What I learned Writing a book
Before you start
Don’t believe the hype
The harsh truth is that you are very, very unlikely to make money by ‘just’ writing a book. I can’t think of one book I’ve ever picked up and read because I thought, “this will make the author lots of money”. People don’t buy books for this reason they buy books because of the promise that the book offers. So, if making money is the primary reason you’re thinking of writing a book, I would suggest you save your time and do something else instead.
If you’re still interested in writing then consider what promise your book will make to the reader to make them want to buy it (more on this later). They are not going to buy it just because you want to make money.
There might also be some people who say, “Why are you writing a book on that?” or perhaps even more directly, “Who are you to write a book on that topic?” These people will try and make you feel like you’re not an expert; that you don’t know enough about the subject to write about it.
I believe if you can articulate what promise your book is making, then it’s worth writing, I also believe the best person to write your book is you.
Is it worth it?
For me it was. There are lots of benefits that are not immediately obvious. For most people, the main reason is to become known as the person who wrote a book about their chosen topic.
People will tell you all sorts of reasons you shouldn’t do it that aren’t valid, or that you’re not good enough to write a book. They are all wrong. If you have an idea for a book then I think it’s worth trying to write it down and share it with the world.
Look at it this way: if you can’t find the book you’re looking for, maybe you should write it. Unless you know nothing about the topic, of course. This mindset worked for me. I looked and couldn’t find the book I wanted to read, so I thought what would I tell someone in my position about marketing? That idea turned into a book.
Unless you have a massive audience, most publishers aren’t interested. They want books that sell to a wide audience on general topics. If that’s what you have planned then it’s worth talking to them.
If, like me, you’re going for a niche audience then you can save yourself time and instead choose to self-publish. I feel this comes with some great advantages.
You own the book
When you self-publish you own the book. If you sign with a publisher then it often becomes their book, not yours.
Owning the book means you can use the contents of the book in whatever way you want in the future; for example, making videos, a course, or running workshops. If your publisher owns the book you have to pay them to use their book contents.
You keep more of the revenue
If you’re not selling a lot of books, then getting a single-digit percentage from each sale is not a great deal. It’s better to be in control of pricing, and distribution, and have the ability to collaborate/gift the books in partnerships that will help you and your business.
With a publisher you still have to do all the work anyway
Other than the little badge on the spine, what does the publisher actually do?
They won’t promote your book, or you, very hard unless they think you’ll shift a lot of books and then they take an 80% cut.
They have contacts with editors and typesetters which are useful, but you can find those on the internet. They’re not the sole gatekeepers to these people anymore.
They will water down your ideas and your passion. They need the book to sell to a general audience, so they want general ideas. They will probably make you choose a title and cover you don’t like – after all, it’s their book, not yours.
You can take your idea out to people who don’t know you yet. That’s what publishers used to do and still do for broad audiences. I imagine your audience will be smaller than most big authors so rather than trying to write a book for everyone you write it for the smallest number of people to make it worthwhile writing. Write the book that no one has written yet, for them. Not a new or different version of an already written book.
You don’t have to write it on your own
Rob Fitzpatrick’s Happy Startup School talk inspired me to write my book, and the Useful Authors community helped me finish it.
I joined Useful Authors and wrote my book with others and got support and motivation when I needed it most. I’d highly recommend it. Weekly writing groups keep you going when it’s hard work or you just don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.
Also, they have a great community for feedback on each stage of the process. Many people share what they learned and have found out during the making of their book, which saves you a lot of wasted time.
The Writing Stage
This is how the writing process unfolded for me. It might be different for you and there is no ‘right’ way of doing it.
What’s the promise you’re making?
The promise is the most important concept of the whole project. What will the reader get from reading your book?
Getting clear on this is important as it helps you stay on track when writing, and tell people about what you’re working on. I would work on this before you even start writing, knowing that it will evolve over time.
From the start, I was clear that my book was all about effective and ethical marketing. I started out writing it for solopreneurs. So my first promise was, “A guide to effective and ethical marketing for solopreneurs”. It later evolved into coaches and consultants after speaking with a lot of people. I had to start somewhere and it’s ok for this to evolve as you write.
Chapter 2 in Rob Fitzpatrick’s Write Useful Books goes into a lot more detail about the process and has some useful prompts to help you get clear on your promise.
Don’t worry about the details – they will come later
The title is what most people fixate on. It’s the first thing people ask: “What’s your book called?”
This will change many, many times, so don’t rush to buy the domain name for your first idea like I did 🤦🏻♂️
The first title you come up with will probably be rubbish, and that’s okay. I changed mine 10-15 times, and I came back to a very early idea that seemed too simple at first.
Pick a title – for now. You can refine it later once you get stuck into writing the book. A better title is likely to jump out to you during that process.
I didn’t start with a blank page and just write the book out in order.
I started with my table of contents – following the process in Write Useful Books.
I suggest you do the same, as it makes it really simple to get the high-level knowledge you want to share out of your head and onto the page.
I started by making a long list of questions I thought the reader would ask. How do I do this, do I need to do that, how does this work, what is that, etc. etc.
I then added in some headings for the concepts and ideas that I thought were essential to understand in order to answer those questions.
Then I went through this list and simply answered these questions and wrote down my thoughts under the headings. Sometimes this was just a sentence; sometimes it was pages of words.
It was full of mistakes, repetition, typos, and waffling on and on.
The key is not to edit as you go. Just get it out of your head.
I used the voice typing feature in Google Docs to type out what I said. This was much faster for me than typing as I think faster than I type. It meant I could just say what I’m thinking and it was typed out fairly accurately.
I was up to almost 50,000 words at one point. There was a LOT of repeating myself and banging on about stuff that just wasn’t relevant but I didn’t need to see that at the time of writing the first draft.
My first read-through showed me my book was slow and way too complicated. Even I was a bit bored and confused reading it. It took way too long to get anywhere useful. So I deleted two-thirds of the book and started again from scratch.
It was the best decision I made. I got my voice typing open again and, using a flipchart, started explaining the whole process as if someone was in the room with me. What came out were new ideas and ways of articulating my point.
I kept these flipchart pages up in my office and looked at them every day, refining them until I had a breakthrough.
The simple solution I had been looking for was right there in front of me, and seeing it gave my book structure, flow and a purpose that was also an enticing promise.
The best thing about writing on your computer is when you need to make a big change or edit, you can just save a fresh copy and then delete massive sections knowing in the back of your mind you still have the old version saved.
In reality, I never went back to these old copies but it helped me move on with more confidence.
With the new method and ideas written down it was time for a ‘proper’ edit. This is when I got my copywriter Dave to rough edit the book. No spelling or grammar work, just hacking away at repetition or waffling on, and re-structuring into a more logical order. He also highlighted sections that seemed a bit off-topic or were a bit slow.
Back to it again. This time, making each section shorter and clearer each and every time I read it.
I also read and worked on the book ‘backwards’. When you read the book from the top every time, the first section gets all the love, and your attention trails off towards the end of the book, especially after the twentieth read-through.
So to counter this, you start with the last section, read that, then on to the one before, then the on before that, and so on and so on. Until you reach the start.
It made me realise my book didn’t actually have an end. I had been so tired reading the whole thing in one go every time, I ran out of steam. And so did the book.
I fixed this and trimmed the book to 40,000 words. Then I gave it back to Dave for another rough edit.
One of the most daunting stages is when you ask people to read the book before it is finished! These people are called beta readers. The only advice I have for picking beta readers is that they are ideally the kind of person who you think would buy the book. There is no point asking people who the book is not written for to give you feedback because it’s unlikely to be useful.
Rob Fitzpatrick shares a lot of strategies for finding beta readers in Write Useful Books, so check that out for more ideas.
My audience is on LinkedIn and after a well-received “I’m writing a book” post I thought I’d ask if people wanted to read it. So I messaged every person who had commented or liked that announcement post with an invitation to read the book. About 15 of them said they would and about six actually did. Some gave a few comments, some went through it with a fine-toothed comb.
Some feedback was fantastic! I’d missed some obvious stuff. Some were a bit more opinionated or commenting on things that I wanted to keep in. Using a clever beta reading tool called Help This Book, I could also see where people dropped off reading. Most people got to the same point and then stopped.
I needed to reduce the start of the book a lot as people weren’t getting to the ‘gold’.
So I chopped out a large portion of the start which got people to the ‘theory’ behind the book quicker and this encouraged them to keep reading.
I then asked people to read it again and this time more people read past the theory section and got to the main section of the book.
I did the final edit, made some additions, made a lot of corrections, and trimmed back some sections based on the beta readers’ feedback.
Then it was over to Dave for the final edit.
That was pretty much it. Once it was back from the final edit it was over to me to get it out into the world!
Publishing the book
The back cover
This is the hardest bit to write in my opinion. The challenge is how to describe 35,000 words in less than 250. I spent a long time on this. Going over and over the same phrases and ways of saying what I wanted to say, and what I felt people would want to read, to inspiore them to want to buy the book.
Dave helped a lot after he’d done the edit, as he had some choice phrases from the book that he’d pulled out. GOLD!
Keep it simple. Make the title big and keep it uncluttered.
Remember when selling online you are not designing the cover to be seen full size. For most people, it will be seen in a very small preview square on Amazon. So make sure your design works in a small square first, then tweak it to look great full size.
Don’t stress about the colours because they vary quite a bit with on-demand printing. If you get a whole print run done then it will be more consistent, but when you order author copies from Amazon there is some variation that only you will ever see because you’re the only person who sees a big stack of books.
I would suggest doing a few options, mocking them up in a small size grid like on Amazon and asking people which one they prefer. The simplest one was most popular for me, not the cleverly designed one!
Typesetting is where you turn your long document into a file that can be printed as a book. It’s where you set the pages and the spacing. There are some conventions you don’t even notice until someone points them out, like new chapters always start on a right-hand page, which might need a blank page inserting to make that happen.
Fun fact: Word/Google can’t output a file that can be printed. It’s too complicated for it to work out the spacing and blank pages.
This process is deceptively hard and there is no quick way of doing it yourself.
I used Reedsy which is good but not perfect. I had to restructure the titles and headings of the book to fit how it handles the layout, which was frustrating and took quite a lot of time.
Then you have to spend hours adding spaces and removing lines to get the pages just right and not leave an orphan line (where the last line of a paragraph is on a different page). Each time you do this you create another one later in the book; it’s a domino effect that will test the patience of anyone!
The ebook version is a lot easier as you don’t have to worry about the spacing at all.
You end up with digital files that you can then use to get the book published. You need different files for printing and ebooks.
If I was to do it again I would use a typesetter. I wasted a lot of time pushing words around a PDF to get to a file that was printable.
Printing & ebook
You have a few options and issues to consider when publishing your book:
Updating the book
When you self-publish you are most likely doing so on a print-on-demand basis or ordering a small set of copies for yourself to sell. Both these options mean you are not sitting on thousands of unsold copies. This means you can update the book, making corrections or edits based on feedback. It’s as simple as uploading a new version of the publishing file. Anyone who orders after this gets the new version of the book.
This is called Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and it’s the quickest way to get your book into the hands of your readers, worldwide. It takes care of everything for you and the results are very good. You can order author copies to sell yourself. They are very cheap and look great. It’s what the first set of my printed books were.
To use KDP you need to be a registered company. It’s a lot harder (not impossible) to do it if you’re self-employed. There are some scary-looking US tax forms that no one in the world can understand but some genius has written a blog about the answers you need to give, so google it when you get to this stage for the latest codes and answers for your teritory. If you get it wrong they keep back a percentage of your book sales to pay tax that is never collected so you never get it back. So don;t skip over it!
You don’t need an ISBN if you just use Amazon as they have their own ASBN that they give you. BUT. You can’t use this number outside of Amazon. So if you want to sell the book elsewhere, you can’t. ISBNs are free in most countries, search for ISBN [your country] to find out how it works in your territory.
Except in the UK and USA where you have to pay Neilson a ridiculous amount of money on one of the worst websites ever created. They have a monopoly on ISBNs so they can extort money from you in two ways: firstly, the price for one ISBN is very high and secondly, the next step up is 10 ISBNs.
In most cases, you just need three. This is where they have you over a barrel. You usually just need one for paperback, one for hardback and one for ebooks.
Just when things couldn’t get any more shambolic it turns out they email you these numbers and that’s it. They don’t even keep them in your account; there is no record of them once they have emailed them to you. You will never see them again so don’t delete that email!
Don’t buy the bar code. You don’t need it as Amazon creates one automatically from your ISBN numbers.
Google Books and Apple Books
Google Books is super easy to sign up for and load your book into. It takes a few days for approval and your book is ready to go.
Apple Books is almost impossible to use. There is no way of knowing how the process works as Apple do not provide any instructions, support or guidance on the process. They have a long page about how to publish using Pages but this no longer works! I found a blog on how it works which got me halfway there. It all links to your iTunes Connect account which hasn’t been a thing for about 10 years so the interface is unbelievably bad. It also doesn’t recognise UK businesses at first, I had to use a VPN to trick it into thinking I was in the US to let me switch from the US to the UK. No one at Apple has looked at this in over 10 years! I had to use 20 years of nerd skills to get the rest working. You also need a Mac to run a very old bit of software that uploads the book file (again, not mentioned anywhere on the Apple Books website).
As a self-publisher you can simply print your own books. Paperbacks cost somewhere between £3-6 per copy depending on how many pages your book has, how many you print per order and paper thickness. If you use KDP you can order author copies cheaply and you just pay postage on top, so ordering 20-40 at a time is cost-effective and means you don’t need to place a huge order and store them all somewhere.
There is a company called Blurb who are pretty good, but their printed book size is non-standard (FFS!) so your beautifully typeset book will be resized and have small margins. Also the font cover needs editing to fit. Not worth it in my opinion. The funny thing is if you use Reedsy to do your typesetting, they have an ad in the software saying get it printed to Blurb – but the size Reedsy outputs isn’t the size Blurb prints. Madness.
We use a company in the UK called WTTB (Where The Trade Buys) for our printing and they will print paperbacks that are very good quality and not too expensive. If you register for an account, you get bulk discounting as well.
If you’re reading this and you know of another book printer, or you are a printer, please get in touch I’d love to know more and will happily give you a shout-out here.
If you’re not keen on Amazon, or you want to invite your customers to share their details with you when they order, then selling the book yourself is a great option.
When people order on Amazon you lose contact with them as Amazon does not share customer data with you. When you sell yourself, you have the option for them to join your email list, which is nice.
I use Square to sell my books online and in person. The card fees are low, and the website it creates to sell your book is pretty good. I use it to manage the stock numbers as well.
The main benefit for me is that the website is linked with their card reader so when you take a card payment in person it handles the receipts and updates the stock. If you’re in the US and you have an iPhone you don’t even need the card reader you just need the app to take in-person payments.
Boring but can make a big difference. Miraculously there is no VAT on books in the UK. This almost unheard-of act of generosity means that you don’t have to faff about with VAT and international VAT with books if you’re selling from the UK. If you’re not selling from the UK it’s worth checking as most EU countries for example do charge sales tax on books. If you use Square it does all the sales tax calculations for you, which is handy.
I also researched sending books abroad from the UK, which again is bizarrely simple. The UK has agreements with most countries which means you can export a book to another country without it being stopped for sales tax. You just need to declare it as a book and use the export code: 4901100000
Royal Mail Click and Drop service allow you to declare the shipment as books using this code and their system integrates with most countries’ customs systems which means it is less likely to get stopped as it is ‘pre-cleared’.
If you don’t use the code, and just write “book” on the declaration, it will likely get stopped and the person will have to pay tax and a fee to get the delivery. Using this code in your customs declaration should grant your book free passage to faraway lands.
Marketing your book is simple but not always easy.
If you have an audience of clients and people who are interested in your work then it becomes a lot easier.
I’ll be honest here and say if you want to learn more about marketing your book then, you guessed it, I’ve written a book all about how to make a simple, effective and ethical marketing plan. So, if you want help with your marketing and how a book can be part of that then do check it out.
Here are some of the things I am doing that relate specifically to marketing my book.
I take ideas from the book, as well as bits I chopped out in the editing process, and create blogs from them. I repurpose these into videos and podcasts. I wrote a blog and made a video about how I do this if you want to learn more.
I’ve added a downloadable marketing plan template to my website that is free to download. This works in two ways.
Firstly if you buy the book I share the link to this for people to download the template and work through it.
Secondly, if you come to the website without buying the book you can still download the template, the idea being that you learn about how it works with the short guide I include and are then motivated to buy the book to learn more about how to fill it in.
I used a photographer to take some photos of me. It’s one of the things people ask for straight away if they’re talking about or promoting the book. A professional author photo is a must.
It’s also important to have some good photos of your book. I took mine to a nice coworking space and took some good ‘lifestyle’ shots of the book on desks with coffee and the worksheet. These really help your book stand out and make it look ‘real’.
Website and mailing list
I started with a simple one-page website which showed the front cover with the text from the back cover and had an email sign-up which people could sign up to be notified when I published the book.
After publishing, I added a page with more details about the book and a link to buy from all the different places it was available.
I have a guide on my website about what to include in your website if you want some inspiration.
Launching the book
I watched April Dunford’s talk about launching her book Obviously Awesome, and decided not to do a one-day launch plan. Instead, like her, I chose to do a launch year.
The idea with a launch year is you launch the book, and talk about it for a year. The idea being that the more you talk about it the more it grows and grows as more people talk about it.
This way, I can talk about the ideas and concepts in the book and send people to the places where they can buy it.
I find being sent to a waiting list slams the brakes on. So if you opt for a single launch day and build up a big list of people who are interested in buying, it takes a lot of effort to keep these people interested all the time you’re writing the book. It can work for people with a large engaged audience who are already making regular content. For me, I was not yet in that place.
I feel like it’s more effective to be able to point people to a place where they can buy the book when they’re ready to buy it.
Work with me link
I have included a QR code at the back of the book that takes people to the ‘how to work with me‘ page on my website. If people like the book and have questions or want to talk to me about helping them implement what they’ve learned, they can do so using this code. If you work with clients on a 1-2-1 or group basis, this can be a great way to start conversations.
You might also want to include this QR code in the opening pages. This can be effective for 2 reasons. Firstly, some people will only ever read the preview on Amazon, so this gives them the link to you without having to buy the book. Secondly, it makes it easier to find the book, which is great if someone has given the book to a team member or boss to look at before contacting you.
What I wish I’d done
Looking back over the whole process, here are a few things I wish I had done differently:
Taught the book in some workshops earlier in the writing process – I would have seen that the first iteration was too complicated. It would also have built up a list of beta readers earlier in the process.
Shared more while writing – I lost confidence in the book about halfway through (when it was feeling too complicated), so I stopped talking about it so much. It took a while to fall back in love with it and now I talk about it all the time. I wish I’d shared that and asked people for feedback to boost me back up which I did later in the beta reading stage.
Used a typesetter – it was ok doing it myself and the end result is good, but it would have saved a lot of time and swearing getting a professional to do it.
Would I do it again?
Yes, I’ve already started planning for two more books. If you want to find out more about them then you can subscribe below for updates and Monday marketing motivation