What we learned writing and self-publishing a book

An insight into self-publishing a book

Andrew Couldwell
Feb 19, 2020 · 12 min read

Until a year ago, I had never in my life thought: I want to write a book. It wasn’t a bucket list item or a new year’s resolution. It was more a realisation that I had the material to do it… So why not? 💡

Page spread of a book
Page spread of a book
Our book! Laying the Foundations / Published October 2019

The seed

In November 2018, my wife, Meagan Fisher and I (Owl Studios) were invited to run a day-long web design workshop. One of the topics I planned to cover on the day was design systems. As I prepared for the workshop, one Keynote deck turned into two, then three. I had the crazy idea I could cram several years of knowledge and experience into a couple of hours. I was so wrong! On the day of the workshop, I cut one presentation altogether and blew over at least half of the slides in my remaining two decks. Clearly, I had a lot to share about design systems… 🤔

I figured I had three options:

  1. Do nothing and move on? So not my style!
  2. Write a series of long articles? There are so many articles on this subject!
  3. Write a book? ✅

As a person who works exclusively in digital, the thought of producing a physical object that will outlast me — that my future kids can hold in their hands and say “my Dad wrote this” — was a pretty cool thought. I wanted a challenge, and my wife was telling me I should go for it! I enjoy writing, and I had more content than I knew what to do with… so I went for it!

The writing part

I chose to use Google Docs to write the book. I knew I could structure the document effectively with the Document Outline feature. I could share it with an editor for collaboration. And it’s readily accessible and easy to use — on my desktop, laptop, or phone — whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.

I started by writing a content outline. I listed potential chapters and sub-sections (i.e. what to write about), and mapped out the order of the content. Once I had a rough outline, I created the chapters in my Google Doc and noted some basic, preliminary ideas about what to cover in each chapter. I also dumped all the content I had from various Keynote decks and articles over the years into the relevant chapters. Although somewhat chaotic, these notes were a great starting point.

It’s worth noting that I was freelancing when I wrote the book. I knew I needed to focus on writing, so I stopped taking on projects for several weeks until I’d written my first draft. For the most part, I’d lock myself away and bash out a chapter at a time.

My process was to just write! I didn’t overthink the narrative or the content, I just let the words flow out, raw and unedited. When I ran out of words to write, I would read what I’d written and edit it down into something that made sense. I’d also leave myself notes to expand upon certain points or find example images, quotes, and resources to demonstrate a point. I re-read each chapter several times, refining the content, changing the order, removing parts, or adding more — and repeating this process until I was satisfied I’d covered the topic of each chapter.

An old school typewriter
An old school typewriter
Photo by Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash. I… err… didn’t use one of these!

To get a publisher or self-publish?

A big question I asked myself when writing this book was: how do I publish it? Traditionally, writers pitch a book concept to publishers. If the pitch is successful, the publisher pays them an advance to write the book. Or they can write the book, then try to find a publisher later.

As much as I liked the idea of ‘being a published author’, I also thought: who cares if I have a publisher or not? I think it’s very different for fiction and non-fiction. If I were attempting to write the next Harry Potter, I would probably seek a publisher, as they’d help me write and edit it, and they’d know best how to reach an audience, produce, sell, distribute, and publicise the book.

But I was writing a non-fiction book about my experience with creating design systems. I might not know how to publish a book (yet), but I do know my audience and how to reach them, and I know the topic better than a publisher’s editors. So what value would they bring? Sure, they’d make it cheaper to produce our book, and take the pain and effort out of the printing and distribution. But then they’d also exert control over the content and design, and take a huge cut of the profit. I’ve also read that the publishing cycle can be a frustratingly long process. I didn’t want to publish a book 1-2 years from now, I wanted to publish a book within the year.

It wasn’t just the drawbacks of going the publisher route that made me choose to self-publish — I always viewed this as a personal project. Part of the beauty of personal projects is that you learn a lot from doing them. I wanted to write a book my way, and not have someone else tell me what I could and could not write. I also wanted to design the book myself. I’d never designed for print, so I saw the book’s design as a personal challenge to learn a new skill. And I’m lucky enough to have a super talented wife who studied English at university and loves to read, so I knew she would do an excellent job editing the book. She’s also a designer-developer (the same as me), so in addition to bringing order to the content and correcting my grammar, she could also suggest ideas for how to improve the content and challenge what I was writing. Perhaps best of all, this was a project we could do together and both be proud of. Win-win.

A couple of page spreads from a book
A couple of page spreads from a book
A page spread from our book

My wife and I tackled all parts of this project ourselves. We didn’t need to hire outside help, which kept our costs down. But, we were self-employed, and we took on fewer projects while we worked on the book, which meant a lot of lost income. We’re not rich, so it was risky, and there were far more extreme costs ahead with production, printing, and distribution. So, before we move on:

Let’s get real

This subheading is not meant to scare you, but if you’re going to self-publish, you need to be realistic and honest with yourself about the money, time, and personal risks involved. Think about, research, and have a good answer for the following:

  • Who is your audience and how will you reach them without the help of a publisher? And most importantly: do you have an audience? If not, how can you create one? If you build it, will they come?
  • What can you do yourself, and what help will you need? You might need an editor, designer, illustrator, technical help to create an eBook, etc. Do you know people who can help, or do you need to hire a professional(s)?
  • How are you going to fund this? It takes a great deal of time and money to write, produce, and distribute a book. Hiring help aside, can you afford to print hundreds of books? When researching your budget, remember to subtract the costs of shipping and packaging from your projected profit, in addition to printing costs. Three months after the release of our book, we’d spent $7,900 on shipping labels, $7,400 on printing, and $2,400 on miscellaneous things like payment gateway fees and materials. That's a total of $17,700 in expenses (and counting). You have to spend money to make money.
  • When are you going to do all of this? Will you stay in your full-time job? If you do, that’s a lot of work in the evenings and weekends. If you plan to take time out of work, that’s potentially a lot of lost income.

The points above are only intended to illustrate what a commitment of time and money self-publishing a book can be. Ultimately, for us, it has proven worth it and we’re glad we did it. We’ve managed to make a profit and we’re really proud of what we created.

Publicity

I recommend getting the word out about your book before you’ve finished writing it. Drum up some buzz about the book and gauge the interest (or lack of interest) in such a book. Don’t wait until after you’ve written the book to discover nobody is interested in it.

Make it easy for people to register interest in the book with an email platform like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor. These services allow you to embed an email signup form on your website, or tweet/share a link to a simple signup page they generate for you. Keep in mind: 1,000 email signups probably won’t equate to 1,000 people buying your book.

To fund the production of your book and give you some financial security, you could take pre-orders of your book and/or do a Kickstarter campaign. This can also help you further gauge how many people are interested in your book.

We chose not to take pre-orders. We didn’t want to promise people something that didn’t fully exist (yet). We’ve seen this go wrong with many startups, and the fallout when you don’t deliver can be catastrophic. Instead, we chose to focus on making a great book, then come to market with something real that we were proud and confident to promote. This was a risk — albeit a calculated risk — because we invested in purchasing a stock of books without knowing for sure how many orders to expect, or if we’d make our money back.

Three mobile phones showing a responsive website promoting a book
Three mobile phones showing a responsive website promoting a book
A simple one-page, responsive website to announce the book and encourage people to register interest

Getting the word out

A good deal of the way into my first draft — about the time I realised I’d passed the point of no return — I designed and built a simple one-page website (pictured above) to promote the book, including a ‘register interest’ email signup form. The design was based on some initial thoughts I’d had about the brand, playing with the idea of shapes being the building blocks of design systems — an idea that evolved when I got to the actual book design phase.

This was the scariest part of the project thus far. Announcing to the world I was writing a book and publishing later this year was a full commitment to deliver! And the first time the imposter syndrome really set in.

The tweet went out. 👆 I nervously watched my MailChimp list to see if anyone would sign up. Within 3 days, over 500 people and counting had signed up from over 30 countries! Shit got real. Knowing I at least had a potential audience helped alleviate my fear that nobody cared about the book, and made the rest of the writing process a lot more comfortable.

But the imposter syndrome never really went away. It still hasn’t.

Imposter syndrome

Never in my career have I felt so uncomfortable as I did while creating this book. The anxiety I felt throughout much of the process felt crippling at times. The following questions plagued me throughout the process:

I’m a web designer and developer — what business do I have writing a book?

Who do I think I am? Why would anyone care what I think?

Is anyone going to buy it?

What if people don’t like it?

As someone who’s dealt with depression, I knew I shouldn’t dwell on this self-doubt. I had to try to be positive and press on. And you should too. Talk to your friends and loved ones, take a break, and tell yourself:

You’re writing this book because you know what you’re talking about and you have a lot of valuable experience to share.

What does it matter who I am? I’m good at what I do and I’m sharing some knowledge I’ve acquired. I’m helping people, not hurting them.

It might not sell that many copies… If it doesn’t, you still tried your best. Nobody and nothing can take away from that.

Some people won’t like it! Have you seen the stupid reviews some people write about logos, products, books, and films? There will always be haters. Let them be trolls — that’s their problem, not yours. You did your best, that’s all that matters.

My wife was my rock. The support and kind words she gave me throughout the process got me through it. Which brings us to:

The editing part

I’m not sure what professional writers and editors think about what stage(s) you should share a draft(s) with your editor, but I wanted to complete my first draft before handing it over to my editor. This is just how I like to work — I work best with momentum, rather than stopping and starting. However, an entire book draft is a lot to edit and iterate on, so Meagan worked through one chapter at a time. She gave constructive feedback, corrected any spelling and grammatical errors, and suggested edits.

As I mentioned earlier, my wife, Meagan Fisher is the book’s editor. When my first draft was ready, I gave her commenting access to the Google Doc I’d been writing. I then apologised for its length and the horrible burden I felt I’d bestowed upon her! 😬

The anxiety I felt about my writing entering the editing phase was hard to endure at first. Everything about this book took an enormous amount of time and effort. I’m a crazy person, I love to keep busy — I think I even thrive under these conditions. But bringing someone else into this madness left me feeling really guilty. I’m eternally grateful to Meagan for the wonderful job she did editing our book! Her patience and contributions (as a designer herself) made the content and flow of the book so much better. ⭐️

To say Meagan made a lot of improvements is an understatement, and only highlights the importance of hiring an editor to work with you on your own book. Below is a screenshot showing some of her suggested edits:

A screengrab of a Google Doc web page showing multiple edits to a large body of text
A screengrab of a Google Doc web page showing multiple edits to a large body of text

I’m a huge fan of Google Docs. It’s fantastic for collaborating on content. The pink edits you see above are all edits or suggestions made by my editor, which I could choose to accept (and implement) or reject. Sometimes I would challenge an edit, which often led to a good discussion about the topic, pushing it to a better resolution.

The screenshot (above) is an extreme example of a section with a lot of edits! It wasn’t all so heavy 😆. Sometimes there were light edits to paragraphs that were easily and quickly implemented, and other times her edits made me completely re-think the content and I’d delete entire pages, or replace one sentence with two new pages. The point is:

The editing process always made the content better, more concise, and more impactful.

Aside from smaller back-and-forths on ideas, structure, and content, I think we went through 3 full drafts all-in-all.

As a final step before I committed the final draft to print, I had a good friend of mine proofread the book. My wife and I were understandably very close to the book, so it was good to get another set of eyes on the content. I chose a friend who works in the same field as us — someone I respect, who understands the context of the book and could judge it from the point-of-view of our book’s audience. This extra feedback led to some valuable additions and edits to the content. It can’t hurt to get another opinion… You just don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.

A couple of page spreads from a book
A couple of page spreads from a book
Page spreads from our book

If you found this useful, please consider applauding this article and sharing this series!

The design part

With a decent draft of our book completed, I was ready to turn my attention to the design of the book, which I’ve separated out as a new article. Self-publishing is a process. I want to focus on each stage of the process to give you all the information I can to help you with your own book project. I’ve also compiled these articles into a publication: How to self-publish a book.

👉 How to design a book (and an eBook)

I hope this helps you if you’re thinking about writing and/or self-publishing a book. If you are, good luck! :) Oh, and please buy our book! 😉

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed…

Andrew Couldwell

Written by

Web designer & developer • Portfolio at: https://roomfive.net

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed, marketed, sold, and distributed. Self-publishing can be fun and rewarding, but also frustrating and costly. This series shares our experience, the hard lessons we learned, and advice to save money and succeed.

Andrew Couldwell

Written by

Web designer & developer • Portfolio at: https://roomfive.net

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed, marketed, sold, and distributed. Self-publishing can be fun and rewarding, but also frustrating and costly. This series shares our experience, the hard lessons we learned, and advice to save money and succeed.

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