Paul Jarvis (Everything I Know), Sacha Greif (Discover Meteor), and Nathan Barry (Authority) invited me to host a Self-Publishing Hangout with them this week. It was a great opportunity for me, because I'm about to publish my first course (Amplification). Our Google Hangout ended being a 2 hour marathon of us sharing our experience with writing, publishing, and promoting eBooks, as well as answering questions from everybody in the chat room.
Here are my highlights.
On choosing a topic
- Paul Jarvis gets his inspiration by looking at what kinds of questions people are asking him. He looks at how many tweets and emails he's getting, and he replies to those. "Most of the topics come naturally. I start by writing emails and tweets, and keep working on it until it becomes a book." People asked him about vegan diets, so he wrote Eat Awesome. They asked him questions about business, so he wrote Be Awesome at Online Business.
- For Sacha Greif, his books are an extension of whatever project he's working on. "Writing a book integrates with the other things I do."
- Nathan Barry: "My first book was about app design. It came about because lots and lots of people were asking me how to do it. I didn't have a good place to point them, so I decided to write it."
- Justin: "I put up a homepage at Buildandlaunch.net. The book was going to be about building and launching your own product from scratch. I got about 1,000 signups to the mailing list, and started emailing them and asking questions: "What's your biggest struggle? Where do you need help?" Based on that feedback, I "pivoted" and decided that my first book would actually be Amplification - how to connect your content with bigger audiences."
Do you need to be a good writer?
- Justin: "I think you need to be interested in the craft. I don't consider myself a great writer, but I've always had a passion for communicating."
- Nathan: "If you try to wait until you're a great writer, that's bad. I had someone contact me who read every one of my blog posts. He said in his email: 'Man, when you started you were a horrible writer. But I could see you getting better each post you wrote.' I would say: start writing, and use that to get better at writing."
- Paul: "I feel the same way. I don't think I'm a great writer, but I know that I'm a lot better now than when I started writing. The only way I got better, was by writing. I write every day; I don't publish work every day (that's not the point). The more that I sit down and write, the more ideas that I come up with that are worth publishing."
The process of writing
- Sacha: "I didn't have a fixed amount of words to write every day. I approach writing like design: start with a sketch, low fidelity mockup, high fidelity... every iteration comes close and closer to the real thing. I start with outline of the chapters, and start filling them up. For Discover Meteor, we must have gone through each chapter about 10 times, it was really iterative."
- Nathan: "I write a really rough outline, with all the sections I'd like to have in my book. Then each day when I sit down to write, I look at those sections, and pick which section I'm most interested in. Like Paul mentioned, I write 1,000 words a day; that was inspired by Chris Guillebeau. And I track that daily reminder in an app I wrote called Commit. I've done about 388 days in a row right now."
- Paul: "I have the same reminder, but mine swears at me [laughter] because that's what I need to get it done. The reason I do the daily practice, is that I'm trying to get better at the act of writing. Writing in your own voice is harder than it seems; it takes a lot of work. The daily practice has really helped me with that."
- Justin: "As a beginner, I created a text outline. And then I started writing right in iBooks Author; about half-way through I realized I needed to collaborate, get an editor to look at it, and also track how many words I was writing a day, and so I switched to Draft."
- Paul: "I like to use IAWriter because you can't add any formatting. Otherwise I'd spend way too much time trying to pick the right typeface, and the right line-height, etc..."
- Nathan: "I go down to my favorite cafe, and I'll get a glass of wine... and that way I always write much more. I highly recommend a bit of alcohol."
- Justin: "For me having a deadline has really helped: I set the launch for Amplification for September 1st. Knowing that I have to hit that deadline makes me productive."
- Nathan: "Two more quick writing tips. First, write to a specific person. When you're writing, you can either come off as super casual, or really patronizing (those are the two extremes). Tim Ferris' advice on this is to write to a specific person; I wrote my first book, Designing Web Applications, to my brother-in-law. I was always thinking: 'What does Philip need to know?' The second piece of advice: when you hit something that needs research, just type in tk and keep writing."
What happens if you're not enough of an expert?
- Paul: "If you get paid to do something, chances are you're enough of an expert to write something. For example, if someone's paid me to do web design for 15 years, I can be confident as an expert to write about it."
Talking about fear
- Sacha: "I think what scares everybody is releasing the book and having no one buy it. You can't make it go away completely, but there are steps (like setting up an email list) you can take to minimize the risk."
- Nathan: "I think you'll always have fear of some kind. When I did my first book, I feared that no one would buy it. My second book, I had the fear that I wouldn't be able to repeat the success from last time. And for my 3rd book, Authority, I thought: 'Well I'm successful with design books, but no one's going to buy this.' I've come to realize that I'm always going to have fear, and that I just need to push through it."
- Paul: "I agree. I identify with you. I was definitely more scared with my second book, because you've already established yourself as being an author, and having sold so many books. If you put something else out, and it flops, it's way worse than putting something out the first time (when nobody knows who your are). It gets worse for me, every time I launch something. We're all afraid; we've just learned to push past it, because the reward is accomplishing something."
- Justin: "I think it's normal to be worried at different parts of the process. I think it's important that we talk about that, because in our industry we have a lot of people that seem really confident, and seem like they never get anxious about anything. The truth is, if it's the night before launching something, you're going to have some anxiety. The best thing to ask when you're in that situation is: 'What's the worst thing that good happen?'"
How do you ensure quality?
- Paul: "Should you hire an editor? Yes! The job of an editor is to push you to write more, to write better, and also to make you sound smarter. If you publish a book and there's spelling mistakes, it looks bad. If you have a copyeditor, you can minimize those mistakes."
- Paul: "If you have social proof, put it on your website: testimonials, people tweeting about it, magazine or publication mentioning you. Showing people that there's proof outside of this website you've created will help people trust you."
- Justin: "Right now I use Draft for writing, and you can hire an editor right in their interface."
- Nathan: "I'm a bit lucky: my mother is a professional copywriter. She edits all my books, and that's worked really well. There's a lot of stupid stuff that would have made it into my book if I wasn't paying someone to make sure that didn't happen."
- Paul: "Editors make a huge difference. Even if you don't have money for an editor, get a couple of friends to look it over."
- Nathan: "Remember: mistakes will happen. You're not going to get a perfect book out every time; but it's an ebook, you can always push out an update."
Is the market getting saturated?
Is the market for self-published books getting saturated right now?
- Justin: "In our space (tech, design, dev, bootstrapping) it used to be there were only a few people doing it (Amy Hoy, Chris Guillebeau). Next, there was grassroots people who followed their lead, and came on the scene: Nathan Barry, Sacha Greif, Paul Jarvis. But now it seems like there are a lot of more established people getting in to publishing: Adii Pienaar, Shawn Blanc, Mike McDerment (Freshbooks). Do you think there's too many players in this space now?"
- Sacha: "I don't think so. I think maybe it seems that way to us because we're so involved in this space. Although it's true that there are a lot of books coming out now for people like us: books about design, and books about self-publishing; that niche might get saturated soon. But the vast majority of ebooks are about other things: CSS, food... that will never get saturated."
- Nathan: "I think there will always be demand to pay $50 or less for high quality content that's really specific to a topic you care about (as a reader). Instead of going through 50 blog posts on the internet, you spend a little bit of money to get the best stuff on that topic in a PDF. I don't think it will become too saturated. We also tend to run in really specific circles on the internet and so when we see something we think: wow the whole internet is talking about this, when in reality it's just your tiny little corner, and 12 people."
- Justin: "The hard thing is... if you're already 'in' and you already have an audience, it's easier to say that it's not saturated. Certain niches can definitely get saturated. Rob Walling just commented on his podcast that there's been a big, noticeable increase in the number of people asking him (and other founders) to do interviews for books. If it's true, that there is more saturation, it means that everybody's quality and uniqueness will have to go up - you'll need to offer something that no one else is doing."
- Brennan Dunn (from the chat room): "Rob was mainly arguing against ebook "authors" who just publish a bunch of other people's writing. e.g. email a bunch of people, compile them into book, profit."
- Amy Hoy (from the chat room): "Yeah, there's a definitely a saturation level with 'I'm not gonna do any work on this product but you should still pay me' LOL"
- Michael Hartl (from the chat room): "This is still early, early days for ebook publishing."
- Joelle Steiniger (from the chat room): "Everyone always thinks there's no room left... and there always is."
- Sacha: "I think the key point is quality. For example: interviews are really interesting, but there also really easy to do; that's why there are a lot of e-books that are just a collection of interviews. Unless you're a professional interviewer, your questions might not always be interesting. So that niche might produce a lot of low quality ebooks. But if that gets saturated, who cares? It will only push people to make higher quality books."
- Justin: "Yeah. And maybe that's something else we have to be prepared for: the professional ebook critic. Right now it's a fairly friendly space."
- Paul: "You should read some of my comments on GoodReads: there are some reviewers that don't like stuff that are vocal."
What tools do you use to create the end-product?
- Paul: "I use Pages, and then I export to PDF and ePub, and then I run it through Caliber to make a Mobi file. Pages works for me. I draw all of my graphics in Illustrator."
- Sacha: "I actually used Pages for my first book too, and I really liked it. But for my second book I thought: 'maybe the best way to do this is just in plain HTML.' So that's what I ended up doing. I used Middleman to take markdown files and convert them them to HTML. Then I can take those HTML files and convert them to ePub, PDF, MOBI, whatever I need. I really liked doing it this way; even though it's a bit more work, but it's really flexible."
- Nathan: "I use iBooks Author. I asked everyone I knew that had self-published what they used, and I got a different answer from everybody. iBooks Author was just the amount of design flexibility, but also allowed me to get the book out the door quickly. I only use the 'Export to PDF' function (I've never published to the iBooks store)."
- Justin: "I use iBooks Author as well. Somebody just asked about usage statistics: iBooks Author does have some usage stats (in terms of how many words you've written), and Draft does as well."
What do you outsource?
- Paul: "I'm having someone illustrate the cover of my next book."
- Sacha: "I outsourced the actual conversion process from HTML to ePub and MOBI. There's quite a few steps. Even small processes are worth outsourcing to someone with experience."
- Nathan: "I outsourced video editing for the editing. I outsourced having the page coded up. A good rule of thumb is if you doing it would add any more value."
- Justin: "There's a lot of opportunity for people who want to get experience with self-publishing; if you have skills in design, copyediting, in illustration... you can probably use those skills to help authors. If you wanted to become a professional iBooks Author theme creator, there's a market for that."
Should you publish your book online for free?
- Sacha: "People in the chat room have been talking about the idea of publishing the HTML version online for free, and then charging for the download."
- Amy Hoy (from the chat room): "The idea of 'publishing a book for credibility, not for money!' must have been invented by a publisher."
- Nathan: "We have Michael Hartl in the chat room. He's been really successful at giving away the book for free online, with Ruby on Rails tutorial, and charging for other versions of it (like the PDF). He's made a lot of money from his book this way."
- Michael Hartl (from the chat room): "A free HTML version is also great for SEO."
- Sacha: "I learned Rails from Michael's book, but I just used the free version. I guess I should go back and buy it now [laughter]."
- Sacha: "I'm sure it's a valid strategy, but it's also risky. It depends on your market and how many people you can reach."
- Justin: "One of the risks (for authors) is that they use it as an excuse. They're scared of making sales, so they say: 'I'll put this out for free, and see what the response is.' The problem with that, is that the people who will read something for free could be a completely different demographic than the people who will pay for something. The feedback you get (from the free crowd) might not be helpful, at all. So you need to ask yourself the question: is this an excuse, or is it a part of your marketing plan?"
- Paul: "I've used samples before. My book, Be Awesome at Online Business, has the first 3-4 chapters, so it's enough to get people interested. On the last page, there's a link to buy it. The conversion on (my sample chapters) is way better than the conversion on my sales page."
- Nathan: "I would say that charging for your book should be the default, unless you have a strategy where giving it away for free is going to benefit you more in some other way."
- Paul: "I've tried it both ways. I've read Nathan and Sacha's back and forth with 'pricing low vs pricing high', so I decided to try both. My first book was $5, now it's $1. And my second book is $17. The one at $17 has sold half the copies, but has made more money than my first book. I think it also depends on the subject matter: a vegan cookbook isn't going to sell as much as a business book. Pricing is a bit of science, and a bit of a guessing game."
- Sacha: "Pricing is very, very subjective. For example: if I see a book on Amazon, even $10 for a book seems expensive. On the other hand, if I see Nathan's book for $39, it seems like a good deal, because there's a lot of value (for my career) in there. The way you frame the whole context for the book is important."
- Justin: "Yeah, pricing is tough. What I ended up doing, is instead of me marketing this a book, I'm selling it as a downloadable course. The idea is that this isn't just an ebook you're going to read, it's going to have videos, worksheets and other things. It's going to be the equivalent of you taking a course (or workshop) on the topic. I priced it at $29, and I'm doing pre-sales at $10 off that price."
- Nathan: "I would say: always price based on value. That's a combination of 'what it's worth to you' to do the work to put it together, and priced based on the amount of value the reader is going to get out of it. Brennan Dunn has a book for $50. That might seem expensive to you, but if it helps a consultant raise their rate from $50-$100 per hour, then they've just paid for the book in the first hour of working at the new rate. If you're teaching people skills that make them money, the easier it is to justify higher prices. The closer you are to the money, the easier that equation is. If you're selling fiction, it's going to be hard to sell it for $50. But if you're teaching people design skills, that's an easier sell (especially if people are using the company credit card to pay for it)."
- Nathan: "Your first book doesn't have to be a high-priced thing, where you have a huge process and months and months of work. It can be something as simple a really good design tutorial that you sell for $10. If you're hesitant, then start small."
Platforms and publishers
- Justin: "There's tons of platforms for writing and promoting a book. Would you guys use any of those? How about a publisher?"
- Sacha: "The only reason I would use a publisher is if I was doing a print book. Other than that, I can't think of a good reason. Frankly, with ebooks, I think you can do a better job of promoting it than a publisher could."
- Paul: "I have a lot of friends that have gone the traditional route with a publisher. Here's the way it works: if you're not the top dog with that publisher, you'll probably end up doing most of your promotion yourself anyway. So you might as well get 100% of your revenue, as opposed to 10%. Sacha mentioned he'd do it if was a print book; well my next book is a print book, but I'm using Kickstarter to raise the money and to pre-sell a set number of copies. And this way, I get to do the design."
- Sacha: "Maybe if you only like to write, and nothing else, than going with a publisher is a good thing. But all of us, we like doing marketing, promotion and design; maybe that's why we don't work with publishers."
- Nathan: "I do plan on going with a traditional publisher at some point. I have an idea for a marketing book that I'd like to get out to a much bigger audience, that I don't think I could reach on my own. Whatever decision you make, know what the publisher is going to do for you."
- Sacha: "You're also in a much better position to deal with a publisher now, than you did before you'd published all these ebooks."
- Paul: "Yeah [that's the funny thing]: publishers are interested in you when you don't need them as much."
- Nathan: "I'd never take a technical book to a publisher. Any of the 3 books I've written already would be a terrible fit for a publisher."
The iBooks store and Amazon
- Justin: "What about the iBooks store and Amazon; do you guys have any experience with them, and would you recommend it?"
- Paul: "I have my books on iBooks and Amazon, but they account for about 1% of my revenue. I don't promote those channels, because I'd rather promote my own channel where I get 95% of the revenue. I think there's this idea that if you have you book on Amazon that they'll drive sales traffic; it never happens."
- Sacha: "Another downside with Amazon is that you don't get people's emails."
- Sacha: "And with our Meteor book, we also give our customers access to a special online area where they can read the book online, and download tutorials. That would be impossible with Amazon."
- Nathan: "Yep, for me the two big downsides are: not getting an email address (if you don't get any information about your customer, they're not your customer, they're Amazon's customer). The other thing is pricing: there's no way I could do my pricing tiers using those platforms."
- Justin: "Let's talk about building a mailing list. That's come up over and over again as one of the most important things you can do."
- Sacha: "I've been building my list for about 10 months now, and there's about 4,000 subscribers. The concept is, I write one email a week, every Sunday. The way I started it was from the sales of my first ebook: I emailed everyone who bought it and asked if they wanted to subscribe. I got about 1,000 subscribers that way."
- Justin: "Wow, that's a pretty big jump [1,000 subscribers all at once]. That might be one advantage of having a cheaper book to begin with; you might get a lot of subscribers all at once."
- Nathan: "I blogged for a year trying to get RSS subscribers; trying to get anyone I could to pay attention. The end results was about 80 RSS subscribers (not what I would consider a success!). Then I started working on the App Design Handbook, and stated asking people to sign-up (got about 50 people). And then I started writing blog posts related to the book, in-depth tutorials. By the time I launched the book I had 800 email subscribers (through that content promotion). That was by far the biggest factor in my success. If an article got featured on Hacker News, then I'd see a jump of 50 subscribers in a day."
- Sacha: "I've had my blog for close 2 years, with 3 or 4 posts hit the homepage of Hacker News. That resulted in about 2,000 RSS subscribers; but in less than 1 year I was able to get over 4,000 email subscribers. It's much easier to build an email list than a blog following."
- Nathan: "Email converts 15x better than a Twitter follower."
- Paul: "Yeah, with my first 2 books I focused almost entirely on building my mailing list. For Eat Awesome, I didn't even have a blog, just a mailing list. My mailing list is really what drives my sales. With email, you're connecting with people where they are; everyone checks their email."
- Justin: "My list is at about 1000 now. Most of those came from Hacker News; specifically from This is a web page, and that being on Hacker News for about 11 hours. I know some people don't like sources like that (Hacker News, Reddit, etc...) but they drive a lot of traffic. Even if you're not converting that traffic to your mailing list very well, you're still going to get a lot of signups."
Tools & resources we recommend
For drafting, writing, editing:
Human copywriters and editors:
Design, layout, and publishing
For mailing lists and email
A huge thanks to Sacha, Nathan and Paul for allowing a rookie like me to participate.
You can watch the whole video recording here.
Want a podcast version? You can get that here.
I hope these highlights will be a helpful resource to anyone interested in publishing their own thing.