The Beginner Mindset in Self-Publishing

by | Jul 26, 2010

I spent the weekend planning several book projects. Here was the problem I kept having:

I’m very involved in the subject matter of these books. Like a lot of self-publishers, I got started in self-publishing by “being the market.”

In other words we each have a pretty good idea about what people who do our kind of work need, what they’re looking for.

The problem is I keep planning the books based on my own interests, what fascinates me.

This is exactly wrong.

Let’s say I’m writing a book on pizza-baking. I’d like to tell you about the amazing San Francisco sourdough starter I acquired, and the fine points of brick oven design for creating the perfect artisan pizza crust.

But what someone just starting out wants to know is what kind of bowls will I need, can you make pizza when you come home from work, and where can I find a good pizza dough recipe?

We all had to begin at the beginning. The problem is that after you’ve been at it a while, it can be hard to remember what it was like to be a complete newbie, not knowing the tools, the processes, the way all the pieces fit together.

My clients go through this with self-publishing. They’re surprised that there’s so much to learn. Slowly the realization dawns on them that they are starting a publishing company and they are now online and offline marketers, more or less.

The Beginner Mindset

There are some how-to writers and bloggers who are brilliant at being beginners. They find a field they want to study, something they don’t know a lot about. Here’s how they turn it to their advantage:

  • As you learn, since you’re a beginner yourself, you blog about the process and what you’re learning. You write about what works and what doesn’t. One of the advantages of this method is you don’t have to be an expert, but gradually you become one, and a trusted authority to your readers at the same time.
  • By putting yourself in the place of a beginner, you know exactly what a beginner needs, and you can show others where to find it.
  • Having a beginner’s mind is a fantastic asset. It allows you to approach new things with curiosity and determination. Instead of feeling like you have to be an expert, you empty yourself to become a vehicle for instruction.
  • You have no preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be, so you’re more likely to think of new ways to approach problems.
  • By finding the methods that work, the tools that do the job the best, the services that can be trusted, you become the gateway for other beginners entering the field. This is a powerful place for any nonfiction how-to writer to be.

There’s nothing to stop you from taking action. By having the beginner’s mind you know exactly what questions to ask, because they are your questions too.

Seven Questions for Beginner’s Mind

I went back to my book projects and picked the first one. I tried to imagine someone looking for answers. Someone intelligent but without any experience my field.

What questions would I ask as a beginner?

  1. How do I get started?—I have an idea for a book, or I’ve written a book, but I don’t know anything about publishing.
  2. What are the risks?—I’ve heard you have to protect your work from being stolen, I’m concerned that I’ll do something wrong and have my work misused.
  3. How much will it cost?—Do I really need to hire and pay people like editors and designers when I can get friends to do it for me?
  4. How can I understand the process?—How do those books get into bookstores? How do people find my Amazon page?
  5. How can I get help if I need it?—I don’t know what information sources to trust, are they trying to sell me something?
  6. What are other people doing?—Other people must have solved these same problems. Where can I talk to some of them?
  7. What do I do first?—It’s all just overwhelming. I can’t see where to start getting my book into print. I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong.

All these questions helped to put me into the beginner’s mind and, at the same time, to see how I could directly address the anxiety that comes from so much uncertainty.

I threw out my preliminary outlines and started again. This time I tried to occupy the beginner’s mind, to see the world of self-publishing through these 7 questions. When I got finished with the first outline, the whole book had radically changed.

The subject was the same, but little else. How I organized the material, how I intended to write it, and how the whole book would look and be used were completely different. And I was much more engaged. I was excited to get started putting it together. I knew this was the right path for this book.

So let me ask you: Could you use beginner’s mind? How?

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Jez Atkinson,;

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. deeba salim irfan

    Dear Joel,

    This is a nice article and I liked to read it. I am oscillating between to self-publish or not. My manuscript is almost done and am on the second round of edit.

    This did give me food for thought!

    Thks n’ cheers!

  2. Tom Hansen

    Thanks for the great post Joel, as always informative and thought-provoking. As someone who’s just starting down this road, I am indeed blogging about my own adventures. I love watching my thoughts evolve as I hit writing with a dual pronged approach:
    1. Write, write, write. And learn from that experience.
    2. Read, read, read. And try to glean hints of how to plan for the future.

    I think the two compliment each other well. I read blogs from writers with suggestions, I try to implement those suggestions in my writing, then blog about how they worked for me. It’s a good cycle to be in.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Tom, that’s the classic format that bloggers have relied on for years, and you can see why it works so well. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Jennifer Robin

    If you are writing a how-to book, it helps to have feedback from readers that are true beginners. When I was finishing my book On personal style, my developmental editor asked me the most basic questions. They seemed so inane to me I wanted to scream! But I addressed each and every one, often in a sentence or two. Her favorite comment to me was “don’t assume.”

    In terms of my own self publishing journey, I am shocked on a daily basis by how much I don’t know and how fast things change. It takes real grit to play this game!

    • Marie Pinschmidt

      You are so right, Jennifer, it does take grit, and stamina, and belief in your product. Many people are not willing to spend a year, or more, to write and perfect a manuscript. The process is not for the faint of heart. Self-publishing my first book was stressful, but the right publisher will guide you through the process, making subsequent efforts much easier. The knowledge I gained from the experience was and is well worth the effort. After all, learning is what it’s all about. Few successes in life are attained without an undaunting spirit, and a constant search for further knowledge.

  4. Joel Friedlander

    Marie and Belinda, I think it’s great that we have these tools that allow us to put books into print on our own. Many of the authors I come in contact with would agree that making a big profit is not one of their main motives. Putting the book into the world is a very powerful personal statement and I think you both deserve the enjoyment you’ve gained from the process.

    • Marie Pinschmidt

      Thanks Belinda and Joel for your comments. Many of our earlier great works of literature were self-published and the world is better for it. Enjoy your writing.

  5. Belinda Kroll

    I completely agree with you. I am self-publishing because I know I can make a good product and tell a story that means something to some of my readers. That is good enough for me. That is all I truly want. To be told my work is second rate because I didn’t follow the norm is insulting but not surprising, because I suspect–I know–that not all writers/authors feel the same. Some people just want to see their name on a book and be done with it. That’s fine, but not for me.

  6. Marie Pinschmidt

    I have three self-published novels and it was well worth the effort. I not only wrote the books, I designed the covers (I’m an artist, as well) that were welcomed by the publisher (Author House). I’m very proud of the books, have sold enough to cover the expense of publishing, and will continue promoting at every opportunity.

    My dilemma is that I have a completed and edited memoir and the beginning of another novel but am reluctant to persue publishing further because of the present literary climate. Frankly, I resent the mindset that all self published books are second rate. I had an agent but decided if I wanted my books to be born in my lifetime I would do my homework and self publish. Comment or advice welcome.

  7. J. Tillman

    Mr. Friedlander, There is a nice ambiguity at the start of your essay (and that’s what it is) between experience and the beginner’s mind. And this ambiguity applies to all. To beginners, of course. And it applies to those with some experience who need to ask if they are learning the correct things. And it applies to even experienced publishers who need to stop in between step 23 and step 24 to ask themselves what business am I in?…what is the product I’m selling?…who and where are the customers?

    Thanks for your whole website. J. Tillman

    • Joel Friedlander

      J. Tillman, thanks for that. And yes, of course, the experienced publisher has to continue to remind themselves about who their readers are, and what those readers need. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  8. Anne Campbell

    I, too, self-published a novel, through Amazon’s almost free POD service, and got a lot out of it, most of it not money.
    1.became more computer literate, having to format and download print-ready files,
    2.overcame tremendous inhibitions re. ‘not making a spectacle of yourself’, through asking a few local bookstores to carry it, a book launch and a couple of readings.
    3.(best of all) gained great confidence in my writing because of the enthusiastic response of readers, mostly complete strangers.

    I have a blog that no-one reads (but is good writing practice)
    The only reason I stopped promoting it is that I’m not in a position to do the legwork right now and (to be honest) don’t have enough entrepreneurial hutzpah. I might do more later.

    In all, it was a great and useful experience and led me to other resources, writers’ blogs etc.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Anne, you have also put yourself in a good position if you ever decide to publish another book. You’ve already done a lot of the work of learning how it all goes together, and that is invaluable experience. Thanks for your comment.

  9. RJ Keller

    The thing about the ‘simple son’ self-publishers is that you’ll never hear about their books. If they get far enough in the production process to make it into print or Kindle (which is highly doubtful, since it takes a lot of hard work, as opposed to writing chatspeak blog entries), they won’t sell enough to make it worth their while (and/or they’ll get bored) and they’ll drift away. They’re irritating, yes, but only short term.

    • Joel Friedlander

      RJ, that’s exactly my thinking also. If you dream of glory on publication day, you may be unprepared to put in the hard and challenging work to actually make a book a success. Great to have your thoughts here, thanks.

  10. Belinda Kroll

    Joel, I’m actually doing exactly what this post is talking about. I’ve subsidy published before, done a self-publish trial through Lulu, and now amd ready to go full-hilt into the self-publishing realm by creating my own micropress.

    I’m blogging my steps along the way. I’m talking about the good, the bad, and the frustrating. I don’t know if it will help anyone; I hope it will, because I know there are many people who hope to one day publish.

    In the meantime, I’m trying to balance this whole preparing to publish while also writing my novel. I ask a lot of questions, and don’t receive many answers, so I hunt them for myself. It’s challenging and rewarding at the same time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s interesting, Belinda. I’ve seen a number of blogs describing the “publishing journey” of the blogger and I can’t help but think these are useful to others contemplating the journey. I wish you all good luck and many book sales for your micropress, and thanks for visiting.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Or maybe the “worst” problem is the people who prey on those like your “simple” son.



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