This is the titular chapter from Project December: A Book about Writing, the one that hopefully makes it clear why I called my book Project December.
So if Project October is all about the first draft and Project November is all about editing, rewriting and polishing your manuscript, then Project December is about what to do when you finally have a completed book.
I’m certainly not an expert on the publishing process – I’d probably be a lot more successful, wealthy and famous if I were – but I’ve learned a few things along the way through publishing my own books. This is what I know.
Have someone else do a proper copy edit on your completed manuscript. I’m not talking about suggestions on how to make the book content better. If you’re at this stage, then you’re beyond that. You’ve already done that. What I’m talking about is someone who will find all the misspelled words, the missing punctuation, the unnecessary punctuation, the incorrect grammar, the random capitals in the middle of a sentence, the proper nouns missing their initial capital, the words spelled correctly but used incorrectly, all the things that despite your best efforts and all my lecturing on how to do it right that you’ve still done wrong.
It’s actually really hard to copy edit your own work because of your familiarity with the text. Instead of reading what is on the page, authors see what they think is on the page and skip words subconsciously. It’s not uncommon for all readers to do this, in fact. Studies have shown that most people reading will skip small words on the page because their brains can fill in for them what the word should be so that they don’t need to read it. It’s a great tool for speeding up the reading process. Unfortunately, when we’re looking for mistakes, such as places where we’ve accidentally used the word “on” when we should have used the word “of”, then this skill become a nuisance, a hindrance, the exact opposite of what we need our brains to be doing.
If you’re also a trained editor and feel confident doing your own copy edit, then go ahead. I copy edited both of my books (therefore all mistakes are my own – although hopefully you won’t find too many). But if you’re not, it’s really important to get someone else to do it. If you know someone who isn’t a trained editor but is as much of a spelling, punctuation and grammar nazi as I am, and they’re willing to do it, this could be a low-cost option. But if you don’t, it’s really worth spending the money and engaging the services of someone who is obligated by the fact that you’re paying them to do a good job.
Don’t just choose the first editor you can find. Look around. Get quotes that outline exactly what will be included and how long it will take. Ask for references, other writers you can actually call and speak to and whose books are published so you can look through them to see if you can spot any mistakes. Look online to see if anyone has reviewed their services (everybody shouts it from the rooftops – or an online reviewing site, the modern-day equivalent, when they don’t get good service these days).
And don’t just choose the cheapest. It’s a one-off cost (once per published book anyway). So weigh up everything and make a reasonable choice. I know most writers aren’t exactly flush with money but you have to be smart about choosing where to spend the funds you do have. This is one of the best places to spend. Because if you don’t, everyone who reads your book – even those who aren’t especially fussy about spelling, punctuation and grammar – will stumble, fumble and trip over passages that are poorly spelled, badly punctuated and grammatically incorrect. They might not know why. But they will know it made for a more difficult reading experience than it should have been.
There are a lot of writing competitions out there these days. It’s worth doing some research and finding out which ones you will be able to submit your manuscript to. Some of the benefits of winning include cash prizes, publishing contracts, generally being celebrated as the winner, marketing, widening your network of contacts in the industry and broader sales. Some of the benefits even if you don’t win include widening your network of contacts in the industry, getting your work read by the judges and reading the winning piece of work to be able to compare what it was the judges were actually looking for and how far your work is from being at the same standard.
I don’t recommend entering every competition out there. For one thing, it can become quite expensive as many competitions have entry fees. (If they don’t, enter as many of those as you like.) For another thing, it can become quite time consuming and eat into the time you should be spending doing other things like writing, revising, planning your marketing strategy, executing your marketing strategy, etc.
Also, when you look into the details and whittle it down, you’ll find that you won’t meet the criteria of most competitions and there’s nothing more likely to guarantee you won’t win than trying to reshape your manuscript at the last minute.
If you can get an agent, then they will make the whole process of getting your book published a lot easier. They know all the publishers and the editors who work for them. They know what genres publishers specialise in. More importantly, they know what genres they have no interest in publishing. They know what’s going to be published in the next year and if your book will stand out on a list or disappear under the weight of a dozen other books that are all much the same. They know about contracts and territory rights and advances.
Agent are not, however, editors or manuscript assessors. If your book isn’t up to scratch, they don’t do intensive work to help you get it there. They might point you in the direction of editors and manuscript assessors they routinely recommend or engage for their clients, but that’s it.
They also don’t ask for any money upfront. An agent’s decision to represent you is an investment in you and a sign of their belief in your talents as a writer. They get paid when you get paid by taking an agreed percentage of your earnings from the publisher when and if they ever come. If an agent asks you for money, then they aren’t really an agent and they aren’t working in your best interests.
In Australia, there is the Australian Literary Agents’ Association and all members must abide by a code of practice. You can go to their website to find out what this code entails and a list of their members is freely available to determine whether any potential agent you are considering signing up with is part of the association. This list is also a great source of information for simply finding out who the agents are and how to get in contact with them.
Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing
Almost all publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts these days. So if you want to be traditionally published (and who doesn’t?) and you don’t have an agent, this is a great way to get your book where it needs to go. However, you will be one book in a very large electronic slush pile, so the chances of getting noticed are not great.
I recommend submitting to traditional publishers as a first step. Most will let you know within a reasonable time frame whether they have any interest in your book. If you don’t get any interest from publishers after this, then consider self-publishing.
Self-publishing is so easy these days. That’s why so many people do it. But few people do it well. Many self-published books are trite efforts, littered with errors and with no obvious attempt to produce a book that is of a publishable standard. (If you haven’t been able to attract the interest of any traditional publishers, perhaps you should also consider whether your book is at a publishable standard yet. If in doubt, pay for a manuscript assessment. Yes, I know it’s yet more money being outlaid but this is what serious writers do.)
If your book is of a publishable standard and if you do choose to self-publish, there are a few options. Physical books, print on demand, ebooks, audio books. The costs associated with each vary. Physical books can cost thousands while ebooks can cost nothing. Do your research in order to determine which way you want to go.
Self-Publishing an Ebook
There are a few out there but I’ve self-published ebooks on two platforms: Amazon KDP and Smashwords. I’m going to limit myself to talking about the two I know.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is surprisingly easy. You need an Amazon account but who doesn’t have one of those already? Download the “Building your book for Kindle” reference and follow the instructions to prepare the file that will become your ebook. Then simply upload it with your separate book cover, select a few options and publish. The downside to KDP is that the file format only works on Kindles or the Kindle app. I have the Kindle app on my laptop but reading a novel this way is annoying and might limit your reading audience.
To get around this, I also published with Smashwords when I released Enemies Closer. Preparing the electronic file for Smashwords is a little more complex but there’s a reason for that. When you’re done, it will be suitable for and distributed to multiple platforms including iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and basically everything else that isn’t Amazon.
If your book is being published by a traditional publisher, they will source an ISBN (which stands for International Standard Book Number) for your book. They can be purchased in bulk, so your publisher will have one ready to go when you need it.
Many ebook publishers will allow you to self-publish your book without applying for an ISBN. But it’s such an easy process that everybody should do it. You simply apply online, provide a few details about your book, pay a relatively small fee and you are assigned an ISBN, which you can then include on the inside front pages of your book as its unique identifier. Apart from anything else, it shows you are serious about your book.
In each country, the purchase of ISBNs is administrated by different organisations. In Australia, Thorpe-Bowker is the only official ISBN registration agency. To find who to purchase ISBNs from in your local jurisdiction, visit the International ISBN Agency website.
You can also purchase barcodes through the agencies so if you are planning to publish a physical copy of your book, this can be included on the back cover to make scanning at the checkout simple when your book is being bought. The Thorpe-Bowker website is actually a great source of services and information related to book publishing. I highly recommend all Australian writers take the time to check it out.
Note that you will need separate ISBNs for every edition of the same book. When I published with Amazon’s KDP and Smashwords, I needed two ISBNs because they are technically two different books. The fact that their content is identical is irrelevant. You can purchase ISBNs in bulk to save money when you need more than one.
This is another one of those areas where I highly recommend having someone else do the work to make sure it is done properly. A great book cover can be the difference between the interest of a potential reader and the dismissal of a potential reader.
All my book covers are designed – or at the very least prepared according to my instructions – by Jessica Vigar, a graphic design and marketing specialist. You can give your designer a brief on what you would like or you can give them free rein. Either way, unless you’re a graphic designer or book cover designer yourself, it’s best to delegate this important part of the process.
Once the book is ready and released, then comes the hard work. Marketing is a very difficult skill and shouting at people on Twitter to “buy my book” is not a very effective way to differentiate yourself and your book from all the other books out there.
Prepare a marketing strategy so you know exactly what you will be doing and when. An initial announcement is a good place to start. Facebook seems to be where everything is announced these days, so try that. Twitter as well. Instagram. Pinterest. LinkedIn. Any social media platform. But it’s not just good enough to say your book is out and ask people to buy it. You have to sell it. You have to sell them on the idea of your book. You have to make them want to buy your book.
Try local media. Try state media. Try national media. Try your school newsletter. Your school and the one your kids go to. Your university (they like to see alumni publishing). There’s an announcements section in my local writers’ organisation’s bi-monthly publication and I see authors announcing their new books all the time. Prepare a book trailer. Send copies of your book to bloggers and ask for reviews. Announce it on your blog. Publish excerpts. Tell everyone who will listen. The man on the street. The women in front of and behind you in the queue. I once chewed a guy’s ear off at the football talking about my writing and he was a complete stranger but we got to talking and he showed an interest.
I’m probably the last person who should be offering advice on marketing. I’m only good at it when I’m marketing other people. But when it comes to marketing myself, I’m often struck down by a severe case of the humbles.
If you’re as bad at marketing yourself as I am, it’s a good idea to get some professional help on this, too. Yes, it’s potentially more money being outlaid but this is where you can get a really good return on your investment.
There are no guarantees when it comes to publishing a book. Why some books do well when they are clearly bad and why others don’t when they are clearly good is a mystery. It’s less of a mystery if the book you put out is sloppy or the cover is badly designed or you neglect to tell anyone about it. To give yourself the best chance, you need to invest time, effort and money. Then pray for a little luck.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing