Could Your Self-Published Book Pass THIS Test?


Once upon a time, Mousetrapped was 400 sheets of double-spaced text resting in a Muji kraft box under my bed and its destiny was to remain there forever. I had no intention of self-publishing it, not least of all because I figured self-publishing was for delusional losers who despite being rejected by one literary agent and five publishing houses just couldn’t take a hint.* But then a friend sent me a link to Lulu, which led me to CreateSpace, which started the wheels in my rejection-filled head turning…

The book that started it all…

Soon, the decision was made. I’d self-publish using the cheapest and easiest form of Print on Demand, or POD. I’d already checked the manuscript a few times during my agent/publisher hunt, so I was pretty confident it was mistake-free. All I had to do was re-format it and convert the Word document into a PDF. I could throw together some kind of cover using the software provided by CreateSpace and then point people in the direction of its Amazon listing. The whole thing might take a Saturday, a weekend at the most.


Um, no. Not even close.

In fact, the process took three more months. During this time, I worked with an editor on the manuscript itself. She pointed out spelling mistakes, grammar abuse, confused thoughts, contradictions and a vast collection of inconsistencies. (Like e-mail and email, for example.) We even re-wrote some parts. Each time a round of corrections was finished, she’d give me the manuscript to check again, and then she’d check my checking. We passed it back and forth maybe four or five times. Meanwhile I was also working with a designer on my cover. I’d made a mock-up of what I wanted, and he made it happen with some vast improvements.  I emailed a few writerly friends for their advice on the blurb and we went back and forth over the many versions and when that was settled, there were a few more rounds on the cover design as things like text, placement of text and the exact amount of blue sky above the palm trees was decided. Even when all this work was done, the proof copy itself had to be worked through—another three full days of work before I could click ‘Publish’ and release Mousetrapped into the world.

So what changed in between? How did I go from thinking it would take a weekend to taking this self-publishing thing somewhat seriously?

The answer is I happened upon Jane Smith’s site, The Self-Publishing Review, and started reading.

The idea of the SPR is simple. As Jane explains:

“Here are the rules. You send me a copy of your self-published book, and I’ll read it. If I like it I’ll review it here, and will be generous with my praise. What’s the catch? I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up. And I’ll list on this blog every single book I’m sent, including the books I’ve not completed, along with how far I got through each one.”

This is not your best friend who thinks anything you do is amazing. It’s not that relative of yours who doesn’t read anything but magazines, and therefore thinks the application of any words to paper is nothing short of magical. It isn’t your loyal blog subscribers or Twitter followers supporting you with five star Amazon reviews. It’s not the opinion of one of your fellow self-published authors who hopes you’ll return the favor (and if not you, karma), and it’s certainly not a group of self-publishing evangelists who feed into their own delusion with suspiciously glowing reviews on such a scale that their site should really be called This is a brutally honest, unbiased review—maybe your only chance of one. Better yet, Jane doesn’t compare your book to other self-published books. She compares them to all books.

It seems crazy now, but initially I wasn’t too fussed about Mousetrapped‘s perfection. I said things like, So what if the cover’s a bit blurry? What do they expect? and, People probably won’t even notice spelling mistakes and even if they do, then so what? Then I started to read through the reviews on SPR and realized that I was digging my own self-published grave with that attitude. Instead, I went through each review and made notes. What mistakes were being made over and over again? What could I look out for in my own text? Where’s the nearest copyeditor?

When I thought about sending my finished book to Jane for review, I began to feel a bit sick. But Jane was representative of all my potential readers. Shouldn’t my goal be to deliver as close to a perfect book as I could? And so I worked at it, with it and on it until I felt confident it was pass Jane’s test, or at the very least do so without too much ego-blasting criticism. My ultimate goal was to get her to read it all and to recommend it, two things I had rarely seen her do on the site. If she had some bad things to say about it, so be it. Chances are she would—it was my belief back then and I believe it even more so today that it is almost impossible for a self-publisher to fully recreate the rounds and rounds of preparation that a book would go through at a major publishing house. But as long as she read the whole thing and thought it was useful for something other than being a coaster under a hot coffee cup, then I’d be happy.

Last week Jane published her review of my book. She had some criticisms, some I didn’t agree with (for instance, my actions while in Orlando—the fact that I didn’t prepare is what the book is about) and some I did (um, all the other ones…!) She also really got my wheels turning on her point about the back cover blurb, which since it practically lifts lines from the first chapter, feels repetitive to the reader. I think I’m going to write me a new one.

Now, some of you may think I’m ten shades of crazy to be drawing your attention to a review by an expert that says my book has problems**, but I’m doing it because I want all you “I can’t afford an editor” types to consider this: Mousetrapped was professionally copyedited. And before that, it had more than a year’s worth of feedback from an agent. And before that, I rewrote it I think at least three times. But I “couldn’t afford” a structural edit, which would have caught many of the problems Jane flagged, the problems I see now when I read over it two years later. And I “couldn’t afford” a proofread, which would have ensured that any changes made during the copyedit hadn’t left inconsistencies or other mistakes. So what state would the book be in if I hadn’t done anything at all? What state will your book be in if you don’t do anything at all?

If you are thinking of self-publishing or in the midst of it, I implore you to go read through all the reviews on SPR. Make a list of the criticisms that keep popping up again and again. Write them on a piece of paper in block capitals, laminate it and stick it behind your desk. Commit to not making any of them.

Click here to visit the Self-Publishing Review.

*I don’t want to encourage the self-publication of bad books, so I feel I should add this: yes, Mousetrapped was rejected by those people, but all their responses were the same. They thought the book was enjoyable and well-written, but they felt its potential readership was too small to warrant publication which, after all, is a business at the end of the day. While this sucked, it made Mousetrapped an ideal candidate for selfpublication. If any or all of them had said, ‘This just isn’t good enough,’ I wouldn’t have done it.

**I think my book has problems too. As I said on a comment on Jane’s review, if I were reviewing it myself, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars, maybe 3.5 or even 4 if the topics covered in it were things I was fascinated by AND I really clicked with the author’s voice. Mousetrapped has 42 reviews on and an overall average of 4 out of 5 stars, which I think is great, but I think it only gets 5 stars whenever a reader really “clicks” with the book and not because it’s perfect or exceptional. And these people have read it—I know potential readers have been turned off by the overly long first chapter (I’ve seen comments about it on Twitter, etc.) But the beauty of self-publishing is that if I want to do something about that, I can. 

Sidenote: in this post I’ve touched on two things that I’m going to be blogging about in the near future: how a self-publisher can re-create what happens at a publishing house and the difference between a book being a well-crafted piece of Booker-esque literature and it having appeal. So, stand by for more on that.

42 thoughts on “Could Your Self-Published Book Pass THIS Test?

  1. cameronlawton says:

    Excellent blog subject as ever. This should be compulsory reading for anyone who is even thinking of shoving a half-finished, half-way-decent book out onto the market to fend for itself, poor wee thing.

    Done it myself
    and regretted it. Had I found this and all the other wonderful (and free) advice I might have done better … and will do next time.

    Mighty thanks to you Catherine (and by inference Jane Smith) for valuable reality-check.

  2. Kate Dunn says:

    Really glad to have stumbled on your blog – as someone thinking about self-publishing you’ve given me lots of food for thought – thanks!

  3. Northsider Dave says:

    You have really made me think Catherine. You are right to hone and polish your brainchild but I wouldn’t spend a lot of money paying for professional help. I am a conventionally published author and the hardest thing for me is biting my tongue when the editor takes over. The idea of marketing and editing is putting me off self publishing for the moment. It sounds too much ‘one man band’. I am not saying you’re wrong though!

  4. Toni @Duolit says:

    This is brilliant, Catherine — and a much-needed reality check for the many aspiring indie authors out there. Am going to share this post near and far!

  5. Helena Duggan says:

    Hi Catherine, I have been following your posts religiously. I am toying with the idea of self publishing, my book, like yours, has been “positively” rejected by agents (I’m told that’s a good thing!) and the full manuscript requested twice before ultimately being turned down. The replies are always the same, “We love your book but in the current climate….blah blah.” I had thought “Ah well…stick it in a press and take it back out some day for a laugh!” but you are changing my mind! Thanks for all the helpful advice, I look forward to the next insightful post…no pressure! Helena

  6. Regina says:

    Well, I think she was grasping at straws with her review. I thought your “actions” in the book were funny and authentic. So sorry they made her uncomfortable. The story is the story. To call that out in a review is just, well, Goofy. A book like Mousetrapped, if over-edited, will lose the author’s voice. That is the voice I like–the one in your blog.

    And she thought you went to DisneyLAND? Reviewer, review thyself.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Regina while I appreciate you coming to my defense, I don’t think this is helpful. Jane’s reaction to my actions is just her opinion, and I understand that. But the other issues she points out—she makes one point, I think, about the book being episodical more than a memoir with continuity—are definitely there, and that feedback is something I can use to make my next book better. Calling Disney World Disney*land* does not override Jane’s many years of editing experience. There is also no possibility, if you work with a good editor who understands your intentions (which is the only kind of editor you should ever work with), that editing would ever edit out the author’s voice.

      Negative reviews are always hard to take but they are a great learning experience for the author.

      • cameronlawton says:

        There is a Buddhist saying that we learn more from our enemies than our friends … so if we look at “bad” reviews as enemies we can go totally Zen-like and remember that they are worth more than the unconditional praise we’re likely to get from close friends and family who don’t want to hurt our feelings, knowing that we’ve sweated blood over our literary offering.
        (Prize for longest sentence without punctuation goes to Cam)

      • DC Gallin says:

        I don’t think Regina is ‘coming to your defence’. Sure, negative reviews is how we learn and grow as authors and artists, but Jane’s review is plain irritating.

  7. Nick F says:

    Rock on, Catherine.

    As someone who is bogged down in edits and revisions spanning a time period longer than I had counted on, once again I thank you for this post and your guidance.

    Hope all is well in your world,

    Nick F

  8. Bolton says:

    Your road to publication is a story of my life (over the past few months, anyway). Just a funny observation; she mentioned you had stayed at Disneyland…oops!

  9. mlatimerridley says:

    An absolute wake up call…Jane sounds kind of scary but her advice is invaluable! It’s good of her to give up her time and expertise to carry out reviews in the first place. Anyone thinking about it would definitely want to be pretty certain their book is ready for the gauntlet before throwing it in.

  10. DC Gallin says:

    “She seemed to crash off on each new venture with little thought or preparation, which at times made me wonder if she was purposely sabotaging herself. It could just be the natural foolhardiness of the young which caused her to believe behave in this way; but I found it infuriating and anxiety-provoking, and that directly affected my enjoyment of this book.”

    I am sorry but this is a ridiculous statement: moral judgement on a young, foolish character! Jane may not be comfortable with these emotions, but that’s her problem!

    ‘Anxiety provoking’ means the writing touches the reader, ‘infuriating’ is her own moral judgment and if she were really objective, she’d keep it to herself and concentrate on the execution of the writing itself, which obviously works!

    Isn’t that what makes a good story: real life characters with all their human imperfections?

    No wonder we have been inundated with all these boring, middle-of-the-road books, judged and selected by people who see everything from the perspective of their comfy armchair and lofty moral principles. YAWN. Her statement makes me want to read Mousetrapped and makes me wonder why there isn’t a picture of this ‘old hack’, anywhere. Jane Smith sounds incredibly uptight and boring! See, now I’m making the same mistake. 😉

  11. Vera Soroka says:

    This was a great post! I’m doing a lot of research into this self publishing right now. I thought when you uploaded that it had to be in word and pdf file. Am I wrong?

  12. Vera Soroka says:

    I said that wrong. I meant that when you uploaded it had to be in a word format or hmlt format and not in pdf file form. Is that right?

  13. Helen Hollick says:

    Thank you for such an informative blog. Hooray that SP authors (potential or already published) are waking up to the fact that to write a book means producing a readable book. Which means get it edited (you can’t afford an editor? Then don’t write a book, because you can’t afford to NOT get an editor.)

    I am the UK editor for the Historical Novel Society’s Online Review – our aim is to encourage “good” books – and if you don’t know what constitutes a good self published book – then go back and read this superb article again.

    For more info about HNS & to get your (good) self published historical fiction novel reviewed:

    hanks again – great article

  14. Helen Hollick says:

    Hooray that SP authors (potential or already published) are waking up to the fact that to write a book means producing a readable book. Which means get it edited (you can’t afford an editor? Then don’t write a book, because you can’t afford to NOT get an editor.)

    I am the UK editor for the Historical Novel Society’s Online Review – our aim is to encourage “good” books – and if you don’t know what constitutes a good self published book – then go back and read this superb article again.

    For more info about HNS & to get your (good) self published historical fiction novel reviewed:

    Thanks again – great article

  15. kareninglis says:

    Thank you for this great post, Catherine – and the website link. I’ve just tweeted on this very topic – so very timely 🙂 However hard it is for any of us to take criticism, as Catherine intimates, any and all feedback is useful – ‘a complaint is a gift’ and all that…..

    I’m mulling over whether I have the courage to submit ‘The Secret Lake’ for review 🙂

  16. karin mesa says:

    This was really excellent guidance. And might I add generously given. I went with a small independent publisher for my first kid’s book because I had so much to learn. Self publishing appeals to me and also overwhelms me in many ways. As I work on the illustrations for the second book I’m actively learning all I can to make a smart choice on it’s publishing. This was very helpful. Thanks a lot!

  17. Patricia says:

    Great post. I love the way you went from thinking you could do this in a weekend (doesn’t every writer think that?) to taking three months. And I love that you included the details of the care you gave your book. Publishing houses don’t take books from manuscript to print in a weekend, not because they are slow, but because turning a book into a manuscript requires a lot of care and attention, as you mentioned. Thanks for the enlightenment and encouragement.

  18. John Brassey says:

    Great post. I’ve read half a dozen SP novels recently and almost all were littered with mistakes

    Too many five star reviews too. I give four for a book that I really enjoy. I’m saving five for totally exceptional books – one so far.

  19. mrsmoti says:

    I think you are terrific Catherine and have enjoyed Mousetrapped and used your advice a great deal…

    This is just a thought: it’s incredibly rare to find large ability to entertain, empathize and engage in a human being – along with a forensic attention to detail of the editing variety…

    They are both valuable of course…

  20. z. l. sasnett says:

    I stumbled on this post from twitter and I have to say, I’m glad I did. From my forays into self-publishing, these are things that need to be pointed out time and again to those who venture forth into those great jungles. It really will help their efforts to rise to the surface as having superior books.

    Going it alone will require much more effort on the part of the author due to the simple fact that they will not have the support structure in place like for someone going the trade publishing route.

    I hope more self-published authors will take this to heart; to not allow ‘well, most readers won’t know the difference and if they do, they won’t care’ thinking to get in the way of putting out the best possible book they can. Sloppy thinking leads to sloppy work.

  21. kellie larsen murphy says:

    I really like your advice and I have been using Self-Printed as one of my guides in my own process. While it would never have occurred to me to be less than professional, your comments only reinforce how important it is! Congratulations on another great post.

  22. Jane Smith says:

    Catherine, I’m glad that you found my comments helpful. I’ll admit that I wrote my review of your book with some trepidation: I know how hard you work to make your books a success, and I was anxious not to destroy the tenuous online friendship that we’ve maintained over the last year or two. So thank you for being so very gracious about my criticisms. And thanks again for letting me look at your book. I’m sorry it took me so long to get round to it, but it was well worth the wait—for me, at least.

    You wrote, “Last week Jane published her review of my book. She had some criticisms, some I didn’t agree with (for instance, my actions while in Orlando—the fact that I didn’t prepare is what the book is about) and some I did (um, all the other ones…!)”.

    Oh, bless you!

    I understand that without your thoroughly-scary lack of preparation you wouldn’t have been able to write this book because most of the things that happened to you just wouldn’t have happened if you’d been better prepared. My point there, which I quite spectacularly failed to make, was that I felt you could have dealt with this better in your book, specifically during the leadup to your departure. You’re a fluent and witty writer, but instead of using your lack of preparation as a plot device with which you could have built tension and anticipation, you threw away a perfect opportunity to do a good bit of foreshadowing and just set off on your jolly. That lack of preparation shouldn’t have made me feel anxious or infuriated: it should have made me feel excited in an “OMG!” sort of way, and made me more eager to turn the pages to find out what happened to you as a result. Does that make my point clearer? I hope so. I do think you could have easily achieved this, perhaps with some more focussed editorial assistance, and despite your protestations I still think it would have made your book even better than it already is. So there.

    Onto the other comments: the advice to get your work edited is good advice but there does seem to be a lack of understanding about what good editing entails, and a lot of people charging money for services which don’t actually improve anyone’s writing. Which makes me want to spit fire. A good editor would never “edit out the author’s voice”: editors don’t make changes to the text, they just suggest changes for the author to consider, and to implement as they see fit. The whole point of editing is to enhance the author’s voice and concentrate her narrative, and it’s so important to get this right. Most of the self-published books I’ve reviewed which have been worked on by an editor have not had the sort of structural, close editing that I refer to: they appear to have been at best lightly copy-edited or proof-read, which isn’t the same thing at all.

    For the person who said there weren’t any pictures of me anywhere, there are a couple on my other blog and several on the RNA blog. You’ll find a couple here, in which I look ridiculously old:

    I don’t understand how what I look like has any bearing on my reviews, but next time we run into each other on AbsoluteWrite just say hello and I’ll link you to a couple of better pictures.

    As for my review being “plain irritating”: I’m sorry to have provoked that reaction in your blog readers, Catherine, but even I realise I can’t please everyone all of the time. I hope that your less-impressed readers will find something to enjoy elsewhere on my blogs, and I thank you all for taking the time to read my blog and comment about it here. It’s much appreciated.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi Jane,

      I think I do understand what you’re saying re: foreshadowing my lack of preparation, and I can already see how that initial, overly long (and mostly irrelevant!) first chapter could do that job instead of telling my entire life story up until September 2006. 🙂 As it stands now the reader is in the same boat as me: unaware that I was heading for disaster, and then suddenly in it. But the reader should know before me that things have the potential to go the way they do—the reader should be thinking that I’m headed off on this unprepared before it becomes obvious that I have. This is a very hard point for me to explain but I think I know what you mean, and I’m going to see if I can make it happen.

      I think people who have never had their work edited think it’s either spell checking or someone coming along and saying “This is wrong” and they bristle at the idea of not only experiencing that, but paying for the pleasure. I think the self-pub world needs an education on what a good editor does, and how to find one.

      And finally, don’t apologise for your reviews, Jane—if you start to hold back or do it differently, they won’t be as valuable to authors. If some people don’t like it, well, they don’t have to read them, now do they?

      Thanks again,

      • Jane Smith says:

        Thanks, Catherine. I think I’ve explained it right this time! Yes, I think you could make much more out of how unprepared you were, and turn it into an opportunity for humour and tension instead of worry.

        But this book is out there. It’s done. We can talk about how you could change it all week: what’s important is that your next book is the best you can make it. I hope my review helped you get there. And good luck with it.

    • DC Gallin says:

      ‘For the person who said there weren’t any pictures of me anywhere, there are a couple on my other blog and several on the RNA blog. You’ll find a couple here, in which I look ridiculously old’

      Here is the ‘person’: No you don’t look ridiculously old and you like much nicer than I thought you would judging by the sound of your voice on your blog’s FAQ page.

      I found your voice quite arrogant and and not very openminded in the digital age. The way we had to send in double spaced manuscripts that would cost us an arm and a leg, you expect authors to send you a print copy even though you may never even review the book. Reading your FAQ, I can also imagine how the publishing industry weeded out all books about the rave scene and why we have hardly any books on youth culture and it’s slightly illegal tendencies, for example…

      I think your FAQ page could do with a bit of editing and a little humour wouldn’t hurt!

      Again, this is just my personal opinion, the way your reviews are yours and on-line communication sometimes sounds harsher than intended, so if I hurt your feelings in any way, Jane, my apologies xx

      • Jane Smith says:

        DC, don’t worry. You haven’t upset me one bit. As for how old I look: it’s always a surprise to see pictures of myself and realise I’m no longer 17.

        I only review print copies because I have cataracts, which makes close reviewing on-screen very difficult for me. I understand that involves a cost to the authors who send me their books but it’s their choice to do so. I review about two-thirds of the books I’m sent: the remaining third are books I feel it would be inappropriate for me to review: they might be really bad, for example, or they could be copyright violations, or they’re books by authors I worry for one reason or another wouldn’t be able to cope with the reviews I write–for example, I’ve been sent a couple of memoirs of mental illness by writers who seemed to still be very vulnerable to me. The books I choose not to review I (usually) return to their authors and I cover the cost of that postage. It seems only fair.

        I also do my best to review the book I’ve been sent and not to make personal comments about the author (unless it’s somehow pertinent to the book–which it rarely is). It’s a distinction many people–you included, I suspect–seem to miss. But it’s very important to me.

        • DC Gallin says:

          I wasn’t exactly worried but you sounded as if you’d taken my dislike of your review personally – you didn’t react to my post directly and called me ‘the person’.

          And yes, in this time and age one wonders about the picture and personality behind an on-line presence which adds a personal dimension to the writing.

          In the end it’s all very personal : writing books, reviewing them, getting feedback and how we present ourselves and I suspect, even reviewers could do with a little review sometimes?

          • Jane Smith says:

            Ha! I called you “The person” because when I scrolled back I couldn’t find the comment I was referring to–these cataracts make such stuff really boringly difficult. Please don’t take it personally.

            I agree that reviewers need to be reviewed, and often. It keeps us on our toes AND it makes writers who might submit to us aware of our current requirements. It’s all good.

            As for the “picture and personality”: I’m not sure that’s useful or important. Isn’t how we work and what we look for more significant? My friends would tell you that I’m a laugh-a-minute, given the right circumstances: but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ll home right in on all the problems I find in a manuscript, and reject it because of them.

            • DC Gallin says:

              If you said on your FAQ that you can’t read books from a screen because of cataracts and that you send books you don’t review back, it would sound so much better! That’s what I meant by editing the FAQ’s:
              You can only make first impressions once, after all .

              I agree, ‘how you work and what you look for is more important’ than a picture, but times have changed and there is a lot more equality between the artists and their ‘industries’, as there should be. Authors bare their souls to the world, so it’s nice to see another human being on the other end. That’s all.

              The publishing industry is changing because it had to: It was not nurturing the authors and readers weren’t getting what they wanted either, but I think the term self-publishing is misleading: Authors can not publish a book all by themselves! They need the objective feedback of editors and the proofreading has to be done by others too – we’re so close to the mirror that we can’t see our own reflection.

              Ultimately, I’m sure, we agree with each other: honest reviews is what authors need to develop their potential
              and it’s fantastic that you give so much energy to that cause. Chapeau Madam! 🙂

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