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Dax Murray

Software Engineer and Speculative Fiction Author.

So you want to self publish on Kindle: Part Two - Editing

This is the second part of a multi-part series on self publishing. This series will cover: writing, editing, beta reading, sensitivity reading, setting up a pre-order, using Kindle Direct Publishing, Kindle Select, NetGalley and other means of getting reviews, and marketing. Read part one

A few people have asked me several questions on self publishing on Kindle. I've talked to people who want to publish small technical books that, for one reason or another, O'Reilly doesn't want to publish. I've talked to fiction writers who want to publish a novel. I've talked to a lot of people who have thought "I wish I could…" And I want to tell you that you can.

There's a lot of steps, and they do not always have a 'correct' order. But they are achievable and you can determine what order you want them to happen in for a lot of them. There are some cart before the horse problems, but largely, writing is the first step, and hitting publish is the last. Everything between there is a malaise of interlooping and overlapping steps to make the writing publishable.

I made a small power point last April to share at a technical conference with other Rails devs who have small or niche book ideas. I am going to heavily self plagiarize from that for this post. So if some of my cat photos look familiar to you, that's why.

I've been writing stories since I was five. My first one went something like this:

There once was a cat. The cat loved to eat. The cat loved to nap. The cat loved her human. Her human went to school sometimes. That made the cat sad. But the human always came home. The end.

I am sure my mother still has the bare book complete with hand drawn illustrations somewhere. I actually minored in creative writing in college, and while most of my classes focused on poetry, the itch for stories never left. I was just as confused and scared by the self-publishing maze as anyone else. I won't lie and say it is easy, but it is definitely easier than you think it is.

Editing, Beta Readers, Sensitivity Reading

You have written the last word. You've done it, you've written a book. First, take a second to congratulate yourself. Celebrate with a cookie, or chocolate, or cake, or a milkshake, or fries and a hamburger - anyway you celebrate big achievements, do that now! Scream or jump or pump your fists. You have reached a goal and you should be proud of that. Regardless of how you approach the rest of this process, know that you should be proud.

I would recommend, before we get into the various types of editing and reading, that you take at least a week off from working on your manuscript. Set it down and do not touch it for as long as you can. Some people take a week, some people take a month. Find something else that recharges and energizes you. For me, that was a month away to play Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood. Wow, was it worth it. I actually took a week off of work, too, to play at the launch of the expansion. Having this time away from my manuscript and work allowed me to come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, while also allowing me to liberate Doma and Ala Mhigo from the clutches of the Garlean Empire and make tons of amazing friends along the way.

I began doing my own set of edits. I would definitely say you should do at least on round of self editing before you hand it off to anyone else. I found typos, inconsistencies, bad grammar, bad punctuation, and a ton more. When I finished my manuscript in June I had 52,000 words. I did not want this story to be more than 45,000 words. After coming back from my time away, I was able to easily find places where repetition was hampering the pace. I was able to cut the story down to 45,000. Long rambling passages that did not serve the plot were cut. The first 2,000 words of the story were actually cut. The original words I had written back in January were gone. Go into this first round with a very critical eye. Do not be afraid to slash out entire paragraphs.

Alright, now what? Now comes the process of making your work even better. There's a lot of steps between now and hitting publish, and many of them can be done simultaneously or in many different orders. It is up to you how you want to order the next few steps - there is no universal order you must follow. Whatever you think will work best for you and your work flow is what you should follow.

Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers are people who are aware of what tropes, stereotypes, and pitfalls characters might fall into from a certain background. If you are not queer, and one of your characters is queer, you might want to find someone who is queer to point out where you might accidentally be writing into a bad stereotype. The example I gave in the first part of this series, "Bury You Gays," would be an example. This is usually a paid service. Writing in the Margins has a large database of people who are willing to do sensitivity readings and for what groups they can read for. It would be a good to find these people when you finish your manuscript so you can book them for the time that will work best for both of you. Rates for these services can vary from a system of cost per word or cost per hour.

You might not have the money up front to pay these services. Some of them will do skill exchanges (I will, for example). You ask them to read for you and in exchange you can do some art for them, or provide some code for their website, or be a sensitivity reader for them later on. Some of them might offer payment plans. But I absolutely need to stress that this is work. They will point out harmful tropes and write an edit letter explaining what they liked and didn't like. When I do sensitivity reading, I use comments to point out passages or phrases that don't quite work. Some others might compile a document with those quotes, page numbers, and why the didn't work.

Having a sensitivity reader is not a 100% guarantee that your work will be free of harmful tropes. No two queer people have the exact same experiences, what one reader might view as fine, another can point out ways in which it is harmful. For example, there are queer people who did not end up homeless after coming out, and there are many who did. If you ask someone who had a loving and supportive family to do a read for a novel where the queer character ends up homeless, you might not be getting the best gauge on if you are using harmful tropes. When you ask a reader, include a little bit of detail or background so they can get a better sense on if they would be best. Sometimes they might even provide you a recommendation for someone who would be better suited. Most sensitivity readers will ask that you not use their name as a shield if someone finds your work hurtful. In this event, apologize and strive to do better in the future. You might ask, on your end, that the sensitivity reader not talk about the details of your book until it comes out.

Some people will have sensitivity readers early on in the process, after the first self-edit. This way if things need to be structurally changed to avoid a harmful trope, those changes can be made before anyone else sees the work. It can be difficult to have to change tracks after you've had everyone else give input. Some people want to do this last, as they want the story to be in as final a state as it can be so they are only making small tweaks. Some people do it somewhere in between. Do whatever you feel is best for your work.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are people commenting on the overall arch of your work. They give feedback like "this part confused me" or "I don't know if I quite got what was going on here" or "this pulled me out of the story." They are not editors and their comments will probably be more sparse. These are usually people you know personally but trust to not sugarcoat. Friends, family, and people in your writing group are usually beta readers.They give you a glimpse into how a reader might respond to your story. If you have written a tear-jerking scene and they get to it and are laughing, you know there is a disconnect between what you intended and what readers read.

You will want to try to explain to them the parts that they misunderstood. Don't. Do not try to explain to them what they didn't get. You won't be able to do that for a regular reader. Instead, tweak what you have written. Take a good look and try to figure out what got lost between your head and the keyboard. Ask them questions - "why did you find this funny?" - and take that feedback with you.

Beta Readers can sometimes fill in the shoes of sensitivity readers. If one of your beta readers shares a marginalization with one of your characters, they can point out harmful bits, but do not expect them to provide the kind of thoroughness of a proper sensitivity reader. If you do beta reading before sensitivity reading, you might be able to make quick fixes to be on the right track when you send it to a sensitivity reader. Likewise, if you do a sensitivity read first, a beta reader might be able to affirm that you did the work to get your characters out of bad tropes.

You should compensate your beta readers in some capacity. Friends and family might be willing to do it for free, but offer them a small gift card or offer to take them out to dinner. There are professional beta readers - people who you do not know who list their services on freelancing sites. It might be useful to employ at least one of these people to get parallax between what friends and family are saying. Useful, but not necessary.


The elephant in the room. The large, and sometimes expensive, elephant. Resist the urge to say "I do not think I need one, I was an English major/minor." Resist the urge to say "the edits I did myself are good enough." Both are false. You absolutely need an editor. There are mistakes that you will not be able to see because you wrote it. Mistakes that your brain slides over because it knows what you meant and will substitute in your intent.

What does an editor do? It depends. There are several different kinds of editors. I highly recommend reading this article on the kinds of editing by Jen Anderson of Clearing Blocks Editing. The long and the short is that there are copy edits, line edits (sometimes called developmental editing), and proof reading. Some editors will offer all three for one price, others excel at one or two and can refer out for the others. As someone who is self-publishing, I get that this looks expensive. Figure out which of those you are pretty good at yourself, and hire someone to do at least one of the others. If you have the cash, hire someone to do all three.

You will want to start booking this in advance. Many editors book up months in advance. I reached out to Jen in the early spring for a slot in August. Like beta reading and sensitivity reading, it is ok to book this before you have your manuscript done, so long as you know you will finish it in time. Any good editor will before a sample edit for you for free. You want to take a few pages of your roughest work and send it to them. Fight the urge to send them your best pages, you want them to get an honest look at your work and be able to gauge accurately how long it will take them. You also want to see what the best they can do is. Take that sample edit and check the comments and changes against what you are intending. If you do not think the editor will help you keep your voice and your vision, do not book them. I felt that Jen Anderson understood what I was trying to achieve, and she had a shared goal of making sure my work and writing were the best they could be for that vision.

It could take anywhere from a week to two months for an editor to go through the whole manuscript. It all depends on how long your work is, if the editor has a day job, and how much improvement your manuscript needs. The editor should be able to give you an estimate of how long it will take and how much it will cost after completing the sample edit and you disclosing what you think the word count will be when you turn it in to them.

The cost can be anywhere from $75 to over $1000. This depends on how good your manuscript is when you hand it over, how long it is, and how long it will take the editor to complete it. Many editors will ask for a deposit when you first book, and the rest of the fee will be invoiced after the edited manuscript is sent back to you. This is probably not a place that you can bargain or skill trade. Some editors, however, will do discounts if you are a marginalized writer. Many editors will also offer discounted prices for repeat clients.

I understand that you might not have a huge amount of money pour into this upfront. But bad reviews are even more costly. Amazon reviewers, generally speaking, will only tolerate a few typos before leaving a one star review. No matter how stellar your later works are, readers will find those old reviews from the days you hastily posted an un-edited manuscript online. Not having your first work professionally edited can sabotage your sales for years.

People might want to do this edit first, before they send it to readers so that the readers will be able to focus just on the experience, rather than being pulled out of the story by a typo or a clumsy sentence. Some people might want to do it last so that there are no big changes that might introduce new paragraphs or changes in plot after being pointed out by readers. Know your strengths and weakness and figure out the order that works best for them.

Getting all of these moving parts to line up can be a challenge. I've been a beta reader where the author sends the same google doc link to ten beta readers, and asks that we all leave comments. This author gave the option of leaving comments anonymously or under our google account. This meant that the author did not have to deal with ten different sets of comments in separate documents. Something like this might work well for you for beta readers or sensitivity readers. For working with editors, if you are working with more than one, to not do them synchronously. Send it to one editor, make changes, send to the next. Find some sort of versioning system so you can keep track of which file is which.

Once you have all the comments from all the different readers back, and you have integrated their suggestions, it's time to start compiling a finished draft for publication. I will discuss how to set up on KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), including formatting, ISBN questions, and questions about cover art in the next instalment!

Ping me on Twitter if you have questions about any of the steps outlined here.

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