There was a time when “self-publishing” was just another word for “loser.” It was what bad poets did when they ran out of magazines to reject them and what grandchildren did after they’d finished putting together their grandparents’ memoirs. But publishing is changing. Print-on-demand, “entrepreneurial publishing” and digital books have put the entire process from writing through publishing to distribution at the hands of anyone who wants to put their knowledge and their experience into a book form. And the results of creating your own book can be tremendous. It’s not just the money from sales — which actually might not be very much — but the ability to bill yourself as “the author of,” to show off your expertise and to pass on your knowledge to others who might find it useful. For many self-published authors, writing and then producing their own book isn’t just satisfying in itself but it’s the first step in preparing a massive boost to their careers.
Seth Godin, for example, recently announced that he will no longer be publishing books in a traditional manner. That might sound like a revolutionary move from someone who describes himself as a former “book packager,” has created 120 published books and written a dozen bestsellers himself. But it’s also a step back. After publishing Permission Marketing with Simon and Shuster in 1999, Godin released his next book Unleashing the Ideavirus as a free, self-published ebook. In effect, he was putting the idea in the book to the test, releasing it into the wild to watch it spread and see how far it reached.
The Most Popular Ebook Ever Written
And it worked. Described as “the most popular ebook ever written,” Unleashing the Ideavirus is believed to have picked up more than 200,000 direct downloads and a further 300,000 from other sites. It went on to win traditional publishing contracts in 41 countries and launch Godin’s professional speaking career. It might not be a strategy for everyone but if you’ve got the platform and the right content then giving away an ebook online, something for which you don’t need a publisher, can win you attention from publishers and build your platform.
Seth Godin’s book was in a traditional format but produced and distributed in an untraditional way. When Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson produced The One-Minute Manager, they wanted everything to be traditional, including the $15 price tag. The industry told them it wasn’t going to happen, that a book that short would need a cut price too. Rather than compromise the value of the information in their book they decided to go their own way.
At that point, their book should have gone the same way as most self-published business books: into large piles of boxes buried in the garage. Instead, within three months, the pair had sold more than 20,000 copies in San Diego alone. Shortly afterwards they were holding a contract from William Morrow — and in the 30 years since then, they’ve seen their $15 book sell more than 12 million copies in over 25 languages.
That’s unusual. It’s usually difficult to sell your own business books unless you have a platform as large as Seth Godin’s — or the determination to fill halls, speak to crowds and push your product yourself. But if you’ve done that, you’ll have the proof that doubtful publishers need to be willing to lend a hand.
Richard N. Bolles had much smaller ambitions for What Color Is Your Parachute. Originally intended as a job-seeking guide for Episcopal priests heading into the secular world, the book was initially self-published and passed around inside the Church. That was always going to limit the audience though, and the positive feedback the guide received suggested it could do much more good if more people could read it.
Ten Speed Press bought the rights, and the book went on to spend 288 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, returning to the bestseller lists with each annual update.
It’s possible that the success of What Color Is Your Parachute was a pleasant surprise but there’s a little more to it than that. Bolles wrote a book for a specific audience but which contained information that was also universal. When the feedback came in saying that the book could have had a more general audience, he was quick to act on it and put the book in the hands of a publishing company with longer reach than his alone.
Know Your Market Better than Publishers
Writer E. Lynn Harris did something similar. He tried the traditional publishing route first for his novel Invisible Life but came up against the wall of rejection that meets most first-time novelists. So he turned to a market he knew. He printed the book himself and placed it in beauty salons and bookstores owned by African-Americans. It was a case of the author knowing more about a segment of the book-buying public than the publishing giants did. E. Lynn Harris sold 10,000 copies of the book before Doubleday/Anchor offered him a contract. His novels have since sold millions and repeatedly hit the New York Times bestseller list.
And if all of that isn’t inspiring enough there’s always Tim O’Reilly who began his career with a degree in Classics and as a self-publisher of books on Unix. O’Reilly & Associates is now one of the world’s largest computer book publishers as well as a conference organizer.
Of course, none of this means that if you lay out a pile of notes to a vanity publisher to print your book that you’re immediately going to hit the big time. Most self-published books don’t sell. But if you know your market, if you’re willing to do the marketing, and if the content within the book is valuable enough, then you too can build a platform, boost a brand, construct a company, and if you’re really lucky — and still want to — maybe even interest mainstream publishers too.