90% of all writing advice is trash.
But I’m going to give you some anyway, because there have been requests and I’ve got some time on my hands this afternoon while I wait for a lidocaine shot to wear off. So here goes.
- Write the book first. This shouldn’t even have to be said, but for some reason, it does: Not a damn bit of the following advice matters unless you have a finished manuscript cooling. Thinking about the future of your book will do you no favors while you’re trying to write one. On a personal note, please don’t grill authors for advice on your hypothetical book. We’ve kind of got our hands full helping out people with existing manuscripts. If you’ve got a zillion questions about publishing, but you haven’t started writing yet, your head is in the wrong place. So go fix that. Maybe read a book about the lives of writers. My favorite is Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin.
- Once the book is done, IT IS NOT BLOODY WELL DONE. You need to go over it at least once by yourself and once with an editor. If you can’t afford to hire an editor, at least find a word-minded friend to beta-read and take notes for you, because if you write “The End” and slap that mess up on Amazon, I shall be very cross with you.
If you want to do right by a manuscript, here are the steps:
- Second draft (maybe third or tenth, depending on how it’s going)
- Beta readers for feedback
- Final in-your-house draft
- Professional editor
- Final draft with editor changes
- Then your manuscript should be ready to take out in public. You’re probably going to have massive soul-crushing doubt at one or all of these stages. Don’t worry, it’s normal. It will pass when you’re dead.
- On your second draft: Wait a while. You’re not going to see it clearly for at least a month. As Stephen King said in his book of damn fine advice, On Writing, it should feel alien, like somebody else wrote it. That’s how you know it’s ready. Don’t be scared to make changes: It doesn’t mean you were wrong, it just means that now you have a better idea. If you find mixed metaphors or bad clichés, kill them. And remember to take notes on any really funny typos. They make great stories. My personal winner is “two bottles of bear.”
- On beta readers: Really, there are two kinds I think you should focus on. The first is the take-no-shit reader. This one is going to be your friend who reads a lot and is also willing to tell you when your fly is down in public. The other kind is a sensitivity reader. If you’re writing about a black woman, and you are not a black woman, find one who wants to read your story, because unlike friend #1, she’s going to KNOW when your fly is down in public when it comes to racial issues and treatment. You may have to pay a sensitivity reader for their time, and if you can, you should. It’s worth it. They can keep you from accidentally doing disservice to your characters.
- On editors: They’re not all created equal, and you get what you pay for when it comes to their skill level, experience, and time investment. That said, just about any editor will do you some good. An editor is right 99% of the time. You will only listen to them about 75% of the time. Most editors will forgive you for that.
So you incorporate your editor’s changes and you have a finished manuscript! Huzzah! You’re done! HAHAHAHAHAHAno. Now the new project is in front of you. You need to turn a manuscript into a book. Are you publishing ebooks, paperbacks, or both? Both? Whoops, that’s two projects. Fortunately, you can use some assets for both projects. The things you will need are:
- Cover art
- Cover design (ebook)
- Cover design (paperback)
- Interior design (ebook)
- Interior design (paperback).
- Assess your skills. Are you an artist? Does your style match your book? Awesome. Get arting. Otherwise, you will need to barter with a friend or hire a professional.
- Note that cover art and cover design are not the same thing, though if you hire an artist who specifically does book covers, they can do both. Otherwise, you still need to get art turned into a whole cover.
- On cover art: Do at least one of two things. Either have an artist who has time to read the book (no problem if it’s yourself, obviously), or give a lot of references. A sketch is a good place to start. Stock photos that kind of look like characters can be very helpful.
- On cover design: If you do it yourself, prefab covers like CreateSpace and Amazon let you make may be the only way to avoid tearing your hair out. It’s just not as simple as it seems. My advice is, professional, or prefab. If you want to do it yourself, be prepared to spend hours and hours of your life getting it right. Trust me on this. I really goofed on the first book, thinking I could always fix it later, but the very first cover version you go public with will exist on Goodreads, and in paperback, forever. I regret to say that you can still find some of my really terrible early versions on ebay.
- On interior design: My advice here depends on what kind of standard you hold the book to. If you want hyperlinks in your ebook or a print book with big publishing house flourish, hire a pro. But if you can’t hire a pro, hunker down and learn the basics so that you can do a passable job yourself. It’s not going to be perfect, at least not until your tenth or twelfth try, but a mediocre interior design job won’t put off the casual reader. A really crappy one will, though, so put in the effort.
- You’ll probably want some kind of non-book book merch. If you’re planning on selling books at conventions or even just having a release party, it’s a good idea. Business cards are fine. Bookmarks, and/or one more creative trinket like buttons or stickers are good. Do not go buy one of everything under the sun with your title emblazoned on it, unless you plan to open a bookstore dedicated to selling just your own book. (If that’s the plan, you’ve obviously got some money laying around and can do whatever you want.)
- Have reasonable expectations. Your book can be brilliant and still only sell a few copies at first. Unless Oprah is pushing your book, building an indie writing career takes time and effort.
- Assuming that Oprah is NOT pushing your book, you’re going to have to do it. Publishing your book and then waiting people to find it is a great way to ensure that it collects dust. Make sure you have writerly accounts on all the usual social media, and update one or two of them routinely. Readers do find writers this way. It’s also a good way to find yourself surrounded by author-friends.
- Yes, people do buy books just because they seem interesting. Name recognition would be helpful, but it’s not the all-powerful force it used to be (thanks, internet!), and a $2.99 ebook is a low-risk investment for them. But they have to see it first. If you’ve got a Kindle book and a hundred bucks, advertise on Amazon. For smaller budgets, advertise on Goodreads or Twitter. (You have those, right? RIGHT?) When given an opportunity, throw your business card at a new acquaintance like it’s no big deal; People like saying they met a published novelist, a bit the same way the like talking about seeing a funny monkey at the zoo.
- I know I just said to get your book in front of people’s faces, but now I’m going to make you walk the tightrope and say DON’T BE A SPAMMY SPAMMER. NOBODY LIKES THAT. Don’t DM everyone who follows you on Twitter with a buy link. Don’t harangue your friends. Absolutely do not under any circumstances shove your book into people’s personal space. Let them come to you like birds to a Disney princess. When embarking on a new promotional technique, always ask yourself if it’s a hint or a hammer. Hammers are bad.
- Someone will hate it. Don’t let your eyes pass over good reviews and then suddenly develop Laser Eagle 5000 Vision when you catch a bad one. You’re gonna get a range of reactions, and that’s okay. If it helps, make fun of the bad review with some friends. The reviewer has their reasons, you’re not their cup of tea, and that’s perfectly fine. Someone else is really gonna like you. They probably already do.
People who may be good for you to know.
S.A. Hunt, who writes cool books and makes great covers.
Ashe Armstrong, who put a damn fine book through the self-publishing maze with class and is very friendly.
Krista D. Ball, who gives great advice and writes good examples of inclusive fantasy. (Don’t be demanding, though, she’s a busy lady.)
Jen Foehner Wells, who writes awesome space fiction and wins hardcore at internet marketing.
Rose Sinclair, who is a Wattpad expert writing lovely hacker stories.
And me. Yes, you can come to me with occasional questions about stuff not covered in this post. I might even have answers. As long as your first draft is done.