“Writing is an art, but publishing is a business.”
~ Piper Bayard of Bayard & Holmes
That may be a grim thought to us artists, but it is true, nonetheless. We write for different reasons—fun, therapy, journaling, therapy, to master a skill, to be part of an artistic community, therapy, because the stories are hammering inside our heads and must get out. On the other hand, since publishing is a business, we publish for only one reason—to make money.
If you are reading this article, you’ve probably already put seat to the chair and dared to begin that most glorious and yet most horrific of creations, a first manuscript. I say horrific because, while it is an outstanding accomplishment to get to The End, it is also only the beginning. Once we have that most precious brain child, what then?
Well, of course, the top New York agents fight over the chance to make us a star with a publisher bidding war for our manuscript, a record-breaking advance, a publicity team, an art team, and the best of editors who will no doubt congratulate us on being the first author they know who doesn’t need any edits. In fact, they will thank us for the privilege of being allowed to work with us... Well, it could happen, right?
Not on this planet.
On this planet, publishing is less an institution and more shifting sands—like a sandstorm is shifting sands. Only five major publishing houses are left standing, and one of them is up for sale as I write. Countless medium, small, and micro-publishers have sprung up to challenge the Big Five, some with more success than others.
In response to this shifting publishing paradigm, publishing houses have been paring down the number of authors they take on, often choosing those authors based on narrow parameters of style, message, and politics. All of those publishers have sales teams that choose a select few authors, as in three or four, to fully support with publicity, book tours, and marketing teams. The rest of the authors are tossed out into the deep end to sink or swim on their own, doing much of the work while giving up most of the money. In this paradigm, independent publishers and self-published authors have flourished, often doing better than their traditional counterparts.
Wait, isn’t an independent publisher a self-published author?
No. While specifics of that distinction vary depending on whom we ask, generally, the self-published author hires a company to handle their editing, proofreading, artwork, layout, etc., and that company sends the author a complete package in exchange for a hefty sum.
The independent publisher, on the other hand, separately hires their own beta readers, editors, layout artists, cover artist, etc., and has complete control over the final product. Many independent publishers, such as myself and my writing partner, do everything for ourselves except for the beta reading and editing. It allows us to maintain artistic and quality control of our work, and it means any money generated is ours to keep.
The most important word in that last sentence is quality. The primary beef with independent publishers is poor quality. To be successful as an indie, we must be dedicated to producing professional-level publications, no matter the cost to our egos.
What does quality independent publishing require?
1. Education & Practice
While there are no right or wrong stories, there are definitely more and less-effective ways to present those stories. We must learn our craft and the business of publishing to be effective.
Then we must practice. It is said that the first one million words are the internship. I recommend blogging in addition to manuscript writing to get that first million. Blogging keeps us engaged with the world, helps us build our brand and a marketing platform, and gives us something to point to when people ask where they can read our work. It also gives us the instant gratification of completing a product in less time than it takes to produce a novel.
For writing craft, I recommend any or all of James Scott Bell’s several outstanding writing craft books. Also read, read, read. It helps to think about what we love in other authors’ books and how we can incorporate those elements into our own. I also recommend studying the generous advice from the talented authors here at Writers in the Storm, the amazing authors of the Writers Helping Writers site, and Kristen Lamb’s posts and classes.
2. A Publish-Ready Manuscript
- Completed work
A completed work is more than a first draft. It’s a manuscript we have allowed to ripen with at least three passes over time. Many authors, including myself and my writing partner, do five or more passes before sending a manuscript on to beta readers and editors.
Ideally, we leave it in a drawer and ignore it for a bare minimum of three weeks before we start on the next draft. Many authors prefer to let a manuscript sit for at least a year between the first draft and subsequent drafts so that they might see it with fresh eyes.
Once we have given our all and know of no more improvements we can make on our own, we are ready to share our manuscript for some honest feedback.
- Beta Readers
Beta readers are not our parents, siblings, or best friends. They are people who usually don’t love us and who have the spine to give us honest feedback on our books. They should be familiar with the genre either through their own writing, their own reading, or their life experience. For example, one of Bayard & Holmes’s most invaluable beta readers for our espionage nonfiction is a former CIA Operations Officer who reads everything his hands touch.
Some beta readers will perform the service for free, and others must be hired. It is up to the author to decide which is best for the book, but both routes are equally valid if they provide the perspective and experience for valuable feedback.
- A Brilliant Editor
Once we have received our beta readers’ advice and edited accordingly, we are ready for our star editor to come into the process. This is where Holmes and I put our money. There are no great books without great editors, and we earn the opportunity to work with great editors by being diligent with our education, our revisions, and the quality of our rough manuscripts. And every manuscript is rough until it has passed through the hands of a great editor.
To find a great editor, consult your author network or author social media groups for recommendations. Research the editor’s background and check out the books they have edited. Discuss exactly what services they provide, how much they charge, and when payment is due. And gird your loins.
As I said above, publishing is a business. Businesses are about making money; they are not about stroking our egos. Our editors must be able to trust us enough to speak plainly to us. We don’t pay editors to tell us our books are perfect. We pay them to tell us how our books suck and how we can fix them.
ProTip: The only correct response to an editor is, “Thank you,” whether you agree with what they said or not. Never argue. That’s the mark of an amateur. Instead, take what you need and leave the rest.
- A Meticulous Proofreader
Publishing a book without proofreading it is like sending your child to school in their pajamas. After all of the work we put into our manuscripts, why would we send them out the door looking like nobody loves them? Find a good proofreader by asking your author network and social media groups, and be ready to pay for their services.
Sometimes an author wants to break punctuation rules. That’s okay if it serves the greater purpose of the work, but we know what rules we are breaking, and we should be able to articulate to ourselves exactly why we think our outlaw punctuation makes our books better.
ProTip: The best proofreaders cite the punctuation rule for every change they make to the manuscript. Most use the Chicago Manual of Style.
Once we have put in the time and effort to learn our craft, practice it, rewrite several drafts, and have our manuscript thoroughly edited and proofread, we are ready to move on to the actual book production. We will discuss that next Monday in Part II of this three-part series on Indie Publishing 101.
My knowledge on this topic, like anyone’s in this ever-shifting kaleidoscope called the publishing world, is not the be-all and end-all. We will all always need to learn. I would love to hear what works for you.
What resources have helped you most in developing your craft? Do you hire your beta readers, or are they volunteers? Who are your favorite editors and proofreaders? Is there anyone you would recommend, and in what genre?
Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.