Publishing: An Author’s Perspective on How to Write a Successful Single-Authored Book

At Elsevier, we understand that the writing process can be difficult. Most of our authors and editors are not trained writers, but rather researchers, professionals, and subject matter experts in science, technology, and medicine.

Karen Higgins, an accomplished Elsevier author, shared an essay with us that describes her experience—and resulting insights—with writing a single-authored, reference book. Karen published Financial Whirlpools: A Systems Story of the Great Global Recession in 2013, and is currently working on a new book, Economic Growth and Sustainability: Systems Thinking for a Complex World.

We thought the following insights from her essay would provide prospective or current authors and editors with valuable advice on the writing and publishing process. If nothing else, they will help you understand that you’re not alone when wondering what to do at various stages along the way. As Karen notes, “Writing IS hard, but its rewards are priceless.”

PUBLISHING TALES OF AN AMATEUR AUTHOR: Strategy for a Successful Book

Article Excerpt by Karen Higgins

KHI do not claim to be an expert writer, but I do love translating thoughts into words. To improve the style, clarity, and appeal of my writing, I repeatedly refer to a collection of “how-to” books that occupy a double-deep, long shelf in my home office. And,…I practice, practice, practice.  Writing tugs at the tangled strings of our thoughts, funneling them through our fingers onto the virtual page. Some say excellent writers are born; I disagree. While writing comes naturally for many, it takes focus, commitment, and a willingness to explore new ways to express ideas. Writing means effort and dedication. Improvement comes from practice and voracious reading to gather helpful hints. Writing IS hard, but its rewards are priceless.

Perhaps you are considering writing a book and wondering how to go about it. While there must be a thousand ways to write and publish a book, and more accomplished authors than I, my friends often ask me for advice. I typically share the following eight insights when asked; perhaps you will find them helpful.

Insights about Writing Non-Fiction

  1. Define your topic
  • What subject piques your passion?
  • Is this subject important and relevant? Are there holes in the general knowledge about it?
  • Why should you write on this topic? What unique knowledge, skills, or contributions do you bring to the topic?
  • What is the purpose of your book? What will be your message?
  1. Describe who cares
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What do they look like? Why would they be interested?
  • What style might appeal to them?
  1. Determine the focus, organize ideas, and create the flow
  • What is the main purpose of the book? How will it end?
  • What information will you include? How will it be organized?
  • What are your chapter titles? Are chapters long or short? Do they flow well from one to the next?
  • Where will you begin— the introduction with your purpose, in the middle with your main points, or at the end with your summary message?
  1. Find a perfect publisher and develop an excellent prospectus
  • Who are your potential publishers? Are you familiar with their philosophies? Do their ideals and goals match your intent for the book?
  • In your selection of a publisher, ask yourself: Are they proactive, knowledgeable, and reputable? Do they have extensive reach? Will they be accessible and responsive?
  • After you have completed a prospectus that describes your work, ask yourself: Do these few pages represent my book well? Do they demonstrate my intent? Do they highlight what is unique and why a publisher might be interested?
  • Regardless of whether your work is accepted or rejected, always ask: Where can I improve? What is missing?
  1. Write the book
  • As you write, ask often: What do I mean here? Why is this thought important?
  • Are you relying too much on others’ ideas? Are your own thoughts coming through?
  • Have you used good grammar, interesting and varied sentence structures, active voice, and descriptive verbs? Do you show what you mean using examples, analogies, and expressive words?
  • Is your wording forced, corny, or overly scholarly? Are you using trite phrases or jargon?
  • Have you used too few or too many illustrations? If you use copyrighted material, is it worth the money or effort it will cost to publish them in your book?
  1. Know when to stop
  • Each time you complete a new draft of your book, ask yourself: Am I finished?
  • When you encounter a new tidbit or interesting thought, ask yourself: Will this add anything?
  • When you boomerang to previously deleted phrases, ask yourself: Am I finished?
  • When you think you are done, let it rest for a week; reread it and ask again: Am I finished?
  1. Solicit feedback and temper your ego
  • Who will give you feedback? Have you selected trusted individuals who will be honest? Have you included subject matter experts as well as representative readers? Have you included those who know nothing about the subject, but can tell you whether your writing is clear or confusing?
  • Are you ready to check your ego at the door and accept constructive criticism as a gift?
  • Are you open to considering all feedback as relevant and to making changes based on feedback you deem valid?
  1. Market your work
  • How can you help market your book? What venues, connections, and social media outlets can you use?
  • Have you encouraged the use of reviews on online retail sites?
  • Can you develop supplementary material for the publisher?
  • Who should receive complimentary copies to consider the book for course adoption or reviews?
  • Have you published summaries and blogs on your own website or on social media sites like Linked-In?
  • Have you crafted a brief sound bite to describe your book when others ask?

Getting a book into print is only the tip of the publishing iceberg. When you finally see it on your desk, remember that you began by wanting to share your message. Although many publishers have extensive marketing departments, it is still your responsibility to expand your book’s readership.

In my particular case, Elsevier has excellent marketing for the academic audience. Their skills and knowledge have made me think differently about marketing. For example, before the prospectus went out for review, Elsevier helped revise my titles to ensure that the books received maximum results from Internet searches. They crafted promotions for their internal and external sales channels.

To spark interest, I also wrote supplementary material for their websites and generated a spreadsheet of targeted recipients teaching relevant courses for complimentary copies. I discussed the book at a couple of universities, wrote letters and emails, and visited potentially interested parties.

All these efforts demonstrate that you must be an integral part of your book’s afterlife. Remember, marketing is not a four-letter word.

Should you need help with writing, here are a few of my favorite sources:

  • Hall, D. & Birkert, S., 1998. Writing Well, 9th ed. Longman, New York
  • Pinker, S., 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  Viking, New York
  • Williams, J., 2005. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 8th ed. Pearson, New York
  • Truss, L., 2003. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham Books, New York
  • Zinsser, W., 2006. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. HarperCollins, New York


I hope these thoughts have encouraged you to write and publish your own book.  Bonne chance!

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