The first essential step in becoming a successfully published author (self-published or otherwise) is to write a good book. It’s pretty obvious, really. But what constitutes a good book? We could debate this until the cows come home (from wherever they’ve been on their cow-related adventures). I’m sure there’s no one right answer.
But when you self-publish a book, you are stepping out of the creative world of a writer and into the business world of publishing. Yes, publishing is a business. If you want to earn an income as a writer, you must see your book as a product, not a work of art, and treat it as such.
It’s easier to define what makes a book good enough for publication than it is to define what makes a book good as a piece of literary art.
A good publishable book is:
- written coherently
- something that other people are likely to want to read
Without those two elements, your book is doomed to fail. If you write well but your book is of no interest to anyone, it will not sell. If you have an interested readership but the writing is so terrible that the book is unreadable, it will not sell.
Readership and risk
Many traditional publishers will turn down a brilliantly written book because they don’t believe there’s a readership for it. This is one reason some writers decide to self-publish. They feel their book is good, and they just need a chance to prove it.
Perhaps the potential readership isn’t big enough to make the publisher want to take the risk of investing in the book, but if the writer knows that there is a potential readership, and they’re prepared to take on the task of reaching that readership (through their own marketing efforts), then self-publishing is the logical way to go.
So how can you tell if your book is well written? And how can you tell if it has a potential readership?
Gathering opinions that matter
Firstly, you can’t trust the opinions of friends or family. They are too emotionally close to you to be able to give you a truly honest assessment – which will be tainted by their own reading preferences. Not only that, but they don’t have the objective market knowledge to know whether there is potential for the book in the publishing landscape.
What about a writing group? They may be more likely to accurately judge what constitutes good writing, but they are also emotionally close to you and your work. It can be very hard to be brutally honest, especially when you are face to face with someone you probably know rather well and consider a friend. Once again, they will not have objective market knowledge.
Instead, try these methods:
Try to get your book traditionally published first.
This may sound like madness if you are adamant about self-publishing, but hear me out. Literary agents and editors really do know their stuff. They know good writing when they see it. They know the market. If they didn’t, they would be out of a job. Write query letters to agents. If you keep getting back standard form rejections, its likely that your book is not ready to be published yet. If you pique the interest of an agent and they want to see more of your work, this is an excellent sign. You might even get an offer. In which case, you are in the best position and can decide which route you’d rather take.
Send your book to an editor for assessment/critique.
This option costs money, but it is because you are hiring a professional. A manuscript critique will give you an objective view of your book. It will look at the big-picture elements such as whether or not the book has potential in the market, whether the writing style is entertaining and coherent, whether there are big plot or character issues, and so on. A manuscript critique will deconstruct your novel and analyse it – so you know where it fails and why, how to improve it, and where and how it succeeds. The results of manuscript critique will help you take the next best step for your novel, whether that is to put it in a drawer and start again, re-write or tweak it based on the suggestions, or immediately start the publishing process.
Create your own market, and test your writing skills.
Thanks to the internet and social media, it has never been easier to connect with your tribe – that is, a group of like-minded people who are interested in similar things. If you already have a noteworthy presence in a group (thousands of readers on your blog about Victorian science-fiction for example) then you already have a potential readership for your book. Reach out to your group and pitch your idea to them. Test the response to your writing through your blog. You are basically tailoring a book to a specific, pre-determined readership, so you know there is a market.
Then you just have to make sure the book is well-written. If your blog attracts enough readers to constitute a good readership for your blog, then it is likely that you can write well. The final step is to make sure you are writing to a publishable standard, and the best way to know this is to hire a professional editor. If you’re unsure of the level of editing that you need (from a basic proofread to a more rigorous copy-edit), you can send a sample of your work to the editor of your choice and they will be able to recommend the service that would best suit your writing.
Just as an entrepreneur wouldn’t send out an untested product into the market, nor should you send out an untested novel. Knowing your book is good enough to publish gives you confidence when it comes to selling it, and makes the whole process of publishing that much easier. The better your book and the greater the potential readership, the more likely it is to gather excellent reviews and word-of-mouth marketing, and the better your sales will be.
Have you self-published a book? How did you know your work was ready to be published?