Books have been top-of-mind for me and Team SPI this year. With the release of Superfans in July 2019, I’ve now successfully self-published three books—two of which are Amazon bestsellers and one even hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.
All of that to say, I have a lot of experience about self-publishing books to share and it’s all right here for you in this chapter covering the top publishing tips that have been helpful to me in writing and publishing multiple books in the past decade. These are my favorite high-level tips that will be helpful to anyone who’s writing a book or thinking about writing one in 2020. So let’s dig in!
Tip #1: Have a reason—a purpose—to write a book.
A lot of people want to write a book because . . . they want to write a book. But if you don’t have a great purpose for writing it, your book is going to fall short. Your purpose can be business-related, in terms of how you want to serve your audience, or it can be more personal. But, either way, you have to have a clear purpose for writing your book, and you have to be committed to that purpose.
For Will It Fly?, my purpose was to serve the beginners in my audience. These are the people who ask a lot of questions about how to start a business, who are unsure about where to start or what niche to get into—hence the subtitle, “How to Test Your Next Business Idea So You Don’t Waste Your Time and Money.”
I felt strongly about this purpose because these people represented the largest segment of my audience. I wanted to create an awesome resource to share with beginner entrepreneurs encountering my brand for the first time.
With Superfans, my purpose had less to do with what my audience was already asking me, and was more about what I know they and other entrepreneurs need in order to succeed. With social media changing and technology evolving, the number one thing that’s helped me stay afloat and continue to thrive no matter what, even without the best marketing skills in the world, has been my superfans. And Superfans is my how-to guide for building those fans.
There’s nothing out there so far about this topic in the way I tackle it in this book. That’s why Superfans is my flag in the ground about how businesses can grow and succeed. I see so many people focusing on traffic, search engine optimization, digital ads, and other tactical moves. Although those things are important, what’s most important is what happens when people come across your website or your brand. How do you treat them? What experiences are you giving them? And when you build your superfans, your brand will grow because of them.
So, you need to have a purpose, and not just write a book for the sake of writing a book.
Tip #2: Nail the big idea.
Beyond your purpose, you also need to have a big idea. Your big idea is the central message of your book, the thing that’s going to connect with the people in your target audience. It’s the thing that will make them want to, you know, read it, and love it when they’re done with it.
If you just pick a topic and go with it, without a real big idea, well, your book is likely to get lost in the sea of other books out there. So if you don’t have your big idea nailed down, you need to do that first, before you start writing.
The big idea with Will It Fly? was that you’ll greatly improve your chances of success, and save time and money, by spending a little time doing market research and idea validation up front. With Superfans, the big idea is that your business should focus on the experiences you give people who come across your brand.
Your big idea is the thing that makes your book easy to talk about and easy to share. If you create a book that’s just like everything else out there, well, then why does this book need to exist in the first place?
When you have the big idea nailed, you’ll benefit hugely in terms of marketing because you’ll know exactly how to talk about your book, what it’s about, and who it’s for.
Tip #3: Brainstorm the content.
After you nail down your big idea, you can start brainstorming the content that’ll go in your book.
You need a method to get all the ideas out of your head and collected in a place where you can start to organize them and create your book’s outline.
Like I shared in chapter 1, I love using Post-it Notes for this because it’s a quick and simple system for getting all your ideas out of your head. You can write one idea per note, and then group them together by topic until you start to see an organization and your book outline begins to emerge. The beauty of this approach is it gets all those ideas out of your brain and into a place where they can be organized. Your brain does a good job of coming up with ideas, but a terrible job of organizing them on the fly.
I suggest devoting a half-day to going all-in with your topic and just dumping everything out of your head and onto Post-it Notes so that you can begin to organize it. (Revisit chapter 1 for an in-depth review of what that process looks like.)
You’ll find as you go through this process that not all those things in your head may be worth including in the book. This exercise will also reveal gaps you may need to fill, and you’ll be surprised by some of the new ideas that emerge. It’s kind of like magic, how it happens. Each Post-It Note essentially becomes a part of each chapter, and each chapter become part of the larger whole. You’ll start to see what a person’s experience might be like as they read through your book.
Tip #4: Validate the book idea.
This isn’t something a lot of authors do, but it’s something I definitely recommend, and that is validating the book’s big idea with your target readers or customers.
If you have an audience, maybe even some superfans, or friends, family, or anyone in your network who understand the topic you want to write about, ask them if you can share your big idea and book outline with them to get their feedback.
Doing this will help you get the all-important gut reaction from those people. It’ll encourage you to move forward and start making crucial changes now, before you get too far down the path of writing. It may just be as simple as talking about your topic in a more detail on a podcast episode, on a blog post, or in an interview with somebody who’s an expert on that topic.
There are other ways to validate your idea too. Michael Hyatt validated his book Living Forward through a lead magnet. When it became his most popular lead magnet, he turned it into a book that became a best-seller. And Superfans actually began its life as a stage presentation, all about converting your casual audience into raving fans. It became one of my most popular presentations, which helped to validate my big idea.
Tip #5: Create a consistent writing schedule.
When it comes to writing your book, you need a schedule. With Will It Fly?, writing was initially a huge struggle. I scrapped a bunch of versions, and it wasn’t until I connected with my writing coach, Coach Azul, who helped me grasp a number of the mental components related to writing, that things started getting easier. One of the huge things Azul helped me understand was the importance of consistency in the writing process—doing a little bit every day.
With Will It Fly?, I got into a rhythm of writing at the same time every morning, and it made all the difference. I did something similar with Superfans. Although it wasn’t in the morning, I wrote every day, for thirty days, during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). That was great for me because it held me accountable to the challenge of writing every day, and momentum started to pick up.
I even had people help hold me accountable through social media, when I was posting my daily word count.
If you need some help from a writing coach, I definitely recommend getting in touch with Coach Azul. He also has a great podcast called Born to Write. I also talk with Azul in episode 379 of my podcast on how books increase our authority and leadership.
Tip #6: Follow your writing schedule.
The next step after creating a schedule is to actually honor that schedule. Just because you create a schedule doesn’t mean you’re going to follow it. You have to commit.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m going to do it tomorrow,” or, “I’ll get through it eventually.” Even if it’s a couple sentences at a time, you have to go in there every day, hunker down, and get it done.
Actually doing the writing, on schedule, can be tough, especially because a lot of the stuff leading up to this part—coming up with your purpose and big idea, and brainstorming the book outline—is often more fun. As a result, the writing phase is where a lot of people procrastinate or give up.
But just like with anything related to productivity, if it’s in your calendar, you need to honor it and get it done. So be ready to make a commitment to your writing schedule.
Tip #7: Take it one piece at a time (and go out of order if you like).
As I was getting ready to start writing Will It Fly?, I was really daunted. How was I going to write this whole book?
Another huge lesson I learned from Azul was to take the writing one piece at a time. He got me to approach writing each chapter as if it were just a blog post—something I had a lot of experience doing already. So I’d go into Google Docs and pretend each chapter was another blog entry. It made the whole thing much less scary.
As the “posts” started adding up, I could see the picture of the whole book coming together. The connections and transitions from chapter to chapter came later on, although some of them happened naturally.
The other key to this approach was not necessarily writing each chapter or “post” in sequential order. The intro and the first few chapters in Will It Fly?, for example, were some of the last sections I wrote, once I started to get more energized by having most of the book written. It was the same with Superfans: I didn’t write the first chapter first. I started with the chapter I knew the most about, the one I was most excited to write.
So, take it one piece at a time, and write in the order that makes sense to you.
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Tip #8: Get through the first draft.
The next most important thing is to get through the first draft as quickly as possible. Getting through that first draft helps you stay motivated to move forward because you’ll have created an actual, tangible thing. You’ll be on your way.
And then, once you have that draft, it becomes a question of how to improve it instead of worrying if you’ll ever get it done.
Now, the first draft shouldn’t be perfect. There’s no way that it can be, and in my experience, with each of the three books that I’ve written, I’ve kept maybe 50 to 60 percent of my original material at most.
That’s why you need to make sure, as you’re writing, that you don’t edit too much—or at all. You want to get everything out there. It’s not going to be perfect, and you need to be okay with that. Once you’ve got your story written down, then you can begin to start pruning, fine-tuning, and making it great.
You see, your brain’s editing mode is different from its creative and writing mode. If you try to do both at the same time, you’re going to get nothing done. I’ve even heard of some writers who “delete” the delete key from their computer because they don’t want to have to worry about editing themselves while they’re writing.
As Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird, your first draft is like gathering all the sand for the sand castle you’re going to build. Or in another sense, it’s just like throwing up on a page. It’s going to be gross and nasty, but it’s what you need to do before you can start cleaning it up and making it great.
There’s a number of different ways to help the process along. One great way is to use a transcription service to get through it, as a way to “write” your book as you’re driving home from work.
Tip #9: Ask people to read your manuscript.
After the first or second draft, have several people read it and get their feedback. Think of each draft as the prototype of a physical product. If you were to keep that product a secret until revealing it, it may not be to the liking of your target audience, and it’s the same thing with a book.
Are there people you know who you can ask for a favor or do something pro bono for them in exchange for a first read? Maybe you have fans in your audience who would want to get your book in their hands early, and you could offer them an advance copy in exchange for their feedback.
Receiving early feedback helps you know what you need to focus on in later drafts. It can also give you extra motivation in the early stages of writing your book, when you may be struggling or feeling overwhelmed. Getting that initial feedback, especially if it’s positive, can help you keep going when times get tough.
When you’re ready, you can also combine this tip with creating a launch team that helps with marketing the book before it comes out.
Tip #10: Hire a developmental editor.
If possible, make sure that you hire, a developmental editor. (This is different from a copy editor, which I’ll talk about next.) A developmental editor is someone who helps shape the book to ensure that it makes sense, that everything’s in the right order, that all the stories are filled out, and that there are no open loops that need to be closed.
Your developmental editor is the person who’ll tell you things like, “You need to add a story here to support this point,” or, “This point over here conflicts with this point over here, so you might want to resolve that or choose one over the other.”
Working with a developmental editor is important because it’s someone with an objective perspective, who has experience with the book writing process. This is a professional who’s not “in” your book like you are. Because you’re so deep into it, you might make assumptions or connections your readers won’t, which can reduce the quality and accessibility of the book.
When you’re so involved with something, it’s hard to see what it’s like from the outside, so a developmental editor can be of great use in making sure everything makes sense and all the gaps are filled in.
Tip #11: Hire a copy editor.
When you’re ready to publish your book, you definitely want to make sure your grammar and spelling is correct, and that’s where a copy editor comes in. A copy editor will read through the final manuscript to tighten up the language and catch any errors. Sometimes a copy editor will also fact check, but they may not automatically include that in their services, so you should ask.
I also recommend reading the final manuscript yourself, and have others read it too. I’ve had my books read by ten different people, and they’ve all discovered different mistakes. But a copy editor is crucial, because they know what to look for. (Revisit chapter 2 for an in-depth look at the editing process.)
Tip #12: Get the cover designed.
While this is all happening, you can get the book cover designed.
You need to get an idea of the book size you want, so visit some bookstores or take a look at your own bookshelf to understand what works for you. Pick up several books, see how they feel in your hands, and imagine each one is your book. What feels right to you?
With that in mind, you’ll be able to give your book cover designer a better starting point.
There are a lot of places you can get book covers done, from 99Designs to Fiverr, to hiring a professional designer. It’s really up to you and your budget, but there are options for all budgets. You can even do it yourself.
However, I highly recommend working with someone who has book experience. Your cover design not only helps a person understand what that book may be about, and how it might help and serve them, but it’s also a key part of your marketing. It’s often the first thing a person sees, and we all know what they say about first impressions.
A good exercise is to go into the book categories on Amazon that match (or almost match) your book’s topic, to quickly see what other covers are out there and which ones stand out to you. See how you might be able to either adapt something others have used that you like or create something completely different that really stands out.
Tip #13: Get the interior designed.
If you’re doing a print book, there are a lot of services out there to help you create your book, from Lulu.com to (the service formerly known as) CreateSpace, which was bought by Amazon and became part of Amazon KDP.
These are some of the DIY options out there, which is exciting, but even if this is the route you want to take, you still need to get the book’s interior designed. But book interior design presents special challenges, so it’s important to work with someone who has experience with this kind of design. You’ll be presented with many questions like, Where do the page numbers go? How big should the line spacing be? Where do the page breaks happen? What do the chapter titles look like?
All those are things you didn’t have to think about in the beginning, but at this point, you definitely do. So you need to find someone who’s done it before and done it well.
A cool aspect of interior design is the opportunity to add fun touches to your book. An Easter egg we added to Will It Fly? was a little paper airplane at the bottom of each page. If you flipped through pages (like a flipbook), you’d see the airplane fly across the page. Little things like this help put the reading experience over the top, especially in print book format.
Tip #14: Get the ebook designed and formatted.
Like having someone help design the print book interior, you also need to hire someone to design and convert an ebook version, if that’s a format you’ll be using.
Creating an ebook might seem like a simple operation, but it’s actually complex, and it definitely isn’t something I know how to do. It takes some knowledge of coding and the intricacies of the different ebook formats—the main ones being MOBI (for Amazon Kindle) and EPUB (for other readers)—as well as all the different device types and screen sizes that need to be accounted for.
Thankfully, there are people out there who you can hire to help you format your ebook versions properly.
Bonus Tip: Where to Learn More
I wish I’d known all these things when I was writing my first book, and so I hope you find these tips helpful (and saving you time and frustration) as you’re getting started with your new book idea.
You should check out a couple of older-but-still-very-useful podcast episodes from the SPI archives, including one with Jeff Goins about book marketing and promotion, and another with Daniel Decker about creating a launch team for your book.
In the next chapter, we explore the marketing and selling of your book, including where to market your book, what types of content to include on your website, best practices for social media, and more. When it comes to promoting your book, you don’t need to feel overwhelmed. Read on to discover your book marketing and selling solutions.