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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ann Cullen

Self-publishing and writing tips from author Rachel Ann Cullen

 

Rachel Ann Cullen has published four non-fiction books. Her first two books were published by Blink Publishing, whose featured authors include Josh Widdecombe, Katherine Ryan, and Lou Sanders. Her first book was published in 2018 and her second followed in 2020. Her third book was published in 2022 by Vertebrate Publishing.

 

In December 2022 I received an unexpected Christmas present. It was clearly a book, but I didn’t recognize the return address. When I opened it on Christmas Day I discovered I’d won a copy of Rachel’s latest book, Running for our Lives, after my friend had entered me in Rachel’s Instagram giveaway! I tagged Rachel on Instagram to say thank you, and that’s when she checked out my profile … I then went on to edit her fourth book, ‘Dear Tilly …’, which she self-published in October 2023.



A title page 'Running for our Lives', with the message 'Happy Christmas! With love from Rachel xx'
Rachel and I found each other after I won her third book in a giveaway in Christmas 2022

 

With so many other first-time self-publishing authors out there, I asked Rachel if she’d answer a few questions about writing her experience with various publishing routes, including self-publishing. If writing a book is one of your goals for 2024 (or beyond!) we really hope this article helps you out.

 

Could you briefly explain the reasons behind your publication choice behind each book you’ve written so far?

 

I began writing my first book in the bath the day before the London Marathon 2015 when it became clear to me that I wanted to share the reality behind my running and mental health journey – and the truth of that journey isn’t what most people imagined. So I set about writing the book in chunks. A year later, I had the bare bones of my first book, Running For My Life, in place.


I knew it was nowhere near ready for publication, but I believed in the story and my writing enough to want to reach out to some publishing houses. I bought a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook 2016 and began to compile a list of the publishers I wanted to approach. I set up a spreadsheet and began at the letter ‘A’ (because why would you begin anywhere else?) and I highlighted those publishers who specialized in non-fiction, and I started working through their individual submission requirements. This is a long and arduous process, as every single publishing house has different submission criteria. It needs time and dedication to do the work necessary and jump through the hoops required. If one publishing house wants a single page synopsis + 3 sample chapters in Times New Roman with 1.5 spacing, then you must give them precisely that. If the next one wants to see the full manuscript in Calibri with 1.25 spacing, then you need to send them that.


I began the process of submitting my manuscript around May 2016 and in August that same year I received an email from a junior acquisitions editor at a major publishing house. We spoke on the phone a few times; I travelled down to London; they held more meetings; I sat and waited. And then in November 2016 they made me an offer to publish Running For My Life. We would have a whole year to work on the book which was scheduled for publication in Jan 2018: there was no time pressure whatsoever; I loved the editor I was working with; and I was over the moon!


However, I hadn’t quite realised what a huge shock it would be when we finally got to the publication date. The exposure, PR and marketing demands on me – everything from live interviews on Radio 2 Drive Time to finding myself sitting on the BBC Look North sofa and talking about my mental health struggles in front of people I’d never met and to an audience which I couldn’t begin to comprehend. I felt completely swept away by a tidal wave I hadn’t fully appreciated – completely laying bare some of the most difficult and sensitive times of my life. Looking back now, I wasn’t fully prepared to deal with that tsunami of attention and it destabilized me for a while.


The book sold well, including internationally (it has been translated into South Korean and Estonian) and was deemed a ‘huge success’ by any objective new author publishing standards.


The big publishing house had contractual rights to the first option on publishing my second book, and in April 2019 they offered me a second publishing contract – this time for the next part of my story in my book called A Midlife Cyclist. However, I was concerned that the title of the book wasn’t quite right and the publishing house were targeting sales towards cyclists, which I believed was a big mistake! This book is actually about mental illness – more specifically, my recovery from Body Dysmorphic Disorder – cycling was just a part of that journey and certainly wasn’t the main focus of the story. I had doubts about the direction it was being taken in.


The publication date was set for mid-February 2020. Of course, just a few weeks later, the whole world came to a standstill with the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the PR and media we had planned around the launch (including book festivals) stopped and the book fell into a black hole. The disappointment of that made me think about the way the book had been marketed and the mistakes that were made in targeting a certain sporting readership which was not in line with the book I had written. Cyclists wouldn’t want to read this book. People who suffered from mental illness would.


In 2021, I set out to write a completely different kind of book – one that was based on other people’s stories of running and resilience, rather than my own. Since the publication of Running For My Life in 2018, I’d received many messages from people who wanted to share their own stories of recovery with me, and this felt like coming full circle in my being able to share some of those stories in the same way that I’d had the opportunity to share my own.


I believe in the power of sharing stories, so I reached out to some major running brands to see if they were interested in supporting me with the project. The global running brand Saucony liked the idea and wanted in, so we partnered up and they helped me to make the project a reality. It was at this time I realised that going back to the big publisher of my first two books would be a mistake. I’d learned that they didn’t have a real, direct relationship with runners and the target readership for this book, so I wanted to approach a publishing house that published books for runners! With this in mind, I agreed with my literary agent that we should approach Vertebrate publishing: a smaller, independent publishing house based in Yorkshire who specialize in publishing outdoor / adventure books, including running.


Weeks later, we submitted a proposal and received an offer from them to publish my third book, Running For Our Lives. It was far more low key than my experience with the big publishing house, and enjoyable in a different way. I didn’t work as closely with one particular editor or have the chance to build as close a relationship, but it also took half the time to get the book ready for publication, it was targeted at the right market, and it remained manageable in terms of the PR / marketing, which I had to consider in relation to my mental wellbeing. That book launch was also a success, and we easily exceeded our Year 1 sales target within the first year of publication.


I knew, however, that I didn’t want to write another book which was sport-focused. The next book I had in mind was veering away from my traditional narrative, and whilst still firmly within the non-fiction genre, it was more about life experience and learning as a 45-year-old woman. Something I knew Vertebrate wouldn’t publish. They publish books about sports. This was a book about life.


I’d already had two experiences of working with a large publishing house, one book published with a smaller independent publisher, and I felt like this could be the time for me to look into self-publishing options because that was literally the one form of publishing that I had never experienced! Part of me was intrigued and wanted to see if I could manage all the different aspects of publishing a book by myself; another part was excited at the prospect because I’d seen it all done before.


So I made the choice to go it alone and be in control of every single aspect of writing, editing, and publishing my fourth book – a very personal book with a deep connection to my daughter, Tilly. I wanted to be able to manage my own levels of exposure and to take care of my mental health through the various stages of the writing and publishing process.


I happened to find a brilliant copyeditor completely by chance on social media (that’s you, Siân!) and I approached to Siân to see if she could help me with the process. That was a brilliant step for me to take: Siân helped me massively with the structure of Dear Tilly… (which was complicated) and she steered me in the right direction with some of the content. I self-published Dear Tilly… in October 2023, and although it’s only had relatively small reach so far, I have done it on my terms and I have preserved my mental health throughout! Plus, I’ve written the book I always wanted to write for my daughter. That is what I set out to do.

 


A caucasian woman with glasses holding four books
Rachel has published her four books in three different ways

 

How do you feel your approach to writing has changed from your first book to this one? 

 

I don’t think my approach to writing has changed at all. If I feel compelled to write a story, then I sit down and write! I don’t think you can force that process; there must be a story that you feel needs telling. I never set out to write and publish four books. I only ever set out to write one single story, to do that to the best of my ability and see what happened. The fact that I’ve now had four books published is something I never imagined I would say.

 

What advice would you give someone who wants to write a book?

 

I get asked this a lot. My advice is always the same. WRITE! Just start. Begin. You cannot write a book without literally starting to pour words on the page. It doesn’t matter if they’re crap and you decide to edit or change them later. Just start. It is the only way. There are no shortcuts.

 

What are your top 3 tips for someone who is self-publishing their book?

 

1)      Find a good editor and go through all the necessary editing stages! Do not imagine you can skip any of these.

2)      Get your manuscript professionally typeset. Don’t even bother trying to do it yourself.

3)      Be realistic about your goals. If it hadn’t been for the exposure of my first three books, I wouldn’t have the platform I have and I’m not sure I could have achieved anywhere near the success I have done without that.

 

What did you enjoy the most / least about self-publishing?

 

I enjoyed the complete control over all aspects of self-publishing my latest book, but I missed the relationship I’d formed with my first editor and the ease of knowing all the other stuff would just be taken care of!

 

I least enjoyed the feeling of aloneness of self-publishing, but working with Siân helped me with that.

 

How can writers make the most out of, or even enjoy (!), the editing process?

 

Find a good editor! Following that, just accept there will be parts of the editing process that are just not fun. Why would they all be? Being realistic about what writing a book is actually like helps to reframe your thinking around this. The later stages of editing are hard, lonely, and grueling at times. Having done this four times now, I can say this with absolute confidence: some parts of writing a book suck eggs.

 


A caucasian woman with glasses. She is running one hand through her hair. She has a book to her left and is in front of a laptop
The editing process ... it's just got to be done!


Would you self-publish another book? If yes, what would you do differently?

 

I’m not sure where my writing / publishing journey goes from here. What I’ve learnt from trying out all these different publishing processes is that I don’t need to worry about that yet. What matters most is writing a story to the best of my ability and feeling proud of the final result.

 

You can follow Rachel on her Instagram account @rachel_cullen_writes. All four of her books are available from her Amazon author page



A caucasian woman with blonde hair smiling, looking at the camera while she works at her laptop
Rachel has published four books so far. You'll have to wait and see if she publishes a fifth one!

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