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
« Older Comments
  1. najd geist
    najd geist says:

    I disagree with a lot of the sentiments in this article, but there are two main statements that really bother me the most.

    For one, why should anyone else tell me that I should only self-publish to make money? I don’t want money, I want my story heard. Money has little to do with it.

    Secondly, you can NOT skip the book cover. It’s crazy to think that your book will sell if you skimp on this part of the process. It’s debatably more important than the actual content of the book.

    I know this blogist has good intentions, but I just hope would-be-authors don’t take what she’s saying here as anything more than one opinion that generally clashes with more efficient methods.

« Older Comments

Comments are closed.