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How to Publish a Book Based on Best Practices of Traditional Publishing

Thursday, November 10, 2016

If you’re one of the many authors who tried to get traditionally published first and are now considering or pursuing self-publication instead, then this post is especially for you. Some authors really want that “traditional” experience but don’t know exactly what it looks like, where the most value lies, or what aspects of it can be feasibly translated over to the publishing process of an independent author. Having been through both experiences myself, here’s what I would give the most thought and consideration to when deciding how to publish a book.

Develop a Structured and Formal Editorial Process

Dealing with feedback, especially criticism that necessitates revision, can be difficult for authors to stomach if they’ve never before experienced it. Despite traditional publishers’ reputation for “not editing” their books anymore, they largely apply the same standards and process to every book published. Multiple people evaluate and help improve a manuscript in collaboration with the author. 

If a self-publishing author wants to produce the best possible project, they must find ways to similarly challenge themselves by hiring or identifying people who can give constructive criticism beyond comma usage or spelling.

The pitfall to avoid: Not all feedback is created equal. Look for people to push you to do better and go beyond family and friends. You need someone with objective distance and good taste in your genre, preferably with professional editing experience.

Devote Attention to Your Packaging Early On

Before a book is contracted, publishers think through how a book can be best packaged and positioned for success. They think through the length and page count, the trim size, how the book will be used, and what price is appropriate in the competitive landscape. 

When considering how to publish a book, some indie authors hardly think about packaging and design until the day they upload their book for distribution. While it’s true that many facets of a book can be changed later—from the cover design to the price to the branding—it’s best to establish a vision for how your product will look and compare alongside competitors so that you offer a book that not only reads well but feels well thought out and brings confidence and finesse to its presentation. 

The pitfall to avoid: Don’t test your packaging (such as the cover design) haphazardly. Too often, indie authors will gather feedback from their Facebook friends or a diverse online group and receive nothing but personal opinions and conflicting feedback. Instead, choose people carefully, preferably those with relevant experience.

Good Copywriting is Key

You can get everything else right about your book but completely lose out on sales if you don’t deliver a compelling marketing description of your work. Traditionally, in print form, this is the back cover copy; in digital form, this is the information that gets posted on Amazon and throughout all retail and distribution outlets about your book. 

Unfortunately, most authors are not trained in copywriting techniques and don’t even know what the term “copywriting” means. The best way to get up to speed is to read the book descriptions of bestsellers in your genre. You’ll find many of the same persuasive copywriting techniques used again and again.

The pitfall to avoid: When studying competing titles, make sure you don’t look at old titles or just titles by a favorite author; look at recent releases by a range of authors in your genre to determine how to publish a book that can compete in that particular genre.

Conduct Early "Sales" Calls

About three to six months prior to publication, a traditional publisher will make sales calls at major accounts and pitch upcoming books. While independent authors can’t conduct sales calls with national retailers such as Walmart or Barnes & Noble, you should identify half a dozen or more local or regional retailers that you think would be an ideal outlet for your book. Put together a kit of professional materials that describe your book—including the cover image, marketing description, author photo/bio, and marketing plan—and practice pitching your book to family and friends. Then take your show on the road. Even if you aren’t successful at first, the practice of having prepped for a sales call makes you more effective at pitching your book in a wide range of contexts.

The pitfall to avoid: Unless you have experience pitching national media outlets or chain retailers, focus on local and regional opportunities first. It’s much easier to gain traction step-by-step rather than directly targeting the big guns first.

If you give yourself enough time and space for the book warehousing and distribution, and publishing process, you can achieve the same quality as a traditional publisher. The main challenge facing most indie authors is that they’re in a tremendous rush and assume it’s better to get it done than eliminate mistakes later. But usually, eliminating those mistakes later is costly and sacrifices your readers’ trust.

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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She’s the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential publishing industry newsletter for authors, and the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. A frequent speaker at writing conferences, she has delivered keynotes on the future of authorship at the San Francisco Writers Conference, The Muse & The Marketplace, and HippoCamp, among others. She has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).