Write and Publish Your Book?

By Douglas Winslow Cooper

“You ought to write a book!” Has anyone said that to you? Have you said it to yourself? I recently published Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion through Outskirts Press.

Why publish? What are your goals? Start there. If it is only vanity, stop there. Few people want to hear us brag. An early comment on my own book was that the reader was relieved that, unlike many memoirs, it was not an exercise in self-congratulation. Of course, as an author, you will feel that having written a book puts you a cut above some who haven’t. Don’t gloat, however.

You can publish to inform, to inspire, to thank, to amuse, to mourn, to justify, to chastise, to set the record straight, among other reasons. I wrote in tribute to my wife, Tina Su Cooper; in thanks to those who have helped us; to inform others how we managed around-the-clock intensive care at home; and to express myself on numerous issues. You will need some strong motivation to expend the needed effort and money.

Why should anyone want to read it? If it’s a how-to book, that answer is easy. Even books not explicitly instructive will inform their readers, however.  In publicizing your book, you will need to make clear what the reader will gain. For my book, there was a romance to enjoy, idealism to inspire, information to obtain about home health care and insurance, and a variety of voices to be heard, as I quoted friends, family, doctors, and staff extensively. At the very least, those mentioned in the book were thanked by being in the book and by our praise for them. They are part of the book’s natural audience. If you are in business, you have staff, customers, and suppliers you might want to cite. You have anecdotes about successes and failures, probably some funny, some sad. Minimize your criticisms, however, as those criticized do not have an equal opportunity to respond. At least, consider cloaking the worst offenders in anonymity, unless you are ready for a dispute.

You could hire someone to write your book based on information you provide, under your direction and your authorship or co-authorship on the title page,  perhaps “as told to….” I wrote my own book, and I’ll assume you’ll write yours. I started with a sketchy outline, perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen major points. To capture the reader’s attention, I chose a dramatic moment in the “middle” of our story, my wife‘s nearly fatal multiple sclerosis attack. I followed this with earlier biographical material, then continued on from the dramatic moment, eventually reaching our present. Reflections, thanks, tributes followed. I wrote a page or two or three a day, not in any particular order, revising and expanding my outline as new recollections and thoughts arose. Write first. Revise later. Proofread later still. Would I have enough material? I ended up with plenty, over 320 published pages worth, about 80,000 words. Half that would have been enough for a presentable book, 160 pages at 250 words per page.

If you planned to have a book-writing career, you would next be looking for an agent to represent you and your book to conventional publishing houses. I will assume that, like me, you are likely to write only one book and you are not a celebrity or a famous person or even a person involved in something newsworthy. Extreme talent and good luck might get you a literary agent, but we won’t bet on it. A small publisher might accept you without an agent, too.

No agent, no big-time publishing house, no book? Not so. As I did, you can “self-publish,” through a “vanity” or “subsidy” publishing house. They will take your money and your manuscript and put the money in the bank and the manuscript into a book format and print the number of copies you are willing to pay for. I found Outskirts Press after some searching on the Internet. They paid more attention to me to get my business than they did once I signed up, but the final results were good, and I have no idea how well another such company would have treated me. A friend had a generally good experience publishing several historical books with Xlibris. Two other new authors I talked with usediUniverse, also with success.

In some cases, as a local author, you may find a small, local publishing house willing to take a chance on you. I have seen several examples at book-signings I have attended. For the rest of us, it will require pay to play.

How much will it cost? That depends on how much help you want. I took an upper-middle package at Outskirts Press, the “Ruby” option. Outskirts Press agrees to have the author keep all rights in the book, a plus. I added Ebook and Amazon’s Kindle publishing for another $100 plus about $100 for revisions after we (not they) proofread the work. That brought my total to about $1000. If I had paid for their copy-proofing, it would have been about 1.5 cents per word, another $1200 for my 80,000-word memoir. With help from my friends, we did it for “free.” One of our friends is a professional magazine editor, and she edited the book as a gift to us, saving us $1200. I edit their books for my clients. Though I had written over one hundred technical articles published in refereed scientific journals, I needed editing and proof-reading, and so will you. Mistakes in your book are like blemishes on a pretty face…they can make it ugly.

You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but many people will try. The subsidy or “self-publishing” companies will give you a plain vanilla cover as part of their package, which you will find adequate but not compelling. I jazzed up our cover with a stunning portrait of my wife in her twenties, a lovely and intriguing Asian American woman, our heroine.

The other major expense is for the free copies you will want to distribute. My nearly 350-page book costs me $10 per copy, because each copy is printed electronically, rather than from an offset press. This “print on demand”  (POD) technology is expensive per copy, but you are not locked into a press run of thousands of copies, as is typical in conventional printing. Outskirts Press, for example, will do as few as five, within weeks.

When I worked out my gift list for friends, family members, medical professionals, neighbors, staff, etc., I needed 100 copies. To promote the book, I would be giving away copies to those who might review it or tell others about it. Another 100 copies is not unusual in such situations, I have read. That’s $2000 more I invested. Various expenses added hundreds of dollars more. Because of the pricing options I chose, I will net $1 or less per printed book sold or electronic book downloaded. Mine is a book with two messages: the value of loving commitment in marriage and the preciousness of life even under severe handicaps. One typically broadcasts one’s messages for free rather than expects to get paid for them.

Is it worth it? For me, a book intended as a gift for my heroic wife turned out to be a gift to myself, too. The books, given as presents, have brought pleasure to those we sought to thank. I enjoyed the process, and it rekindled my interest in writing.

Editing, publicizing, and marketing it have taken at least as much time as writing did, which is not unusual. I gave some talks and received some nice coverage in local publications. Doing so introduced me to interesting people whom I would have never met otherwise. I established a small business helping others with their own books. A small film production company is considering making a movie from it and they video-recorded me as I read the entire book. We’ll see what develops.

There are over 100,000 new book titles produced in the U.S. each year. Outskirts Press publishes 100-150 per month. Of those published by such subsidy publishing houses, I have read that only 2% sell more than 500 copies and most of their authors sell (or give away) only 100 to 200 . You can be among the exceptions, with talent, effort…and luck. You may well be satisfied with just having written a book that is worth reading, given to those who will appreciate it.

Sound good to you? Come on in, the water’s fine.