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Our friend Tracie had these Ferry Dock mugs made to promote her book. We love Tracie’s homemade strawberry preserves–her mother’s recipe.


To bear witness, to prove something to yourself, to tell an untold story, to entertain or inform an audience or build your business and reputation as a subject matter expert. All of these are valid motivations for wanting to publish a book.

For reasons that are unclear to me, many people seem to think I have a clue about how to get a book published. Really, I don’t. But here’s the thing: I often write about things that are more foreign to me than this. This question floats my way so frequently that I thought I might make a little project out of it. Today is the first in a series of occasional posts to help readers and friends who have publishing ambitions.

Again, this isn’t my subject matter expertise. If you want to publish a book, there are tombs written for your benefit. My series is a humble effort to share resources, make a few observations based on my peripheral career as a librarian and writer, and offer lessons gleaned from people who’ve authored books.

If I say anything that’s less than positive, it isn’t intended to discourage you, but to move you toward realistic thoughts and practical alternatives. That’s important to me. Here’s why: one of my nieces is a phenomenal chef and photographer. (This isn’t a case of nepotism. I’m just stating a fact.) Not long ago, she read a book by a famous food blogger whose advice for wannabe food bloggers can be roughly translated this way: “Go ahead and start your food blog, but don’t expect to achieve the success I have.” The result: my niece has all but abandoned the idea of doing her food blog. She has convinced herself that nothing she does will be good enough. Nothing I can say will change her mind.

This is such a travesty. I’ve never understood why anyone who loves their career wouldn’t welcome and encourage someone who wants to achieve the same satisfaction and joy, as if the world is too small for everyone to be happy. Who can say what my niece might accomplish with her blog? Who am I to guess what you might accomplish with your book or what rewards you might receive? Who has the right to negate the possibilities of your book or creative project?

Take every piece of advice, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, with a grain of salt. As with any worthwhile endeavor, there are some general rules for getting published, but you might just be the exception to those rules. Some ideas will be spot on; others you should ignore.

Below, I describe six kinds of writers and offer hints that can help them press on toward their publishing goals.

You want to share your expertise and/or promote your business.

If you have knowledge in a certain subject or you have life experience that can help other people get from point A to point B, you may have the makings of a successful book.

Here are three examples:

  • My friend Kris Taylor has spent most of her career in leadership, management and organizational change. Kris divides her time between teaching at Purdue University, consulting for businesses and speaking engagements. Her self-published book, The Leader’s Guide to Turbulent Times is the culmination of a lifetime of experience. It compliments her business and has an obvious audience: business leaders who want to facilitate positive change within their companies.
  • I recently discovered the wonders of restoring old furniture with milk paint through a self-published book written by an interior designer. This author is so successful that there’s barely enough of her to go around. Like many authors, she has converted her blog content into a book. Check out her blog and see how she has used her book and blog to build a thriving creative business.
  • In 2010, author Francine Jay tapped a growing part of culture with her self-published book, The Joy of Less. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on the rewards of having fewer material things. Why? Because it teaches readers how to think and behave differently. Read her blog and learn how the book was eventually picked up by a publisher

All three authors have knowledge worth sharing, a business related to the topic and, perhaps just as important, an eager, interested and definable audience. That’s a great formula for a self-published book.

On occasion, a self-published book achieves such a great response that it attracts the interest of a publisher. (Francine Jay’s book is a great example.) Don’t ask me how publishers know these things. Trust me. They do. The right publisher often has the chops to make your book a profitable adventure.

Hint: If your non-fiction book warrants this kind of attention, you have another set of decisions to make. This may be your first rodeo, but any publisher who approaches you will know how to structure an agreement that benefits them more than you. You’ll need a savvy agent to represent your interests. Write your book first. Worry about this later.

You want to tell your story.

One of my favorite genres is memoir. A truly remarkable life helps me live outside my own experience and step into a world of possibilities I had not imagined.

Ray Summerlot was a World War II veteran who published a book about his experience as a prisoner of war. Heroes and Cowards is a painstaking look at how the POW experience shaped his life. There’s something quite moving about learning such a story through someone you know. Although his book had no chance of making it to a bestseller list, it was well-written. For those of us who knew Ray (and some who didn’t), it was an important work that’s become part of his legacy.

Hint: Do publish your memoir or diary if it is truly riveting.

teach-us-train-us-change-our-mindsYou want to help others.

Even if your story isn’t riveting, it can inspire others. The key to inspirational books is to structure them in such a way that other people can learn from them. Writing a journal or memoir helped you make a transformation, but how does it help me?

One of my friends wants to publish a book based on his journals. He admits that reviewing his own words often feels raw—and he’s the one who wrote them. Figure out how to convert your story into actionable steps other people can follow to make a similar change. Give journal entries context and meaning with analysis that helps people. Turn it into a day-by-day devotional book. These are tickets that draw readers.

Hint: Your journal may have been a cathartic for you, but it may lack a similar impact for others unless you translate your experience. Give us some exercises we can do to have our own transformation. Teach us. Train us. Change our minds.

lots-of-people-want-to-have-writtenYou need to write.

Mystery novelist Elizabeth George has coined a very apt phrase about a writing life. “Lots of people want to have written; they don’t want to write.”
Even the most successful writers don’t enjoy writing. They do it because they simply must. If that’s the case for you, then you probably have stories, poems or even a novel in the works.

My friend Tracie Loy left her Pacific northwestern roots in her 30s. Now an upstate Illinois transplant, she was driven to tell imagined stories from her beloved home on Washington state’s Lake Sammamish. She has written two novels laced with romance and steeped with a sense of place. They remind me a lot of Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap series. 

Hint: I’ll share more about how Tracie approached marketing and sales of her fictional e-book in a future post.

You want to make money and/or become famous.

It is difficult to become famous by authoring a book. Please forgive me for being such a killjoy, but here’s another bomb: many authors (even famous ones) make only a few cents from each book sold through a publisher.

Many self-published, self-marketed books are more profitable to an author than one that’s picked up by a publisher. That’s especially true if the author chooses a print-on-demand or electronic book format and learns how to market it successfully.

Hint: Print-on-demand allows you to print one book at a time without taking on the highly speculative expense of manufacturing a printed book. E-books can be marketed and sold in a variety of ways.

You want to see yourself in print.

To some writers, a byline is a source of satisfaction and pride. Seeing their name on the cover of a book is a form of validation. If that’s your primary motivation, it’s easy enough to have one book or a few dozen made for friends and family.

Here are four sources for short print runs of your self-published book.

Edition One Books 
Archway Publishing

Hint: Many businesses are designed to exploit self-published writers. Some will promise you the moon with editing, marketing and publishing services. Two words of advice: buyer beware. Some of these companies offer legitimate help. Others are designed to make money from your ambition, but offer little in return. Take your time and do your research before you commit to anything. Choose professional help carefully. Here’s a great article on self-publishing your book

This post is much longer than I originally intended, and yet it barely scratches the surface. It’s proof that there’s a lot to know—and I don’t know much. Let me add just three things to help self-published writers.

1) Secrets from Library Land. Self-published authors are often encouraged to promote their books by asking public libraries to add them to their collections. As someone who has purchased books for a public library, I’m happy to share some insight about how libraries tend to regard self-published works.

Some libraries have a section devoted to local authors. This is a terrific way to embrace authors, many of whom are devoted library patrons with a loyal following of friends in the community. These libraries are happy to accept a donated copy of your book. Some will even help you promote your book through author book fairs.

Libraries often have collection policies that state they only buy books on review. This means they won’t even consider your book if it is not reviewed by a credible source such as Kirkus Reviews or Library Journal. The chances of getting such a review of your self-published work are not good. If this is the case with your library, you’ll likely receive a carefully worded note of thanks, but your book will not be added to the regular collection.

These collection development policies allow libraries to screen and/or distinguish self-published works from their regular collections. The reason is clear: the majority of self-published works are poorly edited and/or poorly constructed. They are not of comparable quality to works sold through reputable publishers that know how to properly vet and publish a book. Any well-read person would recognize this difference in a heartbeat.

Does this mean you shouldn’t write or publish? Of course, not. Instead, let this be motivation to you to hold your work to a very high standard, to improve, to persevere, to write for the sake of writing.

Hint: Buy or borrow a copy of Ann Patchett’s book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and read The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life. This chapter is essential reading for anyone with publishing aspirations. She also shares tactics that helped her become a commercially successful author. You’ll also see examples of her best work as a freelance writer–stuff she did for food and housing before she wrote novels.

2) Consider another publishing alternative. I’m a little biased when someone tells me they want to publish a non-fiction book. My first thought is, “Why not start a blog instead?” This option is often overlooked by people of a certain age or those who assume they lack the technical skills to start, maintain or promote a blog.

Here’s why I recommend blogging:

• It’s cheap. As long as you don’t have commercial interests, you can set up a blog on WordPress.com or Blogger at zero cost.

• It’s quick. There are no barriers to publishing a blog. Anyone can start one in an hour. The trick is keeping it going. When you have an existing body of work, you have a leg up on that. You can start publishing instantly. While others struggle to create content, your editorial calendar is ready to go.

• Blogs allow you to build connections with people you know and people you don’t. If your primary goal is to share information that helps others, blogging may be perfect for you. You can start by sharing your blog with friends in social networks. They’ll often lead you to readers with similar interests or perspectives. In time, you’ll find that your readership comes more from people you’ve never met than from people you know. Growing a blog isn’t easy, but it’s much easier than finding buyers for a self-published book.

3) Steep yourself in all kinds of reading. Don’t forget to read a few works about writing. Here are a few of my favorites.

Anything by Roy Peter Clark. Clark has had a prodigious career in journalism and teaching. Read just one of his books about writing and your work will become clean as a whistle.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King 

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-fiction, by William Zinnser 

Writing with Power: Techniques for the Writing Process.  It’s an old book, but some advice never goes out of style.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. 

The Write Practice. I love this blog because it not only teaches writing; it helps writers think about marketing their work.

This post is a response to my friend Scott, who has written some profoundly thoughtful work about becoming a better Christian. Scott, I wanted so much to write something that would be everything you needed. All I have managed is an off-the-cuff piece based on a little bits of knowledge and research. I hope it’s enough to keep you working toward your goal. I promise at least two more posts for you and anyone else interested in publishing.

Now it’s time to hear from some serious writers who’ve already published their own books. Any tips you can share?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.