Lately, I’ve been talking to many of my friends about getting their books published. Not that they have big, fat manuscripts lying around just waiting to be published. No, no — most of these people aren’t even thinking about writing a book. I’m the one who says they have a book in them that’s itching to come out. They were just minding their business, perfectly happy with their non-authorial existence, until I waltzed along and persuaded them that their lives were empty and meaningless without getting their noble thoughts down in book form for posterity to enjoy.
I’m exaggerating here, but only a little: I do believe that most people have a book in them. I’ve self-published all of my books so far: The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible, The Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Enlightened Guide to Success With Women, and Best Dating Advice I Ever Got: 3000 Women Pick Their Favorite Love Tips.* And as an independent author and publisher, it’s my goal to help as many people fulfill their authorial ambitions as possible. Because it has never been easier in the history of mankind to write a book, publish it, and make it available to millions of potential readers — and to even make a buck doing it all.
In this article, I’ll endeavor to tell you about the steps you need to take to write a book and publish it, fast, even ifyou believe you have no writing talent and even less skill. My experience is in nonfiction titles — books that people find useful enough to spend money on. For fiction, I would recommend the (somewhat controversial) ebook by John Locke, How I Sold Over a Million Ebooks in 6 Months.
My assumption is that you think you are super-busy and simply don’t have the kind of time required to tackle a task as Herculean as writing a book. In fact, while writing this article, I had in mind two friends who teach at Harvard Medical School. With lectures, clinical responsibilities, a family, and the occasional need to sleep, I’ll assume that they can devote at most 5 hrs of every 168-hr week to forging their magnum opus. So given a chance to speed up the process by hiring someone at a reasonable cost, they’d take it. When relevant, at the end of each step, I’ve listed what this reasonable cost is, and what real-life time-savings it produces (5hrs saved = one week saved).
Also, keep in mind that a lot of these steps are happening in parallel, not in series. For example, you’re working on getting editors for your book while you have your designer work on a cover. This speeds up the entire process, making it quite possible to do the whole thing in a month or two.
You must also remember that what I’m presenting to you here is an outline. There’s a book’s worth of detail behind each of the steps. Those pilgrims who are serious enough can seek me out for the nitty-gritty, or egg me on to write the full book on this topic.
Ready? Here we go:
Pick your topic. What’s your area of expertise? What’s the one area of knowledge in which the world can most benefit from you? The intersection of those two circles is the thing you’re going to write about. For one friend who’s a professor of public health, it’s nutrition. For another, it’s the new sharing economy.
Intention is important. You’re not doing this to see your name on a book cover, brag to your friends, increase your consulting or speaking fees, or otherwise stroke your ego. You’re doing this to serve your readers. If you get that one part right, the rest will fall into place.
Start talking to friends who could be your editorial board. Do you have friends and colleagues who are into your topic, or just generally supportive of your hare-brained, helium apple-pie ideas? Perfect. Start talking up your project to them now, before you’ve even written the first word. Or, if you’re really daring, get your project started on Kickstarter.com (which is a book unto itself).
Start a blog, preferably with your name on it. We live in amazing times when everyone can basically start her own personal newspaper and make it available to millions of people without cost. Your blog will be your personal newspaper, where you can put up content, one article at a time. It’s a great home base where you can send your once and future readers, capturing their attention with your great content — and their email addresses. That way, when your book comes out down the road, you have a pre-existing audience.
It’s also a safe way to test your content, and see what works and what does not. The blog gives you a simple forum where you can get feedback from your readers, thereby molding the book into what they respond to the most.
To do this, go get a URL from godaddy.com, preferably with your name on it, get some hosting from mediatemple.net, take 3min to install the 1-click Wordpess software, and go to it.
Cost: URL is $15/yr, hosting is about $10/month.
Time savings: unquantifiably huge. Do this right, and the book writes itself in your spare time.
Write down a list of interview questions. Let’s assume you’re going to do an interview that covers the most important topics in your field. What 12 questions would you have someone ask you? Write those questions down. Then write 2-4 sub-question for each sub-question. These will become your chapter headings. Now…
Get a good interviewer to ask you your list of questions and record the interview. This step is the secret sauce to getting your book out this year — even this month — as opposed to 2049 A.D. when your kids are on Social Security. Most people whine that they don’t have time to write, they don’t like to write, they’re bad at it, bitch bitch moan moan. And yet, even as they’re bitching and moaning, they’re talking perfectly well.
Well, guess what. You don’t have to write your book. You can talk it. Nobody ever gets talkers block (although we fervently wish some people did). You can totally do this.
Here’s why it’s really important that you get a live person to interview you, vs. just talking into a voice recorder as you jabber on. Having the live person will force you, the expert, to express yourself in a way that the non-expert — i.e. your audience, whom we’re hoping will pay to read your book — can understand. Without the live interviewer, it will be too easy for you to lapse into jargon, make leaps of logic that are perfectly obvious to you but opaque to your reader, and basically to be on track to crank out a book with an audience of one.
So, get an interviewer. The more the interviewer approximates the average reader of your book, the more honest he’ll keep you. Why? Because you’re hiring him to keep you honest, to ask for clarification and to stop your flights of self-indulgent fancy before they hit the page.
These will be long interviews. Aim to have the answer to each question with sub-questions take 30-60min. You should aim for 60-90min sessions, which means that doing the whole book will take 8-12 sessions.
Cost: At $20/hr, this will run you $160-$240.
Time saved: Writing a 50,000 word book at the blindingly fast rate of 500 words per hour would take you at least 100 hours. That’s 20 weeks for you. This method will take 1-4 weeks, depending on your level of determination, saving you 80-95% of your time.
Transcribe it. An hour of speech is 25-30 pages of text, depending on how fast you talk. A good transcriptionist on elance.com or some other hired-gun site will cost you $60-70 per recorded hour. Don’t skimp on this: a bad transcription will easily double or triple your editing time, costing you a hell of a lot more down the line.
Cost: at 8-12 recorded hours, this will run you $500-$800.
Time saved: This is a substitute for writing it yourself, so see that last entry.
Copyedit and format the transcript. Now you’ll have 200-300 pages of raw transcript that needs to be edited into something legible — namely, a manuscript. You can do this yourself, or you can farm it out. Elance.com has tons of freelance editors, and you can get pretty good ones for as little as $15/hr. Bibliocrunch.com is specific to writing and publishing; I’d recommend you go there first.
Preferably hire someone who after editing will also format the transcript, make it look like a book, and get it ready for e-publication. You may be surprised to find that there are legions of people who do this kind of thing professionally, so please don’t feel the need to flop around trying to reinvent the wheel. If you have the money, let it save you time and headache by leaving such things to the pros.
Cost: Depending on how much you choose to mangle the English language and to babble sheer incoherence in your interview, I’m going to estimate that copyediting will take 15-30 hours. At $15/hr, that’s $225-$450.
Time saved: 3-6 weeks.
Edit the manuscript by crowdsourcing to your editorial board. Remember those friends you were talking up your project to way back when, before you had a single word written? Time to hit them up and offer them bribes of Godiva, Moet and advance copies of your book to get them on your editorial panel.
To those who agree and swear up-and-down that they will read your book and give you comments, send a PRINTOUT of your book, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and a hard deadline, no more than 3 weeks from when they get the book. Urgency is key. Without a deadline, you won’t get anything back from them — trust me on this. With a deadline and some good-mannered hectoring, expect to get 70% of those manuscripts back with useful comments.
Of those, 20% will give you useless feedback (“This is great”, “Don’t like this part”, and other nonspecific air). With the remaining 80% of comments, your job is to consider implementing as many of them as possible — all of them if you can. Why? Because these are your customers, and if your job is to serve them (which it is — see above), then they are always right.
Remember: you’re not writing the book for you. You’re writing it for them.
Cost: $100 or so for printouts and postage.
Time savings: a solo professional editor would take the same amount of time or less, but cost you mountains o’ cash — $500-$1000 at the very least.
Add your footnotes and references. This I recommend that you do yourself, because it’s too important to leave to anyone else. If you’re an academic, you already have a system for compiling references. If not, I recommend using Evernote.
Hire someone to do your cover. You can either go to a site like 99designs.com, elance.com, BookBaby.com or ask a self-publisher like myself for a referral. Or go to an e-publishing forum like Kindleboards.com, look at some self-published covers you like, and nicely ask the authors for a referral.
Although it doesn’t take a lot of time to find a good cover designer, it doesn’t take zero time either. You can start this process as soon as you have a good idea of the book’s topic and title. You can always change the title later; just get the design process started, because there’s a lot of back-and-forthing which takes time.
Pick a title. You’re writing a non-fiction book, right? Of course you are — otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, because I told you I don’t know squat about publishing fiction.
This may actually be one of the easier steps in the process, because you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.
What?!?, you cry incredulously. But my title can be anything, anything at all! It would take a Cray Titan supercomputer decades to go through all the permutations of my title, etc etc.
But if you were to pipe down for a minute from your enthusiastic yet ultimately naive yammering, I could save you a lot of time by telling you that there are real constraints on your choice of title — IF you want your book to be successful.
Do this: go to Google right now. Search for ‘best dating advice’. You’ll get about 156 million results. #11 on that list is my book. It’s been there since the second week I published it on the Kindle, and besides my magnetic personality and regular weekly showers, there are no further tricks involved.
How? Here’s the secret: your title should be as close as possible to what people are searching for when it comes to your topic. Because then, when your book goes on sale on Amazon, its title gets tagged on the tail end of Amazon.com, one of the biggest and most authoritative sites in the universe, and your book shows up on the front page of searches for your topic.
This is called search engine optimization, or SEO. People pay thousand of dollars to get on the front page of Google. For that tip made of solid platinum — nay, palladium — I will let you buy me a beer. You’re welcome.
For example, if your book is about cooking Thanksgiving meals, you entitle it Cooking Thanksgiving Meals, or Cooking the Best Thanksgiving Meals, or something like that. If it’s about catching catfish with your bare hands in the Mississippi Delta, you call it Noodling for Catfish in the Mississippi Delta.
Or, if it’s a book about dating, you call it Best Dating Advice I Ever Got. And if you put that search term into Google, my book comes up #4. And #3. And #2 and #1. Am I bragging? Hell yeah. But more important than inflating my ego is impressing upon you: keep the title as close as possible to what people are looking for while staying unique. Do not go fancy. Keep it simple.
And how do you pick this magical simple title? You go to the Google Adwords Keyword Tool and find out what people are searching for. Then you make your title out of the most-searched term. I’m summarizing a whole industry in a paragraph here, so yes, there are subtleties that I’m abridging. Just remember that the key is to get things started, and that you have powerful, free tools at your disposal.
Choose a subtitle. Your subtitle is the promise of your book. What are you delivering to your readers? I can tell you what you should be delivering to them: value. Value is either something tangible — money, Lamborghini, better dogfighting skills in their MiG-27 — or something they can feel: more happiness, love, sex, joy, itches scratched, bellies filled. In other words, make your subtitle about the end benefits of the book (“Catch more catfish with fewer hand injuries than ever”), not its features (“25 foolproof new noodling techniques”).
Although you may think the techniques and doodads you’re teaching them are supercool (and they are), your readers care more about the smell of freshly-baked catfish wafting in their kitchen. See? You can smell it yourself now, and perhaps you’re even salivating a little more than you were before. That’s what you want your readers to do when they read your subtitle: to salivate such that they can’t keep their hands off your juicy ebook.
Cost: lifetime supply of beer for me, preferably Belgian wheat beer. Hope your book sells really well.
Get an ISBN. This step is optional. An ISBN is a unique book identifier. It is not essential for pure ebook publishing. However, you will want to print the book up somewhere down the line. A single ISBN at ISBN.org will cost you $125, but go ahead and plunk down for the 10-pack for price of $250, set by Bowker, which has a monopoly, so you have no choice but to be gouged by them.
Finalize the manuscript. Done editing your manuscript and incorporating all the comments from your buddies? No? Yeah, I know — this always takes longer than you think. Allot a week for it, and expect it to take at least one more, because your friends, in their honesty, will reveal structural flaws and missing sections that hadn’t come to your navel-gazing mind. You will be tempted to rewrite the whole thing, but resist: it’s okay as it is. It will never be perfect. And, since it’s an ebook, you have the latitude to modify and resubmit to Amazon as often as you want. Get it presentable, and get it out the door.
Very important: make sure every friend of yours who egged you on and/or helped with editing the book is in your ‘Acknowledgments’ section.
Submit to Amazon KDP. Now things get real. Go to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and create an account. Then follow their very clear instructions on how to upload your book. Price it between $2.99 and $9.99 so you get 70% royalties.
I could write a whole book on how to optimize your book description for KDP, but here’s the most important part: use every last letter allotted you in the ‘Book Description’ and ‘About the Author’ sections to give your readers as much a preview of the book as possible. Actual excerpts and table of contents is best.
Here, you’re basically like the Chinese food stall owner in the mall, walking around with a plate of toothpicks and steaming food, saying “Try teriyaki chicken?” You’re giving them a taster of the book, so that even if it wasn’t on their radar, now they feel a strange hunger for your teriyaki chicken. (Note: your book is not make of chicken; this is just an extended metaphor. But I suddenly feel hungry, for some strange reason.)
One more submission tip: definitely enroll in KDP Select. This means you will sell your book on Amazon exclusively for a period of time (translation: no Nook, no Kobo, no iBooks, no personal website sales). In exchange, Amazon will give you some cool promotional tools, like letting you promote your ebook for free for a few days.
Get a bunch of good reviews. Remember your trusty editorial board? And how they’re now in the acknowledgments section of your book? Right now, they’re the most likely people in the world to write you an Amazon review. First, because they’re the only people who’ve read your book. Second, because they now have a vested interest in your success. They want you to win! So let them help you. Ask them nicely if they would be willing to put up a short review on Amazon on launch day. Having even a few 5-star reviews sets the tone for future reviews and gets your book off to a great start.
Tell the world about it. What I just described is 10% of the work. The other 90% is making it easy for your audience to find you — also known as marketing. If you started a blog way back when I told you and captured people’s emails with it, congratulations — you’re off to a fantastic start, since you have a pre-existing audience interested in your work. If you picked a good title according to the guidelines above, that does a lot of heavy lifting for you.
A full 1000-page treatise on book marketing is beyond the scope of this article, since here I’m primarily helping motivate you to get your book written and published. Once you’ve got a book, we can talk about how to build your audience and increase interest.
In the meantime, I’m happy to report that the best book on self-publishing just came out. It’s by entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch, and it’s called APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book. And it is phenomenally, insanely good. Everything that I mention here, Guy and Shawn expand on and amplify a hundredfold. They give you exact reasons for the choices you have to make, and do it all with great humor and generosity. I bought both the ebook and hardcopy versions and read it in one sitting. Just get it.
*They have been doing nicely, and if you’re a major publisher looking to offer me a 7-figure contract, I’m happy to talk. Write to me at DrAli(at)TaoOfDating.com
To do this, go get a URL from godaddy.com, preferably with your name on it, get some hosting from mediatemple.net, take 3min to install the 1-click Wordpess software, and go to it.
Don’t use GoDaddy, and Google “GoDaddy sucks” or “GoDaddy horror stories” to learn more about why. The people on Hacker News tend to like Name Cheap and a couple of others.