When Is Your Book Ready to be Published?

by James Scott Bell

Brother Gilstrap’s recent post on critique groups raises a question I’ve heard from other writers: When do I know my book is ready to go out to an agent, editor, or direct to market?

The answer depends on where you are as a writer. Let’s look at three categories.

The Newbie

This is your first novel. Maybe it’s not the first you’ve written. Most first novels are like first waffles. So you make up your mind to write another one.

Good for you! A lot of writers quit after that initial try.

Now read it through in hard copy, as if you were a book buyer. Don’t take copious notes. Just keep asking yourself at what point are you tempted to put the book down? Put a mark there and move on.

Then hunker down and fix what needs fixing, cut what needs cutting, add what needs adding. Learn your craft by consulting books that cover your weak spots. (Insert shameless plug here).

Write a second draft.

Now it’s time to get feedback. But you need to get it from people who know what to look for. I offer two options: informed beta readers and an experienced developmental editor.

Your beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers. What you want are dedicated readers in your genre who are willing to give some detailed notes—for which you’ll take them to lunch or gift them an Amazon card (or something). My first beta has always been the eagle-eyed Mrs. B. Also, at the start in my career, I forged a relationship with the staff of a bookstore near me. They loved to read and were more than happy to look at my manuscripts.

Then I signed with a house and got paired with a fantastic developmental editor who upped my game. (A developmental editor focuses on the big picture of your novel, primarily structure, plot, characters, and scenes.)

At this point in your journey a solid developmental editor can be of great benefit. It’s going to cost money, but like any small business startup, you’ve got to invest to become the best.

How can you find such an editor? Get recommendations. Search the net. Study the websites. Look at their client list. Ask for a sample edit.

How much will this cost? In my opinion it should be in the low four figures. More than that and you’re passing a sign that reads Scam Territory: Proceed At Your Own Risk.

The Intermediate

Once you’ve had some publishing success, meaning three or four books that have gained traction, you should be able to get by solely with good beta readers. Key word, good. How do you find them? What do you ask them? See the TKZ posts here.

You’re still listening for development help. But you’re also getting more knowledgable with each book.

The Veteran

Once you’ve hit a certain level—maybe seven or eight books doing nicely—you can probably skip developmental editing. I remember asking a multi-published, bestselling author what he did with his manuscripts. He said, “I know enough now that I know when my story is solid. I get a copy edit to find any holes or contradictions, like a character who has blue eyes in chapter one and green eyes in chapter twenty. But that’s about it.” (I’ll add that you need to pay a proof reader to smash those pesky sand fleas we call typos.)

How to Take Criticism

There may come a time when an editor or beta reader hauls off and gives you a gut punch. Agent Steve Laube recently wrote a piece titled My Editor Made My Book Worse! It’s mostly for the traditionally published, but indies can take much of it to heart. It begins:

You just received a 15-page, single-spaced editorial letter from your editor. They want you to rewrite most of the book. But you disagree with the letter and are spitting mad. What do you do?

Or your agent took a look at your manuscript and told you to cut it in half to make it salable. What do you do?

Both examples are true stories and illustrate the universal challenge of refining your manuscript to make it the best it can be.

Steve advises:

  1. This is normal.
  2. Keep anger to yourself. (Don’t burn bridges!)
  3. Hear today. Respond tomorrow.
  4. Remember the editor is doing the best job they know how. And often they have a lot of experience with manuscripts like yours.
  5. Remember this is a negotiation, not a dictation. Ultimately, it is your book; and the editor is providing suggestions, not requirements.
  6. Remember that the suggestions with which you disagree may actually be valid.
  7. Communicate your frustration to your agent.
  8. Communicate with your editor. Be respectful but firm if you disagree. You’ll find that editors have their jobs because they know what they are doing.
  9. BUT if the edits are out of line, unreasonable, or outrageous, then you have every right to object. Decide which hills you will die on. A word here, a sentence there, a paragraph cut are not the place for the pitched battle.

When to Trust Thyself

There’s a famous story about Ayn Rand, when she turned in her behemoth manuscript for Atlas Shrugged to a famous editor named Bennett Cerf. He had a sit-down with her where he suggested, you know, this may be a little too long for the general market. And I’ve got some ideas to where to cut….

To which Rand replied, “You vould not cut zee Bible, vould you?”

Not exactly a shrinking violet, Ms. Rand (to this day, Atlas Shrugged sells tens of thousands of copies a year).

At some point you’ve got to trust yourself. You’ve done the work, learned the lessons, taken the feedback, and fixed and polished your manuscript. Now go for it. Send it out into the wild. Pop some champagne. You deserve it. Have yourself a nice dinner. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when you wake up start on your next book.

What steps do you take to know when a book is ready to go? What advice would you give a new writer on that question?

27 thoughts on “When Is Your Book Ready to be Published?

  1. Jim, I tell newbies, intermediaries and oldies a truncated version of what you ended with:

    “[T]rust yourself. You’ve done the work, learned the lessons…. Now go for it. Send it out into the wild. … [Then] start on your next book.”

  2. Great article/post, Jim. And thanks for the reference to my beta reading post.

    In answer to your question, read, read, read. I’ve read all of your craft books, most of them more than once. We never stop learning about the craft. I’m constantly on the look out for new craft books.

    Read all the best sellers and classics you can get your hands on, and read outside your genre. I got a late start, and I’ll be catching up forever. Besides “seeing” how successful authors have handled different aspects of the craft, we’re training our ears to “hear” quality.

    And when we edit, I would argue that not enough emphasis is placed on “listening” to our manuscript being read. Text-to-speech is readily available. It’s available in Scrivener and Word. After I’ve done all the initial editing in Scrivener, I let Scrivener read the manuscript. After I finish pre-beta editing in Word, I Iet Word read me the manuscript. And after I’m completely finished with editing, I let Word read to me again. The ear picks up all kinds of things the eye floats over (or fills in).

    Thanks for a great post.

    • I absolutely love my collection of craft books, Steve. I attribute 90% of any success I’ve managed to study and application.

      Also, you’re right about text to speech. I need to do more of that!

  3. Good morning, Jim. This is a terrific, insightful rundown of what kind of feedback and from whom a writer might need, based on their level of experience. I’m glad you referenced Steve’s advice on dealing with feedback, it’s a great addition to this list.

    I was just about at veteran level with my fantasy and science fiction, but then I answered the call of mystery fiction, so am going with a developmental editor and beta readers for my new novel. But first, I’m building a better version.

    To answer your question, I agree with Steve’s advice–read in your genre, and study craft. I’ve read several excellent books on writing mysteries, including one by KZB alum Nancy Cohen, and taken a terrific video course by cozy mystery author Sara Rosett on outlining cozies. I want to do my new genre justice (no pun intended).

    In the end, though, it’s about learning from what I’ve written, from feedback, and then doing it again. “The Practice,” as Seth Godin’s book of the same name lays out. Embrace the process of creation, and ship. I’m taking a bit more time with A Shush Before Dying because it’s the first book in a new series and my first mystery–I’ll know it’s ready when I’ve gotten that feedback, and responded to what resonates with one more edit.

    Great post on a very important topic, especially to we Indies. Have a wonderful day!

  4. I had a wonderful critique group when I was starting. Most of them were enrolled in a local college’s “start a new career/life” type program and they passed on what they were learning about writing. (Saved a lot of tuition for me.) They insisted I start submitting, so I did. When the rejections (and there will be rejections) say “good, but not for me”, then it’s probably as good as it’s going to be until it’s accepted.
    As an indie now, I still use an editor after my critique partners have had their say. She was my editor way back when I was with Five Star, and now has her own publishing company, but she accepts me as a freelance client. Despite me knowing my manuscript is “ready” she always finds ways to make it better. I’d say she’s part developmental, part copy editor. I want her unbiased, professional eyes on the manuscript before I release it to the public. I know it will be better after she’s gone through it.

  5. Jim, good guidelines for various stages in a career.

    Newbies have a hard time b/c they do not know what they do not know. I threw away nine or ten “waffles” before being published.

    With my most recent book, even though most beta readers liked it, two had reservations. They nailed that niggling little voice in my head that I’d tried to ignore. Of course they were right. The rewrite turned out much better.

    • Newbies have a hard time b/c they do not know what they do not know.

      That is so true, Debbie. That’s why I was so into reading craft books at the beginning. I kept discovering things…and it excited me!

    • On being classified as an “overnight sensation” George V. Higgins, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle said that that overnight was seventeen years in the making, and he retrieved and destroyed all fourteen of his previous manuscripts.

  6. I don’t have a manuscript close to submission level, but at this newbie stance I have advice. I wrote several first drafts which remain first drafts because I have no idea how to fix them. But with my current WIP, I’ve mad copious notes on what to fix as I wrote. So… once you can answer those really annoying probing questions in those pesky craft books without trying too hard, you know you have something worth pursuing.

  7. Great post, Jim.

    How do I know when a book (case in point-my first novel) is ready to serve up?

    How do I know when a cake is done? I stick a toothpick in it, and if nothing sticks to it, it’s done.

    My editor has made 4 passes at it. Nothing stuck out. I’ve been through it, I don’t know how many times. Nothing stuck out.

    I plan to release it in October. Why do I know it’s done?

    This might have nothing to do with your post, but I know because if I let it go another year, it may never be out there. The story has been with me since 2013, and the characters are getting quite testy with me. It reminds me of my young children saying from the back of the car, “Are we there yet?”

    It’s time. 🙂

  8. Great roadmap, Jim, as we move from one level to the next in our writing.

    For each of my three published books, I sent a partial manuscript to my editor to give her the opportunity to spot any overriding issues before I committed to the entire thing. In each case, she came back with something that changed the trajectory at least a little, and saved me time.

    I’m a slow writer. I revise, revise, revise. I believe each revision makes the story better. When I can’t stand it any more, I think it’s done. 🙂 Then I give the ms to beta readers. That usually results in a little more tweaking. Then it’s off to the launchpad!

    I’m also a fan of reading widely — both inside and outside one’s own genre. And, of course, as many good craft books as i can get my hands on. I always pick up something that inspires me in the next book.

    (Love the story about Ayn Rand.)

  9. For those of us who have written a long time, it’s like the definition of porn. We know it when we see it. In most cases, we have a deadline so that’s it.

    Painter Willian Turner always felt his paintings were never perfect, and his oils were 3-D because of the amount of changes he did. When he was in dire need of money, his agent would sneak into his studio and steal some to sell. I hope none of us are that bad.

    • I do know of one bestselling author who did one draft, sent it in, refused to have anything more to do with it. An in-house editor often had to re-do much of it. Neither side cared as the money kept rolling in.

  10. Great stuff, Jim. One thing I tell beginning writers is to read, read, read, and look for those places where things slow down. Avoid those soft spots in your manuscript, and if you can, up the ante or tension there. Then ask yourself at the end. Is this ending satisfying? Did the author just cut it off in a couple of paragraphs?

    We can tweak a book to excess, but at some point you have say “enough,” if you don’t, you’ll be those folks who work on a novel for years, always tinkering with it like a mechanic under a car that runs just fine. Finish and drive that puppy around!

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