9 Lessons I learned from publishing a book (one year later)

Seeing my book on a store shelf for the first time was an amazing as well as a humbling moment. It was about one year ago that I saw my book displayed at the Harvard Bookstore. I stared in utter disbelief. I stood there, misty-eyed. I knew the work that went into creating this book — the long hours, the sacrifices made, the setbacks and frustrations encountered. I worked on this book in my “spare” time as a working mom with a high-pressure career. Often, I had to burn the midnight oil to work on the book.

The fact that my book was displayed for the first time in the window at Harvard Bookstore was even more astonishing. It is *the* Harvard Bookstore, across from Harvard University, one of the most reputable bookstores in the Boston area, catering to scholars and intellects.

Harvard Bookstore

I was thinking “Wow, I did it.” This book took over ten years from start to finish, but at that moment, I thought all the effort was worth it. Most of the work was concentrated within the past one year while I was raising a young child in elementary school. I wrote in the evenings, laboriously working till 2am many nights. I worked on the weekends and holidays. For about a year, I spent all my free time interviewing survivors, transcribing, writing, editing, re-editing, formatting, copy-editing, talking to lawyers, illustrating, printing, and navigating the complicated publishing industry.

My deadline was to finish by the 15-year milestone anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2016. It was not an easy task. Throughout this journey, there were countless setbacks. Many times, I felt discouraged. There were times I started to feel that I would never get it done. But I forged ahead and was determined to finish. In the process of writing and publishing a book, I learned many things.

Writing a book takes time and it is hard work. It is so hard that it’s easy to give up. However, it is attainable, if you focus and break it into manageable steps. I have no experience publishing a book. Nor did I have any major connections in the publishing industry either. But I had the tenacity, determination and the ambition to learn. I learned how to publish a book on my own and made key decisions that would protect the integrity of the subject. My first decision was to publish this book without a big-name publisher or a literary agent. I made this conscious decision so I can honor the stories of 9/11 survivors with authenticity, without any outside influence. But I had to overcome many hurdles in self-publishing. To do so, I also started my own publishing company and learned more about publishing than I could imagine! I hope to share my learnings so it can inspire others who also want to write a book.

  1. I had to live by the motto Done is better than perfect

I saw this quote for the first time from Sheryl Sandberg and it stuck. How many of us are prone to endlessly tweaking our projects and never finishing them? For me, I can edit a paragraph a hundred times, and it would still not be good enough. I could redesign the cover a hundred times and I could never get it perfect. So, I had to refer back to this quote and accept that it may NOT be perfect, but “perfect for now.” To accomplish this, I created a timeline with deadlines for myself to stick to. I broke the work into categories (survivor interviews, preface, book introduction, history, cover design, formatting, legal, illustration, etc.) I set dates for each. For example, the introduction had to be done by a certain date (with no more edits), etc. “Done is better than perfect” was the maxim I lived by when I knew I was spending too long obsessing over one area.

When I printed out the final manuscript to be sent for formatting, I had to accept it as done. The manuscript was edited by 5 editors, but it was NOT perfect. I found minor errors but did not have time to keep editing.

“Done is better than perfect” is my favorite quote. It’s a phrase that expresses a truth about work and life in one simple sentence. It can apply to writers, artists, musicians, business owners, home designers, and even for software engineers who are constantly striving for perfection. Don’t get me wrong - perfection is fine if you have NO deadline. But if you want to get something completed, it makes sense to set a timeline and redefine your definition of complete.

2. Your story is important. People deserve opportunities to tell their stories

I personally interviewed many 9/11 survivors who escaped near death situations. They saw the worst in humanity and survived to tell their story. Still, some of them would start off by asking “Do others really want to hear about my escape from the World Trade Center, after all these years?” I wholeheartedly said, “Yes! You are part of history. Your story is something you can pass down to future generations.” I had to reassure survivors that their personal experiences make up who they are and should be documented.

After the book was published, countless people have approached me for advice. They usually start off saying:

I have a story to tell and want to write a book but I don’t know how to get started.” or “I have contacted literary agents and no one has gotten back to me.” or “I’m almost done writing, but not sure how to get it published. It’s too complicated” or “Is anyone going to be interested in what I have to say?”

I believe everyone has a story to tell. As human beings, we each have experiences that are significant. It could be important for you personally, your family or to leave a legacy for future generations. Since I published the book, many people have contacted me to ask for advice. I have coached many people based on my experience of getting a book published.

A beautiful display at the bookstore “An Unlikely Story”

3. Don’t spend all your free time reading about how to publish a book. Read a few articles and move on to writing the book!

When I started researching how to publish a book, I saw a myriad of articles about how to publish a book — the information was overwhelming. The paths seemed endless. I could’ve spent all my free time reading about how to publish a book (instead of actually doing it). After reading some essential articles, I had to focus on putting the book together. This brings me to the next lesson.

4. You need discipline, concentration, perseverance, and patience

The truth is writing a book takes TIME — it’s as simple as that. It takes an exorbitant amount of time to write, edit, re-edit, copy-edit, gather information, format and publish. You need to focus on these tasks. Discipline, focus and patience are the drivers to get there. You have to stay focused. Concentrate and set aside time to do the work. Set aside time regularly. I often hear “I don’t know how I’ll find the time. I don’t know how you did it working full time, and being a mom.” I tell them it’s doable if they reassess and reallocate their time. I ask them to assess how much time they may spend watching TV, using social media, watching sports, going to the bar, renovating or redecorating their homes, etc. You can gain many hours by assessing how you spend your time, and minimizing non-essential tasks. The things I deprioritized and limited were TV, movies and social media during my critical writing months. Removing these non-essential entertainment activities freed up so much of my time, so I could stay focus on my end goal. I also deprioritized home improvements, which are not my interests or forte anyway. I love traveling but I deprioritized travel for a full year while wrote the book. It was a sacrifice I made to complete the book on time. However, I made up for travel the following year by going on multiple trips. The thing I did not limit was involvement in my child’s school activities, eating well and exercise. Eating well and exercise kept my energy high to work long hours.

Joyce Ng, 2016 National September 11 Memorial

Ultimately, if you write about something you feel strongly about, the focus, perseverance and dedication should come naturally. I am a survivor of the World Trade Center attacks and escaped with my life. I was given a second chance at living and wanted to give back. I have spent my years after that day giving back to the 9/11 community. It’s a mission I feel strongly about and has been my mission to remember 9/11. Hence, the focus and dedication came naturally. Writing this book was to preserve the history of this tragedy through the voices of the people who lived to tell their stories. All proceeds would also be used to help support the charity.

5. The publishing industry is not as complex and daunting as it seems if you break up the work into pieces.

Navigating the publishing industry is scary but it is doable! In fact, entry into the writing market is much easier now than it was ten years ago. However, the complexities of publishing a book can be frustrating, so one must take it step by step and forge ahead to be successful. It requires patience to figure things out. Seek help when needed.

Creating the content of the book (the writing itself) is only the first step. The next step is traversing the publishing industry. The third step is printing the book in ALL formats. That has its own complexities. The fourth and final step is marketing

For every aspect of the book, I created the initial versions but got help when needed. For example, I designed the cover on my own but needed help to make it better. I wrote the content but hired several editors to make it better. I also left the formatting of the book (spacing, layout, etc.) to experts.

You will encounter setbacks but keep forging on. For example, when I first submitted my manuscript to Amazon, it was rejected for a silly reason! Amazon said the World Trade Center photos taken in 2001 did not pass their image resolution criteria. Fifteen years ago, digital photos were not common! Most people did not have digital cameras or a mobile phones! Hence, when the digital photos were taken in 2001, photos were all low resolution. To pass Amazon’s automated check, I did a hack. Using my limited Photoshop experience, I “hacked” a high-resolution photo. I resubmitted the manuscript and the image quality check passed. Then, Amazon rejected it a second time because the formatters mixed up the ISBN numbers and they were incorrect between the hardcover, softcover and ebooks. Little things like these make publishing the book very frustrating, but it’s part of the process.

6. Not everyone will support you… and it’s OK. Do not take it personally.

There were people who came out of the woodwork and supported me, either with encouragement, offers of help, or even giving me names of someone who could help. There were people wildly enthusiastic about the book and committed to helping, but failed to follow through when I needed them. It was extremely disheartening. There were people who discouraged me from writing the book because of the amount of work involved. I was upset and spent days wondering if I should continue with this major effort. Then I came to realize that everyone is in a different stage of their lives. They have different priorities and may not want to dedicate time to a book. In the end, life is too short, and this work was too important to hold grudges and let things get personal. I let go and moved on.

7. Don’t publish in all three formats (skip the hardcover, if you can)

Publishing and printing a book in THREE formats is time-consuming and difficult. Avoid the hardcover, if you don’t need it. Yes, I was crazy and published in three formats: 1) hardcover, 2) softcover, and 3) eBook (which has to be compatible in a million readers: Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, etc).

I needed to produce a hardcover bounded book as a keepsake for my community of survivors. I spent so much time on the printed hardcover. Publishing a hardcover book is time-consuming because it’s a different format, different ISBN number, different cover, etc. Did you know there’s a million types of dust jackets and bindings you can choose and they can make printing the book exorbitant? I could write a book about the complexities of printing hardcover. But it was relevant to my audience to have a bounded hardcover to keep. Here are some challenges I encountered with publishing in three formats:

  • In the final proofreading, I found last-minute grammar errors — you will always find errors. In the last rounds, every error required changes to every file format. Even with five editors on this project, after print, I still found errors.
  • In my first printing of the hardcover, the dust jacket cover was misaligned. It took 1–2 weeks of tweaking between the designer, printing company, and myself to get it fixed.
  • The title on the binding did not print out correctly. I had to get that adjusted but it was after all the files were locked, so it was difficult.
  • The ISBN number was mixed up between the 3 formats. Each format needs a different ISBN number and the softcover ISBN was inadvertently used in the hardcover. Fixing this was a back-and-forth process that was never-ending.

8. The cost to publish a book can be as low as $125 or as high as $50K

To get an basic book published (ebook only), at the minimum, you have to do buy a single ISBN for the ebook, which costs $125. That’s the minimal amount of money you need to spend to publish a book, but that will only be an electronic book for download and no formatting. Most people spend more than that to print softcover, format and edit. Another ISBN is needed for a printed softcover that will cost another $125. If you want to edit, format, design or print a softcover, your costs can go up to thousands. You decide how much to spend, but the basic entry into publishing a book is low, at only $125. My costs were on the higher end due to the subject of the book, and my audience.

At my first major book signing, they put signs of me everywhere. The books sold out!

9. Marketing the book is the big task that comes after it is published

Unless you are famous, the book doesn’t get onto shelves by itself. If you want it to be in a bookstore, you have to ask. Many bookstores will want to see the book first. Some will say no. But more stores than you think will accept your book. I was lucky. Nearly every bookstore said they would take the book. There was only one bookstore that said they could not put my book on their shelves due to some location criteria. I didn’t fret over that.

How well the book does is based on marketing and the weather! In many book events, attendance was high. In other events, attendance was so low that I almost cried. However, after the disappointments, I moved on and realized that many factors contribute to book signings. The biggest factor is the weather. If the weather is nice, people will not to a bookstore.

Marketing also involves promoting the book in forums and social media and knowing where to promote. While writing the book, I stayed focused on writing and minimized distractions. After publishing, I focused on marketing including being more active in social media to keep people updated.

Summary

Looking back, it took a lot of work to write and publish a book, and I’m still surprised I was able to do it. Now, I can sit back and reflect. The moderate success is more than I ever imagined when I started out on this journey ten years ago. It was an idea that became a reality. The book is not selling millions but I’m proud that the book was recognized by President Obama. I’m proud that my book was designated an official artifact of the National September 11 Memorial Museum store, sells out quickly, and they’ve asked for me to do an all-day book signing at the museum.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum — Book signing

I’m also proud that my first major book signing at Barnes and Noble went well. The book signing took place last week and all my books were sold out! The manager said that has never happened to a new author. But he also commented that I made a huge effort to get out of my seat and talk to everyone. That makes a big difference. I’m proud that I gave voice to thousands of survivors whose stories were never told. I’m proud that we retain part of that history. A set of these books is also being used in a high school to supplement the American history curriculum.

One year ago, Harvard Bookstore displayed the book and I was beyond excited

This week, the Harvard Bookstore restocked their shelves with more copies of “Hotel 9/11” — in anticipation of the surge of sales in September. I still get misty-eyed seeing my book on the shelf and still feel humbled that my book is there still and people buy it!

I will venture into Harvard Bookstore again as I did one year ago. With wide-eyed anticipation, I’ll still take photos of the book on the shelf, at every angle and stare in disbelief.

The first bookstore that is willing to take a chance on you is the one you will always remember. For me, Harvard Bookstore will always have a special place in my heart as the first to proudly display the history book, Hotel 9/11 to remember survivors of Three World Trade Center. Harvard will again display it in their window for passersby. Please come by and pick up a copy. All proceeds go to charity to help 9/11 survivors.

Thanks to all the people who supported me and believed in the mission to remember 9/11.

Joyce Ng, 2016 National September 11 memorial
Book displayed at the window of Harvard Bookstore (Cambridge).— — - Book in the National September 11 Museum store in New York city
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