Category Archives: Preparing for publication

Is Self-Publishing a Scam?

First, terminology. Traditional publishing means someone chose to publish an author’s book with the intention of making money from sales of it. Self-publishing means that an author is publishing the book at his or her own expense.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is where a company takes a look at your book, says, Why, yes, we can make this puppy part of our forthcoming catalog and distribute it so that we can make some money from people buying it. Within traditional publishing, there are the Big Houses (bigger and fewer of them all the time) and the small presses. In traditional publishing, a book will be edited and copyedited, turned into galleys (test pages, or proofs) and proofread before going to the printer. The printer will supply a copy (bluelines) of what the book will look like when the presses roll, which the publisher will review for final approval. Then the printed books are either warehoused or distributed to sales outlets. Marketing includes providing the book cover (aimed at capturing the attention of the target customer)—artwork, jacket blurbs, quotes, and a sexy author picture and bio—sending out review copies; ensuring placement in stores; booking tours and interviews; and advertising. The Big Houses can provide more of everything, but even they concentrate their resources where they expect the greatest return on their investment. For an author without name recognition and a large readership, the process may not be much different from that of a small press.

Small presses range widely in mission, quality of product, and contractual arrangements. Book tours and signings, interviews, social media hustling, and even advertising may fall on the author to provide. A small press will provide at least a copyedit and the design stuff and arrange for printing and/or ebook uploading. Some small presses pay only a royalty and some expect the author to pay for any copies they want. Like large publishers, however, they expect to make money from sales of your books—not from fees charged to you.


Self-publishing means that the decision to publish and the costs involved are all on the author. Before ebooks and publishing on demand (POD), companies existed that would lay out and print books for an author for a fee. There are still companies, such as XLibris, who provide this service. It is costly, and sales are entirely author driven. It has derisively been called vanity publishing, because these companies make their money on the “vain” hopes of writers who had been rejected by traditional publishers.

It is still difficult for authors to generate large sales numbers on their own, but the cost of self-publishing has substantially decreased. Uploading an ebook to the major distributors of ebooks costs nothing, and the percentage on sales is greater than the average royalty from a press. Therefore, an author who invests nothing, loses nothing and may even make something.

For the self-publisher who wants a print book, there are POD services, such as CreateSpace and LuLu, that substantially reduce the cost of printing a small number of books. This is a huge advantage over the 1,000 copy print runs that used to be required.

There is, however, a catch. Publishing houses employ people, and these people all do something of value in delivering a book to market. An author who writes a book and then uploads it for distribution takes a shortcut to an unfinished product. So what does a self-published book need to match the quality of traditional releases?

High Quality Self-Publishing

Development. Fiction or nonfiction, a book needs a steely-eyed once over to make sure that it will hold the reader’s attention, not embarrass the author, and be worth further time and money. For the writer on a tight budget, this can be accomplished to some extent with manuscript appraisals or beta reads (and not by people who have to face you at Thanksgiving) or workshops. Working with a writing coach is another way to get helpful feedback. A development editor (also called a substantive editor) can really tighten a book up and bring out the best in it. This is a highly skilled editor with a big toolbox. A development editor will tell you when and how to pick up the pace, excise fluff, make your characters more compelling.

Copyediting. This is where a book gets spiffed up. A development editor will probably mark an obvious error, such as a misspelling, but there is an expectation (an inevitability, actually) that rewrites and revisions will introduce a whole ‘nother round of errors. A copyedit is done after the manuscript has taken its final shape.

Cover design. Covers need artwork and typography that will capture eyeballs. A pretty picture is all well and good, but an effective cover design is the sum of all kinds of parts. It must appeal to readers interested in the book’s subject or genre, and it must be easy to make out as a thumbnail.

Layout. E-readers accommodate book formatting only up to a point and will default to the format seen most often with ebooks. There are good reasons for this, though it is extremely restricting for page designers. It is still important, however, to upload a book file that will look polished and attractive. Look at an ebook from a large publisher, then cruise through the indies. The difference can be dramatic. Amateurish looking pages undermine credibility and kill sales.

Proofreading. Even ebooks should get one last review from a fresh pair of eyes before the reading public gets its hands on it. No single pass will catch every error, no matter how good the editor. Complaints about typos and spelling errors arise not so much from careless copyediting but from the reduced number of passes the text gets before release to the public. Best case scenario is to have an entirely fresh pair of eyes proofread the book. Professional proofreaders can be hired. In a pinch, a beta editor can sometimes be recruited at this stage and may even provide a review or blurb if they like the book.

QA. When your book is formatted and uploaded to an ebook platform, the author and the formatter should check through every page, cover to last page, before making the book available to the public.  This is the ebook equivalent of checking printers’ bluelines. Weird stuff can happen, even to a well-formatted book, or you may want to tweak some things to make the book more attractive or easier to navigate.

Self-Publisher as Indie

So, what is the difference between paying for all these “extras” through a company like XLibris and hiring people to do them yourself? Simply, control and price. The more active the “self” in self-publishing, the more control you have over the end result and the cost for it. Hiring your own contractors means selecting them personally based on criteria you believe is important. Arriving at the cost and the services that will answer your book’s needs comes after a process of negotiation and consultation.

Is self-publishing a scam? That depends on whether an author has been deliberately led to believe that he or she has paid for something they will not receive. The dismal reputation of vanity publishing arose because hopeful writers naively believed that simply by printing their book, it would automatically appear on store shelves and readers would naturally discover it through browsing. The invisible process by which books were (and are still) distributed to stores, however, posed a far greater hurdle than any self-published author could surmount—this was obscured by the sales pitch. The company never expected the books to sell, but the dreams of authors were a lucrative source of upfront cash. Caveat emptor.

That doesn’t mean that self-publishing—or “independent publishing,” as many dedicated self-publishing authors prefer—is a waste of time and resources. There are more worthy manuscripts written than all the publishers in the country can take on. Additionally, there are writers with talent and vision that need help bringing their works up to their potential. Many writers don’t care if their books never turn a profit, but only wish to see them realized as finished works. Others are willing to quit their day job and make cold calls, spend hours on social media, schedule book signings, fill their trunk with books, and crisscross the country on a promotional junket.

Self-publishing enables the release of literally millions of works, and sales of these indie titles are a growing share of the ebook market. Successful indies argue that they make more money with the 70% royalty from Kindle sales than from the 12-25% royalty they might earn at a traditional house. Competition with millions of other titles, however, means that sales are hard earned. An indie makes all the decisions but makes all the investments, as well, and takes all the risks.

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Criticism: How to Handle What People Say

Criticism isn't always helpful

Writing is hard and writing is personal. There is nothing quite so crushing as mom’s faint praise unless it’s frank, harsh, lacerating criticism from someone who thinks “truth” is a blunt weapon.

What you write reveals a lot about you—your ignorance, your unorthodox approach to spelling, your secret principles, what you dream about, and all your worrisome complexes. It takes a whopping load of courage to share the fresh, raw pages of a novel manuscript with others. Fear of exposure, however, should not prevent doctor visits or editorial review.

Criticism and Conflict of Interest

Rule No. 1 of receiving criticism is: Consider the source. Mom, Mrs. Kravitz, and your subordinates at the office cannot under any circumstance give you an unbiased appraisal. Period. In sharing your book with the people in your personal universe, you should not be looking for the unvarnished truth. What you really want from what I will call critics of the First Circle, is encouragement.

You are blessed if “I loved it!” is followed by “I was a little confused in the fourth chapter when Shirley called her boyfriend Jason—wasn’t his name James?”  1) You have a fan, and 2) It’s nice that error was caught by a safety reader and not an outsider.

Sometimes, however, Uncle Bob will tell you that you lost him when you went into that girlie stuff, or your brutally honest BFF will confess that she’s just never going to find time to read it, or Grandma may return it with all the errors marked in red pen but without a single positive note in the margins.

The fact is, these people—who love you dearly—may feel like you’ve given them an onerous chunk of homework and may not be comfortable with the pop quiz they know is coming. They are almost certainly not trained to see the finished diamond in your rough manuscript, and they may not even be inclined as readers toward the kind of book you have written. Glean any constructive criticism you can from the first circle and all the encouragement offered, but don’t sweat it if they aren’t able to tell you what you need to hear.

Peer Pressure and Constructive Guilt

Rule No. 2 is Test the Authority of Your Peers. Before there were writing workshops, there were coteries, coffeeshops, salons, and milieux. Artists were thrown together by society kingpins who specialized in fostering culture, or else an artist fled society with or without his friends and drew followers to his little sitting room where booze and bonhomie went round with the sharing of works in progress. This is the Second Circle.

As a modern equivalent, you can join a writing group or assemble a panel of beta readers. You can blog your progress. Workshops operate on the Weight Watchers principle that if you are being monitored for progress, progress you will make. You’ll receive encouragement and advice from those engaged in a similar struggle.

But things can go wrong: If your Pynchonesque epic is turning into a domestic comedy or the dry sardonic wit has been drained from your warrior princess, it may be that the influence of your peers is having a counterproductive effect on your work. If a beta reader informs you that the brassy heroine with whom you closely identify is a brainless floozy, the rest of his/her critique may be colored by a worldview or literary aesthetic that is out of tune with your own. Seek criticism that takes your book on its own terms and helps to refine rather than re-envision.

Comments from Your Editor

Rule No. 3 states, Choose Your Editor As You Would a Godparent. You may think the world of your brilliant and charming Aunt Kate and still not want her helping to raise your children. By the same principle, a good editor is not necessarily the right editor. Any good editor will find errors and spot problems, but not all good editors will spot the same problems or even consider as problems the same things. If you are fond of wordplay and rogue punctuation, you may not be well served by a strict constructionist; if you have produced a delightfully Dickensian doorstop, you may not be in the right corner with a faithful adherent of the Elmore Leonard school.

An editor who understands your authorial intent will provide feedback—yes, criticism—that will make sense to you, illuminate your own dim ideas, and tell you when you’ve gone off the rails. Yes, if you write a 2,000 word conversation full of impassioned dialog and crackling atmosphere that basically repeats a previous—and better placed—conversation, your editor may point out that readers will find it tedious. Don’t be hurt, even if you worked really hard on that scene and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. Your editor (the Third Circle) may have a suggestion for incorporating what you love about this scene into the earlier scene, or you may have an ingenious solution of your own—either way, the book is suddenly better, stronger. And if your editor tells you something you don’t agree with—say, that your protagonist is a bit whiny—there may be something deficient in your presentation of that character. Consider whether you have supplied a full and true picture of the character before deciding that if Hamlet can be interpreted different ways your character can be too.

Stand by Your Book

Rule No. 4, the Golden Rule, is, It’s Your Book, You Can Do What You Want. Even an editor who is otherwise totally on the same page with you can make a lame suggestion, misinterpret a regional idiom, think your hero is a jerk, or tire of your narrator’s drug-induced circular reasoning. If you wrote it that way on purpose and stand by your original decision because it is integral to the work as you envision it, keep it. The book is entirely yours, and criticism is always yours to cherry pick—ignore it or make use of it, but don’t be afraid of it.


Manuscript: How to Format

Manuscript Formatting Guidelines

1) Go the the publisher’s or literary agent’s website and follow their guidelines for submission to the letter. They aren’t fooling. If you can’t follow directions, you will be too hard to work with, and they don’t need an author who will crash their schedule or hog resources. This is a very competitive industry. Don’t get rejected before they’ve even read your manuscript.

Where the target’s guidelines do not specifically address formatting:

2) Use 12 pt. Courier or New Times Roman, double spaced, one-inch left and right margins. Do not under any circumstances pretty it up. Just don’t.

3) Provide a title page as a cover to the manuscript: This is not a display page, as it will be in the published book. It is more like a cover sheet with essential information about you and your book. At the top left, put your name (your real one—the one you want on the contract, the one you want the checks made out to), your address, phone number, email address, and the word count. Move down to the middle of the page and center: Title of book (in all caps), subtitle (if there is one, cap each word except the, a, and an and and, but, or and to), and your name as you want it to appear in print.

4) On the first page of the first chapter, set the header to include the page number (do not begin numbering with the title page), your last name (real name, not pen name), and the book’s (not the chapter’s) title. The header should be aligned right.

To create a header in Word, go to Insert, then Page Number, choose Top of Page/ Plain No. 3. This inserts a header that contains only a page number. Move the cursor to the right of the new page number and add the rest of the header. For example, 1 / James / Daisy Miller. If your title page is part of the file, Go to Edit Header and check the Different First Page box. Now the first page header is a blank slate. Go to Page Numbering and choose Format Page Numbers, then set the numbering to begin on 0. Close the header and check to make sure everything is how you want it.

5) Start each chapter on a brand new page, with the chapter number and title (if the chapters are titled) centered and at about a third of the way down the page. Enter an extra line break between the chapter title and the first paragraph.

6) Include The End at the end of the last chapter.

Manuscript Formatting Mistakes

And now, a list of Don’ts:

Don’t double space between periods. If you can’t help it, it’s okay, but most likely the editor will just have to take out the extra space anyway, which is work you do not need to generate for someone who gets paid for going behind you. True, some publishers do include extra space in their page design, but that is done with the layout program, so the extra space is unnecessary in any case.

Don’t add line spaces between paragraphs unless you intend there to be a section break there.

Don’t use the space bar to indent your paragraphs. As an old production editor, believe me, it’s a mess. Use the tab indent, or don’t use an indent at all if you are using Word. Word will put a visual line space (not a carriage return) between paragraphs, which is fine. If you use Word, you also have the option of changing the Quick Style to No Spacing between paragraphs, but you may have to modify the style to add a visual indent. Any of these three options is fine, just never, never use the space bar to align your text.

Don’t underline to indicate italics unless you are using a typewriter. Just italicize the text.

Don’t use boldface. The page designer will decide what gets to be bold. As long as titles, heads, and subheads are clearly what they are in the manuscript, there is no need to use boldface.

You do not need to include the copyright, as that can come off as a dark and sinister hint that you don’t trust the person who is about to see if they want to publish your book. It isn’t a bad idea to copyright your manuscript, but you don’t need to present proof that you have done so.

The Nonfiction Manuscript

If your work includes subheads, illustrations, tables, appendices, or other elements, these must all be included with your submission unless otherwise arranged with the publisher. The publisher will advise you which style guide to follow or provide specific guidelines for you. Words into Type and the Chicago Manual of Style are good general references in preparing elements beyond the range of this post.

Editing the Manuscript

Formatting is not the only consideration in preparing a manuscript for submission. The book needs to be reasonably polished to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Even the best writers have their bloopers and deleted scenes, and an author’s editor can make a book more attractive to a publisher as well as more compelling to a reader—whether it’s making a tech manual more coherent or a knocking the kinks out of a thriller or simply making the publisher’s in-house copyeditor’s job a cake walk.

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