What You Need to Know About Writing and Publishing Your First Book

By Sebastian Cole, author of Sand Dollar: A Story of Undying Love


Writing a Manuscript

Elements of Writing & Story

  • Don’t overwrite.
  • Don’t use clichés.
  • Don’t use a lot of adverbs (e.g., “run fast”). Obviously, if you’re running, it’s fast. And don’t use a lot of unnecessary words. For example, if someone is nodding, obviously it’s with their head — so no need to write “nodding her head.”
  • If you’re going to use a lot of sentences to describe something, it better be something important.
  • Show — don’t tell. Instead of explaining how someone feels, use actions or dialog to show us.
  • The point of view (P.O.V.) should always be from the same person. You can only be in one person’s head, not in other’s.
  • Be careful not to make dialog too “on the nose.” Dialog should be natural, reflecting the way we speak in everyday life.
  • Hook the reader in the first 10 pages. (Besides, that’s all you may get to send a literary agent in a query letter, so make the first 10 pages great.)
  • Each chapter should end with the reader anxious to start the next chapter.
  • Create characters who are three-dimensional, not two-dimensional.
  • Unless the genre calls for it, antagonists should not be cartoonishly evil. In real life, even really bad people have some redeeming qualities.
  • Each scene should either develop character, advance the plot, or introduce conflict.
  • Generally speaking, every story has a three-act structure, with the middle act amounting to 50%.
  • Toward the beginning of the story, the main character should “save the cat” (a seemingly insignificant gesture — like saving a cat from a tree — that makes you instantly like his/her character).

Technical Aspects

  • Use 12-point Times New Roman font.
  • Double spaced.
  • 1” margins all around.
  • In the header, put the title and author’s name on the left, and put the page number on the right  (e.g., “SAND DOLLAR / Sebastian Cole                    1”).
  • New chapters start 1/3 of the way down (i.e., 6 lines down).
  • Don’t use the Tab key to indent. First-line indentation should be half of an inch.
  • In between sentences, use one space after periods, not two.
  • For scene breaks, use three asterisks, centered.
  • When referring to your book, you should either italicize the title or CAPITALIZE it, but not both at the same time (e.g., Sand Dollar or SAND DOLLAR, but not SAND DOLLAR). If your book has a subtitle, put it after the title and a colon (e.g., Sand Dollar: A Story of Undying Love or SAND DOLLAR: A Story of Undying Love).


  • Take advantage of the Internet as a tool for research, dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar rules, etc.
  • Microsoft Word’s spell checker is not necessarily reliable, so definitely use common sense when deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. A great place to double-check your spelling is with Google’s spell checker (part of Google Drive). (F.Y.I.: When using Google Drive, to move forward to the next spelling error, hold the Command key and press the apostrophe. To move backward to the previous spelling error, hold the Command key and press the semi-colon.)

Perfecting the Manuscript

  • Before sending out the first draft of your manuscript, copyright it at www.copyright.gov ($35 online).
  • Join writers groups to swap pages and critique each other’s work.
  • Send out copies of your manuscript to your friends who read a lot, to get honest, constructive criticism. Ask them if they got confused by anything, if there was ever a point in the story where they lost interest, if they liked the main characters, etc. Then rewrite it.
  • Hire a professional to critique the story. Then rewrite it.
  • Go to writer’s conferences, where, among other things, you can schedule a meeting with literary agents. Then rewrite it.
  • Consider hiring a professional editor for developmental editing and copy editing. Then rewrite it.

Finding a Literary Agent


  • F.Y.I.: I recommend hiring a professional editor BEFORE querying literary agents. It’s not required, but unless you’re an experienced writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, you’ll end up hiring one anyway if and when you end up self-publishing later on.
  • The Catch-22 of publishing: You need a literary agent to get traditionally published. In order to get a literary agent, you need to have already been traditionally published. If, however, you’re a politician, sports figure, or celebrity with a huge fan base, this does not apply to you!
  • Six worldwide corporations (with multiple imprints) do the majority of publishing. The majority of U.S. publishers are located in New York City, as are the majority of literary agents. For the most part, publishers do not accept submissions  directly from authors — that’s where literary agents come in.
  • Self-publishing is rapidly expanding, while traditional publishing is contracting. Traditional publishers need to adapt to this far-reaching trend in order to survive in the long run.

Querying Agents

  • The Query Letter
    • Write it; sleep on it; read it; revise it; repeat it. You only get one shot, so make it as perfect as you can!
    • It should be single-spaced, and it should never be more than one page.
    • The 1st paragraph should be a hook or why you chose a particular agent (e.g., you met him/her at a writer’s conference; he/she represents books in your genre that are similar to yours). The 2nd paragraph should be the pitch or description of the story. And the 3rd paragraph should be your bio. This formula is not necessarily carved in stone. The most important thing is to not have any grammatical errors, for it to be well-written, current, and interesting.
    • Always include your contact information.
    • If sending a query by email, paste the text into the body of the email. Never send attachments (for fear of viruses).
    • Address the letter/email to a specific agent at the agency (e.g., Dear Mr. Smith: or Dear Ms. Smith:)
      • Never query multiple agents at the same agency at the same time.
      • Search agents’ bios on agency websites, and choose the agent you think would be most interested in your genre.
      • Agents seek to represent authors whose books satisfy their own personal tastes, not necessarily the agency’s. So if you get a rejection letter from one particular agent at an agency, it doesn’t necessarily mean that another agent at the same agency wouldn’t be interested. Unless otherwise mentioned, once you receive a rejection letter from an agent at an agency, you’re free to go right back to that same agency with a query to a different agent (if you think it’s worth it).
    • Read the submission guidelines on each agency’s website to see how many sample pages to include with your query. If the guidelines call for submitting the first three chapters, then that’s what you send — no more. Never send an entire manuscript unless asked for. Never bind or staple a manuscript or sample pages.
    • Unless an agency’s guidelines state otherwise, you can usually include a separate 1-2 page synopsis, single-spaced.
    • If sending your query by email, make the Subject line specific to the agent you’re sending it to, so the person reading it knows that it’s not spam (e.g., “Sand Dollar query for Jane Doe”).
    • If sending a query by snail mail (U.S. Postal Service), include a self-addressed stamped envelope.
    • Never say that you’ve written a novel of fiction. A novel, by definition, IS fiction.
  • Tips
    • Literary agents acquire new authors primarily through referral, NOT through unsolicited queries. They are quick to say No because they don’t want to waste their time with “beginners” who require a lot of editing and who have no built-in audience. However, they will take a look at your query simply because they don’t want to be the dope who passes on the next J. K. Rowling. Since some agents get hundreds of unsolicited query letters every week, they’re forced to make life-and-death decisions in a matter of seconds. Therefore, three red flags and you’re out. So better not use too many adverbs!
    • Don’t be afraid to query lots of agents all at once. It could take 50 queries just to find one agent who might be interested in reading your manuscript. And even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll want to represent you.
    • Never pay money to a literary agent. Predators & Editors monitors agents who might be unscrupulous. Some agents are members of A.A.R. (Association of Author’s Representatives), which is kind of like the Better Business Bureau for literary agents (a good thing).
    • A great online resource for obtaining agents’ contact information is  Agentquery.com. When it comes to printed resources, Literary Marketplace (L.M.P.) is the industry standard. However, since it costs about $350, better find it at a library. Writer’s Market by Brewer (about $20) is a pretty good alternative.
    • At this stage of the game, if you expect to get rejections from every agent you solicit (and rightfully so), then you won’t be disappointed when you get them. Some rejection letters will be generic and sanitized (e.g., a postcard addressed as “Dear author”), while others might actually mention your name. And if you’re really lucky, they’ll refer to the title of your manuscript and even the names of the main characters in their rejection. Make a note of those agents who show interest and personalization. You can email them again down the road after you’ve gained traction.
    • For a list of literary agencies, click here.


Preparing to Self-Publish

  • Preparing to do business
    • Open a P.O. Box. (You’ll need to print a mailing address on the Copyright page of your book, and you should never use your home address.)
    • Create an L.L.C. (A corporation.) When you set up an account with a distributor, you’ll need to give them your E.I.N. (Employment Identification Number).
    • Open a checking account for your business.
    • Obtain a state sales tax permit (so you can collect sales tax when you sell books yourself at book signings). In Rhode Island, the fee is only $10 per year.
    • Set up a PayPal account (facilitates paying bills online easily).
  • Start getting your name/brand out there online
    • Create a website. Reference your website in everything you do. You can hire a professional or do it yourself at WordPressBloggerWix, and others.
    • Create accounts on social media sites.
      • Facebook
      • Twitter
      • Pinterest (Pinning pictures to online boards)
      • Tumblr (Good for quotes)
      • Linkedin (Job networking)

Preparing Your Book

  • HIRE A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR. Should I say this again?
  • Hire an artist or photographer to create the cover image. Otherwise, use stock photography/artwork.
  • Hire a professional designer to design the cover, and hire a professional formatter to format the interior. (The same person who formats the interior might also be able to design the cover.) You’ll need a PDF file of the interior and a PDF file of the cover for the paperback version, and you’ll need an ePub file for the eBook version.
  • Get an ISBN from Bowker. It costs $250 for 10 separate ISBN numbers. You will need one ISBN for the paperback version and a different ISBN for the eBook version. (If you need help setting up an ISBN, Bowker’s telephone number is 877-310-7333.) Also, if you use an aggregator to publish your eBook, some of them can supply you with an ISBN for a minimal charge. However, they (not you) would own the number.
  • If you’ve made significant changes to your manuscript since you first copyrighted it, it’s time to copyright it again. The date on the Copyright page of your book should reflect this new date, not the date you copyrighted the first draft of your manuscript. (Publishers don’t usually copyright books until they’re ready to be published.)
  • Get a Library of Congress control number (L.C.C.N.)

Publishing an eBook (two options)

  • A) Sign up with an aggregator to distribute to online retailers
    • Smashwords One benefit is that they allow you to give away eBooks for free along with coupons. However, they don’t sell to Amazon, so you’ll have to sign up for Amazon’s KDP program separately.
    • Bookbaby They DO sell to Amazon. However, since Amazon’s minimum retail is 99¢, you won’t be able to give your eBook away for free at Bookbaby. And they have great telephone customer support!
    • Lightning Source Their eBook division offers two options to choose from. (For more information, call them at 615-213-5815.)
    • BookBrewer
    • Untreed Reads As far as I know, they’ll get your book into Overdrive, the database that most libraries use.
    • others
  • B) Sell directly to online retailers
    • Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing for Kindle eReaders) and Amazon KDP Select. The minimum retail price for selling an eBook on Amazon is 99¢. However, if you enroll in their Select program (which requires exclusivity), you can give your eBook away for free for 5 days out of every 90 days. This is a great way to gain exposure, especially if you combine it with premium websites recommending your eBook during your promotion.
    • Barnes & Noble (for Nook eReader devices)
    • iTunes (for Apple iPods, iPads, and iPhones)
    • Kobo (for Kobo eReader devices)
    • Sony Reader Store (for Sony Reader devices)
    • Scribd.
    • Google Books/Google Play (I found the initial setup to be confusing and nonintuitive.)
  • Note: eBooks can be read on a computer by downloading free software offered by the companies that make the devices. To read ePub files on a computer, download Adobe Digital Editions.

Publishing a Paperback

  • Sign up with a P.O.D. (Print on Demand) distributor/printer to get your paperback listed at online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others
    • Lightning Source (owned by Ingram, the largest book distributor)
    • Createspace (owned by Amazon)
    • Lulu
    • Note: I personally use Lightning Source because they allow bookstores to return books (if you choose this option), which is the only way a bookstore would ever carry a book. However, many indie authors use Amazon’s Createspace.
    • When a customer orders a paperback book at an online retailer, the P.O.D. company prints a single copy and ships it directly to the customer, eliminating the middleman and the need to carry inventory. They also act as the publisher’s (your) printer, printing as few or as many books as you need at the lowest wholesale cost based on the volume of books that you’re purchasing.
  • Send out advance copies to publications and websites that review books three to four months prior to the publication date (see list).
    • Once you have reviews, use the first page of the book for blurbs.
    • F.Y.I.: the U.S. Postal Service has a Media Rate for books that’s half as expensive as mailing it First Class or Priority Mail. This might be a good time to take advantage of the savings.


After You’ve Self-Published Your Book

  • Print business cards, bookmarks, letterhead stationery, and a poster for book signings. (I use Gotprint.)
  • Create an author page at Goodreads and Amazon’s Author Central.
  • Enter book award contests (see list).
  • Get reviews.
    • Send advance copies of your book to the major book reviewers 3-4 months prior to the publication date (see list).
    • Goodreads book giveaways.  (This is how I got most of my reviews.) You can include your book in Goodreads’ book giveaway contests up to 6 months after its publication date. Goodreads chooses the winners for you, but you send the books out. Expect to get anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people signing up to win your book. Autograph your books, include a bookmark, and write a nice note asking for a review on Goodreads and on Amazon (if they like reading it, of course). Keep the timeframe of each of your giveaways to two weeks or less. That’s because the list is sorted into Books Ending Soon and Books Recently Listed, and the majority of people will sign up immediately after you’ve listed it and right before your contest is about to end. At other times, your book could get lost in a very long list that includes thousands of books being given away.
    • Give your eBook away for free on Amazon’s KDP Select. (Your eBook must be exclusive to Amazon to qualify for this program.) Expect to give away thousands of eBooks for free (which costs you nothing, by the way), so you’re bound to get reviews.
    • Contact bloggers (book review websites) that specialize in your genre. Google it.
    • Contact Amazon Top Reviewers. Amazon ranks customers who write reviews (with #1 being the most prolific and current). They give badges to the top reviewers, as well. Email top Amazon reviewers who gave favorable reviews to books similar to yours, and ask them if they’d like a complimentary copy of your book in exchange for an unbiased review.
    • Paid reviews
      • PW Select from Publishers Weekly. For $149, they’ll list your book in their monthly supplement of new indie books, while reviewing 25% of the books they list. There’s no guarantee that they’ll pick your book to review, however.
      • Kirkus Indie
      • ForeWord Reviews
      • several others

Marketing Your Brand & Building Your Platform

  • Post as much as possible to your blog, social media sites, YouTube (if possible).
  • Do book signings at local bookstores and libraries.
    • To announce your events, send out press releases to local newspapers (email yourself while blind copying them) and submit event info to online event calendars.
    • F.Y.I.: If a bookstore is collecting the money, the standard commission rate for authors is 60% of retail.
    • If you end up selling the books yourself, you’ll need a state sales tax permit to collect sales tax.
  • Contact bloggers who reviewed your book to see if you could do author interviews, guest posts, or chats.
  • The best way to market yourself and gain national exposure is to give your eBook away for free in conjunction with premium eBook websites (see list) recommending your eBook on the dates that it’s free. Expect to give away thousands of eBooks per day using this methodYou can accomplish the same thing, but to a much lesser extent, by reducing the price of your eBook or promoting an everyday low price (rather than giving it away for free). For a mere $25, I highly recommend promoting your bargain eBook with Kindle Books and Tips. With the exception of BookBub and Freebooksy, most of these promotional websites are geared toward Amazon’s Kindle (not Barnes & Noble’s Nook, iTunes, or others). If your eBook is enrolled in Amazon’s standard KDP program, the minimum price that they allow you to sell your eBook for is 99¢. If, on the other hand, your eBook is enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select program, you can give your eBook away for free on Amazon for 5 days out of every 90 days, with one caveat: you have to give Amazon exclusivity (i.e., no eBooks on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, etc.)

Other Marketing Options

  • Hire a publicist?
  • Create a book trailer and put it on YouTube?
  • Produce an audio recording of your first chapter and put it on YouTube?
  • Get millions of hits on YouTube by posting a video that goes viral while at the same time mentioning your book? (Does this ever really happen to people like us?)
  • Sign up for a Virtual Book Tour?
  • Network with book clubs?
  • Join the Independent Book Publishers Association (I.B.P.A.) and participate in their events (such as joining them at Book Expo America)?
  • Offer advance copies of your paperback book to independent bookstores through American Booksellers Association’s (A.B.A.) Advance Access monthly newsletter?

What’s Next

  • Start all over again. Now that you’ve gained traction, you’ve got clout with bloggers, reviewers, websites, book clubs, literary agents, etc.
  • Feel free to contact those literary agents who seemed genuinely interested the first time around. The difference is that now you you’re not in the same boat as everybody else: you’re an accomplished indie author with credibility, a brand, a following, great reviews (hopefully), rewards (maybe), sales, and a solid platform to stand on.
  • Write a second manuscript.
  • Good luck, and don’t forget to send me a postcard from Hollywood when you’re famous!

Additional Comments

  • Rejection is at every corner, but don’t let that stop you or slow you down. Just find another way to go around the obstacles.
  • Writing means rewriting. The writing can always be improved, and the first draft is never as good as you think. Think of it this way: the manuscript starts off as a piece of Swiss cheese (with holes to fill), is transformed into a sculpture that needs to be whittled away at, and eventually becomes polished.
  • The process of writing a book teaches you how to write.
  • Publishing a book professionally costs a fair amount of money to do it the right way. Don’t expect to recoup your investment right away, if at all. However, you’ll never achieve your dreams if you never try.
  • You’ll most likely have to write several books/manuscripts before securing a literary agent. (Sue Grafton, for example, wrote four manuscripts before getting one.)
  • Marketing is the biggest challenge for self-published authors because their books are generally only available online (not in bookstores), and people won’t know to look for you online if they’ve never heard of you before. Having a great price, great reviews, and winning awards does not necessarily translate into sales. And paying for display ads at Google, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. does NOT work unless you’re already well known or in demand, so save your money there. The best way to gain exposure is by getting premium websites (see list) to recommend your eBook on the same days as a temporary price reduction. Now that you know this, your on your way to overcoming your biggest challenge.
  • Sending books unsolicited in the mail usually never works. Networking with people, face to face, usually does.
  • A useful tool to determine which websites have larger audiences than others is Alexa.com. (Enter a website name in the search box and it gives you the website’s ranking, with #1 being the best.)
  • Every step leads to another step, so keep moving forward.
  • Enjoy having fans and the knowledge that you’ve touched the lives of other people through your writing.


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