Let's talk about what it takes to get a book published.

The Lost Subways of North America is coming out in November, published by UChicago Press, and so I thought it useful to summarize for would-be authors just what it takes to get a book traditionally published, why traditional publishing takes so long, and to give a timeline of my experiences. I thought about self-publishing but decided against it; it's expensive to front all the money yourself for an illustrated book, and you really do need an established publisher behind you if you want to be taken seriously in a field as technical as this. I'm happy to talk to people about what it takes to get a manuscript published - email me if you're interested in a chat. 

2019-Jan: An acquisitions editor at Motorbooks, a publisher of transportation specialty books, contacts me about writing a railway atlas. Ultimately, it doesn't pan out.

2019-Jul: My cousin and his wife hook me up with her literary agent. One of the partners at the literary agency is interested in looking at the manuscript. I initially went with an agent because an agent is nearly mandatory for the major commercial publishers. Publishers get inundated with trash 24/7/365. In this day and age, commercial publishers won't pay attention to you unless you have a preexisting following, an agent, or (ideally) both.

2019-Oct: I sign a contract with my agent. Working with my agent, I make changes to the original manuscript, assemble a proposal. In general, the proposal will have a couple chapters, an introduction, and a description of what your target market is. This is a business proposition, after all. My agent pitches the book to a couple dozen publishers, including specialty houses like Rizzoli (who do illustrated books) and Princeton Architectural Press.

2019-Nov: While my agent is out pitching the book, I keep writing, and finish the first iteration of the Lost Subways manuscript.

2020-Mar: My agent and I talk to Yale Press. Yale loved the maps, but thought that the writing wasn't strong enough to back up the maps. The original manuscript was supposed to have 130 transit maps covering 38 cities - 50% more than the eventual final product. As you might imagine, there wasn't much depth in The Lost Subways, version 1.0. By this point, ~25 publishers have rejected it. A Simon & Schuster editor's commentary was typical:

Ultimately, while I think the project is a terrific concept and I remain a fan, I just don’t see how I’d be able to publish this here at S&S. It’s a bit too much of a slice of a slice for me – I personally was fascinated to learn about the Chicago transit system, for example (as a native Chicagoan!) but felt less compelled about other locations I have no personal connection to. I fear that this would be the overarching difficulty in getting someone to buy a book like this.

Quarantine starts. I decide to junk the original manuscript and start afresh, producing a tighter, more focused manuscript.

2021-Oct: My agent and I part ways amicably.

At this point, I reached out to a family friend, who's an urban studies professor. He was interested in seeing a proposal and a couple sample chapters. The family friend passed it on to a colleague; the colleague liked it too and got it onto the desk of the editor of the University of Chicago Press. UChicago likes it. They ask for a revised proposal, a chapter index, the introduction, and modified versions of the two completed chapters to be submitted for peer review.

I also got an offer from a DC-based environmentalist publisher to publish the book, but only if I agreed to purchase all unsold copies of the book if it didn't sell. I'd only get 10% of the profits, but I'd be on the hook for 100% of the losses. (I have no idea why any author would take this deal.)

2021-Nov: Peer review reports come back positive. Having only two chapters and an introduction in satisfactory state, I start writing the remaining chapters like a dervish.

2022-Apr: Advance contract signed. I propose to have the full manuscript ready by Memorial Day, with a target release of Fall 2023.

2022-Jul: After some back-and-forth with my editor and some tweaking, Manuscript 2.0 gets submitted for peer review.

2022-Oct: Peer review comes back positive from all three reviewers. At this point, I incorporate some of the changes requested by the reviewers, including adding full endnotes. This was tedious but not difficult, because I kept copious notes of my sources when I was writing the book. I had to learn Chicago style citations, since I have only used Bluebook professionally.

2022-Nov: I send the revised manuscript back to the Press, who transmits it for copy editing.

2022-Dec: In early December, the Press sends the manuscript for copy editing. The copy editor's review of the book comes back a couple days before Christmas. I got a week and a half to review her changes. The Lost Subways is relatively short - 67,000 words - and even so, it was incredibly intense to do a critical reread over the course of two weeks. (For reference, that's a little shorter than the first Harry Potter, which is 77,000, and a little longer than Lord of the Flies, which is 59,000.) Notably, the copyeditor assigned me by the Press is an urban planner by trade, so she was able to provide a LOT of substantive input on my work; I do not know whether smaller presses would be able to provide that level of support.

2023-Jan: My copy edits go back to the Press.

2023-Mar: The Press sends me "galleys," i.e., PDFs of what the finished book will look like, and I go through and mark up the PDF. I have a month to do one last pass against the finished product, and make sure that everything looks kosher. At this stage, they strongly discourage you from making anything beyond a cleanup edit, because major edits require that you repaginate. The Press now asked me to prepare the book index. I could have prepared the book index myself, but instead I paid a professional indexer to do it. As someone with a day job, I bit the bullet - it cost me about $1200. (This is common in publishing, especially academic publishing.)

2023-Apr: The Press sends me a copy of the cover design, and I get a release date: November 6th.

2023-May: My indexer sends me a draft index, which I review and mark up; after a round of changes, I send the index off to the Press. All through the summer, there's back-and-forth between me and my editor about tweaks to the details of the maps.

2023-Jul through the November release: I shift to doing behind-the-scenes marketing to prep for the launch. UChicago assigned me a staff publicist, and she's been extremely helpful, but I still have to do a lot of the leg work myself. (Note: I gather that this is unusual, and that most university presses do not have in-house publicists.) This means researching local press connections, scheduling book events, and doing things like setting up an AMA.

2023-Nov: The book hits shelves November 6th.

I hope this is all helpful. There's a ton of work that goes into a book like this, and it seems tedious and labor-intensive, but there is definitely a method to the madness. I'm also happy to take questions, though my experience is admittedly unusual because (i) I'm not in academia, and (ii) The Lost Subways is illustrated and so the number of publishers capable of publishing a full-color book is much, much smaller than a conventional manuscript.

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  • marilyn R on

    Looking forward to the Boston Public Library event.

  • Jake Berman on

    Mike and Lee – Thanks to you both. The transit maps are all my own original artwork.

  • Mike Dinning on

    Looking forward to seeing the book. Did you have to get permission to use the transit maps or are they your own artwork?

  • DC Handgun Info on

    Congratulations on your Fall 2023 publication!
    I found your account fascinating and forwarded it to a good friend who is a writer of fiction (not a hack). I’m sure he will appreciate reading a fellow writer’s successful struggle to publish. I note that (1) it is incredibly important to have an excellent book to sell to publishers and (2) strong networking is crucial to cut through the gatekeepers who try to prevent garbage writers from being published. Sadly, however, Sturgeon’s Law is unbreakable: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Best wishes on your great map and book projects. — Lee


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