Experienced authors know the value of ordering and reviewing a proof of their book before making it available for sale. But this is a step that new self-publishers often overlook until it’s too late, because no one ever explained to them how it works and why it matters.
The proof is an actual printing of the physical book, even though it is not available to the public yet. Reviewing a physical proof of the book is more than just an opportunity to proofread the text for mistakes. It’s a chance to examine the entire book as a book.
Pay special attention to the cover. Spelling and formatting errors on the cover will cause potential readers to not take your work seriously. At a recent workshop, one author spoke about her feelings when she finds multiple errors in a book: “Didn’t anyone read this before it got printed?” It sounds harsh, but that’s exactly what people will think, whether they say it or not.
Avoiding that reaction means our job as author is not over when the writing is done. We need to take the time to refine and perfect our work. Plus, we need to make sure errors have not crept into the book during the design stages of the interior and cover. The proof copy is our last chance to do this before “going live”, so we should take advantage of it.
Why Does the Proof Review Get Skipped or Given Inadequate Attention?
The most common reason is deadline pressure. Authors who want their book available for a speaking engagement or media appearance often encounter this. A project can take longer than expected for any number of reasons, from a lack of experience planning a book to last-minute additions of new material. Authors can end up submitting files to the printer only days before a major event where they want to sell the book. In this time crunch, authors go straight to print without the luxury of a proof to review first.
Invariably, they find something wrong. Or many things. Now every copy they ordered is wrong. This is a source of major frustration, and it carries both financial and emotional costs. One author who gave me feedback on this chapter described the resulting emotional state as “mortified”, and she was absolutely right.
To avoid stress and wasted printing costs, plan your project schedule so you have two weeks to review your proof. For a large or complex book, you may need more time. After all, if you find an error, you need to contact your designer to revise it, and upload the revised files to your printer. Then you’ll want to order another proof and double-check everything.
Why Do So Many Errors Slip Though?
Technology has changed book production into a process that mostly happens on computer screens. You will never catch as many errors on a computer screen as you will with a printed copy. I suspect it’s because we associate screens with entertainment. If we look at them for too long, we slip into a passive, uncritical mode and miss details. There is no substitute for reading a physical page.
Technology is not entirely to blame. It’s easy to miss things when you have worked on a manuscript for months. Your mind goes on auto-pilot after a while, and it’s generally true that all of us are the worst choices to proofread our own work. We’re too close to it and too familiar with it.
How Do You Review the Proof?
I have success with reading the entire book aloud. Wherever I find an error, I mark it on the page in pencil, make a note if necessary, and fold the page’s corner. Some people like to insert sticky notes or colorful tabs.
Professional proofreaders recommend reading the book backwards, sentence by sentence, starting with the last one. This prevents you from being drawn into the narrative and breezing over familiar territory. This method focuses on catching technical errors, as opposed to conceptual concerns such as narrative structure and plot development.
How Long Does It Take to Review the Proof?
Reading aloud takes time, especially when stopping to mark errors or desired changes. A 400-page novel can take days. A 25-page academic paper can take the better part of an evening. And that’s if you can schedule yourself uninterrupted time, free from distractions.
If you really love your book and put your heart and soul into it, you won’t mind. In fact, it might be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. Books can be that good. If you love reading yours after all this hard work, consider that a major success.
If you don’t have that kind of time, hire a proofreader. Give them a physical proof and have them thoroughly inspect every single word of the interior, and all the cover elements, too.
Am I Only Looking for Errors in the Text?
We are also looking for technical errors in the way the book is set up. For example, if you upload a file for the cover, and it has the wrong dimensions, it can show up as a spine printed off-center. Maybe the colors that looked good on the screen don’t look so good on paper. Maybe a chapter title did not get formatted consistently with the other chapters.
I have seen all kinds of things that needed to be fixed. You don’t want to find them after the book is available for sale.
Next, you will find a list of questions that will help you plan for your proof review. Plan to inspect your book, find all the things you want fixed, ask for those corrections from your team, resubmit your files, and order another proof. You will be happier with the final result, and so will your readers.
Create a Plan to Review the Proof.
List any major events or deadlines where the final book must be available:
How long does it take the printer to review files and ship a proof to you?
How long would it take you to read the book cover to cover?
How long would it take your designer to correct the files and send them to you?
How long will it take before the printer approves the corrected files? (Does not apply if your printer does not do a technical review of your files.)
Add up all these times for the total time needed to review the proof (Two weeks minimum recommended):
Who else on your team needs a physical copy they can review and mark up?
This is a chapter from my quick-start guide to writing and self-publishing a book, A Passion for Planning: Nine Things I Wish I Knew Before Making My First Book. Pick it up in paperback or Kindle today to get started on your writing journey!