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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.

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Well, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this month for the first time, and I have to say that it has done wonders for my creatively stuck but deadline-driven self. I highly recommend it for any fiction writer who has writing work they know they need to do and simply haven’t been able to prioritize it. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words – a respectable length for a novel’s first draft – in 30 days. I’ve taken away at least two lessons in the first 10 days (the first of many, I’m sure):

1. The creative impulse of writing and the meticulous nature of editing can fully live and even thrive in the same person. You just have to keep these two impulses completely separate.  When your primary goal is to get 50,000 words out in 30 days, quantity, not quality, counts. I’ve found that I have to just keep writing through the plot, even if the tangents seem to make no sense and even if I used the totally wrong tense back there, if I am to meet this goal. Here’s a fun & frivolous video from the NaNoWriMo site on trashing your inner editor.

Now, this is obviously not about trashing editing entirely, just viewing the two capabilities as a light switch – when one is turned on, that inherently means the other is off. Otherwise the same crackling noise you hear when a light switch is hung in the middle will happen to your brain. Which leads to learning #2:

2. Editing is just as vital to the writing process as the writing itself.  As much as editors may assert the value of editing, no one recognizes their value more than writers who really care about their work – not just what their work says about THEM. Receiving good editing requires killing your inner narcissist. This may seem embarrassingly obvious, but this is as difficult to do as parents learning to personally separate from their children. If you’re called into a teacher conference with your son’s principal after he was caught cheating on a test, only the most narcissistic parent would blame the principal and the school and try to cover for her son. (Well, OK, we would all think this, but only the most narcisstic would actually do it.) A parent who really cared about her son and wanted him to be an independent and thriving adult would (until proven otherwise) give the principal and teachers the benefit of the doubt, and would do whatever it took to help her son change for the better. The same is true for writing. Otherwise we’ll have all these clingy, manipulative, perpetually adolescent stories sticking to us, because we’re as unable to let go as they are. When what we really need are independent, thriving entities capable of moving freely about in the world and having their own good and independent effect, as all great stories do. In fact, as much as we need our inner editor after we finish the plot line of our manuscript (at the very least, to save us from utter embarrassment during the workshop), we need that external editor even more to help us separate, already.

I think we guard ourselves from editors because, let’s face it, editors can be holier-than-thou perfectionists, judging our work against the annals of the Western canon. I know this because I am one. When really, that’s not why we write. (See a fantastic profile about how Poetry editor Christian Wiman broke through to writing his own authentic poetry collection in the print version of Poets & Writers this month.) Nonfiction writers have a much easier time dissociating themselves from their books, because they want to get the ideas right – sharing direct ideas with readers who can benefit from them practically is just a simpler proposition than fiction writing. Why do we write fiction, anyway? To get into Norton’s after we die? Hopefully fiction writers write because there’s no other way to give voice to this particular and complex truth that won’t feel complete until it’s expressed, and that the world probably needs to hear just as much as nonfiction. All writing needs to be shared – that’ s how it lives, right? So the best place to first share your work – the first external editing pass you should get – is from a fellow writer. The gentlest way to separate and establish objectivity is with lots of affirmation of what IS working. When you’re struggling with your children, would you rather talk to a Ed.D. with no children, or to a fellow parent? Writers understand how personal this is, and they’re a lot more apt to name the strengths and just enter into the frivolous and emotional parts of your book without criticism. They’re more apt to get it. Which is why I’ve loved being associated with local poetry and creative writing centers – we can share our work to be enjoyed, not criticized. And if any feedback comes, it’s usually couched in understanding. When I’m done with this novel, I’ll definitely be workshopping it – with other writers first. Then I’ll have the confidence to receive the cold, hard, marketable truth from professional editors and agents – whom I will be glad to hire precisely because at that point, when I believe in the intrinsic value of my work, I can be objective enough to hear it and accept it and enable them to do their job.

To come full circle: If the editor – either inner or outer – gets involved at the wrong stage – the book’s over before it begins. Which is why a full outline for this novel sat on my computer for so long – I couldn’t turn off my editor brain to just write through the thing. I’m pleased to say I’ve finally learned how to turn it off appropriately, and as of today my word count is on target – 17,525. So I’m glad I finally submitted to someone else’s whip-cracking – not an editor’s, but a writer’s.

Many people have felt the need to reassert the value of editors lately – granted, mostly editors themselves. Not only is the book publishing industry busy changing paradigms and laying off editors left and right, but media professionals find themselves expected to do their job with less money, maintain a blog, and keep a Twitter account on top of that. Amidst this exploding world of content (with less editors on the company payroll), it seems that one take is that professional writers should know their grammar, and if you find yourself in need of an editor constantly, hire a better writer. While those of us who are editors might bristle at that statement, I think it’s smart to reevaluate the value of an editor as new publishing paradigms & contexts are being established. Surely the value of an editor is greatly dependent on the context and medium. For example:

  1. Technical or scientific subjects. We can’t all be good at everything, and very often folks who have brilliant scientific and technical insights just aren’t writers. Partnering with a good editor is key to making sure these insights have their best effect.
  2. Long works, fiction or nonfiction. I’m working on a novel now, and I can tell you that the writing process, be it fiction or nonfiction, is a completely different animal than editing. In fact, although my grammar is almost always right on, that’s not why I will need an editor when I’m done. I need not just a fresh pair of eyes to see where I repeated myself several times over 300 pages (the writing brain simply should not keep up with such details when it’s writing), but someone with searing honesty who can tell me what parts to cut and what parts to expand – the things I never would have seen even if I reread it a thousand times. Producing a long work, even just the manuscript, requires a team.
  3. Newspaper or print magazine articles with tight deadlines. Here is where many noneditors want to define editing as superfluous, but I would still say that the reporter who has to get the content down fast and in a rhythm (which is how I did my best journalistic writing, early in my career – I had to write fast and all at once before that rhythm disappeared) shouldn’t have to make sure every comma’s in the right spot. Let them get on with their job and start the next story. Copyeditors need to be the moat around the substance of the piece. Or perhaps the knight in shining armor. Because when all the armchair grammarians see your piece the next day, they will focus on the mistakes and not the substance, and that’s what the letters to the editor will be about. And it’s too late to fix it.
  4. Blogs, online articles easily changed, and otherwise ephemeral content that is here today and gone tomorrow. At the risk of stating the obvious, I doubt an editing budget is necessary here, in that it should be enough for a good writer or separate pair of noneditor eyes to catch mistakes. Editing is still a necessary process, just like anyone would check their work before they shared it publicly in any context, but not one that would require solely designated staff. If something’s caught after it’s posted, it’s easily changed. Also, sometimes the BEST writing isn’t necessary for this context, particularly when its primary value is not literary longevity but the social network bolstered, the seed of a thought planted, the breaking news shared. But this primarily has to do with the easy changeability of the medium rather than the quality of content.
  5. An exception to #4 is marketing copy (often online) that has to earn its keep, where every reader missed is money lost. In the article link above, the author cited a study at IBM that showed edited web copy was 30% more effective than unedited – thus concluding that editors are vital in this context. But I have to respectfully disagree with the point of the author in this limited sense – if the marketing web copy isn’t as measurably effective, I’d say you do need a better copywriter. A marketing copywriter’s job is to come up with audience-catching copy. If there are just simple grammar errors that keep it from being effective, however, hopefully a good read from a fellow copywriter will catch those kinds of mistakes. But most good writers I know don’t make many of those, unless they’re over-rushed. That’s a different problem altogether, and hiring another specialized staffperson isn’t going to solve what is likely a core company problem. 

Bottom line: the more lasting value the writing project has (with the exception of web copy above, which I think is in its own category), the more you need an editor. No thoughtful editor truly believes she’s required in every context.