Lessons from self-publishing a book

There’s something special about holding a physical book in your hands. The feeling is even more special when it’s your book. It gives the ideas more weight somehow (no pun intended, honest). The contents weren’t just written, they were published. Well, now it’s easier than ever for you to publish your own work, whether it’s the next great novel or just stories from your life for your kids to read.

Earlier this year, I self-published Working Out Loud. By sharing what I learned in the process, I hope to encourage you to publish too.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

The trade-offs

The benefits of using a traditional publisher are that you get more services: editing, design, marketing. But those things come with a cost. Because the publisher is providing those services, you tend to have little or no control over them. They’ll cost you in terms of reduced royalties too. (Though it’s the rare author who makes money from publishing a book no matter how they do it.)

Also, the value of their services, particularly marketing, has decreased over time. Because publishing margins have gone down, and because the expectations for most authors are low, a publisher won’t spend much on marketing your book beyond offering it in their catalog to wholesalers. As for the other services, it’s easier than ever to find good copyeditors and designers.

Perhaps the biggest cost is a mental one: you have to be picked. You’ll spend time and emotional energy searching for validation which will be hard to come by, and the vast majority of aspiring authors will never get past the gatekeepers.

Resources to help you self-publish

The best book I’ve found on self-publishing was self-published by a popular and acclaimed author, Guy Kawasaki. Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur is the single best reference guide on the process and the different options. Reading this book can save you a lot of time and help you avoid some grave mistakes.

Author Publisher Entrepreneur

Your First 1000 Copies will help you think about reaching an audience for your book. Without the traditional marketing and distribution channels of a publisher, you’ll need to do something yourself. This book helps you understand what that is and how to do it.

Your First 1000 Copies

Pleasant and unpleasant surprises

While self-publishing necessarily means you’ll be doing work that a publisher would have done otherwise, some context might be helpful. In terms of hours spent, my rough estimate is that 98% of publishing my book was writing and 2% was publishing. So while publishing is important, those percentages make it clear where you should focus most of your time and energy.

I chose Createspace because it’s owned by Amazon and provides a complete set of services. The editing service was excellent, and they easily customized the cover design I had done elsewhere. They created the Kindle version automatically without any work on my part.

My biggest mistake was related to the interior design of the book. I naively assumed I would just submit a Word document and they would “format it.” But the first proof copy came back with issues ranging from header sizing to spacing to capitalization mistakes. It took me three more months of scrupulously checking every line - and ordering more proof copies and paying more fees - till it looked the way I wanted. I could have avoided that by setting up headers more carefully in Word and providing more detailed instructions for formatting from the beginning.

Createspace has some limitations. They don’t print hardcovers, so if you want one you’ll have to use another service (and distribute it yourself). They also don’t offer the same discounts to bookstores as other publishers (20% instead of 40-50%). If you want a bookstore to carry your book, you’ll have to sell it to them yourself.

All things considered, I will use Createspace again for my next book. (Note the self-affirmation in that last sentence!) The Createspace staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the entire process cost well under $2,500. On June 10th, after years of working on it, my book was available on Amazon sites around the world as a paperback and ebook.

I remember the thrill of opening up the Amazon app on my phone, searching for “working out loud,” and seeing my book there. Just like all the others.

Choose yourself

Each of us has our own story and our own ideas. Now, more than ever, it's up to you to decide whether they are worth sharing, whether what you say might help or entertain or inspire someone else.

You don’t have to wait to be picked. You can choose yourself.

The world needs more good stories and good ideas. Why not yours?

The 6 feelings I experienced when my book was finally on Amazon

As of Thursday, June 11th, you could buy “Working Out Loud” on Amazon. I thought I would simply feel happy. But it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

 

Surprise

My first reaction was surprise. You might find that odd considering I had been working toward publishing the book for a few years. But on Wednesday, I was told it would take “3 to 5 business days.” Then on Thursday morning at 10:15, I saw this:

Pia Helm buys Working Out Loud

My pulse quickened. I didn’t know Pia Helm from Munich. She must be mistaken, I thought. So I went on Amazon, searched for “working out loud,” and there it was.

Pis Helm buys Working Out Loud - pt 2

Camaraderie

I sent out tweets and Facebook updates to let people know, and the next 2 days were filled with congratulations and good feeling from around the world.

A colleague I have never spoken with before wrote this beautiful Amazon review:

“I am using this book currently in a Working Out Loud Circle at work and I am so impressed with how simple it is to implement and how effective the techniques are. After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career. I believe at the end of 12 weeks, I will be well on my way to new habits to accomplish my goal. I believe I will return to this method to reach future goals, and hope to implement many of the insights in my day to day work habits as well.

Bravo! It is long overdue for someone to address the problem of work not being as fulfilling as it could be. The secret indeed lies with us, our interactions with our fellow human beings, and gratitude and kindness.”

Although I’ve been writing for a while, it’s still an extraordinary thing to feel connected with people around the world. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers - all connected by their interest in an idea. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good.

Happiness

All the nice comments from my network made me happy. Seeing a bulk order from my firm for 350 copies (one for every intern in the US) made me feel even happier. Not just because I sold books but because it felt like a symbol of institutional validation.

The day the book was available, I was invited to give a keynote speech in Sydney. And I spoke to two other companies who are interested in spreading the practice of working out loud among their employees.

I was feeling happy about the present and also about the possibilities.

Anxiety

Anxious? Yes. It didn’t take long for the snakes in my head to appear: What if someone gives it a 1-star review? What if they don’t think it’s good enough? What if there’s a problem with my thinking, writing, or research?

As those thoughts popped into my head, I remembered the two quotes I cited in the book.

“You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world who hate peaches.” - Dita Von Teese

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it.” - Seth Godin

Slight letdown

Of course I looked at the online royalty report to see how many I sold. I won’t tell you how often I did that but it was more than once. It's clear that whether I sell 1,000 or 10,000 or even 100,000, it's still a small number compared to how many people I want to help.

In my letter from my future self that I wrote over five years ago (and is also in the book), I included that I'll have known I reached my goal when “I will have authored a book or other notable content that more than 20,000 people read.”

Now I know that books alone are not enough.

Determination

I remind myself that the book is both a culmination and a beginning. It’s an important step, and now there are other steps to take.

One of the most important next steps is a movement to form at least 1,000 Working Out Loud circles this year. In the first few days after it was announced, already people from 7 countries have pledged over 300 peer support groups. (You can see the growing list and add your own name here.)

Other steps include making it easier for people to take their own steps and make working out loud a habit. Working with companies and HR associations to include working out loud as a practice. Helping students work out loud so they have access to opportunities. Work with people who normally don’t have such access to equip and empower them to get it.

Nine months ago, when I thought the book was almost finished, I wrote that the book launch party might take three years. That sounds about right.