The Mistake So Many Self-Published Authors Make

I sat in the Opium Den this morning, studying the revision letter my editor sent me about my twenty-first novel,  The Good Father, which will be published next spring.  As usual, my editor had a bunch of suggestions and I could see that she was right on target on every point except one (and she might turn out to be right about that one, too). I felt so fortunate that I have her skilled, objective eye to look at my work. Even though she loved the book, she saw ways to make it better. My latest release, The Midwife’s Confession, is a perfect example of how her input improved a story and I’ve sung her praises on this blog before.

But this post isn’t about my editor. It’s about the lack of editing of so many of the novels being self published today. I’m not talking about those out-of-print backlist books many published authors are making available as e-books, much to the joy of their readers. I’ve published my backlist in ebook format myself. These books were well edited when they were first released and they’re ready for their return to prime time. But I worry that the ease of self publishing is seducing writers into publishing books before they’re ready. 

I thought my first novel, Private Relations, was perfect when I finished  it. I’d worked on it for years. I’d polished every word and solicited the feedback of several friends, which I took to heart as I wrote draft after draft.  I then tried to find a publisher and spent a miserable year reading rejection letters—and  wow, did that book deserve to be rejected! Even though I thought it was perfect, it was actually a mess in great need of an editor. The grammar and punctuation weren’t my problem; it was my structure and pacing that were in desperate need of help. Fortunately, I found an agent with editorial skills and she helped me whip it into good enough shape to sell. But if I’d written that book in 2010 and spent a year getting rejected, I am one hundred percent certain I would have given up on traditional publishing and self published the book myself, adding one more mess of a book to the other unedited books that are pouring into the market. I doubt it would have found an audience, except among creative writing teachers looking for examples of How Not to Write a Novel.

All this is to say, if you’re writing a book you plan to self publish, please hire a freelance editor to help you. Be open to his or her suggestions and take your time as you revise. This isn’t a race. You want your name attached to something wonderful, right? Give your work the best chance possible to find its readers and leave them begging for more.   


  1. Cindy on July 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I did a self published book that was really for my granddaughter. I had our english teacher edit it and if I never sell one more than the three I sold, I am content that I created a book that my granddaughter will cherish for the rest of her life, hopefully. Not all self publishing is a bad thing. 🙂
    I could never in a million years write a book like you, Diane, but a children’s book I thought I could handle. I might be wrong, but that’s ok. It made my granddaughter happy.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on July 10, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Cindy, I agree with you completely. If the book is for family or friends, who cares how well it’s edited? But for the authors hoping to write something that will have broad appeal to an audience of strangers…well, it better be the best it can be!

  3. Diane Gloria Cooke on July 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I think you may be absolutely correct. I am praying for a good editor, truth be told.

    I heard an interview of Shirley MacClaine and was very impressed with her long standing relationship that has been invaluable for her writing career, which is nearly as impressive as yours is 🙂

  4. Diane Gloria Cooke on July 10, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    well… we are both Diane’s afterall… hence when it said I did not know my own last name…

    lol, vanity thy name is woman, how selfish of me to only think it was asking about MY last name

  5. Diane Chamberlain on July 10, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Diane, lol! I can understand how that anti-spam question can be confusing for another Diane.

  6. Marlene Rosol on July 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I met a self-published author in Borders a few years ago. She was sitting at a table autographing copies of her book that she was selling. She seemed like a delightful woman and after chatting with her for a few minutes I bought her book. When I brought it home and started reading it, I was immediately struck by the lack of structure. Her punctuation and grammar were awful, and I was really embarrassed for her. I had only read one or two chapters, but I couldn’t continue. I grew up reading classics — well-written and edited books — and as much as I admired this woman for taking a stab at writing, I think she should have gone a few steps farther and gotten professional help to polish things up.

  7. Diane Chamberlain on July 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Marlene, that breaks my heart. She may have had a wonderful story to tell and may even have been a competent writer, but putting a novel together is so complex. It’s rare that one person can pull it off alone and do it well. Even most of the published authors I know who have decided to self publish their new work still hire editors to help them. When you write a story, your love for that story can blind you to the problems.

  8. Theresa Milstein on July 10, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    I just left a comment on a post about the future of publishing that may have been longer than the actual post. My comment was about the frustration I’ve been feeling about the flood of mediocre self-published books I come across.

    Your post says it better than I did.

    There are too many people too excited about this, and most of them are of the not-yet-published variety. I’ve written six manuscripts. The first three were a mess, but I didn’t know it until later. I am thrilled I didn’t self-publish them because I would’ve tarnished my reputation. Instead I’ve been working hard, and it’s paid off. Now I’m getting short stories published. I’ll keep trying the traditional way to land an agent and sell a book.

  9. Diane Chamberlain on July 10, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Good for you, Theresa. You sound like a true professional who understands the time and effort it takes to get it right.

  10. Cindy Mathes on July 11, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Diane, I remember a bit of advice you have given to writer’s wanting to be published. You said that you had read so many good stories that were terribly written. That a writer should take a class in composition. This is just another extension of that advice. A good editor will not let you get away with that kind of writing. Sort of like that teacher that is a stickler for Punctuation and Grammar. I need all the advice and help that you can stand to throw at us…Thanks for being so helpful.

  11. Sheree Gillcrist on July 11, 2011 at 5:27 am

    I so agree Diane about the need for the use of an editor who can point out where a writer goes off track with point of view and the relevance to a great novel of showing not telling. I was asked to edit my best friend’s first book. Just have a look:} Friendship aside, it would have been very hard to give an unbiased opinion and maintain our friendship:}. The book was good but needed a lot of revision. The editor was thorough to say the least and my friend was devastated. I explained that there is a great difference between criticism and critique( one to undermine, one to improve) After the initial shock wore off , the real work began and after a few days and months of instituting the changes the editor suggested, my friend could not only see the merits of the editors wisdom but also that the book was taking shape in a way that she had never dreamed possible. I think the hardest part was being told that whole segments of the book could be deleted without affecting the outcome of the book. I journeyed with her through the process and gained valuable insight as well. A poorly edited book I fly through not committing to the written word. A well edited book always , always remains with me. That’s why I read all of yours.

  12. Diane Chamberlain on July 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Sheree, I know how hard that must have been for your friend to hear. In that first book of mine, I had to get rid of five characters, an enormous subplot I loved, and focus on the romance between two of the characters, which had only been a side story. But it was the right advice…just so painful to hear!

  13. allena tapia on July 11, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    And be sure to hire your freelance editor via the Editorial Freelancers Association 🙂

  14. Diane Chamberlain on July 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing that resource, Allena. i would just add to be sure the editor has experience with novel-length fiction. Short stories and nonfiction are so different.

  15. Sher Laughlin on July 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Just so interesting, learning about the business end of fiction writing. While it seems there is a stiff barrier to entry into this profession, we can appreciate the quality control aspect.

    I also appreciated Theresa’s point about the risk of an author tarnishing her reputation by self-publishing unfinished work. Good Point.

  16. Stephen Graff on September 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Diane: I’m sure you’re right. I’m a self-published author, and for some reason, I decided to go the self-publishing route. I believe that I have a well-written novel, but I’m also pretty sure that I’ll end up taking it off the market and hiring an editor (or go back to the traditional route of trying to find an agent). I knew that that was the correct course of action when I started, but I fell into the lure of having a book available for sale. Thanks for your sound advice which I’m bound to eventually follow.

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