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7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)

For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?

This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.

It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.

Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.

1. Do you have a great High Concept?
It’s all too easy to say a book like The Da Vinci Code is badly written. There are different levels of writing, and at the conceptual level Dan Brown’s mega-seller is brilliantly written. It’s the same kind of writing that makes a good ad campaign. Most of the effort has gone in to the concept. A great concept like The DaVinci Code sells itself from the title onwards. Another recent example might be Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Note that these concepts are great because they capture a zeitgeist, an idea which is in many peoples minds but the author is first to articulate. Copying a successful concept is not a high concept.

2. Have you practiced for 10,000 hours?
Malcolm Gladwell identifies 10,000 hours as the length of time it takes to achieve mastery in any discipline. It’s the amount of time you spend in school to age 16. It’s the amount of time The Beatles spent playing live gigs before they succeeded as recording artists. And it should be the amount of time you have spent writing before you publish your work. If you treat writing like a part-time job, and write for 20 hours a week, it will take you about 10 years to reach mastery. In my experience that’s about how long it takes most serious writers to go from greenhorn to seasoned pro. Some people start publishing before the 10,000 hour mark, but they often end up hiding their early work later in their career.

3. Have you subjected your work to serious criticism?
Would you launch a commercial product without testing it? If you do you massively increase your chances of failure. Find a source of serious criticism for your writing. Not your family, unless you’re certain they will give you honest feedback. Form a critique group of writers around your level, you can all grow together. This process will hurt. It’s supposed to hurt. Your ego will take a pummelling. All the excuses it makes on your behalf get stripped away, and you’re left with only the work itself. All serious artists seek out serious criticism and learn from it. If this idea seems abhorrent then you’re still learning to separate your self from your work.

4. Are you well read in your genre (and preferably beyond)?
Genres are just traditions in writing. You can think of any genre, from Epic Fantasy to Literary Fiction, as a path of progress through the forking possibilities of prose fiction. Would you honestly expect to become a blues musician without listening to a lot of blues? And do you think a great musician becomes great by only listening to blues? To excel in any art you have to absolutely immerse yourself in it. You can become a functional artist by learning one tradition in your art form. You take the step towards greatness when you learn multiple traditions and begin to interweave them. Look at the career of an artist like Picasso, who deliberately learned new traditions every few years, and with each step made his own art exponentially greater. If you want to write, get reading.

5. Do you have a platform?
Whether it’s your own chat show on prime time TV, or a few dozen followers on Twitter, having a platform from which you speak is essential for writers. Publishers can provide a platform, that’s the major service they provide to writers in fact. Indie authors must build their own. You might have 150,000 Twitter followers, but are they actually interested in your writing, or just the other 150,000 wannabe writers who also have 150,00 Twitter followers? Social media is a great tool for writers, it’s also a deceptive echo chamber that tells you what you want to hear. A few dozen people who really dig your work might be a much better starting point. The point is, know what your platform is and work with it, don’t delude yourself.

6. Are you willing to invest in your book?
Publishers provide cash investment in your book, primarily by buying the services of skilled professionals such as editors, designers and marketing folk. Perhaps you have those skills, in which case can you take enough time out of your day job to spend hours editing your book? And days or weeks of time marketing it? Do you have the money to invest in hiring professionals to do it for you and are you willing to risk it on your own product? Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional. Yes, your book might succeed despite its amateurish presentation, but ask yourself, if you aren’t willing to invest in this book then why are you putting it out in to the world?

7. Are you ready?
Seriously, in the end it comes down to asking yourself this question. Because it’s important to be ready. Your book already represents a major investment of time. Waiting another year or two or more, writing another draft or three or four, training for another 1000 hours, saving the capital to employ an editor. All of these things are the right choice for most writers, in a climate where 99% of indie authors are publishing without being ready. The most expensive investments are the ones that have no return. Unless you are truly certain in your own mind that you are ready, wait. Take more time to develop. You really won’t regret it.

And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of these seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.

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18 thoughts on “7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)”

  1. Excellent article – all Indie writers please take note!
    So many writers say they cannot afford an editor (and end up with a book that very badly needs editing) Hope you don’t mind – I am going to steal your 6th point : “Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional.”

    thank you for sharing this article – an absolute gem

    Helen Hollick HNS UK Indie review editor

    http://historicalnovelsociety.org/our-reviews/submission-guidelines-e-published-subsidy-published-and-self-published/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes. This. I’ve also heard that your first million words are practice.

    For me, it comes down to being willing to put in the work and approach the writing as a professional. That and obtaining outside, objective critique.

    You are spot on in this post.

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  3. I’ve been a journalist for years and seen my work in print many times, but writing fiction is a different art form altogether. After reading your words (and Helen’s today, too) I am going to wait to achieve my goal: traditional publishing. And while I’m waiting I’ll continue with my next historical novel, read and read, write and write until someone believes in my work as much as I do. Thanks to you both.

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  4. Yes, agree with all of this, but getting valuable help, to me, is more than just hiring a professional editor. As with soliciting book reviews: the right editor is key, someone who understands your writing and story and ‘you’ on a more intimate level, knows what you’re doing, maybe even walks one step ahead because he/she knows where you came from. Gunter Grass had a great editor, so great he wrote a poem/elegy for him when he died. I think this poem describes the kind of editor a serious writer needs. If not, professional editors are great at making professional stories. Thank for writing this, Damien. I found you through Sam Pink (Person). Look forward to being notified of any new posts.

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    1. I agree with ‘Herocious’ who said, ‘getting valuable help, to me, is more than just hiring a professional editor … the right editor is key, someone who understands your writing and story.’
      So true, I have experienced the red pen of a young female editor, from a reputable publisher in UK, who knew nothing of the world of fighting ships in the age-of-sail. She introduced more errors than she corrected.

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  5. Hi Damien, great post. And (re your previous post on why you don’t review indies), don’t you think that the writer who has gone through that process – which so many of our members here at the Alliance of Independent Authors have – are as entitled to attention and reviews as a trad published writer? Indies come in all shapes and sizes, not just beginners, and many of us are previously trad published writers now choosing self-publication as our preferred route for one or more of our projects. I guess the question, going forward, is: how do good reviewers find the best indie work? What sort of mechanism are book reviewers going to put in place to ensure you’re actually seeing the full spectrum of books published and not relying, like a lazy journalist, on the latest corporate press release. A sort of ‘Seven Signs You’re Ready to Review Indie Books?’ :) Thanks for the thoughts — this is an important conversation.
    Orna

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  6. I think I satisfy most of these criteria, the only problem in terms of platform and the 10,000 hours thing is that they’re in a different discipline (technical authoring/journalism). In the case of the latter, I’m not sure it makes much of a difference – if you know how to write well, then that can translate, so long as you have the ideas and perspective to back up the skills – but the former is a bit of a killer. I’m starting to think I should have used a (female) pen name.

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  7. Whilst not disagreeing with the central points of this article, I’ve found that quite often books by “professional” authors are also poor. Particularly with regards to sentence structure, grammar and spelling.

    This shows particularly in the non fiction books I’ve read, as there isn’t a story to distract you from the errors. Probably, the “professional” books have less errors, but the overall quality has, I’m sure, gone down.

    Not sure whether “indie” books are worth reading? 90% of everything is crud, and that applies to Indie as well as professional authors. That is my not so humble opinion.

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  8. I spotted your post Damien, on the Gav Reads Self-Pub thread and am glad I came over to have a mooch. Interesting piece. My favourite read of last year was self-published and it was definitely flawed in places, but I loved how fresh, emotional and funny it was. So I looked past the things that made it clear that it was self-published such as lack of a professional proof-read. With Gunshot Glitter, I am keen to avoid those things.

    And I agree with you, Damien, about putting in the hours. If I’d published my novel as it was a few years ago it would have been a terrible mistake. I would have done myself a disservice. It needed honing from professionals. All novels do, as as writers we can’t be objective about our own work. I’m glad I found some patience from somewhere and waited.

    In truth, anything involving the written word needs that – from your work as a journalist for The Guardian down to a press release for a lipstick launch, all should be proofread before sign off. A book is no different. I admire anyone who has the strength and gumption to dream up, write and complete a book. It is really hard work. And to do it well and on a budget is even harder.

    I am glad self-publishing is thriving as it means original work that mainstream houses won’t gamble on, now has a chance of finding an audience. That to me as a novelist, is a great thing. I hope with time that the standard of output evens out, so self-published writers are not discriminated against because of the early pioneers who were simply learning as they went along. That would be such a shame and grossly unfair. And no one in any profession or vocation likes to be tarred with the same brush.

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    1. Hi Yasmin,

      Very eloquent response. Enjoyed reading your words. Quick question: What was the self-published book you read last year that was your favorite read?

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  9. Great article, Damien – points two and three especially resonate with me. The 10000 hours / million words are essential – and I guess the basic requirement, too.

    For me, I’d touch on the “flipside” of your 3rd and 7th points. Sometimes, with self-pubbing (or any reasonably independent endeavour, including writing in isolation before submitting), the difficulty is, first, believing the criticism *and the praise*, and, second, working out when you actually *are* ready.

    For the first, it’s all too easy to give yourself a hard time because that’s what you think you should get. That way, anyone who praises your work is “just being nice”, or “has a vested interest”, or “well they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Whilst, on the flipside, anyone who criticises your work is “bang on the money”, or “pointing out all the flaws”. In isolation, it’s often difficult to objectively evaluate criticism and praise.

    That can lead to the flipside of your point seven – “Am I ready yet?” The temptation of course is to polish *forever*, constantly tinkering, tweaking, changing, until the whole thing becomes a tangle of partly subjective decisions and well-intentioned but probably misplaced lunges at “incorporating criticism”. It’s difficult to know when you’re ready to submit a text – or to self-pub – when you have to judge your work yourself.

    I guess it all boils down to the important of editors and publishers, which I think is your point (apologies if I’m putting words in your mouth!). Self-pubbing shouldn’t mean doing *absolutely everything* yourself. Getting a proper editor, and objective (and often harsh) feedback, and deciding *to believe both of them*, is maybe where the madness of writing is to be kept (at least partly) at bay.

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    1. Good points Sarah. I believe some of those writers hiding their work away are the ones who should be putting it out there, and some putting it out there should be hiding it for longer. And in terms of knowing, its a bit like love…you just know?

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  10. A very interesting and timely article. I particularly like the thing about putting in the hours of learning the craft of your trade. Also, I think some self-published enthusiasts have no idea how hard it’s going to be to promote and sell a book – the whole new skills set and hours that requires. But with the right approach and experience and contacts, this route can work very well and build a strong readership.

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