About a month ago I published my first book. It’s called Southern Fried Running and it’s about some of the best marathons and half marathons in the Southeastern United States.
I learned a lot during the writing and publishing process and I figured I’d share some of my learnings here. Some of the things I listed below probably sound obvious. Others might not be. Either way, if you’re interested in publishing your own book, hopefully this post will be helpful to you.
1. Writing a book is not a fast process.
It technically took me five months to finish Southern Fried Running. But considering that the book started out as a collection of blog posts, that amount would be longer if I include the time it took me to write the posts in the first place. Most of that time was spent during evenings and weekends when a lot of people I knew were off doing other things. The work is fun, but it’s definitely time consuming. Fortunately I did most of it during the winter when it was too cold to do anything fun outside.
This is probably obvious, but the point I’m trying to make here is that unless you’re willing to spend a significant amount of money, there really aren’t any shortcuts to writing a book. The only way to do it is to sit down, suck it up and write.
2. Good writing requires focus.
Early in my career I was a software developer. I would spend hours at a time staring at a computer screen writing code while completely tuning out everything else. Sometimes I would be so focused on what I was doing that I would forget to eat. If someone walked up to me and said something, it would startle me and I would jump. Then they would either laugh at me or apologize… or sometimes both. I was good at what I did though.
The writing process kind of reminded me of those days. Just like programming, the only way to truly do a good job writing is to spend hours at a time tuning everything else out completely so that you can focus solely on what you’re writing. Many evenings I would sit down after dinner with the intention of writing “just a few paragraphs” only to look up from my laptop six hours later and realize that everyone else in my house had gone to bed. My phone would have dozens of messages on it that I couldn’t reply to until the next morning because the people who had sent them were all asleep too.
3. Write… then rewrite… then rewrite again.
It took at least ten times as long for me to edit my book as it took me to initially write it. The chapters started out as a collection of blog posts, which is fine, but I needed to make sure that they flowed together nicely. So I added a few new ideas, took out a few ideas that didn’t fit very well with everything else and moved some other ideas around. Then I rewrote each individual chapter at least four times until I was finally happy with the flow.
I also rewrote the entire book end-to-end at least three times. So that’s a total of seven rewrites that I did before anyone besides me read a single sentence. After that, I asked some people to proofread my rough draft and I did some more rewriting after I got their feedback.
4. Writing a book is not a solo activity.
At least it wasn’t for me. Southern Fried Running started out as a collection of my own stories about races that I ran. But early on in the process it occurred to me that if that was all I wrote about, the only people who would be interested in reading it would be people who knew me personally. Nobody else would care.
So in order to make it appeal to a larger audience, I spent some time interviewing race directors, and officials from the cities that host the races. I asked them for information about local history and suggestions for places to eat and things to do for people who travel from out of town. Then I combined the information that I got with them with the stories I had already written.
The last thing I added was a chapter with tips for how runners can save money when traveling for races. At that point, it occurred to me that my book had morphed from a collection of personal stories into a travel guide for runners. It provides value to people with interests that are similar to mine and so far I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on it. If I hadn’t gotten so much help from so many other people, it probably would have been shit.
If you’re interested in writing a book, regardless of what your topic is, you’re probably going to have to involve someone else in the process. Whether that involvement simply means bouncing ideas off of people or asking for help in some other capacity, chances are that you’re not going to be able to do everything by yourself.
5. Self Publishing > Mainstream Publishers.
I’ve experienced both sides of this one.
Towards the end of 2007, a very large well known publisher approached me about writing a book about CRM after one of their editors read an article that I had written in a tech magazine. It would have been my first book. The only way I can really describe the experience is to say that it was “interesting”.
Before I wrote a sentence of actual content, I spent over a month going back and forth with the editors just to get the table of contents approved. They scheduled meetings with me and wanted to know exactly how many pages each chapter was going to have. When I asked them how I was supposed to answer that question before I actually wrote the chapters, they told me that I just needed to figure it out. So I pulled a few random numbers out of my ass and sent them to the editors figuring that if any of the chapters ended up being longer or shorter than my estimates, I would deal with it later.
After the table of contents finally got approved, the editors set up biweekly meetings with me to do detailed reviews of my content. Sometimes they gave me good feedback. Other times they didn’t. This was mainly due to the fact that they were editors and not CRM subject matter experts.
My book finally did get editorial approval and I thought that I was well on my way to becoming a published author. Not so fast. By that time it was 2008, the economy had started to collapse, and businesses everywhere were cutting their budgets. Even though my book was approved by the editors, it got pulled from the publisher’s marketing budget and put on indefinite hold.
The most ironic thing about that is that businesses tend to prioritize CRM implementations during recessions as they look to standardize their sales and marketing processes so they can stop losing more customers than they’ve already lost. My book probably would have sold well but we’re never going to know now. Seven years later, it’s technically still “on hold”. Maybe the publisher will call me back one day. I doubt it. And I don’t care anyway.
My two biggest takeaways from that whole experience were:
- Working with a big publisher gives you very little creative control over your own content.
- There are countless numbers of people who work at big publishing companies that can cancel any project or put it on hold at any time regardless of whether or not they know the author and regardless of how far along the book is in the publishing process.
I don’t want to go through that experience again. And fortunately, I don’t have to.
For Southern Fried Running, I was able to use the platforms provided by CreateSpace and Amazon.com to self-publish paperback and electronic versions of my book. I had complete creative control over the entire process. Not only did I get to make my own decisions about the content but I also got to choose the formats, typesetting, page size, layout, cover design, price and distribution channels myself. As I write more books in the future, I can also create package deals where I bundle multiple books together and sell them for less than it would cost someone to buy each book separately. If I worked with a big publisher, I would have no say in things like that.
The best part is that the actual publishing process itself cost me nothing. Amazon keeps a percentage of every book that I sell, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s totally worth it for the freedom that self publishing gave me.
When I was getting ready to publish my book, I had someone tell me that I was doing myself a disservice by not working with a publisher. Their argument was that I wouldn’t have anyone to market my book for me after it was written. My counter argument is that mainstream publishers don’t really do a good job of marketing most of their books anyway and I can do my own marketing much more effectively.
The next time you walk into a bookstore, take a look around at the small number of featured books that are sitting on the tables at the front of the store. Then look around at all the other books lining the shelves that don’t have any kind of prominent position in the store whatsoever. Even though most of those books were published through mainstream publishers, the only way anyone will find them is either through a personal recommendation from someone else or by stumbling across them when they’re researching a specific topic. At that point, there’s really no difference from a self-published book.
Publishers have teams of people dedicated to deciding which of their books will get featured in bookstores and show up on best seller lists, etc. The number of books that receive that kind of marketing is typically a very small percentage of the publisher’s overall catalog. So using a mainstream publisher really doesn’t guarantee anything as far as marketing goes.
On the other hand, I already have a huge platform that I can use to do my own marketing. If I add up all of my followers across the various social media channels that I post to, the total is in the tens of thousands and the majority of the people who follow me are other runners. This gives me the ability to launch my own campaigns that are targeted to the exact people I know will be interested in reading what I have to say. (This is also why I regularly get approached by fitness related companies who want me to help them promote their brands, but that’s a story for another post). I can pretty much guarantee that the marketing I can do on my own is more effective than anything a publisher would be able to do for me.
6. Publishing a book won’t make you rich.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. I actually priced my books as low as Amazon and CreateSpace would allow me to with the specific intention of NOT making a lot of money. I think I make something like 33 cents on each electronic copy of Southern Fried Running that gets sold and 8 cents on each paperback copy. Hell, I even give away free electronic copies to anyone who subscribes to my website and I make no money whatsoever on those.
There’s a simple reason for that: feedback and distribution are more important to me than making money. On the day Southern Fried Running was released, I gave away as many free copies as I could and the only thing I asked for in return was honest feedback so that I can improve my writing in the future. And it worked – I’ve gotten some amazing feedback and ideas that I know are going to be good additions to the next book I write. That’s more valuable to me than money.
Also, up until I published Southern Fried Running, if anyone searched for books about running on Amazon, my name would show up exactly zero times. Now I have a presence on the largest retail site in the world. It’s not a major presence of course, but it’s a starting point that I can build on. Again, this is more valuable to me than making a lot of money off of a single book.
7. Money aside, publishing a book will open a lot of doors for you and lead to other opportunities.
A few years ago I published an article about tips and tricks to configure the Mobile Sales module in a CRM application. Not long after that article was published, I received an email from an analyst at a company I had never heard of. She was leading a mobile sales implementation that was very similar to what I had written about and she wanted to know if I had any suggestions for how to solve an issue that she was running into. So I replied and gave her a few ideas. One of them worked. Throughout the rest of the implementation, she would send me emails with questions whenever she ran into issues and I did my best to help. I probably indirectly configured about 25% of her company’s CRM environment without ever actually working for them.
If I tell that story and stop there, the most common question I get asked is “Why didn’t you charge them like a consultant? You could have made a lot of money….” Maybe. But I actually ended up with something even better:
That company’s implementation was successful and my new friend got a promotion because of it. A few years later she left that company to take a position as an IT director at another company. When she did, she sent me a LinkedIn message that essentially said that if I ever wanted to come work for her, all I would have to do was say the word and she would make it happen. I haven’t taken her up on that offer yet, but knowing that I have contacts like that who will bend over backwards for me because I’ve done something to help them move their own careers forward in the past is another thing that’s a lot more valuable to me than money.
If you forget about trying to make money and just go out and do something that’s truly valuable for someone, they’ll never forget it. The article that I wrote provided value at a high level initially and my being open to answering peoples’ questions after they read it provided additional value on a more granular level. If you provide value for enough people, you’ll eventually be surprised by the number of opportunities that start to present themselves to you.
Southern Fried Running has already provided me with a similar opportunity. One of the races I wrote about was the Outer Banks Marathon in North Carolina. The race directors read my book and were so impressed by what I had to say about their race that they asked me to come back for this year’s race and speak at their health and fitness expo about destination races and travel tips for runners. They’re also reimbursing my travel expenses, giving me a free entry into the race, buying copies of my book to put in goody bags that they’re giving away to participants who have run the race every year for the last ten years and giving me a table to do a book signings at the expo after my presentation.
This wasn’t something that I expected when I wrote the book, but by including a chapter recommending their race, I provided value to the race directors. People who have never heard of the Outer Banks Marathon might potentially add it to list of must-do races after reading about it. So the race directors did something nice for me in return. If my presentation goes well, I’ll be able to provide even more value to the Outer Banks Marathon race directors by adding some good content to their health and fitness expo…. and who knows what other opportunities that might lead to. This is also better than money and none of it would have happened if I hadn’t decided to write a book.
I have more to share, but I think this covers most of my thoughts. This post is getting pretty long so I’ll stop here and maybe include the rest in a future post. If you’ve read this far, I’m hoping you found this information to be useful. And if you’re interested in writing your own book and you have any questions about the process, feel free to reach out. I’m always happy to help.