Tips if you're going to publish a book | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Tips if you're going to publish a book

[work in progress...]

I've been asked a couple of times about this, so I'll jot down some ideas here. These are based on my limited experience of publishing a couple of books about Hong Kong history (volume 1 and volume 2). If you've published a book, I hope you'll add your tips in the comments below.

These are the main steps involved:

  1. Write
  2. Edit
  3. Layout
  4. Print
  5. Promote
  6. Receive orders & payment, then deliver books

In more detail:

1. Write

The first step is to create the manuscript, and gather any photos / maps / illustrations that are needed.

My books are a collection of photos and stories. The process I follow is to start by posting a photo and its story to this website, sending it out as a newsletter.

Then I gather a collection of these stories into a talk, and give the talk a few times. I'll need to create a few new stories and photos to fill in gaps, and modify the talk over time to improve sections that don't work well.

Finally, once I'm happy with the talk I take its script and photos, and work on them to create the manuscript that fits the format of the book. I have a specific format in mind, so I create the manuscript in Word, using the same page size as the printed page, and inserting photos so that each page's layout looks close to how it will look in the finished book.

1.1 Who will do the rest of the work?

Will you work with a publisher, who will take care of the following steps, or will you self-publish and do the work yourself?

A couple of clarifications: First, even if you work with a publisher, you should know what's involved in each of the following steps, and be prepared to get involved. You'll certainly need to work on the "Promote" section yourself, whatever the publisher does to help.

Second, even if you self-publish, expect to pay for professional help on several of the following steps. The goal is that a customer can't tell that your finished book was self-published.

Originally I thought I'd work with a publisher, but I was struggling to find one that was a good fit for what I wanted. Then a friend who'd worked in publishing asked why I didn't do it myself, as I could handle promoting and processing orders via the Gwulo website.

I still needed help with Edit, Layout, & Print. I am lucky to have a generous friend who is a professional editor help me out with the editing. For Layout & Print I paid a professional print broker, who handled the printing and subcontracted a designer to work on the layout.


2. Edit

We all have our own bad habits when it comes to writing. A good editor will catch and correct them for you. You can certainly benefit from having friends read your text and give feedback, but it's best if at least one of the people reviewing it has editing experience.

At the lowest level, the editor is correcting mistakes in punctuation and grammar. Stepping back, they can also help make the text more readable, eg by catching repetitive styles of writing that distract from the subject. At an even broader level, they can spot inconsistencies between chapters.

It's also good to have people read the text who have knowledge of the subject, eg Hong Kong's history. I ask them to highlight anything that:

  • isn't easy to read and understand - eg that they have to re-read two or three times before they can get the meaning
  • doesn't sound right - we're trying to catch as many historical errors as possible before the book is printed

The goal at this stage is to catch all the problems that will jar a reader, so there's no interruption to their reading, and no reason for them to doubt your ability.


3. Layout

Make sure you have an ISBN number for your book, and that the ISBN barcode is printed on the cover. If you don't, you'll limit your options for selling the book.

When you're given drafts of the book's cover, use a mobile phone application to read the barcode and check that it works. On the first layout of both of my books, the barcode had subtle mistakes that meant it couldn't be read.


4. Print


5. Promote

How will you let potential readers know about your book?

5.1 Book talks

Can you prepare a 40-50 minute talk on the subject of your book, illustrated with photos that you can show on a projector. What groups would be interested in your book's topic, and may like to hear your talk? eg members of the Royal Asiatic Society's Hong Kong Branch are interested in Hong Kong's history, and authors of new history books often present to them. There are probably other groups whose interests match some of the topics of your book. Authors are usually allowed to sell copies of their book before and after the talk.

5.2 Online groups

Gwulo's readers are interested in Hong Kong history. You are welcome to create a Book page that introduces your book:

What other online groups are there that are interested in your book's topics? eg Facebook and Reddit have many different groups interested in all sorts of different subjects.

Warning: different online groups have different attitudes towards this type of promotion. If you are already an active member of the group, they will likely be glad to hear of your new book. If you're new to a group, you risk being treated as a spammer - best to check with the group's organiser before you post.

5.3 Media

Offer your book to local newspapers for review. In Hong Kong the likely candidate is the SCMP. Are there other publications that might be interested?

How about bloggers who write about your subject area?

Annemarie Evans regularly interviews authors on her Hong Kong Heritage radio programme on RTHK.

There are websites dedicated to reviewing books that might be interested, eg Asian Review of Books ( and Hong Kong Review of Books ( The latter one has a narrower field of topics they are interested in.

5.4 Your readers

If you've built a group of people who regularly read what you write, this is the first group that will be interested to know about your new book. Gwulo is an example, its regular newsletters. I recommend having your own website and mailing list, but you can also use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

5.5 Online word-of-mouth

These are longer-term, and if you're not comfortable with the internet may not be worth your while, but I've created pages for my books at the places where people go to leave reviews, hoping that future readers will see them and be encouraged to buy a copy themselves. It's not clear how much effect they have. Here are the sites I've added my books to.

You'll see that only a few have received any review or rating. I'm unlikely to add any more books to LibraryThing if I haven't seen any activity there by the end of the year.


6. Receive orders & payment, then deliver books


One of my children recently asked me if I had considered making one of my books into an audiobook. I hadn't. However, here is a website that tells you how to do it.

I'm sure there are others. It seems that audio books are increasingly popular with the time poor. It's certainly easier to listen to a book when you're standing on crowded public transport than to hold one.