How to Publish Your First Book

There are a lot of things that I wish I knew when I started self-publishing, and it seems a waste not to share them with the world. Authors and prospective authors, I hope this helps – and feel free to add your own tips in the comments! (Or, if you’ve had different experiences, please share your experiences!) Please note that most of this is also useful for people who are looking to publish traditionally.

Step 1: Finish your first draft! Have you finished it yet? Excellent! Move on to Step 2. If not, keep working. Remember, marketing is a big, scary jungle and you feel like you should throw energy at it. Your writing, however, is the basis of everything you do, so throw energy at that first. Maybe start a twitter page. Then back to writing!

Step 2: Do not look at your first draft for at least a week. During this time you may do many diverse things: take up crocheting, learn to tap dance, read other people’s books, or (if you are absolutely determined to do something related to this book) email around to see if you can find people interested in beta-reading your book. Go two weeks if you can, but one week is okay.

Step 3: Edit and proofread. Screw up your courage, push up your sleeves, and start editing your first draft. Have you come back from your hiatus to find out that it’s crap? That’s okay. In fact, it’s probably good. The whole point was to see it with new eyes. Don’t worry, remember that nearly every single author who writes about writing says they hate their first drafts. This editing phase may take a while, and when it’s done, take the time to proofread. Personally, I recommend printing the document out during this phase, because for some reason I have better luck finding typos when I do. Things you’ll want to look for:

  • Typos (obviously)
  • Consistent character/place details (if Jim’s eyes are blue, make sure they’re always blue. This is in NO way inspired by real-life events … )
  • A fairly consistent level of action (either something needs to be happening, or something needs to be imminent and building)
  • Jarring things (there’s no better way to describe this, it’s just anything that takes you out of the flow of the story)
  • Plot holes (better now than later)

Step 3a: Repeat Steps 2 & 3 as necessary. If you are not happy with your draft at the end of the first round of editing and you cannot come up with a way to make it better, wait a bit. Do not despair – time and the subconscious have a way of sorting things out. Repeat Steps 2 & 3 until at last you are moderately happy with it, or you are at an impasse that you simply cannot resolve. Shoot out some more emails to friends about beta reading. Try to score some people who love this genre, and maybe a few who don’t read it so often. When you either can’t find anything more to fix, or you cannot figure out how to fix the problems you’ve found, proceed to step 3b.

Step 3b: Copyright. If you want to. This may depend on who, exactly, is beta-reading. If you copyright now, you’ll want to copyright again at the end, depending on any major overhauls. Think about it, make a choice, navigate the system, drink a celebratory cup of tea, and head along to step 4.

Step 4: Send the book to your beta readers. If you have more than four beta readers, I recommend separating them into two groups and sending this draft to the first group. Send the book with very clear instructions that they are to be ruthless, and that you will give out bonus points and candy for finding typos; also, if you have some sort of time constraint, you should probably say that up front. Just as a warning, you will send this email, and then about 25 minutes later you will be white-knuckling your computer and wondering why they haven’t emailed back yet. (You think I’m joking.)

Step 5: While you’re waiting, line up a cover artist. If you’re going to go traditional, skip this step (your publisher will almost certainly line up a cover artist for you). If you’re planning to self-publish, I recommend making a DeviantArt account and posting about a commission, or heading over to some author groups and asking around. Be up-front about what you’re willing to pay. If you’ve done this already, you can spend your time plotting out your next book, tracking down agents (if you’d like to go traditional; DO NOT EMAIL THEM YET), or setting up a Facebook fan page for yourself.

Step 6: Read over the beta readers’ comments. This is probably going to be painful. At this juncture, you need to remember that your beta readers are people just like you, who love books and love YOU and think you can make things better. They’re giving you advice because this way, your book will be better when it goes to the general public. And you want that. And I cannot stress list last piece enough: your beta readers are most likely right. Go over their comments and sort out what advice you want to take. The advice may also be wildly divergent. Try things one way. If they don’t seem right, try them another way. Keep editing.

Step 6a: Repeat Steps 2-6 with your second set of beta readers. But Moiiiiiira, I thought I’d have this book published/out to agents two months ago! Too bad. I will yell if I have to.

Step 7: Hire an editor. You know the drill, but I’m going to say it anyway: buyer beware. Be smart about this. Look online for reviews of this person. Look for price comparisons. It’s a very good sign if this editor links both to industry-standard pricing models, AND provides names of clients. This allows you to track those people down and ask about their experiences. People planning to go traditional can skip this. In fact, everyone can skip this. However, I highly recommend that you do get one. That’s all I’ll say.

Step 8: Start working on your various summaries and pitches. If you’re going to go traditional, you’ll want a three-page and one-page summary of the book, listing out major plot arcs. There are a LOT of resources on the web about how to do this. Frankly, even if you aren’t looking for an agent, you may still want to do this. It’s good to be able to rattle off an elevator speech about your book at a moment’s notice. Practice it in the mirror.

Step 9: Begin shopping reviews from book bloggers, etc. There are oodles of lists online about book bloggers, by genre and subgenre and so on. Look for book bloggers who review in your genre, who have posted recently, and who accept books from indie authors. Look over their submissions guidelines, and follow them. I cannot tell you how important this is. If they say no self-publishing, accept that and move on.

  • Step 9 for traditional publishing folks: build up a list of agents and start querying! Very exciting! Pay attention to submissions requirements and go for it! … I don’t have much experience from here on out, but there are LOTS of agents and authors online to share their experiences. If there are any traditionally published authors reading this who would like to share helpful tips, leave a comment and we can work your advice in! As far as I know, people hoping to go traditional can skip from here to step 15 while they wait for agent responses. We are all crossing our fingers for you, good luck!

Step 10: Go through the editor’s suggestions, make the ones you like, and do one final proof-reading run. You are not obligated to take every suggestion your editor makes. Some will be spot on, some will be way off. Trust your gut! Then look for typos again. And again, for whatever reason, I do recommend printing the manuscript out while typo-hunting.

Step 11: Format. Deep breathing, you can do this. You want to end up with a .doc file that has a linked table of contents. This is just one of many brilliant blog posts that will help you through the process. If you have a lot of pictures or strange formatting, or if you feel deeply uncomfortable with this and would prefer to have someone else handle this, find a formatting service – there is no rule that says you have to do this all yourself! Barry Eisler lists some here, and there are many  more!

Step 12: Put your book up for preorder on Smashwords (optional). As of right now, Amazon does not allow indie authors to do this (bummer). Smashwords and iTunes, however, do. I recommend this, even if you don’t have much of a following, and the reason is that all preorders list as sales on the day of release, pushing your book up in the rankings. That’s cool, right? You will have to upload a manuscript, so this may be a good gut-check. Butterflies in your stomach? Good. Sinking dread? Maybe read through that manuscript again.

Step 13: Copyright. There are actually some diverging opinions on whether this is necessary. I say, maybe give up a few pizzas and spend the $30. For me, it’s peace of mind.

Step 14: Upload. I upload directly to B&N and Amazon, and let Smashwords handle the rest. Some people upload direct everywhere. Smashwords will have a review process to identify common issues, and after that will go through a two-week-ish process of vetting the book for distribution to iTunes, etc (wherever you’ve chosen). You’ll have the options during upload to choose keywords and genres; don’t worry, you can change this later. Remember to put in your supercool descriptions you worked on in Step 8.

Step 15: Relax a little bit. If you aren’t in the middle of a polar vortex, you could try going outside. Either way, have a cup of hot cocoa or a whiskey, maybe read or listen to some music. Relax. Smile. Refresh the Amazon page a few times, compulsively. Allow a friend or partner or kid to drag you away from the computer for a bit.

Step 16: Panic. You may have come to the conclusion that this is the worst book that has ever been written. This is normal. Deep breaths. Don’t delete the book!

Step 17: Start working on the next book. But of course! 😉

Authors, do you have anything to add? Prospective authors, do you have any questions? Let us know!


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