The Gearbox Method of Book Publishing

POSTED ON Jul 8, 2016

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Self-Publishing > The Gearbox Method of Book Publishing

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.

Joel Friedlander

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