The first essential step in becoming a successfully published (or self-published) author is to write a good book. It’s pretty obvious, really. But what constitutes a good book?
When you publish a book, you step out of the creative world of a writer and into the business world of publishing. Yes, publishing is a business. If you want to earn an income as a writer, you must switch your mindset and see your book as a product, not a work of art, and treat it as such.
It’s easier to define what makes a book good enough for publication than it is to define what makes a book good as a piece of literary art.
A publishable book is:
- written coherently
- something that other people want to read
Without those two elements, your book is doomed to fail. If you write well but your book is of no interest to anyone, it will not sell. If you have an interested readership but the writing is so terrible that the book is unreadable, it will not sell.
Readership and risk
Many traditional publishers will turn down a brilliantly written book because they don’t believe there’s a readership for it. This is one reason some writers decide to self-publish. They feel their book is good, and they just need a chance to prove it.
Perhaps the potential readership isn’t big enough to make the publisher want to take the risk of investing in the book, but if the writer knows that there is a potential readership, and they’re prepared to take on the task of reaching that readership (through their own marketing efforts), then self-publishing is the logical way to go.
So how can you tell if your book is well written? And how can you tell if it has a potential readership?
Gathering opinions that matter
Firstly, you can’t trust the opinions of friends or family. At least, not when it comes to your book. They’re too emotionally close to you to be able to give you a truly honest assessment. As well as that, their opinion will be tainted by their own reading preferences. On top of that, they don’t have the objective market knowledge to know whether there could be a decent readership out there for your book.
What about a writing group? They might be better at judging the quality of your writing, but they’re also emotionally close to you and your work. It can be very hard to be brutally honest, especially when you’re face-to-face with someone you probably know rather well and consider a friend. And they probably won’t have objective market knowledge, either.
Instead, try these methods:
Try to get your book traditionally published – even if you want to self-publish
This may sound like madness if you are adamant about self-publishing, but hear me out. Literary agents and editors really do know their stuff. They know good writing when they see it. They know the market. If they didn’t, they would be out of a job. Write query letters to agents. If you keep getting back standard form rejections, its likely that your book is not ready to be published yet. If you pique the interest of an agent and they want to see more of your work, this is an excellent sign. You might even get an offer. In which case, you’re in a great position and can decide which route you’d rather take.
Send your book to a professional editor for a critique
This option costs money, but that’s because you’re hiring a professional. A manuscript critique will give you an objective view of your book. It will look at the big-picture elements, such as whether or not the book has potential in the market, whether the writing style is entertaining and coherent, whether there are big plot or character issues, and so on. The editor will deconstruct your novel and analyse it – so you know where it fails and why, how to improve it, and where and how it succeeds. The results of manuscript critique will help you take the next best step for your novel, whether that’s to put it in a drawer and start again, re-write or tweak it based on the suggestions, or immediately start the publishing process.
Create your own market, and test your writing skills
Thanks to the internet and social media, it has never been easier to connect with your ‘tribe’ – that is, a group of like-minded people who are interested in similar things. If you already have a noteworthy presence in a group (thousands of readers on your blog about Victorian science-fiction for example) then you already have a potential readership for your book. Reach out to your group and pitch your idea to them. Test the response to your writing through your blog. You are basically tailoring a book to a specific, pre-determined readership, so you know there is a market.
Then you just have to make sure the book is well-written. If your blog attracts lots of readers, then this indicates you know how to string a sentence together pretty well. The final step is to make sure you’re writing to a publishable standard, and the best way to ensure that is to hire a professional copy-editor.
Just as an entrepreneur wouldn’t send an untested product into the market, you shouldn’t send out an untested novel. Knowing your book is good enough to publish gives you confidence when it comes to selling it, which makes the whole process of publishing that much easier. A good book with a decent potential readership is much more likely to encourage recommendations and gather good reviews, and the better your sales will be.