When Should You Self-Publish Your Book?

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With digital tools, we have infinite publishing and writing possibilities. But how do we know when to self-publish and when to wait?

The future is here, or something like that. At least, that’s what self-publishing advocates say. As Jason and I said in our latest podcast episode (Episode 7), self-publishing’s been around for millenia, we just think of it differently in the digital age than we did in the past.

Isn’t that how it goes? We always think whatever is happening right now is new and untested. The truth is, the monolithic, “traditional” publishing system was a blip in history, and it’s not as lucrative as it was 10 years ago.

In the podcast, we both advocated for self-publishing, and we think you should self-publish in unique ways. If you’re up for the challenge, think about ways to get your work out there without feeling stuck with the current options (like Amazon’s KDP).

"Digital Reading" flickr user jose.jhg
“Digital Reading” flickr user jose.jhg

But when should you self-publish your book? How do you know when to get your words out there to the public? The answers to these questions will depend on a lot of factors, but here are some quick things to consider:

1. Take your time, and be ruthless about your writing.

It takes a lot of time to develop a manuscript or project that’s ready for others to read. I’m sure most writers would love to have enough talent to hit “publish” as soon as something’s done, but it doesn’t work that way. For anything to be worth your time and to attract readers, you have to take your time and be ruthless. Don’t be a perfectionist, but know when it’s time to get your work in front of people.

How much time to take? As much time as it needs. I know, that’s not an answer. But if you’re honest with yourself about your creative goals, you’ll know when it’s ready.

When you think it’s ready, well, that’s only the first step. That’s when it’s time to seek out trustworthy, honest readers. “Honest” is the key word here.

2. Get your work in front of people as soon as it’s in “beta.”

You know the phrase “beta,” used in the tech industry to describe a new product? It’s called a beta product because it’s good enough to use, but it’s buggy and not ready for the general public. When you use a beta product, you accept some risk because you know it’s not finished. The product owners need users to work out the bugs or make usability changes.

In self-publishing, beta readers are vital to your success. This Writer’s Digest article will help you find quality beta readers.

What do you need from a beta reader? Honesty. Don’t ask your mom for advice. She’ll say everything you do is wonderful. You don’t need empty praise from friends and family, nor do you need mutual backscratching. You need honesty.

If you need honest beta readers, join a writers group. Writers groups are everywhere, and you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to sit in a college writing workshop to get frank advice from seasoned writers.

I’ve found dozens of writers groups within 20 miles of my home. I attend three of them, and I found all three at my local library with very little time spent networking. The group members come from different backgrounds and writing experiences – all helpful for me to “see” my writing in more than one way.

What if you can’t find beta readers locally? Online writers groups at writing-focused sites, like BookCountry.com’s Read & Review, help you find like-minded readers.

After a while, you’ll get to know some writers and appreciate their critique style. Keep in touch with these people; they’ll be invaluable to you as you get your work out in front of readers, or when you put together your next manuscript.

3. Seek out professional help after you’ve had the book beta read.

When is it time to take the next step? Again, that depends on how long it takes to implement your workshopped and beta-read drafts. And you might not agree with every suggestion from beta readers. It’s up to you to determine when it’s ready.

For many writers, the next step is to submit the work to potential publishers. If you have a finished manuscript, you might also seek out representation from an agent – a typical next step for prose writers looking for traditional publishing (BTW, poets don’t usually seek out agents).

But if you decide to self-publish, the next step is to get your work ready for publication. Your beta readers helped you get your story together, but how does that story turn into a book?

First, you’ll need a plan of action for self-publishing your book. Think of it as your book’s business plan because if you’re going to self-publish, you need to take responsibility for things like sales, marketing, and publicity.

Once you have a plan, consult with an editor. But before you do that, make sure you know what type of editor you need:

  • Developmental editor (also known as “substantive” or “content” editor). This type of editor works a lot like an experienced, professional beta reader. A developmental editor is responsible for the big picture editorial decisions. A strong developmental editor will look through your text for issues of logic, structure, flow – basically, anything you don’t need in your text, or anything that lacks development. Your developmental editor needs experience in your genre or style of writing. Only hire a developmental editor if you feel you didn’t get thorough feedback from beta readers or if you think the text still has structural issues you can’t address on your own.
  • Copy (or line) editor. A copy/line editor is responsible for cleaning up your text. They focus on grammar, usage, and style. They’ll also clean up any glaring errors – though you should hire a proofreader for a final polish once you have all the grammar and usage issues sorted out. Not every writer needs a developmental editor, but most writers need help from a copy editor. If it’s in your budget, hire a copy editor. Most, if not all, writers need their work copyedited – even the editorial staff at professional publications need copy editors.
  • Proofreader. A proofreader is the last person to look over your book. Generally, a proofreader looks over your book’s page proofs and looks for typos, style errors, misspellings, and any copy-related issues. A proofreader prepares your manuscript for final publication, but they don’t work on your grammar or usage issues like a copy editor.

For more information on the process of editing, and for more frank advice on what you need to do to get a book published, check out this Writer’s Digest article: “10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You—But Should”.

Once the book is edited, you’ll also need a cover designer. Don’t skimp on artwork: it’s how people notice and choose to buy your book. Here’s a good place to start: “10 Tips For Effective Book Covers”.

4. Your book’s ready. Now what?

Here’s your moment of truth: you have a book ready, but now what do you do?

At this stage, self-promotion is key. Don’t be afraid to reach out to readers using social media and through readings. But don’t be annoying when you do this.

Start something online before you self-publish the book – ideally before you decide how to publish the book. Start a blog or get involved in online communities related to your genre or writing style. Let people know you’re writing a book. Find a small group of like-minded readers to chat about ideas. The point is, talk about it, publicly and privately.

Bottom line

You have to choose what to do based on your long-term goals, your budget, and how much time you can put into promoting the book. It takes a lot of time, patience, and a reasonable budget to self-publish.

Don’t expect self-publishing to solve all of your concerns about the book market. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone, and you’ll want to do some research and figure out how and where your project fits.

If you need help with this research, I recommend Jane Friedman’s “Recommend Resources” section at JaneFriedman.com.

For readers involved in the self-publishing process, what advice do you have for writers thinking about self-publishing?

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.