How to Avoid Self-Publishing Heartache – Kim Bookless | Guest Post

Authors come to me for help and guidance in self-publishing their manuscripts. I’m delighted to talk with them but, unfortunately, many of our conversations begin like this:

Author: “I wrote a book and I’m ready to self-publish it.”

Me: “Great! Before we talk about the publishing process, let’s talk about your manuscript. What kind of editing has it had?”

Me: “Has it had any editing?”

Author: “No.”
Me: “Have you asked for feedback from beta readers?”

Author: “No, but my cousin, who is a teacher, looked at it and loved it.”

Me: “If you and your cousin are the only people on the planet who have seen your manuscript, it’s probably not ready to publish—not yet, anyway.”
Author: “Look, I don’t need editing. I just need a printer.”
No, the authors didn’t need a printer at that time. They needed to go back to the very beginning and take a closer look at their content. They needed manuscript evaluations, usually followed by developmental editing.
Manuscripts from first-time authors are generally not ready to publish as is—not before a professional editor has taken the time to evaluate the state of the manuscript and determine whether it is marketable as written or it needs help. Even established, successful authors go through rigorous editing before they start the publishing process.
It has always felt unethical for me to help authors publish unedited or poorly edited manuscripts, knowing that it was unlikely that the books would sell well and that the authors faced a potential bloodbath on book review sites. Despite my best efforts, I was rarely able to convince them that publishing their manuscripts would be the equivalent of putting out a first draft for everyone to buy, and that it would not end well.
After talking with trusted colleagues about my dilemma, I found a solution. I began strongly recommending that each new client have a professional developmental editor evaluate the manuscript, and then consider implementing the changes suggested in the evaluation. Nearly all the authors agreed to have their manuscripts evaluated (possibly just to humor me), and I was astonished at the results.
It turns out that a five- or six-page manuscript review that diplomatically points out areas that could be improved easily accomplishes what my words cannot: It convinces the authors that it would be unwise invest money in publishing their manuscripts in their current state. The authors appreciate the feedback, and nearly all of them go on to work with the developmental editors to implement the changes suggested in the evaluations; as a result, they end up with better books. If developmental editing is not an option for financial reasons, the evaluation can help the author determine whether it makes sense to publish the book at all.
Developmental editing is the process of working with a manuscript as a whole and analyzing how well its various parts contribute to the central message or narrative. Provided you are working with a trained and experienced developmental editor (one who knows how to write a professional manuscript review with solid recommendations for improvement), a manuscript evaluation will provide a more relevant and objective assessment of your work than anything you could get from beta readers, members of your writing group, or your family and friends. This one simple step, taken well before book production begins, will enable you to make informed decisions during the self-publishing process. It can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the content and how well your book is received.
Both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts can benefit from a manuscript review and developmental editing, but professional evaluations are less important if you’re not planning to put your book on the market. For example, if you’re writing a memoir and plan to give it to family members, you don’t need a manuscript review, or developmental editing, or a marketing plan. However, if you’re planning to sell your book to anyone, getting a professional evaluation is the first step to making it as marketable as possible.
The manuscript review process will vary by editor. Here’s how it works for my clients:
  1. I recommend a professional developmental editor, who makes contact with the author and reads the entire manuscript.
  2. The editor reviews the manuscript based on a number of key criteria, then writes the evaluation.
  3. The editor emails the evaluation to the author and they discuss it by phone to address any questions the author might have.
  4. The author decides how to proceed:
    • make no changes to the manuscript, or
    • make some or all of the recommended changes without help from the editor, or
    • hire the editor for developmental editing to help implement the recommended changes.

For fiction manuscripts, the following items are evaluated:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it believable? Is it satisfying or does it leave the reader frustrated? Are there missing plot points that would give the narrative greater integrity?
  • Themes: Are the themes effectively handled? Are there so many themes that the book lacks focus? Do they interfere with the plot or complement it?
  • Structure: Does the narrative have a story arc (a clear beginning, middle, and end)? Does the narrative unfold logically and is it easy to follow? Is there enough of a back story to make the characters believable? Conversely, might the back story be confused with or dwarf the main plot?
  • Characterization: Are your characters well developed and believable? Does the reader know enough about them and their motives? Are they cast in roles that fit their personalities? Do they sometimes behave out of character?
  • Pacing: Does the plot move forward at an appropriate pace? Is the narrative interrupted by dead ends and tangents? Should you cut that preface, or do you need a prologue or epilogue? Should the action happen sooner or should the tension build more slowly?
  • Point of View/Voice: Is the voice consistent or is it sometimes confusing? Is the voice authentic? Are you using too many or too few different points of view?
  • Dialogue: Do your characters sound real when they speak? Is your dialogue cluttered with too many adverbs, gerunds, and prepositions? Do you use clunky dialogue (or not enough dialogue) to move the plot forward?
  • Consistency: Are there any inaccuracies in the narrative or the time line? Are the characters described consistently?

For nonfiction manuscripts, the process is the same, but the specific issues are different:

  • Thesis: Is your thesis relevant? Is it clearly defined or is it lost among marginal issues?
  • Exposition: Are your arguments clear and easy for the readers to believe and accept? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with your thesis?
  • Content: Are all the necessary topics dealt with sufficiently? Are the chapters weighted correctly? Is there superfluous or repetitive content?
  • Organization: Is the information organized logically for the readers? Are tables and illustrations used appropriately? How many levels of subheads do you need and how should they be arranged?
  • Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the audience? Do you need to eliminate jargon? Is the text accessible?
  • Pace: Are there passages bogged down in detail, or have you spent too long on details that are irrelevant to the main thesis? Conversely, are there areas in which more detail might be beneficial? Are there areas that need further exposition, lest they be skipped over?

If an author wants to move forward with developmental editing after the manuscript evaluation, there is no obligation to continue working with that particular editor. By that point, though, the two have usually developed a rapport, and the author nearly always chooses to hire the editor who did the review. A few of my clients chose not to continue working with the editors after the evaluations, but they agree that the process was a worthwhile endeavor.

Occasionally an author recognizes the need for developmental editing and wants to move straight into that process, but I still recommend starting with a manuscript evaluation. Among all the other benefits that an evaluation provides, it is a relatively inexpensive way for an author to gauge whether the editor understands the book and its message (which is an indicator of whether or not the readers will understand), and whether it would be a good working relationship.
I believe that having a professional developmental editor give your manuscript a thorough, objective evaluation is the single best way to determine your book’s marketability and the steps you should take before moving into book production. For a fraction of the overall cost of publishing, the evaluation will give you invaluable information to use as the basis for your self-publishing decisions. It can potentially save you thousands of dollars and help you avoid the heartache that comes from a slew of negative reviews.
For more information about manuscript evaluation and developmental editing, visit

Kim Bookless is a Chicago-based publishing consultant, copyeditor, writer, and speaker. She helps authors bring their books to life by guiding them through the maze of self-publishing, serving as their advocate and project manager. She is the Vice President of Chicago Women in Publishing, and founder of the Chicago Self-Publishing Group. Connect with Kim at or (Follow Kim on Twitter)

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.
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