Go Publish Yourself: Lessons Learned

April 16th, 2012 | Category: Book Stuff, Essays

I have a real hatred of false headlines, titles of articles that lie about their contents. The latest one to catch my ire was James Altucher’s “Self-Publishing Your Own Book is the New Business Card.” Mainly because, well, it isn’t. As much as we may try with apps and QR-codes, as well as traditional things like stickers and postcards, there still isn’t a token of identity that works like a business card. I don’t wholly disagree with Altucher’s article, just the parts where he claims his headline. The article is actually about why you should self-publish as opposed to seeking a publisher, and, as a publisher of my own first book, I can safely say that it isn’t my new business card, but that I do support the practice.

I listen to the vapid resignation coming from capital-P publishing and to the stories of corporate awfulness my friends endure, and I think if we landed half the punches we’re pulling now out of misplaced deference and outdated political instincts, we would bury them. — Erin Kissane via Twitter, October 10, 2011

I published my first book, Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (Well-Red Bear), five years ago, and I learned the process as I went through it. The tools for doing so have gotten much better, faster, and easier to use. I did Follow for Now largely “the hard way” at the time because I wanted control over every aspect of the book. I didn’t want it to look self-published. Due to advancements in the available technology, those concerns have lessened quite a lot, and I probably wouldn’t do things the same way now. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the process, in the hopes that you can avoid some of the same issues now.

Design: As I said, I didn’t want my book to look self-published, so I hired a designer. I am also fortunate to have designer friends, some of whom have book design in their repertoires. I tapped Patrick David Barber and his partner Holly McGuire to do mine. I was originally going to hire Patrick to do the cover, but they took on the whole project, and I am very, very thankful that they did. It’s difficult to put a price on great design, and I didn’t pay them near what the job was worth, but I can confidently say — thanks to Patrick and Holly — that Follow for Now looks at home with any book on the shelves at the various bookstores, libraries, and homes that carry it.

Editing: Follow for Now consists of the best interviews from my old website frontwheeldrive.com. I spent a year and a half choosing, categorizing, and arranging the interviews into a form suitable for publication as a book. Once I got it pretty close to what I thought the final version would look like, I’d read those interviews so many times that I didn’t feel comfortable doing the final copyediting. I was simply too close to the content. I hired another old friend, Adem Tepedelen, to help me get the words all together. This was a step I didn’t anticipate when I started this journey, but again, I’m glad I did it. Adem found so many inconsistencies, misspellings, awkward sentences, and other holes that I’d never seen — even in all the years some of this stuff had been online. Get a skilled third party to help you get your copy tight.

Indexing: I cannot express how frustrating it is as a researcher to pick up a book, flip to the back to look up something that you know is in it, and find that there’s no index to help you locate it. Since Follow for Now contains so many people, ideas, books, records, and so on inside, I thought it was imperative that one be able to find the information in as many ways as possible. I was advised not to do the indexing myself (and I felt the same way I felt about the copyediting), so I hired Steve Connell (from the awesome Verse Chorus Press) to do mine. It was well worth it. There are rare cases when an index might be superfluous, but most nonfiction books should have one. Don’t skimp on the index. Your readers will thank you.

Distribution: I ordered a thousand copies of Follow for Now. They arrived on my doorstep in Seattle on a wooden palette. A thousand books is over forty boxes of twenty-four books each. It’s about half a standard palette. As a physical presence, it’s no joke. I’ve moved three times since then. Maintaining one’s own inventory at this point is absolutely ludicrous. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless you happen to have your own warehouse and aren’t planning on moving anytime soon. The print-on-demand services have gotten much better, and if I were doing a book myself right now, I’d certainly be looking hard in their direction.

I moved just a few months for a new job after that palette of books arrived, so I missed out on shopping the book to a lot of independent distributors. If you go this route, look into distribution before your inventory comes knocking.

Digital: Given the current battles over digital distribution, I am loathe to mention Amazon, but there’s no denying their power. If you have an ISBN (and you shouldn’t have a book out without one), then you can get your book listed on their site. I make no money from Amazon sales of my print book, but having it on their site has raised its profile. If you choose to use one of their services for digital and print-on-demand publishing, you get their distribution platform automatically. This is powerful stuff, but be sure check out all of the terms of service in full: You can certainly use their strength without signing over your soul. I hired Josh Tallent at eBook Architects to convert my book’s raw files to Kindle-readable ones. Google Books and other digital distributors have their own sets of legalese to sift through. Don’t sell yourself short.

Local: Check with all of your extant local independent bookstores. Most have consignment deals and many will buy books from you outright. See what they have as far as local events as well. A reading or talk from your book can sell a few copies and raise your profile in your own area, which, if done well, can lead to more exposure online as people post and Tweet about you and your new book.

Web: I am fortunate enough to  have a background in web design, so can build my own websites. If I didn’t, I know several people who could help in that area. Again, in the five years since Follow for Now, the technology has advanced enough that free sites can do the trick. Having a website to highlight elements from the book and press about it is invaluable, but at least a landing page with all the pertinent details about your book is imperative.


There are many other things you can do to get your book out and raise awareness about it, but these are the basics. “Self-publishing” is a misnomer if there ever was one. It still takes a team of people to do it successfully. You should be prepared to do most of the work yourself, but chances are you have friends who can help where you fall short. I have told many classes that if you have a book written, you can have it out tomorrow. Just make sure you’re ready for the challenge: Be prepared for years of work. Having a completed volume in hand is only about half the job; it’s the end of one phase and the beginning of another. I’m still learning as I go.


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