do this very well. Start with Twitter—which writers do you follow there? What do they do that seems to lead to lots of positive interactions with followers? Follow their lead. On your website (you do have a website, don’t you? You need one. There are many inexpensive and even free options—so don’t skip this!), write blogs that will make your readers eager for your book. Show your unique personality. Share your voice. And always, always be genuine—readers will know when you’re faking it.
Step 7: Marketing and Promotion
If you are traditionally published, you may think you can leave the marketing to the publisher—think again! Budgets are stretched thin at most houses. Unless you land with the Big 5 (and even if you do) you will be called upon to do many marketing activities for your book. If you self-publish, this will be your business, solely. If you don’t feel confident in your marketing abilities, there are many agencies who can help. Be prepared to give readings, participate in panels, write articles, and do whatever it takes to get your book in the hands of readers—and isn’t that why you wrote it, in the first place? Publishing a book is a massive undertaking, but if you do it right, it can yield big rewards.