Here’s a handy quiz to help you figure that out.
First, allow me to set the scene (fiction-writing joke).
How books get into readers’ hands
In a perfect world, our books would spring fully formed from our minds into the bookstores and online emporiums.
In the actual world, our books spring in dribbles or fountains or partial chapters to a computer. Eventually, those ideas reach manuscript form and are ready to become a book.
That’s where the real work starts.
Ha ha! Kidding. Writing a book is the real work!
YET so is the rest of the road to publication.
What are your publishing options?
Your options are traditional or self-publishing. There’s also middle road (sort of), called hybrid presses. I consider these a form of self-publishing, because the writer pays for services. The hybrid press usually earns money not primarily from book sales, but from selling its services to authors.
Each publishing option has pros and cons. These include creative control, cost, learning curve, marketing and distribution, eligibility for prizes, and time commitments.
If you want or need to get published traditionally, your manuscript goes to agents or direct to publishers. With fiction, this requires research, a query package, and balls of steel. It helps tremendously if you know people in publishing, especially ones who publish your type of book.
With nonfiction, the manuscript doesn’t even need to be fully written, though it does need to be fully conceived. The manuscript in that case is a book proposal, which goes out to agents or publishers. (Here’s a fantastic resource from publishing guru Jane Friedman on how to write a book proposal.)
If you want or need to self-publish, you’re the publisher. So you do what the publisher does. The manuscript gets edited. It gets a cover design. Then it’s formatted for e-book and print. Ideally, it is proofread to catch any remaining errors. Once it’s up to snuff, it’s uploaded to the distribution platform of your choice (or printed the old-fashioned way). And then it’s for sale! (I won’t get into the marketing here, but that’s a factor in either publishing scenario.)
Sounds simple, right? Simple, but not EASY.
Okay, also not that simple.
Your publishing pathway affects every decision you make
While you’re writing the first draft of your book (or book proposal), it’s time to consider your publishing goals.
If your goal is traditional publishing:
If you’re submitting to agents or directly to smaller presses, the big-picture elements must be very strong. Content, structure, flow, and writing style are your main concerns. Your manuscript should also be fairly polished, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Publishers will have the MS copyedited at no cost to you. (Although I have heard of very small presses who ask their authors to edit each other’s work!)
If your goal is self-publishing:
Be prepared to run a small business. You can download a fairly comprehensive free guide from Ingram Spark here.
If you’re unsure whether to self-publish or go the traditional publishing route:
While writing a book, many writers aren’t sure which pathway to publication they’ll take. In that situation, my advice is to focus on the book itself and start studying the publishing industry on the side. By the time you’ve got a good draft, you’ll be a lot more informed and ready to make a decision.
Other factors related to readiness for publishing
Knowing your publishing goals is important, but it’s not the only factor in deciding whether your book is ready to publish. Your skill level as a writer and the condition of your manuscript are key.
Your reasons for writing the book are also important. If it’s a family history that you don’t expect to sell to anyone beyond your own group of relatives, you might not have the same concerns as someone who hopes to sell their book to complete strangers, or someone who wants to win (say) The Booker Prize.
The quiz that follows is for writers who hope that their book will be bought and read by people they’ve never met.
Is your manuscript ready? A quiz:
1: Is the manuscript complete?
YES: Move to next question.
NO: For nonfiction: You don’t need a complete MS! Write a book proposal first.
For fiction: Examine why it’s incomplete. Are you out of ideas? Do you feel stuck? Or maybe you know something is wrong and can’t write forward–but you don’t know what that something is.
In any of these cases, the MS is clearly not ready for publishing.
There are a few ways to address the situation:
- take writing classes and use your MS as the project for every class
- get beta readers to help you identify what’s wrong
- join a writing group to help you write
- enroll in a one-year program like The Ultimate Novel Writing Course from Jericho Writers (4,950 GBP), The Book Incubator from Mary Adkins (10,000 USD), or The Writer’s Studio from Simon Fraser University (5,500 CAD)
- complete an MFA degree (2-3 years, 25,000-70,000 USD) and have your MS as your thesis
- This is getting intensive and expensive, so we’ll stop here.
Another option is to hire a book coach or developmental editor. In this scenario, you pay by the project or by the hour.
If you’re considering it, I recommend that you read my book, Fiction Editing: A Writer’s Roadmap.I wrote it for writers who don’t want to waste their time or money.
Honestly, spending less than 10 USD now will save you hours and $$$. If you can’t afford it, ask your librarian to order it.
2: Have you self-edited (revised) it?
YES: Move to next question.
NO: Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, take the time to self-edit first.
3: Has anyone else read it?
YES: Move to next question.
NO: Get feedback from at least two beta readers. Preferably these won’t be friends or family, since your loved ones are invested in your success. You can find beta readers in online writing groups. Or you can put a note up at the library or grocery store, or ask a friend of a friend.
Look for impartial readers of your genre. Bribe them with gifts or money. Reading a draft manuscript when you’re used to reading published books can be a shock. It’s not unusual for beta readers to give up without finishing.
4: If you’ve gotten feedback, have you acted on it?
YES: Move to next question.
NO: Look for common threads in the feedback.
If all your readers say something is a problem (confusing, illogical, etc.), take a serious look.
Then make a list of the revision priorities and start working your way through the next draft.
5: Have you taken the manuscript as far as you can on your own?
YES: Move to next question.
NO: Keep revising until you hit a dead end or can’t take it any more.
6: Are you sure it’s ready to publish?
YES: If you’re publishing traditionally, start querying agents and publishers.
If you’re self-publishing, line up any remaining subtrades you need and start working your way through the steps to publishing your book.
NO: Whether you’re publishing traditionally or doing it yourself, identify what aspect of the manuscript isn’t ready for publishing.
If it’s fiction and you’re not sure your story works, or whether it hits the genre marks readers expect, or you don’t know what genre / category it occupies (this matters for marketing), or you aren’t sure about aspects of structure, plot, characterization, and so on…you can get a big-picture evaluation and reading report from a developmental editor. This applies regardless of your publishing route.
Perhaps you’re sure your story works but your prose is clunky or confusing. In that case, you could get a line editor to help refine your style while keeping your voice.
If you’re publishing fiction traditionally, that’s all you need, aside from a strong query (see below).
If it’s nonfiction and you’re publishing traditionally, you’ll have a book proposal rather than a complete MS.
You will need a tight overview with a strong hook. You’ll need a good analysis of comp titles.
Your chapter outline and table of contents should be solid. Your sample chapters must be as compelling, polished, and professional as possible.
Think about how to frame your bio and how you can contribute to the book’s marketing.
If some of these pieces aren’t yet in place, get back into the book proposal and keep working it until the entire document is clear, cohesive, and compelling.
If you’re self-publishing (fiction or nonfiction) and you’re not sure your manuscript is as error-free as humanly possible, you will need a copyedit.
Also if you’re self-publishing, you might need to get permissions. This is the case if you have quotations from other books, from songs, etc. Getting permissions involves going to the relevant publisher’s website, downloading their forms, and submitting the request with your payment.
7: If you will be self-publishing, have you looked after quality control?
YES: Congratulations. End of Quiz!
NO: Do what you need to do. Quality control is completely in your hands.
The content of your book should be as compelling as possible.
The writing should be as strong and professional as you can make it.
Your prose should also be correct in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (Readers will negatively review books that are full of errors, and bad reviews can kill your book.)
You’ll need permission to quote anything you didn’t write yourself, unless it falls under fair use guidelines in the US or fair dealing in Canada and in Australia and in the UK.
Your book’s interior layout and cover should accord with professional standards.
You should have an ISBN and know the book’s genre and category.
You should be able to write its metadata and create a compelling product description. (Once you’re the publisher, the book is a product.)
In other words, you’ll need to either learn or subcontract all the trades that go into publishing a quality book.
8: If you seek traditional publishing and you’re sure your MS is ready, have you queried agents?
Querying agents and publishers is free. Right now, it’s the only way to verify whether your novel or book proposal is ready for traditional publishing.
Querying is also the most time-consuming and possibly the most frustrating way to test your manuscript’s readiness.
NO: Learn how to write a query letter. Research agents and publishers. Create a submission list. Then start querying. End of Quiz!
YES: If you have already queried but aren’t getting requests to read the full MS, consider these points:
- You might be querying the wrong agents
- Or there might be a problem with your manuscript’s basic premise
- Your query letter might be weak
- Or your execution of the book proposal (for nonfiction) might be lacking
A “request for full MS” that ends in a rejection from the agent means that they wanted to read your work, but don’t think they can sell your MS to a publishing house.
If you’re very lucky, they might make a suggestion, but usually it’s something more amorphous, like “didn’t fall in love with it.”
What can you do?
You might wonder, why not just query agents while you work on your stuff?
Because, to use a big fat cliche, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Querying a MS before it meets (or comes very close to) traditional publishing standards will waste that agent for that MS.
If they don’t think they can sell it as is, they could ask you to revise and resubmit. Or they might just file it under ‘no.’ This is because most publishers no longer take on manuscripts that need a lot of work. Not unless they’re by someone famous or the manuscript is so compelling that they can’t turn it down.
Being famous is rare. So is having a manuscript so much better than everyone else’s that an agent or publisher will take it on when it needs major work.
There are a few things you can do. The quickest is to get professional editorial feedback. This will tell you what’s stopping agents and publishers from wanting your manuscript.
It can be worth the money, if you find an editor who’s a good fit and who offers the service you need. (Full disclosure: I’m a book editor.)
If you’ve already queried with poor results, ask the editor to evaluate your query letter as well as your manuscript. I recently evaluated a manuscript that had been to over 100 agents and got zero “requests for full.”
The manuscript had a structural / plot weakness, yes. But the query letter was the real barrier. The query didn’t do what queries should do. This meant that no matter how good the manuscript might be, it would never be read. (No disrespect to the writer–queries are a unique form of writing, and writing a good one takes some study.)
It might not be the query letter, just so you know. It could be the wrong agents, or it could be that your book isn’t appealing to publishers for purely commercial reasons that you’ll never know. Publishing is expensive, and everyone in it would rather put their money and jobs behind the “sure things.” (Caveat: nobody knows what the sure things will be until they happen.)
Whatever you do, don’t take it personally.
An alternative to paid editorial help is to find a critique partner. You give feedback on their MS, they do the same for you. This can take some time, first to find the right person, then to swap manuscripts.
Your critique partner should have a strong reading sensibility. They should know your book’s category or genre. Ideally, they should be able to help you at least identify the biggest issues, so you can start solving them. If you’re very lucky, they’ll have useful suggestions for revision as well.
This brings us to the end of the quiz. I hope it’s given you an idea of whether your manuscript is ready for publication.
Being ready for publishing is not the end goal
Getting your manuscript into publishable shape is just a stop along the road.
The end goal is actually getting the book into readers’ hands.
But you can’t get there without first making the manuscript ready to publish.
Holy smokes, that looks like a lot of work. Is it worth it?
Absolutely! Writing a book is a life-changing challenge.
I wish you good luck and good preparation on the road to publication.