Advice for the Self-Publisher

Last week, I gave an interview to Inkspokes, a website dedicated to independent authors and their readers.  The interviewer, Nelson Suit, who is one of the editors at Inkspokes, asked me a number of questions about my own experiences as an author who published his own work, but then asked me — as both a writer and a publisher of others’ writing — what would be my advice for folks who were looking at self-publishing. Well, a lot of people who are smarter than I am have given thought to that subject, but after considering the question for a bit, here’s what I came up with:

DK: My two biggest pieces of advice will both seem a bit heretical.

The first is that self-publishing doesn’t mean that you have do everything yourself — or that you should. The chairman of Penguin/Random House doesn’t copyedit every book, nor does he try to design his own covers. He’s your competition. Budget in the time and (if you can) the money to outsource the parts of the work of publishing that you really can’t (or as I said shouldn’t) handle yourself.

The places where you will really serve yourself best by finding someone else to help out? Highly technical processes like print layout and cover design. It’s possible to create your own ebooks if your work is narrative and doesn’t include much in the way of complicated formatting or images.


You should absolutely have editors at each of the three stages of editing — development (before the “final” draft is finished); copyediting (after you’re done developing the book but before you’ve had it laid out); and proofreading (after layout/conversion and just before publication). Do you have to hire professionals? I’m not unbiased, I recognize, but I highly recommend it.

Having said that, not every book needs a developmental edit; if it’s been through lots of workshopping or peer review, then you might be able to minimize or even skip this step. It is essential, however, to have someone professional or at least very knowledgeable in the finer points of language and publishing look the writing over before you start to transform the manuscript into a book. Language that makes perfect sense to you and your family may turn out to be absolutely incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t know you or the subject.

A good copyeditor will not only fix errors of style and mechanics, but will also ask the kinds of questions that you don’t want your readers to have to ask — Isn’t the Golden Gate Bridge red? Wasn’t Bill’s wife named Rebecca the last time we saw him — is he divorced and remarried, or is this the same woman? Are you sure you want her to scream in ALL CAPS for three paragraphs? It’s an essential part of the process.

The same with proofreading, which happens after the designer(s) have finished converting the book into its various formats. Not only is a good proofreader amazingly good at actually seeing what you’ve actually written (as opposed to what you THINK you’ve written — missing words that our minds fill in, homonyms, etc.) but they will see where the design has created problems that weren’t in the manuscript — technical fine points like rivers, widows, and orphans, as well as gross formatting errors — missing paragraphs, improperly formatted pages and the like. They are the difference between a book that looks like a book and one that you’ve thrown together in Microsoft Word.

So: look at what you’ve got, and find people who can help you make it as clean and as polished as you can.

selfpub-quoteThe other advice will seem not only counterintuitive, but counter to my last suggestion: don’t wait until it’s perfect to publish.

Books are infinitely perfectible. The traditional publishing process and a bazillion MFA writing programs have conditioned us to think that no book is ever ready — that they must be workshopped and rewritten and workshopped again. And again.

Each book that you create must be (as I said above) as polished as you can make it — well thought-through and as well crafted as you can manage, and then as well honed as you can get the help to achieve.

But that doesn’t mean that you should wait for Apollo to come down from Olympus and award your manuscript a laurel crown before you can publish it.

Writing is a craft. What is the best way to learn a craft? By practicing it. If the Beatles had sat in their families’ flats in Liverpool waiting until their sound was just right rather then heading off to Hamburg and just playing and writing and playing and writing… where would popular music be today?

Most authors think only of their first book. But honestly? Once you’ve written that one, you will look up and think of other things to write about. (Many authors have to hold those ideas at bay until they have the room to address them.) At the very least, you will have learned much from the process of publishing that first book that you really owe it to yourself to try to put back into practice.

One way that you can help yourself: divide and conquer. That mammoth manuscript, covering five generations of a single family’s battle to survive? See if there are places where you can cut it into pieces, and then develop the pieces as fully as you can, publishing them serially. Hey. It worked for Dickens. And Tolkien. And thousands of other authors.

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s easy to bite off too much; my own first novel manuscript stalled at about 40,000 words before I realized that what I really had was the first part of a three- or possibly four-part series. (It’s now with an agent; I told you I still respect traditional publishers! Also, she turns out to be an excellent developmental editor.)

The second part is purely business: it’s hard to market a single title. But once you have a series — or even a number of unrelated titles — there’s a critical mass that becomes easier and easier to reach. Each title sparks off of the others. A reader who enjoys one book will find another. A positive review for one book will benefit the rest.

So don’t wait. Publish. Publish. Publish.

NS: What piece of advice might you give to a person starting out as an independent publisher that you wish you had when you started out?

DK: Following up on what I said above: do everything as well as you possibly can — but don’t try to be perfect. There’s never been a book that didn’t need at least a little more editing. To paraphrase Cyrano de Bergerac,* shoot for the moon, but don’t be disappointed when you find that you’ve fallen among the stars.

* I’ve since looked up this quote and have discovered that I was mixing up a bit of Cyrano and a bit of a quote attributed to a number of folks, among them Les Brown. Should have used an editor. 😉

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