Wow I published a book! 8 lessons I learned in the journey
Seeing my book on a store shelf for the first time was an amazing as well as a humbling moment. The first time I saw the book on the shelf, 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 pressured career. Often, I had to burn the midnight oil to finish.
The fact that my book was available and displayed for the first time 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 intellectuals. It was about one year ago that I saw the book on the shelf of Harvard. I stared in utter disbelief. My printed book was sitting alongside other great books from influential authors!
I was thinking “Wow, I did it…” This book took over ten years to complete, but at that moment, I thought it was worth it. Most of the work was concentrated within the past two years while my child was in third grade. I dedicated myself to writing in my “spare” time after my day job: laboriously working till 2am, working every weekend, holiday and vacation. I spent my free time interviewing, transcribing, writing, editing, re-editing, formatting, copy-editing, talking to survivors, talking to lawyers, illustrating, printing, and navigating the complicated publishing industry.
My [deadline was to finish by the 15-year anniversary of 9/11 in 2016. But 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. Finally, it was done!
Writing a book takes time and it is HARD work. Frankly, it is so hard that it’s easy to give up. But it is attainable, if you focus and break it into manageable steps. Many people want to write a book but often start and then give up. For me, there were many lessons learned along the way. Hopefully, sharing these lessons can motivate others who also want to write.
- 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. For me, I can edit and re-edit a paragraph a hundred times, and it would still not be good enough. I could never get it perfect. I had to keep referring back to this quote and move on. I must accept that it may NOT be perfect, but perfect for now. To accomplish this, I had to set deadlines for myself. I had to set milestones for each task. For example, the introduction had to be done a certain date (with no more edits), formatting by a certain date, illustrations by a date etc. It was the maxim I had to live by to move forward when I knew I was spending too long obsessing over one area. How many of us are prone to endlessly tweaking our projects and never finishing them? Anyone who works on tasks, understands the struggle of actually finishing what you’re working on.
“Done is better than perfect” is my favorite quote. It’s a phrase that expresses a truth about 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 may make sense to set a timeline and redefine your definition of perfection.
2. Your story is important. People at every level deserve opportunities to tell their stories
I personally interviewed many 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 9/11 escape after all these years?” I wholeheartedly respond with, “Yes! You are part of history. Your story is something you can pass down for generations. You have a voice.” I had to reassure survivors their personal experiences make up who they are and are important.
I believe everyone has a story to tell. As human beings, we each have personal experiences that are significant. It could be important for you personally, your family or to leave a personal legacy for future generations. Since I published the book, so many people have contacted me to tell me they want to write a book and asked for my help. I have coached and advised many people.
After the book was published the book, 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 published this book without a big-name publisher or literary agent. This was my decision, so I can honor the stories of 9/11 with authenticity, without any outside influence. I am glad to help anyone overcome some of the hurdles I have encountered, to make it a bit easier for them. I recognize that some people need help and encouragement. I learned a lot from this tough journey. Now, I am ready to coach others on publishing a book.
3. Don’t spend all your free time reading about how to write or publish a book (instead of actually writing the book). Read just a few and move on.
It sounds easier said than done. When I started researching how to publish a book, I saw so many books, articles and stories about how to self-publish — the information available is overwhelming. The paths seem endless. I could’ve spent all my free time reading about how to write and publish a book (instead of actually doing it). 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. There is work involved in writing. It takes an exorbitant amount of time to write, edit, re-edit, copy-edit, 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. Many say “I don’t know how I’ll find the time. I don’t know how you did it working full time, and being a working 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, renovating/redecorating their homes, etc. You can gain many hours by prioritizing what non-essential tasks you can minimize. So you don’t feel like you are sacrificing too much, you can time-bound your writing project to one year.
Ultimately, if you write about something you feel strongly about, the focus, perseverance and dedication should come naturally. I founded a 9/11 survivors charity organization. I am a survivor of the 9/11 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.
5. The publishing industry is complex and seems daunting.
Yes, I agree publishing is scary but it is doable! In fact, entry into the writing market is much easier now than it was 10-15 years ago. Navigating the complexities of the publishing industry can be frustrating. One must take it step by step and forge ahead to be successful. It requires extreme patience to figure things out. I sought help when I needed it.
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 final step is marketing
.For every aspect of the book, I created the initial versions but got professional help when needed. I created the cover on my own but needed help to enhance the spacing and layout.
You will encounter setbacks but keep forging on. For example, when I first submitted my manuscript to Amazon, it was rejected. It was rejected because the photos in the manuscript was low resolution. This is a history book and photos were taken 15 years ago. In 2001, digital photos had low resolution. With a little bit of Photoshop experience, I was able to bypass this automated check and hack a high-resolution photo. Amazon then rejected it a second time because the ISBN number was incorrect. Little things like this make it 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 who were 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 project. 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 every reader: Kindle, Nook, ipad, 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 hard cover. 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 jacket and binding 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 proofreadings, 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, book printer 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. 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. I didn’t fret over that. 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.
In summary, it took alot of work to create this book. I now 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. My first book signing at Barnes and Noble 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 good effort to get out of my seat, and talk to everyone that stopped by. I have a few large book signings coming up, including a speaking event at a major university. The book was even recognized by President Obama! The book is available at the National September 11 Museum store.
This week, 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.
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 passerbys. This year, 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.