In this post, I’ll run through an overview of my process, the thought process I went through to shape the book, some of the key research takeaways, and ultimately how I wrote, edited, formatted and published a 210 page, 50,000 word book in print and ebook formats between May 1st and November 4th while working a full-time job. I had my first proof copy printed and in hand September 19th. To hit this timeline I did the majority of my writing between May 1st and July 12th when I sent 47,500 character drafts out to my reviewers. 35% of the copy was a partial re-work and re-write of existing blog content. The remainder was original. This period also excluded a family trip May 25th through June 10th where I was unable to write but did continue to add topics.
At launch the book briefly broke into the Top 100 paid new releases (non-fiction) and made it to #83 on Amazon.com. It also attained the Best Seller tag in multiple categories and now just under a year in it is closing in on the 1,000 books sold mark of which nearly 200 are print copies. This was my first book and I have not done extensive or aggressive promotion for it.
As a lot of people have expressed curiosity about my process, how I managed it so quickly and what I learned self-publishing, I’m going to try and dive into my full process and some of the key takeaways in this post in the hope it’s helpful. Realistically it should apply to any genre or topic.
For those interested, the book is Practical Curiosity: The Guide to Life, Love & Travel. If you like this and find it interesting, please do consider supporting me by picking up a copy or sharing it with a friend or two.
**Note – shortly after publishing this post CreateSpace was discontinued and fully incorporated into KDP. KDP has since stepped up development and the official rollout for print and digital. Please take that into consideration when doing your research. Migrating my book from CreateSpace to KDP took about 5 minutes and was a smooth process.
Sections in this post (it’s long, but I tried to share as much as I could):
- The Decision to Write a Book
- Influential Podcasts & Videos
- Length Isn’t The Barrier You Think It Is
- How I Did It
- Print Quality
- Amazon Customer Service
- Advanced Reviews and Media Copies
- Opportunities to Learn
- Choosing a Name
- Promoting the Book
- Quick final thoughts
The Decision to Write a Book
For years I toyed with the idea of writing a book. With over a decade of travel blogging under my belt, the natural choice would have been a travel book – but narrowing in on the theme and content always held me back. Ultimately, I decided to focus instead on a self-help book centered on personal development that spoke specifically to generalists and the trials and tribulations that they face.
While travel is what I’m best known for, it’s a profoundly challenging topic to write something meaningful about. The temptation is to try and write a lonely-planet style guide. While well intentioned, these are a dime a dozen, hard to update, profoundly difficult to source and ultimately not that interesting.
If you’re not writing a guide, then the next most common focus is essentially a long-form blog post about some trip or journey. If it’s a good story then it ultimately leads to insights into life, self-discovery, and some highly entertaining stories. Having never done a trip longer than 3 months and never one with a set or constant theme compelling enough for the grand adventurer or explorer narrative I decided it wasn’t a viable topic. This led me to consider writing a compilation of short comical stories drawn from my travels and adventures. With 50+ countries under my belt and a unique childhood spent traveling, I felt there was potential for some quality stories but when I sat to look at my existing blog posts I realized few were written already and that pulling them together into a cohesive story was an exhaustive task likely to reach a small audience.
The idea for writing a book floated in purgatory for months as I toyed with each of these. Then, as March approached I sat down to write my annual birthday blog post. The post is a reflective ramble that I write every year where I digest and share what I’ve discovered over the past year, what I’m aspiring to learn more about, and key life lessons I want to share. Of all of my content, these posts often elicit the most animated response from readers and friends. As I wrote it, I also realized it also skipped the traveler’s journey narrative for core message delivery and jumped straight to the takeaways. To this end the book also mirrors the structure of these posts with core sections dedicated to thought exercises, life and business success, relationships and travel.
In addition to narrowing in on a topic I felt comfortable writing about, this process also let me adopt a theme which wasn’t narrative based or chronological. A guidebook would have required extensive research, fact-checking and documentation. On the other end of the spectrum, a personal narrative or first-person account would have required I map out my entire story arc, write every aspect in an identical voice, and sit down and write in a chronological fashion that built the storyline and guided the reader to the great conclusion.
Both were red flags. The guidebook was incredibly time and labor intensive and had a high risk of being outdated before I even progressed to editing. Meanwhile, while relaying a personal story or journey – even a series of short stories was similarly time intensive and required a heavy mental load and total mood consistency to hit the right voice and tone night after night. The richer the story, the more work involved and the greater the likelihood of the book becoming the un-finished multi-year project you constantly hear people talk about.
But, by writing an expanded version of one of my birthday posts I was able to identify and then navigate a sweet spot between the two. While conventional wisdom suggested I should stick to just one topic, such as relationships, my overarching focus and theme were empowering and celebrating generalists and the power of voracious curiosity. That meant that I could segment each chapter and each section and then write in whatever voice or context most-apt to the core message. It also meant that by taking a bathroom-reader like approach where each chapter could be read and digested individually, but ultimately contributed to the four core topics and overarching theme, I could write each individually. This process was further informed and guided by a series of podcasts interviews which I listened and was able to pull a variety of important takeaways from.
Influential Podcasts & Videos
In the lead up to my renewed interest in writing a book there were several podcasts that had snippets of information I found profoundly interesting as food for thought and guidance. I love the interviews Tim Ferriss does, not only because from travel to dance many interests have overlapped, but because he deep dives with fascinating people in long-form interviews that go far beyond the Sunday show style 20-minute snippets you normally get.
In his interview with Brazilian businessman and former CEO of Semco Partners Ricardo Semler. Semler discussed his experience taking 9 days to blast together a book [26-minute mark in the podcast]. As he describes it, he sat down, he wrote, and then he more or less slapped it together and published it. It went on to do extremely well and his record combined with the raw and authentic nature of the content outweighed the lack of proper formatting, editing and the coarseness of the copy. While I knew I lacked the audience and innate authenticity of a successful businessman like Semler, and while I know I didn’t want to put out something that wasn’t properly edited or formatted – his focus and approach on delivering the project, in the same way startups are encouraged to prototype and then deliver a V1, then tweak and build once that’s live caught my attention. The end result needed to be good, the quality needed to be there, but of equal importance was charting a path that would let me deliver the book quickly.
Ricardo Semler — The Seven-Day Weekend and How to Break the Rules
The second was an interview with NYT Bestselling author Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild. In it, Cheryl also speaks to binge writing. But she also elaborates on how she leverages deadlines to drive creativity and manages to balance her obligations to family and other responsibilities. She also outlines the idea of taking 48-hour writer retreats where she sets aside time, goes to a hotel room away from the family and kids – and commits herself to writing. While the whole interview is worth a listen, you can also just do a search for “48” and that will take you to some of the key sections in the transcript.
The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Cheryl Strayed
Genius by Michael Grandage
The third was actually the movie Genius by Michael Grandage with Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman among others. The movie follows book editor Max Perkins at Scribner and his collaboration with Thomas Wolfe. The entirety of the movie focuses heavily on the struggle to find ones’ voice, the balance between including too much or too little, and how to navigate what’s in our heads vs. what needs to go on paper.
It’s a bit more abstract than the above two, but provided a more philosophical muse for exploring the need to strike the right balance between perfect honing and including everything, between letting my professorial tendency to explain and an overly superficial traditional fluff self-help book. It also served as a wonderful reminder that we rarely feel that what we’ve created is worthy and that rejection is just a natural part of the process. Also, that it’s essential to craft, to do the work, but then to believe if you’ve done that work in seeing the project through and putting it out there.
Edge.org Video Interviews
At the same time I’m also a huge fan of the interviews on Edge.org. An early fan of TED, I’ve largely lost interest with the short form format, and the abundance of fluff that now overwhelms the TED platform. In its place, I find the Edge.org interviews, in their crude long-form to be fantastic high level, but still academic, long-form snapshots of fascinating topics. As with Tim’s podcast interviews, these highlight wonderful in-depth topics from brilliant minds and often contain snippets that serve to re-enforce my belief in the need for more cross-disciplinary discussions and in the power of talking about curiosity.
Length Isn’t The Barrier You Think It Is
As I was digesting and consuming the podcasts, I was reminded of an observation I’d made almost a decade ago when reading the Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. Their book was wonderfully insightful at the time, but also contained relatively few words. Growing up, most of my reading focused on high fantasy by authors like Jordan, Goodkind, Tolkien or Martin alongside non fantasy authors like James Michener. Their books averaged 200,000 – 450,000 words per book and featured rich backstories, complex storylines and took years (or decades) to write.
But, as the Silicone Valley crowd went through a period of fascination and re-discovery of many of the greats such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations I was also reminded of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. These books barely top 100 pages and are overflowing with valuable lessons but don’t conform to the traditional structure we’re often encouraged to pursue. Anyone who picks up Meditations expecting spelled out life lessons and the look and feel of a modern self-help book is guaranteed to be left scratching their head.
So, I sat down and I started doing some basic calculations. Just how many words did it take to fill a classic paperback with relatively convenient to read font at 100 pages? What about closer to 230 like The Starfish and the Spider? It turns out, shockingly few. If you’re thinking in terms of your college papers, 500 words was a page. Many blog posts these days are targeted at between 300-500 words. But, for a paperback with a comfortable font size you’re actually looking at much less. Realistically, you can manage between 200 words a page for a clean-large font based business book and 400 for more dense fantasy novels. That means 25,000 words should give you a very comfortable 100+ pages, while 50,000 words gave me my 210 pages.
For added context, a typical 20-page college paper at 500 words per page is around 10,000 words. Similarly my entire Master’s Thesis which was around 100 pages was similarly around 50,000 words.
While this is still not an insignificant number, thinking about the book as twelve 2,000 word blog posts was much less daunting than imagining sitting down battle through 400,000 pages.
This might strike some as mental gymnastics. For others, hopefully it underscores the importance of humanizing the task of writing a book and chunking it into something far more attainable and less daunting.
With this in mind, I also set a goal for myself for the book. That each section should be no more than 4,000 words long and that most should aim for 1,500-2,000 words – essentially a relatively long blog post.
I also decided that to keep the project viable, I’d aim for 100 pages (roughly 25,000 words) for the book. This was intimidating but felt like a goal that should be practical and not too much of a stretch. Given the focus of the content and that people had been conditioned in recent years to consume books like Meditations, I felt comfortable that even at that short length and light word count it was sufficient to self-publish and substantive enough to be worth the effort. Ultimately, hitting 25,000 not only ended up being relatively easy, but I blew past that word count and cut myself off due to timing and other obligations just shy of the 50,000 word / 200-page mark. In theory I had sufficient words that I could have gone for a slightly larger word count or page formatting which would have bumped the book closer to 250 pages, but I felt this was counterproductive for what I was aiming for with the book.
I had the advantage of watching my dad go through the process of publishing a number of books through the early days of the self-publishing and print on demand revolution. The good part of that was the opportunity to overhear him talk about working with editors, the exhaustive process trying to find and meet with agents, and some semblance of an understanding about the work that goes into a book. Each of his books were fictional novels with the exception of his non-fiction book about an educational institution he and my mom founded. This also probably contributed to my long-standing assumption that all books required at least 100,000 words and years of work. The unfortunate part was that because he’d jumped in and started publishing the majority of his books in the late 90s and the early 00s, the technology was still relatively primitive and the publishers themselves quite predatory.
I still have vivid memories of him getting 2 cent royalty checks and the palpable sense of frustration at the initial buy-in cost, mangling of the cover with co-branded labels, and various other liabilities that come with those early vendors.
His experiences pitching publishers and publisher agents also stood out as red flags for me and matched closely with the narratives that came up time and time again. Everyone had the same story – a grueling process of pitching dozens of agents and constant rejection which often burned through years of time and energy.
The third option – doing a local run of 20, 500 or 1,000 copies via a local print shop and then trying to distribute and sell them was also something I entertained briefly before deciding it didn’t make sense, was too much work, and required thousands of dollars in outlay with very little probability of recouping anything.
None of these stood out as good options. Then, I stumbled onto the figure in an article that roughly 40% of all print books in the US are now sold by Amazon with roughly 60-80% of all ebooks bought and sold through Amazon (depending on who you read).
As I dug into it further I realized that contrary to what I expected, the compensation ratios via Amazon for ebooks published through their platform were actually quite reasonable.
I set my price within the criteria they outline and take 70% of the profit. That means my take home on a $7.99 ebook is about $5.56. For reasons I’ll get into below, I chose to distribute and publish the print book through CreateSpace, a former stand-alone print on demand company that Amazon bought and integrated into their ecosystem. They’re pushing hard to get everyone to do print and ebooks through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), but there are still ample incentives that draw most to use a hybrid of the two.
Through CreateSpace’s Amazon direct integration and distribution I’ve set the print price at $12.99. Of this when a book is purchased on Amazon.com I get $4.42 while Amazon takes the base materials price plus $3.37 in fees. An added benefit for anyone looking at global distribution is that CreateSpace/Amazon operate print on demand machines in most of their major markets. That means a machine in the UK, in Europe, in Japan, etc. which also means that if your readers buy through their local Amazon (eg Amazon.de) printing and fulfillment happen inside Europe. That means your readers don’t have to pay expensive import taxes or wait weeks for the books to ship and make it through customs.
But, beyond the fact that the commissions were not only fair, but quite healthy the real point of differentiation for me was that there’s zero cost to publish (or technically just the cost of a proof copy or two). That’s an incredible game changer, particularly when compared to the upfront costs normally required for an initial print run.
I mentioned above that I opted to go for CreateSpace, this was in part on the guidance of a family friend who I later discovered is a professional editor and formatter for Amazon publishers. The deciding factor was that CreateSpace allows you to order as many author’s copies as you want at cost. KDP, at least at that point, required you buy all copies, including proof copies, at retail price. As an aspiring author it’s always nice to have a few copies on hand or for promotional purposes. With CreateSpace that cost me $3.37 + shipping per copy, but that printing and shipping were limited to inside the US. With KDP, you’re looking at whatever your print price is set at including their commercial premium beyond cost.
Both routes easily publish on Amazon.com which also means you’re directly tied into Amazon’s built-in ranking system, engines, top sellers lists, rating systems, and the entire ecosystem which references Amazon. It also means that you’re integrated into their promotional tools and the Amazon Marketing services platform for book promotion and sponsored promotions.
The final added perk is that while both CreateSpace and KDP have fairly robust tutorials, KDP has an extensive set of tools and templates. Including pre-formatted word book templates which are generated and made available for download based on the book dimensions you’re interested in as well as cover image templates and even a rather crude cover editor alongside a nifty tool where you plug in the approximate # of pages and book dimensions and it’ll kick out a PS template you can feed to a designer or use yourself.
How I Did It
Chronology in this section overlaps and draws from many of the previous. Use the above for a better understanding of the background and research that paved the way to and then informed my final process.
Starting in March I created a note on my iPhone. In it, I started jotting down interesting observations, topics, and ideas that popped up in conversations with friends, my own general research, random shower thoughts, and the like. This included topical cues like “Long-term thinking”, “Ant thought experiment”, “Being good enough – almost ran from masters” and similar memory prompts.
I wasn’t yet committed to writing the book, but the narratives from the podcasts and other musings mentioned above were germinating as was a growing desire to prove to myself that I actually could write a book and had enough content to populate the 100 pages of content I was narrowing in on as a goal.
I’ve learned from past experience that I have a 4-8 month attention window for projects. This is the period that I ordinarily have the drive, energy, curiosity and motivation to aggressive create content, seek out new knowledge, and focus on a given project. As I enter the later months in that cycle I tend to tire of the project and either prepare to tombstone (retire) the project or switch it into maintenance mode. While I’m better than many generalists about closing out projects and seeing them to completion / continuing to do maintenance on the project, I know when that window subsides one of two things happen. Either 6-8 months goes by and then I re-invigorate and pick the project back up, running with it with renewed vigor, or I pivot to a new project and interest. I have long-term projects that are somewhat more stable, such as VirtualWayfarer which I’ve been publishing to for 11 years. But, even that goes in these types of cycles.
Knowing this, I also established that to avoid setting myself up for failure or self-sabotage I needed to aim for a 6-month window from first key-stroke to publication. For me, the writing and synthesis is the most interesting part of the process. Editing, formatting, and elements of the promotion range from torture to mundane drudgery. They’re fundamentally important, but challenges I knew I needed to account for and plan to plow though. Especially with the knowledge that they’d come right as my energy level for the project was likely to be flagging.
While this is highly individualized to how I cycle and work, we all have some sort of like-kind base behaviors. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is ignoring this, not being very aware of it, and actively incorporating it into how they work and plan.
I also knew that while I’d be able to allocate a good portion of my focus and energy to the book, I was still going to be limited to whatever energy reserves I had left in the hours after work and on my evenings. At the same time, I knew that I’d need to still maintain balance which meant periodically editing my photography, getting occasional content out for the blog and youtube, and of course ensuring that my energy level and output at work didn’t suffer. I also needed to work in an occasional date, see friends, and not vanish off the face of the earth. To top it off, I knew that instead of rushing home every day I’d use naps to reset my energy level and mental freshness after work and the roughly 40-minute walk home from the office which I usually take one-way after work.
This all meant that I needed to be very intentional when choosing how I structured the book, how I wrote it, and extremely attentive to my mood and what was most likely to flow when writing.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t want to write a book that required the entire piece be written in a single voice, that required heavy research, or that was extremely chronological or organized in a way that built incrementally. I also knew that I needed to avoid any complexities apt to create headaches down the road for me. That meant that the formatting for the book should be clear, clean and pre-established with a very clear hierarchy using built-in headings for automatic linkages. I used clean word documents, was extremely careful about only pasting in clean copy and made the decision not to include any graphics, photos or visual elements as these would significantly complicate the process of final formatting and be an additional area I needed to vet before the final publication. At the time, had I known about the KDP templates, I’d have probably written in a clean one of those from day one. But, as is, the clean word document I created ended up being easily ported into it before the final format and edit were done by a professional.
In early May after discussing it with friends off and on throughout April, I made the decision to start writing and commit to the book. With my parents arriving the last week in May and a family trip on the horizon I took a page out of Cheryl Strayed’s book and my old college routine and binge wrote on the weekend and in the evenings. I took the topics I had saved in my note file and fleshed them out during my walks home. Once home I reviewed the list and identified one, two, or three topics that spoke to me and seemed ready to flow onto the page. From there, I wrote. I took special care to do spot research as needed or flag a spot for follow up, double checking, or more information but largely wrote 500-3,000 words on each topic in the voice, flow and at the time that seemed most relevant.
If that meant a thought exercise where I spoke and guided the reader through a series of exercise? Perfect. The shoe fit. If it was a personal story or introspection I decided to share and was first person? Fine. A third person re-telling of a story or observation? No problem. Each floated loosely in their high-level category – success and life guidance, relationships, or travel. Later, I realized I needed to add a fourth category – thought exercises, which provided a high-level framework for navigating some of the narratives in the other sections.
As I wrote I drew from Ricardo Semler’s example and built on it: write now, edit later. Focus on being earnest, easy to understand and communicating the core point. Don’t get sidetracked in trying to educate and define each theory or piece of foundational information. Provide sufficient information for the reader to reference and dive deeper if they need to. Reference Goffman’s theory and concept of a front and back stage. Provide basic context. Stop there. Revert to the core point. Continue.
If I hit a roadblock I’d pause and jump to another topic. Having the different genres – life, love and travel – made it easy to switch with each offering the rich diversity and enough differentiation that writer’s block in one area rarely spilled over.
At the same time I also poured through my birthday posts and some of my observational posts about race, culture and other topics. From these, I pulled copy and began to re-write it to make it fit the book. In many cases the re-writes were minimal, more an extension and the writing of additional context, enhancing sentences and creating additional references that aligned the content with curiosity, generalism, and the book. Ultimately, these inherited chapters made up about 35% of the final copy or about 14,000 words with another 3,000 words or so added to the original content.
This approach let me add, on average, around 1,500-3,000 words per writing session, even on weeknights. I didn’t set a hard requirement. If I had social commitments, then I deferred to them. If I managed 500 words or needed to just crash or veg-out and watch TV. I did that too.
As I wrote, I shared very little with friends or family from the chapters I was writing. The exceptions were sections I needed to talk through or wanted additional input on because they either had a sensitive nature (eg, the racism chapter) or were about delicate topics I wanted to sample input on (long distance relationships).
Around the same time I passed the 35,000-word mark I put out a call on Facebook asking friends interested / up for it, to read a draft version which I promised to deliver in early July. Here I drew on a variation of feedback which Tim Ferriss has discussed in various podcasts for his logic on deciding what content stays or goes. He generally states that so long as one reviewer loves a section, that it stays. I liked elements of this but decided to take a slightly different approach.
I knew from past experience with my blog, watching my Dad go through the editing process, etc. that asking someone to read, review and edit a book draft is an enormous ask. Not only that, it’s very unlikely to be something most complete and tends to be a major time drain. At the same time, feedback is invaluable. So, my goal was to get the feedback but at the same time minimize what I was asking of my reviewers while imposing a time criteria that also provided them with an out if life got busy or they were well-intentioned but unable to deliver ultimately.
In part informed by my own ticking clock, I made it clear when asking for volunteers that they’d have one month to review the book and provide feedback. That I was not looking for people to mark edits. They were welcome to if they wanted, and could catch typos and the like. But, what I wanted was them to read it for content as they would any normal book and to flag what resonated and why.
I provided a four-page document that started with one page explaining the focus of the book and what I was asking for. The remaining 3 pages contained a legend and table. I pre-populated the table of contents and page number for spot reference. To the left was the evaluation column where I requested they mark each with a L (Love it), A (Apathetic about it), or H(Hate it). The far right had a spot for comments. I repeatedly stressed I wanted them to be upfront and honest and that while I fully understood they might have more gentle thoughts for some sections, what I wanted/needed was for them to pick from the 3 and then plug in their feedback.
Of the 19 or so that volunteered 7 ultimately provided partial or full feedback with several others providing general input. Unfortunately all respondents were female, but they luckily did range across cultures and covered a broad age range. Ultimately, seeing the aggregated list of what they Loved, were Apathetic about and Hated was wonderfully informative for me. Each was highly individualized with what resonated. Wonderfully all did flag some sections they hated, but none of those overlapped. Their comments also helped me re-write and elaborate on several sections in addition to using and reconsidering word choice and usage in several contexts. It also helped me identify which chapters were bland or needed attention or a re-write.
Imposing a time limit kept me from losing momentum. It limited their opportunity cost and made it ok to hand over even a partially completed feedback list. Being able to focus purely on content meant that they were able to read more casually and that I didn’t limit myself to an audience that considered themselves competent editors and grammarians. Tim’s observation about including chapters people feel strongly about, with care, was also good advice as the most polarizing chapters remain some of the ones I get the most animated/excited messages and feedback about.
During the review period, I continued to write to a limited extent and began a rigorous edit. At which point I was still aggressively committed to handling all formatting myself, and running the book fully through the self-publication process on my own.
As an experiment that was largely effective I did my first-run edit using Grammarly premium via a one-month subscription. For $30 I was able to catch a lot of basic grammar mistakes, typos, and other considerations which basic spell-check had missed. I know that Grammarly was in and of itself insufficient, but it did provide an excellent baseline that caught perhaps as many as 70% of the total typos and errors I ultimately ended up correcting.
At the same time I commissioned the start of several ideas for cover artwork via a graphic designer I respected and started researching ideas for the color, imagery and design I wanted to go with for the cover. What color to use? What types of covers fit different styles and genres? It’s important to get the cover right, to have one that looks good in print on a table, but also as a preview on Amazon. I also knew that the type of cover I chose would dramatically shape what type of book people thought they were buying.
Look at the colors and the imagery each genre uses. Does the cover feature the author? A general photo? A Busy sketch? Or a simple text. How much whitespace did I want to include around the text and central design to create space on the table or shelf? How big should my name be? After all, if you’re Stephen King, your name is almost always as big if not larger than the book title. In general there’s a relationship between the success of the author and the size of their name relative to their book title.
The same went for paying attention to the text on the spine – was it facing the right direction? Did you know there was an actual right direction? What about the back cover?
While CreateSpace/KDP have a web-based tool and even a number of stock photos you can use to create your own, the results I’ve seen come out of it tend to be lackluster at best and dreadful at worst. I’ve been very happy with the output we came up with and in total (and in no small part because she was helping me out) the price for the cover was around 100 Euro (I’m happy to put you in touch if you want a quote for your own project). Its impact on shaping the success and personality of the book cannot be understated and it was worth every penny.
By the time August 12th came around and feedback came back, I implemented their changes and fired off a copy of the book to my three most trusted editors. I’m extremely lucky in that both of my parents are highly educated and lifetime educators. My brother is also meticulous, incredibly well read, and an excellent big-picture thinker. For years I’ve relied on both my mom and dad as my editors. My dad’s work preparing for and writing his own series of books, working with professional editors, and a doctorate in education make him a discerning and critical source for input and feedback. Meanwhile, my mom has the wonderful ability to step back, evaluate the order and flow of things, as well as a fantastic attention to detail and ability to not only flag typos but critical structural issues. She’s also been my dad’s primary editor and as a result has even more extensive experience.
I shared my updated draft with the three, who in turn binge read the book and fed back their critical feedback, edits, and suggestions. It was at this point that my mom also strongly suggested I not only reach out to a family friend who did professional formatting, but persisted until I relented. I had resisted as I didn’t want to spend the money, wanted to figure out how to do everything myself, and was anxious about the added time delay bringing in another editor/formatting expert would add.
This is an area where I was particularly lucky. To have access to high-quality editors and grammarians in the family and for them to be willing and to have the ability to dedicate the time to helping me with the project was a huge advantage. In a wonderful show of support, they also gifted me the formatting services (about $800 for ebook and print with a F&F discount). Now, Amazon does offer their own professional formatting service for several hundred dollars, but making changes is apparently costly and the quality is not fantastic.
This, combined with the professional cover design, more than anything are what moved Practical Curiosity into the domain of a professional project. As I worked closely with Walton I learned about the nuance that goes into selecting line spacing, tweaking each page to ensure it fits and looks natural on the page, standardizing numbers, getting the chapter settings right, the titles, the importance of font and a sea of other highly detailed considerations which I lack both the patience or expertise for but which make a radical difference in the final product. While this is less relevant for ebooks and ereaders, these have their own host of formatting considerations. Needless to say, people should look at this a bit like choosing an accountant. You want someone with a gift for details, a highly critical eye, who is thorough, and knows exactly what they’re doing.
Proofing and formatting of the book was every bit as grueling and time-consuming as I had expected. Every re-read you find new typos. I also took the time to send myself a proof copy, manually review it, correct issues with how the cover displayed and to scan for internal typos or printing quirks on a hard copy. Then made corrections and requested a second before the book was finally ready to go live. The ability to request these was an added benefit which came from using CreateSpace vs. KDP for the print version.
One of the other decisions you face is what to do about your ISBN, which is the global identifier for the book. While you can buy your own through CreateSpace/KDP or another platform the cost is between $100-300 dollars for various options. After extensive research, I ultimately decided to just opt for the free ISBN allocated and available through Amazon. This comes with some small limitations but seemed the best (and cheapest) option for me. Given I wasn’t looking at publishing a series, didn’t plan to jump to other publishers in the short term, and had ample distribution and reach through Amazon and its extended network I haven’t encountered any issues with this.
Ultimately, I had a final copy delivered, uploaded, and ready to go live by around the 20th of October. But, once again I had a family trip, this time down to Mexico, before returning to Denmark. Due to the timing and to give myself ample time to promote the launch, I waited until the start of November to go live.
When I initially explored Amazon’s print on demand capabilities it was in the context of creating a travel book. With photography being one of my primary creative outlets, I looked into its potential for photo-heavy books. Ultimately, it seems that while a great option for traditional paperbacks, print quality, color and paper quality are sub-par for visual-first books. When I sat down to write Practical Curiosity, this also shaped my decision making (alongside the previously mentioned concerns over formatting complexities).
The quality of the books, their binding, cover, and print, in general, is much better than I expected. Of the various books I’ve ordered, I’ve generally been happy with the quality. It is worth noting that when we were designing the cover, it did become apparent that the precision of the machines when it comes to cutting and binding the cover is not 100% precise. This is something I’d suggest factoring in when designing your cover – leaving ample room around the edges vs. a designed outline. I’d also suggest avoiding very precise lines or near-full height text or design elements on the spine. Paperweight for the cover paper is sturdy and the book looks and feels like a paperback published by a traditional publisher.
Walton, my formatter (I’m happy to refer you if interested), suggested avoiding the glossy cover due to its tendency to show fingerprints. While I didn’t test it, having looked at many others, I do tend to believe that if opting for a gloss finish you should be very careful about formatting and visual style as it’s much harder to make it look and feel professional.
Amazon Customer Service
The level of customer service is general abhorrent. While other branches within Amazon have some of the best customer service on the market, the KDP team has been the most unpleasant and least responsive or competent Amazon team I’ve ever worked with. Their incompetence and seeming lack of internal communication have led to multiple issues with how the book has been indexed and a long series of automated copy-paste emails that have hindered my ability to promote and distribute the book.
Amazon also owns Goodreads, who I did a promoted book giveaway through after getting a promotional notice from Amazon/Goodreads. As far as I can tell the two teams aren’t coordinating and the promotion done with the one, was flagged and created issues with the other. Simply put, they’re absolutely embarrassing the work with.
Advanced Reviews and Media Copies
One of the things that I didn’t do and probably should have done is send out preview copies to media and influencers within my network with a request for a testimonial / quote. At the time, I felt this would delay me too much and was also something too logistically challenging. At another level, I also suspect it was self-doubt over the quality and anxiety that what I was about to release wouldn’t hold once it moved beyond my immediate network of friends and family.
Opportunities to Learn
As KDP and CreateSpace are free tools, you’re able to create an account and start exploring how they handle pricing, their dashboard, and the upload and creation process. There are also a ton of videos both produced via Amazon and by indies about the tools and how to navigate them.
As you’ve taken the time to read through much of this, I highly suggest setting aside a bit to create an account and navigate through the tools long before you sit down and start toying with how to proceed with the book. Even if you turn around and decide to go for an agent or a different publisher, it’s a highly valuable frame of reference to have long before you sit down and start the process of writing.
Choosing a Name
Choosing a name for any project is a highly important decision. When it came to the book, it was one of the last things I locked in and decided upon. It’s also extremely difficult because with so many books out there and so many blogs and websites also in competition for digital real estate, you’re looking at a very crowded landscape.
I had a set of criteria for any name I chose. I wanted it to be descriptive but also have a relatively short and memorable option. I wanted it to be easy to spell and pronounce – having learned from my mistake with my blog name (VirtualWayfarer) which is neither. I also wanted it to be intuitive and to encompass the ideas in the book while taking into consideration some SEO-like elements. I also was 100% sure that I did not want other books with very similar naming or titles and that securing the .com domain was a must.
To help with the process I mimicked my process for sourcing ideas for the sections and created a note on my phone and would randomly jot down words and ideas over a multi-week period. These, I’d then quickly test via an ISBN search: https://isbnsearch.org/search?s=Practical+Curiosity and a basic domain search. Vetoed titles included Bullshit to help you live better, I am more than yesterday, and the generalist’s bible. In total I’ve got about 30 sitting in a notepad that run the gambit in topics.
Ultimately I settled on Practical Curiosity: The Guide to Life, Love & Travel due to the potential for the concept of practical curiosity to be used in wider discussions. The primary Practical Curiosity satisfied my desire for something simple and memorable, while the secondary title captured the core concepts I was focusing on in the book and gave me my keywords. The domain name was available and the term itself had never been used in the context of a book previously.
Promoting the Book
I mentioned that Practical Curiosity cracked Amazon’s top 100 new releases for over 24 hours at launch. This was in part due to guidance I’d received in conversations with an old friend, Laura from Copy that Pops (https://www.copythatpops.com), who specializes in coaching authors. While I won’t dive too deep into the specifics here the general gist was to focus on the launch day, pick categories carefully, temporarily discount the price of the book, and then to make an extremely heavy push in the first 48 hours.
It’s important that these are all real purchases from interested parties and 100% valid. Realistically, you just benefit significantly from front-loading the purchases that would otherwise organically happen over a few weeks time. It takes some coordination and a bit of a push, but also helps build visibility and gives potential readers the feeling that they’re getting involved in something, paired with a bit of social proof. All around, win/win.
In addition to a hard push at launch, I’ve used several of Amazon’s built-in promotional tools in the past 10 months. This includes the ability to run count-down deals where the price of the book is discounted in a tiered fashion over a period – eg Easter or Christmas, and book giveaways through Amazon and Goodreads. Of these, the Amazon giveaway was free and led to a second surge in my various categories including hitting #1 in several non-fiction travel focused free ebook categories, while Goodreads cost money, had a book limit, but had higher engagement. Note that as previously mentioned, I believe a lack of communication between Goodreads and KDP created several issues for me – so navigate with care.
I also commissioned a freelancer to create a list with contact details for a list of highly relevant up and coming entrepreneurs. I then shipped 30 of these individuals a print copy of the book, of which six responded and several posted wonderful updates to social about the print copy with positive feedback. In retrospect, I likely would have used a similar approach to this in the advanced copies / preview stage if I were to do the process over again and had the mental bandwidth.
I have not sent a press release to media or screener copies to book reviews, though I should have and had ordered a batch for just that purpose. I quite simply got too busy and lost momentum.
I reviewed and submitted the book to several small book review competitions which seemed semi-credible and to have reasonable reach. These cost about $50-90 per entry. In general, they were a waste of time. Further, identifying which are credible and which are not is extremely challenging.
I started a podcast version where I do a section-based reading of the book. In essence creating my own audiobook but released as a serialized podcast. While I have some experience with podcasting and audio recording from my Denmark 101 podcast, and supporting my Dad’s Insights into Education podcast, I ultimately paused this due to issues with ambient noise in my apartment, lack of satisfaction with the audio quality, and the realization that I should have committed some resources to the production (jingle etc.) and promotion of the podcast. This is still something I am considering resuming, but for the time being have decided to focus on promoting other aspects of the book before taking it back on (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practical-curiosity-the-guide-to-life-love-and-travel/id1326527502?mt=2). While it limits the ability to monetize for the time being, I see podcast, print and ebook readers/listeners as distinctly different audiences and the primary challenge for me at this point as being attaining reach outside my immediate and extended network. For guidance and insights into the podcast world, check out Evo (https://www.facebook.com/evoterra) who has been doing great Facebook live videos recently and his company https://podcastlaunch.pro.
The final tool I’ve been using, though in a primitive and grossly under-utilized fashion, is Amazon Marketing Services (AMS). Through AMS, I’m able to do keyword-based CPC targeting for premium campaigns. I have a basic ad created for the book on Amazon, and funnel $10-20 a month into paid placements in the sponsored suggestions / related topics sections on Amazon. I set my CPC at around $.80 and have aimed for long-tail keywords for books that would attract a similar audience to my own and which have major promotional pushes going on from top-tier celebrities or publishers. The end result has been a general CPC of around $.35 and in most months an ACoS (advertising cost of sales, or expense to sales ratio) of about 50%. This is quite frankly, an area where I should be really figuring out the system and driving things. It’s an opportunity to extend the reach to an audience far outside my existing network and to reach highly interested users while being highly cost-friendly. If structured right and I was more focused/dedicated to it and learned a bit more about AMS I’m sure I could basically use this strategy to print book sales and build reach and scale in a break-even or potentially even profitable fashion.
Despite my day job in marketing, I’ve done a relatively poor job promoting the book and invested minimal energy and effort. Ideally I’d be sending more copies out to media, and invest somewhat heavily in getting print copies in the hands of influencers. In line with this, when the book has been featured by influential bloggers or on SoMe it often triggers dozens of book sales (at least). I also should be aggressively reaching out to podcasts and vloggers about it, as well as generating more content about the topic. But, here again, my energy window has lapsed and bandwidth is largely limited due to other commitments and projects.
It’s also worth noting that anyone looking at promoting their book should also research some of the recent controversies about the NYT Bestsellers list and gain insight into how traditional publishers game the system to drive sales and book distribution. It is eye opening and also further confirmation of just how network and pay-to-play a lot of that side of the book industry is.
Quick Final Thoughts
That’s a wrap. This post turned into a bit of a beast. While it’s highly tailored to my personal process, I hope it has been useful and insightful. That’s how I managed to crank out the book in just over 6 months.
I suppose it’s also self-explanatory that I find writing relatively easy. For context, this post comes in at 8,700+ words of which 5,740 were written between 6PM and 1AM on a Monday night after work.
I hope you’ll consider writing your own book. It’s an incredible experience. At the outset, I only expected the project to be read by 5 or 10 close friends. That it has reached as many as it has and that I’ve received feedback that it was deeply influential and really helped people has been a wonderful surprise and reward in and of itself.
Putting the book out there, clicking publish, and exposing yourself is a deeply challenging and rewarding endeavor. It’s easy to self-sabotage, to make excuses, to find reasons not to complete or publish. The trick is to be aware of those, to work to counter them, and to push forward. To create something you’re proud of and that you acknowledge isn’t perfect, but which is good enough for the light of day. A project that is imperfect, but still of high quality and out in the light of day is far more valuable and meaningful than a project that is perfect but never sees the light of day.
If you’ve got added questions about something I didn’t answer or cover here, I’m happy to follow up and add it in an edit to this post or response to a comment.
I’m not sure if some of the files like the checklist are of interest to folks. If so, I can also make them available.
If you found this post useful and would like to help support me, consider picking up a copy of Practical Curiosity, in it I talk a lot about tackling projects like this. It’s also a great opportunity to see how my process actually manifests itself in the final product. You can grab one here: https://www.amazon.com/Practical-Curiosity-Guide-Life-Travel-ebook/dp/B07736BSW7/ or via a search for Practical Curiosity via your preferred ebook or book outlet.