Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to Know a Book is Good Enough to Publish on Kindle

There is quite a lot of interest in publishing books on various e-book platforms, mainly the Kindle.  I'm sure there is a mad dash from unpublished writers hoping to see their book in e-print since no one stands in the way.  No editor, no agent, no publishing house.  In many ways this is a very fine thing.  Today it is more difficult to find your way into print by the major publishers than it has ever been.  And it was always difficult.  Always.  I believe in the year my first novel was published, 1984, there were something like only 286 first novels published that year.  I imagine there were thousands upon thousands of submissions for those 286 slots.  I felt very lucky.

I don't know what the number is today compared to the number of submissions, but suffice it to say becoming a published novelist never has been and is not now easy.  Nothing easy about it.

Which brings us back to publishing in e-book form.  Now that's relatively easy.  There is one thing all writers must keep in mind--your book is not only competing  with other books by first novelists.  It is competing with many backlists and new works by established, proven authors.  That's what happens when you submit a manuscript to print publishers, too.  If your work isn't at least as good as the worst of the oft-published writer then your work has no chance whatsoever.  And there are very few agents who will handle a book that is only as good as someone else's worst.  And precious few editors who will buy a book of that sort.  Yet anyone, with any book, can format it and put it up on Kindle. 

Here's why it shouldn't be done.

I read a blog regarding this topic recently and the author said rule number one when wishing to publish on  Kindle was to have a GOOD book to publish.  We cannot use lazy thinking or magical thinking, and say that "good," like "beautiful," is only in the eye of the beholder.  It is not.  There are standards that tell us what is good.  How do you know your book is good enough to publish?  First of all you must be a reader before you are a writer.  A voracious reader.   In this way you acquire the ability to know good from bad.  Then you have to take off the blinders.  You have to stand back far enough from your ego to decide if what you have written is at least as good as the worst of the published novels you have been reading.  This takes clear thinking, putting aside of ego, and a willingness to be honest with oneself. 

When my first novel was finished I did this right away.  I read over the completed work.  I knew right away it wasn't up to par.  It wasn't good.  I had steeped myself in novels all of my reading life and reading my own first novel I knew it was poppycock and poodlypoop.  It just wasn't worthy.

It was not an easy truth to face, but I was serious about my career and I didn't want to embarrass myself.  I put the manuscript away and began again.

Before, during, and after writing the second novel, I kept reading the very best books in the field--psychological suspense--that I could find.  I'd already spent years reading the masterpieces of fiction, both novel and short story.  By the time I began writing my own books, I concentrated on reading the kind of books I knew I wanted to write.

The second book was not so bad, I'd gotten out all the autobiographical junk that had made my first novel attempt so bad.  But the second novel wasn't quite good enough either.  It did get an agent, but it couldn't be sold and was rejected a few times.  I withdrew it and put it away.  (Later on this book was revised and sold.) 

Neither of these first attempts, the second without major revision as it turned out years later, was good enough to sell to a print publisher.  If I were a new novelist today and wanted to sidestep print publishing in favor of e-book publishing, I would do the same thing I did back then.  I'd shelve those two first books I wrote.

You have to be strong enough, brave enough, objective enough to look at your own completed work and decide whether to publish it or not.  Is it really as good as works you have seen in print?  Does it measure up to books you have read and liked?  It doesn't matter if your Aunt June or your Cousin Joe or your Grandma loves your book.  If doesn't matter if your husband, wife, best friend loves it.  You have to decide for yourself if what you are publishing on Kindle is the right thing to do.   If you begin badly, you could end up badly, and no one wants that to happen.  If people read your work and hate it, you won't see them back for seconds.  If the reviews are horrible, that won't help much either.  When you give a book to the world it's a gift and you have to hope the gift is gold, shiny, brilliant, and desirable rather than torn, ratty, and useless. 

So despite all the hullabaloo over the e-book revolution and despite how easy it is to get in on the gravy train, my advice is don't do it until you're sure, absolutely sure, you can't do better and the book can stand up in a crowd of books similar in genre. 

Also, don't ask me to see my very first novel.  Even if I could find the old manuscript pages, I wouldn't foist it on my worst enemies.  Even though it took a year of my life to write, it just wasn't good enough.  Make sure yours is. 


  1. Thanks for a really good article. I know it's exciting to finish a book, but the worst thing authors can do is rush their work into print before it's ready. And some books are never ready. As you pointed out, writers have to read voraciously to know what's good and what isn't.

  2. Very few people hoping to be a writer fail to read a lot, but it never hurts to encourage writers to read as much as they can, all of their lives.

  3. I'm in college right now for art school and the hardest thing to do is realize when something is good and when something is bad. I always feel bad when I present something that I myself wouldn't buy. Seems like a lot of stick to it is necessary.

  4. Yes, the hardest thing to know is when your work is good or bad. In writing novels, as I said, the writer should have many years of reading behind him. In art, you have to compare your work to your contemporaries and try to decide where you stand. If you wouldn't buy it then it's not good enough. Wow yourself first and maybe the work will wow others. It doesn't hurt to get professional opinions too, in your case from art instuctors or pro artists. For writers, a professional editor that one pays out of one's pocket or a pro writer.