Cover SP cropI’m kicking off my self-publishing guide with a post about the most important step of all: writing a great book. Before we consider just what exactly makes a ‘great’ book, let’s hear from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords:

“Write a great book” might strike you as common sense, but it’s the most common mistake of many authors. Some indie authors – intoxicated by the freedom to self-publish –rush their book to market before it’s ready to be seen by readers.

Is your book ready? By considering this difficult question, you’ll find the path to a better book revealed. With the power to publish comes the responsibility to emulate the best practices of the most professional authors and publishers.

If your book is poorly-conceived or poorly-edited, readers will reject it. If you write a great book that satisfies readers, they will reward you with their word of mouth.

Honor your readers with a great read.*

“Honour your readers” is a phrase of Mark’s that is very close to my heart. Keeping readers at the forefront of your mind at all times – I’m going to repeat that – at ALL TIMES is, in my humble opinion, what makes a great book.

I’m not talking about a literary classic, or a book that will win awards. I’m not talking about a prescribed set of writing ‘rules’, either. There are authors, reviewers and bloggers out there who will rail against using the passive voice, or head-hopping, or awkward structures, or incomplete characterisation. Before I started my masters in creative writing, I might have joined in from time to time. But not any more. My world has now expanded to include the glaring fact that ‘good’ writing comes in all shapes and sizes, and no one should set themselves up to judge anybody’s writing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ unless they have the credentials to do so. And here is the fascinating thing: anyone with the credentials to do so (creative writing tutors, experienced literary critics, highly regarded authors of long-standing), are more likely to praise a writer for unconventiality – for breaking the rules – than for blindly following them and producing a read that is bland and deriviative.

Stop digressing, Jo! OK, so if I’m not talking rules here, what does make a great book? Well, you guessed it – one that honours the reader. If you write a book that entertains, satisfies expectations, follows its own rules of narrative and form, is well edited and as free from errors as humanly possible; if you make it look good so it’s a delight to read or hold, then you have succeeded in Step 1. And, as Mark says, this is harder than it sounds.

Sometimes a certain amount of stepping back is necessary, looking at the story from an imaginary reader’s point of view. Yes, that part where you’ve added tons of information about candle making is a good use of the research you did, but is it integral to the plot? Readers like to be entertained and educated, they don’t like to be bored or lectured. You might want to keep that long description of how it feels to walk along the sea front because you love the poetry and it took so long to get right … but will the reader really enjoy it as much?

Learn your craft, and watch out for your own weaknesses (mine is using too many adverbs, amongst others). Get feedback – an essential part of self-publishing, that I will return to later in this guide – but don’t let the feedback discourage you. Walk that fine line between self-belief and dispassionate appraisal of your work. It’s a tough call, and it will never get any easier, so best get used to it now!

Coming next week – Step 2: Choose your self-publishing route.

*This is an excerpt from Mark Coker’s The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, available for free here.