Personal

Lessons learned from self-publishing my book of essays and stories

Today marks seven months since I published my book, A Place to Start: Stories and Essays from Down the Road. Publishing my book and trying to market it has been interesting and I’ve learned a lot.

It has not, however, been lucrative. I make a fine living at my day job, so thank heavens I wasn’t counting on this book to feed my family. Nevertheless, I’m disappointed.

I did the whole job myself: writing, editing, page layout, cover design, submitting to distributors, and marketing. I chose to have the paperback version of the book printed on demand so I would not have to put up money for a print run and manage the inventory — and possibly not sell through, be out the money, and be stuck with a bunch of spare paperbacks.

I learned a lot about self publishing, and will be able to do it more efficiently and effectively next time. I also learned a few things about book marketing that I’ll use for my next book, too. The rest of this article explains my experience and lessons learned in detail.

Writing and editing

Even though I was publishing material I had already written, it was challenging to figure out how to organize it. The way I ordered the stories and essays in the published book is the third complete organization of the material I tried.

I also heavily edited each story, and even rewrote a couple. I’m a much better writer now than I was in 2007 and 2008 when I first published them on my blog. I did a reasonable job of copy editing and proofreading and don’t regret doing that myself.

I also now think that including so many stories about my faith might have been a mistake. Several readers and reviewers said things along the lines of, “I enjoyed the book even though I don’t share your faith at all.” Some even said they just quit reading that section a couple articles in.

After arranging and editing the stories, I found it surprisingly challenging to write the back cover blurb. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what the book was about. It needed to be about something! I finally figured out a “getting through hard times” theme, and that’s what I wrote about on the back cover.

Lessons learned: I am strongly considering hiring an editor next time, even if it means I take a loss on the book. A skilled outside perspective should help me find a stronger voice among the stories and essays I’ve written so I can create a more compelling book.

I am also strongly considering making my future books be centered on topics, rather than just collecting stories by year as I did this time. I could collect my stories about parenting as a divorced dad into one book, my stories and essays about living the Christian faith into another, and so on. I think that will help my books be appealing beyond my existing audience, and target my marketing more precisely.

Finally, I will think about the back cover blurb all the way through the writing and editing process. I need to determine what my book is about very early in the process, and thinking about the back cover blurb should be a powerful way to figure that out.

Making the book

I used Leanpub to create my book. For about $9 each month, they give you good tools to create a print-ready PDF, a PDF for reading on a computer, an e-book for Kindle, and an e-book compatible with other readers.

You can write your book directly in Leanpub’s editor, but instead I did it in a text editor on my computer and copied the final files into Leanpub’s editor. I did this because I thought I would use Leanpub’s GitHub integration. I never did, but I checked all of my book’s files into a private GitHub repository anyway. GitHub is a source control tool popular with software developers, but you can store any kinds of files in it.

Leanpub demands some specific text markup (a version of Markdown, for the geeks in my audience) so its layout engine knows where the chapter titles and headings are, and how to pull in image files. It was simple enough to learn.

Leanpub offers only limited choices for a book’s interior design, including typefaces. I thought even the best of their interior designs were pretty boring. I could have created a far more attractive layout myself in Microsoft Word. (I have mad Microsoft Word skills and have used it professionally to lay out very attractive books.)

The e-book files Leanpub generated rendered all of my images at a very small size. It took me considerable digging through Leanpub’s forums to find an answer to that. The fix meant downloading a tool that could edit the e-book files directly, and changing a particular setting on every single photo in the book.

However, Leanpub was a reasonable sales platform for my book, and I like very much that I was able to sell a PDF version there. Turns out I can upload finished book files to Leanpub and use it only as a sales platform.

I made the cover in Adobe Photoshop. I’m sure it would have been easier in a desktop publishing tool, but I don’t own one. I made one version of the cover for the e-book (a front cover only). I created two full covers (front, spine, and back), one for Amazon and one for IngramSpark (which lets me sell to retailers and libraries). The two companies have slightly different requirements for covers, and because they use paper of different thickness, I had to adjust the spine width to fit.

I paid a nominal fee for both companies to send me proof copies. I was disappointed in the print quality of my photographs. To keep the book’s list price reasonable, I opted for black-and-white printing, and neither printer did a great job converting my color photos to black and white. They were especially muddy in the books Amazon printed.

Lessons learned: I think I would have spent the same amount of time and gotten a much more attractive paperback had I laid the book out myself in Microsoft Word, used existing conversion tools to generate basic e-book files, and manually tweaked the code until those looked the way I wanted them.

If for my next book I create the files myself, I might still sell my book on Leanpub. I like being able to sell a PDF of my books, and Leanpub handles delivery for me. Also, I like Leanpub’s ethos.

Next time I will convert color photos to black and white myself so they look good, as there’s an art to that. I’ll generate print-ready files using the converted photos. I’ll generate the e-books and the PDF with the color photos.

Finally, I might hire a graphic designer to create the cover next time. Maybe. I really like doing it and I think I did a reasonable job of this cover. But a skilled graphic designer can do better.

Distributing the book

I offered the book for sale as a paperback, e-book, and PDF, and I chose to distribute via Amazon, Leanpub, IngramSpark (which sells only to retailers and libraries), Apple Books, and Google Play. I chose these distributors because they handled delivering books for me, and are popular ways to buy books online.

Because I was going to sell my book on platforms other than Amazon, I needed to buy ISBNs for each edition. These are unique numbers that identify every book available for commercial sale. There was a steep discount for buying ten ISBNs, but even then they were 30 bucks each. I bought ten and used two, one for the paperback and one for the generic e-book. (You don’t need an ISBN for Kindle.) I can use the other eight ISBNs for future books.

It was an enormous pain in the rear to publish my book on Apple Books and Google Play. Half of that pain was in signing up for these services, which was surprisingly not intuitive and complicated. Just finding where to sign up to publish on Apple Books took some doing.

It wasn’t complicated to make my book available on Amazon or IngramSpark. Each had their steps and rules, but I handled them with little fuss. IngramSpark charged $49 for the privilege, which stuck in my craw.

Lessons learned: I am strongly considering publishing initially only on Leanpub and Amazon from now on.

Apple Books and Google Play were a great deal of hassle, and I didn’t sell any books on those platforms anyway. To be fair, I barely promoted those channels. I also never figured out how to attract retailers and libraries to my book, so publishing via IngramSpark was a waste of time and money.

However, if a future book ever sells well, I could easily release them on these platforms to increase their availability.

Marketing

I suspected I would not enjoy marketing my book, and boy was I right. As a result, I didn’t give it my all. To be fair, this is a side project and I have limited time for it. But weak marketing is surely one reason my sales have been meager.

Author platform

The best marketing advice I got was to build an “author platform,” including a Web site and an email newsletter. The idea is to build a base of people who really enjoy my work and want to follow me. When I publish something new, that base is more likely than the regular public to want to buy it.

At the moment, I’m using my blog (this site, blog.jimgrey.net) as my Web site. That’s not ideal, because it is not primarily about me and my books. It is set up scroll-style like the blog it is, and it covers a wide range of subjects beyond my stories, essays, and photographs. To help with that, I added a banner announcing my book, and a pop-up asking people to sign up for my newsletter.

I launched the newsletter, Back Roads, in May of 2020. I write on about the 20th of each month, telling what I’m working on and giving a more intimate look into my life. I also use it to announce new publications. I have 216 subscribers so far. If you’d like to subscribe, click here. I think I’ve done an okay job with this so far but I’d like to make my newsletter more engaging.

You may not know that I also have a blog about what I do for a living, software development. It’s URL used to be softwaresaltmines.com, but recently I moved it under the jimgrey.net tent as dev.jimgrey.net. I’m not sure how that fits into an overall marketing strategy yet, but at least that blog is firmly in the family now.

Lessons learned: I’ll keep working to build my author platform. I think it’s my best play, because I can do it within the time I give to my side projects.

I consider my newsletter subscribers to be my core followers. If only 10 percent of them buy my next book, but I have 1,000 followers, I will instantly have sold more of my next book than of this one. At my current newsletter growth rate, if I do nothing more to publicize my newsletter, I will attract 500 total followers this year, and another 500 in 2022.

It’s on my to-do list to rework my main site, jimgrey.net, to be a landing page that markets me and my books. My early road-trip writing is on that site, and those articles still get read every day. I’m slowly bringing them over to this blog, but that project will last well into 2022. Search drives most traffic to those articles; perhaps I can figure out how to leave them up and build my new site around them.

Content marketing

This is a kind of marketing where I create content for another platform, such as a blog or a podcast, and plug my site and my book.

I’m connected to the owners of a few very popular film-photo blogs. I reached out to the owner of one extremely popular blog that is a great fit for what I do, and asked if I could write a guest post. He was enthusiastic and eager to help. Here’s the post I wrote. It led to exactly zero sales. It might have led to blog or newsletter followers, but I don’t have good ways to track that.

I found plenty of blogs and podcasts by writers in my genre or in related genres, but they were either part of those writers’ author platforms, or they were about writing and publishing. My content marketing is not a fit, and people I think would enjoy my book are not in those audiences.

I also looked at sites and podcasts about subjects related to what I write about, such as parenting after divorce, Christianity, and humor. Most of them were a poor fit for various reasons. For the rest, each would have required I write a custom pitch, including finding some angle to my work that resonates with that writer or podcaster in what they are doing. I prejudged that I might get one guest post or podcast visit for every ten or twenty pitches I made. I might be wrong about that, but I decided to abandon this idea anyway. Creating those pitches would take away from my ability to work on my blog and on more books. I’d rather create new stuff. That limits my reach, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.

Lessons learned: I will seek to guest on relevant blogs and podcasts when I know about them, but I am unlikely to cold-contact blogs and podcasts. I will research other ways to do content marketing; perhaps I’m missing something.

Other marketing

Miss Midnight Star

I created a Web site for my publishing imprint, Midnight Star Press. It’s here, and it lists A Place to Start and my two earlier books of photographs. My imprint is named for Missy, by the way, a black Labrador retriever my family had when I was a kid. Her AKC name was Miss Midnight Star.

I bought ads on Facebook and Amazon, which generated zero sales. I know what I’m doing with Facebook ads but not with Amazon ads. It’s possible I could optimize the Amazon ads somehow to generate some sales.

I announced my book in various Facebook Groups where either I’m well known and/or are about a topic I write about. I was pleased with the encouraging comments people left. I see that some clicked into my publishing imprint’s Web site, and I see that some clicks to Amazon followed that, but it doesn’t look like any of those people bought the book.

I created a Facebook Group for people who like to read personal essays and stories. It’s here. I share my essays and stories there, each one with a link to where you can buy my book. I can’t track any sales this might have generated, but it is at best a handful of copies. My hope is to attract other writers in this genre so they can share their work, as well, and build a good community.

I didn’t figure out how to make retailers and libraries want to buy my book, but in fairness, I spent very little time at it.

Lessons learned: I’ll learn more about Amazon advertising; perhaps I didn’t target it right and missed my audience. Those ads are surprisingly inexpensive, so I’m willing to experiment. I’m unlikely to use Facebook ads again. I’ll continue to publicize on relevant Facebook Groups, and I’ll keep trying to grow my Group for personal essays and stories. I’ll commit to learning about enticing retailers and libraries to buy books.

Sales

Finally, the brass tacks. As of today, I have sold 68 copies of my book and, after the distributors took their cut, I have made $375.52. Here’s a breakdown of where the sales came from and in which formats:

DistributorFormatsCopies SoldRoyalties
Amazon.come-book (Kindle) and paperback45 paperback
16 e-book
$329.98
Leanpube-book (Kindle and generic)
and PDF, as a bundle
7$45.54
Apple Bookse-book0$0
Google Playe-book0$0
IngramSparkpaperback0$0

You can buy from any of those sources except IngramSpark, which sells only to retailers and libraries. Click here for links to where you can buy.

There were costs associated with making this book, roughly $225. I’m pleased that made a small profit. But when I account for the cost of my considerable time on this project, I totally took a bath on it.

Lessons learned: Limiting my distribution to Amazon and Leanpub will let me be where my readers are, and will save me considerable effort and time. Should I be fortunate to build a large enough following someday, I can always go back and release my books through other channels.

I wish there were another viable way to offer a print-on-demand paperback to individuals. A couple people told me they’d love to own a copy of my book, but they don’t buy from Amazon on principle.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard

19 thoughts on “Lessons learned from self-publishing my book of essays and stories

  1. I am exhausted after reading this and I didn’t have to do any of it. You have pretty much dissuaded me from ever trying such a project. Kudos to you for powering through.

  2. DougD says:

    Well I guess I’m one of the 7, which is meagre but I’m not disappointed. It was interesting to get to know you better through your family stories and I enjoyed you writing about faith in such a frank and authentic way.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Jim, this is a great look at your particular experience in self-publishing! I’m passing it on to people I know that also self-publish for a read…

    A couple of points from my experience. When it comes to self-publishing books where photography is the primary content, “Blurb” seems to be the gold standard! I’m looking at a stack of self-published books on my desk right now, and there’s a nice one where “Milk” was the vehicle, and a few from “Shutterfly”, but the ones from “Blurb” are the ones that stand out as as close to a “real” large company printing job. (BTW, a number of years ago, one of the photo magazines ran a comparison between all the known “direct-to-press” companies by having people on their staff work with the software and submit and get one book, I can’t remember the results, altho Blurb was high, but my sister, who teaches illustration at an art college made me give her a copy for her students to copy!).

    I talked extensively with the couple I knew that published a high quality photo book, about their process with Blurb. This was their experience, and I don’t know if all that is accurate or not today with Blurb, but they were both college professors in imaging, and eventually gave up and hired a pre-press person to prep their files to meet print industry standards, and went through the Blurb “professional” division (at the time, there were two different Blurbs, one for more professional work). Once they did that, their test books started coming back perfect to what they wanted. I get the idea that anything else, and with any other printer, it’s sort of crap shoot. Even the professional photographers I I know that have gone through regular Blurb have not been happy with their first or second result, and had to take back the files and reset some of the photography, both in density and contrast.

    As for the selling of the book, if that’s the focus of the publication, your experience seems to be about it. The best of the Blurb books I own were bought through the Blurb sales department, and the people whose book it was, I think I got maybe five bucks, and the book cost me, including shipping, $75. It WAS a pretty professional looking book, but again, not on the standard of going to a book store and buying a professionally printed art book for $75. I had to make the decision to want the content, and not judge the “value”. It was a lot of money for me, tho. The people I knew that published on Blurb, had a small direct mail campaign on their own (just a post card) to direct people to Blurb to buy their book, and then the word of mouth went from there. Most of the photographers I knew had zero expectation that it would be a “seller”, just something they wanted to do. I’ve heard of some cases where photographers were contacted by “real” publishers to take them on, and redo their book professionally for a second printing…rare tho…

    It’s important to understand how “direct-to-press” publishing really started to roll-up in the early 2000’s. Some originators were upset with getting very little money, as the content creators, for their work from the standard publishers that took them on. I get it, my sister is a professional illustrator, and fairly well known nationally, and she’s not getting rich, and rarely takes a book on anymore. She can work three-quarters of a year on illustrations, and get 50 cents a book for the initial 10,000 print run (figure out what she’s making for three quarters of a year!). Where it pays off, is when it keeps getting reprinted. If it’s still selling, and they reprint 10K a year every year, my sister is getting the same money every reprint. But, as you can see, in order to get paid for the original work, the book would have to go through 5 reprints of 10K, and it never does!

    When you go into a book store, and look at books entirely for quality alone, books that you see on-line from “direct-to-press” self publishers, mostly print, and going for maybe 35 or 40 bucks, you see by large publishers on the shelf for about 18 dollars. You have to decide if you want the content, and want the author to make more than 50 cents a book, to pay that 40 bucks!

    • My Blurb books have been pretty well done. I did just order one of mine to give to a friend and I was a little disappointed in the cover printing, so they do have their off days.

      The main challenge with Blurb is the base price they charge. It’s high. I’d like to be able to sell photo books for no more than $10, but to do that on Blurb is nigh onto impossible. That’s why I’m probably going to try Amazon self-publishing for my next photo book. The quality won’t be as good as Blurb, but I should easily be able to get the cost down, which will put my work into far more hands.

    • BTW I meant to mention that I had my first brush with direct to press in 1998. I was pubs manager at a software company and my team wrote all new manuals for the product. The company we used to do the print run gave us this plugin or something for Microsoft Word that created a file that their press could work with. We also submitted files for the covers. We could print as many or as few books as we wanted. It was cool.

  4. Bottom line: you are competing against millions of other books out there. The odds of your book being chosen by anyone, regardless of content or marketing effort, is pretty slim because they’re all doing the same. It’s like being one grain of sand on the beach and expecting someone to notice you. This is why I gave up writing years ago; there was no realistic prospect of it being worth the effort. That may sound defeatist, but it’s true.

    • Oh so true, any book competes in a sea of other books. This is why my lessons learned focus on simplifying the process and being far more targeted in my marketing. I don’t expect to sell 10,000 copies, but gosh, if I could get to 500 that would be swell.

  5. Hi Jim, thanks for posting this! I am in the process of writing a book (not photography) and the choices for publication and marketing are overwhelming. Reading this has helped me organize my approach. Thanks again!!!

  6. Wow, what a journey! I’m sorry to hear it hasn’t got as much sales as you’d like, but I hope it still feels good to hold the book in your hands and know it is all your own work. And I have to say I learned more about self-publishing reading this post than the many other outlets I have researched it on – including writers conferences! You should consider speaking at one of those, by the way. Lots of people are very interested in self-publishing, and they could learn a lot from you. Also – it could be good marketing for you! I definitely recommend hiring an editor. I did so for my manuscript and she pointed out things that never would have crossed my mind. A fresh set of eyes on the work really helps it pop. And – in terms of author platform, I might recommend Twitter if you’re not already on it. I know it has some rough elements to it – but the writing community on there is very supportive and good about following each other and advertising for each other. Best of luck on the next one! :)

    • I really am pleased to hold my book in my hands, and very happy that nearly 70 people bought it and hold it in theirs. It’s fascinating to me that my one post was so informative to you! It might be interesting to try to make a writers conference talk out of this.

  7. I read this early this morning and was so overwhelmed by it all I wanted to go back to sleep. What an ordeal this has been but a great learning experience too. Everyone wants to write a book but few have the drive, the talent or commitment to make it happen. Im glad you’re choosing to learn and apply those lessons to your next project!

    As a side note- when I do commercial print jobs for work I’m very particular about the photo editing. You are absolutely correct to do that editing yourself and to even talk to your printer about their specs or to ask if they can print a sample. Things sometimes don’t print the way you think they should.

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Jim!

    • Yes – I’m trying to figure out how to make this process be less work, and connect the result with more people. I’m not driving hard to be a bestseller, but if that ever happened I wouldn’t turn it down!

  8. Thank you to you and Andy Umbo for the useful hints and the description of the frustrations and disappointments involved in the process. Wow. And, as some of you noted, there are thousands of photography books out there.

    • This is why building the author platform is the thing. I’m building “fans” of sorts, and then I announce to them when I have something. Otherwise I’m left to market to Everybody, and getting their attention is hard.

  9. Caveat: I only add images to my books to support the prose. I don’t create books that are primarily images. Okay, that said, here’s my experience over 18 nonfiction books:

    I don’t sell much on other platforms aside from Amazon, but I do sell some books. Surprisingly, I also sell into libraries and subscription services. That’s why I offer my self-pub books on Kobo (for Kobo Plus) and Draft2Digital. If you only offer your books on Amazon, only 30-40% of the world’s readers can read your book. (That number continues to decrease over time, because more services do compete with Amazon.)
    As you noted, discovery is the issue for us self-published writers. I only know of writing and speaking to get the word out. I write a fair amount and I’ve been giving talks and doing podcasts to get the word out for my Modern Management Made Easy books. That’s been pretty successful.

    I’m not sure why you decided in advance that tangential podcasts wouldn’t want you. I generate 10 (generic) questions for every podcast. When one podcast invites me, I might change 2-4 of those questions and boom, I’m done. Remember, podcasts need lots of guests. I wonder if you can relate the book writing, publishing, or any other part of the process to your day job. I suspect you can. And agile podcasts? I bet you can because you practiced a whole bunch of adaptability and resilience as you proceeded.

    You also need good keywords (in the form of phrases) and stellar, inviting, (empathetic and no passive) for your back cover copy. I can do a great job on this for other people. For me?? Hehehe. Hours of work.

    I’m in a position where I can take an hour every day, if necessary, to market my book. I include writing on my blogs in that hour. However, I want to finish the next book, so I don’t tend to want to “just” market. I like talking to people, so that also works for me. (I think you also like 1-1.)

    Content marketing is a long game and requires consistency. One small thing a week and you’ll succeed over the long term. You’ve already sold more books than some nonfiction writers. (Even traditionally published.)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.