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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Self-publishing: am I ready?

This is the tough part. We all like to complain about how much crap is being published, and none of us want to be part of the crap. It's very difficult to be objective about one's own writing. It's very difficult to gauge its quality. Criticism hurts. Realizing you've failed to communicate the dream in your head hurts.

What clues do you use to decide whether your story is "good enough" to be released into the wilds of Amazon? The following is what I used to decide if Disciple was ready to self-publish. These are only my opinion, of course, but it's someplace to start.

What your beta readers tell you
When your manuscript has been fully read and critiqued by several experienced, articulate readers (who are probably writers themselves), take a look at how much consensus there is on your story's problems, and how deep they run. IMO, there are three levels of story problems (these are not exhaustive lists):
  • Deep problems: weak plot, holes in the plot, main characters are flat, world-building problems, lack of tension, serious grammar trouble.
  • Mid-level problems: dialogue is flat/unrealistic, bad info-dumps or missing information, pacing is off, confusion caused by the narration or grammar. 
  • Surface problems: voice is unclear, POVs need tightening, fact-checking to be done, minor additions and clarifications of facts and events. 
If you've got mid-level or deep problems, it's not ready yet. You need to get out the chainsaw and do some serious revision. When your story has worked its way up to only surface problems, start polishing it for publishing -- or submission to agents/editors.

When I committed to publishing Disciple, it was near the surface level and I put it through another round of beta readers to be sure of that. Their critiques supported my opinion. So I polished it.

What your freelance editor tells you
See above. A good editor is going to call you out on the things your betas missed. If deep or mid-level problems had come up in Disciple at this stage, I would have had to put off publishing it until I was confident everything had been fixed. But the revisions my editor recommended were surface-level.

What your gut tells you
Aside from being full of butterflies, that is. We all go through love/hate cycles with our writing, but which side is your gut taking, on the whole? Do you read critiques of your work and feel overwhelmed, don't know what to do? Or does your brain start burbling with ways to fix your story's problems? Some of this is confidence in your own abilities, but some of it also comes from knowing what a good story is and how to tell it. You get some of that by training your gut, by consuming lots of good stories (and bad stories, so long as you know why they're bad.) Some of that is... well, I do believe in talent, I'll admit. That's a thorny issue, though.

Circle back to your beta feedback, for a moment. If your betas were kind, they included some praise for the things you did right along with their critique. What sorts of things did they like? Did they get through complicated or difficult parts of your story without a hiccup? Did they sound eager to see more? Were they hooked, in other words?

Betas: do you see your power, now? Please be completely honest in your crits! :)

Some more thoughts:
  • There is no "perfect," though you should shoot for it. I think it's obvious that I'm on the "be as professional as possible" side of things. People won't take you any more seriously than you take yourself -- usually less than you do. So set your bar high. 
  • There will be other stories. However long it takes, you're probably going to write another one. You're probably already a repeat offender on that count, in fact. This one book is not the end of the world.
  • You're not going to strike it rich, and that's OK. Most people don't, even with a Big Six contract.
  • It's a lot of work, but so is being published by a Big Six company. I don't know where anybody got the idea that writing is easy, but it's not true. 
What do you think? 


E.J. Wesley said...

Another fine post, and I'm finding your experience/comments are VERY similar to my experience working through my first self-pubbed title. (To be released very soon! Now if I could just get my to stop twitching when I say that ... :-)

The key, as you mentioned, is knowing when you're ready. With self-pub, no one is going to lock the door on you. If you want it published, it can be. That being said, you also lack the feedback from external sources who might tell you it's not time. (A beta, more often than not, will never say 'This story isn't good enough to be published." Well, they might, and you should probably hang on to that one.)

You're ultimately going to have to decide on your own, and I think your checklist was spot-on with how to do it.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

You make great points. I don't know if I would have ever felt ready if I hadn't had books traditionally published first. Even now with three books self-published, I use a professional editor.

Ellie Garratt said...

Excellent post. I think it can apply equally as well to those asking if their manuscript is ready to submit to agents or publishers.

Liz said...

Practice makes better, never perfect.

That's the scary thing, knowing when the manuscript is ready for the world.

mshatch said...

I think the scary thing about self-pub is that there's no one but you and your readers to tell you your book is ready whereas with a publishing company an 'expert' will tell you whether it's ready. Of course, experts aren't always right and I've read things that I thought should definitely be published but were still waiting.

DEZMOND said...

Ms, who is in the Big Six? Penguin, Random House, who else?