I’ve been writing for well over thirty years, almost twenty of them professionally. When I started writing, back in the early 80s, no one had heard of the internet. Hell, hardly anyone had heard of word processors. I did all my early writing by hand. When I advanced to a typewriter, sometime in high school, I felt like I’d hit the big time. The concept of writing an entire book seemed unreal to me, even though it was my one true goal in life. The idea of publishing was nothing more than a distant dream… and self-publishing was openly mocked as the last refuge of the incompetent.
As Grandpa Simpson said when he noticed Moon Pies in Apu’s QuiK-E Mart, “What a time to be alive.” These days, people can press the print button on anything they’ve written, and they can use the power of the internet to market it. Whether or not these books are of any quality is a separate conversation. It shouldn’t be, but it is. But the steps to success still elude those who haven’t had the benefit of one thing the internet cannot replace: a mentor. That’s why I’ve penned this article about the ten steps you can take to write and publish your book, from start to finish, and at the end you can actually see your finished product on the virtual shelves of Amazon… or wherever you choose to make it available.
This is the part where I convince you I know what I’m talking about. In case you’re new to my site and have never heard of me, I’ve written 14 books and am currently writing a 15th. 12 of my books were published by traditional publishing houses, including HarperCollins in the U.S. and Transworld/Doubleday in the U.K. My work has been translated into 15 languages and won or been nominated for several awards. I was also a reviewer of new fiction for the Toronto Globe and Mail for six years, I’ve designed and delivered many workshops on writing, and I’ve mentored dozens of other writers, some of them now very successful in their own right.
I don’t say all this to convince you I’m right. I just want you to know that everything I say below has worked for me, so if you want to borrow any of it, feel free.
And, before I forget, let me remind you about my free e-book, Writing for First-Time Novelists. I give this away to anyone who wants it. It’s short, and it contains a lot of little tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way. If you’re just getting started, or if you’re an experienced author but are curious about what I’ve got to say, check it out.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
0. Web and Social – start now
Before you even get going, remember that you’re going to be using your web presence to promote your book after it’s published. Because it takes some time to build up a following, if you don’t already have one, then you should start today.
If you don’t have a website yet, you can get one for free in any number of ways. I would recommend you avoid Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. They will allow you to make a pretty site very quickly, but they are lousy for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), meaning that they make it pretty hard for Google to find and index your site. Since one of the main reasons for having a website is to make yourself easily found, it defeats the purpose.
The two methods I recommend for a free site are WordPress.com or My Writing Network, which is also WordPress-based. I happen to run My Writing Network… it’s a nice little community of site owners who have a love of writing in common. We also have a Facebook group, which anyone is welcome to join.
WordPress.com is another great way to get started, because they offer live customer support and make it very easy for you to get up and running in a matter of a couple of hours. You can spend nothing if you choose, although upgrades are available to add functionality to your site.
You should also consider a Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest account. You might say, “But I don’t have time for these things!”, and you’re right–you don’t have time to waste hours a day on them. Fortunately, that’s not necessary. Once your site and your various accounts are up and running, you don’t need to spend more than a few minutes per day maintaining them. Where you’re going to fall into bad habits is reading other peoples’ posts! It gets addictive. Limit yourself accordingly.
So, what should you use these things for? In the case of a website, you can use it to start building the kind of profile you want your readers to know about. Write posts about yourself and your background. Talk about who you are. Readers like to be able to relate to writers, so the more approachable you can make yourself, the better. Write about writing. Write about what inspired you. Later, when your book is published, write about what it’s like to be a published author. Invite other writers to create guest posts on your site. The sky’s the limit.
In the case of social media, start building relationships by following other writers and joining groups. Retweet or repost those items that you think will appeal to your eventual readers. Avoid personal drama or anything that appears petty or vindictive. When you are logged into these accounts, try to remain professional, as if you were at work. Not every writer adheres to that level of conduct, but personally, I feel it’s a good idea.
The simplest way to talk about concept is to say what your book is about. If you can explain your story in just one sentence, sometimes known as an “elevator pitch”, then you probably already have the concept nailed down pretty well. If not, keep working at it until you do.
You don’t need to have your entire story all planned out before you start writing. Some people may disagree with me on that, and they are perfectly within their rights to feel that way, but writing is a very personal thing, and what works for one person might not work for another.
If you do know how your story is going to go, great! Write down a rough outline. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline… just make notes to yourself on what happens.
You probably already have a rough idea of what you want to write about. It may come to you in the form of a character, or a setting, or a line of dialogue. You may be interested in a particular historical period. Any of these are excellent stepping stones, and they are all part of the concept of your book.
But what if you don’t? What if you know you’d like to write a book, but you have no idea what to write about? In that case, spend some time just writing whatever pops into your head. It can be anything. Try closing your eyes and letting a particular kind of person swim into your mind’s eye. Who is this person? What are they wearing? Where are they? What are they feeling, and what are they saying? Start by writing about this… and then see where it leads you. This is called writing by discovery, and it’s practiced by some of the most famous writers in the world.
While we’re talking about planning ahead, another thing you should think about right away is your audience. Who do you want to read your book? Don’t just say, “Everyone who likes really good books.” You need to be more specific than that. Think in terms of groups. This is not so you can limit who reads your work. It’s so you can focus your promotional efforts. Your job of marketing will be much, much easier if you know who you are marketing to. In fact… you can’t market effectively at all unless you know who you are selling to! Eventually, your book will spill over into other groups as people begin to talk about it.
So, think about genre. Is it scifi? Romance? Coming-of-age? Furry fan-fiction? There are all kinds of genres, and it doesn’t matter which one you pick. Just make sure you have at least one in mind.
After that, think about groups. What kinds of people read the genre you’re writing for? Again, this is not to limit you. It’s to help you. As an example, my most recent novel, The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo, could be classed as Historical Fiction. But the group I started marketing to is Polish-Americans. See how that narrows it down? It made my job of promotion much easier, because it allowed me to target them with specific messages on Twitter, in blog posts, in Facebook group posts, etc. Of course, I never intended for ONLY Polish-Americans to read the book. My hope was that soon interest would spill over into other groups. And you know what? It did.
So, as you refine your concept, think of genre and target audience as starting points.
2. First Draft
The first draft is when your book is born. It’s when you need to write down all the ideas that occur to you, no matter how crazy or stupid they might seem at the time. You’ll be surprised later at how many of them you keep. You might also be surprised at how many ideas that you thought were brilliant don’t seem that way later. Welcome to writing!
This is a great time to learn how to turn off your Inner Editor. That’s the voice that criticizes every little thing you write. We all have it, and it has a role… but it doesn’t have a place yet in your writing process. It will later, when you’re writing the second and subsequent drafts.
Sometimes your Inner Editor can take on the voice of a person you actually knew and who criticized you heavily, such as a parent or teacher. It can be helpful to realize when that’s happening, and to tell the voice to be quiet until it’s needed. Remember, this is your book, and you’re in charge.
This is also a fragile time for your book. By that, I mean it’s probably a mistake to show it to anyone yet. Often, people will ask their friends, “Do you think this is worth finishing?” Nobody can answer that question but you. Don’t put that kind of pressure on them. They can’t possibly know how it will turn out. Only you are in control of that.
The first draft will probably have a lot of things in it that you’re not sure about. Sometimes, a person we trust to read our work can say something that kills the whole process for us. They don’t mean to do it, and they’re only responding because you asked them to. The first draft is a no-hold-barred, anything-goes time when you can, and should, get as crazy and outrageous with your ideas as you want. This can be really liberating, and even if you don’t end up using the things you come up with during this time, often they can lead to other really good ideas that you’ll stick with.
Also–and this is important–remember that writing a first draft can take a long time–like many months, or even years. If it does take you that long, that’s perfectly all right. Again, this is being done by your rules, on your time. Don’t feel like you have to rush.
You may have heard about the importance of developing a writing routine. This is a common topic for writers, and it’s very true. There’s no mystery to it. Writing a book is a big project, just like painting a house or building a piece of furniture. If you want to finish it, you have to keep at it, little by little. You won’t get it all done in a day, and it will never get done if you only work on it when you feel like it. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to get a paragraph written. Other times, it seems to flow without effort.
But you should also pay attention to feelings of creative exhaustion. I like to think of creativity as a well. Sometimes it’s full, and sometimes it’s dry. When it’s dry, I will walk away from a book for a few days until I feel full again. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either.
Bottom line: it’s your book and you make the rules. This is what’s worked for me. Take what you want and leave the rest behind.
3. Reader comments – Round One
So, you’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations! This means you’ve gotten to the end of the story… or at least to what you think is the end. Remember: first drafts are supposed to be fluid. They can be changed, and probably should be. The reason first drafts are so different from subsequent drafts is because the first time around, you’re creating something out of nothing. That is incredibly hard. The metaphor I often use is sculpting. You can easily compare a finished book to a finished sculpture. But the first draft of the book is that sculpture before any carving has been done. It’s not the sculpture yet. It’s the raw block of marble.
Maybe by now you’ve already started to go back to the beginning to do some editing. But if you’re like many other writers, there might be a creeping doubt in the back of your mind. You’re really starting to wonder if what you’ve been working on all this time is any good. You need some outside validation. You need someone to tell you whether you’ve done something worthwhile, or whether you went off track somewhere.
This feeling is totally normal. We want to put this book out into the world, after all, not keep it in a shoebox in a closet for the rest of our lives.
So, now is the time when you can start to show your book to readers.
But don’t show it to just anyone. Pick people who are going to give you useful feedback that will actually make your book better. Don’t just show it to someone you’re trying to impress, or someone you might respect but who has no real appreciation of your kind of fiction. People who like to read the kind of book you’re writing are your best bet, of course. If you have a friend who you really like, but who hates reading, showing it to him or her is pointless, wouldn’t you say? They might not even know a good book from a bad one. Similarly, if you’re writing scifi but your best friend only reads romances, it may or may not be worth showing it to them. You decide… how much is their opinion worth to you?
So, think about the people you’ve known who have done a lot of reading, or writing, or both. High school or college teachers are a good place to start. Tell them you value their opinion and would appreciate their honest feedback. They have to trust that you really mean this, because if they see things about the book they don’t like, and they think you’re going to fly off the handle, they might not bother telling you the truth. Nobody wants to invite a tantrum. So, be adult about it. Make it clear you’re not looking to have your ego stroked. Your goal is a good book, and in order to achieve that, you’ll need objective points of view.
After you’ve gotten some feedback from people, it’s time to start revising.
In case you think this means there’s something wrong with your work–there isn’t. The vast majority of writing is actually rewriting. I’ve written 14 books, and I think I can safely say that for each one of them, I spent about 15% of my time creating new material and 85% of my time revising and expanding it. There’s a fine line between writing and rewriting sometimes, but the precise definition doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have the opportunity right now to make your book better… so take it!
Sometimes, people will make comments that seem so obvious you wonder how you missed them. Don’t feel bad about this. Writing a book is a very complicated task, with hundreds or even thousands of little pieces that need to fit together. Did your character wear a blue scarf on page 10 but a red scarf on page 11? No worries. Just fix it. This kind of thing often happens when you go back and change something in one spot but forget to change it in another. It’s a small thing and it’s easy to fix.
Sometimes people will point out larger flaws that never occurred to you. Maybe you introduced a character early in the book who never made another appearance. Maybe you have a plot twist that isn’t really as interesting as you think it is. Some of these comments will require more work than just a simple correction. They might mean more months of work, tearing down a lot of what you’ve already built. This is hard to hear, especially if you’ve already been slogging away for a long time. Don’t get discouraged! If you’re tired, take a rest. Remember, your well can run dry sometimes. You need to let it fill up again.
Still other times, people will make suggestions that you think are absolutely awful. You don’t have to listen to them! If they think you need to insert a prophetic cockatoo in Chapter 3 that warns everyone of some terrible fate about to befall them, that’s an example of commentary from someone who is apparently trying to make you write the kind of book they would like to write themselves. Many professional literary critics fall victim to this trap. Learn to spot those kinds of comments by asking yourself, or the commenter: What does this add to the story I’m trying to tell?
As a general rule of thumb, you should consider every suggestion that seems intelligent and well-thought-out. You should especially listen to those comments that are repeated by other commenters. For example, if everyone says that a certain plot point just doesn’t work or really ruins the story, you need to pay attention to that. Try to remember that we as writers have a lot invested in our work, and so it can be hard to put our egos down long enough to admit we aren’t perfect. Nobody wants to hear this about a book they wrote any more than they want to hear it about their own child. Again, this is an opportunity. Don’t waste opportunities that help you along your path!
The revision process can go on for a very long time. It could involve a second, third, fourth, or even 25th draft. Your book may change shape several types over the course of these revisions. You may add or remove characters. You may change the setting. Remember that it’s often in these final revisions that our book takes on the qualities that can make it really special. I spent three years writing my first book, Eddie’s Bastard, and for most of that time, the main character, the first-person narrator Billy Mann, wasn’t even a character in the book. He didn’t appear until my last draft. Most people who read that book say that it was Billy’s voice that really drew them in and made the book memorable for them. If I hadn’t gone through that process of revision rather fearlessly, the book probably never would have been published.
5. Story critique (followed by more revisions)
A story critique is different from a read by friends or trusted readers. You don’t have to take this step, but it’s a good idea if you can afford it. I say ‘afford it’ because it involves hiring someone, usually another writer with more experience and success than you, to read your book and provide you their unvarnished professional opinion, ideally in the form of a detailed written report, and that usually doesn’t come cheap.
The purpose of a story critique is to get an honest opinion from someone who knows the publishing industry, and who ideally has a lot of experience writing. This is taking revisions to the next level. It’s the first time your manuscript will be seen by a professional, and that can be scary. For many writers, this might feel like the moment where they find out whether they are actually a writer, or if they’re just a dilettante. Of course, it’s not actually that moment–it just feels like it. (If you’re writing on a regular basis, you’re already a writer, and you don’t need anyone to tell you that.)
When I used to prepare story critiques, I would provide my clients with a lengthy document that included:
- A one-paragraph summary of the entire plot
- A character name and description list
- A summary of the action of each chapter, with specific suggestions for improvement as necessary
- Commentary on the book as a whole, with specific suggestions for improvement as necessary
- An assessment of its chances for publication
This document could sometimes run to 20 or 30 pages. It would take me several weeks to prepare, and I charged anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 for one. I always made sure to provide lots and lots of specific, concrete ideas for how to make the story better. I believe this set me apart from other readers, who often made comments like “You need to do a better job of character development.” Well, how is that helpful? (Spoiler: it isn’t.)
So, if you’re going to hire someone to do a critique of your manuscript, look for someone who has published a book or books already, who has been around a while, and who is going to take the time to be honest with you. You don’t want cookie-cutter responses and you don’t want your critique to follow a template. I never used a template when I was critiquing books, because each book was so different. Find someone who is going to provide you with slow, thoughtful answers that look far beneath the surface. Most important, make sure they understand up front that you expect specific pieces of advice, not general thoughts. These people are hard to find, but they are out there.
You might be surprised to see this step, but crowdfunding is crucial because this is how you’re actually going to pay for the next step of your book’s production.
When I made the decision to self-publish The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo, I knew this was not a decision to be made lightly. Self-published books still carry some stigma, and even more so for an author such as myself, who has already published a dozen books with commercial publishers. There was the very real fear that people might think my career was in a downturn, or that I had somehow lost my touch and couldn’t get published any more. That was not the case–I simply made no attempt with this book to find a publisher. I knew from the moment I began writing it that I was going to do it all myself, and it’s a decision I have never regretted for a moment.
However, I had to make sure I replicated all the steps that a commercial publisher would typically take. That meant hiring a story editor, a line editor, a copy editor, a layout artist, and a cover designer. These are all the roles that need to be filled if you are going to produce a beautiful, high-quality work of art, and not something that looks like you just ran it off on your laser printer. If it is important for you that your book be perceived as well executed on every level, then you need to hire a production team.
Over at WritersRevolt.ca, author Darren Greer and I have been teaching people how to do this through our webinar series. I also offer a blog post on the topic from my How To Self-Publish Like a Pro series.
I used Kickstarter to raise about $7,500.00 to hire my team. I ran my campaign for a month, and in the end I exceeded my goal by a good few hundred dollars. This gave me the money I needed to produce my book profesionally without having to take the money out of my own pocket. My contributors all received signed copies of the book, and they were proud to have participated and to see their names in the acknowledgements. You can check out my Kickstarter campaign to see how I structured it. Darren Greer’s Kickstarter campaign is also worth looking at. His novel, Outcast, was about puzzles, and he very cleverly used this theme in his regular updates to his backers.
If you’re new to crowdfunding, it’s really just an electronic version of passing the hat. But you’re not asking for a handout! You’re offering something in return. I’ll have more to say about crowdfunding in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, check out these series of posts I wrote called How To Self-Publish Like a Pro. It’s all about crowdfunding and self-publishing, and it’s free!
7. Hire Your Team
Before your campaign is finished, you should be contacting potential team members to gauge their availability and cost. Many freelance publishing professionals are booked months in advance, so it would be a good idea if you got in touch with them as soon as possible to let them know what you’re up to. Don’t be shy with the details. Let them know you’re running a crowdfunding campaign, and that your hiring them is contingent upon the campaign’s success. Not only will they understand, but they might even have some good ideas about where you might promote your campaign.
You will need to hire, at a bare minimum, a story editor and a proofreader. Ideally, you will also be hiring a line editor, a copy editor, a cover designer, and a layout artist. Each of these functions is different, and each one is crucial, but sometimes people can fulfill more than one role. For example, the woman I hired to design my cover was also an excellent layout designer, so she laid out the whole manuscript for me–an essential piece of book design that most people don’t even know about.
Here is a slightly more detailed explanation of each role.
Story editor – the person who will give your story its first high-level read, and likely offer suggestions for how it might be revised or restructured to improve its chances for success. A story editor doesn’t get involved in the nitty-gritty details of punctuation, spelling, or the like. Instead, he or she will be looking at all the many moving parts that go into a cohesive, well-told story: plot pacing, character development, dialogue, and about a thousand other things that vary from book to book and that can sometimes be very subjective. Story editing is an art form, and the best story editors are artists in their own right.
Line editor – the person who will go through your story line by line, checking things like sentence structure, word choice, logic, and other aspects of the nuts and bolts of your story.
Copy editor – the person who will check the spelling, grammar, and other mechanical aspects of your book. She may also do fact-checking as required. You will receive a marked-up manuscript from this person, and you will then need to go through and manually approve or disapprove of every change they suggest.
Cover designer – the person, usually a graphic artist, who will read your book (or your summary of it) and come up with an image that is designed to do all the things a book cover is supposed to do. While you are of course free to offer input, a good cover designer will understand the requirements of each genre and how the right image can really help make it pop. Typically, people can tell a lot about a book just by looking at the choice of cover image. You want to make sure your cover is sending the right messages, and you also want to make sure it’s well designed by someone who knows what they’re doing. Sometimes, you can provide them with an image you want to use, and they’ll work with that. Other times, they will produce original art for you. There are lots of cheapo outfits out there, but as with everything else in life, I find you get what you pay for.
Layout designer – the person who creates the digital version of your manuscript that is ultimately going to be uploaded to CreateSpace or whatever platform(s) you end up using for publication. This, too, is tricky, and is best left to people who know what they’re doing. Layout is way more complicated than just saving your book in a certain format. The layout artist needs to make decisions about book dimensions, including cover size, gutter and margin width, paper thickness, and other things that can quickly become overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t try to do this yourself unless you really get it… it’s easy to go wrong, and if you do, your book will look amateurish, which is the very thing we’re trying to avoid.
Well before your actual launch date, you should be promoting your book far and wide. Ideally you will be doing this in two ways: through your website, and through social media.
It’s a well-known sales fact that people typically need to hear about a product at least eight or nine times before they make a buying decision. The same is often true of books. If you start advertising your book before it’s out, you can build excitement and anticipation, and you can also take pre-orders.
One of the best ways to promote your book is on Facebook. Create a Page for your book that is distinct from your personal page. Invite your friends to join it, and use it to put out frequent updates on the progress of your book.
If you use Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, or Instagram, start sharing your book cover as soon as you have it. You can also create images of quotes or lines of dialogue from your book and share them on image-sharing sites that don’t usually let you share text.
You can look into scheduling tools like Hootsuite that will allow you to schedule tweets or posts in advance, so that you can load them up all at once and let them trickle out over the coming weeks and months. This makes your job of self-promotion a lot easier.
You should also be sending promotional copies of your book to book bloggers as far in advance as possible. If you can get some nice quotes from them, you can include those in your promotional tweets and pins. If they post a review of your book, link to it from your website, and tweet the link several times, too. Every little bit of publicity you get online can be maximized!
Pick a specific launch date. Have two launches: one in the digital world, and one in the real world. I strongly recommend that you find a bookstore, library, or other venue where you can hold your launch party. Have a reading, have copies on hand to autograph and sell, have cake and punch. Invite everyone you know, especially local media. Go all out. Make it a special and memorable event.
You may feel like a small local event isn’t worth the time considering how much more reach you have online, but this kind of thing is actually very important because of all the attention and material it will generate. Also, you want to start creating word-of-mouth as soon as possible, and this is one of the best ways to do it. If you manage to get your picture in the local paper, great. Any kind of publicity helps, and you can also re-post links to articles or pictures of yourself once they appear in the paper. This all helps toward your goal of getting your book as much exposure as possible.
Once your book is out, your new job is just beginning: that of book promoter.
You might be thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this! I’m a writer!” Believe me, I know the feeling. It took me some years to accept the fact that I needed to start wearing different hats, and that it wasn’t just enough for me to write any more. Since then, I’ve really come to enjoy learning the ropes in the digital world. I’ve embraced it. I taught myself how to build websites, how to use social media, and the ins and outs of the self-publishing world. It’s been good for me to learn a whole new set of technical skills.
So, how do we advertise our book now that it’s out there? Simply put, you keep promoting it the way you did before it was launched. Assuming you are using Amazon as a sales platform, you should also use Amazon Marketing Services (AMS). That’s the tool I’m going to focus on in this section.
I can’t say enough about AMS. It’s still a relatively new thing, being just over a year old. AMS is Amazon’s built-in marketing system. How it works is that you create an ad using their very simple form, you agree to pay them a little bit every time someone clicks on your ad, and you wait for the sales to start happening. That’s the gist of it. Amazon will show your ad to people who are already browsing for books. You can decide who sees your ad, or you can let Amazon choose them automatically. Amazon is VERY good at this last part–they have spent decades learning how to gather data on their customers, and they put it to extremely good use. My most successful AMS ad is completely automatic.
Although AMS will cost you money, you will be paying for it with sales of your book. Pay attention to your Cost of Sales. That’s a metric that tells you how much you’re paying to earn every dollar. For example, a CoS of 30% means that you’re paying $.30 to earn $1.00, so your profit is $.70. That’s still worth it, of course. When your CoS exceeds 100%, that means you’re losing money. Many experts recommend a CoS below 50%. Often you will need to do some fiddling with your campaigns before they’re performing in a satisfactory manner.
Although following these steps won’t guarantee you publishing success, they did work for me, and they can easily be adapted to your own needs. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I made plenty of them. Mistakes are how we learn!
Good luck, and have fun!