New rules for self-publishing


I just spent the last two weeks selling my self-published book. I published a book a few years ago with Time Warner, but I wanted to see what it would be like to self-publish. I decided against an ebook format because I really like holding the book of an author I love to read. I like living with that book in my house because it’s like living with a friend.

So I went with a print book. And I did a lot of unconventional things – beginning with the announcement — and they paid off. So, here’s my advice on the new rules for self-publishing.

1. Mainstream publishers help very few people. And probably not you.
Authors sell books, not publishers. For writers without a big name, publishers give them credibility. The problem is that publishers aren’t set up to be able to make money from authors who haven’t already made a name for themselves. This arrangement used to be fine before social media, before almost every author needed a channel to an audience. But now authors have the ready-made sales channel that is social media, so the publishers are no longer the gatekeepers to customers.

Amanda Hocking is reportedly making a million dollars a year self-publishing ebooks. And very rich author Joe Konrath, who has written about the math behind publishing, recently he turned down a half-a-million-dollar book deal so that he could self-publish.

Mainstream publishers don’t work for unknown authors either. So when publishers give an advance to someone without their own audience, the publisher finds itself in a very high-risk, venture-capital type model, but they are venture capitalists for individuals rather than companies. Very few individuals can sell a book on a large scale through a publisher if they couldn’t do it on their own anyway. And if you could do it on your own, why wouldn’t you? The money you earn is so much higher when you self-publish if you can actually sell the book.

If you don’t have a big name, use a blog to get one. If your content is not interesting enough to build up a blog readership, it’s probably not interesting enough to sell books.

2. Self-publishing should be about making money.
You can use a print book from a big publisher to get your name into the speaking world. And then make $15,000 a speech. I know. I went that route, and it works. (Although the life of a speaker, traveling all the time, is arguably terrible and there’s a reason mostly men choose it. But that’s for another post.)

A self-published book does not get you credibility. So you should do it only for the money. And, in this case, you should consider doing a print book. You can charge more for print and it’s hard to convince people they should buy an ebook when, presumably, your ideas are already online.

(And, if they are not already online, how do you know if they are good? No mainstream publisher will take your book, so the presumption is your ideas suck until someone shows you they don’t.)

3. Print books are souvenirs: Party favors after a fun time.
This is especially true when it comes to blogs with large readerships, or consultants who have changed thousands of lives at big companies. Books take up space in your house, they add to your list of frivolous possessions, and they are expensive in an age when information is largely free. So a print book needs to be like candy in your hand, an interior design choice, an extension of who you are, just like how you have Nike shoes and a Marc Jacobs skirt.

This means that the aesthetics of print books is improving fast. If it’s not nice to hold or put on a shelf, then you may as well have it electronically.

Also, once the book is a souvenir of an experience, the book doesn’t need to be completely new. There’s a long list of people who publish great books that are largely excerpts from their blog: Seth Godin’s Tribes and Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start, for instance. That seems fine to me. Almost useful. Because loyal readers will see the short burst of ideas from a blog recombined and reordered into a bigger idea. Blog ideas add up to something. That something is revealed in a book.

4. You don’t need a title.
Self-published books sell via social media word-of-mouth, which is links between social media platforms. There is no need for a title when information is traveling like this. A book is dependent on a friend’s endorsement and a link, rather than having the title of the book call out to browsers in a bookstore.

If a book is going to be reviewed in print and then you use that review to go to a bookstore and ask a clerk for a book, only then do you need a great title that someone can remember. But there is none of that when you are promoting a book via social media.

Today the promise of the book is more important than the title. The promise of the book needs to fit into the promise of some given social networks. For example, if I have a book about medicine in Mesopotamia and I can’t find a history of medicine community or a Mesopotamia community, it’ll be hard to promote the book.

Google searches make markets for product sales if you want to pick up customers via search. Communities make markets for books if you want to pick up buyers via word of mouth.

5. Forget about the book cover — have a great landing page instead.
You are going to send people to a page to buy a book, not a book store, not Amazon. This is your place where you are selling. It’s like your food truck. People will take a look at it quickly to see if it’s trustworthy and worth their time to try it.

The number of people you lose on the buy now page has to be really, really small. And it is not necessarily true that a picture of the cover of your book is what will close the sale. So you need to do a lot of tests to see what kind of copy and layout can close your sale. And if you’re on a limited budget, tell your designer to focus on the landing page, not the book cover.

Today authors need to be good at creating landing pages. It used to be that publishers were market-makers for books. We know now that authors are, but since publishers are not great at online marketing, it makes sense that the person who is writing—and connecting with the audience—would also be the person writing the landing page to turn interest into sales.

I used to online tool Unbounce which does a great job of guiding sellers through the process of creating effective landing pages. (Here’s the landing page I made.)

6. Do the printing in China.
It’s really difficult to make a book look as good at one of those fun, interior-decorator type books you see in Anthropologie or CB2—the kind that look beautiful on your shelf, like they were made especially for your living room. I wanted that, though.

Melissa solved the problem because was able to negotiate a book production deal with a company in China that speaks only Chinese. (Of course I expressed worries because China is known for having quality issues. But she said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. If the books have with problems, I can yell at them in their own language.”)

Also, use your community to make your own Kickstarter — a site that lets you collect money from the Kickstart community to get their project underway. If you have a community to sell books to, then you have a community to fund your book project. This takes the cash-flow pressure out of publishing a gorgeous book. This worked well for my book—we all get a better souvenir to hold if we all come together to fund it.

7. Print books should be limited editions.
Once you think of a book as special—a souvenir of a reading experience—then selling it for a very limited time makes sense. If something is available forever, it’s not special. The business model where you can buy a book any time doesn’t make sense if we are trying to make print books more special in the age of ebooks. If you can buy a ninety-nine-cent ebook any time, a print book should be a short-offer, limited edition type sale.

That is why I was closing sales this week. But selling a self-published book is addictive. When I got a six-figure book advance, my book was so unlikely to earn back the advance that it was not that fun to count sales—none of the money went to me. On top of that, you don’t get daily tallies from in-store sales. The publisher doesn’t tell me if my review in Salon sold any books. They just don’t track things like that.

But tracking sales of a self-published book is intoxicating. It’s a lot like blog stats. It’s immediate feedback, mostly logical, and surprisingly satisfying. The same is true with a self-published book. But I’m also making money.

So, that said, I’m keeping the book a limited edition, but I’m selling it for two more days. Two more days of fun for me. And, thank you, everyone, for helping me to learn all this stuff and have fun at the same time.

63 replies
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  1. Mikael B2B strategist
    Mikael B2B strategist says:

    Just love the way you put a spin to ordinary information with ever engaging comments.

  2. Angela
    Angela says:

    I am all for self-publishing (I’ve done it), but it’s time to stop using Amanda Hocking to “prove” how great/ lucrative it is. Ms. Hocking is absolutely exhausted and just signed a deal with a major publisher.

  3. Mama Sebo
    Mama Sebo says:

    Very very interesting, thank you. Now I’m going to go back and check out all the links. I hope that when I finally find employment I’ll be able to buy one used….also from your landing page???

  4. christine
    christine says:

    Hi, I’ve ordered your book and look forward to reading it. How long before it arrives? It’s been about a week.

  5. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    It is really interesting times in publishing that way. I think it will mean a broader range of book available too – your expensive fully realized one and then your cheap Hocking-tipe one. I’m trying it out this year with a 99 cent novel project. (blog is at my site there.)

  6. Prime
    Prime says:

    Hi Penelope:

    Just a slight correction, the author who walked out from the million dollar print book deal is not JA Konrath but his friend Barry Eisler.

    Like JA, I also agree that the way forward for most authors is to go self-publishing via Kindle. That said, I actually like your idea of selling limited edition of print books (and tack a premium price on it). It’s a marketing idea that I think authors and publishers should consider now that digital readership is growing. After all, whenever I ask someone why they’re still buying print books when it’s more convenient and cheaper to buy digital editions (there are cheap e-book readers here in the Philippines), they tell me (and I didn’t invent this) this: “I like the feel and smell of paper.” One colleague of mine told me that she just can’t “feel” the story if she’s reading it in front of the computer.

    Sell the reading experience, not the paper.

  7. kormy
    kormy says:

    Most people can’t write readable text without professional editors rewwriting them. Publishers have those.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        And the results are evident in more and more books, to our detriment. I once read a novel in which the protagonist’s name changed after several pages, and then changed back. The author didn’t notice, apparently, but I did–and even a marginally competent copyeditor would have, too.

  8. Joanna Penn
    Joanna Penn says:

    It’s brilliant that you’ve discovered self-publishing Penelope! There are lots of us indie authors out here not making Hocking/Konrath numbers but we still sell books on Kindle/print on demand and we are loving the freedom to write and publish direct to the market.
    With people like you and Seth Godin going indie, as well as Eisler and other authors, it will soon be an acceptable way to publish mainstream.
    To the points above, all serious indies use professional editors, cover designers and book formatters. You want to be proud of what you put on the market!
    Thanks for your inspiration :)

  9. Melissa Breau
    Melissa Breau says:

    Penelope, there are several *advantages* to going the traditional route other than marketing – €“such as professional designers who lay out your book, a team of editors who copy edit, line edit and proofread it and the production team that makes sure the print quality is on par. Most of these things you CAN also have when self publishing, but hiring these experts is potentially expensive (though as a professional editor, I’d definitely say it’s worth the money).

    Also, the reason most publishers print books here in the states (and not in China) is two fold – the US uses a different measurement system than most other countries and that affects available paper sizes, and it’s REALLY expensive to SHIP all that heavy paper across the ocean (and takes a REALLY long time).

  10. Chris McLaughlin
    Chris McLaughlin says:

    When I saw the title I decided that you’d surely jumped the shark into endless self-promotion with this blog. But it’s really helpful information. Thanks.

  11. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I’m so glad people have stopped whining. I’m so excited about your book. I think about it almost everyday. I’m nearly addicted to online shopping partly because of the anticipation of getting something in the mail. This is like that anticipation on steroids.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love getting stuff in the mail, too. Online shopping seems like twice the fun for the same dollar — fun clicking “buy” and fun when it comes in the mail. Plus, I hate going to shopping malls. It’s overwhelming. Hm. I just realized this — you can control your consumer information so much better if you shop online than offline. Offline information is totally random.


  12. Alex
    Alex says:

    I agree that self-publishing is only likely to become more widespread, but I wonder if this is really a good thing for readers. To be frank, I’ve found most of what’s been published via traditional publishing anywhere from bad to awful – and that’s with agents and editors screening out the really terrible. As demand went up for just about everything in the last ten years as consumers spent more with credit, it seems traditional publishers met that demand by publishing even more books, which seemed only to add to the number of bad ones (increased demand always lowers the bar for entry into a market). As a result, I’ve found it harder and harder to find good books among all the background “noise” of bad books. Shouldn’t we think that self-publishing will have a similar effect? It’s really really hard to write truly good books.

    • davednh
      davednh says:

      Somebody out there has a book that you would just love but it might be on an obscure subject that isn’t profitable enough to make it through the typical publishing gauntlet. Self publishing is the only way for you to ever get a chance to read that book. The problem is better search capability so you can find the needle in the haystack – not to throttle the creation of content. (IMO)

  13. davednh
    davednh says:

    There’s no need to go to China – there are plenty of online sites that can help with small print runs. Also, there are a growing number of Espresso (book printing) machines that make it possible to publish electronically and let the end user decide if they want to print their own hard cover copy.
    Finally, don’t forget about Copyright issues – many here might not care due to the speed of content creation these days but when your writing is being used without attribution (or $$) you will suddenly care. Copyright Clearance Center is a good source of information on many of these issues. Check them out at (no I don’t work for them…b-)

  14. Lois
    Lois says:

    I would be really interested to know whether Melissa checked out the Chinese company for their labour practices? If there’s another thing Chinese factories are known for, other than quality, it’s force labour and terrible working conditions. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to profit through that. I look forward to your response.

  15. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    Interesting post but I detect some contradictions. For instance how does “the aesthetics of print books is improving fast” (because it must, you mean) square with “Forget about the book cover”?

  16. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    As always you provide great insight into things! Thanks again Penelope.

    p.s. for your tweet this links you should use or something to shorten the URLs and give people more space to tweet on how great your advice is! (or get Melissa to really utilize her awesome domain to provide the same twitter URL shortening services) ;)


  17. Pete Tarkulich
    Pete Tarkulich says:

    “I decided against an ebook format because I really like holding the book of an author I love to read.”

    I understand this line of thinking because there’s nothing I love more than having BOOK books in my possession. However, I don’t think that it’s a very solid business plan in the long run. I just did a workshop recently with some high school kids about self-publishing, and most (if not all; can’t claim that all of them were the same) mentioned reading books electronically, either on a Kindle or their iPhones. That’s the way the market is going. Us dinosaurs that like the feel of paper are heading towards extinction, so we need to follow the direction that the wind is blowing.

    I’m not saying don’t EVER do print runs (I’m planning on one myself), but to disregard the ebook format is a bit silly at this point.

    Just my $0.02.

  18. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    I agree with Jeremy — the wind is blowing in the electronic direction. It will be interesting to see how your book does. Great information. – Catherine

  19. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Love this post.

    I think that books are artifacts. Books are different than information. They’re an experience.

    But I do think that cover design matters. Precisely because of that point. For example, I bought a series of classic children’s literature at a used book store recently, but even though I’ve wanted to read this series for a long time, I can’t bring myself to read them because I just don’t like the weird, abstract covers of the edition I got.

    There’s a psychology to this that fascinates me, actually.

  20. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    Not sure someone already mentioned (I have to run for a meeting and didn’t have the time to check all comments), but your picture in the sales page is much better (less washed out) than in here. Since many people commented/complained, why not put that version here? You look as good, but less “photoshopped” in it.

  21. Catana
    Catana says:

    Well, at least you established one thing with this post — you know next to nothing about the current state of self-publishing.

  22. Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching
    Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching says:

    I decided to self-publish my book, which serves a niche market. I found a local printer with on-demand capabilities who turned the book (162 pages plus cover) in 4 days. The quality is excellent. I also had a local graphic designer do the layout — fast, professional and not that expensive; ditto with the editing.

  23. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’m curious if your analysis changes for fiction vs nonfiction? It seems to me that most nonfiction, self-help advice books are sold based on the desire of readers to align themselves with the existing brand of the author. That works great if you have an existing brand and platform, but not so great for random unknowns who think they have great ideas and write well. However, I bet if you tell a good story and make it easy to find the buy button from a kindle, you could start out pretty well self-publishing. And if you write the next Twilight, I’m sure you can find a way to get it printed…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, I think fiction is really impossible to publish. No matter if you are self-publishing or you have a publisher, you will never make money. Fiction is way more difficult to write — it takes longer. And fiction is a much smaller market than non-fiction. (I can’t remember the statistic, I think it’s something like only 10% of people in the US read a novel last year and most of those people were women.) So if you are writing a novel to make money just forget it. And if you are writing a novel to be good at writing fiction, go through normal channels: Writing groups, literary journals, publishers.

      I took that route with my first book (Six Sex Scenes — written under the name Adrienne Eisen) and by the time I got published by the University of Colorado, I had worked for so many years writing the book and getting excerpts published in literary journals that I didn’t care at all about the money. I just wanted recognition. I think that’s what most people write fiction for, so self-publishing fiction doesn’t make any sense.

      I know there are exceptions to this, but there are not enough exceptions to make it worth talking about.


      • Eva
        Eva says:

        Fiction is where the money is! And sub rights! Recheck your info, because you’ve got it backwards. Literary fiction is harder to sell, but otherwise– Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.

  24. Suzanna E. Nelson
    Suzanna E. Nelson says:

    Thank you so much, Penelope.

    This is very informative. I am also indie published. You are right. I spent so much money doing publicity for my books using my publisher, and no sales came out of it. Nobody tells you what works and what doesn’t work.

    I took time off work to promote the books myself. Now my fan base on Facebook is good and still growing. The problem I have is that 70% of the members are outside the United states. The constant question I get from them is: ‘Can I get your books in a bookstore?’ I have to tell them to ask the Bookstore to order the book. They loose morale, and many of them don’t have e-readers. This is where a traditional publisher comes in. My point is, having your name out there and gaining fans alone is not enough. At least not when you are self-published.

    I like these discussions. Please keep them coming.


  25. Alina
    Alina says:

    Oh, Penelope, I’ve avoiding so much to push the “Buy” button, because I am currently relocating from Romania in Japan, so I have no shipping address. Finally, I can’t avoid the button no more so I decided to ship it to my sister’s, in England, she will read it and send it to me when I will have a book shelf. It will be a nice thing to share with the sister and it will a book which travelled 3 continents. I am so excited about it.

  26. Lau@corridorkitchen
    Lau@corridorkitchen says:

    I have been reading a lot lately about how much work is involved in marketing a book, and that’s when you’re published by a big name publisher! It seems to me that, as you say, if you’re the one who needs to build and audience, do instore readings, etc. then getting someone else to publish does seem kind of insane when there are so many books being published every day.

    I never even considered self-publishing until I read this post so thank you so much! it’s something to keep in mind for the future.

  27. Jenn Sutherland
    Jenn Sutherland says:

    I self-published my cookbook on…they provide the transaction support, print each copy on-demand, and it’s completely hands-off for me. I can leave the book up for sale for as long as I want, without having to worry about inventory. I’m not publishing to earn my living, so this route serves me well.

    That said, I’m looking forward to the day when every single book will be available electronically. I resent it when I have to buy a paper copy of a book instead of an ebook for my Kindle. I live in a small space – I don’t need “stuff,” no matter how artful the design is, and I LOVE being able to carry all of my favorite authors with me everywhere I go, so that I can click to any book in my collection and get the burst of inspiration I need. I ordered a paper copy, but if you eventually share an ebook version, I’d be happy to buy a second copy.

  28. onegirl
    onegirl says:

    On your landing page, you are wearing a sweater, and on the front of this blog, your sweater has turned into a short-sleeved blouse. ha ha. Looking at the two pictures is similar to that puzzle in the newspaper where you have to notice the differences and circle them.

    I like the picture from your landing page better. Good luck with your book sales.

  29. Sean G
    Sean G says:

    Penelope, why not offer in it BOTH formats?

    I’ll buy it when you put it on Kindle. My life is just too crazy right now to try to track more physical books that offer no additional benefit to the physical format.

    Let me choose the the format, please!

  30. Naomi Niles
    Naomi Niles says:

    I am so pleased that you talked about how important landing pages and testing is although I don’t necessarily think it’s something that should be delegated to a web designer. Also agree that unbounce is great.

    Thanks, Penelope.

  31. John
    John says:

    You seem to poo-poo anything that doesn’t work for you, Pee.

    > If you don't have a big name, use a blog to get one.
    > If your content is not interesting enough to build
    > up a blog readership, it's probably not interesting
    > enough to sell books.

    I guess Thoreau, Salinger, Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Franzen, Joseph O’Neill, Deborah Eisenberg, Robert Musil, Harold Frederic, and Harper Lee would have been/are all losers then. Except every one of them is far more famous than you.

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  33. M.C.
    M.C. says:

    I don’t think many people will be able to find and buy a book with an unknown title. A new author should not have put out a first book titled: The Book That Has No Title!

  34. Gregg Byron
    Gregg Byron says:

    With so many Americans out of work, what does this writer do? She takes her book to China to be printed. Thanks for supporting working Americans, Penelope.

  35. Homo-sapien
    Homo-sapien says:

    “And very rich author Joe Konrath, who has written about the math behind publishing, recently he turned down a half-a-million-dollar book deal so that he could self-publish.”

    Wow. It was Barry Eisler who did that, not Joe Konrath.

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