We're in the home stretch for Steelflower in Snow, which means I'm waiting for a proof copy to arrive before I finish its listing. That means it will be on sale this month, barring anything unexpected like huge formatting woes or someone else yelling at me about putting it in e-format. It's occurred to me, listening to readers respond to the news that a third Kaia book is coming out, that plenty of readers have no idea how the book-sausage wends its way from the zero draft to being on sale.
So, here's a little look at how the book gets to you.
All the following steps can't happen until you have a whole corpse upon the table. The corpse–the draft–can be Frankenstein'd together from separate bits, it can be lumpy and imperfect or even downright ugly. The important thing is, it's finished, and you can set it aside in a drawer–physical or electronic–while you recover from the birthing process. A zero can take months or years to finish–unless, that is, you're on deadline. Then it takes as long as the deadline allows, always assuming no accident, act of gods, disaster, or publisher folding and absconding into the night. But you've got your zero draft and have let it marinate for a little.
Do not skip the marination, by the way. Letting a zero lie fallow for a few days to a month means that when you come back to it, you can see it with some objectivity. Not a lot, but every little bit helps. Plus, you won't be so tired of the damn thing you just want to throw it in a hole and forget about it.
Nobody can buy your book if it's in a hole, silly.
Draft, Edit, Draft
After the zero is marinated, you can slap it on the grill. This means an initial revision to get it to first-draft status, during which you fix the most egregious errors, embroider places where you only left a skeleton of dialogue or stage direction, and just generally polish the damn thing. First draft is kind of a misnomer, since you can go through a couple waves of revisions before the story is fit to be seen by agent (if you're submitting it) or editor (if you're under trad contract, indie contract, or self-publishing).
Lots of self-publishers tend to skimp on the editing stage. It's expensive, and an experienced writer can often make do. But I'm here to tell you, if at all possible, don't. A good editor is expensive, yes, but s/he will save you so much trouble down the line it's not even funny. If you expect people to fork over hard-earned cash for your wee book, it behooves you to make said wee book as good as possible. Someone who hasn't been living and breathing the book through all the zero-draft and subsequent stages will see things you don't and be able to highlight fiddles, inconsistencies, larger issues, and crutch words. Don't skimp on your editor, and take as many rounds as the story needs.
On average, I usually do a zero draft, a first draft, get an edit letter, and do a final draft. I am somewhat of an outlier here; it's more normal to have first draft, edit letter, second draft, final edit polish, third draft and line-edit, then a final draft, especially if you're trad published. And each of these takes time.
So, let's be conservative and say it took you a NaNoWriMo to get your zero draft done, a week to marinate it, and you revised to a reasonable first draft in, say, a month. When it comes to edits you're working on someone else's timeframe, and each round of edits can take a couple months for the editor to read critically and produce an edit letter, then you take a month, month-and-a-half to revise. The choke point in this process is generally that the editor isn't just your editor, they have a whole stable of clients (if freelance) or authors (if trad), and you must wait your turn. There can also be a delay even if you get the book back by edit deadline, and each round adds months to the process. This is, as I said, extremely conservative. It generally takes a longer at each step.
Final draft means final, right? Oh, my dear sweet summer child, not even close.
Hell is Copyedits
A copyeditor is a fine soul who goes through your book sentence by sentence. CEs are the infantry of Campaign Get Your Book Done. A good CE, worth their weight in gold, finds small holes, factual errors, shifting character eye colors, timeline inconsistencies, and nitpicky things that will make your book look juvenile if left unattended.
This doesn't mean looking over copyedits is easy. It's akin to someone coming into your home and wiping your kid's nose, tucking their shirt in, critiquing your housekeeping, pointing out that you should really keep up with oil changes on your car, looking a little disappointed when they find a plate in the cupboard that the dishwasher missed, and doing it all while looking perfectly coiffed and imperturbable.
You know they're just there to help, but at the same time, having someone go through your book baby so closely feels uncomfortably closed to being judged and found wanting. Now, there are bad CEs, or CEs who want to be content editors instead of CEs, but by and large, they're good people who are making your book stronger, and it's a thankless task due to its fraught nature.
Naturally, a good copyedit takes time. Then you have to go through and approve the changes or stet them, which takes a long while and possibly some alcohol or other substance of your choice in order not to go mad. If you're lucky, you can send the manuscript in Track Changes back to your editor; if you're self-publishing, you need to approve changes or stet them yourself. Some writers economize on this step by taking the book sentence-by-sentence backwards, exchanging CE services with another author, or having your computer/e-reader read it aloud while they follow along to maximize the chance of seeing/hearing an inconsistency.
Of course this is a time-consuming task. Surely you're done now, right? Oh, honey. No.
No, you are not.
Formatting and Cover
If you're trad, your publisher has a whole division of people whose job it is to make the interior and exterior of your book look as professional as possible. Let's talk about interior first.
There are some self-pub tools that make formatting ever so much easier. They range from the horrifically pricey (say, InDesign) to the buy-once-cry-once (think Vellum) to the free (like KDP or Draft2Digital's online tools) in which case you get what you pay for. In each case, they require a clean, proofed document (MSWord is standard, but you can do .RTF files with OpenOffice and the like too) and a significant time investment in learning the tool plus going through and manually checking that all parts look the way you want.
In other words, there's a reason why it takes a whole department to do interior formatting, and like anything else when it comes to putting a book out, it's worth doing well. Which brings us to the cover.
People pick up and select books based on the cover. Sure, once you have a core audience word of mouth and faithful buyers will take up some of that slack, but the cover, alas, is the thing your book will be judged on first and hardest. Publishers also have whole divisions just to work on covers, and even with all their resources, they frequently publish some ugly howlers. The poor self-pub author, lacking said resources, either has to learn graphic design and spend significant time (and possibly money) getting the tools to do a cover correctly, or they job it out to cover artists, and those don't come cheap either. (My favorite is Indigo Chick Designs.)
Formatting takes time. So does the cover. A publisher's formatting and cover design teams have several books they're working on at once, which gives them the benefit of economy-of-scale but is also a choke point; a self-publisher is in charge of either doing both or hiring it done. This can be done concurrent with editing, but it's still a significant time-and-cash drain.
As my grandfather used to say: You can have good, cheap, or fast; pick two.
You've finished edits. You have a cover. You have the interior design. Surely now you're done?
Oh, no, my darling one. Next comes proofing, and if you weren't thoroughly sick of your book before, my friend, you're about to be.
A trad publisher will send you page proofs in PDF or paper (I prefer paper, I don't see what needs to be done in PDF nearly as clearly) and also send them to a professional proofreader, whose only job is to look for formatting inconsistencies, typos, dropped words, widows-and-orphans, and the like. You, as the author, go through and are supposed to confine yourself to only looking for the same things.
Unfortunately, as it's your book-baby, restraining yourself is well-nigh impossible. Or, to be more precise, I often find it impossible and have to constantly hold myself back from revising the book in the proof stages, especially if it's in PDF form. I'm so used to revising on a glowing screen that the same mental muscles get used, and changes at the proof stage are always expensive and time-consuming.
Don't piss off the Production department if you're trad published, my friends. If you're self-publishing, the department is either you or people you're paying personally, so don't piss them off either. At some point you have to let go, because it's been months if not a couple years (or more) you've been working on this damn book.
Are you done now? HAHAHAHAHAHA.
Uploading and Final Proof
If you're trad published, your publisher has probably automated a great deal of uploading different formats and arranging for printing. It's that economy of scale again, and even though they have the resources, it's still something that takes time.
If you're self-publishing, you have to first choose how you're going to go about publishing, which requires energy and research. I normally do three separate platforms for electronic editions, in order to keep my eggs in diversified baskets and to maximize my royalty returns. Then there's print publishing, which I normally do through Lightning Source (which has been folded into Ingram now). The biggest expense at this stage is the ISBNs, which I prefer to buy separately for print editions. I'm not even going to tell you how much they cost because I might start sobbing.
There is a rule of publishing: for every book, there is generally one HUGE FUCKING PROBLEM, and that PROBLEM will inevitably rear its shaggy, ugly head as late in the process as possible in order to cause maximum grief to the author. In self-publishing, stuff tends to crop up in the upload and final proof stage–and what's a final proof, you ask?
Well, it's the physical book you order from the printer in order to page through and check that all the fiddling you did to produce a "print-ready" PDF worked and that the book looks as professional as possible.
Of course, it takes time for a printer to produce a one-off, and that time must be paid for. Why bother, I hear some of you ask? Because you don't want to find out about formatting issues when customers complain in your reviews. It's embarrassing to put out a shoddy product, and it costs you reader goodwill.
For e-editions, it means going through in an e-reader that can handle different formats–.mobi, Kobo, Nook, etc.–and checking. Vellum will generate different formats for you and it's always best to upload those instead of trusting a platform's online conversion. You don't want to spend all this effort and cash and at the end find out that some automated bullshit at Amazon made your book look like a joke.
Are you done? Are you really, really done?
Uploading also means setting a fair market price for your books, which a lot of self-pubbers struggle with. There are those who game the system, especially in Kindle Unlimited, and the race to the bottom in ebook prices has been good for nobody who wants to make a living at this. You have to decide what your time and investment in this book is worth, and stick to your guns when those who want things for free come whining and one-starring. Making that decision takes time and energy.
Then there's the little matter of sending out ARCs or review copies, mostly electronic. I used to do so for self-pub books, but finding them on torrent sites immediately afterward (in most cases, before the book even came out) put paid to that notion in a big way. Bracing yourself to tell people "no" when they want your book for free is an awful feeling, dealing with it another expenditure of energy.
Then there's marketing. Nobody knows the surefire way, it's all a crapshoot, and yet a new author can be seduced into shelling out for "expertise." Your own research and trial-and-error will teach you more, and for less, than any so-called expert…but again, it takes time and energy.
So does attending conventions, if you choose that method. Not only do conventions cost you working time and travel/food funds, but they also represent a significant investment of energy that might drain you–and your bank balance–right down to transparency.
You're done. Until next time.
Once release day hits, the agony should be over, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the book is out there in the world, hopefully meeting the readers who need it.
On the other, a self-pubber needs to stay abreast of market and platform conditions, and if one platform fails or becomes greedy (looking at you, KU) shifting your books to another or tinkering with prices eats up more time.
For those published trad, there might be marketing to deal with, the reviews your editor sends you, the constant worry that your book will sink and won't earn out, contracts finishing or in the negotiation stage, editors for different projects on holiday or attending conventions, and a million other things that will eat your time, your attention, and your stomach lining if you let it.
And you're never working on merely one thing at a time. Juggling projects in different stages of the process is always fun, if by "fun" you mean "a constant source of stress and irritation I must endure in order to pay the mortgage."
Any stage of this process can go horribly awry, or can suddenly need revisiting as later stages progress. There are those who will simply file the serial numbers off some fanfic, stick a Poser cover on it, upload it to KDP then rinse and repeat, looking for their own economy of scale. Maybe that works for them, but it's not for me. A quality product takes time, and making a book the absolute best it can be before it's let out of my desperate clutches is far better than the alternative.
A book takes time, my friends. There's a lot of work you don't see between the pasture and the sausage. And that's why Steelflower in Snow is not out quite yet.
You'll be the first to know when it is.