While writing and publishing can seem daunting, I can tell you after publishing several books of my own and dozens for clients that the most daunting part isn’t the actual work. It’s the time spent going down the wrong path, realizing halfway that you don’t know what you’re doing, and then stumbling through the process again.
If you follow the 19 steps below, I can’t guarantee the memoir writing and publishing process will be easy, but I can promise it will be easier than going down rabbit holes I failed to avoid for years.
In this article, you will learn:
- The number one step to take before you start typing
- Major differences between self- and traditional publishing
- A mistake many self-published authors make
- The secrets to a successful book launch
Step 1: DETERMINE YOUR MESSAGE
It may seem obvious to some: of course, you need a message for a memoir. Well, I published six books with HarperCollins before this thought ever crossed my mind. A message is different than a story or plot or elevator pitch. It’s the idea you want readers to take from your book. “It’s important to share your story so you can release your shame” is a message. “It’s about how I went from struggling addict to a thriving writer” is not.
Step 2: DETERMINE YOUR WHY
No matter how talented you are or how good your story is, you’ll reach a point in the process where it just gets…difficult. You need ammunition for those moments, and I’m not talking about extra Oreos to keep you going. Maybe you need a good camping story about forgetting your pillow and using a rock. Or leaving your tent at home and really roughing it. However, each should relate to the primary story of your memoir. The way to set yourself up for success is to go in clear about your goal for your book. Is it to launch a public speaking career or become a consultant? Is it simply to help people so they don’t have to struggle the way you did? Whatever it is, get 100% sure of it so you’ll keep going when the going gets tough.
Step 3: UM, WRITE!
Again, it seems obvious. And yet I meet a lot of people who are “working on books” and somehow not writing. I don’t think writer’s block works as an excuse. Does the accountant wake up, not feel inspired to add and get to say he has accountant’s block? If you’re a writer, be a writer. Write. Your writing may stink some days, but that’s what rewriting’s for (see Step 6 for more on this).
Step 4: EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT PUBLISHING
Many people dream of Big Five publishers snapping up their books and whisking them off on book tours. The reality is that a very small fraction of the book proposals submitted to major publishers sell—and I’m talking books by people with agents (most of the people I talk to who dream of Big Five publishers snapping up their books don’t have agents). The other reality is that traditional publishers are increasingly only interested in books they know will hit—that is, books by authors with proven sales records or by those with massive email lists and social media followings. Don’t hate them for this. No matter how brilliant your proposal is, a publisher understands that if people don’t know who you are, they're less likely to buy your book.
Step 5: COME UP WITH YOUR TITLE
Titles, like covers, can be the make-it-or-break-it factor for a book. My first book, Party Girl, was dismissed by some critics as chick-lit. I often wondered if we’d stuck with the title HarperCollins briefly gave it—The After Party—it would have been taken more seriously. In addition to considering how the title will influence people’s perceptions of your book, the best bit of advice I can give you is this: aim for clear over clever. If no one gets your title, they’re not going to want your book.
Step 6: REWRITE
Hemingway said “Writing is rewriting” and he was underselling. It’s really more like “writing is rewriting and then rewriting some more.” I think of rewriting as something akin to ceramics–you’re taking a lump of clay and crafting it into something not just presentable but also beautiful.
Step 7: HAVE YOUR BOOK EDITED
You cannot be your own editor. If you think this seems obvious, well, it wasn’t to me. With one of my books, I figured since I’m both a professional writer and a professional editor, I could be my own editor. All that meant was when my book was printed, I had to take copies back and then hire a professional to do a real edit. Your editor should also not be your friend who went to journalism school. It should be a person who is paid to be an editor.
Be thorough when hiring an editor. Your editor is your co-pilot. And you need to get very clear upfront about what type of editor you’re hiring. Your book needs three different ones: a developmental editor to help with major conceptual issues, a copy editor to catch grammatical errors, and a proofreader to find whatever the copy editor missed. Editors range in cost from the hundreds to the thousands, but you really do get what you pay for. If an editor can’t provide references or show you books he or she has edited, you can always ask the person to do a sample edit of a section or chapter of your book.
Step 8: CONSIDER POTENTIAL LEGAL ISSUES
If you’re concerned about anyone stealing your work, the first step is to copyright your book. But legal concerns don’t end there. We live in a litigious world, so always err on the side of caution.
If you’re at all concerned that someone you’re writing about or basing a character on may object to anything in your book, do these things:
- Add a disclaimer to the beginning of your book
- Change the person’s name and identifying characteristics
- Consider hiring a lawyer to read the sections of the book containing the information. Of course, the best move of all is to share the pages with the person before publishing.
Step 9: WRITE YOUR DEDICATION AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
While you don’t have to have a dedication, most memoirs do. To create one, all you have to do is think about the person or group of people you are sharing this message for. Your acknowledgments section is the second easiest part of the process and you can think of it as your dedication times 10 or 100. It’s where you thank everyone who helped you write this book—whether it’s the friends who read versions of it, the cover designer, or your partner who encouraged you the whole time.
It can also include anyone who helped you get to the point in your life where you could write the book. That said, be careful not to go overboard here, or you'll risk getting gently ribbed like I did by Los Angeles Magazine when I thanked so many people, places, and things in Party Girl that a Trader Joe’s snack even got a mention.
Step 10: GATHER ENDORSEMENTS—AND POSSIBLY A FOREWORD
Endorsements are those lovely comments luminaries make about your book. While they provide wonderful social proof, in my experience, they don’t tend to sell books. (Have you ever bought a book because of who endorsed it?)
So don’t stress about getting the biggest names possible for this. If you know big names, you’re far better off leaning on them to promote your book once it’s out! I used to go crazy with endorsements, gathering dozens from the most high-profile people I knew, but now I just tend to get one from a well-respected author and put it on the back cover. Keep in mind, when asking for endorsements: it’s a huge request. I used to be so excited about my books that I would mistakenly assume whomever I was asking would be too. If you’re going to ask someone you don’t know to endorse your book, make the most compelling case imaginable for why they're the perfect person when you reach out.
Step 11: COME UP WITH YOUR PRICE
There are all sorts of opinions out there about how to price your books. Those who churn out multiple books a year offer some books for free as a way to bring readers into their funnel. For memoirs, the best strategy I’ve found is to price the ebook at .99 for the pre-orders, and then, once you’ve made a bunch of sales and garnered a slew of reviews, switch the price to $9.95. Between $12.95 and $15.95 seems to be the sweet spot for paperbacks.
Step 12: GET AN ISBN
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and you get them from a site called Bowker. You need a different ISBN for each version of your book (paperback, ebook, and hardcover if you’re doing one). The cost diminishes greatly if you buy in bulk—$125 for one and $575 for 100. While Amazon provides free ISBNs for books published exclusively on its site, I recommend splurging on your own since you may want to have your book available on Nook, Apple Books, and elsewhere. Once you have your ISBN, you can easily convert it into a bar code for your paperback.
Step 13: HAVE YOUR COVER DESIGNED AND YOUR BOOK LAID OUT
There are numerous posts out there about cover design, and, while I’ve played around with free designs, I now have them done by a designer. While I got compliments on the book cover I downloaded for free from Canva, it’s easier for me to work with one talented person who knows exactly what I like and can create consistent designs. In terms of layout, I have used Vellum, which is undeniably great but only works for Macs–unless you use a nifty software called MacInCloud. Also, on one of my books, Vellum kept laying out chapters as headers and headers as chapters and I ended up so frustrated that I ended up hiring a designer to help!
Step 14: DECIDE IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO A HARDCOVER VERSION
Honestly, I try to talk all my clients out of doing hardcovers. Here’s my rationale: my printer charges $11 a hardcover copy and takes six weeks to print. My paperback copies, on the other hand, can be done in a few days and for as little as $4. Plus, I’m not a hardcover reader myself, so I don’t see the value. Still, hardcovers are undeniably impressive, which is why plenty of my clients don’t listen to me and just go ahead and have us do hardcovers for them.
Step 15: DECIDE IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO AN AUDIOBOOK
I’m certainly not the first to make a case for doing an audiobook, but I will be a voice in that choir. Not only are audiobooks growing in popularity, but you’re going to reach an entirely different audience with one. While a case can certainly be made for having the audio version available at the same time as the print and ebook, we’ve had clients release audio versions up to a year after their initial release and be able to peg it as a “second launch.” Another opportunity to promote!
Step 16: SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS ON AMAZON
Keyword research is one of the best strategies I know of. To make the most of it, use Publisher Rocket. The second-best strategy is to contact Amazon so you can have your book listed in 10 categories instead of two. The significance of this idea cannot be overstated. What it means is, instead of having two opportunities to hit the #1 spot in its category, your book now has 10 chances. While I’m no mathematician, I can safely say that giving yourself five times the chance of hitting the #1 spot is a pretty spectacular leg up.
Step 17: GATHER AN ADVANCED READER TEAM
An Advanced Reader Team is exactly what it sounds like—a team of people who read your book in advance.
The most effective way I know of to use a team is to upload your book to BookFunnel, give your team members a link about a month before your book's release, and ask them to write a review. When the book is first loaded onto Amazon, price the ebook at .99 and send your team members an email asking them to purchase the book and then paste the review they’ve written. That way, when the book is officially launched, it has reviews.
Several points about this strategy:
- You cannot pay anyone to review your book so don’t even try
- You cannot ask for positive reviews
- People too close to you cannot review since Amazon will delete any review it considers biased
- You’re best off asking people who have bought books similar to yours for reviews as Amazon will then start recommending your book in their “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” sidebar.
Step 18: LAUNCH
The moment you’ve been waiting for is here! After loading your book onto KDP, or Ingram if you want wider distribution, my best advice is to make this fun.
I had six miserable book launches because all I did was watch my Amazon number, feel frustrated that more media didn’t want to cover me, and dodge people’s “How’s your book doing?” queries.
To be clear: because I was published by a Big Five and had worked in the media for a decade, I had tons of major media coverage, including appearances on The Today Show and Fox News, articles in Cosmo and The New York Post and a million other hits. But it never felt like enough because none of these helped sell books. What does sell books? Finding an audience that cares about you and your topic and obsessively serving them.
For my new book, I’m pulling out all stops:
- Creating a sales page for my book that spells out what a reader can get from it
- Running Facebook ads to a site with an opt-in where I give away the first three chapters
- Contacting book bloggers
- Assembling an Advanced Reader Team made up not just of my subscribers and followers but also people I don’t know using Book Review Targeter
- Creating “I Made My Mess Into My Memoir” t-shirts, thumb drives, canvas prints, and bookmarks,
- Planning a launch day online party
- And more.
I even hired a social media agency, something I’ve never done before, just to help get my social in shape for the launch. I’m not doing this because I think it will help me sell a million copies and get rich, but because I want to know what works so I can do it for others.
Step 19: KEEP PROMOTING…FOREVER
Your book is part of your legacy—and it’s something you’ve worked hard for. When I was cranking out a book a year for HarperCollins, I would essentially abandon a book the week after it came out so I could focus on writing the next. Now, would you give birth to a child, and then, once it was born, leave it to fend for itself? No. You’d continue to nurture it. And that’s what you should do with your book. My final word about that is this: Don’t feel shame about promoting your book. If you’ve got a message to share with the world, you’re doing the world a disservice if you’re not telling people about it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Anna David is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books. She’s been published in The New York Times, Time and The LA Times, among many others, and has appeared repeatedly on The Today Show, The Talk, and The CBS Morning Show, among many other programs. She’s been a featured speaker at three different TedX events and her company LaunchPad Publishing helps people write and publish books. Her latest book, Make Your Mess Your Memoir, is a combination memoir and business book.