So You Think You Want to Write a Nonfiction Book... PART THREE

Part III – Reaching the Finish Line: the Final Act of a Nonfiction Book

Your desk is littered with notes and piles of papers. Books are stacked on any available surface, waiting for the next question that crosses your path. You have backups of the backups for your files and you save your work every few minutes. You have been working feverishly for days, months, years, that date you’ve circled on your calendar creeping ever closer to you. You have endured days where the writing crawled and celebrated the ones where you reached some milestone like finishing a chapter or finding that information you knew had to be out there. It has been alternately an excruciating slog and the most exhilarating time of your life.

You are closer to the finish line now. This is where you learn what truly goes into the publishing process: beyond queries and agents, contracts and plans, this is the final phase. This is not about just writing anymore. Your focus now is the product and its push. It’s your final countdown and it’s about to begin.

The Start of the Finish

When I signed my contract for Sir Barton, my deadline was about a year away. As I noted in my earlier posts, I had done at least two years’ worth of writing before I had started the search for an agent and publisher so I was much farther along than many authors at this point in the process. However, it takes about 12-18 months to get a book – any book – ready for release. Publishers schedule release dates based on factors like layout, copyediting, final preparations, marketing, and more. In order to get Sir Barton out around the 100th anniversary of the Triple Crown, I needed to have the manuscript completed about a year from the anticipated publication date.

When I say manuscript, I mean the completed chapters plus front and back matter and photographs. The front matter includes the table of contents, foreword, dedication, and other sections, depending on the type of book you are writing. The back matter includes the index, bibliography, endnotes, acknowledgements, and more, again depending on your book’s genre. I also needed to collect the photographs I wanted and the permissions to use those photographs. One important lesson I hope you take away from this series of posts is how much of any book you pick up involves more than the writing itself.

With about a year to finish the book, I knew I would need to have time to both write and edit each chapter as individual pieces and then as a whole narrative. My contract included a word count as well and, if the manuscript was over that, I needed to have time to cut it down to that total. My publisher the University Press of Kentucky had set a deadline of the following March so I gave myself two personal deadlines: October for writing and March for editing and creating front and back matter. Then I narrowed it down to two weeks per chapter, which gave me some wiggle room with more challenging topics that might need extra time to research and write. I also had to account for existing in between all of this, with a family and other responsibilities.

Now, my book and my style of writing may not match yours at all. Your deadlines and your obligations likely will not be the same as what I experienced, but setting the right schedule for you and programming in enough time for tasks like proofreading and editing are essential to meeting your deadline. As a long-time writing instructor and now author, I recommend approaching the writing process with a systematic mindset that works for you, your writing style, and your project.

The Hard Part Is Still Hard

I finished writing the manuscript officially on October 3rd. I typed the last word and then spent the rest of the day making sure it was the last word because I was in denial of the fact I had actually finished the darn thing. Then I took the rest of the week off to catch up on errands and take a mental vacation. The following week, I started to edit. Oh, editing.

I have two degrees in English and spent seven years getting them, writing dozens of papers over those years. I worked in the writing center as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and then spent twelve years in a classroom teaching both freshman writing and technical writing classes. I have read thousands of pages of student writing in my lifetime and wrote thousands more responding to those assignments. None of that prepared me enough for editing my own writing.

Editing looks at two types of concerns: local and global. Local involves sentence-level issues, like word choice, sentence structure, and more; global edits work on whole-document issues, like structure, tone, and depth. This draft of the manuscript was about 110,000 words, which meant I needed to cut 15-20,000 words. Thankfully, I had helpers with this task, including my editor, my husband, and a fellow former academic. All of us went over each chapter, reading and rereading, identifying areas where more information was needed or where tangential information might be cut. At the end of those six months, all of the cutting, refining, and polishing whittled the manuscript down to a manageable magnum opus that clocked in at fewer than 95,000 words.

As I edited, I also needed to collect photographs for the manuscript. In addition to the written content that makes up a book, authors are also responsible for the visual content. I inquired with a number of sources in search of images for the book, including the Keeneland Library, descendants of the people involved with Sir Barton’s story, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and collectors. I paid the fees and acquired the necessary permissions to use those images in the finished product. I also had to write captions for them as part of the manuscript I submitted in March.

With my deadline approaching, I finalized each of the chapters, double-checked the photographs, looked over the captions, and selected the quotes I wanted to include just after the dedication. I had to jog my memory on creating a table of contents from multiple documents, something I had not done in years. I proofread over 1000 citations, making sure that each and every one had the right information. I crafted the acknowledgements and the glossary while writing the abstracts and keywords for each chapter of the book. My birthday that year fell on a Friday, which also happened to be the last business day of March. It was time to submit all of my hard work and turn it over to UPK to craft into a book. My book.

I’m not going to lie: the whole day was spent in a panic. Gathering all of the pieces, checking and rechecking they were there. Uploading them all to the right location. The anxiety of letting them go. I had spent years working on this project. I expected relief at submitting it all and I did have some of that. But this was my first book and I knew I still had more to learn.

More to Learn, More to Do

While I waited for my next task on Sir Barton, I worked on its companion blog that I had created to help with finding an agent and a publisher. I started planning my next project. I spent the summer as Mom, going to the pool and the movies and bowling with my kids and their friends. I caught up on household projects and relaxed with my family. I got an email with a cover and walked around with a big grin on my face because Sir Barton was even more real. He was there, he was real. Then the copyedits came in.

After you submit the manuscript, a copyeditor goes through the entire book, catching issues like inconsistent word usage, terms or events that need clarification, absent citations, and more. The copyeditor for Sir Barton read the book from beginning to end at least three times and sent me notes whenever she found areas that needed my attention. I went through each chapter’s notes and attended to whatever concern she had there, a process that took four to six weeks. That part required as much attention to detail as the writing and the editing did: I found myself going back through research to make sure I was clear on my answer before I sent it back to her. This was a painstaking process, but the end result made it worth the effort on her part and mine.

In the fall, nearly six months after I had submitted the manuscript, I got the galleys for the book. The galleys are the preliminary versions of the whole book, with the margins and typeface professionally and gorgeously laid out by the Press’s designers, a preview of what to expect from the final version. My job now was to proofread the entire book to catch any typos, from punctuation to word choices to spacing. I read it and then reread it and then reread it again. My husband read it. While I was focusing on this, I had to start my last phase of the preproduction process, the index.

Research is much faster when a book has an index so I wanted to do a thorough job with this one, but I had never created an index before. UPK offered some guidance on the process and were willing to look over drafts before I submitted the final version. I printed the entire galley and then went through it to find terms and the pages they occurred on. My husband did me one better, writing a Python program to help build it, a tool which made creating this important section so much easier. The proofread manuscript was due before Thanksgiving, and the index before Christmas. We also had a family vacation planned for the kids’ Fall Break. A writer’s life doesn’t stop during the writing process, but I guarantee I spent every hour I could on the galleys or the index while also writing for the blog and preparing for my family’s fall and winter holidays. I finished the index about two weeks before Christmas. All that was left was the marketing.

The Fun Part, I Think

I was finished with the book part, but, as previous sections may have shown you, a writer’s work is never done. As the book went out to reviewers for jacket quotes, I began to receive offers for appearances. I received marketing materials to set up whenever I went to a book fair or did a presentation. I filled my calendars with presentations and signings, fitting them into my family’s schedule.

I received interview requests, speaking with reporters from publications like the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Huntsville Times. I wrote articles and blog posts for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, for this blog, for my own, and more. I had book signings locally and then traveled to appear at the Kentucky Derby Museum’s Fan Fest and Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico. I gave presentations at the Keeneland Library, the National Museum of Racing, and the Kentucky Derby Museum. I went to several book fairs in Kentucky and a 100th anniversary party at Audley Farm, where Sir Barton stood stud. I drove and flew more in 2019 than I had in the last 20 years. I had a blast. It was all thanks to the partnership I had with UPK’s marketing department.

In 2014, right as I began writing Sir Barton in earnest, I started social media accounts for the project. I started the blog The Sir Barton Project, created a Twitter and Instagram account, and then a Facebook page for myself and for the blog. The goal was to establish a platform, showing my expertise and then building relationships with others involved in horse racing. I did everything I could to engage with people and build excitement for Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. It paid off because I was able to build on that and make appearances on shows like Steve Byk’s At the Races, John Engelhardt’s Winning Ponies,and Kenny Rice’s The Horse Racing Show.

I understand if you’re more ambivalent about this aspect of the book publishing process: it is definitely not easy to go from a writer working anonymously in your home office to an author who is supporting a book. Be honest with the marketing people in charge of your project and work out solutions for situations where you might be uncomfortable. If public speaking is not your gig, maybe try for appearances at smaller venues. If travel is a concern, work out how to schedule some events closer to you so that you don’t have to be on the road any more than you have to be. I found it challenging at times to remain upbeat and extroverted enough to do a good job for every presentation. Travel and the resulting time away from my husband and our kids were tough. However, you can reap many benefits from putting yourself out there and talking to each reporter, each audience member, and each person that steps up to your table seeking your autograph.

As an author, your job is to research and write, but it also to represent. If you are able to represent your work and those who have invested in your with chances to write or talk or appear on behalf of your book, I encourage you to do it. You are building for the future each time you put yourself out there like that and, trust me, much of what makes you uncomfortable about each situation can get easier with time and experience. Work with your publisher’s marketing department to work out the right opportunities, ones that will take advantage of all of the knowledge and experience you bring to your project and allow you to shine at your very best.

Not Just an End, But Also a Beginning

As I begin work on this next book, I’ve already started applying many of the lessons I learned working on Sir Barton. I have my query letter and book proposal written and sent out to those who I hope will be interested. I’ve collected research and crafted a plan for the writing process. I have a new blog, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and Facebook page all ready to go for Gallant Fox and Omaha. I am preparing my path forward and thinking about this new project and those that will follow, laying the groundwork for long-term success with this list of books I would love to work on and publish. I balance the writing part and the business part, understanding that both are important to my career as a historian and an author and also my role as a wife and a mother.

My goal with these three blog posts was to show you what to expect from this process. If you are committed and ready, I hope this has served as a guide to what you need to do to realize this goal you’ve set for yourself. If you are thinking about writing a book yourself but were on the fence, I trust that you walk away from these posts with the information you need to help you decide what your next step is. I encourage you to create a plan for yourself and for your project, to see that whatever book you are dreaming of is both doable and worthwhile and will be the all the easier with a plan in place.

I want to leave you with one final thought, this one about readers. You might question whether or not someone wants to read your book. Is it worth it to put yourself out there like this, both financially and psychically? The Earth’s population numbers about 7.5 billion so it is likely that someone somewhere wants to read your book. Each day, thousands of people walk into a bookstore or browse an online bookseller looking for something like what you want to write. They are waiting for you to take a chance on you and your book. If they’re ready, are you?

Jennifer Kelly‘s book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller. Check out her blog The Sir Barton Project for more on Sir Barton and his era as well as for information on Jennifer’s upcoming appearances