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A Frank and Unabridged Guide to Publishing in 2020

There are about a million interesting things about publishing a book. The hardest, hands down, is pushing the button. The publish button, the send button, the ‘now on display’ button. It’s not so hard to write, in and of itself, but to publish – to send your thoughts out for review from your peers – is to announce your position. It’s to face self-doubt, to second guess, and to be prepared to fight for your efforts. You may know, in your heart and mind, that what you’ve said and how you’ve said it is right and correct, but until you press that button it only belongs to you. Once its public it belongs to everyone, and that’s something else entirely.

Let me break this process down for you. I wish I’d had a better guide, a better map regarding what to expect, when I had started. I, like most, had to dig to find the process, and frankly, it’s got so many steps that there’s no point in being secretive about it.

Writing a manuscript, publishing, its a work of self love, a gift you give yourself. It takes time and chipping away, and even with all the guidance in the world, it’s still a labor.

Here are the abridged steps:

  1. Make a plan/mind map of the overall project shape. 2. Define conclusion/ goal/ audience. 3. Write manuscript. 4. Set deadlines. 5. Proof and edit manuscript. 6. Reread 7. Review manuscript. 8. Choose a publishing platform. 9. Format your manuscript. 10. Market. 11. Publish. 12. Review. 13. Next.

Here are the unabridged steps:

Step 1: The manuscript is your work – long or short. Call it a book or a short story or a poem or prose or an essay. Whatever the content, the work is called a manuscript. That’s the lingo. Like every good essay, it has a format, even if the finished product doesn’t really resemble the format in being a work of fiction or a book of poetry. Understand that the human mind takes in information under a format, and the format is standard, regardless of the type of content.

Real Step 1: Start at the end. Your first step is your conclusion, where you want to arrive at. Make a list, a flow chart, a thought bubble picture, a mind map. Find the overall subject. Find the conclusion. Find the overall message. Next, find your audience, who are you writing for. This may happen after you’ve already created an initial work. No worries. All good. Before or after, this step needs to happen at some point. 

So. Good. Your foundation is set. (We will re-circle to this at the end end because timey whimey production mapping.)

Good. Your foundation is set. (We will re-circle to this at the end end.)

Step 2: The story arch is constant and all works, even dissertations, abide by the story arch. Introduce the characters/ subject. Often this will allude to the overall nature of the work, the overall subject at hand. Make your readers care about the characters/ subject. Introduce the struggle or challenge. There must be something to overcome, or else what is the point? Explain the struggle, the overall question be posed. Wrestle with struggle, argue for or against the question, use the characters or data to define the parameters of the question and how they come to understand it. Provide the answer to the question. Conclude the message, how the question was applicable to anything in the first place and how the message, the answer, is applicable for the audience. Close – which can be a call to action, or a cliff hanger, or a thoughtful end which thanks the reader for going on this journey with you. That’s it. That’s the format. The human mind can only work within certain parameters. This happens to be how we understand content.

Step 3: Write. This may take weeks, months, years. Chip away it. A few pages or a chapter a day. Schedule it into your life. Put words on paper. If you cant abide the constraints of a schedule you should consider whether being a published author is what you actually want to do. Blogs may be a better road for you. This can be a hobby or a job, both are perfectly okay. If this is a hobby, then no pressure. Enjoy yerself. Maybe the rest of the guide will be interesting to you. If you’re trying to make something more, then focus. You have to need it, to write.

Step 4: As you write the manuscript, and for the love all the gods, set deadlines. Deadlines are so very real. You’ll want to tweak your work until the end of time. Humans are like that. There has to be some sense of progression to a plan. Those deadlines need to be reasonable. Maybe make a spread sheet of how many hours you wrote a day and how many words you covered. By 6 months you should have a sense about how long reading and writing and thinking and dreaming and processing takes you. That will help you create a schedule and deadlines. If I write 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, at about 5 pages per – then I write about 15 pages per 9 hours a week. If I aim for a 200 page book that means it’ll take about 13 weeks or 3+ months. But Ima include down time, general bullshit, life in my planning. So, maybe 6 months to write, if I’m being diligent but generous? That’s sort of the method. It also depends on the kind of content. Emotional stuff will take longer to write and to self edit.

Step 5: Edit. There are two major forms of editing. The first is content, the second is proof. Proof is easy. Proof is spelling and grammar and cite reference. It’s good to have at least one other pair of eyes on your work. A lot of people think a copy-editor is of these two things. A copy is a document relating to a sale. A copy is an add. A manuscript is trying to sell an idea. A copy is trying to sell a thing, a product. A copy-editor makes a work appealing for at-a-glance consumers. A manuscript is not that and shouldn’t be treated that way. You want whats called a line-editor. They are a proof reader. If you have a good one they’ll edit for content and continuity too. A content-editor can be its own thing, and they read to make sure your work makes sense, which is not what a line-editor is required to do. You can often find someone who can do both, and that’s ideal. They’re usually real smart organized peoples. Sometimes your friends will do that for you. Keep in mind, being an editor is a real job, much as being a writer is a real job. People expect to get paid for their work, and you pay for their years of experience.

Protip: Upwork is a great resource, and it’s here I must be clear that in publishing a manuscript you intend to make money on, that your work will likely require some financial investment. $200-$500 is not unusual for a good editor. That may seem like a lot. Keep in mind that a manuscript is a labor of love, a gift to yourself. Squirrel away $10 a paycheck, or better, weekly, while you write the manuscript. You probably have the time to set aside a few hundred dollars if you do it like that. Most manuscripts take 6mo – 2 years to write fully.

You can do this for free, but the truth is that it will be long and rough process requiring your focus to attend to many other subjects, and the quality of your finished work will likely not be as good as it could be if you had external professional eyes and hands touch it. Don’t let this notion be be a stopper for you. The cheap quick way is functional and attainable, but the professional way will ultimately gain you greater benefits in the long run, such as a more attractive piece of work.

On a personal note, there is no shame in asking for help, and there is no shame in being annoyed and afraid about this. Publishing work is putting yourself out there, and asking for an editor is the first step to public outreach. It can be scary, but a good editor should be a comfort to your process, not a burden. Your voice will not be changed by an editor, it will be just be cleaned up, like going to the barber to get a trim. Sure, you can cut and dye your own hair. If you’re good at doing that sort of thing yourself, then awesome. Most of us need some help, and our overall endeavors will be greatly improved if we receive guidance in how to look nice when we present ourselves.

The first manuscript will be the hardest because you will discover that to succeed well it is not something you do alone. Writers may be reclusive, but that doesn’t mean publishing is.

Another Protip: Your editor should help you with copyright/ credits/ disclaimers/ summery. I WISH I had known that. That small paragraph giving credit where due in your work can mean a lot of helpful things through time regarding legal bullshit. Even a work of fantasy or poetry needs that. Your content editor should be looking for cite reference, for copyright infringement, for plagiarism, as well as for continuity and clarity. Any imperfections can happen on accident. Its easy to quote and give credit to someone, and its important to do so. No harm, no foul, and frankly, we’re a society that uses social reference as a literal language. There are tons of apps, like Gammerly, that’ll look through your manuscript, just to be sure your legal bases are covered. Id recommend doing that review before going through even a second edit. It’s easy to fix while the work is raw. Once you really start editing the refinement will make changing content and details more difficult.

You’ll also want to go over the summery – the blurb on the back of the book that explains what its about. That shit is hella important because it is the first real grab a reader encounters.

Step 6: Edit once, even twice for you. Reread you’re work and make sure it makes sense. Make notes. Cross reference. Make sure you covered your bases and met your parameters. Did all the story lines tie together? Was anything left hanging or unanswered? There may be rewrites. That’s okay. Keep what matters and remove what doesn’t. This is the hardest part. In your edit you need to think from the perspective of the reader, not the writer. Does the reader need or care about these details? Will they get bored? Leave what matters, cut what doesn’t. You may cut more than half of your manuscript. That’s okay. Its a living evolving thing now. It will change before your eyes. Check for plagiarism. Open up other books you like and consider how they’ve formatted a table of contents, intro, copyright pages. Try and clean the work up to look as finished as possible in your eyes. Send it to your editor. They should go through first for proof (grammar, spelling) and then for content. Ideally your editor reads once to see whats there, and then at least twice more for edits. You’ll work closely with your editor here. There will be a thousand questions. If your editor has nothing to say then maybe they only really know how to edit for spelling and grammar. A lot of folks claim to be editors, and really are just college educated, meaning they understand the basics of cleaning up a paper. This is a manuscript. It needs more. After all the edits are done read your work again. Do you enjoy reading your work? Do you find yourself tweaking? This is why deadlines. This can go on forever. Don’t let it. Set dates and make the work as good as it can be by the date. Move along. This piece will be one of many. Your writing will improve as you practice and practice takes time and multiple works. Deadlines.

Step 7: Peer review. This part is a bitch. It is not required, but you might feel better about your work if you do this. Send your work out to a handful of people you know who like to read. Ask them to read and review. Its a bitch cause it can take months. Its worth wild because that feedback can save you embarrassment in the future. If you publish without peer review you invite the whole world to judge your work. You have to be ready to respond to the world, and sometimes it is not kind. If you peer-review you are judged kindly by a few who will give you the notes and chance to improve your work before its sent out to the world, which will lighten the overall world response. I did not peer-review my first book and I should have. That said, I also published with editions, to note to the people of the world who serve as my peer-review, that I have heard them and improved based on their overall commentary. The copy of my work you may have may be from an earlier edition which needed more attention.

Step 8: Decide what platform and format you want to publish under. Ebook? EPUB? Softback? Hardback? Quick and dirty truth – if you want to publish through a non-amazon old school publishing house it is going to cost you. You need an agent to get your manuscript to a publishing house, and you need to invest in that agent, or already be published. Getting an agent can cost up to $10G. Yeah. This is why self-publishing has made a huge jump. The days of sending a manuscript to an agent and hoping they like your work enough to invest in you are pretty much done. Those who succeed usually have personal relationships with those agents – like an aunt.

The two biggest competitors for self publishing are KDP and Lulu. KDP is Kindle Direct Publishing, and is owned by Amazon, and is free. There are catches to that ‘free’. First, they take a lot of your royalties to accomplish that freedom. Its not really free, its pay later, and more, and longer. Its a good system if you’re willing to do the foot work and have little to no financial investment. KDP is straight forward but will only do minimal formatting and minimal checks. It’ll format for Kindle and paperback and it’ll get your work out there. That said, it’ll do nothing else, and the royalty charge is gnarly. But hey, that’s what you get for publishing through Amazon.

Lulu is NOT owned by Amazon and will publish EPUB, softback, and hard back. Lulu will also let you distribute through Amazon and Kindle – and anywhere else ya damn well please- but the royalties will come through Lulu and be yours. Its a better, if more complicated process and requires some initial financial investment.

Step 9: Once ya figure out WHERE you’re publishing, and the kind of format you want (me, I want all three!) comes development formatting. WTF is development formatting!? It’s here I jumped right to self-publishing, assuming that the KDP software would format for me. I was so so so wrong. EPUB, Kindle file, softback, hardback, your manuscript will need to be development formatted per platform. That means made to fit a size. That means organized. That means layout, indentation, compatibility with software. If your do KDP or Lulu they both make it sound like they format for you. They do, minimally. They’ll get yer stuff out there. Your stuff wont look professional.

Protip: You can hire a developer from Upwork. If you do so there are things to look for. On Upwork you want to request something like ‘Developer needed for self publish formatting – ebook, paperback, hardback’. You’ll set a base price for one off work and each platform will constitute a ‘milestone’. You’ll release per-agreed upon funds as each milestone is reached. Milestone 1: Developed EPUB (this will be a file compatible for all ebooks. Some formats are for Amazon only, like KPF. Avoid that if you can as you may change your mind regarding who you publish through). Milestone 2: Developed paperback PDF (you need to consider the size of your paperback, paper type, cover art sizing and layout – both Lulu and KDP has free online guidelines). Milestone 3: Developed hardback PDF (same as soft back, but sized differently, and the hark back cover has a completely different set of specific criteria for sizing). Ask for instructions for imputing those cover specs, be detailed. You’re paying for work done here, and this developer should be amendable to that. $50 per is the lowest and the work will reflect that. They often wont help much after the initial work is done and will only make the work look clean, probably for EPUB. $100 is better per milestone, and should reflect a professional finished product with a few revisions and some guidance. $150+ should give you all the specs you desire. They should be helpful, clear, professional. For a one-off manuscript, depending how fancy you want things, you should cap, all milestones and revisions, etc, at $500. That is a very fair price for a finished product that will go public. Really, the developer should have a sense of marketing as well. If you have a lot of photo’s that price may go up. If you have a sequence of works that price will go up. If you have no cover art that price will go way way up! Think that’s a lot? Go look at your bookshelf. Go look at the sizes of books, their paper, their cover content, the cover and page texture, the page layout. Think about what you like about your favorite hardback. Think about how you want someone to feel seeing or holding your book for the first time. People often choose books based on the cover, the summery, and the feel. This developer is dressing your book for the red carpet. Whats your book wearing to the red carpet? Or the University Lecture Hall? Or the airport concession counter?

Again, you can learn to do this on your own, and if you plan to publish for time, I recommend you do. You’ll want programs like Microsoft Word for Table of Contents (TOC) and to save your doc as an EPUB or PDF, which will also be useful for soft back and hard back – and both those will be formatted differently, and to Lulu and KDP’s style guides. You’ll want to understand Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) rules – basic HTML5 that helps format your manuscript through programs like Sigil, which can also help you clarify NCX which is relative for EPUB and Kindle. There are free tutorials all over the internet. Take some time and invest in yourself and learn about the environment your trying to succeed in. You can do all of this pre your first book.

Step 10: Once you’ve got all these duckies in a row, refined the work to make sense, be legal, flow and sound good, look good on the inside, and look good on the outside, now is the time to publish. Whether you start with KDP and then upgrade to Lulu after you’ve made some royalties, or publish through an entirely different system all together, the last things to consider are this: Marketing and reviews. How are you doing those?

Wait. You saw royalties. Let me be frank here. Books, being a published author with financial success, that takes a LONG time and is real hard. Both Lulu and KDP break down royalties structures and distribution for you, and are straightforward. Publishing books though, it’ll act as a passive income until you’ve published enough to having a following. That takes time, and really requires marketing.

Remember how at the beginning I said to start with the end? Marketing and review are the end end and also apart of the beginning if you’re smart about things. When you thought about your audience, who you were writing to in step 1, marketing should have been part of that thought. You should have been thinking from the start how to hook a following that will want to read your manuscript.

The easiest way, hands down, is to start a blog at the same time you start this whole damn process. Write and broadcast on your blog. It doesn’t have to be perfect stuff. The idea about a blog is to get people interested in your style and voice. Blogs are not professional product, no matter how much people want to believe they are. This whole ‘professional blogger’ thing… its copy – its selling something, and using a voice to sell something. Blogs were not originally intended to be a sales platform, but instead a public diary – an opinion. Their entire purpose is to be a publicly accessible unedited voice. Don’t be discouraged by this apparent change in purpose. There are ‘professional blogs’ and they sell things and that’s fine. You as a writer will be walking the line in this because your blog will be selling your voice. This blog, mine, is part of my portfolio. It sells my voice. I sell my voice through education. My personal brand is that of an educator and philosopher. But my blog doesn’t have editors, it has opinions, and is not refined professional work. A blog is by definition opinion oriented, meaning whats stated in its content is already protected as being opinion. It therefor doesn’t require the same legal protections a ‘professional work’ like your manuscript, must.

A manuscript is a refined work of art. A blog is not the same thing. Write all the time in your blog and state all your experiences and opinions. Post excerpts from your manuscript. Share that shit all over your social media. Use WordPress and make a website for yourself. That is personal branding. Announcing YOU, the author, to the world. It is your ID card, why we care. No matter how introverted and disinterested you are in having a public face, you need this, because people will ultimately want to know why they should care about your work. OCCASIONALLY a work will stand alone and be enough in its own right, but that’s usually not the case, particularly off the bat. If it is the case, it will be true magic if that’s your first work. Ultimately, your name will matter. Make a nom de plume if you dont want the name to be yours. Create a whole new person, if you like, to represent your online presence. There needs to be something, someone, who is followed by people. That is what is meant by ‘personal brand’. Create a website, create a blog, create a voice the people can follow and link it to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium. You need all that social following if your plan is make money or to have wide distribution of your work. Publishing doesn’t have to be about money, but you do have to give people a reason to want to read your stuff, and coming out of no where with a book cover and a lot of words is not enough. You’re name represents a social currency that requires investment. All of that is marketing. By the time you’re ready to push the button, if you’ve simultaneously done this website/character/blog building work, you should have buyers.

Protip: Its worth looking up how non de plums work legally. They can provide an insane amount of social and legal buffer that can keep you anonymous, or at least protect your personal assets. Banksy is a weird example because he was so brash in his public art that lawyers volunteered to stand up and protect his voice. He’s a fastening example of how a non de plum can be exorcised.

Another protip: Don’t be scared to send your work to other authors asking them to review your work. This is why to have an EPUB – is free to send and free to read. Consider the value of open source as well. Many authors are down to do reviews and put their stamp of approval, or peer critique, to or on your work, which will help it sell. Ever see those syfy books where the back is just reviews? Exactly.

Step 11: Pressing the publish button, once all these other steps are done, that’s just an act of will. The actual button is just that, and the most that will happen is a confused feeling giddiness, followed by a guaranteed roller coaster of emotions wondering if you made mistakes, if you’re works good, if anyone will like it, if anyone will care. This is what being an artist is. This roll. The horrible thing to… Picasso wasn’t famous until long after he was dead. And this is why deadlines. You have to write because its what you need to do. You have to publish because it doesn’t matter if you get rich or famous, because the work must get out there and the people must know. But your work might or might not be famous or of financial value in your life time. You have to continue producing work because that’s the only way to be seen by the population, and once you do all that, you have to be ready for the reviews, which may be good or mean or nothing at all, and you have to be okay with the concept that it may be any of those.

Step 12: You will need to respond to the reviews. Do no do so quickly. Do no do so drunk or high. Do not do so angry. Be gracious and be patient. These reviews are a critique – the gift of response. The people took their time to read your work. You made a statement, they get a chance to respond. Remember that you’re first work will be raw and new and a complication of everything you’ve ever learned. It will most likely be somewhat collage like. It will take practice to refine all you’ve learned into one voice. Also keep in mind that the people of the world are different, and a good quarter enjoy collages. Another quarter enjoy classics, and another quarter syfy/fantasy. You dont need to appeal to everyone, and once you find who you want to appeal to, you’ll figure out how to clarify your message to those people to get specific responses. In the meantime, what you really want is a mixed review, good and bad, so that you can understand different dimensions and depths of yourself, your process and your style of work.

Step 13: Once all of that is done take a break. And as soon as you’re ready begin the next work. Is the only way forward, the only way to succeed and improve. Don’t sit around waiting for the first work to be a success. That will or will not happen in time and is not fully in your control. As far as every writer in the world is concerned, your work is a success because it exists. That is more than most people can say. You are a success because you accomplished a complete project – not just a goal but a multi-dimensional project with deadlines and organization and out reach and PR and marketing and back-end. Publishing a manuscript is dynamic, and to do so shows strength is many different fields of expertise. Becoming financially successful, or socially successful, that’s something else entirely, and has a lot to do with how much you choose to participate and interface with the outside world. In the meantime, start on the next one. Create the next project and run with it.

If there was one job in the world I wish more people would invest in, it would be art advocacy and art agents. Artists shouldn’t have to pay for or learn the 8000 things that come with marketing and publishing. They should focus on the work itself. One of the reasons its hard to find and purchase art these days is that artists are often not good at self marketing. Artists are often quirky, reclusive, focused, and they should be focused on their works. Yet, through time, peddling your own work has been part of the overall process, and that’s a bitch, cause some of us arent great negotiators. People love to undervalue something of worth. Its a weird conditioned quirk of the modern age.

We need more art, more words, more crafted perspectives in the world. Help us get our work out there. Help us help people feel and connect.