I published my first book this year, and have been getting several questions about the process from would-be authors. So I’m writing up what I learned to make it easier to share.
To be clear, I’m not an expert and my book is not a bestseller; it will take several years of continued book sales to earn me back the money that I invested in publishing the book, let alone the year of effort. But I don’t regret it, as writing the book helped me clarify what I wanted to say, editing the book made it easier for readers to understand, publishing the book meant that people are reading the book and benefiting from it, and marketing the book helps those ideas reach a wider audience. I went into the process knowing I was unlikely to become a best selling author; my intention was to help people like my younger self that eventually burned out because I didn’t see another option. If this book helps readers see more possibilities, then I will consider it a success.
I’ll split this post into several sections so you can skip straight to the section that interests you:
- Writing the book
- Why I chose to self-publish
- Editing the book
- Marketing the book, including becoming a podcast guest
Writing the book
I have dreamed of writing a book since I was a kid. In my coaching training, one of our 2018 homework assignments was to write out a five year timeline of our coaching career; as part of my answer, I wrote that once I established a profitable coaching practice in the first three years, my plan was to write a book in year 4. I was a couple years delayed, one because COVID delayed the growth of my coaching practice, and one because even though I set myself a 2022 goal of writing a book, I failed to do so.
I had originally planned to write a book about alignment leadership, and wrote several posts that were meant to serve as the outline of the book but every time I sat down to start writing, I got stuck because I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I even took a couple writing retreats in early 2022 to focus on the book, and came away with nothing, no plan, no words, no momentum.
Later that year, I saw another coach publish his first book and credit Jennie Nash as his book coach. I saw that she had a book called Blueprint for a Nonfiction Book, and bought it for $2.99. It was exactly what I needed. The book asked me the tough questions to help me get clear on my ideal reader, and the journey I wanted to take them on. What was their situation when they started reading? What did I want them to know and feel and do after reading the book?
Everything started clicking into place once her book helped me get clear on my ideal reader (a Silicon Valley overachiever who is burning out), and that I wanted to help them take control of their life and choose another path, which is what I do for my coaching clients. I checked my proposal with my newsletter readers and used her template to map out the book chapter by chapter, where she offered three things to consider about each chapter:
- Point: Why is this chapter here? What is the experience of the reader in this chapter?
- Outcome: What will the reader know or feel or do by the end of the chapter? Where are they on the journey?
- Because of that: How is this chapter connected to the next one? What is the question or idea that moves the reader from this chapter to the next?
I made a spreadsheet answering those questions to help me create a flow of chapters that took the reader on the journey I intended for them.
It helped that the journey was one I had led dozens of clients through as an executive coach. Since I used the same stories and ideas and mindsets with many of my clients, I wrote this book to generalize that approach for a wider audience. I knew the stories that resonated with people and the questions that helped people find clarity; in fact, I had shared most of them on LinkedIn or on this blog over the previous three years.
That made the writing relatively easy. I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about what I wanted to say, as it was mostly a question of how I wanted to sequence previously written content. Once I had mapped out the journey with the key points I wanted to make in each chapter, I could write one chapter at a time, and even one section of a chapter at a time, with a clear map of what to write next.
My actual writing process was pretty boring after that. I would wake up at 6am, and write for an hour or so before my kids woke up. I would aim to write a 500-1000 word section in that time, which was my sweet spot after spending 20 years writing blog posts of that length. After several months of that, I had a decent first draft of the book.
Why I chose to self-publish
As I was finishing the first draft, I debated whether I was going to look for an agent and publisher or publish it myself. I had a friend in the publishing world suggest that the theme of the book to find one’s own meaning would play well with the post-Covid quiet quitting movement, and there might be interest from publishers as a result. But I realized after a couple weeks that putting myself through that search process was a distraction from my intent to help people with the book; I could feel myself getting agitated by the potential rejections and therefore procrastinating on writing and editing.
I also really appreciated Rob Fitzpatrick’s book Write Useful Books as a guide here. I was inspired by his approach to write a book full of useful, timeless advice for readers in a certain situation, and then depend on them recommending it to others in that situation to grow book sales over time. His own books, The Mom Test and The Workshop Survival Guide, had their sales grow year after year with that approach, which felt like it validated the self-publishing approach, rather than being dependent on a publisher for marketing.
The other thing I read was that publishers rarely promote a first-time author, so I was going to be responsible for marketing the book anyway. And if I was successful, then they were going to get most of the benefits, as publishers keep most of the royalties in exchange for the up-front costs of editing and designing the book. Since my hope was to follow the Write Useful Books approach where most of the marketing was going to come from recommendations, that split of the royalties didn’t make sense to me, especially since I had the resources to pay for my own editing and design and printing. By self-publishing, I paid the up-front costs of publishing in exchange for the continued royalties and the risk of the book not continuing to sell.
It helped that I found Otterpine, which is a company that specializes in helping indie authors self-publish. They are a full-service firm, providing editors, designers, printers, a warehouse for inventory, shipping, etc. Because I had minimal time between coaching and parenting, I chose to go with their full-service approach, where they provided guidance and all the services, although they also offer a la carte services for those who want specific support. If I had more time, Kindlepreneur had great resources and guidance for self-publishers, especially since I ended up going with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing anyway.
As far as that decision, Amazon had the greatest reach, and their print on demand was too convenient when I had no idea how many books I would sell. Unless I was willing to commit to a print run of over 1,000 books, their prices were competitive, and the print quality was acceptable for a book which was primarily text. I didn’t want to only support Amazon’s monopoly, so I also published through IngramSpark which means that any bookstore should be able to order the book through the Ingram system, which is how it shows up on bookshop.org. Saeah at Otterpine guided me through these choices, and her team set up the book at each of these sites so I didn’t have to figure out all the options. I decided that I would rather pay them to do it quickly and correctly, rather than spending my precious free time trying to figure it out by trial and error.
Editing the book
The other useful takeaway from Write Useful Books was to test your book ideas early and often with your ideal readers to find out if what you’re writing is actually useful. He recommended using beta readers to tell you what they found most useful, where their attention wandered, and what they would cut, and do it earlier than you feel comfortable. His point was that if you spend six months writing, you’ll grow attached to what you wrote; by releasing it early, you may actually listen to the feedback to make it more useful to your intended reader.
I published the first draft of the intro chapter on this blog to see if the premise resonated with people. After posting the link to LinkedIn, and crediting Jennie Nash for her Blueprint, she actually read it herself and gave me some harsh feedback that my ideal reader wasn’t clear and my voice wasn’t coming through as I was leaning on other writers too much. I didn’t like hearing it, and it took me until the second draft to really internalize the feedback, but I think the book was better because I got that early feedback. In particular, one of my beta readers pointed out every time I used another writer’s words, and pushed me to move my references to footnotes and use my own words.
I also recruited several friends and newsletter readers to be my beta readers, and I sent each chapter to them as I wrote it. I used Google docs to write, so it was easy for my beta readers to leave comments on bits they liked or didn’t like, or on what didn’t make sense or was confusing. And they did leave comments. Lots of comments. So many comments that I hid from them for a month after I finished the first draft, because despite Fitzpatrick’s advice, I had let too much of my ego seep in, and I didn’t want to hear critical feedback. But once I took a break from writing, I was able to take the feedback as intended to improve the quality of the reader experience of the book. After a month of editing, rewriting parts of every chapter in response to the feedback, and working back to front so that I could move sections around to where they made sense, I had a much stronger second draft. Then I turned the draft over to Otterpine for a developmental edit.
Developmental editing is about the structure of the book. As my editor put it, it’s where we make a clear promise to the reader in the introduction, and commit to deliver on that promise in every chapter, if not every section. We dive deep into the flow, and make sure that the reader is led on a coherent journey, where every chapter unfolds from the previous one. Thanks to Nash’s blueprint and my beta readers, the structure of my book was sound, and my editor didn’t suggest any major changes. In fact, her main suggestion was one that I was already planning, which was to add concrete reader exercises to bring the ideas to life. However, my original plan was to put one exercise per chapter, and she suggested an exercise for nearly every section, and the book was stronger as a result; in fact, we are considering putting out an expanded workbook/journal with the exercises next year.
After she returned the developmental edit to me, I went through each individual change and decided whether to accept it. This was the most frustrating part for me, as I didn’t trust the editor enough to accept all the changes, but most of them were helpful, so I was mostly clicking accept, accept, accept, and then would stop and say “No, that’s not what I meant at all!” and rewrite a sentence or section to address the confusion. My frustration was not helped as I was having to manage the changes and edits in Microsoft Word, which is a powerful but unintuitive piece of software if you don’t use it regularly.
After I went through the developmental edit, I submitted a third draft for a copyediting round. Copyediting is about the nuts and bolts of writing, punctuation, grammar, word choice, etc. Again, I agreed with some of the edits and not others, but learned from what they pointed out. After I went through their suggestions, I did two full read throughs, one reading it out loud to myself a chapter at a time over a few days, and one reading it straight through front to back in one sitting, cleaning up anything that sounded awkward or wasn’t adding value. After that, I sent it off for layout and design.
Layout and design turned out to be more involved than I expected. Otterpine’s cover designer offered a few options, and we iterated until we found one that I liked and would stand out in a thumbnail version. For the text itself, I had to decide what font I wanted, how to differentiate between main text, exercises, privilege checks and my “You Have A Choice” framework, the layout of the table of contents and chapter title pages, etc. It took several iterations to get to something I liked (I was surprised how many opinions I had!), but then it was time for the final proofread, and sending it off to be converted into ebook format.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this process. The first draft I produced after six months of writing was of blog post quality, which I think is solidly readable after twenty years of writing on the Internet. I spent another six months editing (as much time as I spent writing!) to get it to the final published product. I’ve had a few beta readers comment how much better the final book is than the early drafts they read, so I believe that editing work was worth the effort, but it’s worth knowing that writing is only the first half of publishing a book if you’re trying to create something of professional timeless quality.
Marketing the book, including becoming a podcast guest
As mentioned in the self-publishing section above, I knew that marketing the book was going to be necessary to get any sales beyond my friends. This was the most uncomfortable part for me, so I originally planned to follow the Write Useful Books methodology to let recommendations do the work of marketing. But then I realized that the reason I decided to write the book was to help people that were stuck, and I couldn’t help them if they never heard about the book. So I decided to push through my discomfort and see what I could do to increase book sales.
My role model here was Michael Bungay Stanier, best-selling author of The Coaching Habit. I’m on his mailing list, and when he published his book How to Work with (Almost) Anyone earlier this year, he offered anybody on his list the opportunity to read the book early in exchange for an Amazon review and an invite to a special Ask Me Anything (AMA) with him on launch day. As a result, he got almost 100 reviews in the first couple weeks after launch, and got his book off to a strong start. So I copied his playbook, offering my newsletter readers a pre-release copy in exchange for a review, and a launch day AMA. 60 people signed up, and I had 30 Amazon reviews by the end of my launch week. Plus a couple readers shared in the AMA that they would appreciate an accountability group to help them go through the exercises, which led to the Design Your 2024 class I’m offering as another vehicle to increase engagement with the book.
I also did a cold outreach to Stanier to ask him for a blurb, and he was generous enough to take a look at my book and write a supportive blurb. Not only that, he pointed me at his article on how he had marketed his self-published book, which I’ve been using as a guidebook since launch. I was also surprised and gratified that I got blurbs from Jerry Colonna and Derek Sivers upon reaching out, despite minimal previous interactions (a reminder that most people like to help).
I also met another coach who had published his book a year earlier, and I had asked him what he did to market his book. His answer was podmatch.com, which is basically Tinder for podcast hosts and guests; as a guest, you get offered several podcasts a day and you choose to match or pass depending on their fit with your message. That was a great tip, as podcast guesting was also something Stanier recommended, so I leaned into that starting in October. In three months, I recorded nearly 20 podcast interviews, and you can listen to several of the released episodes on this Spotify playlist. The advantage of starting with small podcasts like those on PodMatch is that I had a chance to get my nerves out of the way and practice refining my message on these small podcasts so that if I ever get invited to a bigger podcast, I’ll be more prepared and smooth. I also reached out to everybody I knew who hosted a podcast, and pitched myself to podcasts who hosted people I knew or respected. Most people didn’t respond, but I got a few I didn’t expect that way, which increased my reach.
The next steps from Stanier’s book marketing playbook are to pitch my book to everybody that reviews books I respect e.g. Jerry Colonna’s book Reunion, which was released in November, to ask them for a review, and to start pitching essays and content excerpts from the book to online publications. I plan on doing some of that in 2024, as I am not ready to make marketing my book a full-time job. On that point, I was intimidated and impressed when I heard James Clear on the Tim Ferriss show describe his 14-month launch plan for Atomic Habits (1h20m into the podcast), where he shared popular title structures, how he reached out to hundreds of influencers and podcast hosts, and even managed to get on TV for an interview on launch day. I have no desire to be that dedicated, but it was a reminder of how much more I could do.
But my main hope for marketing is that each person that reads the book and is helped by it will recommend it to others, and hopefully post an Amazon review. That’s the long-term path to success, and the approach that is most in line with my core value of generosity and offering value to readers.
As I said at the top, I’m not a best selling author, and spent a lot of my own money to publish this book, paying Otterpine to edit, design and guide the book to publication. I will probably not recoup that money directly through book sales, but the marketing efforts for the book (like podcasting) will also lead to greater awareness of my coaching services, so I expect the investment in the book will eventually be worth it for me.
Will I write another book? Maybe someday, but if I do, I think I will do more of the editing myself, as I have a much better idea of what to look for at the developmental and copyediting phases, and save money there. For now, I think I will explore other ways to expand my product offerings in 2024, like group classes. But if I do think of another book idea with a reader journey that resonates, I at least know what it takes to get it into the world in book form.
I hope that sharing my experience as a first-time author is helpful to you. I am also writing it as a record for my future self while it’s all fresh in my brain, so that I can remind myself what it took to publish this book. It was an enriching and fulfilling experience, and took a lot of work and money to get it to the level I wanted, even with all the advantages I had in terms of previously written material and content that had been shown to be valuable for my clients. But I’m proud of the book, and how it is helping the people who read it; that’s why I wrote the book, and each message or review is an affirmation that it was worth the effort.