Self-Publishing A Book: Here's What We Learned

Pim
Written by
- 11 min read

Writing a book is the dream of many. But romantic as it sounds, the process is not. If you are tempted, here are the lessons we learned, from rookie mistakes to practical tips. And if you're not interested in writing, you might still like to know how the book publishing world works (including royalty rates and costs).

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By 2017, we already had a year of blogging behind us. What if we bundled these lessons into a book? Seemed a good idea! But how to do it?

There are roughly two ways to get a book out there:

  • Traditional publishing: A publishing company helps with editing, design, printing, marketing and distribution. Upside? “All” you have to do is write (in theory), and there's a bigger chance of ending up in brick-and-mortar book shops. Downside? You get a small piece of the financial action. (Most authors get 8-15% of revenues...about €1 or €2 per book).

  • Self-publishing: The author manages the entire process: writing, editing, designing, printing, marketing and distribution. Of course, he/she can outsource some of these activities. Upside? More freedom and money. Downside? You need to figure out and manage everything yourself.

Nowadays, there are hybrid options, but I’ll spare you the details.

The traditional route

We started on the traditional route. We thought it would be a good idea to work with a publisher. After all, we didn't have much reach back then, and zero experience in book writing. We could probably use help.

Then we were told you needed a manuscript before approaching publishers. As we didn't have a word on paper yet, this was disappointing.

We didn't want to write a manuscript, only to get turned down by publishers. So, we decided, as we often do, to ignore the advice, and contacted publishers in the Netherlands, without a word being written. We sent emails to the biggest in the hope they would respond positively. We sent five emails, and got four invitations to meet—our first small win!

The meetings were successful. All four wanted to publish our, as yet, unwritten book. We negotiated with those we deemed most promising, and signed our very first book deal.

Note, this was only for the Dutch language rights. We wanted to keep all other rights to ourselves. Our ambitions were high and we wanted to publish in other languages. There seemed no value in having a Dutch publisher in charge of foreign language rights.

Main lessons so far?

  • We neglected conventional wisdom and approached publishers with our idea—not a finished manuscript.
  • We negotiated the deal for one language only. Foreign language rights were still ours.

The writing process

Many warned us the worst part of publishing is the writing. Some said it would take at least six months. We laughed. Surely, we could do better than that!

We couldn't have been more wrong. From the idea to a manuscript took nearly three years, navigating a messy process of:

  • writing a first draft in Dutch
  • trying to do other work-related things at the same time
  • working with someone to polish it
  • translating into English
  • revising content
  • working with proper editors to create a final manuscript
  • and, for the Dutch version, going back from English to Dutch.

Let's just say it was a hell of an experience!!!

We made a decision to clear our schedules and lock ourselves in the writer's cave. It forced us to finish and polish the manuscript. Hiring experienced editors was another good move. The help of John Mann and Hal Williams (English editors) and our Dutch publisher (Business Contact) were vital in this.

Lessons?

  • Writing a book is way harder than writing blogs.
  • Locking yourself up is key to accelerating the writing process.
  • Getting help from experienced editors is key.

Self-publishing

For the Dutch book, we took the traditional publishing route. For English, we decided to self-publish. Why?

  • Freedom: To customize the book and to give some away to clients, and audiences at conferences where we speak. This is a lot easier (and cheaper) if you self-publish.
  • World domination: widespread distribution was important. Our readers are global.
  • Reach. When we decided to self-publish the English version, our audience had grown such that we had a great launch platform. We had less need for a ‘name’ publisher.
  • Experience. I wanted to learn about self-publishing and how it worked. It was fun to learn something entirely new.

Plus, we’d been turned down by Penguin Random House in the UK. (And rightly so: the manuscript was pretty shit back then.) And an American publisher admitted they would publish only if the pioneering companies came mostly come from the US.

We said no to that. Screw navel-gazing. Our book aimed to open people's eyes, not to put on blinkers.

Looking back, self-publishing the English version was the best decision we made (or were forced to make).

How to self-publish

So how does self-publishing work? I'll take you through the process and focus on the other stuff.

Here’s what we experienced:

Design

We worked with design agency VLERK&LIEM to create a design for the book. The result is awesome. We get great feedback on the not-so-ordinary look. For a peek inside, download the first chapter here for free.

Next, we asked another agency (specializing in books) to take care of the execution. They turned the manuscript into a designed book, ready for printing. The ebook files were created by yet another company which I found online.

Total cost: ~ € 4,000. This should be way cheaper if you go for a more generic design.

Distribution

Some believe this is the biggest challenge in self-publishing. That's a misconception. Nowadays, it’s easy to publish a book globally. Best of all, you don't need to invest in a huge print run, store the stock, and mail each book that gets sold.

Welcome to print-on-demand companies. They allow authors to print only after a book is ordered. This has huge advantages:

  • If nobody orders a book, none are printed, and it costs nothing.
  • If many order books, you're fine too. There is no need to wait weeks to print another batch. We sold more books than we anticipated in the first few days (> 6,000 within 72 hours) without any problems.

The main disadvantage is the price. The cost of each book is ~€4.

Because we sell batches of books directly to some companies, we recently ordered 2,500 books from a local printer. The cost? €1.50 each. It makes sense for us to combine print-on-demand with longer runs.

How does print-on-demand work? It's quite straightforward. There are two main players, Amazon KDP and IngramSpark. Amazon is the bigger in terms of global sales, and their self-publishing platform is called KDP. IngramSpark is a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group - the world's largest book distributor. They print and distribute to large chains and independent book stores.

The process for each is rather straightforward.

  • Upload your designed manuscript and enter the book's metadata,
  • set prices for each geographical area, and
  • order proof copies.

A few days later (!) your book arrives. You review the quality and adjust as needed. This is straightforward. Most of the quality control is done by either KDP or IngramSpark. IngramSpark, by the way, is better at this. They use people to control quality, while KDP uses algorithms.

We decided to use a combination of both KDP and IngramSpark to strike a balance between royalties and global availability. The books we sell through Amazon are printed through KDP. Stock for other channels (stores like Barnes&Noble, IndieBound and Bol.com) are printed and distributed through IngramSpark.

This leaves us with a higher royalty rate (between €2.50 and €6.50 for the paperback version which sells for $15). The rest is for printing (~25%), and the retailer, online or in store (and who takes the largest slice: ~50%).

Both platforms distribute more or less globally. Regional print shops do the job. For example, if someone orders a copy in Brazil, it's printed there and sent directly to the reader. Wherever you are, the book arrives within days.

Promotion

Most of the promotional activities involved this blog and our social media channels. We constantly share what we're doing and learning. We did the same for the entire book process. Each time we wrote about the book, we invited people to a mailing list that would advise when it was available.

This grew pre-orders significantly over a three-year period. That's one advantage of taking so long to finish!!

Over time, we've built a platform reaching ~100,000 monthly visitors to our blog, and ~500,000 impressions a month on our social media. These helped tremendously.

These were the biggest activities in our promotion schedule:

Total cost: blood, sweat, and tears. Plus, the book trailer of ~€18,000 (pretty radical for our standards :) ).

Audiobook

After publishing the ebook and paperback, and later the hardcover (only possible through IngramSpark), we decided to add an audiobook. That's where Findaway Voices worked their magic. The process was unbelievably simple and a testament to the power of the internet.

We uploaded our manuscript to their website and indicated the type of narrator we were looking for. Young, rebellious, male, adventurous, and so on. Within days we had a list of 10 potential narrators. We reviewed their work to see who was a good fit. Immediately we had a match.

Then the narrator recorded a sample of ~500 words. After a few tweaks in tone, we approved and the narrator went to work. Within days, we received the full audiobook for review. All we had to do was approve the file and publish it—also done through Findaway Voices. The process is similar to publishing through KDP and IngramSpark. Set your price, enter metadata, and hit 'publish'.

Within days it was on audiobook platforms around the globe. Think Audible, iTunes, Google Play, Storytel and more. It's amazing how easy self-publishing is now. Kudos to companies like Findaway Voices.

Total cost: ~€1,000 for narrator. Royalty: ~€9 / audiobook (sales price at ~€25).

Book translations

After the English version was released, and while our Dutch publisher was doing a translation, we looked elsewhere.

We already had publishers interested in doing translations. I contacted them to see if we could strike a deal. It was rather straightforward. They had the desire to publish, and even more so after reading the final manuscript.

We negotiated royalties, design requirements, promotion activities, and signed contracts. The results? German is to be published in June 2020, with Italian, French and Polish to follow. Russian and Chinese are likely to be added. These languages are via traditional publishers, except one.

The German version is self-published, in collaboration with Swiss author and journalist  Mathias Morgenthaler who supports and promotes the book in German-speaking areas. We're excited to work with him. He is also passionate about progressive workplaces. His articles appear in several publications, and he has a Bucket List of his own. For German readers, register for the  German book here.

Foreign rights royalty rates are between 8-12% of revenues (~€2 / book) for traditional publishing. German - as it's self-published - is similar to English (~20-30%).

In-depth questions

I could go on and on about self-publishing! But, given this overview, it's probably better to ask: “What questions do you have?” Drop them in the comments below. I will answer those instead of rambling on more here!

If you've become interested to see for yourself what the result of this entire process is, you can order your copy through the separate Corporate Rebels book website at  corporaterebelsbook.com.

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Replies (12)

Paul Oldenzeel

Paul Oldenzeel

Do you expect to write another book any soon? I enjoyed your first very much.

| | 4 | Flag
Pim

Pim

Glad to hear Paul.

We're working on a book on Haier at the moment. And we're laying the groundwork for yet another book that goes more into depth on organizational structures. Both will take some time before we get to the finish line.

Do you expect to write another book any soon? I enjoyed your first very much.

Paul Oldenzeel

| | 5 | Flag
Manjula Ramprasad

Manjula Ramprasad

Hey Pim,

I have been following all the rebel stint that the team is into. Keep keeping on, luv ya guys.

Thanks
Manju

| | 0 | Flag
Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson

How did you decide on the price(s) of your book?

| | 3 | Flag
Pim

Pim

We wanted it to be a 'normal' price, so comparable to other books in popular management book section. We looked at the market and didn't want to go for very cheap, nor very expensive. It was never meant to be a money-making thing for us. We just wanted to push our story to a wider audience. So affordable without undervaluing its content.

So we set (aside from regional differences) the price at €15 by simply comparing it to similar books. Translations will be priced slightly higher at €20.

How did you decide on the price(s) of your book?

Mark Robinson

| | 4 | Flag
Airton Tomaz Pereira

Airton Tomaz Pereira

Hello Pim, will you publish the books in Portuguese?

| | 0 | Flag
Dawn Nizzi

Dawn Nizzi

Thanks so much for writing the book AND for writing this piece!
Very real and eyes wide open.
As an American, what I most appreciate is that the companies you researched are NOT. We certainly do not have business figured out in the US. No one country does. Thus, it's important to learn about others and other ways. Incorporate into US business what can work and create meaningful change and appreciate the rest.
Really looking forward to a visit by Corporate Rebels to the US.
Thanks for all you do.
Dawn

| | 2 | Flag
Pim

Pim

Hi Dawn,

Thanks for your comment. I'm sure most people will agree, it was just the perspective of one of the publishers we talked to. I'm sure more people are actually looking for a diverse set of examples like you.

Glad you enjoyed it!

Thanks so much for writing the book AND for writing this piece!
Very real and eyes wide open.
As an American, what I most appreciate is that the companies you researched are NOT. We certainly do not have business figured out in the US. No one country does. Thus, it's important to learn about others and other ways. Incorporate into US business what can work and create meaningful change and appreciate the rest.
Really looking forward to a visit by Corporate Rebels to the US.
Thanks for all you do.
Dawn

Dawn Nizzi

| | 0 | Flag
Agustin Jimenez

Agustin Jimenez

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience

| | 0 | Flag
Gerjon

Gerjon

I’ll buy your book in exchange for you guys buying mine on Lean Story Design and how projects and teams get out of an impasse (which isn’t printed yet but will be soon taken into account your very worthwhile advice on self-publishing). Well, I’ll buy and read yours anyway of course. Gerjon

| | 1 | Flag
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