On April 11, 2017, my third “baby” was born. Well, not a real baby in the way my two little redheaded boys were…but my book baby. The time and energy needed to grow it into a real, live, 204-page paperback may have been similar, though.
Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, hit Amazon’s virtual shelves on a day I was in a hotel in New Jersey on a family trip and managed to have caught the flu. Not my ideal launch day, to be sure, but exciting, nevertheless, to see it climb to the top of its category that first day.
My own experience with writing and publishing a book is in the self-publishing space, so the advice I’ll give here is relevant to anyone who wants to self-publish a book — and it may or may not be relevant to anyone working on publishing a book with a traditional publisher.
I decided to self-publish a book rather than shop my book proposal around to publishers for a number of reasons, including: impatience (not wanting to wait a few years for it to come out); a desire for control over the cover and content; and a dose of reality. I didn’t have a 20,000-person strong e-mail list, and I’d gotten the advice that without a large, already-built platform, it was extremely challenging to break into the traditional publishing world.
I’d also heard that unless you’re super well-known already, a publishing company won’t spend much in advertising dollars to promote your work, and you have to invest your own money in publicity dollars anyway. I’m happy with my decision to self-publish (and may, indeed, do it again in the future!).
If you’re thinking about taking that step of self-publishing a book — but you have no idea as to how to publish a book — here are 10 steps I urge you to take to turn your dream into a reality. YES, this process is a journey of a million miles that begins with a single step. And YES, you CAN do this, with planning, hard work, and determination to get your voice out there into the world.
1. Figure out your WHY. This is a big project, my friend. And to do it well takes energy, time, support, and resources – things most of us don’t have in abundance. So to undertake the book-writing and publication process without being crystal clear on why you’re doing it makes no sense.
I had a few “whys” myself, when I dove into this project. For me, I knew from experience with my blog and online course that I had a message that resonated and really helped working moms navigate the transition back to work after maternity leave. I also wanted to reach a broader audience. I wanted to grow my Mindful Return platform and had heard a book could help with brand-building. And last, but not least, I had a life-long dream to write a book. The opportunity seemed to scream, “now is the time!”
Take some time to ponder your why you’re self-publishing a book – brainstorm, journal about it, talk to other authors about their journey and their why – and then write it down somewhere you can look at it when the going gets tough (because it will).
2. Pick a subject. What is it you want to put out there in the world? What do you want people to learn or experience? Are you a fiction writer or a non-fiction writer? Do you want to spend countless hours on a non-fiction book or a fiction book? What do you like to go on a “rant” about, that tends to resonate with people who listen to you or read your work? Will the book be all your own writing, or will you solicit contributors to write certain pieces of it?
For me, the topic came easily, given I had already pursued helping new working moms as a passion project.
Then I had a bit of a revelation last summer: that I had pretty much already written a book. Between writing content for my e-course and a weekly blog post, and soliciting guest experts to write for the e-course and the blog, I discovered that much of the content was already there. My “book-writing” task was to select from the content I had, and weave it together in a coherent and organized way with introductions and transitions.
Don’t be intimidated if there are other books are out there on similar subjects to what you intend to write. It’s actually a good sign – not a bad one – if there are a number of popular works in the same genre. It means the market is interested in the topic. You have your voice and experience that you’ll bring to this pursuit. Yes, you should figure out what your individual contribution to the literary world will be. And no, you shouldn’t be deterred by others who also care about your topic.
3. Map out a writing schedule. As with any big project, it’s important to establish an overall game plan, with lots of sub-steps and interim deadlines. Does your book lend itself to a particular number of categories (chapters), and can you map each of them to a given month? Once you have an outline for the book, it’s much easier to set deadlines for each point on the outline and work to meet them.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish by when, so you don’t get frustrated and give up. And if you miss a deadline, just re-set the rest of the deadlines and keep plugging away.
You also have the option to hire help through the writing process, and this might be especially helpful if it’s your first time on this road and you’re not totally sure of how to publish a book. Shops like The Author Incubator will walk (push) you through the process of turning your idea into a written book, but they can be incredibly pricey. I decided not to hire someone to help me write my book, as I was motivated to do it myself and knew I wrote well. I used the “put butt on couch and just write” approach (which, incidentally, saved me upwards of $25,000, compared to those other options).
If you need some external accountability and don’t want to spend that much money, can you ask your partner, a friend, or a colleague, to check in on you on a periodic basis? Give them your list of deadlines and schedule regular calls or meetings with them to help you stay on track.
Run a draft by your target audience. Once you have a good working draft, find a few people in the demographic that will be your target audience, and ask them to read and comment on it. Are there things that are missing? Redundant? Could be better explained? Take the feedback to heart and decide if you’d like to incorporate it into the draft.
4. Invest in a good editor. When I was going through the book-writing process, I read exactly one book about how to self-publish: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing. It was excellent. In it, Mark Levine advocates for hiring a professional to edit your book, no matter what – and I agree wholeheartedly. To my mind, there are two kinds of editors: the kind that helps you with structure, content, how you convey your message, etc. And a copy editor who helps with grammar, punctuation, and finding errors you didn’t see.
I strongly recommend hiring someone who can do one, if not both, of these tasks. I felt confident in the structure and content of my book, so I hired someone of the copyediting variety. It was excellent to have another set of eyes to find things I didn’t see and ensure consistency in format throughout.
Don’t skip this step to save expense, and do not rely exclusively on friends and colleagues, even if they have “eagle eyes” for this stuff. You want a professional, if you want folks to take your work seriously. Seriously.
5. Hire an awesome book cover designer. So we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, right? But we all do. You know this. Don’t get your sister’s best friend who happens to be a good graphic designer to do this part. Sure, she can weigh in on book cover version options, but hire someone who has actually done this before. You avoid putting a novice through the learning curve on all the technical issues that come with designing a book, and you assure yourself a quality finished product.
My cover designer, Melissa Tenpas, was amazing to work with. Not only had she previously designed covers for a bunch of books, but she was great at generating ideas, taking feedback seriously, and being patient with me as I worked toward getting a cover that made me happy. (I can’t tell you how many wonderful mama and baby photo options she guided me through!) She worked with me to incorporate into the cover and first page design the “blurbs” (i.e. praise for the book) that I had solicited from some well-known folks. And she worked me through all my font and color options. Melissa is also an expert at interior layout and all the legal steps involved with self-publishing (getting an ISBN, registering with the Library of Congress, etc.), so I had a one-stop shop for so much of that finished product.
My other piece of advice on the cover is to solicit consumer feedback. What you, personally, think of the cover only matters so much. What really matters is the eye of someone who would be buying your book. So hit up your target audience. Send them options and ask them to vote and provide feedback. I wanted professional working mamas with little ones to tell me what they thought of my cover options, and they weighed in brilliantly.
6. Figure out your sales channels. If you’re not working with a traditional publishing house or book publisher it can be particularly important to figure out how people will be able to obtain your book.
The most popular do-it-yourself choice these days is Amazon. By signing up for a Createspace account, and uploading your finished project to their website, you’ll automatically be able to sell a paperback on Amazon through their print-on-demand service. This is an incredibly straightforward process, and I found Createspace very easy to use. Just don’t “publish” on Createspace until launch day, or you will have released your baby into the world before you intended to do so. My only real frustration with Createspeace is that you can only order 5 proof copies of the book at a time. I wound up also signing up for IngramSpark, not because I intended to publish through them, but because I could order an unlimited number of proof copies to give my publicist.
Even if you make a paperback available, I’d recommend releasing your book as a Kindle version, too. To do this, you’ll need to have your interior layout turned into a Kindle-formatted version (which I hired Ebookconversion.com to do for a relatively nominal fee). Then, simply sign up for Kindle Direct Publishing, and upload the Kindle file. You’ll need to write to Kindle to have them link your paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon, which they did quickly and efficiently in my case.
I also wound up publishing my book through self-publishing process used by the bookstore Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. I wanted to be able to do a book talk at their store, and I wasn’t permitted to do so without using their self-publishing channel.
7. Consider hiring a publicist. Yes, I know this increases the price of this project by a significant amount. But it doesn’t have to break the bank, and it can pay huge dividends if you get a good one who gets you some great press.
I used Sparkpoint Studio on the recommendation of another author and was initially intrigued by the fact that they had previously helped many women authors whose book subjects appeal to female audiences. I checked references by speaking by phone with some of the authors they promoted and wound up hiring them for a 6-month period. Because they are located in Arizona, they didn’t have the price tag of the New York publicity shops, and they did a truly fabulous job of getting my work out there. Without them, there’s no way my book would have gotten featured in publications like The Washington Post, Working Mother, and Kirkus Reviews.
If you’re wondering whether the expense is worth it, consider that many publicity channels won’t take you seriously as a self-published author, if you contact them yourself. Publicists also know things about pitching, press releases, and timing that I couldn’t possibly ever learn myself (in any relatively short period of time).
8. Pick a launch date. When will the big day be? Is there any science to it? Probably less than you think, though everything I know I learned from my publicist. For example, books come out on Tuesdays. So you’ll want to plan for that.
You’ll need lots of promo time pre-launch, so adjust expectations accordingly. I reached out to Sparkpoint Studio in September of 2016, planning to launch in February 2017. I learned from them what a tight timeframe this would be, though, and pushed the launch date back to April, to give them more time to promote the book before launch. This extra time paid off big time.
Even if you’re not working with a publicist, I urge you to give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. I know you’re anxious to get your work out into the world. But it’s not worth giving yourself an ulcer or shortchanging helpful steps in the process simply to get it out faster. Taking the time to do it right will be worth the wait.
Pre-sales (i.e. before launch date) matter, too, though the pre-sale feature on Amazon is fairly complicated to set up for self-published authors. (Check out this article and follow it step-by-step to make your book available for pre-order.) Why do pre-sales matter? Because they count toward your first day sales, which will get you the attention of the Amazon algorithms and increase your category rank that first day.
9. Sell!! And then REST. The selling-the-book process should definitely start before the book comes out. You’ll want to assemble a “launch team” who is willing to read an advance copy of your book and post reviews for you on Amazon on the first day. Make your requests of friends and colleagues a few months out, be sure they have a copy in their hands at least 6 weeks before launch day, and send reminders on launch day and again a week or so after launch.
Outside of traditional channels you might be working with a publicist, there are probably an infinite number of ways to promote your book once it’s out there in the world. You can write guest blog posts for others. Give book talks at local book stores. Ask friends to post about it on social media. Offer to do presentations in exchange for book sales (instead of a speaker fee). Tweet at people who might be interested in reading it. Give free copies to people who are likely to help you spread the word about it. And on and on. I’m still learning all of the many ways it’s possible to catapult your book into the awareness of your potential audience.
10. Finally (and this is a MUST!), schedule some unplugged downtime for yourself a few weeks after launch. Think of it as your postpartum recovery period. I took an unplugged family vacation about two months after the launch, and it was SO necessary. I was fried by that point and definitely needed some R&R.
If you’re planning to go do this book publishing thing, congrats! Looking back from the other side, I’m proud of myself for getting my book out into the world, found it to be a really fun process, am delighted that it has had a significant and measurable impact on my Mindful Return business. Thanks to the wonders of modern day technology, you too can launch your book-baby into the world!
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.