I wanted to write a book because I thought it would make me attractive to women. I thought it would make me attractive to future employers.
I also thought — maybe — I would make a lot of money. I would stand in the shower and count how much money I was going to make from every book.
I’ve published ten books. I wrote five with traditional publishers (Wiley, Penguin, HarperCollins). I self-published five. I’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies of my books. I’ve had ten million visits on my blog since I started it in 2010.
None of those things happened.
I think I am now probably less attractive to women. And I’ve probably removed any chance I’ve ever had of being hired by a future employer, based on the content of my books (where I advocate quitting your job, exploiting your employer, and I tell the sordid stories of how much money I’ve lost and the ways I got out of the messes I ended up in).
Today my eleventh book, Choose Yourself! is coming out. I self-published it.
In this article, I’d like to let you in on some of the most important aspects of publishing that I’ve found, particularly if you’re getting ready to self-publish your own book …
21 things you need to know about self-publishing 2.0
I wanted to start at “zero” with this list to give you a guideline on what it’s all about.
This is not a bullshit list. I’m not going to tell you, “don’t do it for the money.” Or “stay positive.” It’s also not a brutal technical how-to on uploading your Kindle file to Amazon and then wait for the millions to come in. Although I will get to that.
This list is about writing, building your audience, publishing vs. self-publishing, self-publishing, and what I call “team-publishing” which is the direction you need to go if you want to professionally self-publish.
All of these things are important to build your skills, your audience, and ultimately readers of your books.
I love Copyblogger because the writers and readers here really care about writing quality material. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. Now, follow these 21 steps I’ve laid out for you below, and you will create quality books.
1. Reality check
At the time of this writing, the amount of money households spend overall on reading materials is going down.
In 1994 (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics) the average household spent $165 on reading materials. In 2011, adjusted for inflation, the average US household spent $115. How come? Because there are many high-quality, free things we can read. So we spend our entertainment dollars elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the number of books being published each year rises at a steady 6% per year.
So we have less demand and more supply. Which means prices and incomes go down. You can use this to your advantage.
How? Publishers aren’t reducing the prices of their books. Actually, they tend to raise them with inflation to keep fueling their bloated machines.
So you can instantly gain an advantage by reducing prices, given the facts I’ve laid out above.
2. Audience first
If you have no readers, nobody will buy your book. Fortunately, that’s not a Catch-22. You build your audience by giving, giving, giving, giving, before you finally ask them to pay $4.99 for your book.
You write blog posts. You write tweets. You build a Facebook fan page. And on and on. The next several points are about building your platform. If you are not willing to do this, then your spouse will read your book and maybe your parents. Maybe. Your kids will not read your book.
First, two points about writing. This is not a writing guide. Copyblogger has many great posts about how to effectively write something people will want to read.
Read Austin Kleon’s interview here a few days back. I highly recommend it. Then go buy his book.
I will just give two suggestions that I know helped my blog build to 10 million visitors since I started it in late 2010.
3. If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead
Most people are bad writers. If a bookstore has 10,000 books in it, probably 9,990 are poorly written and boring. How can you stand out?
What does that mean? I have no idea what it means for you. Your blood has different diseases in it than mine. But infect your readers with whatever disease you have. If it doesn’t give you pain to hit Publish, don’t write it.
It used to be writers would leave books with cliffhangers. Then they would put cliffhangers into chapters. Now every paragraph should be a cliffhanger. This doesn’t apply just to books but blog posts or even tweets (don’t forget Twitter used to be called a “microblogging service”).
A friend of mine once told me he was afraid to put out his book because of what his colleagues would think. That is exactly the book or post you have to publish. He ended up publishing it and it was a bestseller.
Never write something if it doesn’t add value to another person’s life.
But you have to do it through story as described above (“Bleed”). Bleed and educate in every post. Else, why are you doing this?
5. Make it evergreen
Don’t write “10 things that happened to me on June 3, 2013”.
Write posts that will be read one, two, five years from now. The grass is always green. People can’t tell what date you wrote it. This is the key to having high-quality traffic driven by search engines for years even after you stop writing your blog.
One of the most popular writers out there told me that 99% of his blog traffic is going to posts he wrote over two years ago. He only posts if the posts are evergreen and deliver high value.
6. How to build your blog audience, part I
Assuming you are writing gut-wrenching, painfully honest, self-deprecating, but educational posts that add a lot of value to people, then there’s only one way to drive traffic to your blog:
Write everywhere but your blog.
If you write about cars, write for the top-trafficked car sites. if you write about finance, there are plenty of high-traffic finance sites that would love to have you. If you write about all the ways you’ve caught your boyfriend cheating on you, write for a high-traffic site like Thought Catalog. If you write about steampunk and science fiction, try to write for Boing Boing. If you’re funny, write for Cracked.
Finally, guest post on every blog you can. By doing this — even more valuable than the reciprocal traffic I’ve gotten — I’ve also met many good friends. I love blogging and writing and it’s fun to meet other people with the same interests.
- You get your name out there. Before I started my blog I built up an audience writing for thestreet.com, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and others in the finance space. Then, I branched out into the tech world with TechCrunch, the yoga world with Elephant Journal, and other sites like Thought Catalog, Medium, and others.
- Link back to your blog on your posts to other sites. Your blog is going to slowly but surely have a mountain of evergreen content (see point 5). You will have tons of valuable posts that you will be able to link to to add value to the posts you are writing on other sites.
The other sites won’t mind because you are also adding value to their site (because of course, you’ll never link to anything other than your best work). This is the give, give, give strategy in action.
Always be giving. Make your blog a three dimensional art piece. Every post can link forward and backwards in time to other posts. Always go back and add more value to posts from the past. This creates the 3D effect.
People will love the maze you create for them.
The maze is the inside of your brain. Make it as interesting and fun as possible.
7. How to build your blog audience, part II
Respond as much as possible to comments. Create a real community on your blog.
I have a hard time doing this. Often I tell myself, “I will respond to comments once I finish a new post” and then I spend all day on the post. But when I do respond to comments I get such pleasure out of the community that I can see coming out of it.
Don’t forget that the core of why most people do this is because they want to have fun, they want to enjoy the interactions, they want to love and be loved.
8. How to build your blog audience, part III
Don’t have an opinion for the sake of having an opinion, but if you feel strongly about something and want to express that opinion because you think it will help people and you have the facts, and the story, to back it up, then do it.
My most popular post ever is “Why I am never going to own a home again.”
I’ve bought and lost two houses. So finally, I went through all the math and posted about it. The home ownership math never adds up. I wasn’t trying to get people angry or be polarizing. I was just stating facts. But I got my first (of many) death threats from that one post.
My second most popular post? Google the phrase “I Want to Die” and you will get there pretty fast.
9. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest — SHEBANG!
Interact on all of the other major social networks.
I often post my blog posts on Facebook first. This helps me see which ones will get the most engagement (if my friends don’t engage on them then probably other people won’t). But my blog also has a fan page with 268,000 fans. I also have other fan pages that are not directly related to me but altogether have another 200,000 fans. Those pages I use for distribution.
How do you get a lot of fans?
Organically is the best way. But I also advertise some of my best posts. If people like them and that draws them to one of my fan pages, then all the better.
Never buy Likes. But when you can get Likes organically by using your content, then that is value you grow forever.
With Twitter, it’s hard to non-stop engage in conversations. You would never have time for writing. What I do is what I call “appointment tweeting.” (Give!) I set aside an hour or two a week, usually Thursday from 3:30 – 4:30 PM EST to do a Q&A.
People can ask me questions about anything. From dating to finance to kids to startups to death to whatever. I usually answer questions non-stop for an hour or two. Then I might expand the answers into a later blog post. And I might expand further into a book. The first book I did on this (self-published), was called “FAQ ME.” This strategy of one hour a week has helped me build my Twitter audience from 2,000 followers to 83,000 followers since I started doing the Q&As. In many of my blog posts I also ask people to follow me on Twitter.
I don’t use Pinterest much. But here’s what Gary Vaynerchuk, author of “The Thank You Economy” suggested to me about Pinterest. Take quotes from your best posts and make images out of them and pin them. Then start commenting on other boards and pins that you like. Build community. Eventually people will link back to your pins, which will ultimately link to the blog posts where the quotes come from.
This entire strategy: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, guest blogging, is about building your name to an audience that might be unfamiliar to you, as well as driving distribution to your posts while at the same time delivering real value to your readers. You have to do all of that: distribution, name-building, value, at the same time, to make these platforms work for you.
10. Marketing 101
I call this “101” because I will get into a “201” later.
Note: publishers do zero marketing for you. This is not a knock on publishers. The great thing about publishers: they will write you a check and get you into bookstores. These are two really good things. But they will not do marketing.
If you don’t do your own marketing and promote yourself, then nobody else will. This should be your mantra. The one area where I will fault publishers is that they will claim to do marketing for you.
They won’t, but I give them credit for trying.
One time one of my publishers described to a friend of mine the marketing they did for me. The head of marketing told my friend, “We got him a review in the Financial Times, we got him a segment on CNBC, and we got an excerpt published in thestreet.com”.
He forgot to mention I reviewed my own book in my column on The Financial Times. I had my own weekly segment on CNBC so I covered my book. And I had sold a company to thestreet.com, so I put my excerpt on their site. That was “the publisher’s” marketing.
11. Reality check on publishing
A lot of people now (including me) tend to knock traditional publishing. This is understandable because publishers are a bit behind the times.
But let’s again give them credit for two things:
- They give you an advance. Average advances are going down, but it’s still real money. Advances have been going down since 2008, probably for the reasons described in point #1 above. But who knows if this remains a permanent situation. Maybe so many people will self-publish that traditional publishers will try to win back the authors by giving higher advances. Who knows? I’m totally BS-ing here. Other than the fact that average advances are going down.
- They get you in bookstores. But I’m not sure how important this is anymore. More books are now sold online (when you combine ebooks with printed books that are sold online) than are sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Take from this what you will.
The other good thing about traditional publishing is it removes the stigma of “Oh, you were self published?” But that stigma is going away. Nobody has ever asked me who my publisher was. Nobody cares anymore.
Oh, one more thing: if you are not in bookstores (if you self-publish, for instance), then you won’t get on the New York Times Bestseller list.
If this is important to you, you can still self-publish, but as Tucker Max describes in his post on how he published Hilarity Ensues, he basically just did a deal with the distribution arm of a major publisher. However, if you are not a brand-name author this might be difficult for you to do.
12. Self-publishing 101
Let’s get the technical part over with. If you want more detail on this subject, read Paul Jun’s great Kindle publishing article on Copyblogger.
You can craft a Microsoft Word file of your book, upload it to Createspace, and they will format it for you, publish it to Kindle (for $69), and you are now a published author on Amazon. You will get 30-70% royalties depending on how you price (above $2.99 you get a 70% royalty) and you can do paperback and Kindle version.
This is not a bad choice. I did this with four of my self-published books. I’ve sold more copies of those books than my five books published with traditional publishers combined. Createspace even helps you design a cover, and you can pay for copyediting.
This entire point #12 is what most people refer to when they say “self-publishing.”
It’s how EL James initially published “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s how my favorite science fiction writer, Hugh Howey, initially published the soon-to-be-classic “Wool.” Both of those authors eventually worked out deals with major publishers for bookstore distribution and both have gone on to sell millions of copies and are in the hall of fame (if there is one) of people who started out self-publishing.
Step 12 is merely executing on the basics of self-publishing. It’s the very last step before a book is published. Everything I’ve said before this point is about building an audience.
I have a few more points I think you should do before step 12. And I have a few ideas about what you should do after step 12.
13. Team publishing
Ultimately, to do self-publishing right, you need to do it professionally.
The stigma of self-publishing is going away precisely because people are no longer just uploading files to Amazon and hoping for the best. If you’re a good writer, you might not be good at editing. Or, you might not be good at marketing. Or, you might need help with cover design.
It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you aren’t.
You don’t want to spend a lot of money. Nor do you want to cheapen yourself with a shoddy project because you couldn’t give it your best. People can spot a self-published book a mile away. And I am guilty of “just” doing a basic self-published book with several of my books.
The key to doing it professionally is to use experts who are good at the things you’re not good at. I used professionals to help me coordinate all of the different tasks involved in self-publishing. Let’s go over some of those very tasks …
My first self-published book was horrible.
Too many grammatical errors. Who cares, I thought, but people do care. It really distracts the reader and it instantly shouts out “amateur hour.”
I now give that book away for free, and two others, when people sign up for my email list. The email list is another good way to build distribution and readership, and giving away free material to people who sign up is a good idea.
For my book that’s being released today, I used four editors. Two for copy editing to fix any basic grammatical errors, and two editors who have both edited many bestsellers. They worked with me on the structure of the book, the layout, and probably spent almost as much time editing the book as I spent writing it.
Traditional publishers also have editors that will work on your book, but the whole idea of professional self-publishing is to do a better job than the traditional publishers.
I wanted to work with the best editor I could find, not just whatever editor was available at a publisher, who might also be busy with 50 other books. This costs money, but it’s not that expensive and a well-done book will more than make back the expense.
Go to the bookstore. Pick out the books that have designs that you love. There’s no reason your book cannot have the same quality design, or better.
I used Herb Thornby, who designed books by some of my favorite authors. He gave me several cover choices to choose from.
I’m not a designer so I could not pick.
So here’s what I did. I made a Facebook ad aimed at my target audience and used a different cover image for each ad. Then I watched in real time what people were clicking on and I chose the most popular cover. The result is the cover image you see at the top of this post.
16. Interior design
I’m not good with fonts, stylizing breakout sections, designing the spine and back cover and inside flaps, etc. I hired for this.
Yes, it costs some money. Yes, a publisher would’ve taken care of all this for me. But I wanted to have a book that would look great, feel great, even smell great.
Uhh, I don’t know if I achieved that last part.
My initial title for the book was The Choose Yourself Era. But here’s the problem I was having …
When I tried to physically tell people the title of my book, it was actually hard to say out loud. It sounded like Choose Yourself Error. I was having lunch with an editor from Harper Collins who wondered if I was writing a book about archaeology. It just wasn’t working.
So I came up with 10 titles. Matched them with the book cover. I then made ten Facebook ads (Pick Yourself, Choose Yourself Era, Choose Yourself, Be the Happiest Person Alive, etc.) and watched what people would click on.
Choose Yourself won by a factor of 3:1. Next in line was Pick Yourself and then The Choose Yourself Era. My choice was a distant third.
This is the power of testing everything.
I did the same trick here as I did above, but, I used it to pick out a subtitle among ten possibilities.
Incidentally, I decided to play around with this live testing technique for other things. So, because of Facebook ads, …
- I leased a Honda Accord instead of buying a Honda Fit
- I decided not to kill myself
- I now believe in God
I was at a dinner that Amazon had for self-published authors last October.
One guy who was making a solid living self-publishing science fiction novels told me that he always made an audiobook. I thought this was a horrible idea, and told him so.
But two things about audiobooks:
- He said, “When people see you have an audiobook, they see your book as even more credible. It stands out from the average self-published book when you have an ebook, a print version, and an audiobook. Plus, the audio book is more expensive, so even though there are fewer sales, it’s decent money.” By the way, if you self-publish, always do a print book at the very least. Even if 99% of your sales are going to be ebook.
- I asked the head of an ad agency what marketing tips he had for me for my upcoming book. He said, first thing, “Make an audiobook. For your kind of book, people will love listening to it while they drive into work.”
So Claudia, my wife who has been supportive of every aspect of this effort, set up her office in our house to be a mini-recording studio. I wrote to Tucker Max that I was going to make an audiobook. He wrote back:
James, where are you doing the audio, and who’s editing it? Please tell me you aren’t just doing it yourself with your Mac and a mic you bought online.
We looked at our Mac and a mic that we bought online and decided to go to a professional studio. Tucker suggested John Marshall Studio. They had done audiobooks ranging from President Clinton’s autobiography to the Harry Potter books to Freakonomics.
I felt uncomfortable just sitting there for eight hours reading words I had written. For one thing, it hurt. Reading for eight straight hours was killing my throat.
Ramit Sethi, who wrote, I Will Teach You To be Rich, told me that he had to put warm towels around his throat while he was reading and still couldn’t speak for a week afterwards. If you do the audiobook, which I highly recommend, make sure you drink a lot of water and have cough drops.
Second, I didn’t want to just read stories I had already written. So I did it totally unabridged and improvised quite a bit, making it somewhat original compared to the book.
But the best reason for doing the audiobook is it forces you to really look at your writing and hear what works and what doesn’t. I rewrote about 20% of the book after reading things that I felt didn’t quite sound right in the book.
So, it was another round of edits to improve the book, a process I never would’ve gone through if I hadn’t done the audio version.
20. Video trailer
I used a company called Simplifilm to make a video trailer of the book. They had previously done video trailers for Robert Greene and Seth Godin, who I felt would be hitting a similar demographic to my book. They also created the MyCopyblogger video for this site.
Why do a video trailer? I personally don’t buy books from watching video trailers. But some people do. I wanted every possible angle to communicate my message to potential buyers. Also, if someone asks me via email, for instance, what my book is about, I can send them a link to the trailer.
Again, a self-published book doesn’t need a video trailer. But I didn’t want my book to have any of the stigma at all of being self-published. I wanted to do a better job than the traditional publishers would would have done, in every way.
And that includes sales …
21. Marketing 201
I almost hate the word “marketing.”
It feels to me like, “what gimmicks can I do that will get people to talk about my book and then buy it.”
I wanted to make sure any marketing I did was integrated with the actual message of the book, which is that in order for people to succeed, they need to “choose themselves.”
This is not only a choice they need to make economically, but a choice they make internally, with their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
And the actual message of the book has some marketing possibilities …
The middle class is dead, every major corporation is systematically firing all of their employees, and we all are going to have the choice of whether or not we want to be artist/entrepreneurs or temp staffers.
So on some of the blogs and sites I guest post on, I will be writing up that story.
I’m a big believer in the message. I give techniques for how I think people can be happier given that the economic landscape has turned upside down. We are all struggling with money, with happiness, with loneliness. Choose Yourself! tells my story of how I failed, got up again, failed, got up again, and then stayed up.
And I wanted to spread that message to others.
I found a post by Kevin Kelly that suggested a marketing idea of paying people back who read your book. Kevin got a bit technical in terms of figuring out if the person actually read the book or not. He wanted an ereader that could figure that out.
I decided to trust the actual reader. So, I put together an offer that would pay people back, those who could prove to me that they read the book. How they proved it to me was up to them, rather than resorting to technical means on my part.
Why not just give the book away for free? And why not just rebate if they bought the book?
- People — in general — do not value things they get for free. I wanted people to put the money out, read the book, and only then would I pay them back.
- Most people buy books, but do not read them. This was an incentive to actually read the book.
I don’t care if I make any money on the book.
The message is very important to me. That’s why I’m willing to pay people back … if they can prove to me they read the book.
So this was marketing that wasn’t just a gimmick but woven into the fabric of what the book meant to me. But I still needed a way to get the message out if I was going to do this marketing.
I called Ryan Holiday, who’d marketed the books of Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene (48 Laws of Power), Tucker Max, John Romaniello, all of whom had hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. He literally had 100 ideas for marketing the book. First we came up with several ideas like the one I just laid out above.
One idea that popped up was that I would become the first author ever to pre-release a book for bitcoin buyers only. We did this, and it was covered by SF Gate, Media Bistro, CNBC, Business Insider, and other places.
Bitcoin is a “choose yourself” currency. It’s not dependent on a government, a person, a country, etc. and its use is getting more and more widespread. The week I released the book on bitcoin, my pre-orders on Amazon spiked so much I became the #1 kindle book for Entrepeneurship, a full month before release.
Prereleasing on bitcoin also means that I now have several hundred people who have (hopefully) read the book, and many of them have already told me they will be reviewing the book on Amazon. Having many reviews on Amazon straight out of the gate helps Amazon know that your book is one they should feature.
In two days I’m going to announce another adventure that is tightly integrated with the message of the book that I think will also generate interest.
Ryan also suggested various joint content plays (a podcast, for instance) I should do with various bloggers who had large email lists.
This is all still in process (the book is coming out today) but compared with my last book, this book will probably be seen by an extra million (or more) people over the next week.
The first step in marketing is what I described above: build your audience. The second step is a cliché but you have to do it: write a good book.
But for a specific book, come up with ten firsts based on the content of your book that nobody has ever done before. And then make sure the media becomes aware of it.
Hiring a marketing expert allowed me to continue focusing on what was important to me — the writing and the message — while he coordinated more than 100 media sources for the various messages I was putting out about the book.
Why are you self-publishing a book?
Because you are an addict. Like me. But there are some other reasons.
Take pride in yourself and in your work. You are all talented and smart people, else you wouldn’t be reading Copyblogger and working on your own art and creativity.
Some of the things I describe above cost money, some don’t, and some can be done super cheap.
Take your work very seriously.
This is your child you’re letting go out into the world. You want to do it right. Enlist the help of a team. Make it team-publishing instead of self-publishing.
Your book will, of course, stand on its own merit. The only way to have a truly successful book is to have a well-written, unique message that stands out among the cacophony of noise.
But everything I describe above will lend credibility, authenticity, and ultimately audience to the effort:
- Building the platform and trust with your audience way in advance.
- Writing a strong story while at the same time delivering value.
- Connecting all the dots on editing, design, title, print version, audio version.
- Having many strong marketing messages and a way of delivering those messages. Making sure the messages aren’t gimmicks, but real ways that show you are living the message you write about.
- Infusing professionalism into every aspect of the process. The goal here is not to publish as easily as possible. The goal is to publish professionally in a way that leaves the traditional publishers in the dust.
You are your own publisher.
You are the one who believes in the message and your art and now want to share it with others and ultimately it is you who is choosing yourself to deliver that message. A message that, when properly packaged, will be a delight to the reader to receive.
Now, let’s talk about it in the comments …