My Adventures in Self-Publishing a Book: Tips and Advice for New Authors

Have you ever had the feeling that you have a good story to tell – one that would fill at least a small-sized book? If so, you are not alone, and the good news is that you have real options available to you for sharing that story.

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I retired from my thirty-seven year career in electrical engineering twelve years ago, at the age of sixty-one. Over many years, prior to retirement, I had become fascinated with science, especially physics and its history from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. I began assembling a reference library, a collection of books which could enlighten and explain while also providing historical context.

Working, here, in Silicon Valley, California, for most of my career, I was a part of this culture which is almost exclusively focused on present, unfolding technology and visions of the “next big thing.” There is not much time spent on retrospection in this valley. My side-interests in pure science and its historical development gave me a different perspective from that of most of my engineering colleagues. After years of reading and researching the history of science, a story materialized in my mind which I felt was important to share.

I had read a lot about four men in particular: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. They are the brightest of stars in the vast firmament of science, and I came to appreciate that they each earned their greatest fame through their work on the physics of motion. For example, Kepler was one of the first to support the heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system proposed by Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. He proceeded to determine the planetary motions around the sun to be elliptical in shape and not the perfect, “divine” circles espoused by Copernicus and his many predecessors. Galileo Galilei was the first to uncover the fundamental truth underlying motion physics, the celebrated “Law of Fall (ing bodies).” Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of them all, proved that the universe is mathematical in nature, operating in accordance with universal “natural laws” which can be revealed to humans and understood using mathematics. Albert Einstein and his famous theories of relativity focused on the concepts of space, time, and that unifying theme which embodies those two – motion.

Your Story and How to Tell It:
Learning About Publishing!

 With a great supporting cast of four luminaries all making scientific history by revealing, step-by-step, “the elusive notion of motion,” I had my story…and my book title! Starting soon after retirement, I created some rough drafts of my story. The next step was to find a publisher, and this is was an education in itself. I obtained some books on “How to Get Published” and got started.

The first thing a novice author learns is that book publishers are not interested in talking to you, the unknown writer. Things are different if you are David McCullough, or Hillary Clinton, or Steven King! For the rest of us, the response is some variation of, “Please go around to the back door with a literary agency representing you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you!” The newbie author next learns how to get “represented” by the prerequisite literary agent…you need a “query letter!”

The Query Letter and the Literary Agency

If directly interesting a publisher in your fabulous book manuscript is virtually impossible, finding an interested literary agent to represent you to publishers is next to impossible. One lands an agent by sending out many copies of a “query letter,” a one-page, tautly-written, but lively description of your book manuscript and its unique merits. Most agencies will respond, but only after keeping you in suspense for anywhere from two to six weeks. More than ninety percent of the responses have one of the following cryptic responses scrawled at the top of your letter: “No Thanks!” “Not for me!” “That field does not sell very well,” or “We are so swamped with proposals – sorry!” Occasionally, a kindlier, more empathetic agent will write, “Liked your concept, but just cannot take on any more projects at this time.” Once in a great while an agent will request a sample chapter of your manuscript, but, even then, don’t get your hopes too high for you have only reached first base on a diamond with four bases, and the odds of landing an agent are long, even from first base.

Virtually all new authors will relate the same experiences with the publishing industry and agencies – sending out dozens of query letters without success. It can get to be rather demoralizing.

Self-Publishing, the “Other” Option –
The Good and the Bad Aspects

 After putting the rough drafts of my early manuscript aside for a few years, I was browsing in the reference section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore one spring day in 2010 when I noticed a small paperback book titled Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Vol 2. I pulled it out and started to read; the more I read, the more excited I became about the prospect of self-publishing. I bought the book and, within a few days, decided to self-publish a more polished version of my then-current manuscript. After a few months of dedicated, hard labor, I was ready.

Another book proved to be very helpful with my learning-curve in this new venture: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, by Mark Levine. The book sheds much light on the pros and cons of “doing it yourself” while pulling no punches in its reviews of the dozens of self-publishing companies which can turn your manuscript brainchild into a real (or virtual) book. This handy volume also clearly demonstrates the economics involved in authoring and marketing a self-published book.

One might ask, “What is the difference between a traditional publisher” and a self-publishing” company? The major difference: The author pays a development fee to the latter which guarantees a book will “happen.” As an author/ self-publisher, you generally own all rights to your work as well as the ultimate design templates for on-demand printing (read the contract carefully!). When a traditional publisher accepts your book, you almost always give away all ownership rights to the book in exchange for an up-front cash advance and ongoing royalties based on sales. With self-publishing, you enjoy significant control (at least “say”) over the design, formatting, etc. of your self-published book. When a traditional publisher accepts or “buys” your book, they can do whatever they wish with its production, format, cover design, etc.

As opposed to publisher’s “print runs” in the old days, self-published books are “print-on-demand,” meaning they are ordered, as needed, from a dedicated, highly automated print-house which gets all the required software templates from your self-publishing company. Anywhere from a single copy to hundreds of copies can be in the mail within two business days of the order, generally!

Marketing and Sales of Your Book: Ready for Work?

 If you believe that landing a traditional publisher for your manuscript opens the door to being on the New York Times best-seller list, think again! I contend that being on that list does not carry the same aura of exclusivity it did twenty years ago. It seems that fully half of the many books on display in bookstore windows carry that “accolade,” some of which seem unworthy of any notable mention. At any rate, don’t assume that having a traditional publisher will get you on the list. Most traditional publishers will do very little to promote your book that they publish. Unless you are Hillary Clinton, or Ben Bernanke, or Martha Stewart, your book is on its own. The same is just as true of your book when you self-publish: It is on its own once it is listed by the self-publishing company with the major book distributors and major sellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. As any good book on self-publishing will emphasize, your sales will depend on your chosen topic, the quality of your writing, and your personal involvement and effectiveness in marketing the book – especially the latter.

Here is a key statement that all potential authors must appreciate:

With the flurry of books being published today, both by traditional publishing houses and by self-publishing companies, it is extremely difficult for first-time authors to capture the public’s attention to the extent that there will be any meaningful sales revenue. The huge number of communication channels open to the public is both a blessing and a curse for new authors. On the one hand, there are many channels that can be used to publicize a book; on the other, the public audience is so bombarded by “information” coming from every angle that your new book is very likely going to get lost in the shuffle –  without ever being seen or appreciated.

The Big Advantage of Traditional Publishing

The huge advantage of traditional publishing is this: Brick and mortar bookstores will stock a new author’s unproven title coming from a traditional publisher whereas they will not stock a new, self-published title. Why is that?  In large part, it is because sellers can return an unsold, dog-eared copy to the publisher/distributor for a refund/credit whereas they usually cannot return self-published titles. Why should that be the case? The reason is that self-published authors generally must designate their books as “unreturnable.” If they do not, the author is stuck with returned books that a traditional publisher – not the author – would be responsible for. That makes a huge “dent” in the book’s marketing prospects and the ability of a new title to “be seen” by the buying public. There have been many self-published authors who have found out the hard way that not designating their book, “unreturnable” cost them dearly – in returned books.

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The author and his book (on the book-rack)
at the Stanford University Bookstore

You can get select bookstores to carry your self-published book on a consignment basis…if it has merit, and if you take the initiative to personally contact the seller and make the necessary arrangements with the buyer. 

Why Do You Want to Publish a Book?

There are a number of reasons for wanting to see your very own book in print – some noble, some, not so much. The choice of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing will depend to a degree on your reasons for writing the book and your goals for it.

To make money

If you are writing/publishing a book to make big money – good luck! That is very unlikely even with a traditional publisher, most of whom offer skinny advances and small royalties, even on a larger book. As a new, unknown author with a deluxe paperback selling for $19.95, you would be lucky to receive $3.00 per book. One can actually make considerably more by self-publishing and self-marketing that same book, roughly, $8.00 per book of profit, but the sales volume will be small. Even though the financial rewards are small for a first-time author, the bookstore exposure provided by traditional publishing is key to at least selling books and becoming known by the reading public.

To leave a memoir

Not the most economical way to go, but if you desire a real book in small numbers, then self-publishing is the only way to go unless, once again, you are Hillary Clinton! For those who have the several hundred dollars it takes to purchase an entry-level package which will get them the five sample copies of a nice paperback book/memoir, it is a fine approach.

Ego Gratification

OK – fair enough, but for good writers who are serious about their craft, this reason rarely satisfies. Good writers are mainly motivated by the desire to create a manuscript that someone else will read, enjoy, and perhaps benefit from – a book with literary merit that will sell.

 To Tell and Share a Significant Story

Telling a good or favorite story and sharing it with others is the goal of many new authors. We all have our unique interests which captivate our imaginations and which we would like to share with others…in the “true spirit of giving,” shall we say? That is a wonderful reason to offer a book, but no assurance that the topic or your implementation of it will sell. A story that needs to be told, for whatever reason, is also a basis for a compelling book.

To have the kind of book you, the author, would like to read!

Say what? What does that mean? I can relate to that reason-statement. When I wrote and self-published my book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, I did so to tell and share a story, one that I deemed important and interesting. But I also felt that none of the many books I have on the subject matter really tied up the scientific history of motion physics along with explanations for the layperson into one neat bundle – the kind of bundled approach that appealed to me. So I literally set out “to write the book that I wanted to read.”

I find I am not alone in that approach to writing! As many of you know from past posts, especially that of July 21, 2013, Meet David McCullough – Engaging Author, Historian, and Man of Common-Sense (see my blog archive for July, 2013), I am a big fan of Mr. McCullough and his writing. I have learned that his first book, titled The Johnstown Flood, was written out of his frustration in not finding a suitable book describing that catastrophic event. He wrote the book he, himself, wanted to read, to paraphrase his words (see the very excellent short film on him, Painting with Words, for the story).

The Times, They Are-a-Changin’ In the Book World!

 Three things, in particular, are in the midst of rapid change: First, the rise of self-publishing vs. traditional publishers; second, the marketing and selling of books, today; third, the E-book phenomenon.

The Publishing Business

Self-publishing is rapidly overtaking traditional publishing today. The old publishing establishment with its “farm system” of literary agencies which is used by publishers to screen new authors and their offerings is quite unable to keep up with today’s demands. There are many good, new, talented authors for whom the protracted struggle to actually get the attention of a publisher (or not) is very discouraging.

In some ways, that tight screening process of traditional publishing is a good thing; it generally prevents many manuscripts of dubious merit from reaching bookstore shelves. In the early years, a rather large number of authors with poor offerings resorted to self-publishing their books, and that fact stigmatized the genre; that has been the knock on self-publishing in the past. I have seen some dreadful, self-published books in which any semblance of decent grammar and syntax is clearly missing. That has drastically changed today, and there are many fine works being self-published thanks to the increasing tendency of the traditional publishing industry to eschew new authors and revert to the financial guarantees implicit in well-known, previously published names – publishing “sure-things.”

Bookselling and Marketing

The visible demise of so many brick and mortar bookstores and the towering internet presence of Amazon tell most of the story. I buy some of my books from Amazon because of the convenience and unbeatable pricing, but my wife and I make it a point to frequently buy from brick and mortar stores, especially our local favorite, Leigh’s Favorite Books in downtown Sunnyvale, California (see my blog-post of April 1, 2013, Support Your Local Bookstore – available in the April, 2013 archives of my blog). Without the pleasures of browsing in a real bookstore and the new discoveries to made there, where would we be?

As for book-marketing, it is the age of the internet and social media with all its pluses and minuses. The advice for new authors with a new book is: Be prepared to be your own VP of marketing…on the internet. As I pointed out earlier, even a traditional publisher will do virtually zero to promote the new book of an unknown author – beyond the built-in advantage of bookstore exposure, as explained earlier. There are many ways to bring your book to the public’s attention using social media, but the bad news is that there is so much “clutter” out there that your book is in very real danger of being lost in the shuffle.

E-Books

E-books have taken on increasing importance in book publishing and marketing. Most self-publishing companies offer to release various E-versions of your book for a nominal up-front development fee. The author’s profit from an E-Book sale is actually slightly higher in most cases compared to the sale of a paperback copy. Although not a big fan of reading from E-Books, I acknowledge their importance and had my book made available in that format. 

The Final Chapter: A “Fun Find” in a Vancouver Bookstore

Back in September, my wife and I visited the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver. Our B & B host in Vancouver recommended a used bookstore downtown, so we stopped there one afternoon. Per custom, my wife and I went in different directions after choosing a meeting time at the front of the store. I headed for the science section. Browsing along the shelves and seeing a number of titles I already have in my reference library, I came across one special title – my own book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein (see the photo)!

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 I was quite taken-a-back to find my own book all the way up in Vancouver! Looking closely at it, I could tell that it was from the first order of books I ever received from the printer; it even had the errata slip that I personally inserted before page 191 (I had that problem quickly corrected by my self-publisher). I bought the used copy of my own book for the bargain price of $10.00 and brought it back home…from where it originally left on its journey to Vancouver. It resides on my bookshelf, a special souvenir of Vancouver! I hope the original buyer read it and enjoyed it before giving it up!

What’s Next? A New Book!

For me, a new book is almost ready for a publisher-search… or a self-publisher! The finishing touches are in process on my newest manuscript, a book on the problem of educating today’s youngsters for success, especially in the critical areas of science and math. In my new book, I point out that America’s problems will not be solved by the traditional panaceas of “better schools,” “better teachers,” or “longer school days” as is so often heard in the news media. The solution lies in my thesis that, “education and learning begin at home;” accordingly, my book shows parent/mentors how to send children to school who are “learning-ready.” I hope to have it published, one way or the other, by June.

My advice to aspiring authors?

Believe in your work, but first insure that the quality of your effort is worthy of such belief! Above all, do not get discouraged; virtually every new author will need a vast reservoir of determination and dedication to the task to make their book a reality. Good luck!

3 thoughts on “My Adventures in Self-Publishing a Book: Tips and Advice for New Authors

  1. When I was a very tiny girl I wanted to be “a writer.” The blogosphere (in which I’ve staked my own corner) has nearly decimated the journalistic “place” for people like me who write creative nonfiction (public radio remains the final frontier). People tell me I should write, but it’s now a LOT harder to be paid for content.

    The flipside? Yes — self-publishing. The funny thing is that Amazon killed the big box book stores, but the really good indie shops hang on. It’s a weird world, but I’m happy self- publishing is taking off. I’m pecking this from my Nook — I didn’t think I’d ever be an e-book fan, but the sheer number of titles I can carry with my at any moment is one draw. The fact that everything can magically become large print, and I can mark stuff up withnotes without being limited to margin size? Sold.

    Working on anything else?

    • I am a big fan of good, independent bookstores like Leigh’s Favorite Books, here in Sunnyvale. I believe Leigh has the right formula for success: Carry an intelligent selection of new books, and offer a significant discount on new book orders. She carries a very large stock of nice-condition, carefully selected, used books which I believe is a very smart way to go. Many fine, used hardback titles will, in my opinion, bring good prices in the future, especially good science, history, and biography books. In answer to your question, my new book manuscript on K thru 12 education, which I mention at the end of this week’s post, has kept me busy and will for the next few months until it is on its way to being published – one way or the other. No subsequent plans… yet!

      • Yes, our local indie store is mostly carefully selected used books as well, with a lovely theology section and an owner who is a great conversationalist. 🙂

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