The Good, the Bad, and the DIY Compromise

There’s something incredibly satisfying about typing the words “the end” after finally completing your novel. Unfortunately, what a lot of people don’t realize is that that moment is anything but the end. Once you finish writing the thing–even after you finish editing and revising and rewriting and re-editing again a thousand times over–that’s where the real work starts, in my opinion.  

First and foremost, before hitting the “Publish” button, you want your product to be the best you can offer. Nothing is perfect (I know mine certainly isn’t, despite my efforts,) but we can all do our best. There are thousands of books on Amazon that don’t live up to their potential, for a number of reasons.

In all honesty, no one can really do all aspects of this flawlessly. Self publishing requires skill not only in writing, but in editing (multiple different kinds,) interior design, cover design, marketing, advertising…the list goes on. However, many of us could never drop the money that it would require to hire all the experts that traditionally published books have access to.

Personally, I cringe at the thought of money being a gatekeeper for publication. Plenty of wonderful writers whose work I love would never have made it if they needed to hire professionals for all these different parts of the publishing process, and with the overwhelming number of manuscripts being sent to traditional publishing houses and agents, the odds of someone getting picked up by one of them, even if their writing is great, is depressingly slim.

 Can doing it yourself end badly? YES. Oh, man, yes. It is often glaringly obvious. Is hiring a pro the only way to avoid this? Not necessarily. If you’re looking to make your living as an author, then DIY-ing it is a BIG risk. However, if you’re anything like me and just want to put your story out there, not as a web serial or a blog but as a real book, and earning money is not your objective, I believe that it can be done yourself. Not only is it far less costly and therefore more accessible, but there’s an immense sense of accomplishment that comes from looking at something and knowing that you did it. All of it. And I love that feeling.

There are a lot of things aspiring authors are often told we must do, many of them very expensive if not outright unaffordable for many people. I’m anything but an expert, but there are some good, bad, and possible DIY options out there for a lot of these “commandments of publishing.” They may not all work for everyone, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Nothing says unprofessional like spelling & grammar mistakes in your eBay store

“Always hire an editor”

The good:
If you have the money to hire an official editor, that’s awesome! These people are incredibly skilled and can help you with both the nitpicky details as well as big-picture issues. Unfortunately, these guys are generally very good at their jobs, and as the Joker said, “If you’re good at something, never do it or free.” According to The Write Life, “for copyediting/proofreading, you’re generally looking at $1,000-$3,000 per book. For developmental editing — the higher level stuff — you’ll be looking at $5,000-$10,000 per book.” Meanwhile, Elite Authors says, “on average, developmental editing costs around $0.09 per word, $22.50 per page, and $112.50 per hour… [and] the industry average for line editing is about $0.05 per word, $12.50 per page, and $62.50 per hour.” For reference, Through the Glass was just shy of 120k words. With these numbers, it would have cost me $10,800 for developmental editing and $6,000 for line editing. Translation: it would have never gotten published. (I have two kids. $16,800 a lot of diapers, granola bars, and swim lessons.)

The bad:
There are an alarming number of self-published books out there that, upon reading them, it seemed fairly clear that the writer hadn’t shared their writing at all before publishing it, and perhaps hadn’t even proofread it themselves. While it’s not at all unusual for a single typo to slip past a pro, there’s a clear difference between a key slip and when the writer just doesn’t know the difference between there and their. Beyond the grammatical issues, plenty of them just feel unpolished in general. Poor story arcs, inconsistencies, plot holes–all things that a developmental editor would have helped with. No book is perfect, but we should all do our best.

The DIY compromise:
While professional editors can charge what they do for a good reason (they’re experts! They know how to shape and polish a story to make it the best it can be!) if you can’t afford to drop the cost of a new car on editing, you’re not alone. This is where critique partners come in. Not your BFF or your roommate or your mother, (though having them look at it also isn’t a bad thing,) but a stranger who doesn’t feel pressured to pat you on the back and say “It’s great, sweetie!” Someone whose opinion you can trust as being objective and unbiased.

There are lots of sites that offer ways of finding critique partners, not to mention in-person swaps and the like, but the best I’ve found personally is Scribophile (here’s my review of it.) They can help with both developmental feedback and line-editing. Keep in mind, a premium account isn’t free (but worth it, IMO,) and you’re not giving it to a pro, but a fellow writer and hopefully peer. There will be some hits and misses. And because it’s a swap, it will take lots of time and effort on your part as well. You’ll need to participate, and critiquing others isn’t easy or quick. However, I’ve found that not only will you likely get excellent feedback on your own story, but swapping and giving feedback to others will help you grow as a writer as well. (Plus, making friends who are passionate about the same things as you is always fun.)

“Always print out the entire thing and edit on paper”

The good:
A lot of people swear by printing it all out and editing it by hand. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous heading, as it is surprisingly difficult to do a decent job proofreading something you’re thoroughly familiar with. Your brain knows what the words are supposed to say and fills in the blanks. However, when I was trying to do this with Through the Glass, the prices would have been around $70, give or take.

The bad:
Not printing it out isn’t really “bad.” It’s certainly more environmentally conscious and cost effective. Just be careful to polish it as best you can before handing it to others, or more importantly, publishing.

The DIY compromise:
Printing it all out at home was closer to $30, which isn’t bad and what I ended up doing. Seeing it on paper does do wonders for finding errors and reading it with “different eyes.” Extra points if you print it in a different font and layout than what you typed it in. And while this was enormously beneficial, (until my epic KDP debacle,) I realized afterward that there had been another option that I never thought of, one that I’m utilizing this time around:

Format it the way you’d want it in your actual final novel and order a KDP author proof copy.

I kicked myself. Sure, it would have been about $10, but still, not only is $10 much better than $30, (and WAY better than $70!) but I’d have been able to see all of it and edit not only the content, but the layout and the cover as well. Plus, there’s something about reading your words in a bound book that boosts your confidence a bit, and in writing, where so many of us have impostor syndrome, every little bit helps!

(Actual footage of me after
discovering my epic failure)

PS: Double-check which version you format and upload to KDP, and check the final proof on paper!

Speaking of checking things on paper, after countless hours of proofreading, gleaning input from others, more proofing, and just when I thought I’d go insane if I read it one more time, proofing it yet again, guess what this fool did? I somehow managed to format the wrong version. *facepalm* It wasn’t even my second to last one, either. It must have been my third or fourth one. It was full of typos, formatting mistakes, and general auto-correct related errors…and that’s what ended up being published and purchased/downloaded by literally over a hundred people. Of course, my first impression would turn out this way. Formatting for KDP was a bit of a headache for me, so when it finally worked, I should have known that something must be wrong. I did check it on KDP, but somehow none of the mistakes were visible there, while the printed version looked like a kindergartener wrote it…right before bedtime…with his feet. All that obsessive, fine-toothed comb proofreading down the drain.

As penance, I corrected it as quickly as I could (not quickly enough, but with a newborn, everything takes longer,) resubmitted it, admitted my epic mistake on Facebook and made the ebook free for as long as I could. I couldn’t replace the print versions people had purchased, but I could give those who got the ebook a chance to delete the first copy and re-download the corrected one for free. If nothing else, it helped ease my conscience, if only a little bit. 

Moral of the story: Check at every stage. Then double check. Get another author proof copy and check the printed version (not just the online version.) Then have someone else check. Then check again. Because I don’t wish my abysmally stupid mistake to happen to anyone else. *hangs head in shame*

(Terrible example, that cover is glorious. I love it.)

“Always hire a professional cover designer.”

The good:
There’s a reason so many people spring for a pro cover designer, and not just because they’re not all that handy at photoshop. You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”? Yeah, well, no one told the readers. When scrolling through thumbnails on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, before the reader even reads the title, they see the cover. If it looks amateurish, they scroll on. Covers are literally your book’s very first impression, so unless it hooks the reader, you could have the best book in the world and no one will even click on it. Book covers specifically follow a lot of rules that other kinds of design might not, so even if you’re an amazing artist, that may not mean that your cover is in the bag. Book cover designers are not only skilled artists, but they know how to use the cover as a means of advertising and catching the potential reader’s eye. They know what they’re doing.

The bad:
Oh, man, there are so many bad book covers out there. I won’t shame anyone here, (because again, I’m no expert myself, either,) but seriously, if you’re ever in need of a laugh, google “bad book covers.” You won’t be disappointed.

There are tons of different ways in which a book cover can be terrible.

  • The picture looks…lame. Sorry, there’s no other way to put it. Cheesy stock photos, poor photoshop jobs, hand-drawn covers, etc. If it doesn’t look professional, it will likely hurt readership. (I know, I’m a total hypocrite in this one. I’m likely shooting myself in the foot with my homemade covers, but wanting to do the covers myself was one of the reasons I went with self-publishing. If I was trying to make a living off of my book/s, I’d absolutely go with a professional cover. As it is, I still might change it in the future. For now, we’ll see. *crosses fingers*)
  • The title is hard to read. Should the whole cover be dominated by the title and your name? Probably not, but don’t make the reader squint, because let’s face it, they likely won’t bother. Often, a white title on a darker background is the easiest to read, especially in thumbnail size. 
  • You went with a cutesy font. Don’t do this. I know it’s tempting if you discover one that’s ridiculously appropriate for the content (blood splatters for a slasher novel, nuts and bolts for a steampunk novel, etc.) but it ends up looking amateurish and distracting at best and difficult to read at worst, and you don’t want either. And be sure that the words are not just easy to read, but fit with the cover as a whole. I’ve seen several covers where the text looks as though it was just slapped on there without a thought. I’m talking red, Times New Roman words on a pastel photo, or white text going invisible on the white parts of the photo. Put thought into it. 
  • The cover tells us nothing about the book. There’s a reason why so many erotica books have a shirtless guy on the cover, or sci-fi novels have a spaceship. It’s not just because the authors like spaceships and abs; it’s because it’s an easy way for their target audience to see that this book is written for them. Keep the plot, genre, and tone of the story in mind when you do the cover. Is it dystopian, or a vampire novel, or a horror story? Maybe ditch the blue skies and white puffy clouds. Is it a happy, optimistic love story? Maybe try white or a bright color. Are the main characters teenagers? Maybe don’t stick adults on the cover. Make the cover actually reflect the story inside it. This can also prevent bad reviews, as I mention in a little more detail later on. 
  • In my humble opinion, entirely unnecessary nudity/partial nudity that is clearly meant to grab our attention is always a bad thing. While the topless dude is pretty much standard for erotica, if the book isn’t particularly sexy but the cover looks like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, I think you may be trying too hard. (There’s a Princess Bride cover where Buttercup is almost entirely naked. Did we read the same book?)

The DIY compromise:
Like most things, this is often much harder than it looks. A lot of thought is put into things that we as readers scrolling through thumbnails or browsing a bookshelf don’t often think about. I’m absolutely not a designer, but I’ve picked up on a handful of tips:

  • Simple is often better than complex. As with everything, there’s always the exceptions, but be aware of overdoing it. Sometimes less is more.
  • Visibility is key. Especially if you’re planning on making it an Ebook, keep in mind that many details won’t be visible in a thumbnail. A legible title, high contrast, and a recognizable visual can go a long way.
  • Sometimes the covers that go the most wrong are the ones trying too hard to represent too much of the book. We don’t need to know everything. Don’t make the cover totally ambiguous–we need to know if we’re interested–but trying to cram too much of the story into the cover often backfires, feeling cluttered.
  • Like the simplicity and visibility I mentioned a second ago, simple fonts are often far superior to overly elaborate ones. There are always exceptions, especially if the title is hand lettered art and/or if the title is part of the design, but you’d be surprised how many very simple san-serif block fonts are used on book covers.
  • If you use stock photography, BE SURE THAT THE IMAGE IS LEGAL FOR COMMERCIAL USE! Do NOT just go on google and find a picture you like. There are loads of sites full of free stock photos that are available for commercial use. Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay are all great. Similarly, there are plenty of great fonts available for free online as well. Just be absolutely sure that what you use is okay for commercial use.
  • Go on Amazon and scroll through covers in your book’s genre. A lot of genres have very clear-cut expectations for cover design; certain types of fonts, certain styles and elements, etc. While on the one hand there’s no need for yours to be identical to the rest of them, and standing out and catching the reader’s eye is good, on the other hand, there’s a reason for these similarities. Many of these designers are pros. They know how different fonts, colors, elements, styles make us think, what associations we often make with them, etc. Don’t copy them so closely that your style is lost, but use them to inspire you and to give you an idea of that the reader is expecting and what the average reader of those kinds of books are looking for. You want it to stand out, but for the right reasons!

As always, I’m still learning, and I know I’ll find even more cringeworthy mistakes and regrets of my own. (If anyone has additional advice to add, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note!) My main point is, don’t let a lack of money keep you from sharing your writing and putting your best work out there. Writing should not just be reserved for the especially wealthy, and those who can afford the professional help are not the only ones with stories worth reading. You’ve got this!