How I Finished My Book in Only a Decade
Do you have a half written book in your desk drawer at home? How about a file bulging with outlines and ideas you’re storing until you have the time? I’ve had those for decades, still do. In a few weeks, though, I’ll have published my book. Stats with Cats: The Domesticated Guide to Statistics, Models, Graphs, and Other Breeds of Data Analysis (http://www.wheatmark.com/merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=BS&Product_Code=9781604944723). Stats with Cats is an attempt to help people who have some training in statistics to apply their skills outside of the classroom. Maybe in time, I’ll be able to refer to it as my first book.
I started writing what would become Stats with Cats in the conventional way. I identified who I thought my audience would be. I created detailed objectives and outlines. And, I collected the scores of articles on statistical topics I had written over the years that I thought I could use as seeds for the book. At that time, the book was about using statistics to solve environmental problems.
By the time I was through, I had restructured the book twice, thrown out most of what I had written in the past, rewritten every chapter at least three or four times, and edited sections more times than I wanted to count. I must have revised the first fifty pages twenty times. I had done everything I could do to it but finish.
When I look back at the book I planned to write at the beginning, I’m glad I took the time to let my writing mature and transform (http://statswithcats.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/stats-with-cats-whats-inside/).
Back in the 1980s when I started thinking seriously about writing a book, I followed the traditional advice. I took classes. I talked to agents. I wrote cover letters and book proposals, but I never made a sale. Then technology changed the rules of the game. Advances in tools for book design and printing gave rise to Print On Demand (POD) publishing. POD allows publishers to order small runs of a book, thus eliminating the need for warehousing. This, in turn, opened the market to small publishing ventures and brought the cost of book publishing within the reach of aspiring authors.
Like any business, book publishing involves controlling risks. In the traditional business model, the big publishing houses take most of the business risks. They select the authors and the books that are published. They fund the book editing and design, printing, warehousing, marketing, and fulfillment (i.e., providing the books and managing the money). Sometimes they even advance money to authors to write the book. The publisher controls all aspects of an author’s book—its size, its price, the publishing schedule, and sometimes even the title and contents. They reap the bulk of any profits, leaving the author with only a few percent of the revenues. But, the author assumes almost no risk. If not a single book is sold, authors lose nothing other than their investment of their own time.
POD has liberated aspiring authors from the tyranny of the big publishing houses. Authors can take all or some of the risks and retain more of the control and rewards by self-publishing. Typically, a self-publishing author will pay a POD publisher to edit and design the book, obtain copyrights and registrations, arrange for printing and fulfillment, and handle all the money. Self-publishing authors usually retain the copyrights, receive more than 10% royalties on books sold, and can influence if not dictate most anything, right down to fonts and the price of the book. Last year, close to 200,000 books were published in the U.S., 80% of which were self-published. That number is expected to increase in the future (Don Harold, BookWhirl.com).
For my book I searched the internet and in just a few minutes identified a score of POD publishers, including Trafford, Xlibris, iUniverse, Lulu, Dog Ear, Wheatmark, and quite a few others. I filled in an online form and later emailed the part of the book I had completed so they could send me a book proposal. I selected Wheatmark, signed the contract, and paid the fee in only a few days.
My book was expensive, several thousand dollars. That’s because it is 140,000 words on 374, 7×10-inch pages with 47 figures, 24 tables, and 99 photos of cats. I figure it cost me about $25 per graphic. So here’s a hint—publishing your book will cost hundreds instead of thousands of dollars if you don’t include graphics. But what’s non-fiction without pictures? I had to do it. Don’t even think about interior color, though, unless you’re going to publish a fifteen page children’s book. It’s absurdly expensive.
Publishing is just the middle step in completing a book. You have to market it so people will know it’s there. Most aspiring authors probably don’t think much about marketing their book. Most successful self publishers think about marketing a LOT.
My marketing plan includes:
- A description of the book along with some promotional text, taglines, and pictures I use in advertising, and a list of features and benefits of the book that show how the book is valuable and unique.
- A description of the book’s audiences, their relative size, how they might find out about the book, where they might purchase the book, and the probability they might purchase the book. From this I selected target groups that I would focus on marketing.
- A list of companion and competitor books including year of publication, price, size and number of pages, publisher, and Amazon sales ranking. This information helped me set the price for Stats with Cats that was well below the cost of books used in introductory statistics classes.
- A list of websites where I plan to post announcements of the book’s availability, such as alumni groups and social networking sites, and possible venues for press releases and paid advertisements.
My first marketing effort was a blog, which I started in June, eight months before Stats with Cats will be published. My blog is at http://statswithcats.wordpress.com/and is linked to my accounts on Facebook and Linkedin. I also have a Facebook group for Stats with Cats. Every Sunday I post an excerpt from the book, which I also then post to reddit.com (i.e., the /statistics, /matheducation, and /learnmath subreddits), scribd.com, digg.com, and stumbleupon.com. Since November, I’ve been averaging about 100 views per day. Hopefully, this trend will increase substantially once the book begins shipping.
If I get to publish another book, I know a few things I would do differently. This is the advice I would offer to aspiring authors:
- Be sure you understand why you want to publish a book—Decide what’s important. Are you looking to stimulate your career or business? Keep the price low, even give the book away. The book is a means to the end. Are you looking to make money? Be sure you have a good marketing plan. In any case, have a measurable goal whether it is books sold, blog followers, or new business attributable to the book.
- Define your audience in terms of marketing—Statisticians talk about populations all the time. It’s fundamental to what we do. But there’s a concept called phantom populations, a group of subjects that have no practical commonalities. For example, it would make no sense to say the audience for your book is people who wear red shirts. Define your audience in terms of how you will get the attention of potential buyers. In statistics, this is called a frame. If you are writing a children’s book, for instance, your audience is not five-year-olds. What do they know, thay can’t even read? Your real audience is parents and relatives who will buy the book for their five-year-old. Eighty percent of books purchases are given as gifts.
- Let your book evolve if it needs to—Don’t get too enamored with titles and outlines. Your perspective may change while you are writing the book. Be adaptable. Don’t be afraid to throw stuff away. Defer rewriting until you’ve had a chance to forget what you wrote (this turns out to be quite easy in people my age). Look at your writing with fresh eyes. And don’t just review your writing once. Keep rewriting so that each time you make fewer and more minor changes. Eventually, you won’t be able to change anything to make it better, only different. It’ll be like Fonzi combing his hair in the restroom mirror. Finally, know when to stop making changes. If you’re not sure when that may be, your publisher will tell you. It’s when they charge you extra for any changes you make.
Don’t be afraid of failure, the experience alone is worth the effort. Anything you complete will empower you to more and greater successes. All you have to do is start the journey and take a small step forward from time to time until you arrive at your goal. Good luck!
You can read a longer version of this blog at
Read more about using statistics at the Stats with Cats blog. Join other fans at the Stats with Cats Facebook group and the Stats with Cats Facebook page. Order Stats with Cats: The Domesticated Guide to Statistics, Models, Graphs, and Other Breeds of Data Analysis at Wheatmark, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or other online booksellers.