How I Self-Published a Bestseller with the MANHATTAN Method

Published 2.5 years ago and STILL brings ~$100/month in royalties.

Feb 4 · 19 min read

In 2015 I published a book called Data Science in Higher Education, and since then, I have made about $100/month in royalties from it.

I must have started and stopped writing this book at least a dozen times. I was always hitting my word count goals (okay not always), but the enormity of self-publishing — all the things to had to think about over and above just writing a good story — always led me down a path of analysis paralysis. I knew my writing was fine enough for a small audience, but there were a lot of questions that I couldn’t find the answer for:

  • Was my cover going to attract readers?
  • Was my book content going to be well received?
  • Was my book going to be easy to read and learn from?
  • Are my ideas being delivered well?
  • Are my ideas even worth delivering?

The list goes on!

Over the years it took write this book I would write down all the things that I would need to think about in order to self-publish a successful paperback. By the time the book was finished, I had distilled everything I learned and created into what I call the MANHATTAN Method.

Put simply, the MANHATTAN Method is a system of lenses for writers to use while sculpting a body of work they intend to self-publish.

In this article, I will share the MANHATTAN Method with you so that you too can self-publish your own bestselling book all by yourself.

Does it Really Work?

I don’t want to waste your time proffering YAHTWA (“Yet Another How-To-Write Article”), so here is the TL;DR:

  • I developed a method of thinking for writers to help finish projects
  • I attribute this method to the success of my book that has consistently brought me royalties every month since publication
  • I want to share this method with you

I didn’t bother with marketing and I didn’t bother with promotion. Instead, I trusted that the books strengths — all of which were analyzed and developed through the MANHATTAN Method — would be enough to sell it and sell it well.

As it turns out, sales for Data Science in Higher Education have consistently been enough to pay my cell phone bill — and sometimes more! — even 2.5 years after having published it.

Take a look for yourself at these CreateSpace net earnings for the first two years:

These are raw screenshots I just took while writing this article.

For a self-published author, that’s not too bad!

Over the years I have been asked by many of my writer friends how my book continues to be in high demand. They wanted to know what books I read, what frameworks I used, and what tips I had for them so that they, too, could write and self-publish their own bestselling non-fiction book.

“If all my writer friends are asking me this,” I said to myself, “then surely there are more writers out there who could benefit from the MANHATTAN Method.”

What’s In It For Me?

The MANHATTAN Method is a way of thinking about your book.

There are no word counts, daily goals, or anything like that. I have worked with many writers over the years and I firmly believe that we all are very different in how we approach writing and setting writing goals for ourselves.

Instead, the MANHATTAN Method gives us a box of lenses through which we look at our projects and the stories inside them as separate parts of an ecosystem that, together, form a piece of work that sells.

The original cover design for Data Science in Higher Education. I’ve never shared this with anyone before!

Earning a net monthly revenue of ~$100/month in royalties might not seem like a lot, but in the heavily saturated world of self-published books it takes something extraordinary to get picked up as a signal in all the noise.

I don’t want to be the only creator who benefits from this. The tools that have helped me get my book on the market and consistently bringing me royalties are tools that I need to share with the world, because I want to help writers reach their dreams of having a book that they can be proud of.

There’s no better cure for self-doubt than a surprise email telling you that your royalty payment is on its way.

There are plenty of frameworks and tutorials out there for writing your book. There’s even a whole month dedicated to just writing novels. People have developed spreadsheets to follow, checklists to go down, and step-by-step tutorials of what to do along the writer’s journey — and none of them were helpful to me.

I just don’t think that way!

Maybe I was born with it; maybe it’s the ADHD. Maybe it’s the ASD. Maybe it’s the anxiety.

The final form of the book. Back, spine, and cover, in order. This is the version that is available on Amazon right now.

Whatever the case, rigid rules and lists never did work for me because they inadvertently get me too stressed out about coming up short in my own eyes. I have always felt like if there is a set of rules to follow when it comes to my artistic endeavors, I will undoubtedly come up short and disappoint everyone including myself so why even bother. (Sound like anyone you know?)

To get over this, I knew I had to come up with my own formula — a new way of thinking that would help me finish my book.

And that’s how the MANHATTAN Method was born.

A Box of Lenses

To get my book written, I needed to change the way I thought about it.

I did a ton of research in graduate school about writing advice, peddlers of such advice, and the efficacy of how-to books for both traditionally and self-published authors. What I found was that both my writing friends and I could not follow the regimens outlined by these self-proclaimed bestseller-making masters. Some of the advice was helpful, like identifying where you wanted the reader to be at mentally and emotionally once they reach the end of your book. By and large, though, most of the advice focused on setting healthy goals for word counts and pages.

I don’t need to be told “writers write, Jesse,” and I don’t need to be reminded of how awful I am and reaching my word count goals.

I need something that will help me step back and see my work in a new light.

The MANHATTAN Method lets you do that. It’s about lenses instead of lists. Learning to think about your work through different lenses is helpful because you get to see the dirty truth about self-publishing: you are doing the work of about fifteen people, all by yourself.

Writing itself is very hard work, and by choosing to self-publish, you’re basically doing what I did with my debut novel and purposefully torturing yourself to prove (to yourself) that you have what it takes to write something that people will want to buy — and something you can be proud of. In doing so, you are taking on the additional roles of copywriter, development editor, marketer, publicist, media consultant, business strategist, and promoter.

To be all these people at once, you need a mental model that will let you rapidly oscillate between them.

The MANHATTAN Method lets you do that!

Imagine that writing your book is like crafting a tiny statue. You have different headpieces that have different lenses so that you can see different parts of the statue based on what you are sculpting. Sometimes you need a wide lens to do color work. Other times you need a super fine micro lens to do up-close detail work. There’s no real order to which lenses you use; you are constantly switching between them, sometimes back and forth, sometimes spending more time with one than the others for a while.

That’s why I like this method so much: as long as I have it posted up somewhere on my wall, when my thoughts start to drift and I come up to some writer’s block, I can look at the words and remind myself to consider my problem with a different lens.

It’s seriously that easy: just write the words on a sticky note and put it on your monitor, then when you find yourself pondering over something you just wrote or want to write, try looking at it through a different lens.

So what are these lenses, exactly?

Breaking Down the MANHATTAN Method

MANHATTAN stands for Mental Association, Need, Honesty, Attention, Time, Takeaways, Accessibility, and Networks.

Eight concepts, each as important as the next, and all forming a complete brain-like cloud around your book.

Before we dive into each component, take a few seconds to write each one on a sticky note and put it close to your monitor (or wherever you will see the words).

These words represent the different lenses you will use throughout every stage of the self-publishing process, and will help you see pieces of the bestselling puzzle that aren’t always clear when you’re mired in the very important but very isolated task of writing.

Here’s mine:

Seriously, it’s that easy. (And yes, I’m left-handed). (Okay, I added “Jesse’s MANHATTAN Method” just for this picture. But I really do have this on my desk 24/7).

With our reference ready, it’s now time to go into each component in detail. That way, when we look at each word, what comes to mind is exactly the kind of questions and thought processes that will serve to illuminate our work through these new lenses.

Remember, these are not meant to be done in order or anything like that. These are lenses that you put on and take off all throughout the iterative process of development, researching, writing, and rewriting.

These are not meant to be prescriptive; they’re meant to be permissive.

Ready? Let’s go!

[MA]NHATTAN: “Mental Association”

The first component is “Mental Association.”

When you see these words, I want you to think:

“What mental associations does my book make as soon as you see it?”

I showed you what my initial book cover looked like earlier in this article. There is no way Think about your book cover, and ask yourself:

  • What moods do you want to convey when a potential reader looks at your book cover? For each of these moods, is there something about the presentation of your book, both in terms of the cover and the inside, that conveys each of these?

This about your book alongside other books in the same genre.

  • What other books are people looking at that, when they see yours, they say, “THAT’S the one I want!”
  • What about those other books attract your attention? What emotions do you have when looking at the cover and reading about the book? Do you get the same feeling when you look at yours? Why or why not?

Construct a fictional reader who would champion your book at a conference.

  • What are they saying about how your book fits in with others like it?
  • How are they showing that your book is different and unique?

The mental associations we want our readers to make with our book help to guide how we design it, write it, and especially market it.

MA[N]HATTAN: “Need”

The second component is “Need.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“What is the ‘market need’ for a book like this, and why does MY book fill in spaces where there is a void?”

Your book has to fit into the market somewhere, but before you figure out where, you have to know what it DOESN’T do.

  • Is there a market for what you want to say? Who are these people buying up books in this market? What are their wants, their dreams, their aspirations, both personally and professionally? What will buying YOUR book do for them personally and professionally?
  • What are some of the other books you found in your genre that you feel are falling short? (And falling short of what, exactly?)
  • How does your book fill in the gaps in the market where other books fall short?

Always understand exactly where your book fits into the market. Part of a good elevator pitch is recognizing where the market has gaps — and how your work fits into those gaps.

Another aspect of Need is the needs of the particular genre. Readers purchase books with certain expectations — which can be crafted when you think about Mental Associations — and will have needs that need to be met when reading your book.

  • What are the promises of books in your genre? What can you almost always expect to find — and how are you doing it differently?

MAN[H]ATTAN: “Honesty”

The third component is “Honesty.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“Am I writing about what I know? Or am I writing what I know?”

Write what you know is often touted among peddlers of writing advice, but what does it really mean?

It does not mean you should describe events or things that you have witnessed; it does mean you should show readers how to think critically about those events or things by reflecting for them.

In other words, don’t describe what you know, but rather, derive a story from it.

  • Are you telling your readers to do something or think a certain way when you haven’t done that myself?
  • Are the stories you’re telling relatable?
  • Are you personally relatable?
  • Are you being honest about life and your outlook on it, or are you proffering rose-colored glasses because, subconsciously, that’s what you want for yourself?

Readers know when you’re spouting bullshit. The trick is to catch yourself before you do. Writing what you know means that you are writing in a way that conveys emotional and experiential authority; you can convey genuine sincerity in your ideas because they are rooted in actual, lived experiences.

MANH[A]TTAN: “Attention”

The fourth component is “Attention.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“How am I capturing the attention of a potential reader? What about a current reader? When I do have someone’s attention, how am I keeping it?”

Attention capture begins with the book cover.

  • Look up other books in your genre and see how well your book fits in. If fitting in is something you don’t want, how can you manage expectation?
  • Can someone read the front and back of your book and know what they will come away with? In other words, when you have someone’s attention, are they getting honesty? What about takeaways? Have you identified what the need for potential readers are so that you can maximize how you respect their attention?

Once a book is purchased you would think that you are done but in fact you have only just begun. Sure you get your royalties, but now people are going to start reviewing your work. They’re going to blog about it. They’re going to email you about it. In some cases (like mine), you’re going to be cited in dozens of academic journal articles.

So how are you handing the reader’s attention once they’re in?

Once a reader is inside, you must keep their attention by ensuring your book is free of typographic and grammatical errors, there is enough white space to let the content breathe, and there is enough flow in and out of your ideas that your readers don’t grow bored.

With every paragraph, every chapter, and every part of your project, consider the following:

  • How are you going to capture and hold the reader’s attention? Every page turn is another opportunity to hook them, but don’t cheapen the content by artificially inflating hooks. In other words, are you being honest about how you are keeping your reader’s attention?

Attention is closely related to the next component, Time.

MANHA[T]TAN: “Time”

The fifth component is “Time.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“How much time needs to be spent on each topic? Does my target reader have this kind of time? How much time will they have to invest?”

There’s your time and your reader’s time. Be sure to respect both.

As for your own time:

  • Is this a topic you can honestly explore in the amount of time you have to deliver your overall theme and idea to the reader?
  • Are you respecting your time by including content that you know is important, or are you disrespecting your time by forcing yourself to create content for content’s sake?

As for your reader’s time:

  • How much time does each unit of knowledge cost?
  • How long do you expect the reader to stay with you for each lesson and/or idea? If it’s too long, can you break out your delivery into smaller units? (See how Time and Attention are so closely related?)

By and large, people want to know what’s in store at the end of their journey — but they also want to be confident that if they invest in walking up these stairs one by one that they will eventually get to the top of the mountain. (Yes, some mountains have stairs).

Of course, respecting your and your reader’s time has a lot to do with the quality of ideas you are conveying. Which leads us to the next section.

MANHAT[T]AN: “Takeaways”

The sixth component is “Takeaways.”

When you look at this word, I want you to think:

“What one thing do I want my reader to come away from this book knowing?”

Then:

“What one thing do I want my reader to come away from this chapter knowing?”

And finally:

“What one thing do I want my reader to come away from this section/topic/idea knowing?”

Seriously: you could write a whole book like this — I know, because I did!

People need to be able to put your book down, nod, and start applying what you’re saying to how they see the world immediately. You don’t give people tools — you give them lenses to see the world differently.

(See what I did there?)

Every book represents a singular theme or idea. Inside a book, several parts of chapters represent different ideas that, together, comprise of a greater theme. In every step along this journey you are taking the reader, remind them and yourself why they are going on this journey, what’s a stake if they don’t — and more importantly, what’s in store for them if they do.

But all this won’t matter if readers aren’t able to actually get to or through your book. Which brings us to the most business-y component of all.

MANHATT[A]N: “Accessibility”

The seventh component is “Accessibility.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“How is my book discovered, and when it is, are people able to get it?”

Then:

“How are my ideas presented, and when they are, are people able to get them?”

There are two layers to this question. First, we want to ensure that our book is physically able to be acquired. Paperbacks should have a distribution platform like Kindle Direct Publishing that gives people the ability to buy your book when it’s discovered. Print-on-demand is the most popular form of self-publishing, and I don’t recommend anything else unless you are going to be going to a place where you can offer discounted copies of your book (like a conference).

In my case, I went to a higher education conference that was talking about how data science is in high demand. You bet your butt I bought a box full of my books and took them with me!

For both physical and digital-only self-publishing — the latter of which I personally do for my fiction — you’ll want to ensure discoverability is maximized by:

  • Fine-tuning your keywords, titles, and book descriptions, as well as the language you use on your website
  • Ensuring consistency in tone and verbiage across social media sites, personal websites, and distribution channels (like your Amazon author page)

On top of this, your work has to be purchasable appropriately priced for what it promises.

The other layer to accessibility is the innards of your ideas.

Think about the language you use and the kind of writing you are using to convey your thoughts.

  • Is your market high-class rich folks? You probably don’t want to include a lot of slang.
  • Is your market Millennials? Be sure to end as many sentences as you can with hashtags and include the word “dab” as often as possible. (I’m kidding — please don’t do this!)
  • Are you writing for a tech-savvy readership? How about a readership with a specialized skill or within a certain niche? What mannerisms and verbiage might be helpful to conveying new ideas — and which might be a hindrance?

Does your book include assignments or homework? If so, is there a publicly accessible place where people can go to retrieve these things? Likewise, is there a publicly accessible location where people can go and have moderated discussions about your work and your ideas?

  • Are your ideas accessible? (Do you have a website with comment sections that people can interact with you in?)
  • Are your distribution channels accessible? (Do you want make your book available via Kindle Unlimited? Is your book appropriately priced? Is it available on your target reader’s likely distribution channels, like B&N, Amazon, iBooks, SmashWords, Good Reads, etc?)

A book that is highly accessible is one that can be easily pitched alongside other successful bodies of work. This, of course, leads us to the final component of the MANHATTAN Method.

MANHATTA[N]: “Networks”

The eighth component is “Networks.”

When you see this word, I want you to think:

“If my book was the center of a web of themes and ideas, what does the entire network of books, people, ideas, and themes look like, and where on the center of other webs is my book?”

You don’t have to network in the sense that you must go to conferences, do presentations, and play that whole game — unless you want to. While that can sometimes help with publicity, what I mean by Networks is that you must identify your network of associative works and people and get engaged.

  • What other books that are out there could be used a segues into your own? For example, what book could you be reading an article about that might also mention your own book?
  • Who in your genre is writing about the same or similar topics? What communities are they involved in, and how could you leverage your work to participate in those communities as well?
  • Where to readers who read other books in your genre congregate? Are there specific social media platforms they tend to use? (On the other hand, are there social media platforms you can safely avoid because your target readers are not there?)

Identifying where your book fits in with other books of the same genre is instrumental to managing your expectations from the community, your readers, and your fellow authors. It doesn’t make sense to compare a technology book’s communities to a self-help book’s communities; find your network and get involved, even if that means having to break the ice every now and then.

  • Introduce yourself to other writers in your genre and talk about how similar and different your books are. (As an author, these are my favorite kinds of emails!)
  • Introduce yourself to communities on different social media platforms and connect with readers who are talking about the same questions you are answering in your book.

When you glance over at your reference and you see the word Networks, I want you to look at how other authors are talking about the thing you’re talking about, how other readers are talking about it, and then come back to your work with a fresh perspective on what readers want, authors are giving, and how you can fill in the gaps.

Using the MANHATTAN Method Right Now

I know you’ve got a project you’re working on. Likely a couple, I’ll give you that, but we both know there’s that one project that you prioritize above the others.

Think about that project and where you last left off. I don’t care if it felt like too much time has passed since you last touched it. Think about it.

Now, take a look at the words you wrote down. You did write the words down, right? Here they all are again, just in case:

Mental Association — Need — Honesty — Attention — Time — Takeaways — Accessibility — Networks

With your project all in your head, pick one of the words above and stare at it, thinking about how we broke it down earlier. What do you see?

You can also focus on one component and then go back to the section where we broke it down. Re-read it. That’s perfectly okay to do; that’s why we write stuff down. With your project in your head, think about a idea or theme you were trying to convey. When you consider it through the lens of one of the components above, do you see anything new? Is there any room for change and improvement?

I think you’re getting the hang of this.

Remember: You are doing hard work on your project, right now, just by learning how and practicing to see it through different lenses!

Give yourself permission to let your thoughts go all over the place. This method is best used by NOT pressuring yourself to memorize it or follow it too rigorously. It’s meant to be something to glance at and realign your thinking, to give yourself focal points to study when you find yourself thinking about all the non-writing aspects of your work.

Some of the ways I’ve found that this method helps me include:

  • Breaking through periods of writer’s block
  • Sculpting out the hidden layers of self-publishing that writers sometimes forget about, like marketability, viability, and accessibility
  • Looking at your work through different elements of what makes a successfully self-published book

Don’t give yourself lists — give yourself links between different lenses. Instead of thinking, “first I do X then I do Y,” let the MANHATTAN Method guide your thinking with questions about the relationships between each component.

For example:

  • “Are the mental associations being made by my book cover helping to attract reader attention?”
  • “Does this chapter respect my reader’s time, and am I being honest about the value of these takeaways?”
  • “Is this particular takeaway something that reader’s need to know? Am I keeping the reader’s attention by making the way I convey this information accessible to them?”

Imagine that your book is a wheel of colors, and the MANHATTAN Method is a box full of goggles, each with different colored lenses. What can you see — and what can you not see — when you look at your project through each of them? At every stage of your project, each lens offers different layers of creative value to you and your work.

Armed with the MANHATTAN Method, I am hopeful that you too will self-publish a bestselling book. I know you can do it. You are a creator. You are a sculptor of ideas.

Now get out there and deliver.

Going Forward

I would love to read about how this method has helped you to look at writer’s block in a new way.

I welcome any comments on this article about your own work through the lenses in the MANHATTAN Method. Be specific — I want to learn more about you and your project and what’s giving you pause.

By reflecting openly and honestly about our craft and pursuits, we not only help ourselves get through the subconscious obstacles that inhibit progress toward our goals, we also help others overcome challenges that they may have never been able to articulate until they read how you worked through yours.

We can help each other as long as we are brave enough to be vulnerable.

And as I used to say on my podcast:

For the love of everything in this universe: never stop creating.


About the Author

Jesse Lawson writes science fiction novels and blogs about writing. He’s working on getting his TV shows produced. He also created the Coping with Creativity podcast.

Follow him on Twitter and his website.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash.

Jesse Lawson

Written by

Bestselling author and essayist focusing on the intersection of personal growth, culture, society, and creativity. For more: https://lawsonry.com

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