The 30 Minutes That Led to Me Writing My First Book

During a leadership meeting at work in January of 2016, my boss challenged his direct reports to identify a personal goal to achieve during the year. Importantly, he also gave us a half hour to write down the specific steps we would take to accomplish the goal.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been good at personal goals or development plans. Like many employees, I tend to treat them as “check-the-box” exercises that have the main goal of staying off the Human Resources “naughty” list. But in this case, given that I had the half hour with which to focus, I decided to give it a shot.

My personal goal? To publish a book on social media customer service in time for Social Media Marketing World 2017. The linkage with the conference wasn’t completely arbitrary; SMMW is the largest social media conference in the U.S. — one of my favorite events of the year — and I had always dreamed of having my book sitting there next to those of Jay Baer, Bryan Kramer, Neal Schaffer, and all of the other amazing speakers at the event.

A timeline of just 15 months was going to be tight, but that’s where this half-hour exercise proved incredibly valuable. It forced me to consider all the steps I would have to take — starting with writing an outline, transcribing some of my Focus on Customer Service podcast episodes, determining what third-party research I wanted to rely on and then seeking permission to reference it, writing a couple of sample chapters, etc. — and squeeze all of the steps onto a calendar.

Through sheer determination (and probably a good dose of naiveté), I made all of the pieces fit. I looked down at the paper, and I realized two things: 1) I could actually do this! and 2) I need to start the book’s outline this week! Fortunately I had a flight coming up, and I decided to spend that time writing the outline. If I could at least accomplish that first step, then I could focus on the next thing on the list. One step at a time.

I had so many questions about publishing a book — more questions than answers, in fact. Was there even a market for a book about social media customer service? How long would the book have to be? Should I send out dozens (hundreds?) of manuscripts to mainstream publishers, or attempt to self-publish instead? Did self-publishing mean I had to design my own cover art and lay out the interior of the book myself, both of which were beyond my basic design skills? Could I convince any social media or customer service influencers to endorse the book? How much was all this going to cost? And where the heck was I going to find the time to do all of this?

I got most of the answers I needed from a single conversation with Maximize Your Social author Neal Schaffer at — you guessed it — Social Media Marketing World. He not only gave me the encouragement I needed (“This is the book that is missing from my bookshelf,” he said), but he patiently answered all of my amateur questions and even gave me a target to shoot for — 45,000 to 50,000 words. That started the word count goal that even my kids got excited about, asking me almost daily how many words I had completed.

It’s remarkable how much time we can “find” when we are completely focused on accomplishing a big task. Too often at work, we spend time crossing off the “easy” items on our to-do list first — answering e-mails, scheduling meetings, preparing expense reports. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing something, when in fact we are ignoring the work that, while definitely harder, will produce more measurable results.

With the book, I had to use virtually every spare moment I had — during my work commute (when I wasn’t answering emails or scheduling meetings!), on planes, at night instead of watching TV, in the morning instead of exercising — just to “find” enough time to really work on it.

I started by writing a “skeleton” of each of the “8 Steps to Winning at Social Customer Care,” which I had previously devised with my former podcast co-host, Dan Moriarty for a presentation that was based on our top learnings from interviewing leaders at nearly four dozen brands. I wrote as much as I could without relying on outside sources, knowing I would come back later to add those. Some chapters had 3,000 words, while others had only 1,500. When I had the beginnings of those eight chapters done, I used the podcast transcriptions as “case studies” for each of the 8 steps. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Trint for audio transcriptions. You can pay as you go, it’s affordable, and it’s reasonably accurate with the ability to edit the text as you listen to the audio.)

The book was somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 words after incorporating all of the great materials from more than a dozen podcast episodes, so I knew I still had work to do. The introductory chapters about the impact of social media on customer experience were particularly fun for me to write, because I got to leverage lots of pictures and stories from my own life that I had captured over time for some eventual purpose. I also felt they set the stage well for why customer service in social media is so important.

One challenge I didn’t plan for was how fast the world of social media changes. During the year I spent writing the book, Twitter introduced new customer service features such as NPS surveys and responsiveness indicators, while Facebook ushered in an era of companies (and consumers) moving to Facebook Messenger for much of their customer service conversation. Messaging apps — with their (potentially evil) bots, became an additional chapter.

I finished 45,000 words in mid-January, just a week after the one-year deadline I had set the previous January. But it then dawned on me that my work was only just getting started. After a lot of research, I decided to self-publish the book using CreateSpace, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. I liked the fact that it was fast (the clock was ticking at just 8 weeks until Social Media Marketing World) and that it was print-on-demand, meaning I would not have to carry any inventory risk. While you can actually publish for free, I did spend about $1,200 on accompanying CreateSpace services such as cover design, interior layout, and marketing copy. In order to keep additional costs to a minimum, I decided to have my brother, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper writer, edit the book, and I endured the tedious process of creating an Index by myself.

I also asked my friend Jay Baer to write the Foreword — which he did, beautifully — and five incredible social media and customer service influencers to write endorsements. I was honored and touched by their willingness and their words.

My book next to other great authors at Social Media Marketing World.

There were a few hiccups — the first two printed proofs arrived with splotchy covers — but finally, on March 6, I got to click on the CreateSpace button that said “Publish My Book.” A day later, the book was available on Amazon. After celebrating with my family and announcing the news on my social media channels, I turned to the job of marketing the book. As a 20-year marketer, I thought this would be the easy part, but I had never marketed a book and, importantly, I had never marketed anything of my own. It is tough work, very humbling, and not cheap, but I know that no matter how it turns out, I can always say I accomplished my personal goal of writing a book.

Winning at Social Customer Care: How Top Brands Create Engaging Experiences on Social Media is available on Amazon.com.

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