How I got my self-published book into the media and bookshops
“Is Cathryn finished with make-up?” the producer called through the make-up room door. “We need her on in ten minutes!”
It was live television and I was there to talk about my soon-to-be-released novel and although I’d originally been told I had an hour in hair and make-up, we suddenly had ten minutes.
Luckily, it was my second live television appearance in two weeks, so I’d already popped my live TV cherry and felt surprisingly calm.
This whole publicity whirlwind had seen my novel promoted on everything from morning television to national radio, major metro newspapers and a handful of magazines including Cosmopolitan. It was a darn great time and pretty unexpected for a self-published novel.
I put this down to a specific sequence of events starting a couple of years earlier when I first put pen to paper (or, fingers to keyboard if you want to get really specific).
This blog outlines the steps I took to get my book from idea to finished product, into the media, and distributed into Australia’s biggest book retailer and hundreds of other bookstores across Australia and New Zealand (and possibly now the UK and Europe).
When my son was six weeks old, I thought “Now that I’m going to have all this free time, I should finally write that book.”
“Sleep when the baby sleeps,” people warned me. “Bah, I’m no time waster,” I chided.
I hired a writing mentor and editor, and when my newborn son slept, I planned, developed characters and wrote until my brain hurt and my wrists ached.
After a pretty short time, I fell into an exhausted heap on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It didn’t help that my son wasn’t sleeping much, but when he did, I’d write instead of resting.
Several months later, I took up the book again, and just wrote when I felt inspired. Given that it was a sexy-comedy I can divulge that this inspiration didn’t come often. I was about 15kg overweight and exhausted 24/7. Not much is funny or sexy about that!
… aaaannd back it went onto the virtual shelf.
How I finally finished my book!
Finally, when our son was about two years old, my husband said “Don’t wake up at 70 and say ‘Damn, I wish I’d finished that book.”
He was so right, and this pushed all the right buttons. I hate regrets. I had the support of my husband and mother (who helped a significant amount with our son) and while the first eight chapters had taken me over 18 months to write (with breaks), in September 2014 I made the goal to finish the last 13 chapters by Christmas.
And smashed them out in about 12 weeks.
It took me a while to get into my groove, and I realise I could have almost written the whole book in this time if I’d cottoned onto it sooner. (Keep in mind that fiction books are generally much longer than the type of non-fiction my clients write.)
I had spoken to my friend Lisa Clifford, who wrote The Promise and lives in Italy with her beautiful family. She said “Don’t wait until you feel inspired to write, or you will never write anything!”
Then I saw an interview with author Nikki Gemmell (who wrote The Bride Stripped Bare and several others) talked about these really talented writers she’d done a writing course with, all of whom made her feel talentless (I’m paraphrasing), but seven years later, she was the only one who’d written a book – in fact, three of them. She said that writing is a discipline. That you had to treat it like a job and do it every day.
So I made a goal to sit down every night for at least 15 minutes, whether I felt like it or not. That way, if I was tired, it was only 15 minutes, and then I could read, watch TV or sleep without feeling guilty.
I also joined some writing sprints online which spurred me on to churn out large chunks of text some nights.
The beauty of already having the book planned in advance, which I had done long before, was that I never sat down and wondered what to write next.
On the 30th of December, 2013, I typed the last word of my manuscript.
What a f**king great feeling! (Sorry, very few words truly describe it!)
I discovered several 'types' of editing
I have heard many people say that when they have written their book, they are ready to publish.
Man, this is a big mistake, and also explains why there is so much drivel on the market!
Editing is essential, even when you’re an awesome and talented writer.
Good editing will also pick up problems with structure, storyline, characters, and more – and this is in addition to the in-depth editing which corrects spelling, grammar, sentence structure and all the little technical bits. This is what is often referred to as ‘line editing’.
There are a few types of editing available, including developmental editing, and Wikipedia actually explains this quite well:
A developmental editor may guide an author (or group of authors) in conceiving the topic, planning the overall structure, and developing an outline—and may coach authors in their writing, chapter by chapter. This is true developmental editing, but not the most common way of working. More commonly, a developmental editor is engaged only after someone (usually the publisher) decides that the authors’ draft requires substantial revision and restructuring. In these cases, developmental editing is a radical form of substantive editing.
If you’re writing a book, you might consider a different type of edit at different stages. If you’re ready to write a book this year, please feel free to jump on a free call with me to discuss your idea, where you are in the writing process, and what type of editing you might need (Note that although I offer developmental editing within my Book Coaching program, I’m not a line editor, but I can direct you to the right kind of editor for your needs).
Editing... editing... editing...
Right at the start of writing my book, I employed a mentor, who helped me create an outline and character arcs for my book, then also edited each chapter as I went.
Although we did a light edit of each chapter, he encouraged me to keep going until I had a first draft – then I could worry about the big edits.
“Don’t get it right, get it written,” he said. That’s a bit of literary brilliance right there.
Then he said:
“Don’t focus on having a perfect Chapter 1, or you’ll never have a Chapter 20.”
He suggested that instead, I keep a notebook on my desk where I keep notes of all the things I need to research, change, or look up details. He advised that I didn’t let these things distract me when I was trying to just get my book on paper.
It was great having a mentor, because every time I finished a chapter, I was excited to send it to him. Looking back, I would have done it a bit differently, because sometimes getting feedback on your writing as you go can throw you off track…
So today, this is what makes my job as a Book Coach so exciting. I get to offer my clients the exact support I wish I had!
So when my book was finished, the editing began, and it was not an easy task.
First I just sat down and read the book all the way through. Remember it had been about two years in the making, and I’d made a conscious decision not to go back over what I’d written.
So it was a bit of a surprise to read back on some of the things I’d written all that time ago. I made some edits as I went and deleted parts which fell flat.
Then I took all the notes I had written along the way, and spent a few days going through them, finding answers, and looking up information where I wanted certain things in the novel to be factually correct. (I kept those notes somewhere. Must find them again!)
THEN I wanted to get some outside opinions. I sent my manuscript to about ten willing friends and asked them to give feedback.
That was an interesting exercise. A few read it and just said they loved it, but a couple actually went through and made very detailed notes.
A close friend’s husband is quite senior in the Australian Army, and he offered to read it while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Now, it’s important to note that my novel is women’s fiction, aimed at women in their 20s-30s. One journalist described it as “Bridget Jones meets Sex and the City, on board The Love Boat”… so I didn’t imagine he would be my most receptive reader!
Surprisingly, he loved it and made lots of great suggestions (including detailed line edits – because he’s brilliant with grammar).
I went through each person’s feedback and edited the book another half a dozen times.
At this stage I felt it was almost ready to approach agents, and paid for a book appraisal from a successful editor in London. She had loads of contacts in publishing and I was imagining the day she’d pick up the phone and say “I have the perfect agent for you and want to introduce you.”
I was so wrong.
I received a report which started with something like “I really enjoyed your book and it kept me turning the pages.” Yay! Followed by about six pages of all the things I had done wrong.
She basically said “Don’t send this to any agents or you’ll be completely embarrassed.” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist).
I didn’t agree with her AT ALL. My book was brilliant and how dare she suggest otherwise? She was clearly a lunatic. (I was very wrong, but that comes later)
I was completely devastated and could barely pick myself up off the floor for a day or two.
Then I threw the manuscript in a drawer and decided to forget about it for a while. She had completely destroyed my confidence, and my countless hours of work had clearly been a waste.
I tried again... and started approaching agents
My dream of publishing a book would not die, so a few months later, I picked up my manuscript, dusted it off, and got back to work.
I edited it another couple of times and decided it was time to approach agents.
I went through the very long and arduous process of finding the right agents, and hopefully sent off the first three chapters. (The process of approaching agents, and how that whole thing works is a subject which deserves its own post. I won’t go through it all here.)
My ‘dream’ agent (the only one I went to the ridiculous expense of posting a printed copy to – see the pic) sent me a very kind rejection letter and actually posted my box all the way back to Australia because they thought it was too nice to bin.
An agent from one of the biggest agencies in the world (Trident Media Group in NYC) really enjoyed my first three chapters and asked to see the full manuscript. I got very excited but she ultimately didn’t offer to represent me, which was depressing.
All-in-all I approached about 25 or 30 agents, many of whom didn’t respond. They get many thousands of emails from hopeful authors each year, and must service their author clients as well, so of course they can’t spend all day replying to emails – but it is pretty shocking at the time when people don’t bother to respond.
So I put my book to the side again, and was starting to get the feeling that it would never happen for me.
But... I tried and 'failed' again...
A few months later, a dear friend of mine in Sydney asked “Cath, whatever happened to that book you were writing?”
“I’m sick of the sight of it. I think I’ll just self-publish it and forget about the stupid thing,” I replied.
He asked if he could read it, but as a 50-ish year old man, I didn’t feel he was my target market, and he’s also known to be quite critical (ie. maybe a bit brutal, but with the best intentions, haha)… but we’d been friends for over 20 years, so I knew he wanted the best for me and thought “What have I got to lose?”
He read it and loved it. He said that he even got annoyed when he was supposed to be going on a night out with his mates, and they were all waiting for him at the bar… while he was at home, devouring chapters to find out what happened next.
We had met at film school so he knew a lot about storytelling. “I think it’s a really good book, but you have issues with the structure,” he said. “I strongly encourage you to go back and edit it really thoroughly, change some bits around, remove some characters, and alter the structure overall.”
Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I was sick of the sight of the stupid book by this stage.
“You could take it from a good book and turn it into a great book,” he said.
In my heart I knew he was right, and I edited it again.
I bought the book he recommended called Save the Cat, which is actually a book on screenwriting, but I also found a spreadsheet online where you apply the principals to writing books.
Then I hired an editor. A gorgeous young American woman living in the UK, I felt like she was closer to my target audience than my original mentor… and made a great decision.
We spent months editing my book again.
We deleted scenes, added new ones, completely removed some superfluous characters, and basically gave it a big overhaul. It was still the same book, still my writing (although I confess there are a couple of sex scenes which have significant editing input. Turns out that I’m not great at writing about that stuff, haha), but it was just so much better overall.
I got back on the agent wagon and approached another 30-ish agents. Ultimately I didn’t get representation.
To give you an idea how competitive it is, the top bloke from my dream agency (at the time) said:
Well, we get approximately 1200 proposals a month, which is more than most agencies. If you take 1200 and multiply that by 12, you end up with 14,400 submissions. I personally might take on just 2 writers a year. The agency at large might take on around 5. And of the two I accept, the big question is; Are they going to be around and successful in 10 years?
It’s a pretty competitive market…
And everyday I woke up with a voice in my head saying “You should self-publish.”
So I self-published
The process of self-publishing is again deserving of its own entire blog post, so I’ll just briefly explain this part.
I had gone through multiple names and used several book cover designers until my very talented friend Jo Kuipers designed my brilliant book cover. (We had help from another brilliant friend of mine named Wasfi who did some of the detailed photo editing)
I’m not exaggerating to say I spent hundreds of hours learning about self-publishing, book layouts, book marketing, and everything which goes along with it.
I put it up on Amazon and Smashwords (which distributes to iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble online, etc) and set a date three months ahead of time so that I could build buzz and take ‘pre-orders’. (There are pros and cons to this which I can explain another time.)
Then it came time for publicity…
Hiring publicists and getting celebrities to read my book
Most self-published authors sell less than 100 books, but I was determined to do something bigger, because, well, that was just me. (I’ve sold in the vicinity of 4000 books so far. It’s hard to keep track with so many sales channels.)
I had photos taken, I built a website, I created a Facebook page, and planned a marketing and PR strategy… I’d worked in marketing and public relations for 15 years prior to writing my book, so I had significant experience to back me up.
I initially hired a publicist in Los Angeles and another in London, as they were two big markets I hoped to crack. We sent out very expensive press kits to our top ten targeted editors in each country, which was a complete waste of time and thousands of dollars!
The London-based publicist turned out to be totally unreliable and nothing happened there. The UK actually turned out to be where I sold most books, but the PR fell in a heap because I made the mistake of hiring someone under-experienced (ie. cheaper than the professionals I should have hired!).
The lovely lady in LA helped me way beyond her initial contract term, kept a box of books at her house, sent my press releases and approached the publicists of a large number of celebrities, many of whom accepted a copy for their clients. Some don’t want their name to be used, but several amazing singers and actresses like Kylie Minogue, Scarlett Johansson, Anna Kendrick, Jessica Chastain, Blake Lively and Dakota Fanning received my book. (Unfortunately celebs rarely tweet something which they’re not paid big bucks for!)
Since my book was a novel inspired by the time I took a career break and worked on cruise ships, the angle of the publicity was ‘What really happens on cruise ships’…
Ultimately, it didn’t have the anticipated impact in overseas media, and from that publicity run, we initially only got a two page story in a magazine in the UK.
My pre-sales jumped up to a few hundred in the week after that story came out, so I knew that angle worked (even though the journalist twisted and changed my story to suit what she thought would sell better. This is something you have to get used to with some media unfortunately).
But this wasn’t enough, so I borrowed some money to hire a much more experienced publicist.
It’s important to note that although I had many years of experience with media, and lots of success in getting media for my employers/clients, I felt a little bit weird approaching journalists about myself, and remember that I was also still working in a day job at the time, so I didn’t have time to follow-up with journos and make/take phone calls all day.
Then I hired a great publicist and that's when things happened!
The best decision I made was hiring a very experienced publicist with a great list of contacts and a team of juniors to make calls to follow-up journalists, and basically keep the PR wheels turning.
I flew down to Sydney for live television (and got recognised on the plane on the way home, which was fun) and did numerous radio interviews on the phone and a couple in person. I love radio actually… I think it’s my perfect medium!
I was also contacted by a couple of people who thought that my book would make a great TV series, and wanted to help me pitch it to TV executives… but ultimately that hasn’t come to fruition yet. (I’m still open to my book being optioned though, so you never know. Watch this space!)
The one big mistake we made was to do the publicity while my book was still in pre-sale. People want immediate gratification and they want things NOW. So while I still made quite a lot of pre-sales, if the book was already out, I would likely have sold many more. Every book publicist or agent I’ve met since then agrees – the timing is everything.
I didn’t change my sale date, even though I had complete control over it, because I had a suite of other things hinging off that date – like reviews and blog tours – and I didn’t want to mess up all those people.
Of course, I also didn’t know how huge my publicity run would be, and didn’t really realise this issue until it was a bit too late.
Still, it was a massive learning curve and got me to the next stage of my book journey – getting into bookstores.
Getting into bookstores
For a majority of authors, getting into bookstores is a sign that you’ve ‘made it’.
Using my impressive portfolio of media appearances, I approached retailers all over Australia, and the ‘Book Buyer’ from Australia’s biggest book retailer – Big W – responded within 24 hours and said “I love your book and would love to stock it, but I can’t use your distributor.”
The reason it’s basically impossible for self-published authors to get into bookstores (they can sometimes get a few copies in local bookstores, but I’m talking about widespread distribution into retail chains) is because in addition to quality being hard to control if books haven’t come through a trusted publisher, it’s also very fiddly for the bookstores to send small invoices for one or two books to an individual author.
It’s much easier for them to use a handful of big distributors who supply them with hundreds of books.
I was using a self-publisher’s distributor called Ingram Sparks, who does ‘print on demand’ books.
“If I get a distribution deal with one of your preferred distributors, will you stock my book?” I asked the Big W Book Buyer.
She said yes and I used this promise to negotiate a distribution deal with one of Australia’s leading book distributors (who don’t want me to publicise them because they’ll be inundated with self-published authors and it wasn’t something they normally did).
The terms of the deal are private, but they did a spectacular job in getting my book into a whole range of bookshops including of course Big W (who bought my book for about 600 stores I think), plus Newslink (which are mostly in airports) and a whole lot more across Australia and New Zealand.
I was very fortunate that because I had such an eye-catching cover, my book cover was facing ‘out’ in most bookstores. This is a very coveted position and all authors and publishers want their book facing out, which of course is not possible. I think this helped sales (so remember to do a great cover!)
My distributor has now sent some of my books to one of their partner distributors in the UK who are considering my book for sale across Europe and the UK.
So over two years later, the story is not yet over!
Being invited to speak at events
One of the best side effects of my book publishing journey has been getting invited to speak at events.
I love speaking in front of an audience (apparently that’s pretty weird, haha), and enjoy answering questions about book writing, editing, publishing, and of course, all the saucy stuff which happens on cruise ships!
I speak about my book writing experience, the secret of getting your book finished, and the real reason most people never finish writing that book they’ve been dreaming of.
I read a statistic that 80% of Americans want to write a book, and anecdotally I’ve found the same to be true in Australia… so it’s likely that your audience would be interested in what I have to say.
Please feel free to jump on the phone and talk to me about speaking at your event. Book a time in my diary here (opens in a new tab).
What I learned in a nutshell
In summary, throughout this entire experience, which spanned a few years, I learned these things:
Make sure you have a clear objective and vision for why you want to write a book. You will need this ‘end goal’ motivation when the going gets tough… and it will. ‘Keeping on going’ is what most people find hard.
Plan your book in advance, including laying out all the chapters. Some people are what they call ‘seat of their pants’ writers, but I think this rarely turns out well and you end up spending way more time editing.
Research what structure will suit your message. Books need a flow and something which keeps readers turning the pages. My book came out 2.5years ago and I still get ‘fan mail’ on a weekly basis from people who say they couldn’t put my book down until it was finished. (Same goes for non-fiction)
Get some help from the start to make sure you’re on the right track.
Work out a writing schedule which works for the life you have, not the life you want. Make sacrifices (like TV and social media, for example) for the duration of writing and stay focused.
Ideally write 7 days a week, whether you feel like it or not. Work out the time you feel most energetic (or are unlikely to be interrupted) and write then. Promise yourself that even if you’re tired, you’ll write for 15 minutes. Sometimes this 15 mins can become 3 hours and 3000 words.
Don’t expect to make a million dollars from your book. Do it for yourself and for your business. Do it because you have a message you simply have to share with the world.
Have a plan where the book is part of an overall strategy (for example, booking speaking gigs or having something to sell to your list).
Don’t skimp on things like mentoring/coaching, editing, your book cover, or promotion (in line with your business strategy, of course).
Don’t send your book to influencers or editors at great expense, unless you’re guaranteed coverage.
Don’t expect to get publicity unless you have a really unique story or angle, or have written something very ‘on trend’ (or you get lucky and write about something which suddenly becomes popular at the time you’re releasing it). Ultimately, a press release which says “Hi, I wrote a book and want you to buy it” will never work. I’ve worked with media for 15 years and they want a meaty angle.
Remember that print magazines have at least a 3 month lead time. Work with a publicist or get to know the lead times and editorial calendar of your target publications.
There are multiple ways to build your audience and get publicity for your book, through blog tours, getting reviewers, building a list via blogs and free giveaways, and more. I plan these strategies with my clients and it’s different for everyone.
You can have a pre-sale period to build excitement – but only if you have a list or audience who will get excited and be ready to buy.
Otherwise, only promote your book in the few days leading up to and following your book’s release, so that people can get their hands on it NOW.
Write because you love it and because you’re passionate about your message. Finishing a book is a great achievement and you need to feel great about it, even if you’re not the next Elizabeth Gilbert.
Edit, edit, edit.
Get help if you want to do it right the first time, and/or if you get stuck. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Have fun and JUST DO IT!
My Book Coaching business is born
I enjoy writing, and I’m part way through the next two books in the trilogy, but things just changed for me. I went through a big ‘What should I do with my life?’ period, and ultimately knew that I wanted to help other women with some of their big life struggles, like relationships and careers.
I did a lot of soul searching, asked some trusted friends and relatives, and almost all of us had the same feeling… I should be a coach.
I wanted to do it properly, so I went back to tertiary study and earned a recognised qualification in Leadership, Coaching and Mentoring (accredited by the International Coaching Federation, the world’s world’s largest organisation of professionally trained coaches).
I spent about a year coaching women through different challenges, and when working with my business coach, Sonya Stattmann, we looked at my history, training, talents and joys, and established that my ‘zone of genius’ lay in Book Coaching.
Suddenly, everything made sense! It’s like every experience I’d had for the last twenty years had led me to this calling…
Let's work together and create your book
My blend of marketing/PR experience, when added to my writing and publishing journey and coaching skills mean that I have just the right blend of skills and experience to serve women with a message who want their voice to be heard through a book.
If writing a book makes sense for you and your business, and if you are ready to invest the time into producing a quality book, then I may be able to help.
If it’s not already clear from my post, writing a book is hard. So many people say they want to write one, but very few start it, and even less finish it. When you’re working, parenting, and basically just living your life, it’s a massive commitment – especially if you want a quality product at the end. That is where a Book Coach can totally change the game for you.
If you are sick of saying “I want to write a book one day,” and you want to finally bite the bullet and do it, then let’s get on a call.
I don’t work with everyone I talk to, because I want to ensure I only work with those clients I can best serve. Choosing the right ‘partner’ is what makes the best relationships, and we will both be happy and fulfilled if we are the right fit for each other.
If I don’t think I’m the right person to help you, I’ll let you know and hopefully will be able to direct you to another person or some resources which will guide you through your next steps.