20 steps to writing a book

Since publishing Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I’ve had a lot of questions from other people on putting a book out.  In this entry I’ll break down the steps I took to make it affordable and profitable.  I did a lot of research on the Internet and I only found that message boards can be annoying because something can go from being the best to worst idea depending on which stranger you believe (I usually agree with the one with the fanciest icon).

Step 1…Write for years ahead of time.  No one is born a good writer.  I got my college degree in English with a focus on creative writing.  Then I spent my entire 20s writing garbage that no one would ever read on livejournal and a myspace blog.

Step 2…Find an idea that’s interesting enough for an audience to want to read.  Be an expert on it, or if it’s fiction, make it more than entertaining and interesting.  Read books on how to write whatever it is you’re writing.

Step 3…Write.  I wrote the bulk of my book on the weekends of my teaching job.  I would do 2,000-5,000 words per weekend until I finished my first draft in July of 2011 (I started in February and ended up a little over 71,000 words).

Step 4…Revise.  I went to UMSL (University of Missouri- St. Louis, where I got my teacher certification in ’09) because I still had free printer access and broke their “20 page maximum” rule by 291 double spaced pages.  Not many people can properly revise straight from a screen so print it out.  Read your words out loud and listen to how they sound.

Step 5…After making adjustments from first revision, revise again.  More printing!  Reword the weak parts, add things you forgot.  Strengthen the opening paragraphs and make sure it’s organized correctly.

Step 6…Get some feedback.  This was one of the hardest steps because not many people like to tell you what’s wrong with your book (until it’s published).  Reading takes time.  People barely like to read shiny new paperbacks let alone bulky three-ring binder manuscripts.  Most of the people who read mine said, “Yep, looks great.”  So you may end up having to pay someone with experience at this sort of thing to take the time to give you a valid opinion.  (Here’s where the cost starts to come in.)  $50 is typical for a read through.

Step 7…Revise again for content and then proofread for grammatical mistakes.  You’ll be amazed how many mistakes you overlooked in previous readings.  It’s hard, but your red pen can’t catch everything.  If you’re really struggling, read the entire draft backwards one sentence at a time.  That will certainly prevent you from breezing over silly mistakes.  The more you correct now, the less you’ll pay for editing because they start at $25 an hour while most are a lot more.

Step 8…Put it away for a few weeks and look for an editor.  There are plenty of professional freelance editors on Craigslist but it’s best to find the writing community in your city.  I started attending monthly meetings with the St. Louis Publisher’s Association.  I couldn’t afford anyone there and I actually found my editor via a professor I had at UMSL in ’09.  He referred me to her and she worked incredibly cheap and did a lot more than just basic editing.  She knew how to format and design a book.

Step 9…Format your book.  You can’t just send in a Word file.  Hopefully your editor has one of the professional publishing programs (they cost hundreds of dollars) and can help you design your book.  You need to pick out multiple fonts as well as decide on every other little detail.  Headers, footers, lines, title font style and size, etc.  There’s so much more to book design than any of us ever imagined.  Do you know what it means when a sentence is an orphan?  I didn’t either, but they’re very bad.  Also, in a book, each sentence only has one space after a period. Weird, huh?

Step 9B…Add dedication, acknowledgements, table of contents, index, and all that other fun stuff.

Step 10…After a few weeks of not reading your manuscript, look over what your editor has done with your work.  Odds are you’ll realize you have no clue where a comma does or doesn’t go.

Step 11…Consider publishing options.  No one’s going to publish your manuscript and if they do it’ll take 18 months only after you spend a year trying to find someone to be your literary agent through query letters.  If you’d like to skip this step and all of the con-artists that come with it, self-publish.  I used Createspace.com for mine.  They have customer service by phone 24-7.  They print on demand so you don’t have to order hundreds at a time.  Whether you order one or a thousand, each copy costs the same to you (it’s based on page number so mine’s only a few bucks).  They also put it on Amazon and other networks for free.  Amazon then takes 40% of my royalties on each copy because they’re terrible people.

Step 12…Design a cover.  Actually, pay to have an expert do it.  Once again I was fortunate to have my brother, the great Dave Durham, do this for me (those are his legs on the cover).  He has an Art degree, a Canon 60D and a lot of talent.  Createspace has a cover template so he made the design based on their format.  Make sure your title is awesome and that your blurbs on the back are brief yet effective.

Step 13…Read over and approve your final copy.  This involves a lot of back and forth with your editor.  Mine put the final copy into a PDF and I uploaded it.  It only takes about a week for them to “build” your book.  Yes, there are a few errors in mine but I’m not a perfectionist.    I corrected them for the e-book…

Step 14…Make an e-book version on Smashwords.com for free.  They have a nice long how-to-convert manual but it only took me six hours to convert mine.  It’s available on iTunes, Kindle, Nook, and every other main format of e-book.  (And though e-books cost my customers $6 less, I end up making more per copy).

Step 15…Write a weekly blog that relates to your book.  Don’t give everything away, but give your customers a sample of your writing and build trust with them.

Step 16…Promote it.  Message boards, the blog, facebook, twitter, etc.  Call local book stores and ask to do a signing.  No one comes to those but get pictures of the few who do, post them, and make it look like you’re a big deal on Facebook.

Step 17…Prepare for backlash and criticism.  Don’t take it personally.  Think of all of the books you’ve hated for being written.

Step 18…Send important people free copies in exchange for some promotion.  This works quite well though a few of them will screw you over.

Step 19…Be patient.  My tax bracket hasn’t changed with the money I’ve made from my book.  (And not just because I don’t report most of the sales.)  Publishing a book is like comedy, I don’t do it just for the money.  I honestly believe bringing a copy of my book to my last interview was what got me the job.  Everyone has a resume to their name, few have an ISBN number (you have to get one of those for your book, too.  It’s like its Social Security number).

Step 20…Answer questions.  People have come to me with a lot of questions.  Some for advice, some for debate, and some just to try and piss me off.  Any attention is good attention, right?

Hopefully this will help you decide if it’s all worth it or not.  It would be interesting to break down my hourly wage if I calculated my profits versus hours spent.  Either way, it was worth it to me.  This week at the St. Louis Funnybone I had twice as many sales with my book as I ever had with my t-shirts and it wasn’t even a busy week.

About Rob Durham

With an English Degree, three years as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone, over a decade of stand-up experience, and a recent certification in teaching high school English class, writing a book seemed like the next inevitable step for Rob Durham. The son of a coach, Rob has an excellent ability to teach and explain things in the easiest and most direct way possible. His (often labeled ridiculous) memory allows him to think of every possible situation that a new comic might face because at one point he was there too. Rob gives an inside look at comedy that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges every performer faces. Without ego and the myth that “anyone can do it” Rob gives the reader a true feel of what living the so-called dream feels like, from preparing for that first open mic night to touring the country. View all posts by Rob Durham

One response to “20 steps to writing a book

  • Tim

    Thanks for posting these blogs. They are certainly helpful and I wish I had the money to buy your book. The best I can do is say it’s high on the list of things I’d like to read.

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