What to do when you’ve finished writing your first novel

1. Cheer for joy!

Most aspiring authors never reach this step. They’ll get a few chapters in and quit, or take 30 years to finish their first book, unable to determine where the ending should be.

2. Cry at how long the rest of the list is.

Sadly, once the text of your first book is written, there are many more steps to take before you have a book worth selling.

3. Edit!

No one writes a best seller with their first draft. Some people go through 15 or 20 drafts before they ever show their book to another living person. Others only need 4 or 5 drafts before it is polished and print-worthy. It all depends on your process and experience. I strongly recommend Grammarly. The starting version is free and will get you a looong way.

4. Wait a month.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your book is put it in a drawer and forget about it. Move on to another project. When you come back to it, you’ll have fresh eyes and be able to see more of the mistakes you made when you wrote it. Many authors are blind to their own mistakes. By waiting a month or more, you give yourself some distance from the part of you that wrote the book.

5. Reread the book, making changes as necessary.

With the fresh eyes mentioned above, read through your book as though you’ve never seen it before. Evaluate it harshly. Is this still a project you want to pursue? Does this book belong in the trash? Many many authors’ first books never see the light of day. There’s still a LOT of work to do to get it print-worthy, and so far, I haven’t recommended anything that costs money. But from here on out, there are expenses involved that usually range from a couple hundred dollars for the experienced author to thousands of dollars for the person who hires out everything and overpays.

6. Get a professional to read the first couple of chapters.

There are a few ways you can get this done for free, but it will require you to give something back in return. This can be done through the right critique group. There are thousands of critique groups out there, and they all require that you put in the time reading other people’s manuscripts in exchange for their review of yours. In most critique groups I’ve been a part of, at least half their members don’t know how to give a good critique. I’ve gotten my submissions back with nothing more than “It was great!” written on the last page. Whereas the critiques I give usually have a hundred or more edits and/or comments.

You really need someone who understands your genre and has experience with editing. Don’t just trust your mother or brother or best friend just because they offer to do this for free. You need someone who understands the structure of a book in your genre and is probably an avid reader of it. If they don’t know what the Chicago Manual of Style is, they’re the wrong person.

Many editors, including myself, will read through the first ten pages for $50 or less. This isn’t a full novel edit, but usually, within 10 pages, a professional paid editor can spot style issues and help you see whether you are ready to pay for the $1000+ full manuscript edit. Of course, the cost of editing depends on the length of your book. Some novels only cost a few hundred dollars for a solid professional edit. $3.50 per page is a decent rate. If you find something cheaper, it is because they are investing their time. Hybrid publishers can give you a more affordable price on the edit because both of you are contributing time and resources to the completion of your novel. Any editing charges a hybrid publisher charges are likely to be half of what they would otherwise charge.

7. Apply their advice to the whole book.

When you get the first 10 pages back, don’t just apply their advice to the first 10 pages. Look for those problems throughout your novel. Are you using too many pronouns? Do you have a lot of run-on sentences? Do you have lengthy descriptions or no descriptions at all? These problems never confine themselves to the first 10 pages.

8. Self-Publish, Big 5, or Hybrid Publishing?

Now that you have a decent, though not complete manuscript, it is time to decide on a publishing path. Do you want to self-publish and accomplish the rest of the list yourself, paying someone to do what you can’t? Or are you ready to start writing letters to agents and publishers? Any of the three paths is a lot of work.

Writing a query letter requires a different set of skills from writing a novel or non-fiction book. First, you need to know who is approachable and who is a scam artist. (Yes, there are plenty of preditors (editors who are really predators) who will charge you enormous fees and deliver substandard work.) So if you can’t speak to someone they have represented, you’ll want to verify their work through a 3rd party evaluation site, like predators vs. editors. (just google it.)

Hybrid publishing is a newer concept and scoffed at by many who self-publish and many who choose traditional publishing. A traditional publisher will pay for all your expenses from here on out. The rest of the list below, through item 17 is at their expense and give you a small percentage of the sales. You’ll be lucky to see $1/book in your pocket. Meanwhile, a Hybrid Publisher will take on half the costs, and usually give you half the profits. But you’ve got to cover the other half of the costs.

Whatever path you take, you need to be happy with the results. There is nothing worse than using a publisher or agent you don’t like. They need to be your friend, and it needs to feel that way. I’ve seen relationships between publishers and authors go sour, and it is no fun for anyone involved or nearby. Also, you don’t have to stick with just one path for every book you sell.

9. Format the interior

Yes, the interior needs to be formatted. You need to know the right margins to set, the right font to choose, watch out for widows and orphans, determine the spacing at the start of each chapter, make sure there are no blank pages, unless you want them there, etc. You can’t just convert from word to pdf and expect to get a professional result.

10. Decide on the cover art

The cover art is what tells the reader what kind of book it is. If you have a childish drawing, it is a children’s book. If you have an edgy photo, it’s an edgy book. If you just stick your photo on the cover, they’ll believe the book is all about you. And if all you put up there is a fancy design, it tells the reader you didn’t put any thought into presentation.

Sometimes you’ll end up paying an artist to draw the cover from a scene in your book. This is very popular in the fantasy genre. Other times you can find free stock images and edit them together into a finished cover. Be careful, though. If you use an image that is copyright protected without paying the artist, you’ll lose more than the profits on your book.

11. Format the cover

Having good cover art isn’t the end of dealing with the cover. It’s just the beginning. Now you’ve got to place the title and your name on the front cover, as well as blurbs on the back cover. Remember, the first thing they see is the front cover, followed by the back cover. If you can’t make your book interesting enough to open based on the cover, you won’t get any readers.

12. Size the cover

The full cover must be sized for the length of your book. The printer will tell you how wide the spine should be for the number of pages in the book, as well as their requirement for the bleed zone. If you get it wrong, the printer isn’t going to reprint the books for free. It isn’t their job to make sure everything is lined up properly, it is yours!

13. Get an ISBN

I know there are free sources of ISBN’s, such as Amazon or Lulu. But if you are self-publishing, you really do need your own ISBN. Why? Well, we’re planning for success here. Let’s say you spend a year promoting your book, and sales are starting to take off. You catch the eye of a big publisher or distributor. They will look up the ISBN and see who to contact about your book. If you got a free ISBN, guess who they’re going to call. Amazon or Lulu, or whoever gave you that free ISBN. Do you think Amazon is going to pass that valuable contact on to you? NO! And if you want to get the book printed anywhere other than the place which gave you the free ISBN, forget it!

The ISBN is the social security number for your book. It is how the book and its sales are tracked. And the more ISBN’s you buy at once, the cheaper they are. Which is why the big movers like Amazon can give them away for free.

14. Put together a Media Kit

This deserves its own post. You need to know what a Media Kit is, how to put it together, and how to present it, in case anyone from the media wants to interview you about your book.

15. Get your book printed

So now you’ve got the manuscript edited, the interior formatted, the cover formatted and sized, and you’re ready to print! Well, there are some great printers out there, and there is some shoddy work. The first book I wrote, I got complaints from the readers that the books fell apart because of the cheap binding. Just because a printer is willing to give you the best price, doesn’t mean they are the best printer to work with. You want a quality print job to reflect the quality book you’ve put together.

Most printers charge way too much unless you are willing to print 100 or 1000 books at a time or more. A few are willing to print on demand, meaning you only need to order a couple books at a time or even just one book. Some authors go gung-ho on their first printing and get hundreds of books printed, then spend the rest of their life trying to recover the costs of that first printing. If you can get pre-orders, it will help you know how many to print as well as cover the costs of that first printing. Remember, it isn’t a second edition or second printing unless you make changes.

16. Format the book for ebooks

There is another process to prepare your book for eBook publishing. eBooks contain less formatting so that the eReader can adjust to the reader’s tastes and screen size. You need to know the rules for eBook formatting, or it will come out wrong. I critiqued a guy’s eBook and found on about the 40th page that the font got very large for a few words before returning to normal. He obviously hadn’t even bothered to look through the final product before sending it out. Whatever process you use, you must inspect every page of the final result before letting your readers see it.

17. Distribute the eBook

Now that you have your eBook in epub, Mobi, pdf, and other formats, you need to know how to get the files to your readers. If you use Amazon Kindle, keep in mind that they will try to get you to distribute exclusively through them. I don’t recommend this. Smashwords does a great job of distributing your eBook in various formats across various platforms. Also, don’t forget about your own website. The highest revenue always comes from selling directly to the public instead of using a 3rd party platform.

18. Advertise!

Whether you self-publish or use a traditional publisher, these days, you will bear the work and cost of advertising for your first novel. If you aren’t getting at least 3 times as much money in sales as you are spending on the advertising, you’re doing it wrong. And a lot of people do it wrong, especially at first. This is just one more area where expertise matters.

19. Advertise!

Did I mention you will be responsible for advertising and promoting your own work, no matter how you publish?

20. Advertise!

Okay, I had to say it one more time. Because this step can take as long as all the others combined. It will continue for the rest of your life. That’s the joy of writing a book. You can sell it over and over and over. But only if people know about it.

I hope this list is helpful. Each one requires knowledge and skills which many authors do not possess. You’re going to need help, and that help isn’t going to be free. So buckle up for the long ride of getting your book from the first draft to first printing. It might take 3 months, or it might take 20 years.

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