How Can Writers Know if Their Work is Ready for E-Publication?

E-publishing is growing in popularity. With the ease and low cost of getting a book into digital format and the lure of retaining the larger share of profits, e-publishing (as a self-publishing option) is a tempting choice for many writers.

Currently, anyone, anywhere, with any type of printed word can take a shot at e-publishing. And while I’m all for freedom of expression, and artistic license, and doing what’s right for you, and all that good stuff, sometimes I can’t help wondering if maybe we’re taking self-publishing freedom a bit too far.

Should we as writers develop a few general standards by which we measure our readiness for e-publication? In other words, how can we know if our work is ready for any publication, particularly e-pub when we don’t have some of the checks and balances that traditional publication provides?

Recently, fiction-writing guru James Scott Bell decided to venture into e-publishing. He’s the author of the widely popular Writer’s Digest books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and Art of War for Writers. His newest writing book, Writing Fiction For All You’re Worth, just released. And wouldn’t you know it, he published it himself in e-book format. And he also recently self-published his e-book, Watch Your Back, a collection of suspense stories.

Because I respect Jim for his writing wisdom, and because I was curious about his venture into e-publishing, I asked him a couple questions. (For more of Jim's thoughts see this post: The Eilser Sanction.)

Me: If you were just starting out as a relatively unknown debut author, would you try e-pub? Why or why not?

JSB: First of all, I would not rush into anything, be it e-publishing or querying agents. I would first do everything I knew to make sure I'd written the best book possible. Most of the time that is not going to be a first novel. You have to become a real writer, being able to do more than one book, and making each book better than the last. Learning to write requires an apprenticeship of years, and just because you CAN put something out as an e-book doesn't mean you SHOULD.

The traditional route has the advantage of telling you a lot about your writing. It teaches you discipline and professionalism and how to create works that are marketable. All good.

Getting a good agent to be your partner is also a major plus in a writing career.

So, no, I wouldn't rush to e-publish. I'd spend time writing, going to some conferences, being in a critique group, and above all those things, learning to write.

Me: Without the checks and balances that traditional publication provides, what are some ways writers can know if their work is ready for e-publication?

JSB: That is indeed one of the good things about the traditional route. But then again, there ARE some very good novels that should be published but aren't.

How to tell if yours is one?

One gauge is a group of beta readers. In my early years I used the managers of an indie bookstore I loved (sadly, gone the way of so many other stores) and friends who were readers (not necessarily writers). I'd give out 5 manuscripts minimum. If I got back some of the same comments, I'd know that aspect would need work.

If I was just starting out, I'd do it this way. I'd first do back cover copy to see if my idea gripped people. I'd have some people over for dinner and pitch them the story, then sign them up for Amway. On second thought, maybe just pitch the story. See if you get an "Oooh" factor. You could do that with a few ideas, in fact.

The reason for this is you can have a nicely written but low concept or low stakes novel. And a book needs concept and/or stakes to be worth doing.

Now write it. Then test it. Then pay for a good edit.

Is your book ready now? Remember William Goldman's axiom about Hollywood: No one knows anything. So, in the end, you make the know as much or more about it than anybody else.

My summary:

We need to develop personal standards for our own work and set them high. Remember most writers are blind to their own faults. So if we’re thinking about venturing into e-publication on our own we must have beta readers, critique partners, and professional editors. In other words, we need trusted, critical feedback from many sources.

After having been through rigorous traditional in-house editing process for my books, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting qualified and objective feedback. My books have numerous (a dozen or more) sets of eyes read and comb through them before they hit the shelves. We should expect no less from ourselves with e-publication.

By the way, if you want help in taking your writing craft to the next level, I strongly suggest picking up one of Jim’s books. In fact, his e-book WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU'RE WORTH is available for $2.99 on Amazon. I bought my copy last week and love it!

So, what do you think? How can writers set high standards for themselves no matter what publishing route they choose? Have you set standards for yourself? If so, what are they?


  1. Agree with the points made here. Sad thing is, a lot of consumers are willing to risk 99 cents on self-pubbed stuff, because if it's not ready, they don't feel like they've wasted much of anything.

    Of course, they won't be buying more of that author, but still. It's an expectation thing. Consumers aren't expecting a whole lot for a buck. As I said in response to your post form yesterday, Jody, good stories are worth more than a dollar. Repeating myself here, but I'll keep doing it because I don't hear others saying it. Poorly done, cheaply priced books do nothing, other than drag down the value of the stories we write. So, it not only behooves writers to be patient and do what's needed to put out the best possible product, it's our responsibility to do so in order to keep the value of our written words.

  2. I've started reading Mr. Bell's latest e-book, and I love it.

    I think writers "can" set high enough standards to publish however they want, but most don't. Let's face it, we are in an instant gratification world right now. Too often, people rush into their latest dream ventures without giving it the proper time and analysis.

    I'm enjoying following Mr. Bell's journey into e-publishing. I hope his experience will teach others that it takes years of studying and perfecting the craft before a writer is ready to jump into the do-it-yourself world.

    Thanks for all this great information, Jody.

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  4. Hi Jim and Heather,
    You've both brought up GREAT points. Jim, I loved your analogy yesterday of the dollar store and comparing that to cheaply produced books. We as writers don't want to earn the reputation of having cheap but poor-quality books. In order to prevent that we really do need to force ourselves to abide by the highest standards if we e-publish. (I know I would, if I ever take the plunge.)

    And Heather, I think that we are an impatient culture. Mr. Bell is a multi-published author with numerous non-fiction and fiction paper books in print. He's learned his stuff and now is giving e-publishing a chance. I think we would be wise to follow his example of learning and growing first--and not rush into anything.

  5. Jody, I totally agree with your comments. I think the key point that "most writers are blind to their own faults" is the most difficult thing for all of us to work through. We love our own words, and it's very difficult to see them apart from our own perspective. Even when do have enough courage to share our writing with others for their opinions--if we only choose those who personally care about our feelings, we may not get the feedback we need to improve our writing. Thank you for your valuable insights.

  6. Jody, thanks for having me on today's blog. It's one of my faves for new writers because of your generosity and great content.

    Thanks, Heather, for the kind word about my books.

    I'd like to add to what JD said here, and in his previous comment. I generally agree. The price often reflects the value, or lack thereof. However, I do think there's a place for the 99¢ price point on occasion. A monthly "special" perhaps. Or as an inducement to purchase the first book in a series.

    That, in fact, is what I intend to do later this year, with a six book series.

  7. Great blog!!! And very hot topic. I posted a couple of weeks ago about how e-publishing isn't the answer if you're just doing it because you're impatient with the process. I think the key is in the rejection letters you're getting. If the problem is that your particular book just isn't right for the current publishing market, but you're getting good feedback on the book itself, e-publishing may be the path for you.

    But, as my agent is always pointing out, e-publishing and/or self-publishing CAN hurt you if you want to eventually transition to traditional publishing. Publishers look at your numbers...they have access to all that information. If your previous books had low sales records (as books with small publishers and e-publishers too often do) they'll look at that as a liability. So I would urge aspiring authors to really consider if this is the path they want to take. It's all about looking at your career, long-term, and asking yourself what YOU want. Only you can answer that.

  8. As I stated in my comment yesterday, epublishing is not the same as self publishing.

    Self published authors can epublish, but not every epublished author is self published. I have contracts with a primarily digital house...but I went the traditional route, meaning I still submitted and still went through extensive editing before my books were made available for sale.

    Seems many writers today think epublished authors are self published and they are two very different things.

  9. Great point, Jim about using the price as a "special." I know my publisher does that. In fact, I think they're planning to offer the e-book for The Preacher's Bride at a discount around the release of my next book in September.

    And Stephanie Faris, love your thoughts too. Previous sales CAN really make a difference in whether a publisher will take on a new client. Recently had that conversation with an author who's struggling to get a deal on a current book because of low sales on a previous one.

  10. Jody,
    You've asked the exact question so many blogs on ebooks and self publishing miss. It's great to see discussions of why the experienced and successful (Konrath, Eisler) do it, but this exchange has a lot more value to me, and any input from James is good input.

    "Pay for a good edit" is great advice. Any suggestions (or planned posts) on finding and working with an independent editor? When the author becomes the publisher, we're playing both sides of the table in a relationship with an editor. How does that change how authors behave? How does that change how editors, who are now beholden to authors-as-publishers, behave?


  11. Hi Jody, you know I always love your posts and think they're excellent, but this one may need clarification???
    E-pubbing can have the same checks and balances as Traditional. It depends on the publisher. Some e-pubs are vanity publishers. Some appear to be traditional but have very little marketing clout. Some e-pubs are tradional publishers in every sense of the word, from offering an advance to the use of editors and cover artists.
    The post sounds more like it's referring to self-publishing? But self-publishing can also be in print format, just like many e-publishers will use POD technology to create print books after a novel's debut as an e-book.
    So did Bell self-publish his book? I guess that's where I'm confused. I'll check back later or maybe go take a look at his book.

    Either way, the advice here can really go for any kind of publishing, in my opinion. :-) It's definitely important to be ready.

  12. Jody and James:
    Thank you so much for this post. I'm currently working on my second book, and it will be my first attempt to become published. I know it's a good story, and my writing has improved, but I also know I need a lot of guidance. I already have a fantastic and qualified editor as well as a couple of pre-readers in my target demographic, but while the idea of getting rejection after rejections from agents and/or publishers stings, I can't help but believe there is some value in those, especially for a fledging author.

    If an agent is willing to give feedback as to WHY they don't want the book, or what's not working, that's invaluable. While my writing has improved substantially in the last two years, I know I've still got much room for improvement. That's why I believe I will eventually query traditional, even if I go the e-publishing route.

    As Stephanie said, you still have to submit and be edited, and those things are invaluable.

    Great post!

  13. Jessica,
    Sorry about the confusion. I went back and added a couple of things that I hope will clarify the post. Today, I'm talking about e-publishing as ONE self-publishing option. There are many authors (like Steph and myself) that are traditionally published but also have e-books (or only have e-books). In other words our publishers have put our e-books out there versus us doing it ourself.

    Mr. Bell has self-published through e-publishing his two latest books. And that option is becoming quite popular. THAT's primarily what we're talking about today. How can a write know if they're ready to self-publish with an e-book?

  14. Rich,

    You asked some excellent questions about editors and the changing climate of editor/author relationships. I think that there should be a growing market of editors out there offering their services to writers who want to e-pub. Good editors SHOULD start promoting themselves and their services! But as I said, my traditionally published books have come under the intense magnifying glass of MANY editors while going down the publication pipeline. So, I'm not sure that ONE editor's opinions and thougths are enough.

  15. Yes, I am talking about publishing E books myself. The reason being that one takes in the entirety of royalty income that way. For me, all the up front costs are on a fee basis.

    Unfortunately, I'm going to be on the road a good part of the day, so won't get to comment as much as I'd like. I'll try to catch up later.

  16. Jody, thanks so much for the clarification! I get what you're talking about now, even though I think your points (and Bell's) are still relevant for all forms of publishing.

  17. Thanks for posting this interview, Jody! Valuable information here. Glad to see the ideas James shares are very similar to those I've employed (Not necessarily for e-pub, but for traditional pub as well: group of beta readers,critique group, etc.)

    Have a wonderful week. God bless!

  18. THANK YOU Jessica!!! And Jody for making some changes to your post!!!!

  19. Everybody is talking about e-publishing lately--more often than even a couple of months ago. Interesting. Will stay tuned.

  20. Once again, brilliant post. Great way to dive in and get at the core. It really is all about the product, the end result. The mediums be it self-pub or trad-pub it's all about producing the best possible piece. Even for self-pub there's no reason to bypass the traditional steps of edits, revisions and re-writes. If you want to succeed you need to have the best foot forward regardless of medium.

  21. I agree with you there, James. Incentive pricing is another ball game. It's not the standard. Putting your debut out there for 99 cents for the first 30 days, or offering the first book for a buck if you buy the second. I can see things like this. Specials have a different mindset to them. People don't equate quality and price at this point. It's all about getting a deal on something that is worth more. As long as we don't succumb to the dollar standard, I'm fine with all kinds of incentives to help boost sales.

  22. Really good questions--and answers. I think a lot of writers are rushing off to e-publication before their writing is ready (yes, like their very first novel). If a writer decides to do it, he/she needs definitely to do the homework, get critique feedback, know his/her stuff!

  23. Very timely advice for me since I am looking into e-publishing. Since I write in a genre that is most often printed by small presses, I don't see the harm in trying self-epublishing. That being said, professional editing will be a must for me when the time comes. I don't want to be remembered for typos and bad grammar!

  24. I don't think there is too much "freedom" for authors interested in publishing their books. People are offering their wares to the public and people can either buy or ignore them.

    The fear of the unknown plays a huge role in these types of questions (I'm not accusing Jody Hedlund of this). I think there is a fear of a heavy influx of material that will make it difficult for already established writers to maintain their 'dominance.'

    There is the fear of having to compete. Yes, there will be terrible writers but there will also be good, very good and brilliant writers who will offer their work just as cheaply as the bad ones. It is natural to want to maintain one's position in the hierarchy but we must all evolve or perish.

    I also ask who am I to drop a bomb on someone else's dreams of wanting to self-publish (ebooks) or to get an idea out or to share what they feel needs to be shared? Why should I be allowed to sit on a perch and claim that since I have a decade of experience that others must also wait years before they can publish?

    The writing industry is just like every other "industry" that the public has ready access to and that can be very lucrative. People will flood to it. You see it in sports, academics and entertainment. Just like any other field if you want to stay in it you need to go out and compete, you need to win, you need to rack up victories, you have to be able to do what no one else can do or do something better than anyone else.
    Yes, some people are lucky and there will be people who you feel will not deserve it. But to try and say that someone doesn't belong or isn't ready is a critic's role. For all intents and purposes we are writing athletes and as an 'athlete' I am unwilling to critique someone else's game.

    I'd rather face them on the court.

  25. Jody, you turned me on to Bell's books, and now I'm like an obsessed groupie. I love PLOT & STRUCTURE and REVISION & SELF EDITING. His books are written in a down to earth manner that I appreciate.

    Anyway, on to the subject: I wouldn't trust myself to e-publish a book. I've caught typos that I'd glazed over numerous times. I know it sometimes happens in traditionally published books also, but I can't imagine errors in work that I put out there myself. *shudder*

  26. Jody, I'm impressed how you continue to come up with interesting and compelling blog posts day after day. Keep up the good work!

  27. Jody and James, thanks so much for sharing this info. You are two of my favorite authors. :) I will be checking this book out!

  28. Once again, I've really appreciated the diversity of opinions! I learn so much from all of your thoughts. So thank you!

    And Jennifer and Karen thank you for your very sweet words! I appreciate the encouragement! :-)

  29. I completely agree with focusing on writing and getting critiques. I was just about ready to self-publish when I decided to wait. I started working with an English Teacher on my writing and it has changed dramatically. I'm going through my manuscript I thought was complete and changing almost every sentence.

    I had a lot of positive feedback from non-writers so I think it's important to also get professional feedback.

    Plus working on building a platform is key as well. My blogs are now drawing attention and I'm getting requests to be a guest on other sites and a radio station.

    Waiting and perfecting our book and our platform is key. I'm so happy I didn't rush into self-publishing.

    Thanks for the post. Your blogs are always a blessing:)

  30. This is such an important subject. "Most writers are blind to their own mistakes" is so true.

    The problem with eBook's argument above is that everybody's a terrible writer in the beginning. Good writers are trained, not born. If you sell your books before their time, you will be pegged as a terrible writer forever.

    This is a great post.

  31. Amanda,
    Great to hear from you! Glad to hear that you're putting the work into editing and not rushing into it. That's exactly what I'd do too, in your situation.

    And Anne,
    I think your statement about being branded as a terrible writer can happen with traditional publication too! That's why it behooves all of us to do the very very best we can to write excellent and well crafted stories no matter what route of publication we go. :-)

  32. Talking self-publishing of ebooks, epublishing is a gamble even when the book is well-written because all of the promotional responsibility is on the writer. There will be serious writers dedicated to craft and others who want to make a buck. Both may earn money. I don't have a problem with that. The differentiating factors will be marketing and quality. Word of mouth is still the best thing going. If an author puts out junk, word will get around. Think of all the one-hit musical artists. There will be one-hit authors. The market will get rid of them.

  33. Very informative, thanks for sharing:)

  34. My solution to ensuring my writing is as decent as possible: I hired an indie editor recently, who will be editing my work prior to release. I've epublished 2 novels already. They were well-received, but I felt I still had a lot to learn. I've never found a decent critique group, and the contest circuit didn't do much either!! So I went out on my own. I wrote a blog post about what I call going guerrilla and what I learned that made me go the indie route with epublishing. Good luck to you! Lizzy Ford

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