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On self-publishing a non-fiction title


For the past 10 months, I’ve been steadily writing and preparing a history book for publication. Not only have I had to use just about every writer’s trick I know, I’ve also drawn extensively on my expertise in teaching and archaeology to produce Ancient Australia Unearthed.

My book will be sent to the printers at the start of April. That’s two weeks away. By the end of April, 3000 copies will arrive on my distributors’ doorsteps, with a couple of hundred set aside for my own promotional use. By mid-May, the book will be available online as a hard copy and ebook, and by July it will start to appear in bookstores.

AAU coverBefore setting out, I read extensively on the topic of self-publication and found that a good 90% of the literature focused on fiction. Much of the advice is applicable to non-fiction: have your work thoroughly edited and proofread; employ a designer to create an eye-catching and professional cover; become social media savvy; know your audience; and prepare a stellar sales pitch or blurb that will capture readers’ interest.


Self-publishing a non-fiction title is in many ways an entirely different arena, with its own unique set of hurdles. Here are a few things I’ve learnt about the process so far:

1. Design time = 2 x writing time

If you have images (and Ancient Australia Unearthed has hundreds), then design, layout and typesetting will take twice as long as it takes to write the text. It took me 2-3 months to write Ancient Australia Unearthed. The designer has had it since October last year, and once she finishes up in April, she will have spent close to 6 months with my book. Of course, if your non-fiction title only has a dozen images or so, then your design will take far less time.

2. Network, network, network

I chose to write about a specialised, niche topic in the history curriculum, and even though I have qualifications as an archaeologist, I was referencing work from some of the most prominent archaeology scholars in Australia. My facts had to be spot on.

I approached dozens of academics across the country (and even around the world) to let them know what I was doing, and to ask for assistance. Usually, this assistance was either in the way of fact-checking my work (only the segments that dealt with the person’s particular area of research – I never sent through the entire text), or requesting images to include in the book (again, sending through the relevant accompanying text). My success in networking hinged on how I presented myself, so with a positive, friendly manner, along with a well-rehearsed and succinct spiel about my background and my project, I quickly gained the support of almost everyone I contacted.

Among my list of contacts were several traditional owner groups, whose sites and archaeological remains I was discussing in my book. Gaining permissions from traditional owners was important to ensure that all published material was presented in an ethical and respectful manner. Traditional owners also needed to approve various images to ensure that nothing culturally-sensitive or sacred was published. Indigenous cultural stories (e.g. Dreaming stories) are protected under national copyright law, so I was not able to discuss these in my book without the correct permissions. Since Ancient Australia Unearthed is about archaeology, this was not really an issue.

3. Networking leads to endorsements

Any book will benefit from endorsements, whether that be from fans, fellow authors or booksellers.

A landmark project of global importance (Helmut & Marika Schmidhofer)

In the case of a non-fiction text, an endorsement from an expert in the field is absolute gold. An important aspect of the networking process is letting people know about your project and drumming up support, whether or not you ask for their help. In my case, I’ve connected with teachers, archaeologists, university lecturers and professors, education organisations, booksellers, historians, palaeontologists, local community groups, and members of the general public.

Ordering a second copy so both my children can have one! (David & Emma Robinson)

4. Writing is the easy part

The writing process was a breeze compared to the amount of work I’ve done since. Keeping on top of everything – book design, networks, funding, distributors, ebook arrangements, image and content contributors, merchandise – is a full time job. Whereas some aspects will drop off once the book goes to print, other areas, such as promotion and marketing, will step in to guzzle my time. I have already begun using whatever means available to get my project noticed: social media, website, newspapers, magazines, local and national radio networks, email, phone calling, postcards and letters, and word of mouth. This will only get busier in the months to come.

5. The tunnel does end (eventually)

I’m in the process of organising two book launches, one in Melbourne, where I live, and one in the Southern Highlands, where I grew up and from where much of my crowdfunding sponsorship originated. I’ve had lots of small celebrations along the way, but the book launches are the most important milestones, as they will mark the point where the book sets sail.

That’s been my journey so far. I’d love to hear from others. What experiences have you or people you know had with self-publishing?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 20.03.2014 6:34 PM

    I can’t help you with experiences about self-publishing but I’m fascinated by the title of your book. I’d be interested in reading it. I love Australian and Aboriginal history and would love to learn more about our indigenous history.

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