Have you ever tried to publish a book? If yes, I wonder if your experience tested your might the way mine has. I have nearly crossed the finish line, but what a long and arduous road it has been (the publishing part, not the writing part). If you are thinking about publishing a book, perhaps the following bits of wisdom gleaned throughout my soul-crushing journey will be of some benefit to you.
There are two main avenues to publication: to work with a publishing house or to go about it independently. In the case of my forthcoming book, Getting Physics, I experienced both. That, in and of itself, is an indicator that things did not go smoothly...
My first mistake: Writing the book before choosing the avenue for publication
If you intend to publish with a publishing house, it is far more efficient to make a book proposal, which includes a synopsis, proposed table of contents, marketing ideas, and perhaps two chapters, before completing a manuscript. It turns out that even if you decide to publish independently, a book proposal is an excellent idea. If you will be your own boss, you ought to provide yourself with a roadmap that considers the big picture.
Having written the book first, I backtracked and prepared a book proposal, and this process led me to modify my manuscript. Armed with my book proposal, I now wished to find a publisher that was interested in my book.
I did some research, and found that the best way to get a good publisher is to get a literary agent. They work on your behalf, meeting with established publishers, many of whom only consider works that arrive via such an agent. It turns out that enticing a literary agent is about as hard as enticing a good publisher.
My second mistake: Having pride
I diligently prepared a list of literary agents that fit my work (non-fiction, popular science), got their contact info, and noted the package they wished to receive (usually a book proposal or a query, which is a much shorter synopsis of the project). I sent in five tailored packages and waited for a response. And waited. I checked my email and junk mail more often than I care to admit. Nothing.
I moved on from getting representation and began reaching out directly to publishers. Again, I researched publishing houses with non-fiction pop-sci experience. This time, I had a list of fifteen. I sent out packages in groups of three. I sometimes did get a reply, but it was never the green light I wanted. There were some helpful back and forth exchanges, including brief explanations of why my book was not the right fit. The main issue was that it was too lay to be a textbook, but too technical to be a lay book. Well, that is exactly what I was going for: a book that would be challenging but accessible for a physics novice, and a light, enjoyable read for seasoned physicists. I wrote it because that type of book did not exist, and it was the kind of thing my students needed; but the fact that it did not exist made publishers hesitant to sign a contract with a first-time science author not named Bill Nye.
With my pride swallowed and humble pie consumed, I remained committed to the project, and to working with a publishing house. This set me up for my biggest mistake.
My third mistake: Signing on with an unestablished publisher
A colleague told me about her friend who had recently published with a new publishing house who shall go nameless. I sent them a package and received a contract offer shortly thereafter. I examined the contract and sent it to an author friend, who saw no major red flags. I contacted one of the publisher's authors who spoke highly of his experience (his book was in sociology, not a natural science, but still, this gave me confidence to move forward). I signed the contract, and celebrated my victory.
I completed a bunch of paperwork and tailored my manuscript to the publisher's standards within a month. I recorded a promo video per their request. Then, I waited months with little contact. Eventually, they admitted that they could not find a content editor for science! In the meantime, they decided to copy-edit (format) the book, and worry about finding a content editor afterwards. The formatting process went on for months. The final look of the book was not bad, but getting there required so much input from me (they clearly did not know what they were doing). Months later, they still did not have a content editor for me, and I decided to part ways with them. Both the publisher and I wasted nearly 18 months that felt like 36 in this process that almost caused me to give up on the book entirely.
The only good thing to come out of all of this is that the publisher's ineptitude forced me to learn a lot about publishing books. This positioned me well to take on my latest (and, knock on wood, final) avenue for publication: KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), which is run by Amazon. The support at KDL via both online tools and actual humans you can call and who call you back within minutes or hours, was incredible (feedback with publishers happens on timescales of weeks and months). Within weeks, the paperback was completed, and as I write, a proof hardcopy is on its way to my home by way of, well, Amazon.
I am not saying that all small publishers are bad, or that established ones only deal with established authors. Everyone's publication journey is unique, and not all are fiascos like the one I have detailed here. Still, I hope that some of this information will benefit another budding author on their road to publication.
My book has been a labor of love along a dirt road littered with shards of broken glass. I hope that many will enjoy it once it becomes available.