Pat yourself on the back, first of all. You wrote a book! Let that realization wash over you, then set your novel aside. It's time to research your next steps. I'm outlining some basic next steps below that will work for fiction indie authors of a variety of genres.
Time to revise
For most indie authors with a complete novel in hand (or on their computer), the natural next step will be to get other eyes on their manuscript.
First, authors should know that this stage does not include: cover design, illustrations (for picture books), or formatting. You might have an inkling about which company you would like to self-publish with, and you might have started garnering interest and following on social media platforms. But don't let those things distract you from the task at hand: putting your novel in front of professionals who can offer feedback and suggestions to enhance your writing and bring your story to life.
Let's run through the different forms this can take when your novel is complete, looking at:
Developmental editing (also called structural or substantive editing)
A note on self-editing
We'll get number one out of the way quickly as it can be a bit of an elephant in the room. Self-editing is a funny term. Can you really self-edit your own work? Yes and no.
When it comes to self-editing, we can't think of it as the same type of editing that professional editors do (that's the "no" part). When you self-edit, you are adding and eliminating elements of your manuscript. Simply put, you are writing a new draft which may incorporate edits similar to that of a professional editor.
This is, of course, a necessary part of the writing process. Authors will often write many drafts of the same story. Here's where self-editing can derail and sabotage the indie author - at what point do you stop writing new drafts? When are your self-editing revisions ever completely done? If you can't draw a hard line for yourself, and you find yourself on draft number seven with a panicky feeling that there's no end in sight, this is where a professional can help guide you back on track.
What do beta readers do?
Beta readers are test readers. They read over your manuscript with the eye of an average reader and provide you with feedback. They are not professional editors or proofreaders. While it can be easier to give your manuscript to friends or family to read, you may not get the most candid feedback. A beta reader will do this!
Seek out three to five beta readers (some beta readers might work for free; others charge), and share you manuscript with them. If you are worried about the safety of sharing your intellectual property with strangers on the internet, know that if you are in the US, your novel has copyright protections from the moment it is in digital form with a time stamp.
You may come across the term "alpha reader" in your beta reader search. An alpha reader, as the name implies, reads your manuscript (after self-edits) before a beta reader. When the manuscript is returned with feedback, the author will revise, and then submit to beta readers. Whether you seek out an alpha or beta reader, plan to do so before you you submit your work to a developmental editor.
Developmental editing (and a potentially unpopular opinion)
You've revised based on feedback from your beta readers, and you know it's time to hire the services of a professional editor. A developmental editor helps you strengthen the big picture story elements of your novel by looking at character, plot, world building, and theme. This is a pivotal, intensive, and time-consuming process. Not all novels will need developmental editing, but all novels can benefit from it. When potential clients reach out to me about line or copyediting and proofreading services, I always inquire whether their manuscript has had developmental editing.
Now here's the potentially unpopular part of this post. Some developmental editors offer a service called a manuscript critique, evaluation, or assessment. Occasionally, I see it called an editorial assessment. All are basically the same type of beast. A manuscript critique gives line-by-line suggestions for revising your book prior to developmental editing services.
Hear me out. This can be a helpful service for indie authors who may not have the financial means to hire for a full developmental edit of their manuscript. Manuscript critiques can still be pricey, depending on the experience of the editor, but they usually run much less cost-wise than a full edit. It could also be a potentially useful service for the indie author who is discerning whether a particular developmental editor is a good fit for them.
I recommend manuscript critiques with a caveat. If you've had multiple beta readers read through your manuscript, a manuscript assessment may not be necessary. I'd even argue that it could be redundant. A good beta reader will be able to note logical inconsistencies, problems with characterization, or weak world building.
That said, the services of a developmental editor ore indispensable, and I don't recommend skipping this step in the revision process. They will help you take the suggestions from you beta readers and turn them into reality within your story.
It takes a village
My hope is that you leave this post with a clear picture of what to do once the first draft of your manuscript is complete. There are so many sub-topics I could have written about here (sensitivity readers, anyone?), but I have to stop somewhere. Wherever you are in the process, know that it truly takes a village to publish a book, and there are many professionals of the self-publishing world ready to help you get your book into the hands of readers.