Around April 2020, I started interviewing self-published authors about their writing process. I had the great fortune to learn from people like Nicolas Cole, Arvid Kahl, April Dunford, Rob Fitzpatrick, David Kadavy, Steph Smith, Andrew Warner and many more.
What you’re about to read in the next 10 to 15 minutes are the best writing, marketing and publishing tips I’ve learned across these interviews.
It has cost me at least 100 hours to gather this information, and I hope it will save you even more.
1. A book written for everyone will appeal to no one
Before you start writing or even choose the exact topic, think about your audience:
- Who are they?
- What do they need?
- How can you help them?
Once you have an initial idea about what you want to write and who you want to write it for, do more research. Browse forums, read similar books and their reviews, talk to your audience or teach it even. We’ll go into more detail about some of these later.
Be something to someone instead of anything to no one. Be willing to say no to 99% to make something that is an incredible yes to the 1%.Adam Putterman & Bob Manfreda
If you’re not quite sure about your topic yet, follow these steps:
- Think about your interests. Where do people with these interests hang out?
- Go into those communities (e.g. Twitter, Indiehackers, Facebook groups, Reddit).
- Start listening to what people struggle with. Which problems are repeated?
- Can you solve that problem or add value?
2. Solve a problem
Every great non-fiction book solves a problem for someone.
- The Mom Test => How to test if your business is a good idea.
- Obviously Awesome => How to position your product.
- Product-led Onboarding => How to onboard new users successfully.
- Stop Asking Questions => How to have better conversations.
- Deploy Empathy => How to conduct better customer interviews..
All these books have one secret in common: they have no secrets. The authors deliberately shared everything they knew. (Don’t worry about losing work, April Dunford’s consulting work took off after sharing her exact strategy.)
When you write a book that solves a problem, more people will recommend it. Hence, marketing your book will cost less effort.
3. Interview potential readers
If you want your book to be useful to many readers within your category, you need to discover their problems. The best way to do so is by talking to them. Schedule a few calls or coffee chats with people in your audience. Help them solve problems in your niche and ask them a few questions in return. Take notes on everything.
If that doesn’t work, you’ve got a few more alternatives. You could give them an incentive to talk to you, like a free copy or a gift voucher.
You could also send them a form or ask questions on social media. People are usually less shy when it’s not a face-to-face conversation. But the results won’t be as great. And if you do this, don’t forget to set a deadline.
4. Find community
Writing a book is a very lonely experience for many. Even for introverts, it can become a heavy burden to sit at their desks and write alone—day in, day out.
Make it a social experience instead.
- Hire an editor.
- Get a writing or accountability coach.
- Join writing communities.
- Involve your friends and family.
- Reach out to other writers.
- Set up a book advisory board.
- Create a Beta-reader community.
Your community won’t only help you carry the load, they’ll also be your first evangelists to boost your book marketing efforts.
And of course, they will provide invaluable feedback.
Here’s how to get better feedback and deal with criticism:
- Surround yourself with people who want to see you grow.
- Share ideas and actively ask for feedback.
- Don’t forget that feedback isn’t always right.
- Be specific with feedback and questions.
- Ask if it evokes feelings. What kind?
- Ask what’s funny or confusing.
5. Create a writing habit
If you don’t write, you won’t have a book, right?
The key is to find a habit that works for you. Other people’s routines are great for inspiration but not for copying.
The only thing that matters is making steady progress, ideally by writing a few times per week. For most people, multiple short sprints are better than one marathon session.
It also helps to start with a smaller goal in mind. Instead of writing a book, you could write one article per week, or one short newsletter per day. These things add up and, when well-planned, eventually form the skeleton of your book.
“Don’t feel like you need to know exactly what your story is about at the beginning. Let the story emerge. Your job as the writer is to connect the dots and turn what might appear as disparate ideas, disparate themes and disparate subjects into a book.”Jamie Russo
Take this example from Arvid Kahl: When he realised many of his blog posts were connected, he created a compendium. This became the foundation for his first book, Zero to Sold. After linking his content, he searched for gaps and filled them until he had one coherent book.
6. Follow your energy
If you schedule a few sessions per week to work on your book, you’ll make progress.
But the thing is, sometimes you don’t feel like writing. And that’s fine. Accept those moments and remember you’re in it for the long run. It’s better to have some delay than a burnout.
So when you don’t feel like writing at all, follow your energy and do something else. Maybe you can do some research, maybe you can schedule some calls with readers, or maybe you can just review some previous chapters.
You’ll probably notice that some hours and some days work best for certain activities. Writing is probably easier on Tuesday morning than on Friday night.
Some energy level tips:
- Avoid doing research while you’re in a writing flow. Add a placeholder where you need to do additional research, add a link, change a word… (I tend to put a #).
- When you’re creativity is fading away, look for a change of scenery.
- Avoid distractions! Keep your phone elsewhere.
- Do some quick research when you don’t have time (or the tools) to start writing.
David Kadavy shares more of these in Mind Management, Not Time Management.
7. Written is better than perfect
Now, of course, you may never feel like writing. And that’s a problem. The good thing is that the cause of that problem is mostly the same: perfectionism.
You wait for the great ideas and the perfect words. If you keep waiting, they might never come. Just brain dump your thoughts on the page. Write a “shitty first draft”.
Editing and even deleting 90% later will still give you more progress than not writing anything at all.
8. Teach it first
Some authors have taught classes, others taught co-workers or spoke at public events. But even if none of this applies to you, you can still start offering free (or paid) consultation calls.
Teaching a topic is the ultimate hack to fully understand the most common issues your readers might face. But it’s also a great way to test ideas, examples and metaphors because it’s two-directional. When something doesn’t work, you’ll notice it right away.
You even get the benefit of earning while you’re learning what to write about. And you can steal phrases and ideas from your students to make the book more approachable.
It’s literally the language of your readers.
9. Cut but don’t delete
When you write your first draft, you may end up with over 100.000 words.
And I hate to bring it to you, but few people want to read that many of your words. So one thing is certain, you’ll have to delete lots of words. It may be painful but it needs to happen.
There are two ways:
- Deleting content
The first way probably comes last and it’ll help reduce maybe 5-10% of the words.
- Delete adverbs, like very, really, just, actually …
- Reduce wordiness, like “make a decision” instead of “decide”.
- Watch out for pleonasm and tautology, like “collaborating together”.
But deleting content is the most important job to reduce your word count. Some things to look out for:
- More than one example.
- Too much repetition.
- Irrelevant stories.
Luckily, you can ease the pain by keeping the sections you delete. Most probably you’ll find a place for them elsewhere. Maybe in another chapter, maybe in a promotional essay, or maybe even in a tweet or LinkedIn post.
10. Longer is not better
We just focused on reducing the word count, because it doesn’t matter. Books do not need a certain length.
There’s more, if your book is full of fluff, people pay double—with their money and their time.
Keep it as short as possible to respect your reader.
“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” — (Probably) Woodrow Wilson
Here’s a fun example: April Dunford interviewed CEOs before she wrote her book. She discovered most of them read on the plane. And most of them got about halfway through but they never picked up the book again to read the other half. They felt it wasn’t necessary.
Conclusion? Most nonfiction books have double the word count they should have.
11. Journal and take notes
Many non-fiction books have autobiographical elements. You can take many of these from memory, but the stories will be stale.
So as soon as you start thinking about the book, and especially when talking to readers, take notes. You’ll thank yourself later.
And if you don’t remember exactly, use tools to your advantage. Check Google Streetview or use websites that show the exact weather conditions of places in the past.
Another benefit of journaling is that the practice will give you more ideas. Ideas you can use in your book or on your promotion channels.
12. Find unique inspiration
If you want to stand out, be different. Whatever field you’re writing in, there’s going to be a book about it already.
If you write more of the same, people won’t recommend your book. So find a different angle. A good way to do this is by reading unconventional ideas about your topic. Read the classics but also seemingly unrelated ideas.
Noah Yuval Harari did no original research and still wrote a best-selling book. But he did read many books and research papers most of us haven’t read and brought the information to us in a new, accessible way.
13. Use constraints
Writing from a blank page is difficult. But less so when you use constraints. Those constraints can be superficial but also detailed. Maybe you’re not allowed to use certain words. Maybe you’re not allowed to use backspace. Perhaps you have to reach 500 words before you stop writing.
You can also use constraints on a bigger scale. In the Underdog Paradox, Jamie Russo decided to include exactly one story, one piece of research and one underdog per chapter.
14. Keep it simple (tools)
Don’t worry about what tools you need to write a book. Most people just stick to what they know: Word or Google Docs.
Here are some other tools you could consider but are definitely not necessary:
- Trello or Asana to organise.
- Quillbot and other AI writers to rephrase the content.
- Scrivener, Ulysses, Vellum, Reedsy to write and or publish.
- Adobe, Affinity, Canva for layout and/or cover design.
15. Go on social media
If you don’t have an audience already, you need to create a social media presence. Ideally, you’ll just focus on one channel so you can make deeper connections with people. These people may become your first readers, fans and evangelists.
A book marketing plan without social media strategy is pointless for self-published books.
- Focus on one or two channels.
- Connect with likeminded people (experts, other authors, people learning about your topic).
- Share daily updates about your progress, tools, ideas …
Of course, you can try multiple channels, but for most people, this doesn’t work. You won’t have time to make meaningful connections. You’ll spend way more time promoting than writing. And you’ll probably be doing things you don’t like.
But if you do insist on promoting on as many channels as possible, repurpose your content. Write an article, then pick a few quotes as tweets, Instagram posts or pins. You can also create a thread, turn it into an audio recording, and share your article on places like Tealfeed, Medium, Indiehackers etc.
Bonus social media tip: Steph Smith created several prominent highlights in her ebook. These exact highlights were shared by many readers on social media.
16. Write in public
An extension of the social experience is writing in public. This means you’ll share regular updates of your book writing process.
You can share a chapter in your newsletter, tweet about your tools, or share some interesting findings on Reddit. Be creative and let people know you’re writing. This will create momentum.
More and more people will learn about you and your book even before you publish it. They might want to follow your journey or get exclusive insights from what you’re learning.
Writing in public has other benefits as well:
- Early validation of your ideas
- Inside information about topics of interest
- Public accountability
- Early feedback
Even after publishing, some authors continue sharing everything in public. They share sales stats, income stats and any review that comes their way.
Some interesting people to follow:
17. Involve Alpha and Beta readers
A more advanced strategy of writing in public is using alpha and beta readers. These are practically free editors. You can start with friends or recruit followers on social media.
Alpha readers read the very early drafts of your book and give recommendations about things that should be covered more extensively or things that don’t make sense.
Beta readers do the same in a more advanced stage of the writing process.
Ideally, you’ll go through a few iterations. Authors who regularly involve beta-readers, tend to do 4-5 rounds of about 6-8 weeks.
Be deliberate about whom you involve when. It’s not likely the same beta-reader will read your manuscript five times. So it’s better to not invite the most important readers, like industry experts or influencers, in the early stages.
You also shouldn’t worry about giving your content away for free to these people. These readers are fans of yours and involving them in the writing process has multiple benefits.
- They’ll feel part of the book and they’ll want to promote it along with you.
- Since they’ve invested time in it, they’ll probably want to buy it as well. (Although I believe, they deserve a free copy too.)
www.helpthisbook.com is a great tool to make this strategy work, but you can also use Google Docs.
18. Start a newsletter
Start a newsletter during your writing process to give interested readers updates. You can recruit these people for your beta-reading community, or you can even turn the newsletter into the beta-reading community and share new chapters regularly.
You’ll probably be familiar with another benefit of newsletters: You own your audience. Your social media followers are always tied to the channel and when something goes wrong, you lose them. Not when you have their email addresses.
Finally, a newsletter is the best way to let your audience know your book is available. You can direct them to the store you like or even offer an exclusive discount.
And if you have more books or other products, a newsletter is the best place to offer an upsell.
19. Have a website
A website makes your book more discoverable. If you know a few things about SEO, you can attract new readers by sharing some essays on your website. This means you can attract readers based on the content of your book rather than your name or your book’s title.
More advanced writers could also use the website to sell their book. This way, they get more details about their readers and they have full control of the sales page. The possibilities include discounts, timers, promotion packages, etc.
Derek Sivers sells three of his books on his website and he has an interesting (honest) sales strategy.
20. Hire a professional editor
Few writers don’t hire editors. From the 28 authors I’ve interviewed, 2 didn’t hire an editor. One said it’s the first thing he’d change with his next book, the other one said he doesn’t need an editor. Guess which book is the only one of them all I didn’t finish?
Don’t do it without a professional editor. Some authors indicated that the costs lie around $1000. It isn’t cheap but when you see it as a personal writing masterclass, it’s worth every penny.
“First drafts are always wrong and will still be wrong, just more beautiful if you do the revisions yourself.”Rob Fitzpatrick
Editing isn’t the same as proofreading, by the way. An editor will tell you where you need to add more colour, or where you need to cut the fluff. They’ll also help you rearrange your book if needed.
What about other professional help?
You could get a cover design, hire someone to promote your book or get help to publish via Amazon KDP. The key questions are
- How good are you at these things?
- And how long will it take if you do it yourself?
A few hundred dollars is probably worth more than ten hours of your time and a burnout. One author nearly broke up with his girlfriend because the editing process was so stressful.
21. Go on podcasts
Going on podcasts is a wonderful way to promote your book. It’ll cost one to three hours of your time, but in return, you’ll get exposure to hundreds of potentially interested readers.
Don’t worry about finding podcasts, by the way. Podcasters are always looking for guests, and if you have something to say about their niche, they’ll be happy to receive you.
There are also special networks to match podcasters with guests or find interesting shows.
Some places worth checking:
22. Organise giveaways
In the beginning, you might not have many readers. This means few reviews, and also little word of mouth. That’s why it makes sense to give away a few hundred free copies. Maybe in print at events ($4ish dollars per print), or ebooks on social media to keep it cheap.
Rob Fitzpatrick, whom I consider an expert in optimising for word of mouth sales, says it takes a total of about 1,000 copies before the word starts spreading.
What really matters, though, is who receives your book. Optimise for people in your target audience. That’s why it may make more sense to give away copies at an industry event. If you’re lucky, you might even strike a deal with the organisers so they take care of the printing costs.
23. Intriguing cover design
Your cover is the first impression of your book. Maybe it doesn’t matter much in bookstores anymore, but it’s also the first thing people see on Amazon. So make sure it’s clear and fitting.
The cover design is also a good way to engage your audience. Several authors create about eight designs and share them with their audience. They let their audience decide and listen to feedback to get the most appealing cover.
But in the end, the choice is still up to you. if you dislike the most popular choice, you can still use another one.
If you decide to pay for a designer, here’s a cheat code I learned:
Go to 99designs and look for book cover design contents. Among the losers, you might find a design you like. Offer to buy it at a lower price. It’s still a win-win.
24. Think about discounts on launch day
Some people recommend launching your book on Amazon with a juicy discount. You can go as low as 99 cents for an ebook.
The pros for a big discount:
- It helps you become an Amazon bestseller.
- You reward your biggest fans.
- more sales on launch day.
- Amazon bestseller badges are temporary.
- There are other ways to become a bestseller (by category selection, for example).
- Your biggest fans will buy your book anyway, no matter the price.
25. Amazon category selection
Another and more profitable way to become an Amazon bestseller is by choosing the right categories.
The more niche you go, the lower the competition is. Therefore it makes sense to dive deep into de subcategories. The good thing is that your book will also appear in the broader categories above it.
Ben Guest, for example, wrote a sports biography set in Namibia. So one category he picked was Travel and the subcategories were Africa and Namibia, but also Mississippi because of one chapter. He also categorised it as Sports & Outdoors, Basketball, Professional.
26. Have several launch events
Traditionally-published books, typically have one launch day. If you self-publish, you should have as many launch events as possible. Ensure people keep talking about your book. So don’t release the ebook, print and audiobook all on the same day.
Here are some launch events to consider:
- Hard cover
- Premium edition
- Holiday promotion
- One-year discount
- Signed copies
- Product Hunt launch
One bad launch event does not make or break your book.
Just a few things to consider:
- Try to get the audiobook ready before the first book launch, but don’t release it until a few weeks after. Don’t wait too long either or your fans might complain.
- Wait with a Product Hunt Launch until you have a loyal fanbase that will upvote your book. You can only launch once, so make it worthwhile.
27. Go beyond Amazon
Amazon KDP has become the go-to place for self-published authors. It’s the biggest market of readers, so it makes sense to publish there.
But you should also explore other options. Apple Books is less competitive, Gumroad charges lower fees and on your own website, you have full control.
Whatever stage your at, I hope you’ve found these tips useful. If you have anything else to add, please leave a comment.