As someone who figured out the hard way the process of self-publishing a novel, I thought I'd share a few of the things I've learned along the way. Below are four Do's and four Don'ts when it comes to successfully self-publishing your first (or second or third or fourth) book.
Self-Publishing and Writing Do's
Do Hire an Editor
It doesn't matter how good you are. It doesn't matter if you have a degree in English, a Master in Fine Arts, or even tons of experience self-publishing or working as an editor: Hire an editor. As the writer of the words you're editing, you have a disadvantage. You know what you mean; readers don't always. You've read the same words (hopefully) a hundred times over. You won't see the things that a third-party editor will see. But, where do you find one? And what kind of editor do you need? Let's answer the second question first. There are essentially five potential stages of editing.
Not an editor, per se, a Book Coach is someone who can walk alongside you for any length of time in your book-writer endeavor. They know publishing and self-publishing. They know writing. They'll help build an outline (if you write that way), help re-write chapters to make sure the narrative is tight, and even take a look at the overall plot of your finished manuscript. They'll examine your themes, character arcs, and everything in between.
One step below book coach, a developmental editor will be mainly inspecting your plot and character arcs to be sure that they make sense and have a sensical flow. Additionally, they should keep an eye on your pacing to make sure that readers are continually engaged.
Here we get into the nuts and bolts. Copyeditors check your grammar, punctuation, syntax, and even continuity. They make sure that you're using the right words. My favorite feedback went like this: "FYI: donkeys bray; goats bleat; horses neigh." Okay, I probably should have known that. Copyeditors are usually the last editors you'll hire (except, perhaps, for a proofreader, see below).
Proofreaders do exactly that: They proofread. They're the last eyes that ever see your manuscript before it hits the book stores (or Amazon). Often, they'll get a formatted copy, meaning they're reading it in the same format your readers will. They're the least expensive editor, but they're the least detailed, as well. They're only there to catch any last minute mistakes. These are the ones who put eyes on your books right before publishing.
Used at various staged of writing, beta readers will read through your manuscript and give you generalized feedback. Here you'll find what parts come across as boring, when characters make decisions that confuse readers, or if there are obvious pacing issues. Beta readers, like proofreaders, are also inexpensive, but they also give less feedback.
Where to find one?
There are all kinds of places to find editors. Reedsy.com is a great source, since they offer curated professionals to help at all stages of the writing process. Facebook also has some sources, though these aren't curated (normally). The same can be said for sites like Upwork.com and Freelancer.com. Not to say you can't find a good editor on those latter sites, but just know they're not curated the same way Reedsy.com is. Personally, I found both my editor and cover designer on Reedsy.
Do Hire a Cover Designer
Admit it: You judge a book by its cover. We all do. There's a reason all romance novels look the same. The same can be said for all science fiction novels and all fantasy novels (and just about all genres). Genres have their themes, and a cover designer knows these and knows how to design a cover that fits.
Maybe you're a graphic designer. If you are, go for it! Cover design is a challenge, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but there are specific dimensions that need to be formatted for paperback, hardcover, and Audible (eBooks tend to be easier, though even these have a kind of format). If you've got the skillset, give it a shot. Just be ready for the challenge. However, if you're like me, you'll need to outsource this. Covers often go through many iterations with constant back-and-forth with the designer. Designers will help make sure the layout is clean, attractive, not overly busy, and stylish. My own designer is the one who came up with the recurring theme in all my Crusader Chronicles covers. Notice the break in the middle of the cover? Notice how there's always a person on top and a scene on the bottom? Also, take a gander at that fancy 3D mock-up? That's all my awesome cover designer.
Do Accept Criticism
This one's tough. We've poured our heart and soul into our writing. We've spent hundreds of hours and gallons of coffee on it. It's our life, our gem, our baby. But guess what? We want our writing to be the best it can, and only letting other people tell us what's wrong can do that. All of the editors above will do it. A book coach will do it. Your friends and family will do it (though they'll often soften the criticism). Online writing workshops will do it. Wherever you find people who will read your draft, take their criticism to heart. It's the only way to ensure a good published product.
Okay, this one is obvious. If you don't read, you won't write. Despite being 90% done with my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree, I've learned the most about writing through reading. And don't just read your genre; read them all. Do you want to write fantasy? Read historical fiction (hint hint, I know a pretty good author). Want to write romance? Read fantasy. Want to write Science Fiction? Read contemporary and literary fiction. Each genre does something different. The more exposure, the better writer you'll be, and you'll be able to take the best from each genre and make them your own.
Self-Publishing and Writing Don'ts
Don't hurry, don't rush, don't panic. Writing is hard: take your time, hone your craft, improve your skills. Don't worry about releasing your book near Christmas, or black Friday, or any other specific holiday. Sure, this will boost sales. If you have a finished product, plan it around that. But don't push out a bad book to do it. Don't skip the editing process, don't skip the pre-release process (writing is only the beginning; you still have to publish and market this thing). Take your time and perfect your book.
Locking yourself in a room and writing is what you're going to have to do to get the book done. But don't forget to talk to others. Find other writers (Facebook has plenty of groups). If you live in a big enough city, meet with people like yourself who can lift you up when you're feeling down. And trust me, you're going to feel down. Nothing worth doing is easy, and writing a book isn't any different. Find people like you, find people not like you, and make friends. A writing group is essential.
Don't Accept Criticism
I know, I know. I just said the opposite. But guess what? You have to do both, and you have to know when to do both. Beta readers and editors have good advice, listen to them. They have bad advice, too. Ignore them. The same can be said for writing workshops, and even graduate degree instructors. You have to learn to pick through the mess and find the right way forward. If you hear the same complaint from many readers, take a closer look. But, in the end, it's your book, it's your voice. Don't let anyone take that away.
Again, writing is hard and publishing is harder, but this one's easy. Just don't quit. Got it? Great.
But seriously, you'll get discouraged. You'll think you can't do it, or that you're no good, or that you're fooling yourself. You can't be an author, right?
Don't quit. Keep at it. Everyone—and I mean everyone—who ever published a book felt like a fraud at some point. Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin. Yes, even me. We've all felt down, all felt like we couldn't do it. But we didn't quit, and here we are.
Also, yes, I did just lump myself in with four of the most prolific authors of all time. A man can dream.