Friday, January 21, 2022

Lessons Learned Writing My Second Space Book

It’s out! I’m so excited, proud, thrilled, ready to collapse – it’s out! On Monday, I published my second book, Becoming Off-Worldly: Learning from Astronauts to Prepare for Your Spaceflight Journey.

This is a book for future astronaut hopefuls like me. I loved hearing all the fun and insightful stories of what surprised astronauts about their spaceflight experiences. I was so touched by the stories of space pioneers who helped create this new era of commercial human spaceflight as well as those who have signed up to put their lives on the line to fly.

It took me almost two years to write Becoming Off-Worldly and it was worth it. It’s my favorite work I've ever written. I really love this book.

If you’ve ever published a book, you know it’s a feat. It’s also a labor of love. I’m not aiming to be a best selling author, yet only best sellers are financially successful enough to justify the many, many, MANY hours of research, interviews, writing, rewriting, editing, publishing, marketing, and everything else. It’s a lot more work than typing a blog article and pressing publish. It’s a project!

I call my first book, Rise of the Space Age Millennials, my “starter book.” I raised initial funds on a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and stumbled my way through self-publishing. I made so many mistakes and learned so much along the way. I’m still very proud of it, but there are many things I want to change. I plan to release a new edition later this year to improve and add to the work with voices from a younger generation.

I didn’t make the same mistakes the second time around. I made completely new ones! And yet, with all the learning as I go, I created a truly good book that I’m immensely proud of. Becoming Off-Worldly earns its place among the other books on your bookshelves.

Not that I expect the book to be on many bookshelves because I’m embarrassingly bad at sales. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Starting from the top. If any of my readers want to put yourself through the roller coaster ride that is book writing and publishing, I’m rooting for you! If I can do it, you can do it! I’m a scientist, not an English major. Here are some lessons I learned the hard way that I hope you can avoid.

Lesson 1: Too Many Interviews

This was a lesson I mostly but not entirely learned from my first book. I did just admit to being a scientist, yes? Maybe because of my X-ray astrophysics background where photons are scarce and each one valuable, I really wanted more data. People provide data. A large number of interviewees provide a collection of quality data!

But I was writing a book, not creating a survey. It was difficult to introduce readers to the 103 interviewees in my first book. There were many diverse voices but the reader couldn’t remember one from another. It was too much noise.

So of course I’m adding a few more interviews in the next edition. Will I never learn?

With my second book, I set out to focus on telling the stories of just a few individuals. I really thought maybe 5 astronauts tops would agree to speak with me. But I kept hearing yeses and making new connections. Who can say no to an astronaut agreeing to tell a space story or two? I ended up with 17 flown astronauts interviewed plus 4 “future fliers” who flew before the book was published. Altogether there are 32 interviewees featured plus a foreword author.

I had a cut-off time for interviews, really I did. I called it my biological deadline. I planned to finish the interview stage of my book by the time my third child was born in August 2020, take a few months’ break, then enter the writing stage.

But I kept coming across new people I just had to include! The Inspiration4 crew was announced in early 2021. I heard a fun, quirky interview with a future ISS private astronaut who I just had to connect with. My friend Kellie got her ticket to fly. How could I pass on anyone whose voice could add so much value to the insights in the book?

I am so, so thankful to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for the book! This book wouldn’t exist without their stories and insights.

Lesson 2: Persistence Can Pay Off, But I Can’t Win Them All

Even with over 30 interviews in the book, the ones I didn’t get still bother me. There was the one who agreed to an interview then ghosted me. There are the two who acknowledged receipt of my request then became unresponsive. Seriously people, just reply to decline, don’t make me send email after email and then leave you an awkward voicemail! Those three interviewees could have added such great perspectives and it’s our collective loss that I could not include their stories in the book.

I also tried and failed to interview a Russian cosmonaut. They all seem to be connected to the Russian government, even after they retired from their spaceflight careers. I asked for help from NASA astronauts who flew with cosmonauts as well as assistance from an organization whose entire membership has flown in space and got nothing. My goal was for the book to be culturally diverse and I succeeded in many ways, but the lack of a Russian perspective is a hole.

There were also the companies who were completely uncooperative despite the book being free positive publicity for them. I’m figuratively glaring at two spaceflight facilitators in particular. But their silence made room for me to shine a spotlight on their competitors who did add their voices to the book and got that free publicity.

Lesson 3: Be Quiet When Recording Interviews

Do you know how hard it is to accurately transcribe an interview over an imperfect connection? It’s even harder to transcribe when I’m tapping my fingers, moving around paper, laughing over what someone is saying, or doing who knows what to make whatever noise I’m hearing as I listen to the same sentence ten times trying to understand the words coming from my interviewee’s mouth.

It’s a skill to be still and quite and just let the other person talk.

Lesson 4: Write Without Distractions

Everyone works differently. Some people like to write in coffee shops or libraries or parks among noise and crowds and endless distractions. That’s not me.

I need a quiet room alone for a solid hour or two or three to really get into the flow of writing. Bonus if I can keep away from email and social media.

I have young children so this is very difficult to arrange. A supportive husband who has been working from home since the start of the pandemic gets the credit by providing me with those solid blocks of time alone to get into the flow.

Lesson 5: Allow More Time for Editing and Release

I rushed my first book. I spent so long self-doubting and procrastinating on the writing, by the time I finished the manuscript, I just wanted it done. I wanted it published on my birthday, very soon after I finished writing, and it shows. I ended up with cover art I didn’t like, writing that needed more refinement, and a boatload of typos.

With my second book, I hired not just an editor, but also enlisted the help of proofreaders. I allowed for more time to prepare the manuscript and art. I had a last-minute manuscript edit when an interviewee needed me to change her introduction, but that didn’t feel like an emergency because I had the time to make those changes.

Not only did I feel that I could prepare the book better, I felt that I could prepare myself better for the release date. I was physically (well, digitally) and mentally prepared by the time of book launch. The extra time even allowed for a soft release to ask for endorsement blurbs and early reviews.

I still wanted it published on my birthday (this past Monday). And I have another biological deadline. Today I’m T-7 days away from the estimated due date of my fourth child. I knew there was a possibility I might publish the book while nursing an early-arriving newborn if circumstances arose. Life is always happening no matter what deadlines you give yourself which is all the more reason to allow for buffer time if possible.

Of course, even after all that extra time and help, I still managed to find all kinds of typos after publication. Oops. I’ll fix them eventually.

Lesson 6: Pay For Good Help

One thing I did right with my first book as well as my second book was to pay someone I trust to edit my book. Bonus that he works in the space sector and could fact-check as well as edit. Good editing is worth paying a professional for.

Advice everywhere is to pay a professional artist for cover art. I had great luck with finding an interior artist for my first book. And my company’s graphic designer is invaluable. But I’ve had terrible luck finding a quality cover artist. I’ve paid artists twice now for cover art I didn’t like. So, I went against common advice and designed my own cover for my second book. I think it turned out better than the first time! The key here is to pay for good help, and I just haven’t found a good cover artist yet.

There have been issues with formatting and typesetting with both of my books. The end result is good, but not without the struggle of multiple revisions. Both individuals came highly recommended so I’m not sure what to do differently next time (if there is a next time). Maybe I just need to accept that formatting a book takes extra time due to the need for revisions. In the end, I am glad I’ve paid for professionals to format my books this instead of attempting to do it myself.

Lesson 7: Get Those Early Readers

One thing I didn’t do – didn’t even think to do – with my first book was to ask anyone to write a foreword, endorsement blurb, or early review. I didn’t allow for enough time between finishing the book and publication to allow for such extras. Nor did I know who to ask or how.

If it wasn’t for my editor introducing me to Frank White, I wouldn’t have thought to include a foreword. Frank’s generous words offered valuable context and insight right at the start of the book. Among the holiday season and his work responsibilities, he needed time to read the book and write such thoughtful words. I’m glad I factored in that extra time before publication.

Frank’s kind offer to write a foreword gave me the courage to reach out to some of my interviewees and one person who had no connection to the book to ask for blurbs, essentially testimonials from people whose opinions matter. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to even ask for words of praise from such high-profile individuals if I hadn’t already been encouraged by Frank’s involvement. I was thrilled when I got so many positive responses, more than I could include on the back of the book! I’m so thankful for the encouragement.

I rejected the very notion of caring about reviews with my first book. I was writing for myself, so what did reviews matter? But reader reviews really do matter to potential customers who want the assurance that the product is good before they invest their money and time. If a book is brand new and it has no reviews, potential readers might pass it over compared to a new book that has several early positive reviews.

I really didn’t focus much on early reviews with this second book, either, but at least I understand them better. I was shocked to see a recent space book receive over 100 of 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon despite it being pretty poorly written in my opinion. I realized that the author probably gave out hundreds (or thousands) of free copies to get so many reviews, just as he had given a free copy to me to read. The sheer number of decently good reviews is enough to encourage people to take a chance on a product.

I have been giving out more free copies of my book this time around, but more as a thank-you gift rather than a request for reviews. If I could go back in time, I’d make an extensive list of people I want to give books to and do so before book launch so I’m not in the situation I’m in today, suddenly realizing I should gift someone an ebook copy days after publication.

Lesson Still In Progress: Marketing and Sales

Readers, I have no idea what I’m doing as I try to get this book into others’ hands. I’m a scientist, not a salesperson. Even after founding my own company 6 years ago, I’ve been learning the business side as I go and I’m still terrible at sales.

I know I created a quality book. I know so many people would enjoy it and learn from it. I have no idea how to get “so many people” to even know about it, much less read it.

Becoming Off-Worldly has the potential to touch so many lives. It gives hope to those who long to have their chance to touch the stars and admire our planet from above. It gives actionable advice to anyone preparing to fly to space, whether next week or some future unknown date. It explores lesser known perspectives about what surprised astronauts about spaceflight and what motivates commercial space pioneers.

If I had a larger budget, I’d go back to Lesson 6 and pay a professional to design and execute a marketing campaign. But alas, my marketing budget is just not that large as of yet.

Have any advice for me on how to get my book into reader’s hands? Or can I help you with your book writing or spaceflight preparation? Post in the comments, reply on social media, or send me a message.

You can buy a copy of the book on Amazon or Astralytical. Get a free Becoming Off-Worldly sticker when you buy an autographed copy (US shipping only). Request a copy through your local library or favorite bookstore.

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