Publications / Research

5 Lessons from a first-time Author

© Sue Summers 2013
© Sue Summers 2013

New Media and the Nation in Malaysia: Malaysianet, what does a first-time author say about her first monograph? A review of someone else’s book is fairly routine but one’s own? Hmm…so this is about that process that many undergo but fewer want to relate: publishing your first book aka ‘converting your thesis into a monograph’.

The bare facts are this: it was published this year and launched at the end of last year, almost 5 years to when I completed my PhD. You can find the official abstract here.

Along the way I made some common first-time author mistakes and learnt some hard-won lessons. Fortunately, I did get some things right…

My first error was in thinking that I stood a better chance at a specialist publisher. Nothing of the conversations I had about my intentions to approach them indicated otherwise. In any case, this led me to spend quite some time converting the thesis into manuscript form as per their requirement. Having submitted an entire manuscript, I sat back and waited, fearful of a rejection. After 12 months or so, I picked up the phone, called them and withdrew the manuscript from their consideration. It knew it was a risky call but not as dangerous as letting my confidence leach while I waited.

From where I stand now I would say, lesson 1 is: approaching the editor of an existent, relevant series with a reputable publisher would have been a better choice. I didn’t quite go that route but another chat with another senior colleague and I submitted the proposal, courtesy of a very kind introductory email, to the publisher I’d really wanted to work with initially but lacked the confidence to approach. When the response arrived, I was over the moon! They liked it but that as I learnt later, was just the first of many steps.

The second step consisted of the manuscript being sent out to the publisher’s choice of two to three anonymous, external reviewers. The reviewers made two major suggestions that were crucial to the shaping of the final product. The first was to adjust the tone of the manuscript to suit an undergraduate to postgraduate readership and; the second was to restructure and rewrite to broaden the context of the work from a Malaysian one to a Southeast Asian. My first instinct was to resist the recommendations because they meant I had a lot of work ahead of me. Lesson 2: listen to the reviewers to the extent that it made better sense for the book not you.

This is where I think the years that had lapsed between the completion of the thesis and the writing of the manuscript helped – I was sufficiently detached to begin dissecting the result of four years of work. With help, I restructured and submitted a second book outline and was given the go-ahead shortly. Lesson 3: detach yourself from the investment in your thesis and think of the project as a book rather than your book.

The rest of the process consisted of about 6 months of writing and editing late into the night in between teaching and during weekends. Not an uncommon tale in academia but your family and partners need to be quite, quite forgiving. Lesson 4 was something I did do well right from the start: hire the best research assistant you can afford. I was fortunate enough to have funds from my appointment as an early career academic and researcher. My RA, Kristen’s counsel at the book proposal stage and the manuscript revamp after reviewers’ report was crucial to the rewriting process. If you don’t have the funds, find a trusted friend and arrange to return the favour later. You will both learn from the experience, guaranteed.

By the time I submitted the revamped manuscript in February 2013, I’d worked with two different RAs. Matters moved quite quickly from there to typesetting, proofreading and indexing. Lesson 5 was: let the professionals do their magic. Frank, an experienced professional indexer turned over the indexing in about 48 hours when it would have taken me at least 2 weeks. The final manuscript was sent off in August 2013 and the book was launched on 21 November 2013.

If I had my time again I would approach Routledge, the publisher with whom I ultimately published the monograph, right from the start. The renowned publishing houses can seem daunting but they are very professional and their published processes work like well-honed machinery. How you judge which publisher is right for your book should be based on research. Look through publisher booklists, the series they commission and the editors in charge. They should be people, books and/or you (could have) cited in your thesis. Most publishers have this kind of information on their websites.

I would still talk to everyone interested about my intention to publish and attend any ‘how to publish’ workshops available, if only to hear the same advice repeated so it gets drilled into my head. I don’t know if I would recommend waiting the 3 years I did before deciding to turn the thesis into a manuscript. I know it worked for me but it did result in substantial updates and enough new chapters that I can say, hand on heart, close to half of my book was written from scratch. So starting closer to when I completed the thesis might have been easier if tackled earlier. I will say that I know the maturity gained in the 3 post-thesis years were vital to my development as a researcher-writer and ultimately, to how I was able to incorporate the reviewers’ advice into the book.

The organization of the book launch is another tale I could tell but perhaps it is best kept for another day. I will say the event was the perfect culmination of the whole ‘first-book’ experience. Since then, I’ve received two invitations to publish chapters in related volumes and am stoked! However, and this is where you come in…I am still waiting for the first review. Any takers?

[This was originally written for elsewhere but since it’s going to be a while before it sees light of day, I decided to post it here too]



I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.