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Keys to success self-publishing how-to books

I have written and self-published about 60 books counting multiple editions of some. My first book was published by Harcourt Brace so I have been there and done that, too.

In retrospect, it does not seem that hard to me to succeed as a self-publisher of how-to books. Here are the things that matter most:

Writing talent—(I think) I say “I think” because it does not seem to me that I have any writing talent. However, in my book Succeeding, I said that talented people are oblivious to their talent. They can do effortlessly something that others cannot do to save their lives. Writing seems effortless to me. However, some people have sent me manuscripts that I find totally unreadable. I cannot even get through a paragraph. So I suspect there is some talent to writing. My book How to Write, Publish, and Sell your Own How-To Book has some suggestions for those without writing talent—like do reference books or transcribe your speeches on the topic—but talent may be a prerequisite to success as a self-publisher of how-to books.

Know the subject—At the Dale Carnegie public speaking class, which I highly recommend—they say anyone can make a good speech if he or she has earned the right to speak on the subject in question. How do you earn the right? By living through the subject or by doing extensive research on it—which is arguably another form of living through it. Same principle applies to how-to writing. You cannot do high school student research. That is, find 21 facts and write an essay that consists solely of those 21 facts. Rather you need the proverbial iceberg of unused facts under the “tip” that is your book. The good news is virtually everyone has lived through something that fits that criterion. And, with a year or so, we can all research something that interest us to the point where we can write about it. The key to bad writing is assigned topics—the standard of high school and college teachers. When I wrote for a Harcourt Brace newsletter, the editors assigned me topics. After a while, I rebelled and chewed them out. “Why don’t you let me write about what I want? Stuff I know about and am excited about? Why do you keep making me write about stuff I care or know little about? I have to do tons more research and when I’m done, I still know far less than I know about the subjects I want to write about.” They relented, the newsletter got much better and they never assigned me another topic.

Self-publish—Do NOT. I repeat, do NOT ever let a “real” publisher publish your book. I know all your reasons. You think they will make it better through editing, that they have great distribution, that they will know how to promote it, that they will give you credibility, blah, blah. That’s all a bunch of bull. In how-to books, the main thing is your knowledge of the subject and your ability to communicate it. If you really need an editor, hire one free lance. They are a dime a dozen. If you want to make a group of people laugh out loud, find a bunch of experienced authors who have been published by “real” publishers and tell them you are seeking a publisher to benefit from their promotion skills and power. In the real world of publishing, the publishers put the book out the door and see if anyone cares. If the book starts to sell well, they may, repeat may, spend some time, effort, and money promoting it. But your book’s success must precede the promotion, not the other way around. Sound backwards? Then try publishing another author’s books and see how much mileage you get out of promoting books that slip beneath the waves the moment they come off the press. The Lord helps them who help themselves and the publishers promote those books that sell well without promotion. The main reason to self-publish is that publishing is not that hard. Roughly speaking, it is the same as writing something and taking it to Kinko’s to get a bunch of copies run off then creating a series of Web pages about it. You have probably already been to Kinko’s a few times. And you may have a family or business or school Web site that you have contributed to. That’s it, babe. Publishing just ain’t that complicated. (Kinko’s is too expensive to print your books. I just mention them because it is a process you are familiar with.)

Stay out of the book stores—The main reason to avoid agents, publishers, distributors, and book stores is they each take a cut. Boy, do they take a cut! Matter of fact, if you are not careful, they will take all of the profits from your hard labor. I was in the book stores for twenty years, nationwide. Been there. Done that. I was phasing out the book stores in 2001 when my book store distributor Publishers Group West suddenly fired me. I figured I would no longer need them in a few years, so I was slowly publishing more and more books that I just sold myself and did not let them sell. When they fired me, I thought my income would take a hit. Au contraire! It jumped UP! My net income went up 70% in the first six months after they stopped selling my books to book stores. Ever get a 70% raise? The median U.S. income is $43,000. For a person making the median, a 70% raise would be 70% x $43,000 = $30,100. “Hey, Joe. We love your work. We are going to give you a raise from your current $43,000 to $73,100. Is that OK?” Did that ever happen to you? I didn’t think so. But it happened to me—when my book store distributor Publishers Group West fired me. But wait! It gets better. My last full year in the book stores was 2000. My first full year not in the book stores was 2002. My net income in 2002 was 257% higher than in 2000. “Hey, Joe. We really love your work. We are going to raise you from your current $43,000 to $43,000 x 257% = $110,510. Is that OK?” Why does getting out of book stores raise your net income 257%? It’s a bit of a complex story. It’s explained in my book. Basically, it has to do with the Internet, which changes everything, and margins and prices and page counts and so forth. To put it another way, you are cutting out all the many middlemen in an industry where the middlemen are especially evil and greedy. Don’t believe me? Try it your way. Write a how-to book and let the book store crowd sell it. You’ll be SOOOrrry.

Low overhead—Self-publishing is a shoe-string business. Keep it that way. Your office is your kitchen table. After you become successful, I repeat, AFTER, you can move to a spare bedroom or some such. But you will never leave home for office space. About all you need are a home computer, printer, phone, Internet connection, and so forth. Most people who would become writers probably already have all that. You do not need an outside office or a secretary or employees or any of that. You could probably even publish your own-how-to book using a computer at the library, college, or where you work, although that would be less than ideal. Maybe just do that for your first book if you are that poor. You do not need any inventory. You can even wait to print a book until after you sell it. I print most of mine in paperback, but for certain books, I print on demand. That is, the book does not exist until after you pay me for it. Then I print it and bind it and send it to you. You often hear the excuse that it takes money to make money. Not in self-publishing. If someone gave me $100,000 and forced me to spend it on my publishing business, I would not know what to do with it.

‘Soup Nazi’ marketing—The “Soup Nazi” was a November, 1995 episode of Seinfeld that was based on a real New York City restaurant Soup Kitchen International (259A West 55th Street in Manhattan) owned by immigrant Al Yageneh. He is famous for putting the procedure for ordering soup on his exterior wall and yelling “Next!” if you screw it up when it’s your turn. Since he has a line around the block, it makes perfect sense. It is also similar to the self-service pump at gas stations. If you do a ton of customer service, you will gradually stop being a writer and turn into a concierge. That is not what I want. I have 30 books and a newsletter now. That’s a lot of customer service. I would not have time to write if I did what I used to do: phone orders, mail orders, fax orders, email orders, foreign orders, rush orders, and so forth. So I adopted my own version of the “Soup Nazi” or self-service pump. I have a Web site with a shopping cart. It takes MasterCard or Visa. You process your own order. When you’re done—if your credit card is approved—you and I each get an email from Yahoo Store giving the details of the order. I then ship you those books. I won’t give you a status report or even tell you if it has been shipped. That all takes time and it’s a waste of time. You get them when you get them. If you send me a check or money order, I will shred it—literally. Mailing it back is like processing an order—for nothing. My order processing requirements are apparently so funny that a number of people have emailed them to friends. I was not trying to be funny when I wrote them. As I became more successful, I found I was spending more and more time on customer service. I would rather spend my time writing. So I just gradually cut out one customer service after another until I now have almost none. You want a book? Go to my shopping cart and fill it out. I am not interested in whether you live in Canada or don’t own a credit card or don’t trust the Internet or any of that. Do it my way or vaya con Dios. I’m not trying to be a hard ass. I just prefer writing to dealing with people who think using a shopping cart and Mastercard or Visa is overly burdensome. They are entitled to their opinion and I am entitled to do without their $30. Bottom line is I make more money overall doing it my way than I would accommodating all those special needs. Customers who order by mail or phone or check or whatever take more time and are therefore less profitable. Why should any business person do more and get paid less to satisfy the few customers who can’t use a reasonable ordering procedure? Initially, you may want to accommodate all types of orders. I did when I started. But if you have any success, you will soon see the wisdom of “Soup Nazi” marketing. And because you read about it here or in my book, you will wise up sooner.

Note: Since I originally wrote this, we have stopped the “Soup Nazi” approach for two reasons: my wife retired and took over order processing. She has more time than I to deal with phone orders and such. We also switched to Endica for postage. They make it easy to ship outside the U.S. so we do that now.

Your Web site—Your Web site is key. It’s not hard. Just put up a series of pages about your book and register the pages with a search engine like Google. I usually have the following Web pages for each book:

Front Matter (Copyright date, acknowledgments, etc.)

Front cover

Table of Contents


Reader comments


Changes since last edition


Various free articles about the subject of the book

Links to Web pages on the same subject

You will get orders typically within hours of creating your Web site. Very simply, people type into a search engine the subject of your book (hopefully) and find your site. Then they visit, like what they see, and order. That’s it. I have found that you need no other promotion than your Web site. Furthermore, your Web site does not need to be jazzy. About once a week, someone tells me mine sucks and offers to upgrade it for free books. No thanks. The Internet changes everything. If you write about a subject that people are interested in and searching for on the internet, you will sell books. The better your book, the more you will sell. Ultimately, the quality of your book will rule. Laymen think promotion is the key. Nah. Book quality is. Publishers Group West told me that in response to my asking when I started with them. I did not believe them. But as time went on, I found they were right. Self-publishing is a pure meritocracy. If you do a good job, you will be paid well. If not, you won’t. Isn’t that what you want? If it’s not, go become a bureaucrat where you can advance according to your office politicking skills.