There are tons of articles out there about the craft of writing and about the process of publishing a book. I’m neither going to improve on any of them nor repeat what’s already been said. What I’m going to give you instead is all the stuff they don’t usually tell you, all the stuff I wish I could have read before discovering it the hard way.
Hard facts: How Much I Spent, How Much I Earned
My book Surveillance Zone was (still is) by any measure a successful self-published book, especially for a first-time author. I base this claim on what I learned from experienced industry professionals in the book publishing world and from its ranking in the Amazon best sellers list. A self-published book that manages to recoup its costs within four months and then goes on to make money is considered a success. And since Surveillance Zone still makes money today, almost two years after its publication, it’s considered a big success.
I would have loved to know what a successful book might look like by way of costs and profits before I published my book, but most authors tend to be pretty tight-lipped (and therefore unhelpful) about their costs and earnings.
Well, not me.
How much I spent on the written version
Editing: $3,000. I had one main editor for the book and two other editors that worked on my autobiographical chapter, Query Letter (more on that later), and a few other tidbits.
Design: (both cover and interior): $2,500.
Yes, you can get this work done for less money, but you’ll get what you pay for. On top of that, I spent another few hundreds of dollars on social media promotions.
As for the time I spent on the project, there’s no point in counting up your hours and figuring out some silly dollar/hour ROI. There’s no such thing for book authors. Take into account that you’ll be spending a huge amount of time.
How much I earned from the written version (as of April 2019)
Print, Kindle, Apple Books, B&N: $14,700, from a total of 2,369 books sold.
The royalties you get for book sales swing between the 70% mark for Kindle and around 30%-40% for print and audio. As you see, what I made is nothing to live off of (at least not yet…) but it’s not only hugely gratifying to make money out of the thing you love most, it can also provide a little side-income.
I should tell you, though, that making money must never be the reason for you to write a book. Not only will you probably make no money out of it but the enormous investment in time and effort will never add up in any economic way. No, the only reason for an individual to write a book is if they’re passionate about it—if, like me, they simply can’t not write it.
Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing?
The two general ways to publish a book are either to go through a traditional publishing house or to self-publish on your own. I actually tried going through traditional publishing first but I don’t regret for a second my decision to self-publish Surveillance Zone.
In order to have your book published through a traditional publishing house you first need to get yourself a literary agent. This is because publishing houses don’t deal directly with authors and insist on only talking to agents (especially if you’re a first-time author).
In order to get an agent, you’ll need to write what’s called a Query Letter, where you try to interest agents in your book. This can take quite a while, especially for a first-time author like me who doesn’t have any inside connections to the publishing world. To land an agent, you don’t just try it on one or two perspective agents, this is a numbers game where you have to shop around and try it on dozens and dozens.
Then, if you’re lucky enough to get an agent, which means you sign away ten percent of your earnings to them, the agent will have to sell your book to a publishing house. This can also take quite a while and there’s no guarantee that your agent will succeed in it. This is why agents tend to be so picky. It’s not necessarily that they don’t like your book, it’s that they might not see how they can: a) sell it to a publishing house, and b) make any money out of it. This is a business, after all.
I spent a few frustrating months on this with no result till I decided to self-publish. My reasons for this weren’t just that I couldn’t get an agent. A very kind agent and a hugely kind self-published author friend of mine (Randall H. Miller) both convinced me to go with self-publishing. Both were fans of my writing and both presented excellent reasons for why self-publishing would be a much better choice for me.
For a first-time author like me, there would never be any return on my huge investment in time, effort and money. Even if you’d be lucky enough to get picked up by a publishing house, you’d have to relinquish your copyrights to them, i.e. they’d own your book. You might or might not get the coveted money advance for your book but that’s likely all you’d see from it. An advance isn’t a signing bonus, it’s an advance, which means the publishing house would have to first recoup it out of the book sales and only then—maybe—give you a measly one or two dollar royalty payment for every subsequent book sold. And remember, ten percent of any advance or measly royalty you get still has to go to your agent.
The publishing house could decide what the cover of your book would look like, where and when it’s sold, or if it even gets sold at all (there are cases where they just sit on titles without selling them).
Wait, but what about the benefits of a publishing house?
Well, it’s true that they would probably foot the bill for the book design and maybe even for some of the editing but for a first-time author, that’s probably all they’ll do for you. Their big marketing machines are reserved for their recognized, money-making authors, the ones with a proven sales records. First-time authors usually just get a marketing packet that consists of a few graphics and a list of mostly online places where you should go to promote your book on your own.
In my case, I already had a solid platform (Protection Circle), a good following and plenty of experience in online marketing. So for me, there would be only costs and no benefits to going with traditional publishing. It’s true that I had to foot the bill for everything on my own, but I recouped my costs pretty quickly, went on to make money out of my book and retained my full rights to it.
What You Need to Self-Publish
There are a few different ways to do it. Here are my recommendations based on what I did:
- You’ll need to have a complete, professionally edited manuscript of your book. Nothing starts before that.
- You’ll need to open up an author’s account on Kindle Direct Publishing. The good thing here is that KDP has recently swallowed up Amazon’s print-per-order service (which used to be called CreateSpace), so this one platform will allow you to sell both Kindle and hard-copy versions of your book on Amazon.
- I also opened up accounts on Apple Books’ iTunes Connect and Barnes & Noble Press in order to sell books there too (there are lots more platforms out there) but this was largely unnecessary and I don’t think I’ll bother selling any future books there. Like it or not, Amazon is king!
- You’ll essentially just follow the instructions each platform gives you on how to upload your book. You’ll need your full manuscript, front and back covers, a brief summary, banking and tax information and possibly a few other things (like a profile picture, etc.).
That’s pretty much it, and that’s why self-publishing has become such a booming market that’s disrupting the traditional publishing industry.
The People You’ll Need
Again, I’m giving you my perspective as a self-published, first-time author here.
Writing and publishing a book, though very lonely work most of the time, is not something you can do on your own. It’s a collaboration with other people, or at the very least a project you manage, but others must be involved in it. The two key individuals for any book are your editor and your book designer. Let me explain what these key individuals do for you.
It doesn’t matter how well you can write, you can even be a professional editor yourself, but you’re still going to need an editor. You only have one brain and more brains are needed in this process. The external perspective is absolutely crucial for everything from structure and clarity to grammar and typos.
If your book were a movie, you’d be the writer/producer and your editor would be the director. The editor really is that important to this process, so you’d better listen to them and follow their instructions (especially if you’re just starting out). Authors are notorious for being messy procrastinators (I’m no exception to this). Your editor is the industry professional that will keep you decent and keep you on track.
One important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t waste an editor’s time until you have a complete manuscript with at least a tentative word-count (which means you’ve already done a considerable amount of your own editing). Good editors know how to screen out wannabe authors who aren’t serious enough.
My editor was crucial in all three stages of editing: Developmental editing, copy editing and proofreading.
Developmental editing will make your book fit together by working on the overall structure, message and feel. It’ll plan out your chapters, what should appear earlier and what later, what needs to be added and what needs to be cut out, and more.
Copy editing will work on your language mechanics: making sure your manuscript isn’t riddled with bad grammar, spelling mistakes, or glaring inconsistencies. It’ll deal with your run-off sentences, catch any unintentionally wild shifts between sections and generally pull your book together page by page.
Proofreading is the final polish before your manuscript goes to the printers (by way of your designer, of course). Not only did my designer do additional proofreading but a good friend of mine, Alex Fox, also caught a few more typos in the Advance Readers Copy I sent him (for which I’m hugely grateful).
A designer is the person (or duo, in my case) that designs not only the front and back covers of your book but also its inside. Many people might not realize this but everything from the page-size, font, page number, chapter indicator and more need to be carefully and skillfully designed. This too is a very collaborative process, with lots of back-and-forth ideas, examples, mock-ups, sketches and proposals before reaching the final design.
I was lucky enough to find a real kick-ass designing duo that not only read my entire manuscript in order to better fit the cover and internal design to it but that also provided another layer of proofreading. They even uploaded the manuscript onto the various platforms for me (Amazon, Kindle, Apple Books and Barnes & Noble).
My designers were the amazing Kevin Barrett Kane and Emma Christine Hall at Frontispiece.
Tools of The Trade
I’ll start with a little warning about the ocean of products, software tools and aps out there that are supposedly crucial for any author. I’ve lost count of how many articles there are about the Top 10, Top, 20 or Top 50 things that any author absolutely must have. It’s obviously all bullshit. The only thing you actually need is a computer.
Here’s what I used:
This is a great place to shop for different editors and designers. It’s where I found mine.
I wrote my entire book on Docs. I know there are other software platforms and apps (like Evernote) that can help organize, optimize, categorize, etc. I just know that for me personally it seemed like these would only complicate rather than simplify things. If it works for you though, go for it. Don’t force yourself to work by someone else’s rules—find your own way.
Yup, good old-fashioned Microsoft Word. I know lots of people who find it antiquated but the book editing and designing world practically lives on Word.
One of the things I really like about Word is that its spelling and grammar checks are excellent. I tried Grammarly for a little bit and got tired of how clunky and exaggerated it was. Word is perfect. I just copy the material I wrote in Google Docs and paste it into Word. I even do it when I write my Protection Circle articles (like the one you’re reading right now).
Laying The Groundwork
By far the biggest reason for my book’s success is the fact that before it got published, I already had a pretty successful blog (the one you’re on right now). I started Protection Circle four years before Surveillance Zone was published, at which point the readership on it had reached around 200,000.
Because the success of Surveillance Zone was so tied to the fact that I had already created a large reader following, this is the number one recommendation I’ll give you for how to write a successful book—create a following of people who already like reading your stuff before you publish your book.
For this reason, my next article will be dedicated to tips and suggestions for blog writers.
Pay It Forward
Considering the insane amount of work that needs to go into a book, you’ll have to get used to the idea of paying all of it forward—way forward. The mountains of work and money you’ll be putting into it will be spent months, if not years before you get to reap any rewards.
Do The Work
Lots of people think there’s some lofty, intellectual ‘something-or-other’ that sets published authors apart from other people, or even from unpublished writers—that there’s some special-sauce that authors have, and others don’t.
The biggest difference between published authors and all the rest of the population that might have awesome, important and insightful things to say is work. I even say it right at the end of my book—that there’s nothing special about me and that I’m by no means the best or most experienced in the field I discuss. Nor am I any kind of expert writer, I’m just the guy who decided to put an insane amount of work into writing and publishing a book.
Let me take this this opportunity to rid you of any fantasies that writing and publishing a book might be a fast and simple process. If you’re not 100% dedicated to it, if the thought that every day that passes while your book is yet to be published doesn’t bother you, you might not make it to the finish line. The good news, however, is that there’s no bar to entry. Anyone who’s able to put in the work can write and publish a book.
How Do You Find The Time?
Time, not unlike money, isn’t something you usually just have laying around. You don’t have time, you make time.
If you’re serious enough about writing a book, you should look at the work you put into it as exactly that—work. Love it as you may, you should stop thinking about it as a hobby and stop trying to fit it into your busy social-life.
If, like me, you also have a day-job, a family at home, friends, kids, etc., it’ll be very difficult to invest the time it’ll take if you don’t elevate what you’re doing to the level of work. And I recommend you get your family and friends on-board with this too.
“I’m sorry I can’t go out this weekend, I have to work.” “Daddy has to go back to work after dinner.”
You get the point, right?
Oh, and also, turn off that fucking TV and get back to work!
When and Where Should You Write?
Short answer: whenever and wherever you can or feel more comfortable doing so. But try not to get too picky or delicate about only writing under optimal conditions. All you’d be doing is limiting your work opportunities. I suggest you get more comfortable writing under as many circumstances as you can. That being said, since your writing is work, it’s usually easier to do it at set, designated times.
When it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, the most consistent solution is just to get up earlier in the morning and write then. This is a prime example of how you make time. I started out getting up at 5:00 am every day, and at a certain point shifted to 4:00 am. Remember, writing is work, not just a hobby (or rather a hobby or passion that’s been elevated to the level of work). It can get messy to work during your lunch break or after dinner. Designating a consistent two or three hours of work early each morning is much more effective (at least for me).
Let me take this opportunity to also unburden you from any romantic notions that the work you put in on your way to becoming a published author looks literary or dignified. Yes, it’s true that some of my work was done in Instagram-worthy spots like grand libraries, airport terminals, and swanky cafes, but the vast majority of it was done early in the morning, sitting in my kitchen wearing pajamas. And to prove it, here’s a photo my wife took of me while I was working on Surveillance Zone.
This is what the actual literary trenches often look like.
“Please Buy My Book”
Asking people to pay you for your writing might feel strange at first (it did for me), but you’ll just have to get over your apprehension and do it! This is a perfect time to remember Gary Vaynerchuk’s idea of “Give, give, give, then ask.” or Jab, jab, jab, right hook.
It ties back into the importance of laying the groundwork. I had spent four years pumping out content for free, happy to help for free, happy to consult for free, happy to speak at conferences for free, happy to let magazines print my articles for free and happy to write original content for magazines for free. After four years of doing this, and after investing thousands of dollars in my book, it was my turn to ask (or hit people with that long awaited right hook…).
I’m perfectly happy with this disproportionate give-give-give-then take relationship, and I don’t intend to stop giving all the things I’m happy to give for free. But once every year or two when I publish a book, I feel that I’ve earned the right to ask my readers and online followers to buy it, and from what I’ve heard and seen from them, so do they. I highly recommend you try this strategy too. It works!
Where to Market Your Book
Short answer: Market your book in as many places as you can.
There have never been more opportunities to do your own marketing as there are now, and you should take advantage of all of them. Podcasts, traditional or online TV and radio shows, training seminars, conventions and speaking engagements are all great opportunities to market. But by far, the best way to reach the most amount of people (and generate the most amount of sales) is through social media.
I’ve been on all manner of high-level interviews, I’ve been an invited speaker in high-level conferences and I’ve been an instructor in high-level training seminars, and these still didn’t get me nearly as much book sales as a well-placed, well-timed post that gets shared or retweeted by enough people or by a social media influencer.
I’m not saying you should abandon anything that isn’t social media, not at all, just that you take the superiority of social media into account when it comes to marketing. There’s no either-or in marketing. You should do everything and combine it with everything else. A speaking engagement or podcast interview gets immediately shared and promoted on social media—it all works together. But social media really is king when it comes to generating sales, and you should learn how the game is played.
I had cut my teeth on the social media game long before publishing my book by promoting my Protection Circle articles. Once again, laying the groundwork in advance.
One of the things that are so great about having something like a Kindle Direct account is that you can keep track of your book sales in real time. This means that you can tell which marketing activities, even which specific social media posts worked and which didn’t, enabling you to sharpen and refine your marketing game in real time.
The most effective marketing places from my experience
- Facebook: No one else even comes close, especially when it comes to using their ads. These can be as inexpensive as $1, and in conjunction with the right timing, hashtags, Facebook groups and a few other things it has become the undisputed champion of marketing.
You’ll probably feel differently about all the accusations of Facebook selling out to marketers when you put yourself on the marketing side of things. The surgical precision Facebook gives you for putting your post in front of exactly the type of person most likely to buy your book is quite breathtaking—and very effective.
- Twitter: The biggest advantage here is how open this platform is. Your Tweets can be picked up and retweeted by anyone, and I’ve had some big sales come out of the right retweets and retweets. For those with bigger Twitter followings than me, this might be the platform of choice but for me it’s always been a secondary one. For some reason, their ads never worked out for me either.
- Protection Circle pop-ups: (you should have gotten one as soon as you opened this article). Maybe one of the more shameless things I’ve done to market my book is to put pop-up ads on my Protection Circle articles. It’s true that no one likes pop-ups but in this case, I made it very clear that Protection Circle isn’t being used by some external marketers. These are my own pop-ups for my own book on my own blog. It’s just me, trying to sell you my book as you read one of my free articles. The stats I get on it from WordPress (the platform that hosts my blog) and from Kindle Direct Publishing show that pop-ups have been pretty successful in converting Protection Circle readership to Surveillance Zone sales. A day with more blog readers is usually a day with more book sales.
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn used to be the platform that sent me the most amount of traffic, and therefore sales, but in the last two years of so, it’s been overtaken by Facebook. Here too, you’ll have to get over your initial apprehension (if you’re like I was), and learn how to play the LinkedIn game as a marketer of your product rather than as a quiet professional.
I do however strongly recommend you don’t use their ads or paid promotion schemes. They just dupe you into a very expensive monthly subscription that doesn’t produce any results (at least none in my case).
- Instagram: This one has also become quite big in the last couple of years, especially since Facebook ads tie into it. I know I’m not the first person to scratch my head at the idea of a photo in an app producing actual sales, but I’m also not the first person to discover that for some strange reason it does.
- Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube: I play around with these from time to time. It’s harmless fun but as far as I’ve seen, these platforms haven’t produced a lot of book sales.
Making an Audiobook
I am a huge fan of audiobooks, and one of my favorite things are books that are narrated by their authors. So, if I like it so much as a consumer, how could I not also make one as an author? I’m going to give you as many details as I can about making an audiobook in order to demystify this process and to show you that if you’re motivated enough, you can do it too. Keep in mind that there are many easier ways to produce an audiobook than to do what I’ve done, which was make one at home. But I can only speak from my experiences here.
Now, I don’t want to imply that I could have recorded a single minute of my audiobook without my awesome audio producer, editor, director, extraordinaire, Alexander Masters. I wouldn’t have even known what equipment to get without him. So, the first thing you need to get yourself is an awesome audio producer/director.
Trying to save costs and enamored with the whole do-it-yourself idea, I decided to make my own little “recording studio” in my garage at home. Notice how “recording studio” is in quotation marks because it was just a desk with a bunch of equipment on it, inside a ridiculously looking echo-suppressing tent built out of PVC pipes, bedsheets, beach towels and a whole lot of duct tape.
The manuscript and the extra content in the audiobook (yes, there’s lots of extra content in it) were read off of my son’s old, discarded tablet which was duct taped to hang from the desk’s top shelf so it could be at eye level as the microphone was mounted in front of my mouth. I sent a few audio samples to my producer and surprisingly, he told me the quality was fine.
Here are a few photos from before and during my recording the audiobook. It certainly ain’t pretty to see how the sausage is made but this is essentially all you need to record an audiobook. And if I can do it, so can you.
One thing I’ll warn you about if you’re going to record at home is that it’s very tricky to keep things quiet enough. The microphone picks up every little sound, so, for starters, no one else can be at home when you record because it picks up every floorboard being stepped on, any movement on a chair, everything. An airplane passing overhead, you stop. A house in the neighborhood (not even on my block) getting a roof fixed or a backyard fence built means you can’t record that day—or that week. A delivery truck on your block, a garbage truck in the neighborhood, heavy rain, even crows cawing in the neighborhood and you can’t record. So, in other words, the process can be quite long and frustrating.
How much it cost me
I purchased all the audio equipment new on Amazon. It costed a pretty penny, I know, but I get to keep all the equipment afterwards for future audio projects, and since audiobooks are so popular these days, I’m very likely to recoup my investment. In the first week alone of my audiobook being out, it’s already sold over a hundred copies, netting me about $560. So, it looks like I’m well on my way.
Here’s the equipment I used to record my book:
- Microphone and amp.
- Sound card (essentially what connects your mic amp to your computer and headphones).
- Extra cable to connect the amp to the sound card.
- Microphone stand.
- Microphone shock-mount.
- Microphone pop-filter.
When you have your audio files all edited and ready to go, you’ll have to open an account in ACX. ACX is Amazon’s platform for audiobook authors. It’s essentially the audio equivalent of Kindle Direct Publishing. After you upload your audio files and book cover image (which has different dimensions from that of Kindle Direct), ACX will have to make sure it adheres to their standards before they upload it onto Amazon, Audible and iTunes.
I told you I’ll try not to repeat what others already wrote (except maybe the give-give-give-then ask idea), so here’s who I recommend you read in order to learn more and get inspired about writing.
The ones that impacted me the most were Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk and Sam Harris. I only discovered Barry Eisler (who’s become one of my favorite authors) after I published my book but he has some incredibly useful information for writers on his blog.
One bit of warning I’ll give you is that too many people have gotten so into following influencers and so into motivational content about entrepreneurship, the craft of writing, optimization and self-help that they never end up producing anything themselves. It’s great to get insights and motivation but at a certain point you’ll have to stop consuming and start producing. Try not to get sucked into what has become a cult of motivational personalities. It ironically goes against what these great guys are trying to teach you.
Thank you for reading this article. Now, go write something yourself!