I’ve had lots of people contact me on social media asking for advice on writing and publishing their first book. Having written the grand total of one book, I don’t profess to be anything of an expert on the topic, but I’m more than happy to share with you what I’ve learned over the last two years. I hope you can learn from my mistakes!
My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter, was published on 28th November 2017. I still get a kick from writing that. Every time I see it on the shelves of Waterstones I can’t help grinning like an idiot. I only started writing it in March 2016, and it wouldn’t be an understatement if I told you I had absolutely NO CLUE what I was doing. What I did know was that I had a great story to tell, that I could write, and I knew what I wanted the end product to look like.
I only write non-fiction – I lack the patience for writing novels – but a lot of what I’m going to tell you applies to both sorts of writing. I’ll divide this article up into 2 sections, one on writing and one on getting your work published. Hopefully you’ll find at least part of it helpful.
PART ONE “ I’VE GOT A GREAT IDEA FOR A BOOK”
I wish I had a tenner for every time someone has said this to me. In fact, I wish I had a tenner for every time I’ve said it to myself. I’d have at least eighty quid. You might have a fantastic idea for a crime thriller or a self-help book, but can you actually write? There’s only one way to find out. Stop faffing about, sit down and actually write something.
Publishers aren’t interested in ideas. They want to see your work. They want to see if you can tell a story, develop a plot and characters, or convey factual information in an engaging and interesting way. They want to know if you’re the next Charles Dickens or an illiterate halfwit with a manuscript littered with errors and cliches. And that will be evident pretty quickly.
You need to think about these 3 issues at the outset:
WHO IS GOING TO READ MY BOOK?
Realistically? What’s your market? Apart from your mum and dad and your Aunty Maureen? There are around 3000 books published EVERY WEEK in the UK alone. You need to think very carefully about this … for example, who outside your immediate family is going to want to read your family history or your memoirs?
If it’s a niche subject, how many other people are interested in this area and why would they buy your book? If your book is about a popular subject, what sets yours apart from the hundreds of others on the same subject? What’s your angle?
If you’re writing fiction, the same applies to your genre. Why would someone read your sci-fi story instead of the hundreds of thousands of others out there? Is yours really an original idea or simply a distillation of every similar book you’ve ever read?
RESEARCH RESEARCH RESEARCH.
You can’t do too much research. And it must be METICULOUS when it comes down to factual, scientific, geographic or historical detail. You cannot skimp on this – a poorly researched book will fail at the first hurdle, and invite criticism and poor reviews.
Don’t embarrass yourself and let your writing down by failing to research properly. This applies to fiction too; for example, if your book is set in Barcelona, make sure you actually research the city first.
For non-fiction writing, don’t forget footnotes – learn how to do citations, acknowledgements and bibliographies properly. You MUST seek permission to quote from or cite other published works – this applies to newspapers, academic papers, books, websites, magazines, music lyrics and photographs. You need to understand copyright laws. It can take months, even years for permission to be granted, so start straight away. I use a website called PLS Clear which does all of the hard work for you. ( https://plsclear.com/ )
ASK FOR HELP.
Don’t be nervous about asking for help. I had no clue what I was doing when I wrote my first book. The publishing world can be very intimidating, and quite frankly rather snotty. The help and advice of other writers, editors, booksellers, proof readers, and academics is invaluable. Most of it will be freely and generously given. Social media is a great place to start. Twitter proved to be a fabulous resource for me. Just ask, and you’ll be amazed at the positive and helpful responses you receive. Talk to as many people as you can.
PART TWO “HOW DO I GET MY BOOK PUBLISHED?”
I get asked this question more than any other.
First, make sure your book is finished. By that I mean make sure it’s as good as you can make it and not just a rough draft. Is it good enough to appear in print or is it littered with spelling mistakes, inconsistencies, poor grammar and punctuation errors? No matter how many times you read it, you’ll miss some mistakes. My book was read, edited and proofread by at least 5 different people and I still spotted 3 mistakes after it was published. AAAAAARGHHHH.
Who is the most brutally honest person you know? Ask them to read it. In fact, just ask everybody you know to read it. If people tell you, “Oooh it’s perfect”, then they haven’t read it properly. It won’t be. If you’re really serious about your work, it’s worth having the book professionally edited and then professionally proofread. It’ll cost you, but it’s worth it, believe me.
You then have 2 options – traditional publishing or self- publishing. I chose the latter, and I’ll explain why below.
Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors. This means you can’t just send them your book, you have to do it through a literary agent. And finding a literary agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. Get yourself a copy of the Artists and Writers Handbook, which is published annually and is full of good advice. It also lists agents and publishers.
A scattergun approach won’t work – you need to do your research, and find out which agents and publishers deal with what genre of writing, and whether they’re actively taking on new writers. On a publisher’s website, look for the “Submissions” page. This will often be hidden away at the bottom of the website. It’s almost as if they don’t want you to contact them. That’s because they don’t.
Of the publishers that do accept manuscripts directly, please check their submissions criteria VERY carefully, as they’re all different. And don’t expect any feedback. You’ll probably hear nothing further from them. At all. But don’t let that put you off. Keep trying. No matter how good your book is, there’s a great deal of luck involved. Every publisher or agent will probably receive hundreds of submissions a week, most of which will be absolute tosh, and it’s just physically impossible for them to read them all.
Consider approaching local or specialist publishers first – for example, some publishers focus solely on local history, crime writing, or children’s books.
If you are lucky enough to have your manuscript accepted for publication, you may be offered an “up-front” payment, called an advance and then a (very low) percentage of royalties. It’s very unlikely that either will make you rich, so don’t give up the day job just yet.
SELF – PUBLISHING
This is where you do all the work yourself. This is the option I chose, for several reasons:
- I didn’t want to spend the next 3 years of my life looking for a publisher – I didn’t have the time or the energy.
- From the outset, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted the book to look, and who my target readership was going to be. I thought it might be the only book I ever wrote, and I wanted to retain complete control over the process.
- Having spent a great deal of money on researching my book, including travelling to Australia, I wanted to try to get some of it back in book sales.
It’s not cheap, and it’s bloody hard going at times. As a rough guide, I spent around £4000. This might sound like a huge amount but this included:
- Copy edit
- Printing (including colour photos, which bumps the cost up hugely)
- Cover design
- Creation of an ebook and listing on Amazon, iBooks etc
- Trade marketing & distribution (listing in book trade catalogues etc so that bookshops can actually get hold of copies)
- A marketing programme (press releases to local and national media etc)
You don’t have to have all of these options – you can just get a basic book printed for around £1500, or an ebook for about £300. Obviously the more you get printed the cheaper it works out in the long run. I seriously underestimated how many books I would sell, and consequently I’m now into my third print run.
It might not be the answer for you, but it was the perfect solution for me.
Was it worth it? Yes. I doubled my investment in 6 months and I’m now well into pure profit. And that’s another thing. With self publishing you get to keep most of the sale proceeds. Be very wary of Amazon – whilst it’s great exposure and a convenient marketplace for your readers, they take a HUGE proportion – something like 60% of the cover price for print books, and around 30% for ebooks. Add on your distributor’s cut (around 15%) and you’re left with the square root of Sweet FA. As a rough guide, for every print book I sell on Amazon (cover price £8.99), I receive around £2.24. It probably costs more than that to print them, so look at other market places for your book. I’ll write another blog piece on selling your book, as there’s just too much information to include here.
There are some great self-publishing companies around, and there are some very poor ones. Be very careful about “publishing” companies who offer to publish your book for a fee. Most of them are just glorified printers, and will do nothing to sell or promote your book once they have your cash. If you’re only planning a small project that’s fine, but I suspect most of you will be planning greater things.
I used Matador/Troubador. They’re not the cheapest, but they are the best. They’re sort of a hybrid between a traditional publisher in that they will sell and market your book as well as printing it, and a self-publisher. You select exactly which of their services you want. It’s very much a tailor-made process. There were a few hiccups on the way – it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing – but I’d definitely use them again. It wasn’t cheap, but I’ve got a high-quality product which has sold more copies than I ever could have imagined. Their website is full of advice for would-be authors, and contains lots of helpful stuff about how the book trade works, which you really do need to know. If they don’t think your book is good enough, they will turn it down. You can read more at https://www.troubador.co.uk/matador
I hope you find this helpful, but if you have any further questions or queries, you can send them in the comments box below, or please do feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now go away and write something!
I’ve published a much longer version of this article in an e-guide, exclusively for Amazon Kindle. You can download it here .
If you’re considering writing your family history but don’t know where to start, HOW TO WRITE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY may point you in the right direction.
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017)
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020, now available to pre-order).