This post is second in a three-part series on book blogging. The first post on the real value of book bloggers for authors is here.
News alert: we are in the midst of an information glut. Most people, myself included, can access far more potentially paradigm-shattering information and entertainment than we could possibly consume. Please, please don’t add to the clutter of the literary marketplace. Before you send your book to a book blogger, first be sure your book makes a genuine contribution to the literary marketplace.
In other words, make sure your book is professionally published, not vanity published. Definitions vary, but I consider a vanity-published book to be just what it sounds like: a book published primarily to build up an author’s vanity and not primarily to share something of value with readers. Self-serving rather than other-serving. For example, if it’s always been your dream to be a published author, and you’re finding traditional publishers’ doors consistently closed to your manuscript, you may decide to self-publish. Shocked at how expensive it is to produce a book, you’ve skimped on editing and design to save money for the printer. Unfortunately what you now have in your hands is a vanity-published book that may delight your friends and family, but is simply not suitable for the general public. If your primary motivation is simply to wear the badge of “published author,” however precariously, then I’m afraid you’ll be publishing your book in vain. Literally. Readers’ time is too tight, and the literary marketplace too glutted, for you to successfully market an amateur book. Having a beautiful cover on poorly written content is just going to make time-starved readers angry.
Yet discerning a book’s quality is a complicated business. For example, the same could be said about another global creative endeavor: the world’s population. Experts tell us the world is overpopulated, yet we still continue to have babies. Genetic tests even give us the option of “editing out” imperfections. But few of us are even tempted by that option – we continue to have baby after imperfect baby. Why? Because the life principle is simply that strong. If your book truly lives within you, needing to be born, then no matter how overpopulated the literary marketplace may seem, there is room for your book. Again, why? Because if it’s alive, and it’s yours, you’re likely to have the internal motivation necessary to care for it. (This is not always true, but it is true very, very often.) You’ll be able to hear the hard truth about its imperfections, develop your craft, and stick with your manuscript until it’s truly ready to meet your readers. Just like parenting your child – you’ll want to know when things are going wrong because you love your child and want to do what it takes to help him or her thrive and eventually become independent.
And as hard as it is to tell these days when our kids are ready to leave the nest, how can we possibly know when our book’s ready? As an editor, I know when a book’s ready when it instantly transports me to another world, without the distraction of typos, uneven margins, or incomplete plot lines. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to have an independent life of its own.
Fortunately this quality isn’t genetically determined. There is a process (that traditional publishers have followed for years, by the way) that helps ensure our books are mature enough to leave the nest of our personal computers and make a living out in the world. So if you have your published book in your hands and are now nervously wondering whether your manuscript is professionally published or published in vain, here are the crucial developmental steps of professional book publishing:
- Write, revise, rest, rewrite, and complete the manuscript in community with other writers. As a developmental editor and writing coach (and sometimes author therapist!), I know several writers who have made a breakthrough in their writing even after they thought their book proposal was complete. It’s worth leaving time for breakthroughs. Throw the calendar or self-created deadlines out the window. Just like there’s no rushing the birth of a child, there’s no rushing the birth of a book. It will come when it’s ready, but you have to provide the right supportive environment and be ready to catch it when it comes.
- Manuscript review. Once your manuscript is absolutely complete, get a manuscript review by a well-recommended and professional editor, ideally with a specialty in your field, to make sure you’re on target. (If you’re not sure where to find a trustworthy editor, check out the Editorial Freelancers Association at www.the-efa.org, a very reputable source where you can do a tailored search for a wide variety of editorial, design, and publishing consulting services.) Manuscript reviews should provide a list of general strengths and weaknesses, as well as a detailed list of writing recommendations with examples. Some even include a market analysis, so you know who your target audience is, what your competition is, and, most importantly, whether your book is different enough from what’s out there to be worth buying and reading. In my opinion, it is usually not cost effective to pay an editor to do extensive line-by-line editing for you, unless you are a bona fide publisher with upfront capital who believes so strongly in the concept of the book that it’s worth paying for extra editing to clean up poor writing. (Few trade publishers can even afford to do this anymore.) But if you don’t have the money, you’ve got to put forth the time in improving your craft if you’re going to reach your reader. There are already a lot of transformative, good books out there. Yours should be one of them!
- Copyediting. After you’ve incorporated any writing recommendations into your manuscript and you’ve again read it over and believe it is as good as it can possibly get, now it’s time to hire that professional fine-tooth comb: the copyeditor. Best to get an expert in Chicago Manual of Style, the trade publisher’s usual basic style guide. A good copyeditor will do at least two passes, leaving time for queries (questions to the author) and incorporating your responses.
- Professional book design. If you have a print version, hiring a professional typesetter with expertise in the industry standard for print publications (currently Adobe InDesign) is absolutely crucial. If you’re publishing online with a pdf (as long as it won’t be printed!), you can convert your Word document to a pdf free and instantly. If you hire a company to convert your manuscript to an e-book (whether for a flat fee or percentage of sales), make sure they allow time for you to review the final e-version with a full proofread and make corrections if needed.
- Proofreading. This can be done as another pass by your copyeditor after typesetting and before printing, or after final conversion if electronic. In my opinion, if you trust the editor’s quality, it’s wonderful if you can get the same person to do the copyediting and proofreading, because this person will already be familiar with your manuscript. But whether it’s your copyeditor or a separate proofreader, your manuscript needs one more careful read to get all the errors that everyone missed the first or second time, once it’s in its final form. New errors are often introduced in the book design phase – whether through document conversion errors or the designer’s misunderstanding of your intent.
- Review copies. Have a professionally formatted e-book version and the final print-ready pdf available to send out for review. Print copies usually aren’t necessary, but you want your electronic copy to look exactly as the print version would look. Sending review copies out too early, before those last typos or formatting issues are dealt with, can create a less-than-receptive first impression, even if your story is world-changing. If you’re self-publishing, there’s no need to put more obstacles in front of your reader than self-publishing inherently entails. (There are more armchair editors than you think who will become quickly frustrated at even a few obvious errors.)
- Printing. It’s very frustrating to go through all these steps meticulously and then find your printer has been sloppy – or doesn’t send a sample copy before the print run or the POD option goes live. Vet your printer as meticulously as your editor or designer.
Only if your book can compare equally well on all levels with a professionally published book should you send it to a book blogger. I don’t say this to discourage any author, but to encourage you: your book is worth your best investment, whether it’s time or money or both. Be absolutely sure this is the best work you can produce, and that you’ve hired a professional consultant at some stage of the process (ideally all) who can reassure you that the story comes through clearly and without distraction. Marketing even an excellent book takes a lot of time and effort – only if you know your book is truly transformative for your readers and is in its best form will you have the long-term stamina for intuitive and effective marketing. Readers know when an author is offering their book out of confidence and deep passion, or out of insecurity or desperation.
But here’s some more encouragement: even though writing and producing a professional book may feel like birthing a child for you, the reader’s investment is much, much less. Economically speaking, buying a book is not like buying a house, or even an airplane ticket – it’s just not a terribly high investment, and most book lovers are willing to take a chance for $10. (My bookshelves are filled with many such chances I’ve taken over the years.) So try not to let perfectionism paralyze you. No parent’s child will ever be perfect – yet we love them and invest in them no less (for little compensation, I might add). The fact is that they are alive, and they spark life in the world around them. That’s their value. So you don’t have to produce a bestseller or the newest installation in the English canon. You just want to know deep down that you’re sharing something of value that’s truly alive, that it’s been priced appropriately, and that it’s ready to stand on its own in the marketplace.