From Brainchild to Best Seller: Secrets of the Publishing Process
Writing a book was the easy part. No, seriously. I understand that I might have existed in some nurse zombie state during the creative process – most of which, to be honest, I don’t even remember – but as a left-brain kinda gal, getting the content onto paper wasn’t especially difficult. It took me just shy of three months of long days, late nights, and Venti cups between thirteen-hour days at the hospital to write the damn thing. My first book was a combination of passion and discipline: I set a goal of completing a book before my thirtieth birthday, and let my state of creative flow smash that self-imposed deadline. But a book is just a long f*cking word document until it actually hits the public eye, and my 166-page labor of love had some hurdles to jump through before it would become a tangible reality. I hope to share some helpful insights with regards to turning your manuscript into a book…most of which required a pretty steep learning curve on my end! Thankfully I’m not only an author: I’m a goddamn ICU nurse, and we live for solving unexpected problems.
I: “What are Your Intentions with my Manuscript?
The first question you need to ask yourself if you’re planning to publish, whether it’s a book of poems or a how-to-guide or erotica romance is this: what is your purpose in writing? For some people, writing is simply a natural extension of who they are: publishing has little to do with public reception and everything to do with self-expression. For others, the aim is to educate…or entertain…or inspire…or incite. For other still, it’s all about the Benjamin’s: making money is the name of the game. And if the latter is your intention – well, my friend – I hate to break it to you: the written word isn’t quite dead, but it’s in critical condition. Publishing a book for the money is like going to Denny’s for the steak dinner: once in a while you might be pleasantly surprised, but for the most part you’re going to end up underwhelmed and disappointed. Alas, I ask that you do not fear! I’m not here to discourage you: in fact, my hope is to aid the uncertain or unaware writers out there in their journey toward publication. I can’t promise that your book will sell, but I can show you I was able to bring generate my own sales on a shoestring budget.
II: “Help Me, I’m Poor!” (And Other Movie References)
Whether you’re just starting the writing process or have a stack of novellas just itching to be brought to life, there is one assumption that is universal: you are probably very, very poor. I don’t mean like, “Hello, cheerio, my name is J.K. Rowling and I’m living on the dole writing an epic series in the warmth of a coffee shop in London” poor: I mean that your disposable income is limited. I can assure you that as a nurse I understand what you’re going through. So when I started picking up a boatload of overtime shifts at the hospital, it was to finance the new and exciting fees that would come with self-publishing a paperback. After doing extensive research regarding the paths toward publication, I opted for a self-publication model over sending my manuscript to traditional publishing houses. I spoke at length with a nurse mentor who had published numerous books over the decades, and her advice served as an invaluable lesson in how to make your work public while still earning a reasonable royalty. While a traditional publishing house will do the sales and marketing legwork for you, they also had some drawbacks for me personally. For starters, the turnaround time from manuscript to publication can take anywhere from twelve to twenty-four months: my book felt too modern and time-sensitive to risk losing months if not years on making it a reality. In a self publication model, you can turn your manuscript into a physical book in as little as a few weeks; if you’re thinking of selling an e-book, think minutes! With that being said, the flip-side of self-publishing is the extensive amount of marketing that you yourself are responsible for doing: a traditional publisher takes a hefty royalty percentage per book, but they do the dirty work for you…and they do it damn well. I ultimately decided that my own hustle coupled with my ability to snap the occasional social media selfie made self-publishing seem like a direction worth taking.
III: Flop or Not: Investing in the Future
Publishing your own book is going to require an up-front financial investment in numerous arenas. Even if you’re taking the idea of grassroots marketing by storm, someone’s gotta pay for the damn books! You can expect to spend a couple thousand – not hundred, thousand dollars on your initial batch of books. The fees include a variety of behind the scenes players that are crucial in converting you from “aspiring writer” to “published author.”
1. Editing: are you going to have someone copy edit your work? There is nothing worse than having your book printed and seeing some typo that will haunt you in your grammar-laden dreams. If you’re on a budget, you can do what I did and find a wonderful but honest friend to do it for the price of a lunch date and a meager freak-out. I owe her more than she could ever know for not only proofreading my content, but stopping me dead in my tracks when I wanted to alt-control-delete the entire thing!
2. Cover art: the saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is royal bullshit. We are drawn to what catches our eye, and book design is no different. Will you be hiring a photographer? A graphic artist? A web designer? Will you require extensive editing and changes from your vision? You can expect to drop at least a couple hundred bones here.
3. Legal clearances: trademarks and copyrights and non-disclosure agreements, oh my! I am fortunate to have a dear friend who is a respected attorney who reviewed my content before it was published, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of legal clearance before you proceed to publish. Whether it’s fiction or memoir or an educational pearl, there are numerous interesting legal hurdles that you may never anticipate needing to clear before you publish your work. Do your due diligence: spend the fees now so you don’t get sued later.
4. Publication fees: this is the most expensive piece to the publishing puzzle. Finding a publisher that meets your needs requires lots of research and review before you pull the trigger. I was fortunate to be connected to an incredible publishing company through the guidance of Dr. Laura Gasparis Vonfrolio. (If you don’t know who she is, Google it: she’s like nursing’s Staten Island Oprah.) They have been instrumental in guiding a publishing virgin like myself by providing the necessary lubricant to make the confusing and painful experience marginally enjoyable. You can anticipate needing to front at least fifty percent of your cost the day you place an order for books, and the remainder will be due before they are shipped. The larger the order, the cheaper the cost per book…but obviously it’s going to cost you to get the great rate.
5. Shipping: whether you’re selling books from your parent’s basement or having them fulfilled by a third party, words like “freight” will come as a shock. Shipping fees depend on order size, weight, and location of shipment. You can imagine my chest pain when I saw the cost of overnight air-shipping books from middle America to the east coast. The cost of shipping was almost as much as publishing the damn books!
6. Fulfillment: if you choose to set up your own operation and sell directly to consumers, you save yourself on fulfillment fees. The flip side of this is that the more books you sell, the more work you create for yourself. Taking orders directly through your own website, blog, or online shop is a great way to save a few bucks per book…but it will cost you time and labor. If you choose to fulfill through a third party – think Amazon – well, they dominate the market for a reason! Is there anything better than Amazon Prime? Your adoring fans can purchase a book online through their marketplace and get it the next day!…but it’s going to cost you. Amazon is the largest purveyor of books in the world, and their services come with a hefty fee. When you use Amazon to sell your books, you can expect to pay three to four dollars per book just for fulfillment, and that doesn’t include additional hidden service fees, which put you closer to eight or nine dollars. Many times a publishing company can manage fulfillment for you, but they tend to be lesser-known marketplaces if you are trying to sell far and wide.
7. Marketing: this can mean prizes, contests, and giveaways. You’re going to have to give away the milk for free if you want your cow to produce down the road. This means being creative in your tactics and taking the hit financially to do it. I will heed this warning to life digital newbies: SOCIAL MEDIA IS HARD WORK. I understand that sounds like a ludicrous statement, especially considering just how hard my day job as an ICU nurse really is…but I’m serious! Keeping up with creative and engaging posts is hard enough; but then one day something finally sticks…a post really resonates and gains traction…and suddenly you’re elbows deep in direct messages and emails and tweets and Facebook tags and you can barely keep up! Social media can be exhausting, anxiety-inducing, and time consuming…but I assure you, it can make or break your efforts. Marketing direct to your consumers for exactly zero dollars and zero cents is a no-brainer! So make a conscious effort to set social media rules: no social media at work, for instance; and set a cell phone deadline after 9pm. I promise it will help you balance the likes that plague you!
IV: A Numbers Game
I assure you, I swore up and down that I wouldn’t pay attention to my sales. I told myself that the numbers were meaningless and my own sense of pride and accomplishment for following my dreams were payment enough. Until I got the bill…and I figured that I should at the very least care enough to recoup my money! We exist in an era where your numbers can be updated to the second: from website clicks to social media likes to physical dollars sold on your autographed baseball bat on eBay, the cloud is accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone. With the click of one link, I can track my Kindle eBook sales down to the country. I can see how many pages readers have browsed through; how many shares they’ve made; and how my daily, weekly, and monthly metrics shape up. Silly me, all I ever wanted was to know how many eBooks I sold! For paperbacks sold on my Amazon Seller account, I had an equally through breakdown that also included alerts for when my inventory was expected to sell out. My biggest rookie mistake was under purchasing my initial run of books for sale on Amazon from my publisher. It turned out that when my sales link went live, I sold so many paperback copies via Amazon so quickly that my account had to be FROZEN AND INVESTIGATED FOR FRAUD! That’s right, in four hours I nearly sold out of all of my inventory…and instead of thanking me for making them some dough, Amazon placed me under seller review until I provided additional proof of my identity and that I wasn’t trying to swindle anyone out of a friggen’ book for beginner nurses!
As you can see, once my book finally launched, I had no choice but to pay close attention to my metrics. Literally, the sale of my book depended on it! And as someone who has little desire to be a part of that tedious and task-oriented process, I found myself serving not only as an author but also as the head of sales, marketing, and my own administrative assistant! It took countless hours of phone calls and emails to clear up my initial sales launch snafu: time that was spent, unfortunately, not writing. In fact, I even went so far as to self-fulfill 150 signed copies of my book as an apology to my core base of social media followers, printing, shipping, and stuffing for hours on the floor of my one bedroom condo. Trust me when I tell you this: I am eternally grateful to have this “problem.” Having more orders than you’re capable of filling is generally a wonderful problem to have! But it was stressful, time-consuming, and unanticipated nonetheless.
And how could we ever have a conversation about metrics and sales without discussing the prospect of rankings! I didn’t even know that it was possible to be ranked as a best seller on Kindle. I genuinely had no idea how these metrics were quantified, and just how many categories exist for the title “best seller.” After my first full day of release in eBook, much to my shock, my book had reached the number one spot in four categories! It took text messages and emails from readers to inform me that it was even possible to review these numbers, let alone that they were openly public rankings. Of course, the higher your rankings, the more readily accessible you become as a title for a reader searching a niche category; and with that you generate additional sales.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have some magic potion to show you how to become a best seller. For me, thanks to some interesting social media; a memorable book cover; and hopefully, authentic content, it just sort of happened. Yet after the initial learning curve shell shock wore off, I’ve come to understand that striking a balance between self-promotion and authenticity is crucial to maintaining a readership that values your content and – hopefully – reads whatever comes next.
V: “Way Harsh, Ty:” Critically Acclaimed
Not everyone is going to love you: you aren’t a vibrator dipped in Nutella. In fact, you’re going to come across critics at every stage of the publishing process. From the inception of an idea to the penning of a draft right down to the official release of your sweat-laden masterpiece, there are going to be those who you simply will never please. And yes, the reality of taking your work public is that the public will have their way with it. I spent many nights awake in my bed contemplating the risks that came with moving from my inner circle to an open domain: while some will praise you for your efforts, touting your hard work and dedication…others will roll their eyes and wonder where you got the balls to think you’re a voice worth hearing. Let me tell you something: every single person has a story to tell. Every f*cking one of us. And while that story – whether fact or fiction, sci-fi or memoir, has its place in the universe. Unless your book is intentionally disparaging or damaging or dangerous in some way, it deserves to find its way out of your mind and onto printed pages. Let the haters hate you for your drive: better to fail and have follow through, then to never try anything at all.
Now the caveat to this is one I should disclose: while no review is set in stone, it is can be written on the Internet…and contrary to what many think, this can be damn near permanent. Readers of your book have the right to review the content with their honest opinions – that’s what makes free speech such a wonderful gift. But if your book reviews aren’t quite going the way you had planned…well, every negative comment can chip away at your ambition to start book number two. Nobody is perfect, and in so many ways, any piece of work can find its audience. If you continue to persist, believe in yourself, and follow your dreams, nothing that’s stated behind the guise of a computer screen on Goodreads or Amazon or the friggen’ New York Times can stop you. Ego bruises may hurt, but with the right treatment, they’re rarely permanent: trust me…I’m a nurse.
VI: A Word to the Wise
I’ll end this post with a word of advice that I had to learn on my own: you’re only as valuable as you present yourself to be. If you want to be viewed as an author, you need to learn to act like one. Be sure to answer your readers as quickly and thoroughly as possible: after all, they are likely a large part of the reason why you write! With every little milestone and achievement, remain humble: many try for years to gain an audience yet simply get lost in the shuffle. We live during an age where something that is new and exciting today is simply a flash in the pan tomorrow: do your best to roll with the punches; turn with the tides; and remain authentic and flexible. I have no doubt that if you remain true to who you are – with a little time, money, and effort – you can publish something meaningful. And now that I am filthy rich – no seriously, I’ve made roughly one million dollars in smiles, laughs, and tears (roughly one hundred in actual U.S. dollars, but who’s counting?) – I am thrilled to serve as a resource for those of you hoping to put yourselves out there into the world, too. Good luck. Godspeed. And for f*cks sake, stop editing it AGAIN for the fifteenth time!
** You can purchase your copy of “Oh Sh*t, I Almost Killed You! A Little Book of Big Things Nursing School Forgot to Teach You” in paperback or eBook on Amazon today. And yeah, this is totally a shameless plug. **