Everything I Know About The Process Of Becoming A Self-published Author
In early 2017 I started working on the self-help book that I wished existed but I had yet to find: a non-fiction novel based on the principles contained in The Book of Mormon.
If you’re not familiar, those, like myself, of the LDS or “Mormon” faith believe that The Book of Mormon is scripture, a companion to the Bible that teaches of Jesus Christ, His gospel and His ministry.
As it states in the introduction to the book, there is a belief that “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”. To put this to the test, I spent months studying the book looking for the direct statements, promises, and principles that it taught in order to see what I could find that would help me “get nearer to God.”
That was the impetus for the book I set out to write.
Since then, I’ve been working on the writing portion of the project, as well as writing a daily email about the “precepts” that I had highlighted in my research as an opportunity to share what I’d found.
In this post I’ll outline the things I’ve learned going through this process, in hopes that it will be helpful to those of you who want to write and publish your own books in the future.
Like my Minimalist Travel Post, this article will focus more on principles rather than tactics, and ones that I believe are widely applicable across genres, types of books, and what style of publishing you choose to pursue.
I hope you enjoy it!
Writing Your Novel
The hardest part about getting a book out into the world, in my experience, is the writing. It seems like a universal obstacle, as many people who set out to write a book never actually finish the book.
Step number one is to figure out the principles that will help any author finish their book so they have something to put out into the world, to tell their story, share their knowledge, and affect change in those who read it.
What’s Your Story?
When you start out writing a novel or a screenplay or any other long-form project, rather than starting with “it was a dark and stormy night…”, I like to think about the global story I’m trying to tell.
Just as sharpening an axe makes chopping down a tree much easier, thinking about your big-picture story, story structure, themes, characters, and more will set you up for a much more successful writing experience.
Some things I love that have worked for me:
- Write out your story in one page. Beginning, middle, and end. Who are the characters, what do they want, what do they need, what obstacles stand in their way?
- Write out your story in one paragraph. This cuts out some of the “fluff” and lets you drill down to what the big parts of the story are.
- Write out your story in one sentence. This helps clarify what your story is about, both narratively and thematically.
- Use this sentence to tell others about the story you’re writing. What is their reaction? What questions do they ask you? Do these responses motivate you or discourage you? What changes can you make to get to a better story?
Going through this process helps me save time by not writing stuff that won’t get used. By figuring out your big picture at the beginning, you’ll be off on a much stronger foot than if you just started writing.
That said, leave room for discovery and change. Things will inevitably come up that provide new insight into your theme, your characters, and your story. But, you’ll be able to weigh those things against the story you set out to tell, rather than be distracted by every new idea that floats into your head.
Write Every Day
Principle number one (despite its arbitrary order in this list) is to form a habit.
Just as a pilot flies airplanes, athletes play their sport, and politicians beg people for money with an endless stream of emails asking for $5 to help them “cross the line”, writers write.
If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you’re not writing, then you’re not actually a writer, are you?
One of my favorite maxims about accomplishing anything is that “we overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a day.”
It’s incredible to me how quickly a novel-length bit of writing can come together by just writing a few hundred to a thousand words a day.
For my first book, I set out to write a book in six weeks. I got up early, wrote a daily quota of 1000 words, and in six weeks I had written a 125 page ebook about film sound.
For this book, after nearly a year of writing a few-hundred-words email a day, I realized that I had over 120,000 words, enough for TWO full-length novels (or in my case, one really long novel…)
Depending on what you’re setting out to write, set a goal, something that you can accomplish in a few months. Then work backwards to determine how many words you need to write a day.
If you’re a fast writer, you may be able to do 800-1200 words in an hour. Break down your big word-count goal into daily tasks, and then make a commitment to yourself to write every day.
Make extra time by getting up early, skipping that extra episode in the evening, or working through your lunch break. Commit to yourself that you’ll write every day no matter what.
Then, when you inevitably miss a day, don’t let it throw you off track. Make a backup commitment to never miss two days in a row.
Again, we underestimate what we can accomplish in a day, and the compounding effect of establishing a writing habit and writing every day will get you to a finished novel faster than any other tip, trick, or tactic I know of.
Get Into A Writing State Of Mind
When you’re writing, do everything you can to quickly get into a state of mind that will allow you to write for your allotted time. Use location, lighting, noise, music, whatever you need to trigger your brain into thinking “oh, this is writing time.”
For me, it includes the same time and place every day, using the app Brain.fm which helps me block out any other low level noise (or my kids yelling about who gets to be Luke Skywalker and who gets to be Kylo Ren…), using the Freedom app to block internet access and force me to focus, setting my phone to airplane mode, and using a very clean, minimal, focused writing app called Highland. I use this process for screenplays, novels, blog posts, and any other long-form writing that I do in my life and career.
I’ve used many apps and rather than saying “use this one”, all I can say is that it works for me.
Every one of us is different, has different habits, different distractions, and different ways we like to work. The principle is to figure out what works for you – time of day, location, music or silence, people or solitude – and then rigorously get to that same state every day.
Forget The Excuse Of Writer’s Block
“But what about writer’s block? How do you overcome it?” I hear you asking.
I joined the school of “writer’s block doesn’t exist” years ago. Athlete’s don’t get “runner’s block”, and professional speakers don’t get “talker’s block”.
So what’s the deal with this whole “writer’s block” thing?
Writing, at times, can be a very vulnerable process. As a defense mechanism, some writer decades ago came up with the concept of “writer’s block” to justify their fear and high expectations – and their failure to put words on the page.
The best, and only, advice I have for you is to eliminate writer’s block from your vocabulary. Don’t allow yourself to use it as an excuse to not write. If you can talk, you can record yourself and transcribe it later. If you tell yourself that not writing is not an option, then it won’t be an option, and you’ll write.
The things you write every day as your putting together your first draft will never be perfect, so lower your expectations as low as you need to to get words written every day.
You are more in control of yourself than you think. Want proof? Think about an elephant balancing on a unicycle. Lift your left arm. Blink three times in a row.
Writing is a physical act, and your brain has the power to tell your body to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. So do it.
The next time you sit down to a blank page, start writing. Don’t stop until you hit your quota.
Editing Your Novel
After you’ve written your first draft, now it’s time to go back to page one and start thinking about how to turn it into something people would enjoy reading.
Yes, I just told you that the thing you just wrote is borderline-unreadable. As with the rest of the things I believe in this post, I believe that our first drafts are usually not finished or even ready for public consumption.
They’re not meant to be readable.
A chart-topping musician doesn’t write a song and get it on the radio in the same day. It’s a process of writing, rewriting, recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and then releasing it into the world. Our process is the same.
Celebrate the fact that you finished the first draft of your novel, but then–generally after some time off–dive back in with a new hat on – your editor’s hat.
The best resource I’ve ever found for getting through this process of editing in a methodical way is the Story Grid method. The book by the same name was written by Shawn Coyne, a professional book editor with over 25 years and hundreds of books of experience.
The Story Grid Podcast is a masterclass in writing, editing, and storytelling, and I recommend it now to everyone that I meet who wants to be a writer and tell stories.
The book costs less than $20 and the podcast is free besides the time you invest in listening to it, but it has some invaluable information when it comes to getting your book to the level where people want to read it.
As with many professional pursuits, it helps to have partners with other, complimentary skills to yours. Most writers are not good editors, just as most athletes aren’t incredible coaches. While both work in the same arena, they need each other in order to achieve a successful outcome.
Even if you are self-publishing, the goal is to write something so good it can’t be ignored. Most writers don’t have the ability to look at their work with the proper perspective as an editor can.
Find a friend, or someone on Upwork or an editor that can help you with the editing process of your book. While it may be a larger expense than you think you can afford, you can save a few bucks a week and after six months or a year you’ll have enough to hire someone to help edit your book.
Find someone who you can trust to give you good feedback and help with the grammar, spelling, and punctuation as well. Use them to help you improve your writing and make your book more professional as you go through a number of drafts together.
Publishing Your Book
While many authors have dreams of being chosen by one of the big publishers and to sell a million copies of their book, chances are that won’t happen to you or me.
I don’t know a ton about traditionally publishing a book, because I’ve never tried to go that route. I like the idea of maintaining control over every aspect from the writing to the publishing and distribution of what I write.
What I do know is that you give up a ton of upside in order to get what a publisher offers – mainly some financial backing and some wider distribution options than you have available on your own.
Most authors I’ve spoken to make $1 or less per book using this method of publishing and distribution. Given that most books don’t even sell 250 copies, that’s not a huge upside for months – if not years – of work.
If you’re an author with a platform – a social following, a large blog readership, or some fame in another part of your life that you’re writing about – then you may be able to go out and get an advance for your book and make some ok money. Most first-time authors aren’t getting six-figure advances.
For a first time author, anything in the $10-50k range is fairly standard. For celebrities or proven authors, you may get into the six figure range. The million-dollar advances are reserved for the outliers – the Obamas and the Clintons, the Kardashians, etc. Those who have millions of people who follow their every move and who would line up to buy their book.
If you’re starting out, your goal should be to write a book and get it published at all costs. Let the writing stand for itself, and strive to write something so good they can’t ignore you. THEN use that success as leverage to go the traditional route if you choose on your next book.
This new style of self-publishing is old enough now that there are proven routes to distributing your book and making it available for anyone to purchase and read your writing.
Here, I’ll outline the process that I used to self-publish my recent book. More about the book later…
First, the principles that guided my process. I was looking for a way that was simple, as automated as possible, with as few steps as possible, that maximized gaining the emails of those that purchased the book (so that I could add them to my email list), and made me more money than a traditional publishing model.
I knew that if it were too complicated that I’d never make the time to get the book out into the world. I knew that if I couldn’t get the emails of my customers I was losing out on building an email list asset that would serve me for future books and future endeavors.
I knew that I needed to at least cover my costs, which includes the time it took to write the book as well as pay for the email service provider I’ve used for the last year to send out the emails. Beyond that, any income was just a bonus, and a confirmation that what I had written had some value for those purchasing it.
Here’s what I ended up doing for this book:
- I wrote the book using Highland.
- After compiling the book together, I used Pressbooks.com to convert the PDF into ebook formats. If you sign up, wait a few weeks or so and they’ll send you a discount code for half off of your order.
- I researched more than a dozen potential printers. Ultimately, despite costing a little more than some other options, I chose to print through Ingram Spark. They have a massive distribution network, high quality printing, and options for both bulk orders as well as print on demand, where they can print when an order comes in and ship the book(s) directly from their printer, saving me time and effort.
- I built my website with wordpress using the woocommerce shopping cart template and shopping cart. While there are more up front costs associate with this method than other options like Shopify, they are one-time costs, rather than monthly costs, so in the long run it seems to be a cheaper option. I have lots of experience building wordpress sites, and this was by far the easiest to put together.
- I used booklaunch.io to build a landing page for the book, and then used their wordpress integration to turn that landing page into the homepage of my website. The links on that page take a visitor to the store to purchase the book. It looks great and was very simple to build, and is very inexpensive even for the top tier plan, around $10 a month.
- I use the Drip.com email app to deliver my emails and to create Facebook ads based on my email subscribers. While I prefer Convertkit.com over Drip, the latter has a few tools that were better suited for sending out daily emails, and for segmenting out my “best” readers to get feedback, make special offers, etc.
- On the website, I’m doing a month long preorder sale, which was super simple to setup inside woocommerce. More on the preorder sale in the next section.
- I am selling digital, paperback, and hardback versions of the book. The digital format came from pressbooks directly, while the physical copies come from Ingram Spark.
- I’m selling the ebooks directly rather than through Amazon or the iBooks store so that I can build up the email list. At some point I may cave in and upload the ebook to those digital stores, but for now I’m valuing the collection of emails over the potential upside that comes from having your book on Amazon. If and when that happens, I’ll likely put the book up at a higher price point in order to persuade customers to purchase directly from me, given the option.
Launching Your Book
Many people have written about launching a book on the internet. A solid google search will net you some solid principles and tips for doing it in a way that works with your style and personality, and to get the results you’re looking for.
I’m not an expert and I’m not trying to become one on the internet. I can only share what my plan is going into this book launch, and I promise to share the results as they occur.
I don’t have a huge platform to sell to, so aiming for some huge, blockbuster style book launch would be foolish, in my mind.
I think it’s important to set realistic goals and then put a process and a plan in place to achieve that goal. For me, selling even 10,000 copies seems like way too much of a stretch to be in the realm of possibility right now.
Tim Grahl wrote a book called Book Launch Blueprint, which is a quick read but has some solid principles on launching your book. My friend Nathan Barry also wrote a book years ago called Authority which is what I used to write and launch that ebook I wrote years ago.
In short, there are three things (at least) you can do to try and sell as many copies as possible. A solid goal to shoot for is 1,000 copies, as mentioned by Tim in his book, and that’s what I’ve set my sights on for this launch.
Here’s his prescribed approach for new writers:
- Sell as many possible copies to your existing fans.
- Help your fans share the book with their friends.
- Find influencers who will help you promote the book.
Sell To Your Fans
I’ll admit, this is the point that I’m currently at, selling to you with this very post. The hope is that I’ve provided enough value to you as a reader that you’re incentivized to read my other work.
In order to sell to your friends or your fans, they need to a) know you exist, b) trust you, c) like you, and d) see value in the thing that you’re selling.
As I’ve heard it said, “you can’t monetize obscurity.” If you have no platform or following, you likely won’t sell that many copies, because a) no one knows you exist, b) they won’t trust you if you just appear in front of them in an ad, c) they don’t have any reason to like you yet, and d) you haven’t provided any value yet.
So, find a way to provide value.
The way I chose to do that was to write a daily email for nearly a year as an easy way for my readers to get a quick scripture study in every day.
It worked, and the results showed. The list grew without any marketing or advertising. It also proved the second point, helping your fans share with their friends.
(At the time of this email, the list is just shy of 600 subscribers, which is by far the largest email list I’ve ever built).
Help Your Fans Share With Their Friends
When you create something of value, the marketing handles itself, as people will spread the word for you. It’s the most effective and cheapest way to advertise anything.
Once you have fans that know who you are, trust you, and like you, you can then “cash in” some of that value you’ve provided the with an ask to share your product, email list, etc with their friends.
Make the process as easy as possible when you ask. Create simple links, or write out things they can easily copy and paste. Do as much of the work for them as possible and you’ll see greater results.
One helpful tool I’ve found (which is a bit of a “hack”, so I’m not sure how I feel about it yet) is greeninbox.com which allows you to send emails to, say, select Facebook or LinkedIn friends. I’m not sure how it works, but I’ve set it up to send a short announcement and share request to about 350 of my Facebook friends who I think would be in the target market for this book.
Who do you know that has their own platform that would benefit from the book you’ve written? Think outside of just social media – what about journalists, podcasts, magazines, and organizations? Any of these are in need of good content, and you can reach out to them and offer to help them create some.
Again, provide value up front, make it as easy as possible for them to say yes, go the extra mile, be a great interview or guest post, and help them with their goals as you strive to hit yours.
Why Write At All?
There are a few reasons that I write, which help when I’m unmotivated or insecure about the task in front of me.
First, it’s to figure out what I think. It’s dangerous to me to go through life without ever challenging my assumptions, my beliefs, my methods and systems. If we never stress-test what we think we know, we’ll never be in a position to learn and to grow.
Writing is that stress test for me.
I don’t typically write from a position of authority–even though my editor says that I should be better at that–because I feel like my writing is more of a documentation of what I think, what I’m trying, what I’m learning, and where I failed.
I think if you’re 34 and you’ve “got it all figured out”, you’re fooling yourself.
The hope is that some of the things I figure out and publish, either in my emails or in books or on my blog, are helpful to those that read it.
The second reason I write is for my kids and my posterity. My grandparents are and were people that lived incredible lives, ones that I wish I knew much more about.
My paternal grandfather passed away while I was at college, and we never really spoke that much. I don’t have a ton of memories with him, and I really regret that now. If he had kept a journal, or written a memoir, I know I’d devour and cherish those words of wisdom, as limited in scope and personal as they may have been.
My maternal grandfather has accomplished a lot in his life, but keeps much of his story to himself. As he gets older, it’s becoming harder and harder to get him to remember stories that would be helpful to me now – learning how he dealt with starting his own business, growing it, balancing a family of five, etc. There are so many parallels and I feel like there’s a ton of wisdom that’s just slipped away.
My mom was great at keeping a journal, and it’s something that my siblings and I have read since her passing and it’s helped connect us to her, learn from her, and feel her presence even though she’s gone. I want that for my kids, my grandkids, and those that will come long after I’m gone.
Writing and publishing our stories is an act that we will never know how far-reaching its effects are. It’s leaving a message, sharing lessons, and guiding those that will read them years and generations after the words hit the page.
While most authors at some point or another feel a sense of inadequacy when it comes to their work, I’ve found that–at least for me–the desire to write for my kids and my future family most often outweighs the fear of writing poorly, and it helps me through those times where I wonder if it even matters at all.
I plan on updating this post as often as necessary for it to become a living document where all of my lessons learned and all of my advice will exist to hopefully help the writers that read it.
If you’ve got a story in you–and we all do–I urge you to write it. The act of writing is as simple as talking, and you shouldn’t let things like writing applications, self publishing, and distribution strategies get in the way of putting your story into the world.
Just write, and know that you can figure out the rest if and when you need to.
If I can be of any help to you and what you’re experiencing in your journey to publishing a book, let me know. You can email me on the CONTACT page, or leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck as you write your story.
If you want to check out my recent book, you can find it at dailymormonbook.com, and if you know anyone that may find it interesting, please feel free to share it with them.