Is my manuscript ready for self-publication?
Here is a quick checklist to help you determine if your book is ready for publication:
Is it a first draft?
What many beginning authors fail to realize is that successful writing is all about revision. It is human nature to be proud of our first drafts, and to hope that that draft is 'good enough'. But 'good enough' seldom is. A substantive editor can push you to dig deeper, write better, and move past 'good enough' to true 'excellence'.
If you cannot afford a substantive editor, or don't feel your manuscript is ready to go to a substantive editor, put the manuscript aside for six to eight months and work on something else. This will allow the manuscript to begin to fade from your memory so that you can return to it with fresh eyes. This is often enough to help you spot awkward constructions, flaws in logic, scenes that don't flow, and so on.
After you have completed your second draft, pass it to three people whose opinion you trust, but who are not friends or family. An online writers' workshop would be a good example of people who have no connection to you but who have relevant expertise. Where the three workshop members providing feedback make contradictory recommendations, go with the majority view and make the required revisions. Put it away for six to eight months while you work on your next manuscript. Come back with fresh eyes and revise as required. Find three different readers to give you their honest feedback.
Repeat as necessary.
Is it your fifth manuscript?
I have interviewed maybe a hundred writers over the last 30 years and one of the facts that emerged out of that process was that—with a few exceptions—it was almost always their fifth novel that finally got published; or if they were lucky enough to have their earlier manuscripts accepted somewhere, it was their fifth novel that made it 'big time'.
This is basically an application of Anders Ericsson's 10,000 hours rule (popularized by Maxwell Gladwell). To master any craft requires an investment of about 10,000 hours. And not just goofing around hours, but time devoted to seriously struggling to push oneself to master the required skills. No one is born with highly refined writing skills. Even the most talented have to practice, practice, practice to polish their skills. Deeper inquiry into those few cases where a writer was successful with their first manuscript usually revealed that they had put in three to four years—about 10,000 hours—on that initial manuscript.
So the question is, what to do with manuscripts 1-4? In the old days, one sent them round to publishers (or agents) and let them decide, for better or worse, whether one had yet reached publishable quality. With self-publishing, this refereeing process is absent, and the temptation is not to wait until one has achieved the necessary experience to enter the market place successfully. Although it is now easy to publish and promote one's early works, there may be a career cost: Your name (or pen name) is your brand, and weak early releases may hurt rather than promote your long-term interests. About half of the self-published authors to whom I have spoken have told me that they now wished that they had not rushed this or that early work to print. Looking back with the benefit of additional writing experience, they can now see how they could have done much better—but it is too late to recall the book or erase the reviews.
On the other hand are those authors with a desk full of manuscripts which they are too timid to publish, feeling that they are not yet at the level of Tolstoy. This may well be true, but one does not need to be Tolstoy to be eminently publishable. (See any book by Dan Brown.)
In both instances, what is required is an objective appraisal by a knowledgeable editor. Several reputable literary agencies offer reasonably priced reading services to review your manuscript, but of course they are not really geared to the self-publishing market. Connecting with a local writers' group and asking for their feedback might also be helpful, but only if they have no previous connection with the author: the opinions of friends and family are not relevant in judging potential success in the marketplace.
Has your manuscript been rejected by one or more publishers?
Note that the question here is not whether your manuscript has been rejected, but how it has been rejected. If all you have ever received was form letter rejections, this is probably a bad sign. Publishers make their money by publishing books they think will sell; if they did not think your book had commercial potential, they may well be right.
On the other hand, if you have received hand-written rejections in which the editors said something like, "I loved your book, but it just not right for us", that is an entirely different matter. For example, many well-established Canadian authors have had manuscripts rejected by American publishers as "too Canadian"; cross-over novels may be rejected by fantasy publishers as "too much a historical romance" and by historical romance publishers as having "too much fantasy", and so on; or a regional or niche market may be passed over by large publishers as too limited. If an editor states that the manuscript was good, but they couldn't see how to market it, then that manuscript is a prime candidate for self-publication.
Are you over 18?
There are authors who were published when they were 13, but it is worth noting that in every case, it was their sixth or seventh completed manuscript. It is not impossible for middle or high school students to write at a publishable level; but it is uncommon for them to have had the time in their short lives to invest the 10,000 hours required (see above). If this is your first novel or collection, I would recommend against self-publishing without first obtaining an objective appraisal—that is, not just your Mom, teacher or friends. If you do choose to self-publish, consider using a pseudonym to protect your brand for the future. Note that you will improve as you grow more experienced—it would be a sad commentary if you didn't get better as you continue to refine your craft—so while you may well look back on your first book fondly as you grow into a writing career, you may still wish to distinguish between your early pre-18 works, and your later works by using different pen names. (You can always reveal your initial pen name later, just as Stephen King had his early Bachman works reprinted with "Stephen King writing as Bachman" emblazoned on the cover.)
Has it been professionally proofread?
All but the worst publishers provide some editorial support, so as a self-publisher it is your responsibility to hire the equivalent services so that you can put out an equivalent (or better) product. The bare minimum is that you have had the book proofread. I would highly recommend hiring a professional proofreader, as proofreading is an extremely demanding skill, but if you cannot afford a professional proofreader, recruiting an army of grammatically knowledgeable friends would at least be a step in the right direction. Without effective proofreading, your book will inevitably be filled with typographical, spelling, grammatical and consistency errors that will distract and annoy even your most devoted fans. Further, any reviewer confronted with multiple proofing lapses will either put your book down and move onto a more professionally published work, or at a minimum, make appropriately scathing remarks regarding quality control.
Serious consideration should also be given to copy editing, as proofreaders will not attempt to identify and reword awkward or unclear passages.
Has the book been professionally designed?Again, cover art and book design are services provided by traditional publishers, and are now your responsibility. Reviewers, like publishers, have more books to review than they can reasonably cover, so bad cover art or (more subtlety) bad design will ensure that your book won't even be picked up off the stack. Many readers can tell at a glance—often without quite knowing how—which books have been published by a regular press, and which are self-published. Most will not lift a self-published novel or collection off the bookstore shelf, having been burnt by amateur productions in the past. Proper design is essential to long-term success in the market place. (Note that Essential Edits does not offer design services; we recommend JenEric Designs for economical layout and InDesign work.)
Were you intending to sell to the public?
Notwithstanding any of the above, you may just like the idea of having a copy of your manuscript as a book. Self-publishing a very limited number of copies to give to friends and relatives is perfectly reasonable. If you have no commercial ambitions, then there is less need to be concerned about meeting any of the above criteria.
Last updated April 24, 2017.