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Writing and Publishing

What Are the Chief Weakness of Self-Published Books

As I read more and more self-published books, I’m dismayed over a reoccurring theme: many lack robust editing. That’s not to imply these works had no editing at all, most did. It’s just that they lacked full editing.

The first reminder to every writer is we can’t truly edit our own work. True, we must self-edit, but we delude ourselves if we think we’ll catch every error. Traditional publishers subject books to multiple edits before publication. To do our work justice, self-published works deserve the same scrutiny.

Though the names vary and their definitions sometimes overlap or even contradict, I’ll share four types of edits, using generic labels.

Edit Type 1: Fact-Checking

As an author, we need to double-check our facts, especially when we self-publish. It’s possible that someone else may catch our errors, but more likely they’ll just assume what we wrote is correct. One book had the protagonist make a 200-mile drive in 90 minutes. Oops. Another common mistake is relying on memory for historic information. Don’t do that; I always verify, even when I’m sure I’m right.

Edit Type 2: Macro Edit

Sometimes called developmental or substantive editing, whatever name this edit goes by, the intent is to look at the big picture of the book. Is the overall structure sound, the organization good, and the flow understandable? I’m currently reading a memoir and the author’s timeline jumps all over the place, often backward and forwards, several times within each chapter, making the chronology overwhelming to follow. Other considerations are if the right style is used or if the voice matches the genre and supports the story or theme. A “macro edit” addresses all these concerns.

Edit Type 3: Intermediate Edit

The next level, often called copy editing, of edit takes a closer look at the flow and structure, from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, and thought to thought. Does the writing make sense?

Edit Type 4: Micro Edit

The final edit usually called proofreading, looks at grammar, punctuation, and the technical details. I read one book that had a quality “micro edit” but lacked any other editing—and the work suffered as a result.

Paying others to edit our work when we self-publish is expensive, but our readers deserve no less and our career demands it.

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Writing and Publishing

Why Accuracy in Writing is Important

Last week I experienced the importance of accuracy.

With anticipation I opened an article submission. The topic was relevant and novel.

My excitement, however, waned as I read his opening sentence. The author stated the earth’s population was 6.2 million. I thought there are over seven billion people on our planet, so I sought confirmation. Indeed we surpassed the seven billion mark a couple years ago. His number was wrong, out dated. That’s when I realized his second error, a typo: million instead of billion.

Spotting two factual errors in the first dozen words caused me to question the accuracy of the entire piece. I almost rejected the submission at that point, but I continued reading.

Then the author wrote that Mandarin is a lesser-known language. I questioned that as well. An online search confirmed my suspicion. Around a billion people speak Mandarin, more than English and Spanish combined.

I became angry over the article and mad at the author. Surely the writer had accuracy issues or just threw something together without much thought. I knew if I wanted to run this piece, I’d need to carefully scrutinize every sentence and check each assertion. I didn’t have time for that.

Had I not caught his errors, running the article as submitted, the author would have lost credibility and my magazine would look sloppy. This would turn off readers and damage our reputations.

But what if this wasn’t an article and instead related to a book?

  • If egregious errors exist in a query letter, an agent or publisher will not ask for the proposal.
  • If mistakes pop up in a proposal, the full manuscript will never be requested.
  • And if the book opens with the blunders I encountered in this article, the work would risk dismissal before the reader reached page two.

When you invest time and energy in writing a book, don’t let sloppy errors torpedo your efforts. Although I persisted with this article despite glaring mistakes, had they occurred in a book query, proposal, or manuscript I’d have summarily dismissed the entire project.

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Writing and Publishing

Three Possible Problems with Self-Published Books

Self-published Book Problems

Self-published books carry a stigma of poor quality: weak writing, shoddy editing, second-rate production, and a product that often screams “amateur.” Unfortunately, this perception stems from the growing evidence provided by many self-published works. Though not all self-published books are substandard, too many are.

Here are thee examples self-published book problems from some of my recent reads:

1. A Lack of Editing

This printed book had a nice cover and looked professional. It unveiled a pleasing storyline and contained no errors (at least that I noticed). What I needed, however, was a thorough copy-edit, as there were continuity issues, implausible events, and an impossible timeline.

Also, the author tied up every loose end to produce a fairytale conclusion for almost every character. Despite many promise, the journey was unsatisfying.

2. The Rough Draft

This novella-length e-book had a decent title and acceptable cover. The storyline was intriguing—and those were the good points. It had significant issues with flow and continuity, but worse yet, I felt I was reading the first draft.

To its credit, the book had a killer surprise ending I never saw coming and delighted me immensely. But, unless someone options this for a movie (which could happen), I see no value to this book—either commercial or literary.

3. Missing Substance

A third book had none of these shortcomings. Well written, it benefited from careful editing and proofreading. The author had an enjoyable voice and wonderful concept.

What this book needed, however, was more substance and the removal of some idealistic recommendations that surely no one would follow. Though the majority of the book had value, the impractical parts threatened to overshadow the rest.

This isn’t to imply all self-published books are bad. There are good self-published books out there, which don’t suffer from these self-published book problems. They contain no consequential flaws and are enjoyable or valuable to read.

Unfortunately, in my experience, good self-published books are not as common as they could and should be.

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Writing and Publishing

Just Because You Can Self-Publish a Book Doesn’t Mean You Should

As the price barrier to book publishing lowers, too many books show up with too little quality

I once read a self-published book by a “NY Times Best-Selling Author.” I’ll let him remain anonymous. It was a short story anthology of “the best” short stories in a certain genre. I expected much and received little.

A Self-Published Anthology of Short Stories

Perhaps I focus too much on flash fiction (short stories under 1,000 words). Possibly I read too many YA (young adult) books to appreciate writing that is more “serious.” It could be I lack patience. Or maybe I don’t know how to truly appreciate short stories. But just possibly this collection is not all that good, certainly not “the best.”

Here are the good parts: the cover design was okay, the interior layout was professional, and I didn’t notice any editing shortfalls. Failure in these areas is emblematic of shoddy self-publishing. So at least he covered the basics.

I started every one of the short stories but only finished a few. The one that I actually thought was well written and even had a twist at the end, elicited a “so what?” response from me and a stifled yawn.

Too often the stories failed to hook me at the beginning—and I always gave them a full page to do so. (I give books the first chapter to grab my attention.) And the few with promising openings that had me turn a couple of pages, failed to establish any reason why I should care about the protagonist. When you don’t wonder what happens to the lead character, there is no reason to turn the page. Ho-hum.

Don’t Bore Your Readers

The book’s introduction was copied from one of the author’s other books. (I tried to read that one, too, but ended up too bored to even skim it.) He may have tweaked a few words, but if so, it wasn’t enough to notice or give it a fresh feel.

He also provided a short preview about the writing of each story, highlighting what he liked about it and the strengths he appreciated. This may have been helpful as a learning experience, had not the stories been too painful for me to read.

I selected this book to learn about short stories. What I learned was don’t bore readers or waste their time. And if you self-publish, it had better be good.

Although a worthy concept, I doubt a traditional publisher would have touched this book. This is likely why the author self-published it. He shouldn’t have bothered.

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Writing and Publishing

Researching Competitive Titles

A common part of many book proposals is a “competitive works” section. I recently researched competitive titles for one of my book proposals. What I saw enlightened me.

Traditionally Published Books

To research competitive titles, I first looked at books from traditional publishers. They gave me pause. I had to think a bit to determine how my book was different and how it would stand out. This challenged me, but it was good exercise.

Each book was impressive: an attractive cover, nice title, a great concept or theme where the content flowed nicely, and professional editing and formatting. However, I didn’t think about any of these qualities at first. I expected these characteristics. Since they met my expectations, I gave these traits no thought—until I looked at some indie-published books.

Indie-Published Print Books

Next, in my competitive titles research, I looked at some print books that were indie-published. At first glance, the covers were of similar quality and the titles were almost as good.

The content, however, was not the same. The concept of these books was lacking and their execution, disappointing. Also, the writing wasn’t nearly as good. One didn’t even appear to have been edited, with sloppy formatting and missing words—and that from reading less than one page. The fault in all this is not is a tool they used to publish the book. It is the author. If you put garbage into the tool, you get garbage out of it.

Indie-Published E-Books

Last, in my competitive titles research, I considered a pair of indie-published e-books. They offered no print options.

These suffered even more. Their covers weren’t as good, and their concept was questionable. As far as the writing, the interior layout was so bad that I couldn’t force myself to read it. I didn’t include them in my “competitive works” section because I didn’t view them as competition, merely a distraction.

Takeaway

From all this, I’m reminded, once again, that indie-publishing (self-publishing) is an attractive option and an affordable solution when traditional publishers take a pass on our books. While this could be for reasons outside of our control, it might also be that our content is ill-conceived or our book still needs work. Sometimes this is hard to determine, especially after we’ve poured ourselves into writing it.

Regardless, if we choose to indie-publish, we need to keep in mind that our finished product must look like a traditionally published book if we hope for folks to take it seriously.

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Writing and Publishing

What Do Readers Care About?

When book readers consider our book, few will bother to look to see who published it. They won’t care if a major publisher, let alone any traditional publisher, produced it. When it comes to publishers, there is little brand loyalty, let alone much brand recognition. The imprint is of no consequence. How the printed book gets into their hands or the e-book gets into their reader doesn’t matter to them.

Here’s what does matter:

Book Readers Care about the Cover

What they will look at is the cover. They will, in fact, judge our book by its cover. First impressions matter a great deal.

Book Readers Care about the Title

The title is critical, too. Depending on how they discovered our book, whether they see the title first or the cover first, the other element will seal the deal—or not. If the cover is great but the title, lame, they will dismiss it. Similarly, if they see the title first, a great cover will move them towards a purchase, while a bad cover will move them to a different book.

Book Readers Care about the Formatting

Next, they will look at the insides, whether thumbing through the actual pages or clicking online. If the layout looks “normal,” they will proceed. If it looks odd—even though they won’t know why—a red flag pops up.

Book Readers Care about the Content

If our book passes these first three screens, they may actually read a section or two. Great writing beckons them; bad writing or editing—even average writing or editing—sends them packing.

Only when they get this far will they consider buying it.

Readers don’t care if our book is traditionally published or self-published; they care if our book is professional looking, well written, and interesting.

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Writing and Publishing

What Type of Book Will Yours Be?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about “Six Types of Books in My Library.” In summary, this is how I view my books on my bookshelves:

  1. Books Worth Keeping: I enjoyed them once, and I’ll read them again.
  2. Reference Materials: Books with the information I want to keep.
  3. Books I Plan to Read: I really do intend to read them—someday.
  4. One Reading Was Enough: I enjoyed these books, but once was sufficient.
  5. Books I Started But Never Finished: Despite initial promise, I gave up on them.
  6. Books That Seemed Like a Good Idea: I’ll never get around to reading them.

Running out of space and wanting to downsize, I gave away all my books in the last three categories. Some of those books will be read, many will be thrown away, and the rest will be dismissed—again. At some point, my books in category 3 will likely go, too.

With self-publishing options so prevalent today, anyone can publish a book. The question is, what category will these books end up in? Too many will fall into category 5 and 6. Some may not even rate that high. That’s because too many writers are impatient with the writing and publishing process, cutting short the honing of their work.

While we can’t guarantee that the books we write will end up in the “worth keeping” category, we can increase the likelihood through:

  • Careful writing and rewriting
  • Listening to feedback from critique partners and beta-readers
  • Hiring a copy-editor
  • Paying for professional cover design and interior layout

May your next book be one that people actually read and then keep to read again.

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Writing and Publishing

Seven Things to Look For in a Beta Reader

Selecting the Right Beta Reader is Key to Receiving Helpful Feedback

We’ve talked about the importance of having a beta reader to give feedback on our books. I hope you’re as sold on the idea as I am.

The next step is finding beta readers—not just anyone but the right ones. If we pick a beta reader who isn’t a good match, they could do more harm than good, both for our book and for our career.

The ideal beta reader should:

1. Be a Regular Reader

If they aren’t a regular reader, how can they provide usable feedback? While they don’t need to be voracious, they do need to read. Ask them how many books they’ve read in the past six months. Their answers will be enlightening.

2. Speak the Truth (in Love)

Beta readers who don’t want to hurt our feelings will tell us our book is perfect; they offer no value. Beta readers must commit to giving honest feedback but in a constructive way.

3. Respect Our Writing Voice

If a beta reader wants to change our writing voice, they will only generate irritation for us and frustration for them and us. They must resist the urge to reword what we write.

4. Know the Genre

Do they read and like our genre? If the answer is “no,” then they aren’t the right beta reader for our project.

5. Like Our Premise

Beta readers need to have a positive predisposition for our topic or story at the onset. If a non-fiction book has a thesis they disagree with or a fiction book with a storyline that irritates them, they will likely struggle through the entire project.

6. Be Committed

Will the beta reader finish the project? How long will they take? Too many people agree to be a beta reader but never follow through. See item seven.

7. Have a Beta Reader Experience

Everyone at one time has no experience, so our book may be his or her first one. However, the more experience they have, the better the chance the results will be good.

For more info, check out the post about setting expectations with beta readers.

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Writing and Publishing

Why Our Books Need Beta Readers

The more people who provide feedback on our books the better. Of course, to be of benefit, this needs to happen before publication, when there is time to make changes. Although review by various types of editors (each pass focusing on different elements) is essential, basic feedback is first needed to work out the kinks, spot embarrassing errors, and correct deficiencies before handing it over to professionals. The more work we do before editors do theirs, the more they can do to improve it.

Once we do all we can ourselves, beta readers can give us critical feedback to make our book better before we move to the next step.

Beta readers can catch:

  • Typos: We all make them, but we don’t always catch them.
  • Spelling errors: Of course we always spell check our work; however, what about when we use the wrong word but spell it correctly?
  • Repetition: We write over time and can easily repeat an idea. When we move sections around, sometimes they end up in the book twice.
  • Logic blunders: Another set of eyes can take a fresh look at our logic.
  • Continuity oversights: To make sense, things need to occur in a certain sequence; sometimes we’re too close to notice when our words are out of order.
  • Bad writing habits: Every writer has a least one bad habit or less-than-ideal tendency, but it usually takes someone else to point them out.

While one beta reader won’t spot all these items, they will help us hone our work. Then we can tap a second person for another pass.

Beta readers help us become better writers and produce better work.

Next post: What to look for in a beta reader.

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Writing and Publishing

Can You Self-Publish Your Book For Free?

If we publish our book with a traditional publisher, there are no out-of-pocket expenses. The publisher even pays us an advance. Although it might not be much, at least we receive some money at the beginning of the publishing process. Not so with self-publishing. Self-publishing costs money,

Self Publishing Costs Money

This is not the case when we self-publish. When we act as our own publisher, there is no advance and there are expenses, which can add up quickly. We don’t earn any money until we can sell copies of our book. And that can take a while.

Is there a middle ground, a way to self-publish without incurring a bunch of upfront costs? The short answer is, “Yes!” However, the wise response is, “No!”

Self-publishing without spending any money would require a huge investment of time, and the results would not be good. Regardless of how talented we are and how diverse our skillset, one person cannot cover everything required to produce a quality book. The finished product would look like an amateur, did it? And it’s hard to sell a book that fails to meet the expectations of today’s buyers.

Here are a few of the self-publishing costs we’ll encounter when we self-publish:

Cover Costs

People do judge a book by its cover. A professional impression is critical because there is only a split second to catch someone’s attention. Don’t try this yourself.

Editing Costs

Few writers can edit their own work and do it well. And your friend who majored in English is seldom the answer—nor is your mom, high school writing teacher, or second cousin who reads a lot.

Interior Layout Costs

Have you ever opened a book and sensed something was wrong? You’re not sure what it is, but you know the book is different—and in an odd way. This is because of poor interior design, and those books are hard to read.

Photography Costs

Taking a quality self-portrait is improbable, and selfies are out of the question for a book cover or publicity shot. Just because you own fancy, the high-resolution camera doesn’t make you a photographer.

ISDN Costs

For any book to sell, it requires an ISBN. If you plan to only peddle books from the trunk of your car, you can skip this expense. Otherwise, you need to purchase an ISBN.

There are additional self-publishing costs, but these are the more critical ones. Though you might be the exception who has the experience and ability to do one of these tasks with excellence, no one can master them all—especially if you want your book to sell.