Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

There is a stigma attached to self-published books. Book buyers are often wary of these books. Self-published books are rarely found in libraries and bookstores, and they’re explicitly banned from entering many literary awards. This is partly due to the perception that self-published books have all been rejected by traditional publishers and therefore must be rubbish – even though we know that publishing houses are interested in commercial potential, not literary quality. Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible self-published books out there and that’s because a lot of self-published books aren’t professionally edited.

In a traditional publishing house, there’s an editorial team who do their best, within the limits set by the book’s budget and the team’s workload, to make sure the book is a satisfying read. Typically, a structural editor will edit the manuscript for clarity, coherence and cohesion, then a copy editor will look closely at issues such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and finally a proofreader will check the typeset pages before the book goes off to the printer. There might be specialist editors for certain subjects or genres, and big publishing houses usually have a legal expert to look at possible defamation or copyright issues.

Editors are professionals, often with university qualifications and years of experience, so they deserve to be paid at professional rates. That makes three rounds of editing prohibitively expensive for most self-publishers, including me. Still, there was no way I was going to let a book of mine anywhere near the public without at least some professional editing, so one of the first tasks on my To Do list was to find a suitable editor.

This was made more complicated by the nature of my book. It’s non-fiction, but it’s told in the form of a story, so I needed someone with experience at editing both fiction and non-fiction. It’s also for thoughtful readers of about twelve years and up. I figured its audience would be a mix of what the US publishing market calls ‘middle grade’ (although that term doesn’t really exist in Australia) and Young Adult (which can mean anything from thirteen to eighteen years old in Australia) – as well as some adults who read the sort of books I write (I think the Montmaray books ended up with more adult than teenage readers). Plus, I figured it would be helpful to have an editor with educational publishing experience, given the potential for this book’s use in the classroom. And naturally, the editor needed to be Australian…

I scoured the directories of Australian professional editors’ societies and came up with a small list of names, which became even smaller when I contacted each editor and explained the project’s complexities and my timeline. And of course, I needed to find an editor who would fit my budget. Luckily, I found someone just right. Helena Newton did a thoroughly professional structural edit, marking up the manuscript with hundreds of queries and useful suggestions, and writing me a detailed editing letter and style guide, all within a couple of weeks.

Helena also suggested I should get legal advice about a couple of issues, so I contacted the Arts Law Centre of Australia. They provide free (or very reasonably priced) telephone advice to creative professionals, as well as lots of free written resources in areas such as copyright and defamation law. I found them to be very helpful.

I’m now almost ready to send my manuscript off to Helena to be copyedited. After that, it will be ready to be typeset into various formats for print and ebooks.

Although I did say earlier that this series of blog posts on self-publishing wouldn’t be Expert Advice, I will pass on any really valuable lessons I learn along the way. And the first of these is this: if you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT WRITE A BOOK THAT REQUIRES AN INDEX. (Does my book have an index? Ha ha, of course it does! Also, a seven-page bibliography!) Professional indexing costs a mint, so you won’t be able to afford that. You’ll have to do it yourself and it will make you want to tear your hair out by the handful. (Don’t think you can just use the automatic indexing function in Word, either. You can’t. Although it will help a little bit.) It feels as though it took longer for me to compile the index entries and track down all the references in the text than it did to write the book in the first place. And my book’s index isn’t even finished yet! All those entries will need to be cross-checked and the page numbers changed once the book is typeset!

I cannot even bring myself to contemplate the potential horrors of typesetting at the moment (given that I have chosen to write a book with not just an INDEX, but also ILLUSTRATIONS and yes, I did them myself, too), so I will talk about social media next.

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Way back in 2012, I wrote this on Memoranda, in response to a reader’s question:

“Shannon asked me about the new book I’m working on, so I composed a long blog post on the subject, complete with jokes and a cool photograph of a turtle. But then I read over it and realised I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that much detail about a writing project that’s at such an early stage, it doesn’t even have a title, let alone a publisher.

So I deleted the post.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time, because I also realised that writing that post had made me feel more confident about this new book. After I finished ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I flipped through my mental catalogue of Ideas For Books and decided I needed to write something that would not be the start of a series, would not be a complicated family saga, would not include scenes of heart-rending anguish, and would not require much research. This next book would be fun and easy to write!

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite the way I’d expected. I’ve spent the past six months compiling a vast folder of notes and diagrams and photocopies, but feel I’ve barely started on the research. It isn’t a complicated family saga, but at the heart of the story is a mystery that requires far more complicated plotting than I’ve ever before attempted. It was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I already have ideas for a sequel and I’m not even sure the book would be best described as a ‘novel’. Plus, there’s at least one scene of heart-rending anguish…”

And five years on, I’m still working on that book, although at least now, I know what it’s about.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest grew out of several ideas. One of them was sparked by my irritation at shoddy articles about health and medicine in supposedly reputable newspapers. One particular Australian journalist, who clearly had no scientific education whatsoever, specialised in what I came to think of as ‘blueberries cure cancer’ stories – that is, articles that misrepresented or ignored scientific research in favour of sensational, fact-free assertions by celebrities and self-proclaimed experts who had no medical qualifications. I have a science degree and have worked in health sciences for most of my adult life, so I could see these articles were utter rubbish, but what about other readers? People were spending lots of money on these useless ‘cures’ and sometimes putting their health at risk by following harmful advice.

I was especially concerned about teenagers who dropped science subjects early in high school because they hated maths or decided science was boring or difficult. Scientific literacy is just as important in modern life as being able to read and write and interact socially. Science doesn’t always have to be learned in a classroom, though. Some of my favourite reads in recent years have been popular science books – books written by experts who are good at explaining complex scientific ideas in an entertaining and informative way. But those books are all aimed at adults. Where are the popular science books for teenagers, especially teenage girls?

It’s not that there are no Australian books about science for young readers. There are thousands of colourful, interesting books for primary school students on a wide variety of science topics, from astronomy to zoology. There are science books for older students, too. There are well-written and well-designed text books used by science teachers in the classroom, but they’re not intended for general reading. I’ve also seen books with eye-catching titles and cartoon covers, along the lines of There’s a Worm on My Eyeball!, full of disgusting facts and clearly marketed at boys.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop girls picking up these books and some girls do like them, but I was interested in writing something more thoughtful and philosophical, although still entertaining – a book that would appeal to teenage girls who were interested in history and stories and people, but thought science was difficult, dull and only for boys. I decided a history of medicine, from superstition to science, might be a good way to introduce the beauty, creativity and power of scientific thinking. The book needed a framing narrative, so I came up with Rosy and Jaz, two very different thirteen-year-old girls who are thrown together one summer holiday because their parents work at the same college. A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful artefacts – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Rosy and Jaz find themselves arguing with Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, being horrified by the Black Death, body-snatching and eighteenth-century surgical techniques, and scrutinizing modern homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement. They uncover the secrets of the brain’s anatomy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and find a link between herbal medicine and Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. They learn how the discovery of penicillin demonstrated the benefits of having an untidy desk, why an Australian scientist thought it would be a good idea to drink dangerous bacteria, and how traditional Aboriginal remedies might save lives when modern antibiotics fail. And there’s more:

What does aspirin have to do with secret agents, revolution, stolen treasures and explosions?
Can unicorns cure leprosy?
Who thought it was a good idea to use heroin as a cough medicine for children?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does acupuncture really work?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

It’s a little bit like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, but about the history of medical science rather than the history of philosophy. (Incidentally, whenever I said this to publishers, I got blank looks. How can you work in the publishing industry and not have heard of Sophie’s World?! It was an international best-seller! It won awards! It was made into a film and a TV series and even a computer game! And by the way, it was the reason the narrator of the Montmaray Journals was called ‘Sophie’.)

Anyway, this is how Dr Huxley’s Bequest starts:


Afterwards, Rosy always blamed the turtle.

‘It wasn’t the turtle’s fault,’ said Jaz, as the two girls sat in the courtyard beside the pond, eating salt-and-vinegar chips.

‘You weren’t there, Jaz. You didn’t see his evil expression. He knew exactly what he was doing. None of it would have happened without that turtle.’

The turtle in question raised his head and turned his beady yellow gaze upon them.

‘Look,’ said Rosy. ‘He’s doing it again. Malevolent, that’s what I call him.’

‘How do you know it’s a boy?’

‘He’s got a beard.’

Jaz peered closer. ‘I think that’s a bit of lettuce stuck to its chin.’

‘After all that everyone here’s done for him, too,’ Rosy went on. ‘Feeding him. Cleaning his stupid pond. And how did he repay us? With treachery and disloyalty and, and … dirty tricks! Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen this college if we hadn’t come to the rescue.’

‘Well, considering there wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t –’

‘Malicious,’ Rosy said quickly. ‘That’s what he is. Mephistophelean.’

‘That is not even a word.’

‘It is. It’s from Mephistopheles. Remember, that stone demon spitting into the fountain in Science Road?’

‘Oh, right,’ said Jaz. ‘Faust. The quest for knowledge.’

‘Exactly,’ said Rosy.

The turtle lunged at a passing dragonfly, snapping off its wing and a couple of legs. The unfortunate insect tumbled onto the surface of the pond and the turtle gulped it down, then twisted his wrinkled, serpentine neck in the direction of the girls.

‘He does look a bit sinister,’ Jaz conceded.'Dr Huxley's Bequest' turtle illustration

Text and illustration © Michelle Cooper

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

In Which I Take More Photographs

Yesterday, I posted some photographs of a Lion and a Unicorn. Here’s where they live:

Southern entrance to Main Quad

They’re over the southern entrance to the Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney, which is Australia’s oldest university. On the left side of the photo you can see part of MacLaurin Hall, the original university library. Here’s another view of MacLaurin Hall:

MacLaurin Hall

I sat for exams in that building a couple of decades ago. (I blame the extremely distracting neo-Gothic architectural details for my poor results.)

If you walk through the Lion and the Unicorn entrance, you’ll find yourself in the Main Quadrangle, which features a beautiful jacaranda tree:

Jacaranda tree, Main Quadrangle

The tree is covered in vivid purple flowers in late spring. It’s said that if you haven’t started studying by the time the jacaranda flowers, you’ll fail all your exams. Here’s another view of the Main Quad, showing the Clock Tower and Carillon:

Clock Tower, Main Quadrangle

According to Tess van Sommers, who wrote the text of University of Sydney Sketchbook, “If architect Edmund Blacket had had his way, this tower would have had even more ornate turrets than it has now; some almost deliriously convoluted pinnacles were among his rejected designs.”

At the left side of the photo, you can see a bit of the Great Hall, a “scaled-down version of Westminster Hall in London”. At the moment, most of it is covered in scaffolding, so I didn’t take a photo from the front, but it’s a fairly spectacular edifice. Apparently, its construction in the 1850s and 1860s did not go smoothly, with workmen often abandoning the site to join the latest gold rush, while politicians kept raising doubts about “the need for such frivolities as gargoyles”. Also, “for some years, the frontal majesty of the block was marred by an approach through cow pastures” and what is now Victoria Park featured a dam in which horses bathed and occasionally died.

But what, you may ask, does all this have to do with my current writing project? Good question. I don’t have a very detailed answer yet, but wait and see. It’s possible that something interesting and historical and book-shaped will (eventually) appear.

In Which I Take Some Photographs

Last month I bought my very first camera, so that I could take some photos of the setting of my next novel. This work-in-progress doesn’t even have a title yet. All I’ve done so far is read a lot of books about the subject, fill a folder with research notes and think up some fairly silly jokes and snippets of dialogue. The next step – organising all of this into some sort of coherent plot – seems so overwhelming that I’ve been avoiding it. However, today I decided to go for a long walk around the place in which the novel is set, in the hope that this would inspire me to do some work. I took my camera along and here are some of the results.

First, the Lion:

The Lion

His ferocity is slightly diminished by the fact that a few of his front teeth have fallen out. Actually, I’m not sure if the Lion is going to make it into my book, but the cute little gargoyle in the top left corner of the picture definitely is.

And then, the Unicorn:

The Unicorn

I’m assuming it is a Unicorn (and not just a horse with a weird lump on its forehead), because it’s helping the Lion hold up a coat of arms. Poor Unicorn has lost most of its horn, but hey, if you were a hundred and fifty years old, bits of you would probably be falling off, too.

Next is Mephistopheles, spitting into a fountain:


Unfortunately, he’s missing most of his nose, but he still looks quite evil. He was (supposedly) designed by Australian architect Leslie Wilkinson in 1925, and possibly inspired by Australian artist Norman Lindsay. (I accidentally typed ‘Normal Lindsay’ just then, which I’m sure he would have found highly insulting.)

And then there’s Gilgamesh, who is either hugging or strangling a lion:


I have to admit that I don’t yet know much about Gilgamesh, except that he was the king of Uruk (now Iraq and Kuwait) in about 2500 BC and was regarded as a demigod in Mesopotamian mythology. He also went on a ‘quest to seek immortality’, which is very useful for my purposes. I’m choosing to believe he is embracing the lion, even though the lion doesn’t look very happy, because Gilgamesh also found ‘compassion, friendship, courage, love and peace’ on his quest. That’s nice, isn’t it?

Tomorrow: More photographs from my expedition, and I’ll explain where you can find Gilgamesh and his friends. (Shh, Sydneysiders, I know you’ve already worked out where the photographs were taken! But I’m trying to create some suspense here!)