How I wrote a book and got it published
What I learned and what I'd do differently
One of my lifelong goals from a young age was to be an author. In 2020 I achieved that goal by having my book published.
Here is how I did it and what I learned.
Deciding What To Write A Book About
I didn't follow a process to work this out, I stumbled on to it. With a bit of inspiration from my niece who was doing creative writing, I wrote a chapter that became the basis for one of the chapters in my book (the basement one for my fans). I really enjoyed doing it and the idea of a full book swum around in my head.
Then in early 2017 I was reading books to my daughters and realising that the vast majority of books had male lead characters. I’m also super aware of the lack of gender diversity in tech and have tried my best to support more balance. Add to this a 2017 trip to SXSW in Austin and attending a robotics talk. I ended up speaking to a few female roboticists and I asked them why it’s hard for women in tech. One of them told me about the pressure teenage girls face from both their friends ‘tech isn’t popular’ or their families ‘tech isn’t for girls’.
I started noodling on the idea and formed a foundation around one idea;
“What if Harry Potter was about Hermione Granger instead? And what if instead of magic she used her engineering prowess? Like Macgyver? What if that character was able to inspire teenage girls to pursue and not give up on technology no matter what her family and friends said?”
And that was it. That was enough for me to decide to want to write a book. It would be for young, teenage girls, it would be about building robots, and it would include enough real science and tech to link through to real-world geekery.
Lesson learned: It took time and effort to find the right combination of elements to form something worth dedicating so much time towards. And it’s worth it.
Planning A Book
Then I did what I normally do at the start of any new project - I start a Google Spreadsheet. And I also did what I like to start with which is to set a big, bold vision of why I’m doing this.
This had two parts. One was the scale and commercial success. The scale because I hoped that my efforts might possibly have a big impact. The $ wasn’t because I wanted to make money out of it, but if I could become a full-time author that would be a great life to live.
Mine was way off on all fronts but here is some of what I started with;
It was pretty crazy and obviously in hindsight much harder. As of writing this, it took me until 2020 to even publish one book and I’ve sold maybe 1,000 copies after 4 weeks…
But it did its job to motivate me to start and finish it. And who knows, maybe I’ll get there but slower. Nicole Kidman or Reese Witherspoon may yet still call me for the movie rights.
Regardless of ambitions and goals, I wanted to do the best I could so I started some research. I read books and blog posts, watched videos and listened to podcasts. Here are some of the best ones I found:
On Writing by Stephen King - direct and useful.
Writing for Children Podcast - 100’s of good lessons and a community.
A book by Mary Kole Writing Irresistible Kidlit -It was a great book and really helpful. It’s very direct, harsh at times when it needs to be, practical and also showed me that aiming at middle-grade.
With a little bit of knowledge and naivety, I started planning out the book itself. Mary Kole pushes you to make sure you have a big, bold idea and be ambitious. So I wrote down things I’d like to the book to achieve and then worked backwards to what would have to happen for that to work. I started with a ten book series, not because I definitely wanted it to go ten books, but to try and at least allow for that possibility. I did another lap with a three-book series and liked the flow better.
One of the biggest, new learnings for me was tropes. I’d never heard the term. It’s basically a mechanism you use in a creative pursuit. Like starting at the end and going back, doing a big reveal, a love triangle. It sounds simple, but it’s a whole other world and it was both thrilling and tiring. Check this out but be prepared to go down a rabbit hole, there are 1,000’s… TV Tropes
I then dove into the first book plan and wanted a big start and a really strong, exciting ending. At the time my kids were loving Battlebots, so thought finishing with some sort of robot competition would be exciting:
From Stephen King’s On Writing book I picked up the very strong hint that you can’t just be planning, you have to be writing. ABW: “Always be writing.’ It also felt a bit ‘agile' and ‘lean’ so I would try and do 250 words a day while I was planning the book. I would just write a story element, or try a technique I had read about. Sometimes it led to something that would go in the book but it really did build up my writing muscle.
I write every day in my work. Short communications like - emails and short messages. Longer pieces around a person I may be coaching, a company I’m giving feedback on or a strategy I’m developing. Occasionally I’ll get to write whole pieces like a blog post or in-depth review. But the muscle for writing fiction every day was so different I really had to work on it.
Lesson learned: Read a lot, write every day, create the habit.
Understanding Who The Reader Is
I pride myself on always trying very hard, from the very start to understand who the customer is. Who is going to be using this product, hearing this talk or reading this book?
My target for this book was problematic in more ways than one. I was writing it for my daughters who were 2 and 4 at the time, but I was aiming for teenage girls. I have two brothers, so didn’t grow up with girls in the house. It’s also been a long time since I was at school with teenage girls and there is a long line of people who would attest to my sparse awareness back then. So I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t claim to understand women let alone teenage girls.
When a middle-aged man sets out to understand teenage girls better I’m sure you can see the potential risks. I started off by reading about ten books for young teenage girls. This was both helpful and scary to a future dad of teenage girls. 13 Reasons Why and others are about suicide, another popular genre was vampires, and there was also dystopian futures. There were a few books on coming of age but there was a clear tension between writing something that will easily appeal to girls and writing something which will have a positive impact.
I also read a lot of blog posts about teenage girls culture, challenges, pressure, social media, body image, boys, girls, gender, career, having it all… This was scaring me more and more each day about raising teenage girls.
I was also very, very lucky to live next door to a wonderful family who had a teenage girl named Sofia. She loved reading and even had a book club. I chatted to Sofia and other teenage girls at our kid’s school, sport or with families we knew about what they liked reading, why they read, what they didn’t like and I pitched my concept. It wasn’t smooth or simple but I got some insights and now I just had to start writing.
A question I get a lot is ‘will this book appeal to boys too?’ and my stance is that it is written to appeal to girls as much as possible, but there is no reason why it won’t appeal to many boys. If girls have had to read so many books with lead boys forever, why can’t boys read books about girls?
Lesson learned: Understanding the customer is always critical and always hard the further it is from you. Don’t assume anything.
Writing The Actual Book (WTAB!)
At some point you have to stop planning, researching and start writing. Even with a bit of writing each day the book was in bits and pieces. It had no shape and no momentum.
I decided to get up at 5.30 am each morning and write until 6.30 when my family got up. This wasn’t easy as we were living in a small, 3 bedroom house and our study was a nook off the parent’s bedroom. Before bed, I’d get my computer and put it on the dining table and get my Ember teacup ready for my lemon and ginger tea.
I’d get up, boil the kettle (a rare thing in America), make my tea, sit down, open up the book Google Doc and start bashing the keys.
My goal was 500 words a day. It was sometimes easy to get 1,000 and sometimes I went backwards, deleting sections. One trick was to leave the days efforts at a point which shows clearly what is happening next which makes the next stays kickoff easier.
I was doing OK and making progress but by October 2017 I was at about 17,000 words less than halfway to my goal of 40,000 words. I really thought about giving it all up.
Then I found out about Nanowrimo. It’s a program run by a non-profit which encourages and helps people write a whole book or novel in a month. They have tools, local groups, and content which gives authors the extra nudge to start and hopefully finish. Luckily for me, I had a three-week period of about 70% contract work with my next gig starting in December. I signed up and decided that I was going to get to 40,000 words by November 30. I added the word count tool, came along to two ‘shut up and write’ sessions, and tracked it every day.
So along with my 5.30 am writing burst, I added another daily 2-hour session. I would walk up to Broadway at Burlingame and sit in Le Croissant Cafe and write while I had my latte. (It was the closest thing to a real coffee…) The owners were a Vietnamese couple who were lovely and always friendly. I think I wrote half of the book here. I owe them a copy.
It worked. Nov 30, 2017 and I had 41,312 words. My book was finished. Yah…
Lesson learned: Find whatever works to create a life where you can write. Commit to it.
Agile Book Testing
That has to be one of the slowest first launches I’ve ever done… But at least the full feedback phase was in motion.
I wanted to take an agile, learning approach and I tested different methods;
Full book - I converted the book to a big print PDF and sent it to my son on Kindle. He was 7 at the time but a voracious reader. I wanted to see if he’d finish it. I knew if it were good enough, he would but if it got boring, he wouldn’t. I know he loves me but he loves reading and would just tell me honestly. He finished it and we chatted chapter by chapter about where it did get slow and what he liked.
Trap books - At the same time, I sent out about 50 copies via google docs, word, and Kindle PDFs to kids and parents but I missed out on the last three chapters. This was my test. I had a note at the end and said, “If you would like to read the last three chapters, please email me.” Out of 50, I got 8 and it didn’t seem great. But I realised that given the format and busy lives, only about 15 people actually got around to reading it seriously. Word and PDF on Kindle are pretty limiting as a format. Printing would have been better and next time I’d print them on Blurb which costs about $15 each and takes about two weeks, is a lot of paper and much slower. A serious trade-off.
My teenage neighbour Sofia loved reading and even had a book club. They were kind enough to read the book and invite me to the club meeting. This was one of my best feedback methods, though I think they were friendly with the information and probably wouldn’t tell me if they hated it. They validated that not describing the main characters changed how each girl perceived them. Next time I’d work harder to get to more book clubs.
This whole process took six months and I was on my 8th version.
Lesson learned: Agile testing was good, but I think there must be faster, better ways to use tech to do this.
Getting A Publisher
Around August 2018, after getting the book to a level that I thought was good enough, I approached ten publishers directly. I’d read up on how to do it, wrote my proposal document, and sent them off. I got no response from any of my follow-ups and, by October 2018, I was about ready to give up. My backup plan was to turn it into a Kindle book and put it on Amazon.
Multiple times during this effort I researched self-publishing. There are lots of good tools and models now and a lot of people I spoke to said it’s the best way to go for new and niche authors like me. I really wanted a publisher partly because the last book (Startup Focus) I did with Phil Morle and the Pollenizer team was self-published and through my work. I wanted this to be the real ‘published-author’ deal. Looking back my guess is that you probably do about the same amount of work with a publisher or self-publishing.
I’m not sure I got an introduction to it or I stumbled across it, but I found out about Publishizer, probably from Holly Cardew. It is a crowdfunding platform for new authors to find publishers. I looked at it and thought about also trying StartSomeGood, Kickstarter or Indiegogo. I ended up going with Publishizer after speaking to Kate who told me she’d be helping me get a publisher.
I wanted to launch straight away but Kate wisely told me to wait until January, and on the 5th it went live.
You can still see the campaign here;
And here is my intro video:
I was really blown away with the support I got. Huge help came in the form of my wonderful friends Rob Castaneda from ServiceRocket and Charlotte Yarkoni from Microsoft. Plus hundreds of my friends forking out real money to support me. My base goal was 250 sales and 500 was my stretch goal. I ended up at 589 and was told I’d definitely get a publisher.
I then spent more than six months finalising a publishing deal. I did get interest and offers from three small publishers. These are basically teams of two or three with lots of hands-on help and personal attention but limited resources and clout with distributors and retailers. The Publishizer team asked me to be patient and eventually, we got Mango across the line. I liked what they stood for, that they did a lot of diversity books and that they were the US fastest-growing independent publisher. So not one of the big ones but more size.
August 17, 2019, and I had a signed contract with a publisher!
I thought that surely we can get this out early 2020 and it will only be a year after the crowdfunding campaign… But Natasha and the team at Mango said that it takes 3-6 months of editing and preparation and then 3-6 months of marketing prep. Obviously, this can be faster and perhaps with a smaller publisher with fewer books it would have been.
Lesson learned: Book publishing is super competitive and there are millions of authors.
The book went through at least two more full edits with some major chunks cut out to get the word count down. We also addressed all the key parts of the book. I got help from so many people in all these areas I have a long list of people to thank…
The opening is critical. I know it as a reader. If the first line, first paragraph, first page, and first chapter gets me, I’m likely to keep going. Especially with Kindle samples which I use a lot of. I wanted a strong, compelling, and intriguing opening.
One day I was telling a story about my school life and we talked about getting suspended. It made me think of expulsion which, for me, was the worse thing that can happen to a kid at school. So used this to write my opening line. Initially, it was something like “When I was expelled…” because I thought about starting at the action and then doing backstory, which is a common trope. I added to it by putting in some intrigue and my line became “The first time I was expelled…” AZ (the main character) only gets expelled once in the first book so it sets it up for the series.
One idea I had to be different was to reverse the chapter titles. It was a bit like the TV show 24 which counts down the 24 hours to zero. The closer you get the zero the more the tension builds. I did this with just chapter numbers but it was a bit confusing even with the full book. Eventually, I used the rocket launch terminology and went with T-Minus 19… and counting down to zero at the end of the book. I haven’t had much feedback on this after launch.
Given the technical nature of the book, though still aimed at teenagers, I wanted to have a way to explain what complex words meant. This was also my way of encouraging curiosity. I also felt it would appeal to kids who were already learning these types of words and may encourage them to open up a dictionary and look up more words. So we added a callout box for definitions.
The Mango Publishing team wanted illustrations based on it being a book for 8-12-year-olds. I was OK with that but really wanted to stick to no images of the main characters as I had not physically described them. Obviously, illustrations would defeat some of the purposes of allowing the book to related to any girl in the world. Mango showed me all the books in the same age range and they all were illustrated, so we agreed to add them but we needed strong diversity which we got.
I’ve got rough plans for a three-book series but given the effort, I’m only going to write it if I get lots of interest in the first one. To support this I wrote the ending to entice people towards the next book with a big “Let’s get to work.”
Lesson learned: Ask for help and listen.
Mailing Lists and Social Media
In some ways, I had been marketing this all the way along. Every connection I was adding to my mailing list and would keep everyone updated every month or two. Because the list started small I didn’t use a tool like Hubspot or Mailchimp but maybe I should have for data and ease.
Also, much of my network was engaging only via social media. Each network operated and gave value in very different ways.
Facebook - deep, positive engagement and good sharing support from my closest friends.
Linkedin - big, wide, light engagement. I had up to 500 likes on some posts and lots of comments and sharing.
Twitter - quick engagements and occasional personal shares from friends which were positive.
It was pointed out to me early that I’m not a woman who has survived the male-dominated world of tech. Also that there is a lot of real women who are non-fiction role models. So I started a blog and interviewed women from around the world. This is one of the best-unexpected benefits of writing this book - both the series and also meeting so many amazing women and hearing their stories. I wish I got them properly transposed (and actually I just started testing Otter.ai).
From a marketing POV was a great way to add more surface area to the book and every woman I interviewed would then share it out on their networks which was great. I also turned these into a podcast series which probably wasn’t worth the time or money.
I’ve since turned this into a goal to interview a woman in STEM from every country in the world. Please reach out or intro me.
The launch was planned for Nov 24, 2020… Despite Covid, we seemed to be progressing ok. We had a few last-minute things to do with the content, the cover, the testimonials and illustrations. I also had one screw up on my side. I decided to add a testimonial from Sofia Labonte to the back cover so it wasn’t just older women, it was a teenager. The only issue was that in the rush to do it I spelled her name wrong… Sophia… - Sofia - I’m so sorry and will make it up to you!
Due to Covid, the printing of the book got delayed and the launch was going to move to January. I pushed back and we got it changed to December 15. In hindsight I should have just left it till January as the end of the year, Christmas and holiday season is too busy to get any attention. I pushed it and promoted it and bought all my supporter copies. I only got a few local media mentions in Australia despite Mango trying globally. 99% of the attention and sales came from my own networks and social media.
I’m still ordering more books and sending them out to pre-order supporters…
Lesson learned: The marketing has to be constant, relentless and takes some budget.
I’m really glad I did it. I’m a published author which was a life goal. Also, along the way, I’ve met a lot more amazing women in STEM. I’ve also already had five girls reach out and say they loved it and want a sequel. Honestly, I’d like to this to get to hundreds to justify all the effort but as for everything, it will take time and more work.
I’m also glad I did it with a publisher. It was hard enough without one and I’m not doing it for the money.
If you’d like to check out my planning spreadsheet please reach out.
If you are thinking of writing a book then GO FOR IT! But know that it takes work, time and a village of support around you.
And… let’s keep working hard to get young girls inspired by science, technology, engineering and maths. Plus of course, buy a copy of She’s Building A Robot! ;-)