Self-Publishers: Are you a Book Planner or a Free Spirit?

by | Nov 30, 2015

Fiction writers are sometimes divided into “plotters” and “pantsers” depending on how much advance thought they put into the development of their novels.

The “plotters” like to work everything out in advance. They may develop elaborate outlines, timelines, character portraits, diagrams of pivot points in their story, and know, even before they strike the first key, exactly what the story is and how it will develop.

“Pantsers” on the other hand, get their name from “flying by the seat of their pants” and I think that sums it up nicely. These writers might start with an idea, a scrap of conversation, a setting, or some dramatic situation, then sit down and start writing to see where the story goes, what characters show up, and how the whole thing will work out.

What about self-publishers? They can also be divided in terms of how they approach the publication of their books. Consider:

The Planners

You can always tells when you’re talking to an author who is a planner, because as soon as they get going they have specific dates for all their book planning events. For instance, they may be working towards finishing their first draft by the end of the month, because they have already scheduled an editor to work on the book over the following two weeks.

This author has booked the blogs on which she’ll be appearing during her book launch, perhaps several months away. She’s located other vendors for the services she’ll need, set up a publishing company, has all her “ducks in a row.”

Although all this preparation is impressive, planners are sometimes driven by anxiety. They are keenly aware of all the things that can go wrong, and want to avoid having unplanned events disrupt their timeline.

The Free Spirits

For a variety of reasons, a lot of authors approach publishing with a less structured approach than the planners do. Free spirits are more concerned with the task in front of them, not so much with events that may be a long way off.

These authors may be so absorbed by finishing their manuscript that they don’t engage an editor in advance. While working with an editor, they may pay no attention to the next tasks in the publishing process, content to wait until the moment when they will be needed.

Although it sounds like a slower process, these authors may be more open to serendipitous meetings and spur of the moment inspiration. Although they don’t have the advantage of the advance planning of the Planners, they may have more fun in the process.

The Varieties of the Book Planning Experience

Books are, for those of us who create them, somewhat paradoxical.

On the one hand, most people think that a book is a simple, commonplace object. After all, most of us were introduced to books even before we could read. An adult read to us and, eventually, we learned to read by ourselves.

But due to this long familiarity with books, they seem to be dead simple—words on a page, one page after another until you reach the end.

What’s complicated about that?

But then, when you decide to write a book, then take on the responsibility of publishing it yourself, all of a sudden the picture becomes a bit more murky.

Slowly you begin to realize there are actually many decisions that go into making a book, and they start to show up right away, as soon as you start to visualize the book you will publish.

The questions start, and then never seem to stop:

  • Is it a hardcover, a paperback, an ebook?
  • How big?
  • Where will you sell the book, and for how much?
  • How will you make the book as readable as possible?
  • What will you put on your copyright page? Where does all that stuff come
  • from?

But what’s even more confusing are the next three questions:

  1. What order should I do things in?
  2. How long is it going to take?
  3. How do I organize all the tasks I need to do to stay on track?

Requisites and Prerequisites

One of the most confusing parts of planning a book project is getting the order of things right. Authors navigating this process for the first time ask these questions all the time.

Is it better to get your ISBNs first, or set up your publishing company? What about your print on demand and ebook distribution accounts?

Some things are required of virtually all publishers, other parts of the process only apply to specific authors and situations.

And then sometimes you need to complete one step—like positioning your book within its category—before you really know what kind of production you’ll want to maximize your book’s chances for success.

Planning to Succeed

Now here’s what’s interesting.

As you may know, I do a lot of consulting with authors. It’s smart to talk to a publishing professional before sinking hundreds or thousands of dollars into your book.

Most authors are coming into book publishing from other fields. They are teachers, businesspeople, retirees, consultants, electricians, military, lawyers, doctors, and so on.

They have lots of expertise in their own field, but they don’t know how book publishing works, and why should they? After all, I don’t know much about electricity or medicine.

These consultations are really helpful, frequently an inflection point for the authors, and occasionally life changing.

But by far the biggest problem that makes people book an appointment with me is this confusion about the entire book planning process; what to do and when to do it.

Ideally, of course, you could have an expert (like me) sitting next to you as you plan your project.

  • I could explain when to get your ISBNs, and why
  • When it’s time to work on your cover, I could give you some tips about hiring a designer
  • When you need an editor, I could review with you the different kinds of editors and when they are appropriate.

That would be the best solution, and some clients do end up hiring a book shepherd or publishing consultant.

But that’s a very small fraction of the authors I talk to. Most try to figure out how to do this by reading, talking to their friends, and asking questions.

Making the sequence of events in publishing a book clear and easy to understand, and explaining the various steps and how to get them lined up properly have occupied me for years—on the blog, in my writing, in my training courses, and in presentations and consultations.

Because I put so much time thinking about this, a few years ago I hit on a way to make this process a whole lot easier for many authors, no matter whether they are “planners” or “free spirits.”

There’s a story behind this, one that I’m looking forward to telling you next month. It’s the culmination of a lot of thought and work over the past few years, so stay tuned.

So I’m interested: how did you learn how to publish your books? Did it take a while? Let me know in the comments, thanks!

Photo: Mark Bonica

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sally Wolfe

    What a great post! You describe a similar process I go through with folks I coach and edit. Most aspiring authors start out diving into their book and writing pages and pages until they get stuck–then look around for help. My job as book coach/editor (almost always) is to help them get into the “Planning Mode.” Preparing to write a book is the most important part of writing a book is not an obvious truism. (I’m also an author so I understand what they’re going through.) It used to be I worked mostly with agents and publishers — now most of my clients are (or will be) self-published. I will definitely steer them your way, Joel. Love your practical down to earth approach and the way you explain things.

  2. Jackie Weger

    I’m a panster. As soon as a character opens his or her mouth on page, I know if the character can carry his or her weight and live in my book–otherwise: Delete. I’m an indie author and I know the value of an editor and proofing a ms. I hire both services. I hire cover artists and formatters. I have no desire to compete with those talents. Mine is writing a story. Two books put me on the right indie path: David Gaughran’s, Let’s Get Visible and Martin Crosbie’s How I sold 30,000 ebooks on Amazon… or whatever the title is. One taught me how Amazon works and the other that Glory is fleeting. The key to sales is steady on using small promotions and large. One of the critical issues I learned from Martin is many authors do NOT act on info at their fingertips. Yesterday I sent a link to an author to a promo site. Today she emailed me and said she could not afford it. The author did NOT follow the live link I provided or she would have seen the promo slot was for $10–not $300. I can tell you, no amount of consultation will help that author–because excuses are on the tip of her tongue. Misinformation is rife in our indie industry. I think for myself because I am the only one with my book’s best interest in hand. I have no time for authors who spout this BS: “I don’t write for money.” Huh? You have a day job, don’t you? So write a diary. I have spent 35 years honing my craft and have sold everything I’ve written to magazines, trade journals and publishers. I still do–only with indie authorship, I wear all of the hats. Love it. Y’all have a good one.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Jackie, that is awesome. You sound like a natural-born publisher.

      • Jackie Weger

        Thank you, Joel. Nice complement, but actually I’m not natural at anything. I try to learn from craftsmen who know what they’re doing. The rest I teach myself. Early on I learned not to get too full of myself. I’ve also learned I may have to do my best over and over again on the same dang task to get it right. What I like beyond measure about indie publishing and I hold in awe, is we can repair every single mishap in a book–from book description, a dropped quotation mark, a misspelled word, to a paragraph gone awry in formatting. We can change covers to better reflect the essence of a book. Three years ago I knew not one iota about our indie universe. Now, I know a little bit and learn something new every day. An exciting journey.
        Jackie Weger

  3. Diane Tibert

    I’m a free spirited publisher. I’ve been doing it now for more than five years. I learned from web sites, blogs, asking questions and making mistakes. I’ve learned a lot just by doing it. I’m still learning. Every new book is done better than the one before it.

    It took me only a few months of research before I published my first book.

    I don’t plan too much ahead of time because other parts of my life are busy, but I’m always working towards getting another book published. When I feel I’ve neglected my publishing work, I set a deadline and work to it. Deadlines definitely motivate me.

    After I published my first book, writers began asking questions about how I did it. In the past four years, I’ve walked several people through the self-publishing maze. Now I work as a book coach helping more writers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Diane, you’ve used the same method that has worked for many authors over the years—a kind of “on the job” training. And kudos to you for passing along your knowledge.

  4. Michelle

    I am a pantser who loves library books, bookstores, magazines about writing, podcasts, blogs, and workshops led by bestsellers. After three years of listening, reading and writing, my first book was published. I am becoming more of a plotter, but my free spirit still reigns.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Congratulations, Michelle, may it be the first of many.

  5. Tom Clarke

    I hired a publishing coach that both taught me the initial aspects of publishing and performed the InDesign and Photoshop portions. These were done while working full time.

    In anticipation of retirement, I purchased CreativeSuite and took classes in photography and Photoshop. I’m now trying to teach myself typography, InDesign and Illustrator. My ultimate goal is to someday produce a quality manuscript for $42 (the cost of submitting a title to LSI) plus the books that teach me how to get there.

    I write Christian non-fiction material which adds another layer of complexity to the publishing scenario. I do not write for a monetary income; I write for the opportunity to help other Christian believers become more mature in their love of the LORD and the inspired beauty of the Bible.

    I find eBooks do not fit my genre very well. To me, printed color manuscripts are the next big hurdle.

    Coming from a software development background, I find the authoring and publishing industries has many, many potential stumbling blocks which is why a Christian coach continues to be a good idea. The LORD has a way of showing me which steps are next.

    Tom Clarke
    Author of “A Garden of Love”, a gift book for Christian women about love and flowers

    • Joel Friedlander

      Tom, glad you found a coach to help you with this learning curve. When you move to color books, this will be even more valuable.

  6. Carolyn

    I learned about the physical side of print publishing through being a production person in several different corporations. I’m learning about e-publishing through the Internet and colleagues. I’m learning about the business side of both through a combination of job experience, jump-in-and-do-it experience, and researching through the Internet and colleagues.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Carolyn, I learned most of what I know about print production in pretty much the same way—by working at it. However, when it comes to internet marketing, I abandoned the “learn it by yourself” model and have used a number of training courses to get up to speed.

  7. Ernie Zelinski

    More than anything, I learned to self-publish my books using the inspirational advice of Robert J. Ringer. For the record, Robert J. Ringer is the only person to the best of my knowledge to write, self-publish, and market three #1 “New York Times” bestsellers in print editions. His self-published books sold over 10 million copies in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Not so long two of Ringer’s self-published books were listed by the “New York Times” among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

    Here is some of the advice from Robert J Ringer that resonated with me big time and inspired me to write several successful books:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Heroes are people who accomplish extraordinary feats under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, such as the firefighters who marched into the World Trade Center towers, in an attempt to save lives, while everyone else was scurrying to get out. But there’s another kind of hero — one who makes a living accomplishing extraordinary feats under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, day in and day out. The hero I’m referring to is an individualist known to all as the Entrepreneur.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Unlike the salaried worker, the Entrepreneur has no safety net. He gets results or he starves.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Being an Entrepreneur isn’t for everyone. It takes a special combination of character traits: self-confidence, courage, boldness, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and persistence, to name a few of the more important ones. The Entrepreneur thrives on challenges and risk-taking. He is willing to venture outside the conventional-wisdom box, and his success is critical to his nation’s prosperity.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Most people carry more baggage than necessary on their journey through life. And, like the airlines, Nature charges for excess baggage.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Part of today’s hip corporate slang includes the expression ‘thinking outside the box’ . . . Unfortunately, most people who talk about thinking outside the box haven’t a clue as to
    what it really means. Corporate types love to mouth the latest ‘in’ jargon, but, as everyone in the business world is aware, the typical corporate atmosphere isn’t known for encouraging people to stick their necks out and take bold action.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Sooner or later, we learn this truth and come to understand that there is a price for everything in life. There’s a price for working hard; there’s a price for not working hard enough. There’s a price for saving for the future; there’s a price for spending all your money now. There’s a price for having children; there’s a price for not having children. There’s a price for having friends; there’s a price for being a loner. There’s a price for taking the right action, there’s a price for taking the wrong action, and yes, there’s a price for taking no action at all. What this means is that you always have to give up something in order to get something in return. The empirical evidence suggests that even though most adults understand this principle on an intellectual level, they do not accept it on an emotional level. This results in actions that a rational person would describe as irrational, and irrational actions are sure to produce bad consequences.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “To many people, spontaneity is the ultimate symbol of freedom — do what you want, when you want, how you want. Routine — which is an integral part of life maintenance — represents a form of imprisonment to such people. Personally, I have found the opposite to be true. For me, a routine is an ongoing catharsis resulting not in imprisonment, but in freedom. When my life is in order, I have more time to work on constructive long term projects, not to mention more time for pleasurable activities. The more religiously one maintains a daily routine, the less his mind is clogged with petty problems, which, in turn, translates into lower stress and anxiety.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “It’s wise . . . to avoid revealing the heart of your enterprise to more people than are absolutely necessary to bring about its success.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “To take action based on what I believe to be right rather than on what others believe to be right, I find it helpful to constantly remind myself that civilization progresses as a result of the bold actions of a small minority of earth’s population. The masses don’t invent lightbulbs, automobiles, airplanes, or computers. They simply go along for the ride.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    At the same time, this has alwasy been my motto (Enjoy the typo if you can find it):

    “Do It Badly — But at Least Do It!”

    This approach has helped me get published in 22 languages and 29 countries, a total of
    115 book deals with foreign publishers, all without using a North American foreign rights agent. This approach has also helped me sell over 900,000 copies of my books worldwide.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    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 285,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nice, Ernie, thanks for the quotes. I think I should go back and read Ringer again. I learned publishing by working in the industry, but I learned self-publishing largely from Dan Poynter and John Kremer’s books.

      • Ernie Zelinski


        Yes, I also learned a heck of lot from both John Kremer and Dan Poynter, both whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person. When I met John K., I told him jokingly that ” ‘Your 1001 Ways to Market Your Books’ is really heavy. Once I put it down, I can’t pick it up again.”

        Of course, I have lately learned a lot from you and hope to meet you in person some day.



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