How to Self-Publish a Book in Business School: Paying $150k to Realize All I Really Want is ‘Write’ in Front of Me

Most people go to business school to spend two years brushing up on their finance skills and learning the true value of leadership (and maybe tossing in a trip or two to Iceland while they’re at it). While these topics were certainly on my ‘to-learn’ list, I came to realize I also wanted to spend time back in school to return to one of my long lost loves: writing. As a long-time admirer of comedic writers like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and David Sedaris, I decided I wanted to give short-form satiric writing a shot. I also happened to be at Harvard Business School (HBS) during this two year period so there was way too much fodder staring right back at me to let go down the drain.

So, in my second year of business school, I set a goal to self-publish a short story collection (later titled The Cold Call Collection per HBS’s fascination with ‘cold calling’ and inducing unnecessary fear to simulate future challenges). The Cold Call Collection recounts Harvard Business School students’ academic and social lives as told from the voice of an unidentified androgynous classmate under the pseudonym ‘Kit Robbins’ (a roundabout tribute to a true classic Winnie the Pooh). It just so happens this venture ended up becoming more ‘business-y’ than you may expect as it ultimately forced me to think about how to create and bring to market a product of my own. Granted, it was initially targeted at the small market of second-year HBS students, it was a suitable trial run to put into practice some of the concepts we’d often theorize about in the classroom.

Paperback version of ‘The Cold Call Collection.’ Photo Credit + Hand Model: G

After completing the collection, many people asked how I went about self-publishing. So I figure it could be helpful to document the process and some of the resources I found helpful to perhaps serve as a launching pad for a potential Tina Fey scraping her way through the maze of alphas α and betas β (surprise Finance reference) when she’d much rather be dealing with ABCs (not-a-surprise English reference).

So here is a five-step guide of “How to Self-Publish a Book in Business School” — enjoy!

Step 1: Write even when you don’t feel like it.

Write as much as possible. In business school, there are distractions galore, so find the time that’s best for you to clear your mind and get a flow going. For me, this was early weekday mornings. I set aside thirty minutes to an hour every M-F to brainstorm and jot down whatever flowed through my mind. Even if it was garbage (looking back after-the-fact), it helped me get into the habit of getting words down on a page, and I often repurposed and reimagined early ideas weeks later. I found Google Docs to suffice for my draft documents, but this decision ultimately boils down to personal preference.

I also found it especially useful to always be listening to and observing my surroundings, adding to a running virtual notepad of potential topics and ideas to write about. For this satirical collection in particular, sitting on Spangler lawn in the middle of HBS’s campus was the perfect place for inspiration. Finding out what will inspire your brainstorming can be the key to getting going.

Step 2: Find fellow writers, and welcome feedback.

I am fortunate to have a couple close friends who also identify as writers, and I am lucky they were always willing to read and give constructive feedback on my work (forever thank you). It’s essential to find a safe space to iterate and perfect your writing, whether it means being told to start from scratch one more time or to just remove that extra comma. Google Docs again served me well here as I was able to gather input and comments simultaneously as I was writing.

Keep on iterating, and get as many eyes on your work as you can as you make your way to your final draft.

Step 3: Publish.

After you’ve completed the final draft of your book and have gone through multiple iterations with your editors, it’s time to publish. After much research, I ultimately decided to go down the self-publishing route, using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site as my go-to resource.

Kindle Direct Publishing guides you through the process step-by-step. Some writers choose to hire third parties to help with formatting (to get your manuscript into the appropriate layout) and design the book cover. However, I ultimately decided to do both of these on my own, mainly because I was a poor student but also because it’s kinda fun in its own way to DIY home improvement style.

Amazon paperback + e-book listing for ‘The Cold Call Collection’

Assuming you take the DIY approach, here are a few key items to consider:

  • Manuscript formatting: If you choose to go the DIY route, I recommend using the default Kindle Direct Publishing templates. Determine the size of book you want (which is really somewhat of a personal preference and the sort of book you’re looking to create), and then transfer your manuscript accordingly. It sounds like a huge ordeal, but all you’re really doing is copy+pasting wherever your manuscript was (in my case, Google Docs) into a Word template where they have already measured everything out for you and made it look presentable. Some of the formatting details took a while to decide on and then run through the manuscript, but I ultimately decided to have separate files for the paperback and the e-book version for minor formatting reasons. It can be tedious to ensure all the font styles and sizes match and are consistent from chapter to chapter, but the end result is a feeling of unparalleled accomplishment and celebration (mainly because you will never see size 12, Times New Roman the same way again).
Formatted manuscript in Word template
  • Cover design: Because I decided to also go DIY for the cover design (because I’d like to think I’m some cool trendy designer when I’m really nothing of the sort), I opted for the free online option (yay for poor student-friendly options!). The resource I decided to use is Canva, a site where you can create your own online / paperback book cover using their design tools. Five stars for the Canva team. I continue to be so impressed by this site — what’s incredible about it is that you’re able to not only create a cover for free but also automatically develop branded materials from your initial creation (eg, brand images sized for social media postings, bookmarks, etc). Note: There may be some Googling and math involved to get the paperback book binding just right (because the sizing of the book changes the thickness / number pages) but is pretty intuitive after some trial-and-error. Also, we all know people do in fact judge a book by its cover so be sure to make your first impression a good one by carefully thinking through both your cover design and your blurb description.
  • Pricing: A classmate of mine D gave me some great advice here, where he noted that the key is identifying how you want potential readers to view your work. On the lower end of the spectrum, a book can be valued equivalently to a $1.99 Snickers bar. On the other end, it can be worth an up-and-coming indie rock band cover of $15+. After some informal surveying, I ultimately decided to set my price at a middle ground of $10 for paperback, $5 for e-book. These values ultimately give me about the same margins for either option, which made me less likely to push one format over the other (which I personally like). Amazon also does a top-notch job printing, and I was very satisfied with the quality of the paperbacks.

Once you’ve officially finalized your manuscript, cover, and pricing, run through the Kindle Direct Publishing steps for the eBook / paperback option(s). After ~24–48 hours (assuming all the alignment and such is correct), you will officially be self-published!

Step 4: Get the word out.

Your book is now live on the Kindle Bookstore, and it is five stars amazing, but will the readers come? Unless you’re some underground writing fiend, the odds unfortunately are not in your favor. Getting your soon-to-be readers to click buy is like any marketing exercise — (1) Figure out who your target audience is and (2) Communicate to them why they need to buy. Now.

In the case of The Cold Call Collection, my target audience was the relatively small sample size of ~900 second-year Harvard Business School students, most of whom could care less about reading anything other than skimming a required case booklet + exhibits for class. So I had to think about what would appeal to them, and where I landed was appealing to their need for love (thank you, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

An often discussed topic in the world of graduate school (where many are thinking of marital status, or at the very least, some status), romantic relationships are top of mind for many in business school, particularly for those thinking about how after these two years, they will likely return to 100+ hour weeks of slogging through Excel sheets and PowerPoints (woo, corporate ladder climbing is the best!). So under the pseudonym Kit Robbins, I partnered with HBS graduate + coder Cyrus Stoller to run a relationship matching site called “The EC Fire Sale.” While this matchmaking program was meant to be purely for fun and entertainment, it ended up being an unintentional way of introducing the slowly-evolving Kit Robbins and The Cold Call Collection.

A bit of context on “The EC Fire Sale”: ECs (Elective Curriculums) are second year MBA students at HBS, and a ‘fire sale’ is a term in finance that means some assets are being sold at a very low discounted price. In this case, the idea is that second year students are running out of time to find a loved one before they return to the real world so it’s time for them to take a final shot at love.

For instance: Let’s say Andy likes Casey. Andy submits Casey’s name in the EC Fire Sale, and Casey gets an email letting him/her know that someone likes him/her. Now, Casey submits his/her own crushes, and the spiral of crush emails continues. Once match day arrives, Andy and Casey get an email notifying them both of their mutual love! Or… in the downside scenario where Casey doesn’t feel the same way about Andy, neither of them gets an email for the other, and no one will ever know.

While not all HBS ECs are single / care about any of this romantic matchmaking, by running the EC Fire Sale, Cyrus and I (as Kit Robbins) were able to have some fun and put some marketing tactics into practice. We looked into Facebook ads and such but ultimately determined that given our audience was so targeted, on-campus splurges paired with the EC Fire Sale would be most effective. Depending on your target audience, there are likely other specific communication outlets that would be more fitting.

Step 5: Track your sales and marketing performance metrics.

After all is said and done, it’s essential to track how your sales are performing and which marketing communication channels are most effective. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site provides some reports with reference sales data. Bitly can also serve as a great tool to create unique links that can give you a sense for which source pages are most effective at attracting potential buyers (eg, creating a link for Facebook and a separate link for email marketing is one way of tracking which channel is performing better).

There you have it — five steps to self-publishing a book in business school and what it’s like to pay $150k to realize all you really want is ‘write’ in front of you. If you’re curious about what The Cold Call Collection is all about, I’m going to shamelessly plug here and tell you it is on Amazon’s Kindle Bookstore and is in fact five stars amazing (but I’m biased so take it as you will). So to all the aspiring writers out there — best of luck.