Thursday, January 23, 2014

Are You Good Enough? Evaluating Whether You're Really Ready to Self-Publish

By Jordan McCollum, @JordanMcCollum

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Before you click that Publish button for the first time—or every time—there is a second of sheer terror. Your heart rate shoots up. Your palms sweat. Every doubt from your entire writing journey assails your mind: am I ready to do this? Am I ready to send my story out into the world? Is it really good enough to share?

 . . . Am I good enough?

If this sounds like you, take a deep breath. It's natural to feel this way in every publishing path—yes, even if you have the "validation" of trade publishing, you might still feel like a phony or a wannabe or a hack. The self-doubts can be even stronger when you've tried to pursue trade publishing without success. And we've all seen or at least heard about self-published first novels that are . . . abysmal, to put it kindly.

So how can you be sure you're not one of those people hitting Publish too soon? I think honest introspection about your writing and yourself can help you find the right answer.  

Your Writing 


I remember the kind of feedback I thought I wanted when I started writing seriously for publication. I see the same attitude today: "Tell me if this is any good, or if I should just quit."  

You need to be able to answer that question long before you click Publish, for two important reasons: 1.) you need to be able to see what's good for yourself, and 2.) that level of self-confidence will result in a vicious cycle of defeat and depression in self publishing. (We'll talk about that later.)  
Before you self-publish, you need to know what "good" writing is. I don't mean beautiful literary prose versus genre schlock—I'm a genre writer, and I believe in well-crafted writing in all genres, including the literary genre. By "good," I mean technically solid writing that engages your emotions, tells a well-structured story, and doesn't get in the way of connecting with the characters. We learn this skill from reading, from critiquing, and from editing our own work.

Once you recognize good storytelling and good writing, it's much easier to develop those skills in your own work. However, I don't know of anyone who creates perfectly publishable first drafts—I certainly don't. Editing is a vital skill that you can and must acquire with practice and with help from able critique partners. My wonderful CPs make everything I show them so. much. better. And after two years together, I can almost hear their voices in my head as I prepare my chapters for them. (They still find amazing ways to make my stories better. I love them.)

Finally, we all improve our skills by doing. As my friend Michelle Davidson Argyle shared once, early in her career, her skill level seemed to be stagnant, despite working hard to improve and edit her work. Eventually, she decided to write a new manuscript, and she realized that was exactly what she needed to do to get better. She concluded (emphasis mine):
I’ve found that the more novels I complete, the more I learn and the better I get. The longer I spend on one novel doesn’t seem to get me nearly as far. I am not expanding my mind to different ways of thinking, different characters, different viewpoints, and different ways of experimenting with structure and telling a story. For me, at least, only new projects have been able to do that.
Some positive signs of being "good enough":
  • You can analyze a book more deeply than "I did/didn't like it." This includes looking at its storytelling, its use of language, its effect on the reader, etc.
  • You can analyze a critique partner's work for more than grammar issues: characterization, emotions, style, structure, etc.
  • You've edited your own work beyond a grammar and spell check—you've made sure the story structure, emotions, characterization, language and more are as strong as they can be.
  • You've used skilled critique partners to make this book the best it can be. This may also include hiring a professional editor.
  • You can discern between receiving a critique that upsets you because it's critical, and a critique that isn't right for you or your work.
  • You've written more than one work. (Even if you're publishing your first manuscript.)
  • You seek out opportunities to improve your writing skills. (Hint: if you're reading Janice's blog, you can check this one off for sure.)
  • And of course, the usual external validation: awards in contests, positive feedback from beta readers, etc.
Although I still read every "You're not ready to self-publish" article out there, I'm slowly learning that the vast majority of writing advice warning you to slow down and not hit Publish is aimed at writers who have not taken these steps. If you've really striven as hard as you can to make the novel as good as you can, and then brought in others who focus a critical eye on your work with the same goal of improving it, you're already ten steps ahead of that intended audience.  

You


We (or at least I) tend to obsess over our books and our writing, perfecting them, making them as polished as possible. Sometimes we work so hard on the writing and the book that we forget about another important aspect of publishing a novel: the author.

Self-publishing is not for the fainthearted. There are practical and emotional pitfalls for every author, and you need to be prepared to weather them well, or you may find yourself deeply dissatisfied with your career choice. Your book may be ready, but if you're not, self-publishing may not the best route for you.

How can you be sure you're cut out for self-publishing? It's a little like becoming a parent—you might have read all the baby books and bought every conceivable baby supply, but I'm not sure you can be 100% prepared for the emotional highs and lows, for the physical and psychic tolls, and for the heart-flying happiness that comes with it. (Coincidentally, I have four kids and four books right now.)

For the most part, we need to prepare for the negative side. But just like you can get some practice with dealing with temper tantrums and changing diapers, there are a few pre-publication experiences you can use as indicators that you, personally, are ready for this:
  • You've received an overwhelmingly negative critique, even bordering on an attack—and gotten over it.
  • You've read a hateful, awful review on a book that you loved as if it were your own baby—and didn't comment on or argue with the review (publicly).
  • You've had someone belittle your life choices—and they lived to tell about it.
Sound like fun? They're not. However, they're helpful experiences because they not only build your character, but they prove to you that you've got the internal strength necessary to face the daunting emotional side of self-publishing.

How? Negative critiques and reviews will continue to come your way, and you must learn not to respond, and to get over that feedback so it doesn't cripple your next creative endeavors. There's still a stigma against self-publishing, even if you've done all you can to make your book head-and-shoulders above the rest, and you'll come up against it sooner or later. If you've got the internal strength and wisdom to cope with the vicissitudes of publishing, you're ready.

Of course, it's not all bad! There are some positive experiences that can prepare you as well:
  • You've gone your own way, and not just because Fleetwood Mac said to. You're struck out on your own in some way—backpacking across Europe or teaching yourself a new skill or even starting a blog.
  • You've cultivated a support network in a job, hobby or lifestyle that you can turn to for help or support when bad things happen.
  • You've ever worked in sales, customer service or marketing.
You will have to put the "independent" in "independent author," and be confident enough to be a self-starter, moving forward even when things aren't certain, and when your self-confidence may falter. I'm trying hard not to lay down hard-and-fast rules here, but this might be one of them: you should not self-publish to receive validation that your writing is good. Like I said before, you need to know that your writing is worthy of publication, regardless of whether it sells one thousand copies or one copy. If you rely on self-publishing to validate your hard work, you will almost doubtlessly struggle with disappointment.

Although you're independent, you shouldn't try to tackle publishing alone. You'll need a support network of other authors, reviewers, readers and more, to help deal with those negative times, to celebrate the positives, and to support you through all the rest. Finally, past experience in working directly with consumers helps to remind us how to approach and interact with them, and that everyone has different tastes.

There's a world of other things you should know about before you self-publish (the market, the technical aspects, the business side), but you don't have to constantly wonder whether you're good enough. In your heart, you know if you and your work are ready to share and when you're ready, you can hit Publish with confidence. 

How do you know if you or your writing is "good enough" for self-publishing?  

For a sneak peek at Jordan's new novella cover, head on over to her blog.


Jordan McCollum is the (indie!) author of the romantic suspense series Spy Another Day which begins with I, Spy. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at JordanMcCollum.com, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito (an online writers' support group with over four hundred members), and through her book CHARACTER ARCS (with a foreword by Janice Hardy).

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Pinterest | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

16 comments:

  1. I have one friend telling me I should strongly consider self-publishing, and another telling me not to be foolish. Right now, I'm just grateful that all I have to worry about is learning as much as I can and finishing the darn book ;)

    This is a great kick-off to the indie series. Thanks, Jordan!

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  2. This is a very good succinct blog post. Thank you. I've been asking myself, as I overhaul my ms, if it's good enough yet. I've got a lot of the things on the list, but still not sure. Thanks for putting this together. I'll keep asking myself until I can answer YES!

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  3. Thank you Jordan, I'm chomping at the bit to publish.... grrrr.

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  4. Thanks, Rachel, Tam & Harry, and thanks for having me, Janice!

    Rachel—the stigma of self-publishing is strongest among authors, I find. There are a lot of great reports and surveys coming out this month about self-publishing income and professionalism.

    Tam—Fantastic! Listen to your writer heart—the one that knows quality, not the one that's really tired of working on this project ;) . It's the best way to end up with a book you're pleased with.

    Harry—Good luck!

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  5. Hi Jordan
    Great post, thanks.
    It's an excellent question, and a tough one to answer. I think, as authors, we are always striving to get better. So the temptation can be to think that the next book will be better, or the twenty sixth edit will be better than the twenty fifth, and never hit publish.
    I think your point about analysis, and understanding the key features of a good story are the real key. I can put words into fairly effective sentences until the cows come home, but it's hitting the right beats, and engaging the audience, that provides the real challenge. Learning how that works, and how others have done it, and made it effective, is a must.
    I'm sure someone's said something along the lines of 'before you move your reader, you must move yourself' (Stephen King possibly), and that, to me, is the real test. Do I get excited when I read the action scenes, sad at the tragedy, happy at the high points? It can be tough after that twenty fifth edit, but without it, there's nothing to publish. :)
    cheers
    Mike

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    1. Thanks, Michael! You're right--good writing is no substitute for good storytelling. (I've spent many drafts learning that lesson too.) And so true: you have to be excited about your own story, even if you've edited it so much you kind of hate it ;) .

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  6. Jordan, I am SO in this place right now! My indie title releases next Tuesday. All along it's been this "out there" thing that will happen. Now it'll be here soon and I'm scared as heck. What made me think my story was ready? My agent loves the story and we had some really close calls. I hope readers will enjoy it.

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    1. It gets a little easier every time. A little. It definitely sounds like you're ready. Good luck!

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  7. This is the most educational and insightful thing I've read in awhile, and I'm sharing it everywhere. It not only reignites my motivation to keep going, it offers reassurance that I can keep learning and growing. Thank you, Jordan, for sharing what you've learned with us!

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    1. I'm so glad to hear that it inspired you! Thanks for sharing!!

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  8. I was in the army. Does that count? :)

    About a few years ago, I was considering going indie because I was frustrated at getting a publishable length for my novel. That was the wrong reason to do it, and I ended up doing a lot of work on my writing in a couple areas -- and throwing out a lot of standard writing advice.

    Then at work, something happened. I got furloughed once and almost a second one. Then work started saying, "Make do with less," and their idea of less was to keep piling more and more stuff on me. And it hit me that I want to write full time. I'm not going to get that from the year or more submitting a novel -- assuming it even gets in the door. But I can write lots of short stories and work on writing lots of novels. I can still submit to professional places, but I have choices. I even wrote a short story for a contest I wouldn't ordinary have bothered with -- because I knew if I used a particular setting I could use the story for a planned collection (probably the first indie book). It really is very different when you know exactly what you want to do.

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    1. I think length can be a valid reason for self-publishing, since trade publishers have long shied away from shorter lengths in most genres. But of course, that should be a story that really is a novella/short story, and not just an underdeveloped novel.

      I agree, though, that the choices and empowerment we have, now that self-publishing is an affordable, viable option, are fantastic!

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  9. I am about one month away from my first self published book. Given the genre (personal essays/poetry) is very difficult to break into traditional publishing (and I tried) I can say that my stories and I are ready to make it happen. Long gone are the days of self-doubt and critique. Through many revisions, paid editing, pre-marketing ideas, plans, hopes and dreams, I look forward to having a completed work in between the covers. Having moderate expectations accompanied by high hopes, I think the process will serve both reader and writer, strengthening my next book later this year. Thanks for a great post here.

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    1. Sounds like you're doing it right! Good luck!

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  10. I'd planned for late March, but hitting "publish" has to wait until certain platform goals are achieved. My worries stem from public appearances and keeping up with the author platform, but even now, months after the novel was polished and sent for line edits, I remember sentences I'd like to tweak for style or effect. Does that ever end? Do we ever finish "playing" with our books?

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    1. I think it does end, eventually. It takes time, but you also learn to shift from the editing mentality to the publishing mentality, where it's more or less set in stone (though I do fix typos still). I've gone so far into the publishing mindset at times that I curse myself for writing a scene or sentence one way when X way is obviously better--until I realize that book isn't published yet and I can still change it.

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