The Gearbox Method of Book Publishing

by | Jul 8, 2016

By Jurgen Appelo (@JurgenAppelo)

The idea of self-publishing can seem overwhelming, but today, Jurgen Appelo details his easy to follow step-by-step approach to getting his book in the hands of readers. I think you may appreciate his insight.

I sometimes get the question, “How did you get your publishing deal?” Apparently, a business book in full color is a rare thing these days, which leads to some head-scratching and puzzled expressions among fellow book authors.

Well, I have very few secrets. And my writing strategy is not one of them. So, I’m more than happy to spill the beans for you.

I call my publishing approach the Gearbox Method. It consists of a sequence of distinct short-term objectives and feedback cycles. Most importantly, as an advocate of agile and lean thinking, I firmly believe in pull, not push. That means:

  • never create things nobody asked for
  • never beg people for their attention
  • never shove unwanted things down their throats

It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, grow demand in focused cycles and validate your objectives in each step.

I am sharing my approach here for the first time. Let me know if you find it useful!

The First Gear

In the first phase of a book writing project, you have one important thing to do: validate that some people want to read your stuff. After all, why invest any time in publishing and marketing your book when nobody finds your ideas valuable? Your own opinion of your work doesn’t count. (You’re not buying your own books, I hope.)

You can easily measure interest in your ideas by:

  • writing blog posts
  • speaking at events
  • organizing discussions at local meetups

All my books started with a combination of all of these. Your primary purpose in this phase is to explore what people find highly interesting, and you’re not done until they tell you, “I would buy a book about that!”

For example, I am now in the first gear with my next project, Managing for Scale, which should be about transforming big, traditional companies to modern networked organizations. I’m just talking with people, collecting stories, sharing my ideas, and gauging people’s interest. I’ve hardly written a word about it.

The Second Gear

In the second phase of a book project, you actually start writing your book. And now you have another objective: collect feedback to make your work better. You are changing focus from what to how and you need to validate that your ideas are great before scaling up to more readers.

The key here is to do this with a small group of beta readers who are willing to invest some time in offering you feedback and helping you be a better writer. If some beta readers are not giving you feedback, you may want to kick them out and move them to the next phase.

Your purpose at this time is to become awesome, and you know you’ve achieved that when beta readers are asking you to send your work-in-progress to their friends and colleagues. You’re not ready for the next phase unless you notice a pull from readers who beg you to share the awesomeness. (Your book may still be far from complete at this time. That’s OK. You’ll fix that in the next phase.

The Third Gear

The next phase is about scaling up. You validated that your writing is awesome, but nobody knows except a handful of readers and their bed partners. Your objective is now to build a much larger group of loyal fans. The easiest way to achieve this is just to give away everything you write.

With my Managing for Happiness book, I asked people to sign up to my mailing list so that they received each new chapter as a simple PDF file in their mailbox, for free. I made it clear that the chapters were first versions, and that I still valued any feedback people could offer me. This led to some great stories, photos, and suggestions that helped me to tweak the book further. But remember, feedback is not the primary goal anymore. The main purpose is scale.

By always publishing fragments of my chapters as standalone articles on my blog, social platforms, and several other channels, I had a continuous stream of new readers signing up to my mailing list. By the time I finished the first version of the (free) book, nearly 10,000 readers had signed up.

You are ready for the next phase when you’ve completed a first full version of the book and readers are demanding that you offer it in more convenient formats. (Again, you don’t push. You wait for them to pull.)

The Fourth Gear

In the fourth phase of your project, you have another important thing to do: validate that people want to pay for your book. You do not switch to the fourth gear until readers start asking you if you can please share the book in more convenient formats. After all, PDFs are fine for short articles, but they suck as a format for entire books. That means: self-publish your book as Kindle and ePub versions, and maybe also on paper, in the form in which you would want a professional publisher to do it.

I had always wanted to publish a business book in full color, so I decided to pay a designer, self-print 5,000 beautifully designed copies of the book, and I started selling them online. Shipping 5,000 physical books worldwide was as painful as jamming them up the backside, but it was definitely worth the learning experience.

Do people buy a book when they already have the free version? Sure they do! Half of your readers purchase the eBook or paper versions (or both!) because they want convenience. The other half pays because they think you’re awesome, and they are happy to support you. In little more than a year, I sold all 5,000 paper books and another 5,000 eBooks.

The Fifth Gear

In the final phase of your book project, you have one more objective: expand your reach across the globe. At the risk of sounding repetitive, you do not switch to the fifth gear unless you notice a demand. In this case, you wait for signals from the parts of the world that are too hard to reach as a self-published author.

  • I received inquiries to supply bookstores.
  • I had questions from libraries.
  • People asked me to get my book into universities.
  • Some readers insisted on waiting for local translations.

As a self-publishing author, you do not have the distribution and sales power that the big publishing houses have. If you want the largest possible reach, you must pick a partner who can get your book delivered to every bookshelf in the world. In my case, the pull was quite clear: publisher Wiley contacted me and asked to take over the publication of the book.

A great benefit of the Gearbox Method is that publishers are anxious to know that there will be demand for your book. Fortunately, the previous four phases have given you a lot of experience and data. I would never have been able to discuss a full-color business book with a publisher if it weren’t for the fact that I had sold 10,000 copies all by myself! And with the additional input from readers in the third and fourth phase, we could make the final version of the book even better. Publishers love high quality at low cost and seeing their risks minimized.

The Gearbox Method

The point of the gearbox method is to reduce a book-writing project to a sequence of smaller phases that each have a clear objective. It is almost impossible to write a book from scratch and then find readers and buyers and scaling it up, all at the same time. That’s like trying to start a car in the fifth gear. Good luck with that.

It is much better to do it one step at a time:

  • First, validate that people find your ideas interesting.
  • Second, recruit beta readers to improve your writing.
  • Third, scale it up and build a large group of fans.
  • Fourth, get those people to pay for your work. A
  • And finally, only when you have achieved enough momentum with the previous steps, switch to the fifth gear by making the book perfect and asking a publisher to sell it to the whole world.

Oh, and one more thing: make sure you enjoy the effort and experience in each phase. Being a successful author is much more that typing words into an editor.

Did you like this post? Why don’t you read my book Managing for Happiness? It applies the same kind of thinking to management and leadership of creative organizations.

Jurgen Appelo headshot x125Jurgen Appelo is a writer, speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, illustrator, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, freethinker, or… Dutch guy. has called him a Top 50 Leadership Expert and a Top 100 Great Leadership Speaker. His most recent book Managing for Happiness: Games, Tools, and Practices to Motivate Any Team offers practical ideas to engage workers, improve work, and delight clients.

You can learn more about Jurgen on his website

Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Roberto

    HJ Jurgen, I agree with you reading your sentence “does not create things that no one asked”
    This is the reason for the failure of my e-book “Kamasutra per la terza età” (Kamasutra for the Third Age”) Nobody needs this What’s more, older people can be interested, but do not read e-books; e-books are young stuff!
    Why I wrote this ebook? Because I liked this title. I had no idea what I would write, when I started. It ‘was an amazing adventure. My text is never obscene, sometimes funny and sometimes serious, But not a best seller!

  2. Monika Glaschke

    really good written, Jurgen. It helps me think about this. thank you.

  3. Ernie Zelinski

    First, I did like this article. It is very well written. Obviously this is an approach that works great for you; you have had a good measure of success with it. As Jack Canfield says, “Results don’t lie.”

    As for me, I never use what you advocate in “The First Gear”. I now have written and placed in publication 15 books. I have not lost money on any of them. You say, “Your opinion of your work doesn’t count.” My opinion of my own work, in fact, does count because I am pretty darn good at figuring out if there is a market for a book without having to write blog posts, speak at events, or organize discussions at local meetups. I have never done any of these three for my 15 books. For the record, my books (mainly self-published) have now sold over 925,000 copies worldwide. So again, as Jack Canfield says, “Results don’t lie.”

    One more important point: I also would never consider using your approach of trying to get a major publisher to take publication of an already successful self-published book. You say, “Wiley contacted me and asked to take over the publication of the book.” Actually, not so long ago Wiley contacted me wanting to take over publication of my self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free.” I told Wiley to take a hike given that Wiley had previously never offered to publish any one of my other books or even “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” when I first submitted the manuscript to them in 2003. What’s more, Random House in 2009 wanted to take over publication of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” when they purchased Ten Speed Press, which was the distributor of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” at the time. I also told Random House to take a hike. The people at Random House had claimed they could increase sales of my title by 15 percent. So what? By giving Random House the rights to publish the book, I would have been making only a third of what I was making by self-publishing. Because Random House said they would no longer distribute the book, I found a new distributor. Utilizing my own creative ways of marketing that the vast majority of publishers including Random House are incapable of coming up with, I increased average monthly sales by 123 percent for the last six years over the average monthly sales that Ten Speed Press had created for the last year that Ten Speed Press had distributed the book. I estimate that so far I have earned at least $600,000 more in pretax profits by having kept self-publishing “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” than if I had turned it over to Random House. Keep in mind that this book may sell well for another ten or fifteen years given that my “The Joy of Not Working” still sells around 7,000 copies a year even though I self-published it 25 years ago. This may mean another $600,000 in extra pretax profits than if I had turned “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” over to Random House.

    “To be successful,” proclaimed Sister Mary Lauretta, “the first thing to do is fall in love with your work.” That’s pretty much what I have done. Of course, one must have adequate critical thinking skills, great creative thinking skills for marketing, and plain common sense to be successful using this approach. As far as I am concerned, plain common sense is the most important.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 290,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Jurgen Appelo

      Thanks for your input. I agree that results count. And the method depends on your goal. You are obviously totally focused on money and sales. You mention it, like, a dozen times. Good for you. I am not. I am focused on reaching an audience with my message that I cannot easily reach on my own. I have a different business model.

      It all depends on context. :-)

      • Betsy Lane

        Exactly. Different goals will lead people to make different choices. I have been in publishing for 22+ years now (in editorial acquisitions and management for nonfiction trade publishers from 1994-2005, and freelancing since then), and many self-published authors are understandably thrilled to get picked up by a “real” publishing company. I think what is most important, for an author, is to find the scenario that suits you best–your project, temperament, passions, talents, resources, lifestyle, and so on. Increasingly, it seems, there truly is no “one right answer” anymore. Thanks for the interesting approach to self-publishing; it is likely I’ll use this approach on my first self-published book this year!

  4. Anthony Hibbert

    Thanks for this Jurgen. Really helpful. Had been thinking of an approach very vaguely like this, but this sets it out so clearly that I feel equipped to go ahead. Love the idea of using meet-ups to start to get the ideas together and start interest even before you’re really writing.



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