Category Archives: Editing Layout and Formating

How Technology is Saving Our Lives in Books

I spent the day recently at Springtime Tallahassee, a festival held annually in my newly adopted hometown to celebrate the beginning of spring (as if winter really arrives this far south!). I really enjoyed meeting the other writers who are members of the Tallahassee Writers Association, buying a couple of their books, and selling (and signing) my own. Many of these authors are “independently” published, either through small presses like Wild Women Writers, CyPress, self-publishers like iuniverse, or through hybrid presses like Wheatmark (my publisher). Our books target “small markets” (under 10,000 copies), a market abandoned by the large New York publishing houses.

It’s at Springtime Tallahassee, in the TWA booth, that I ran across Kate Kerr and her autobiography, Emergence. I don’t usually read biographies, let alone buy autobiographies. But, as I was chatting with Kate, she sparked my interest in her life growing up on a farm in the 1920s and 1930s. I bought her book. And I started reading it. And I discovered a gem. Kate wrote the book for her family, not for a mass market, and it includes a richness and texture that will enthrall anyone interested in the stuff of American life. Each time I pick it up, I find some new fascinating part of her personal journey that I can relate to my own (or my parents, or my grandparents). Whether she’s writing about the trials of her first marriage, working in a World War II airplane factory in Michigan (she was literally Kate the Riveter working on B-24 bombers), the anxiety of her son going off to Vietnam, her attending college for the first time at 38 years old (and then on to a Ph.D.), or discovering the love of her life well into middle age, each page has a slice of truth that is part of the mosaic of the American experience. There’s plenty of inspiration in these pages, but the real value is in her generosity as a writer to let us peek in, see, and experience it with her.

This is definitely not a book conventional New York publishers would pick up, or a literary agent would represent, in today’s market. But Kate’s book deserves, and hopefully one day will be read by, a wide audience. Its cover and layout are professional. The manuscript was well edited and proofread. The quality of the book is excellent.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Kate’s book is in my hands because of the hundreds of independent and so-called “vanity presses” that have used technology to bring costs down far enough that I can afford to buy it. The cost of her book would have been north of $75 in the old(er) days of publishing, or, more likely, would not have been published at all even then. With modern print-on-demand technology, the print book is financially accessible to just about anyone with a job. The digital version, at $9.99, is accessible to just about anyone at all.

We don’t have St. Martins Press, Random House, Penguin, or any of the big presses to thank for this. We should be thanking, Wheatmark, iuniverse, Cypress Press, and Wild Women Writers; they’re the ones that allow the Kates of the world to publish. They are the ones ensuring America’s literary tradition survives and prospers.

Why Self-Publishing Has Such a Bad Reputation

One of the biggest hurdles authors of “small market” books have to overcome is the dismal reputation of vanity presses and self-publishing. The literary standards are quite low. In fact, in some cases, they are non-existent-shell out the money and, voila, your book is in print!

The problem now, however, is that mainstream and trade presses won’t even look at books without the potential to sell significantly more than 10,000 copies (see here, here, and here) even though they can be financially viable projects with press runs of less than 1,000 copies and, under the right circumstances, even 500 copies. (In fact, it’s quite common for academic presses to profitably publsh books with press runs of 250 or less, but the price is really high.)

But, the truth is that lots of books coming out of subsidy and self-publishing houses are really bad. Not just in the literary sense. They violate fundamental rules of grammar and organization!

Irene Watson, the publisher and editor of, one of her two on-line book review sites, has a nice summary of the problem in a post over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011):

And, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Langer except the fact that I would say only 20% shouldn’t have published at all; that is, from what passes over my desk and often straight into the recycle bin.  Those don’t make the grade of being listed for review.  Many books aren’t even worth donating to the library or charity.  Yes…really, they are that bad. My percentage is probably less because Tattered Cover [Langer’s book store] gets more authors sending books in for consideration because the ultimate dream is to get the book into a bookstore.  Many authors don’t even know there is such a thing as a review, let alone how to find a reviewer. Yes…really.

 Norm Goldman from, when asked how many books he rejects upfront, claims that about 10% are not readable.  He also says “Personally, I chuck the book aside if after the first 50 pages the book is a disaster, and this includes books received as part of my Priority Review Service.”  I asked Ellen Feld of the same question and she said “Outright reject?  Not many, I’d say less than 5%.  However, about 40% of self-pub (slightly higher for subsidy – maybe 50/60% and guessing this is because the author assumes the subsidy is taking care of it) have some editorial problems that Joe Buying Public would find annoying.  We mention these problems in our reviews but don’t outright reject the book – the quality isn’t so bad as to demand rejection.”

The only way authors of books for small markets will be successful is if they produce high-quality products, professionally edited, and marketed aggressively. We don’t have the advantages of the “big boys” distribution networks; we have to reinvent the wheel. We need to also keep in mind that one of the obstacles we face is overcoming the terrible stuff coming out of the same presses we use for our high-quality work.

The Humbling Truth about Choosing Book Covers

As an author, I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had substantial input in the design of my book covers. In fact, in all of my most recent books, I (and my co-authors) made the cover decision. Nevertheless, I probably learned the most about the process through the design and selection for my newest novel, A Warrior’s Soul (published by Wheatmark). I also learned a fair amount about the importance of taming my author’s ego.

Indeed, the design I really liked was not chosen as the cover. We determined it simply wouldn’t market well. And that’s the point. A book cover is all about marketing, not the ego of the author. This is one reason why most publishers don’t give their authors design approval for the cover. As authors, we often become emotionally vested in the characters, plots, and themes and lose sight of the fact the cover is first and foremost a marketing tool—it needs to viscerally grab a potential reader surfing the internet or browsing a book shelf with sharp and easily processed graphics.

During my selection process with Wheatmark, we always came back to one paramount question: Which design will sell the most books?

The selection process included three radically different cover designs. (They can still be viewed at A Warrior’s Soul’s facebook page.) I solicited input from my facebook friends (Sam R. Staley) as well as personal friends. Overall, I received specific input from more than 30 individuals during the four week process.

Interestingly, I found reactions all over the place. I was able to narrow the cover down to two: One with a dark, brooding teenage boy with very cool graphic lettering for the title and the other with a silhouette of a martial arts figure with cool (but not as cool) title graphics. I loved the darker themed cover. I thought the design was intriguing and provocative, and liked the intensity it brought to the book. It was also the cover that had the most divisive reaction among those providing input. People loved it or hated it. That doesn’t bode well for a book cover because the point is to reach as broad a readership base as possible.

We chose the silhouette because the design still “popped” graphically, it avoided casting a negative pall over the book, and it still conveyed key content (including an action theme with a martial arts tie-in). The design didn’t unnecessarily narrow the potential readers (to either boys or girls, older or younger).

The main lesson for authors involved in the cover design is to adopt some humility at this stage of the process. The cover is not about you; it’s about marketing your book and giving it a chance with the broadest audience possible. We may be great writers, but that doesn’t mean we’re great marketers.  

The Primacy of Self-Editing

With six books under my belt, I’ve learned the importance of self-editing (as well as the value of a good editor).

Most authors who have been through the formal publication process understand this, but it can’t be emphasized enough. In a conventional publishing process, the manuscript is submitted to the publisher and subjected to several rounds of editing. The “cleaner” your manuscript, however, the quicker it will actually get to market. So the more you can do upfront the faster the process will be. I’ve personally cut off months from the publishing process by paying attention to editing.

The normal publishing process works like this. Once the author finalizes her manuscript, it goes to her editor at the publisher. The manuscript then goes through a series of edits. First, an editor reads the manuscript to determine if major changes are necessary. Are important elements missing? Are there contradictions in the argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction)? Often, two or three people may look at the manuscript and comment on it at this stage. Then the author makes changes to the manuscript. Usually, this part of the process doesn’t have a deadline, and it can take weeks, sometimes months, to revise if the comments are extensive and the manuscript isn’t polished.

Then, the manuscript goes through another edit to check the changes the author makes. Sometimes, major comments are sent back to the author at this stage, too, as the publisher tries to tighten up language and ensure the book is positioned properly for the market. This can easily take 3-4 weeks.  Again, I’ve known manuscripts (not my own) to take months to get through this process.

Once these comments are incorporated, and the editors are satisfied, it goes to a copy editor. The copy editor looks for syntax, grammar, and more obvious inconsistencies in language and argument. This can also take up to a month to turn around. Sometimes, “heavy” copyediting may be necessary if breaks in storylines, or inconsistencies in the style, argument or main themes are still embedded in the manuscript.

Once copyediting is done, the manuscript will also go through proofreading.

It’s easy to see how the editing process can add a year or more to the production schedule of a book. That’s why it’s critical for authors to send a manuscript to the editor the first time in the best shape possible. I’ve literally shaved months off the production schedule through this kind of rigorous self-editing (which also requires some humility and willingness to acknowledge your own writing weaknesses).

This became very clear to me as I was writing my last two non-fiction books on transportation policy and traffic congestion. The first, The Road More Traveled, was on a very tight production deadline. We couldn’t afford delays, or we would miss important release windows. So, we had to get this manuscript to the editors in top form. We were able to lop off a good three months off the production schedule by essentially collapsing the process to one major editorial review that led directly to light copyediting.

Most recently, I found weeks shaved off a very tight production schedule when A Warrior’s Soul came back from the editorial review process and determined the manuscript was in good enough shape to just need “light” copyediting.

That gives me a little breathing room as we advance toward the July 2011 release date.