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.

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Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories: A story from my book, A Place to Start

I hope you’ll indulge me one more story from my book, A Place to Start.

The holidays are almost upon us, and in A Place to Start I tell this one holiday story. You probably won’t be surprised it’s about a camera! A Polaroid camera, to be precise. I wish I still had this camera.

If you order today, it’s probably not too late to have a paperback copy of my book in your hands in time for Christmas. Of course, if you order an electronic copy, you’ll have it instantly! Here’s where you can get it:

This story first appeared here on December 22, 2008.


My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

courtesy Paul Giambarba

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot a photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played that guitar for 20 years! He looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

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Road Trips, Stories Told

Bursting the nostalgia bubble: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

My new book has been out for a week and a half now and I’m surprised and thrilled with the response so far. If you’ve picked up a copy, thank you!

If you’d like a copy of my book, get one here:

I want to share one more story from my book. In the first several years after I was newly single it was a great distraction from my troubles to spend a fair-weather Saturday seeing where an old road would take me. I still love the old roads today, and it’s led to a broader interest in transportation history.

I had this vision of days gone by, people driving these old highways at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view.

One day I got to meet Paul Ford, a legend in Terre Haute radio. In his retirement, he and his wife operated a set of Christian radio stations along US 40 between Terre Haute and Casey, Illinois. We talked about radio a little bit, but we also talked about US 40 itself. His tales of how dangerous this road had been opened my eyes!

This story first appeared here on January 25, 2008.


My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the National Road (US 40) in Illinois. The state built modern US 40 alongside an older brick and concrete road – and abandoned the old road.

Abandoned National Road
Paul Ford’s house and radio studio, in sight of the abandoned highway

As we explored the abandoned road, Michael asked me what drew me to the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”

Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.

Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.

I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People would get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”

I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.

As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way from eastern states into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s brick and concrete construction. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first – because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!

Abandoned National Road
Michael on a rough patch of the old road

But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars – for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers could travel much faster and safer. They undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back.

Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life – a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old roads.

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Personal

My book, A Place to Start, is now available on Google Play, for those of you who prefer to buy that way and read on supported devices! Click the button below to get started.

Get it on Google Play

It is, of course, still available at:

A Place to Start is now on Google Play

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Essay

Ship Mode: Recognizing when it’s time to stop polishing your work and just ship it

Every creative project has three phases: make the thing, polish the thing, deliver the thing. The polish step is where you remove errors through testing, editing, inspection, or other review. The deliver step is where you put your work in people’s hands.

It’s so easy to get stuck on the polish step. You keep looking for and fixing little things until you’re sure it’s perfect! This is all about fear. When your work is in the world, they can judge it. They can even ignore it. We want to avoid how bad that feels.

Also, perfection is expensive. You can spend as much time rooting out every tiny flaw as you did making the thing. Those tiny flaws will be embarrassing. But they won’t really hurt anything, and they won’t keep anyone from clicking Buy Now. Crucially, eliminating every last minor flaw keeps you from working on new projects that create new value.

When you’ve applied reasonable polish, when you feel the fear of rejection, it’s time to enter Ship Mode.

In Ship Mode, you single-mindedly do the tasks that put the work in people’s hands. You’re not looking for problems anymore. You choose to think of your work as a finished product. You might notice an error while you’re in Ship Mode, but unless it’s truly egregious, you keep shipping.

My new book was good enough to ship — but it’s not perfect

I self-published my book, A Place to Start (available now at Amazon and Leanpub). I did the whole job: writing, editing, creating the print-ready and e-book files, and (now) marketing. I saved money doing it all myself, but I’m skilled in only some of these tasks. Also, there came a point where I’d looked at my book so much I had become blind to it.

I’m a recovering perfectionist and I’m mildly OCD (officially diagnosed). It was hard for me to learn to let go and enter Ship Mode. But I’m glad I learned it many years ago, or I would still be making myself nuts perfecting my book. I have a day job. There’s only so much time to work on side projects. If I polished this one to perfection, it would not be available for several more weeks yet.

Curse you, Page 50!

I saw it only in the last step of the submission process to Amazon: this ungraceful flow on page 50. No publishing company would allow a paragraph on one page to spill three words onto the next right before an illustration.

When I saw it I gritted my teeth. I probably said a four-letter word. But not only is this problem not egregious, but most readers won’t even recognize it as a problem. Nobody will demand a refund because of it. I clicked the Approve button to finish the submission. That’s Ship Mode!

I edited every story as I assembled the book, and then made two proofreading passes. But when my author copy arrived I found two typos in five minutes. How frustrating!

But I will be shocked if you find something really messed up, like garbled sentences or missing paragraphs. During the polish phase I sweated out everything that would have seriously damaged your experience with the book.

And then I got on with shipping it so you could read it and, I hope, enjoy it.

Ship Mode! Because there’s a point past which polish doesn’t pay.

Here’s how you can get my new book:

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