Jo Parfitt talks to Toni Summers Hargis about The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States
JP: Tell me about your book. What is it about? Can you describe it in just a few sentences?TSH: The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States is literally a step-by-step guide for international students wishing to pursue undergraduate study in the USA. It covers everything from initial thoughts about attending college here, through how to complete the application forms, apply for a visa and register for classes. Its aim is to reduce the stress that usually accompanies the college and visa application processes and to give readers a practical, simplified plan to follow.
JP: Why did you write it?
TSH: As my own children approached college age, friends from overseas began asking questions on behalf of their own children about the college system in the USA. I saw a lot of confusion about the American education system and about the required steps for a college application. The aim of the book has always been to help simplify the entire process and give readers the confidence to understand and manage the process.
JP: What qualifies you to write this book?
TSH: I have three children currently in the American education system, one half way through college, so I have first hand knowledge of the “college app” process. Even for Americans, it can be very stressful, but as a foreigner, I appreciate how much more difficult it is for applicants who don’t speak the language, don’t understand the requirements and/or have no idea where to start. In addition, I have attended university both in the UK and the USA and am aware of how different the American college environment is to non-Americans.
In researching and writing the book, I sought advice and input from many professionals in the field, both in the US and around the world; I also spoke to international students attending colleges here and learned a lot from their experiences, which are shared in various chapters.
JP: Why do you think your book needed to be written? What will it do for other people? How will it help? Did you have any competition?
TSH: While much of the information in the book is publicly available, it was, until now, scattered all over the Internet and difficult to find or apply. My book not only contains references to all official and college-related web sites that applicants should visit, it lays out a step-by-step plan that will enable readers to consider their US options, apply to colleges and manage the visa application process without panicking or running out of time. There is obviously competition for some of the information in the book since it’s already on the Internet, but I believe “The Stress-Free Guide To Studying In The States” is unique in that it brings the information together for the first time; in addition, it contains advice and insight from professionals in the field and from students who have already gone through the process successfully.
JP: Who do you think will read your book? What made you think that there was a market for it? If your book has been out for a while, what proof do you have that you were right?
TSH: When more than a few people told me that I “should write a book about that”, I knew there was a market. Additionally, when I describe the book to potential readers, their eyes widen. That’s always a positive sign. I have been very busy e-mailing international schools and expat organizations around the world many of which have expressed relief that such a book is available!
The book will obviously help international students considering US colleges, but it will also help high school teachers and college advisory staff around the world who are struggling to understand the US college application process, what is required of both the school and the student, and how they can best assist the student. I also have a chapter specifically for parents; American colleges often involve parents to a much greater degree than in other countries. This and other considerations such as tuition and health insurance are usually completely new to international parents.
JP: It does not matter how good a book is, or how good your writing is if no one knows about it. What steps have you taken or do you plan to take to promote your book? Are you a speaker or trainer? Do you have a blog? A website? A newsletter? Do you use Facebook, Twitter or other social media tools? What about press releases and sending out review copies and free articles? Have you had any other ideas? Which methods do you think work best and can you give me any examples?
TSH: I have already made quite a few contacts both in academia and in the press, and I am in the process of calling on them. In addition, I have e-mailed literally hundreds of international high schools to introduce them to the book, with a flyer, and links to the web site and Amazon page. I am also doing the same with International Offices of US colleges, since this book will help them in dealing with the many queries they receive. It’s a lot of work because I go onto each college or school web site to find out the name of the most relevant person to contact. When publicizingRules, Britannia I found this surprisingly effective; recipients of the e-mail appreciated the personal touch and often replied to thank me.
I am also in the process of sending the book to international journalists covering high school education as well as parenting and expat blogger groups. Three of the biggest mums blogging groups are all interested in having me write something about studying in the States. Last month I contacted BBC Radio Newcastle (where I’m from) and told them about my book; I also gave them the name of a local boy who had managed to snag a four-year fully funded football scholarship to a university in Washington DC. This “local angle” made for a really interesting radio talk show segment (which aired last week) and the host did a great job of plugging my book because unbelievably, I forgot to mention it! I write regularly for the BBC America web site and the Expat Focus site, and they have both been gracious enough to allow me to plug the book.
I currently have an author web site, which has the book on the home page and a tab devoted to more details, complete with separate URL to land on that specific page. I am also launched a Facebook page specifically for the book which had over three thousand “likes” in the first two weeks. I post a “tip” from my book every day and they always get about 300-400 views. My Twitter handle is simply my name @ToniHargis, and I use Twitter to promote the book, but I also mix things up a little on there.
Since I have been blogging for a number of years, I have a lot of contacts both in the parenting world and in the international/expat field. I have called on dozens to review and help promote the book, both on their blogs and on Amazon.
I do not think this book lends itself to book signings or readings since my audience is scattered around the world. The material is also somewhat academic and probably wouldn’t make for the most exciting reading.
JP: How did you publish your book? Did you find an agent, a publisher or did you publish it yourself? Please describe your process and tell us how you found the experience. Is there anything you would definitely do again or never do again?
TSH: Although I had an agent for my first book, I decided against the “traditional approach” for The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States. It was a book that I felt needed to be written and published in as short a timeline as possible. With my first book, it was fully two years between signing a contract and seeing the book launched. I approached Summertime because I knew I needed a publisher that understood the expat world and had significant international contacts too.
I found the process hard work but not difficult. Because the book is factual, there is little room for my opinion and a huge need for every piece of information to be fully researched and referenced. I’m not a great one for dotting “I”s and crossing “t”s, so that was bordering on tedious for me, but obviously essential. I worked with Jane Dean, an excellent editor, and Owen Jones, a talented graphic designer, and I think we all agreed it was a smooth process.
JP: What was your biggest challenge regarding the writing of your book? How have you overcome that?
TSH: The biggest challenge for me was to make sure that every word I wrote was factual! Most of my previous work has been information heavily punctuated by my own opinion; this book needed to be “just the facts”, so everything I wrote had to be inspected with a fine-tooth comb and backed up with a web site or other citation. This was a time-consuming job but one that had to be done.
JP: Now you have written this book, what has writing it done for you, your family, your self-esteem or your business?
TSH: It’s very early days yet (the book has been out for about a month). As many writers find, the hard work has just begun. The promotion means hours of wading through web sites and e-mailing people, writing “college-related” posts for other web sites, and generally just putting the hours in. The feedback I’m getting is very encouraging.
JP: If you were to give advice to someone else who is thinking about writing a book, what would be your number one tip?
TSH: Do your homework. No matter how good you think your book idea is, check the marketplace to see if anyone else has written something similar. If they have, your book should have a different angle or deliver better information. Also get some feedback from a wide group of people to see what they think of your idea. There’s nothing worse than devoting hours and hours on a book only to discover that someone’s just released something similar, or that you can’t really explain why the target audience should buy it. Also do your homework with the content; everything factual should be thoroughly researched, right up to the day you go to press.
JP: And finally, how can people buy your book, in what formats, and what does it cost? Please include any links if you have them.
TSH: The book is currently available on Amazon, Amazon UK and the Barnes and Noble web site in both print and Kindle format; we are just about to put it out in more e-book formats. You can find all these links on the home page of my web site tonisummershargis.com.
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