Monday, December 31, 2018

Notes on Self-Publishing a Book


In this post I would like to share a few thoughts on self-publishing a book, in case anyone is considering that option.

As I mentioned in my post on burnout, one of my goals was to publish a book on a subject other than cyber security. A friend from my Krav Maga school, Anna Wonsley, learned that I had published several books, and asked if we might collaborate on a book about stretching. The timing was right, so I agreed.

I published my first book with Pearson and Addison-Wesley in 2004, and my last with No Starch in 2013. 14 years is an eternity in the publishing world, and even in the last 5 years the economics and structure of book publishing have changed quite a bit.

To better understand the changes, I had dinner with one of the finest technical authors around, Michael W. Lucas. We met prior to my interest in this book, because I had wondered about publishing books on my own. MWL started in traditional publishing like me, but has since become a full-time author and independent publisher. He explained the pros and cons of going it alone, which I carefully considered.

By the end of 2017, Anna and I were ready to begin work on the book. I believe our first "commits" occurred in December 2017.

For this stretching book project, I knew my strengths included organization, project management, writing to express another person's message, editing, and access to a skilled lead photographer. I learned that my co-author's strengths included subject matter expertise, a willingness to be photographed for the book's many pictures, and friends who would also be willing to be photographed.

None of us was very familiar with the process of transforming a raw manuscript and photos into a finished product. When I had published with Pearson and No Starch, they took care of that process, as well as copy-editing.

Beyond turning manuscript and photos into a book, I also had to identify a publication platform. Early on we decided to self-publish using one of the many newer companies offering that service. We wanted a company that could get our book into Amazon, and possibly physical book stores as well. We did not want to try working with a traditional publisher, as we felt that we could manage most aspects of the publishing process ourselves, and augment with specialized help where needed.

After a lot of research we chose Blurb. One of the most attractive aspects of Blurb was their expert ecosystem. We decided that we would hire one of these experts to handle the interior layout process. We contacted Jennifer Linney, who happened to be local and had experience publishing books to Amazon. We met in person, discussed the project, and agreed to move forward together.

I designed the structure of the book. As a former Air Force officer, I was comfortable with the "rule of threes," and brought some recent writing experience from my abandoned PhD thesis.

I designed the book to have an introduction, the main content, and a conclusion. Within the main content, the book featured an introduction and physical assessment, three main sections, and a conclusion. The three main sections consisted of a fundamental stretching routine, an advanced stretching routine, and a performance enhancement section -- something with Indian clubs, or kettle bells, or another supplement to stretching.

Anna designed all of the stretching routines and provided the vast majority of the content. She decided to focus on three physical problem areas -- tight hips, shoulders/back, and hamstrings. We encouraged the reader to "reach three goals" -- open your hips, expand your shoulders, and touch your toes. Anna designed exercises that worked in a progression through the body, incorporating her expertise as a certified trainer and professional martial arts instructor.

Initially we tried a process whereby she would write section drafts, and I would edit them, all using Google Docs. This did not work as well as we had hoped, and we spent a lot of time stalled in virtual collaboration.

By the spring of 2018 we decided to try meeting in person on a regular basis. Anna would explain her desired content for a section, and we would take draft photographs using iPhones to serve as placeholders and to test the feasibility of real content. We made a lot more progress using these methods, although we stalled again mid-year due to schedule conflicts.

By October our text was ready enough to try taking book-ready photographs. We bought photography lights from Amazon and used my renovated basement game room as a studio. We took pictures over three sessions, with Anna and her friend Josh as subjects. I spent several days editing the photos to prepare for publication, then handed the bundled manuscript and photographs to Jennifer for a light copy-edit and layout during November.

Our goal was to have the book published before the end of the year, and we met that goal. We decided to offer two versions. The first is a "collector's edition" featuring all color photographs, available exclusively via Blurb as Reach Your Goal: Collector's Edition. The second will be available at Amazon in January, and will feature black and white photographs.

While we were able to set the price of the book directly via Blurb, we could basically only suggest a price to Ingram and hence to Amazon. Ingram is the distributor that feeds Amazon and physical book stores. I am curious to see how the book will appear in those retail locations, and how much it will cost readers. We tried to price it competitively with older stretching books of similar size. (Ours is 176 pages with over 200 photographs.)

Without revealing too much of the economic structure, I can say that it's much cheaper to sell directly from Blurb. Their cost structure allows us to price the full color edition competitively. However, one of our goals was to provide our book through Amazon, and to keep the price reasonable we had to sell the black and white edition outside of Blurb.

Overall I am very pleased with the writing process, and exceptionally happy with the book itself. The color edition is gorgeous and the black and white version is awesome too.

The only change I would have made to the writing process would have been to start the in-person collaboration from the beginning. Working together in person accelerated the transfer of ideas to paper and played to our individual strengths of Anna as subject matter expert and me as a writer.

In general, I would not recommend self-publishing if you are not a strong writer. If writing is not your forte, then I highly suggest you work with a traditional publisher, or contract with an editor. I have seen too many self-published books that read terribly. This usually happens when the author is a subject matter expert, but has trouble expressing ideas in written form.

The bottom line is that it's never been easier to make your dream of writing a book come true. There are options for everyone, and you can leverage them to create wonderful products that scale with demand and can really help your audience reach their goals!

If you want to start the new year with better flexibility and fitness, consider taking a look at our book on Blurb! When the Amazon edition is available I will update this post with a link.

Update: Here is the Amazon listing.

Cross-posted from Rejoining the Tao Blog.

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