Image by La Drome

Thank you for allowing me the use of the above proverbial infinitive, a lá Shakespeare. I’ve always wanted to use it in a blog post.

The topic of today’s discussion is pretty simple, yet one that we all can benefit from:

When is it “too soon” to ship our book, product, or art?

When is it “time to let go” and get it out into the world?

Kristen Lamb wrote on her blog (which incidentally got picked up by Publetariat yesterday) an article titled, “The Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors.” It’s a great read, so go check it out.

I’ll focus on the first issue she raises though: “Mistake #1 Publishing Before We Are Ready”

A great, great topic. There are usually two camps in this ongoing debate:

  1. The people who believe that “shipping” is everything.
  2. The people who believe that quality is paramount.

The problem?

Any decent writer or creator would argue that both are important to our success. We can’t show the world what great quality we provide if we don’t ever ship. But if all we focus on is getting our product or book to market, the quality can suffer immensely. As Kristen writes:

The problem with the ease of self-publishing is that it is, well, too easy. When we are new, frankly, most of us are too dumb to know what we don’t know. Just because we made As in English, does not automatically qualify us to write a work spanning 60-100,000 words. I cannot count how many writers I have met who refuse to read fiction, refuse to read craft books, and who only go to pitch agents when they attend conferences at the expense of attending the craft sessions.

Additionally, too many new writers I meet do not properly understand the antagonist. They don’t grasp three-act structure, and most don’t have any idea what I mean when I mention POV, Jungian archetypes, or the phrase, “scene and sequel.”

Very true, indeed. I actually had a hard time picking up Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, for the first time, because it is a very formulaic-style approach. His methods teach us to write a two-sentence description of our novel that we extrapolate into scene/sequel combinations, and it gets granular to the point of writing in “motivation/reaction units.” Every sentence, every paragraph, every page.

But I picked it up anyway, and I read it. And wow, was I wrong. The “rules” he gives us aren’t really rules as much as they are revelations: he merely shows us what “selling” writers do (read: people who have sold way more fiction than you or I).

Okay, Dwight. You win this round.

So Kristen’s (and Mr. Swain’s) first point is spot-on: if we want to release a novel that isn’t quite ready to be read due to a lack of a study of the craft, we’re going to be working against the stream to sell it.

Bottom line:

Whatever you write, make sure you’ve read considerably more in that genre/subject than the average reader. And spend a good amount of time focusing on the craft. 

One more little anecdote about this “craft” business: when I was in music school, I studied composition for a time. We often heard things like “learn the rules before you break them.”

The phrase meant that we shouldn’t break or refuse to follow the “rules” of music theory and harmony out of ignorance. We needed that foundational baseline of knowing why we wanted to break the rules first. Writing is the same: don’t ignore the fact that there’s an inherent human understanding of the “Three-Act Play” structure unless you have a specific reason to do so.

For us nonfiction writers

What about those of us who write nonfiction–like my new book, Welcome Home: The Author’s Guide to Building A Marketing Home Base?

Generally, the same concept applies: don’t ship your book without taking the time to follow the basic concepts of structure. Table of Contents creation, using great “headlines” that capture attention to each chapter, and writing in a way that “tells the story” are all great principles to use.

The benefit of nonfiction writers is that we usually won’t take on a large writing project like a nonfiction book unless we really know what we’re talking about. In other words, we’ve lived it.

I know Kristen Lamb’s got the experience and work background to write something like We Are Not Alone: The Author’s Guide to Social Media, and it’s easy to see that in the book. I feel experienced enough (or arrogant enough) that I can write Welcome Home from the same perspective: I’ve been there, done that. Anything I wrote in the book is something I’ve lived through and used at some point.

So, back to shipping. 

Once you’ve decided that you’ve spent ample time on the craft, study, and practice of writing “good” stuff (and what, by the way, is “good”?), you might want to get the cover designed and release your masterpiece to the world.

But wait!

What about:

  • Editing
  • Rewriting
  • Reworking chapter headings
  • Including appendices
  • Editing again
  • Rewriting again
  • Reading it through backwards to catch those nitpicky typos

Oh, you’ve done all of that?

Then what about:

  • Including testimonials
  • Getting a few blurbs
  • Setting up your Home Base
  • Getting feedback for your critique group
  • Sending it to beta readers (and then waiting for their responses)
  • Hiring a copy editor (and a dev editor. And a story editor…)
  • “Telescoping” a few of the cardboard characters in one awesome character
  • Rewriting again…

Do you see where I’m going with this?

There’s literally no end to the amount of changes, alterations, edits, etc. that we could make to our stories and nonfiction books. We, as the creators of these worlds and resources, could spend years crafting the perfect book (and some authors do).

But we also know that it can never be absolutely perfect. Even if we write the Great [insert your country] Novel, we could have done more buildup, more pre-selling, more of a marketing push.

We could have focused on a bigger launch party, or prepared more Tweets to drop post-launch. And on and on…

There needs to be a balance. 

That’s what this post is about: balance.

It’s not enough anymore to write the best novel the world has ever seen if we can’t ensure they’ll ever see it.

But it’s certainly not enough to expect that a million tweets, nine-hundred thousand Facebook likes, and a few endorsements from Stephen King and Dan Brown and Tom Clancy will make everyone love you if you haven’t slaved over your manuscript for a decent amount of time. You might sell a lot of copies that way, but who’s going to read your second book?

That’s what I want to figure out–the balance.

What are your thoughts? 

I’ve written a novel, two nonfiction books, and countless blog posts. Each of these written entities requires a certain amount of work to write, edit, format, prepare, and release. And then a certain amount of marketing (before and after launch), promotion, and revisiting. I don’t claim to have a perfect formula for it, but I do know that I’m getting closer and closer to that “balance” with each release.

What about you? How much (time, money, effort, etc.) should we spend on the upfront stuff before launch, and how much should we rely on the book’s own merit?

Leave your reply in the comments, and let’s discuss it!