Do you have trouble letting go of your finished book? Can't quite bring yourself to release your baby into the world until you've had one more last read-through – and another, and another, and another? Australian ALLi Partner member and publishing coach Dixie Carlton counsels how to let go and get on with your next book.
“I’ve just ordered another proof,” he said.
“But you probably don’t need another printed proof if that is the only change required.”
“Yes, but I think I would feel better if I do see it in the physical, rather than just online.”
After a huge surge in to-ing and fro-ing between this author, the formatting designer, and myself, the book was checked, and rechecked, and re-edited, and ever-increasing changes were made until finally almost total perfection was achieved, and still the author could not let go and sign off to send it to print. Every time he received a new proof copy from Create Space, he would ultimately end up re-reading it again, and noting more changes he wanted made.
This book should have been published weeks earlier, but the need for perfection was crippling the process.
This happens far more often than you may think. Even authors who assure me and others that they can live with a few errors, (because there’s no way the editing process is ever going to guarantee every single typo is caught) struggle with this. But readers are very forgiving of the odd handful – and by handful I mean half a dozen or so.
Another client has been working on her manuscript for three years, and keeps changing the content, adding more, deleting some, and every year, she misses being able to take a printed copy to a convention she attends, where it’s clear to her and all her colleagues that she really needs that book.
I suggested that perhaps her stumbling to cross the finish line is based on a past life experience of being tarred and feathered for sedition once upon a few hundred years ago.
I also heard about a person who has been writing and rewriting the same book for 20 years and still can't let it go, although she's about 70 and if not careful will never have time to write anything else!
Why Fear of Imperfection Should Not Hold Up Publication
Whatever the reason authors stress over signing off on their first books, their fear of having it not quite perfect enough is real and valid. Unfortunately, often it’s relatively unnecessary to delay publication due to potential imperfections, and here’s why:
- Every book has a small handful of mistakes – yes, even the ones published by top best selling authors. When I personally find these errors, I can see that simply the proofing process may have just been hit by the proofer reaching the end of another long read, and their eyes were drooping. But knowing that the book may have been passed through thoroughly at least half a dozen times by the professionals, and countless times by beta readers pre-publication, an occasional slip is hardly likely to drive me towards asking for a refund on the book.
- In this age of digital uploads and print on demand, the errors that are picked up post-publication are easily corrected and the files updated immediately. So long as the book is 99% perfect that really is good enough.
The Parenthood Analogy
It’s like having children. We always stress out more about Junior having cookies before dinner time when they are our firstborn, but by the time baby number three comes along, parents are far more relaxed about what their kids eat, do, or play with.
Authors generally do ease up on ‘perfection paralysis’ after their first couple of books, but at the start of their journeys, most do cling to their fears of their books not being good enough, some more than others.
It simply comes down to this. Would you rather get the information out to your readers, and get on with the next book, or hold on and starve your readers of your wisdom, knowledge, and expertise?
I freely admit to having published imperfect books, but I know that I can always go back and update, improve, or change. Anytime. And updated editions are always worth relaunching.
OVER TO YOU Do you suffer from perfection paralysis? What do you do to escape its grasp? Join the conversation!#Authors - do you suffer from perfection paralysis? Read @DixieCarlton's advice on why you need to stop tinkering & get on with the next book! Click To Tweet
My key is to ask myself “How will my readers react?” Of course, that requires, as we all acknowledge, that the author must have an intimate knowledge of his or her audience.
I write technical non-fiction (aviation history). My audience has an acute awareness of minute technical facts but could care less than how consistent I am with oxford commas. I had a half dozen trusted colleagues do a technical review of the manuscript before going through the line/copy edit, design, typesetting, and proofreading process.
At one point, I just stopped writing after realizing the reader doesn’t demand the first edition contain every neat fact I keep discovering. There can be a second edition. Likewise, it smoothed the process with the graphic designer about some of her choices versus mine. When I thought about it, I knew the differences were so minor, only the two of us would notice them.
So when wondering if the work is ready for prime time, ask yourself if the readers would notice. If they would, stop everything and fix it. If they wouldn’t, proceed full speed ahead. If you’re not sure, in my opinion, you should get to know your audience better before doing anything else.
Absolutely. I’m getting better after getting three books accepted and published, yet I’m suffering from this fear once more with ‘Stealing Myself From Shadows’ and ‘The Hand and the Eye of the Tower’, the first books in my ‘Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest’ series. They’re my maiden journey into the world of self publishing and I’m terrified of sinking the ship. (rueful grin)
No one has ever achieved “an error-free first edition.” What’s been achieved is a first edition whose minor typos or whatever haven’t come to light—yet. Humans don’t do perfect. Never.
Being self-published, of course, is no excuse for laziness, but diligence does not equal perfection.
I, too, have discovered that readers can be unforgiving. What I’ve discovered, though, is that my fans are. They want a good read, and won’t fuss about a small handful of errors.
My issue with perfection is in the actual storytelling, the writing craft. I have others who check for typos and formatting and whatnot, and I trust them to catch what can be caught. But it’s hard to release a book when, even in the 6 months of writing it, I’ve learned more about the craft. Do I go back and rewrite it? And then, when I’ve learned more in the 3 months that took, rewrite again?
At some point, I have to release the book and bring the lessons learned to the next one.
And though I’m battling book #18 right now, it doesn’t take much to make that bully Resistance laugh at my skills. Still, I’m going to finish it, release it, and move on to the 5 partially finished books who’ve been (im)patiently awaiting my attention.
I appreciate your article, Dixie, and the encouragement not to fall into paralysis. Agreed, one can be stifled by fear, and it is true that “needed changes” are sometimes like weeds that just won’t go away. You are right, perfectionism for its own sake is not a virtue. That said, Jane Davis’ comments resonate with me. For myself, I would much rather err on the side of quality knowing that it will slow me down. My dad was a “finish carpenter.” His standards of care and quality always impressed me. It showed in his work. On some levels, excellence has its own rewards. I will not claim to have any error free books, but I will say that in my ongoing struggle with when enough is enough, excellence is the only acceptable goal. Until I can say, “I’m proud of this book!”, it’s not going anywhere. The above article does not advocate a lack of excellence. Yet for my taste, it might draw a sharper distinction between excellence and perfectionism for when enough is enough. Thanks, Dixie, for your article and for prompting me to think with you about this continually weedy question.
I think this may be what is stopping me publish again. It will be my 8th book but my last one was over 3 years ago. Add to that, I’ve got several waiting in the wings.
Perfection paralysis is a real ‘thing’.
Thank you for writing this.
Thanks for addressing this. For me, the ease with which a book file can be replaced in this digital era is a lifesaver. All my books are thoroughly edited, but there is always those handful of issues that I, three beta-readers and my professional editor didn’t catch.
After my first book was released to print, there were still a few things I wasn’t happy about. So I gathered those, made the changed and uploaded the new file to replace the existing one. Problem solved. Very few people got to see the initial edition (it was my first book and I knew zilch about promotion or marketing), but the ones that did left a good review all the same.
If you and five others don’t catch a certain mistake, chances are most readers won’t, either. Publishing a book requires the author to be meticulous about content, editing, and presentation. But meticulous needn’t be synonymous with crippling perfectionism.
I am at this stage in the process myself and I have to say that I’m in two minds about this article. On the one hand, when the buck stops with you it is easy to become a total control freak. On the other hand, I have actually achieved an error-free first edition (as far as I know!) The novel won an award and was shortlisted for two more, my imprint award for my publishing standards (the cover also won two awards.) This is now my standard. I almost feel that as indie authors we have to push harder than those in trad publishing so that we can say that we do it as well. I’m afraid it isn’t my experience that readers are forgiving of errors (I publish literary fiction, so it may be that particular group of readers). If they find something, I don’t want anyone to be able to say, Oh well, what did you expect from a self-published book? That doesn’t only impact on my reputation but on the reputation of every other indie author. journalist friend explained it to me as a question of trust. If you send your book out into the world with typos, how can a reader trust the content? Of course, I am not talking about delaying by years or even months, but I am talking about delaying by weeks and doing justice to the book I have spent two years writing. Surely one of the luxuries of being self-published is that we don’t have to work to rigid timescales?