Friday, 23 May 2014

Writers' Services: assembling the right team

You know all those house building programmes that have become so popular in recent years? From Grand Designs to The House That £100k Built – they celebrate DIY builders, designing and constructing their own homes.

One thing you will notice, though, is that however hands-on the home owners are, they will recognise the limits of their own skills and bring in professionals to do aspects of the work – like plastering, plumbing and electrics – that just have to be done right. Even when they DO have those skills, they bring in the professionals to check they are doing things right.

Publishing your own book is like building your own house. Some of those observing the self-publishing phenomenon from the outside – and some of those nervously contemplating attempting it themselves for the first time – imagine that it means the author doing everything alone, from the moment they write The End at the bottom of the very first draft until the book starts flying off the (real or virtual) shelves.

In truth an indie author, like the DIY builder, is more like the manager of a micro-business, taking responsibility for each stage of construction, but knowing when and how to bring in the professionals to help. So what are those professional services you are going to need?


 To carry on with the house building metaphor a bit longer – that first draft isn’t even the blueprint for the published novel. It’s more like the rough sketches for that Grand Design you’ve been dreaming of. You’re going to have to do quite a bit more work on it yourself, bash it into shape, make your vision clearer for your readers. So you go through as many rewrites as it needs until it’s as good as you can possibly make it. And then you need to call in the editors!

First off – a word or warning. Close friends and family do NOT make good editors. Even if they are the best-read people you know. Even if they are writers themselves. They love you. They believe in you. They want you to succeed. And with the best will in the world, they are going to read your work through rose-tinted spectacles.

 What you need to do is find someone you can trust to be ruthlessly honest. Who understands the genre you are writing in and the standards you need to meet. Who can pull apart the work you have just spent the last few months bleeding over without making you feel as if you’re a complete waste of space. And who can help you build it up again so that it is still YOUR book, not theirs, but even better than you ever thought possible.

 It may sounds as if we’re asking for the impossible – but they do exist, these people. We know. We’ve found a few of them – and we’re recommending some of them here. (Another excellent source of recommended service providers is the Alliance of Independent Authors Partner Members.)

 Broadly speaking, there are three types of editing. The lines between them are a bit blurry, and I find it’s easier to think of them as three separate processes.

 First is STRUCTURAL EDITING. This is taking a macro view of the book. If you have sub-plots going nowhere, scenes that advance nothing or characters that fail to come alive; if parts of your story are told in the wrong sequence, you’ve begun it too early or dragged on the ending too long: this is where it should be picked up. At this stage, you want someone who can judge the ms as a whole, and who knows the rules and standards of your genre (and I’m including lit fic as a genre here). Good beta-readers can be excellent at this (but bear in mind what I said about not using friends and family).

CATRIONA TROTH is a structural editor with experience of working with both fiction and non-fiction MSS. 

The next stage is COPY EDITING. When all those big, macro issues have been fixed, it’s time to take a finer-grained look at your ms. A good copy editor will still look at issues of pace. But they will focus at the level of individual sentences and paragraphs. Are you using unnecessary verbiage? Or is this scene underwritten? They’ll spot if a character’s eyes change colour part way through the book. They will also check (or at least question) factual detail. (Was the model of car you describe available when your story was set? Is it really possible to shoot someone at that distance with the gun you’ve given your villain?)  

And finally there is PROOFREADING. This is editing as a lay person understands it: checking spelling, grammar, punctuation. In a manuscript being prepared for publication, it also includes checking that you are using things like em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens in the correct professional way.

Is all this really necessary? Well, the reading public seems to think so. As reviews on Amazon clearly show, readers can be savagely critical of self-published books that are full of slip-shod amateur errors.

PERRY ILES has been the proofreader for almost all of Triskele' books.

Two other terms you may hear are ‘manuscript critique service’ and ‘beta reader.’ 

 A professional manuscript critique service (such as Cornerstones in the UK) is likely to offer a range of services from which you can choose a package suited to you. They may look at your whole MS, or only an extract. In addition to the editing services above, they will often bring to bear their experience of the market to give you an idea of the commercial viability of your book. Critiquing service may also look at an MS at an earlier stage of development than final editing.

LORRAINE MACE and JOHN HUDSPITH both offer a critiquing service that covers elements of both structural and copy editing.

Polly Courtney worked with editor JOY TIBBS on her novels Feral YouthGolden Handcuffs and Poles Apart.

 A beta reader, on the other hand, is likely to be a trusted volunteer. Like beta testers in the software industry, who evaluate pre-release software, a beta reader will read your MS when it is close to release and let you know if any part of the book is not working for them. They are likely to focus on the same sorts of areas as structural editor – pace, engagement with characters, any major plot holes. But as they are readers, not generally writers or editors, they may point out problems but not necessarily suggest how to fix them.


 So now you have a wonderful story, thoroughly edited to a professional standard. What next? 


Self-publishing packages like Kindle Direct Publishing make it very easy for authors to select a few elements from a pool of images and fonts, put them together through a semi-automated process and come up with their own cover design. So why do you need to bother paying a professional designer? 

 Well, for one thing, there is a high risk that your cover is going to end up looking suspiciously like at least half a dozen others, as authors pick from the same limited stock of options. Secondly, it’s amazing how tiny things about the way a cover is put together can change how professional it looks. Most of us do it at an entirely unconscious level, but put two covers together and we will instinctively prefer the one that obeys all those hidden ‘rules’ about visual impact. Designers understand that. 

 So find a good designer, one who can realise your unique vision for your book. And shop around. Designers can be expensive – but they don’t have to be. There are some outstanding ones out there who are also very affordable.  


The last stage before uploading your ms to a publishing service is INTERIOR FORMATTING. Now, this is something a lot of indie authors do for themselves. It’s not intrinsically difficult and there are plenty of programs and packages out there which can help you with the process. But you need to be aware of the rules about laying out the book as a whole (what goes in the ‘front matter’ before the main text, and in what order, and what goes in the back matter), and about laying out individual pages (first pages of chapters vs. the rest, how page numbering works). You need to understand about balancing the fonts used in the text with those used in headings. And finally you need to understand the differences between formatting print books and eBooks, and the subtle differences between different eBook formats.

 If you are prepared to take the time to learn the rules, then by all means tackle this step yourself. But a slip-up at this stage can make your book scream ‘amateur.’ So if you are not completely confident, it is worth employing someone experienced so do your interior formatting for you. 

JD SMITH has created both cover design and the interior formatting for all of Triskele's books. 

 Once the book is formatted, you have an MS ready to upload to your publishing service. And that really has been made very easy. So long as you are reasonably comfortable around computers, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do that for yourself. (See our Leaving Prints chapter in The Triskele Trail for a post-formatting checklist.) 

 And there you have it. You’ve launched your book. You have made all the decisions about how the book should be presented to the world. And you’ve assembled the team around you who can help you realise that vision. Congratulations, you are an independent professional!


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