State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

How to Turn Passion into Publication

By Sarah Burns

book cover a look into tomorrow
Cover illustration for Sarah Burns’ book, A Look Into Tomorrow.

It was during eighth grade that I learned about climate change, publicized by advertisements on television about polar bears losing their habitats. Since then, I would spend countless nights lamenting over these helpless creatures, falling asleep, and subsequently waking up again to a problem that seemed unsolvable. The question of how to contribute to solving this global conundrum, particularly from a position of seemingly little power, was constantly on my mind. Four years later, while working to obtain a Girl Scout Gold Award, I shared with elementary school-aged children the importance of conservation through a book I created as a supplement for an after-school program. This book, A Look into Tomorrow, depicted a strong female protagonist who finds herself in a futuristic, yet attainable, world where renewable energy is prominent. In this place, the air is clean, electric transportation is heavily utilized, and technology is more energy efficient.

I didn’t touch the book again until a few years later. This pause gave me time to further reflect upon how I could most effectively address the issue of climate change, and later blossomed into a newfound determination that writing was an ideal way for me to do so. Now I’m getting ready to publish my first book — with a storyline that’s strikingly similar to the original — and I’m here to offer advice on how you can, too.

Think about an issue you are passionate about. Writing a book about it can be a great way to raise awareness, propose solutions, and help people connect with the issue in a new way. Before you get started, take into account the angle at which an audience will be most receptive. One of the key aspects that differentiates my book from the majority of media about climate change is that it highlights the positive outcomes that could arise from replacing fossil fuel-based energy sources with renewables.

Next, determine whether your book should be aimed at children, teens, young adults, or adults. The age range for which your book is targeted can depend in part on how much time you are willing to impart. Children’s books, for example, tend to take the least amount of time with regards to manuscript writing, but do take a large portion of time if you provide your own illustrations. Conversely, general adult pieces of writing do not require illustrations, but generally take many months or years to write.

Once you’ve decided which type of book to publish, do your research on the publication market and the competition. Read other books similar to what you are writing and become familiar with successful narrative styles. Determine whether you would like to submit manuscripts to publishing companies or publish on your own. I determined this for myself after meeting Joanne Raptis, a wonderfully creative illustrator and Barnard alum. After seeing her work, I was convinced she would be the ideal collaborator for my book. The caveat to this is that most publishing companies hire illustrators of their own to accompany successful manuscripts; this is one reason why I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. It’s best not to provide your own illustrations if you want to increase your chances of having a manuscript accepted by a publishing company.

sarah burns with package
The author preparing to mail her manuscript to a publisher in 2018. Photo: Sarah Burns

If you do travel the route of applying to a publishing company, the odds of being published are relatively low, so be prepared to face rejection. The most successful authors are those who have undefeated persistence, skill, and a keen perception of what an audience will be receptive to. Acceptance rates vary by company, but statistics regarding the likelihood of a manuscript being chosen for publication range from 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 300,000. These numbers include both submissions with and without an agent.

If you have never published before, it is ideal to utilize a publishing agent. Good publishing agents have established reputations with companies and greatly increase the chances of a manuscript’s acceptance. If you do not have an agent, your manuscript is considered “unsolicited”. From interviewing publishing companies, I have learned that only 1 to 10 percent of total accepted submissions were unsolicited. Be prepared to get yourself an agent unless you desire to defy the odds even further.

With self-publishing, on the other hand, a significant portion of the work involves sifting through different companies offering their services. You’ll need to determine whether you would prefer your book to be published in a print or e-book format. If deciding to go the print route, you’ll be given the choice of either print-on-demand or offset printing, which both have their advantages and drawbacks. Print-on-demand, like many e-book distribution services, allows the publisher to pay little to no upfront cost and only creates books when an order is received. However, your revenue per unit is smaller than with offset printing, which involves printing a large quantity of books at once, typically in units as small as 1,000, with price tags I have seen dive as low as $1,600. The quality of the printing is traditionally better with offset printing, which may be ideal for books with a wide range of colors and detailed images.

Often with offset printing, companies will include an adviser to assist with your questions during the process. Be sure to know exactly what you need before selecting a printing package. First off, it is imperative to know whether or not you would like a copyright in addition to a printed product. Some companies also offer marketing packages in which they advertise clients’ books on social media and newsletters. They may also offer to distribute your book to bookstores, but this does not mean they will sell the book.

Be sure to know how much work and money you are willing to put into self-publishing. Generally, the less work you desire to do, the more expensive the process will be, and the less you pay upfront, the smaller the revenue per unit you are likely to generate.

You don’t have to go through the writing and publishing processes alone. Seek input from those around you. If you are a student at a university, make sure to utilize the journalism department and any professors who may be interested in your topic. I was fortunate to be enrolled in Columbia’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program, in which a number of my professors have released their own books. Some of these professors had gone through a similar process and offered advice and feedback on my manuscript.

As of now, A Look into Tomorrow is nearly complete; Joanne is modifying the illustrations for a final time to reflect the changes in the manuscript. It has been a laborious process of revisions, but at some point I realized I had to fulfill the purpose of creating the book—to share an inspiring message about what the world could become if our society is more environmentally conscious. When the illustrations are complete, I will begin the self-publishing process, which puts the completion date at September of this year at the latest.

In order to create a solid story, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of passion for your topic. Inspiration from others around you can help your passion to grow. During my first few months in the MPA-ESP program, thanks to classes that taught me manageable methods to help create societal change, I developed a newfound sense of urgency and motivation to continue perfecting a story I thought might not continue. Utilize your environment to cultivate inspiration, or find it from within.

Sarah Burns is a Class of 2018 graduate and former class president of Columbia’s Environmental Science and Policy Masters of Public Administration program. She currently works within the electric utility industry, acting as a liaison for renewable energy integration.

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