How To Write a Book During A Pandemic — My Journey to ‘Published Author’ with New Degree Press

I have been a writer since I was 7 years old. I would write greeting cards and I would then sell these rudimentary cards to family for spare change. I soon realized that they were more invested in me than they were in the cards. And so, like the capitalist I was, I raised my prices to as high as $5 per card. I would be punished for that price gouging when for years to come, I was rarely paid for writing a professional piece.

S. Mayumi “Umi” Grigsby (me) at 7 years old in Liberia

After years of writing anything from an encyclopedia entry on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 to short reviews of up and coming hip hop stars in Chicago, this year, I wrote and published my first book with New Degree Press -EmpowHERed Health: Reforming a Dismissive Health Care System

EmpowHERed Health: Reforming a Dismissive Health Care System (Front Cover)

For years I had compartmentalized my writing life and audiences — some people knew me from writing hip hop music reviews. Some people knew me from writing blogs about intimate partner violence and young people. Some people knew me from policy papers about an ongoing budget stalemate in Illinois. Some people knew me from the legal briefs I filed in federal court. I found that people often expected “serious” and “important” writing from me because I am an attorney, advocate and policy-maker. This was intimidating because I felt that I had to strip my personality out of my writing in order to write what was deemed “serious” and “important”. Rarely, did my audiences overlap. I yearned to write something that brought together all aspects of my personality and to tell my story. It felt like an impossible feat.

That was until I crossed paths with Professor Eric Koester of the Creator’s Institute. Initially he reached out to ask if I would be willing to be interviewed by an aspiring author or authors in his class at Georgetown University. I agreed but that year’s class apparently was not interested in interviewing me — a then prosecutor out in the Midwest. A year later he asked if I would be interested in writing a book. I thought — why not? It was winter in Chicago and I usually spent that time inside or trying out a new diet that I knew I would get sick of by Valentine’s Day. And so I agreed.

And so I paid my dues (approximately $300) to take the weekly class and to work with a development editor. I never balked at the dues — when I began my journey as a writer, I had taken a $600+ writing class at the New School in New York City where I spent a lot of time being silent in a class — intimidated by the other advanced and published writers in the class.

In my initial meeting with Professor Koester, I shared 2 potential ideas about what I wanted to write. He chose the idea for a book I wanted to write about dismissive treatment I had suffered from health care providers for years leading to surgery 2 years prior. The ultimate diagnosis leading to the surgery should have been easily diagnosed (earlier).The story I shared with him had continued to traumatize me. He encouraged me to write the book and gave me the idea of interviewing other Black women about reproductive health. I remember thinking, this idea is killer and he just gave it to me for free. Why? He didn’t even know me and at that point, I had not signed up or paid for the class. This convinced me that this would be an academic exercise.

It was also perfect timing. I had just written a personal essay about this and had submitted to a writing contest. I did not win but I had a story to kick off the process. I was finally checking writing a book off of my bucket list!

I felt I could carve out time for writing even though I was in a fellowship and was applying to another that would start later in the year. My work seemed to be balancing out — I was making time to work out, making time for friends, and making time to talk to family. What else would I be dealing with during the Chicago winter outside of unwanted weight gain?

Well, it was January of 2020, and soon I, like the whole world, found out that anything that could go wrong would go wrong.

As offices shut down and we moved inside, my book became a journal, my development editor became my therapist and my fellow classmates became the outlet I needed from dealing with the global pandemic. Participating in the class, which happened over zoom, became practice for a world that had begun to be relegated to computer screens.

Still, I truly believed we would be outdoors and over all of it by the summer. I threw myself into interviews, and research and writing and that replaced happy hours and ‘DIY’ shows and boozy brunches with friends.

Soon I met with Professor Koester again, one on one to check in on our progress. However, he gave me advice on the direction of the book and the marketing and again he was spot on. However, while I respected his opinion and we were mostly aligned, the book had become my baby and I was protective of it. Professor Koester made a prescient statement in light of the civil unrest that followed the George Floyd murder, that this topic — health inequity — could be one that would spark a lot of conversation. He thought I should consider a book tour. He put me in touch with Brian Bies of New Degree Press to talk about the possibility of publishing and further down the line a book/speaking tour.

Brian Bies comes across as equal parts sincere, knowledgeable and energetic. He also makes you feel like he just wants you to win. I will be honest, while I listened to him talk about the process — it still didn’t feel real. Brian’s optimism is infectious but I was laser focused on just enjoying the writing process. Publishing or a book tour still felt a little beyond my reach. I just wanted to write. The book had opened me up to a community of people who had had similar experiences and who had also been dismissed by health care providers, I was writing this book for them.

I started to find success with my writing and my writing began to align with current events. I wrote an article about how the coronavirus would affect women and got published. So I incorporated that chapter into the book.

How to Fight An Anti-Feminist Virus — co-written with Courtney Hrejsa for Georgetown Public Policy Review

I wrote an article in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and got published. So I incorporated that chapter into the book.

The Death of George Floyd Requires Bold Societal Responses by Umi Grigsby for the Atlantic Community

And my manuscript got stronger. I was writing about what was happening now. In 2020. I needed my book to come out then.

It was finally time to submit for the possibility of a green light for publishing and it was green-lit. And it still didn’t feel real. Oh but it felt real when I got my contract and it was time to put down a refundable deposit and sign the agreement.

As at many points in my life, everyone became an expert on what I was doing — namely — publishing and writing.

“You should just self-finance.”

“You should find an agent.”

“You should try to get a book deal with an advance.”

The fact is that I could have done all of those things. But, guess what I wasn’t doing? Any of those things. For one thing, I had a full time job that was returning to and surpassing the normal amount of attention required for me to excel. I was accepted into another prestigious fellowship as the fellowship I was currently in drew down in work.

Most important — all of my free time was invested in writing. I had just gone through an intensive, disciplined process to get to a rough manuscript. I did not have the time to find an agent, a publisher who would give me an advance, or, to write, edit, self-finance, hire and vet editors and so on and so on. All I could do, as outside began slowly opening up, was focus on writing my book.

Also, a $300 refundable deposit did not seem like a lot of money to invest. Besides I had more stories inside of me if I ever wanted to take advantage of other options.

What scared me was the fundraising. I chose the least amount of money I needed to crowd-fund to get a book published.

However, things changed when I was sent equipment to shoot a video that would be my campaign video. I will be honest, I was writing a book primarily about Black women’s reproductive health and up until then I had not worked with any other Black women. How could they accurately reflect my book or help me publish?

Well, my promo book was sleek, refined, and accurately represented my book. The universe aligned.

My prelaunch and crowd-funding took off. Almost in spite of me — I did not want to charge $39 for a book. New Degree Press told me about the data and about the fact that people were getting acknowledged and joining me on a journey but I could not believe that people would invest that much in me. I was wrong. They were right.

My family supported me and promoted me. Friends wanted to know more and gave more. They boosted me. And, New Degree Press had a form for everything — draft emails, draft pitches, draft social media posts. There were also classes and workshops and editors to hold your hand. I would take the pro forma documents; tailor them to my book and post.

Somehow I was transported back to that 7-year old girl who sold her cards and hand-made comic strips. But now I was so surprised by the support that when I reached my first goal I wanted to stop and said so. But I kept my campaign going so people could buy books if they wanted. And they kept going.

The levels were: $5000 — paperback and e-book, $6000 — paperback, e-book and hardcover, $8000 — paperback, e-book and hardcover and audiobook. I have to be honest — questions were asked. Who would benefit from me surpassing my goals? Couldn’t I stop at $5000 and do the rest by myself? I tried to stop. But, folks really wanted signed copies. And they wanted to be beta readers. And they wanted to support me. So soon I was going to have all of the ways to tell my story and that of the women and allies who shared with me. I was driven to deliver a book that matched their support.

And the team at New Degree Press was also invested in me putting out a quality product. My Acquiring Editor, and my Marketing Editor, sent my manuscript back and told me I needed to do more work. Also as I was engaging in the pre-launch, I continued to find stories I wanted to write and include. So as I was re-editing for my acquiring editor, I wrote 5 more stories. And work ratcheted all the way up. And my fellowships overlapped. I needed to know and was convinced that someone on the other side was reviewing my work.

So those questions about why I was still fundraising and not doing it alone were fully answered. It certainly would have been easier for the team at New Degree Press to leave me by my busy lonesome to deal with the end product, whatever it may be. Instead they challenged me to continue to push so that it was the best version of the book I set out to write.

At times when I thought, I’m just not going to have time, I thought about my editor and the time she was putting in. And so I worked harder.

The cover design editor sent me mock ups sometimes at 4 a.m. in the morning. And so I worked harder.

My layout editor sent me drafts on Sundays. And so I worked harder.

All the while, I was attending workshops and classes with other authors and the competitor inside of me, my inner Tracy Flick from the movie Election kicked into high gear. When I was ready to phone it in, I saw how hard everyone was working for me and so that I remained on track.

I could not do it alone. Working with New Degree Press allowed me to just concentrate on finding the time to write and then to market.

And that was one of the main benefits of hybrid publishing and working with main degree press. I was writing about the “right now” but also was doing it in my spare time and needed it to be at a standard that matched and exceeded the support my community had bestowed upon me. I needed “coaches” who could give me tools and deadlines and provide quality control.

Enter, New Degree Press. I followed their directions and they carried me through to the other side. To be honest, there were times when I was exhausted but ultimately, they were right. Every time I thought I was tired, over it, and done, I felt like I would be disappointing my editor or my publisher or my beta readers or my family. So I would keep going.

My editors throughout this process have been in different time zones and all over the country and globe, California, New York, Washington DC, South Africa. I would send messages to Brian and the team at all hours and they would answer. When I needed help about everything from editing to publishing to sales, the team was there to help or to find a way to help.

That has allowed me to reach beyond my skis. I have been interviewed on podcasts, had write ups in my alumni paper, submitted pieces for publishing, given 4 lectures on subjects related to my book, will be featured at 2 local bookstores and in March of next year, I will have a chapter published in a book entitled Disease and Discrimination: Sickness and the Woman published by Routledge.

I now have partners in this journey that I never imagined — Diverse Health Hub , an organization focused on health equity shot a video about my story. I am working with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York and two POC-owned independent book stores in the new year.

EmpowHERed Health Story by Diverse Health Hub

On December 1, 2020, I became an author of a book. On December 2nd I became a number one new release. I am so grateful for my tribe and community of supporters and change-makers and my team at New Degree Press.

7 year old me would be so proud.

EmpowHERed Health: Reforming a Dismissive Health Care System is out now and available on Amazon and at The Dial Bookshop.

Umi Grigsby is a public interest attorney in Chicago. She is passionate about removing barriers to justice for women. https://linktr.ee/smayumigrigsby