The Completely Backwards Way to Amazing Self-Publishing Success

by | Jun 6, 2011

I had a daydream the other day. I was working on a mindmap. (Do you know what a mindmap is? Until quite recently I was woefully ignorant of this incredible organizing tool. More to come.)

The title I had given the mindmap was “Simple Steps to Self-Publishing Success.” The title had come from an exercise in which I set a timer for 15 minutes and spent the time writing what I call “Imaginary Blog Articles.”

The idea of this exercise is to imagine great blog articles that don’t exist, but that everyone would instantly want to read. I only write the headlines. This is the second time I’ve tried this exercise and both times I’ve come away shocked at the ideas that came out.

Anyway, when I finished putting together the mindmap for this topic, I realized I had created a flow diagram of how self-published books usually come together, but in reverse.

Not only that, the longer I studied this progression, the more I realized that self-publishers can learn a lot from traditional publishing. Here’s why.

The Difference Between Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing, Said Another Way

Most self-publishers are producing their first book ever. This adds a considerable amount of baggage to the creation of the book because when an an author writes, produces, publishes and markets a book themselves, the book invariably becomes an expression of that author, an extension of them.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But books are consumer products. Marketing and selling these products is made easier by using the tools of product development. If you’re totally identified with your book project, it’s a little hard to see it as product development. It’s too personal, you have too much invested in it.

Savvy editors and experienced authors know how to gauge a book’s market appeal before the book is written. While self-publishers usually write the book first and then try to figure out how to market it, publishing professionals are more likely to have access to a market and know what that market wants and needs. At that point it becomes a matter of creating the products that will fill those wants and needs.

Here’s the mindmap (This is from the wonderful iThoughts for iPad):

Backwards Book Construction mindmap

Think about this:

  1. Research the market: Wouldn’t you want to know what people in your market want first of all?
  2. Write the back cover copy: This is the basic offer of the book, and it ought to be crystal clear.
  3. Design the cover: This shows how you will position the book.
  4. Write a sample chapter and outline: Establish both the tone and the scope of the book.
  5. Design the book: Now’s the time to decide how to deliver the content.
  6. Test the concept: With a cover, an offer and a sample, see how people react.
  7. Announce the book: This is a product rollout, right?
  8. Write the book: At this point there’s no guesswork involved.
  9. Launch the book: Everything should now be in place for success.

At the end of this process, you ought to have a book that’s in demand, has a compelling offer, is properly positioned in its genre, and which people are avidly awaiting.

Why can’t self-publishers do this too? I’ve written often about the second book, and how authors multiply their chances for success by going on to write and publish more (related) books.

The Business of Being in Business

Traditional publishers are in business, and must show a profit to survive. At its best this brings a discipline to the creation of new products that helps to ensure that they will succeed. We all know that this is an ideal, and is not always practiced by most publishers.

However, self-published authors who decide to keep growing in their publishing career and go on to write more books will inevitably begin to view what they are doing as a business. We often encourage people going into self-publishing to take it as seriously as any other business, and that’s good advice.

It’s from that point of view that what seems like a completely backwards approach to book creation starts to make a lot of sense. If you followed this sequence, I think we would have a lot fewer books that no one besides the author is interested in. Fewer garages full of books, and fewer disappointed authors.

Learn from the pros, and be more successful for it. Use the completely backwards way to achieve self-publishing success.

Photo: Ian.Plumb

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Frances Caballo

    Well, Joel, once again you’ve touched a nerve. As others have stated already, when I began to review your mind map I thought to myself, “What is he doing?” For my most recent book, I did research, announce it and had a cover designed before I began to write it, however, I didn’t write the back copy before I wrote the book. This post is definitely giving me something to think about. I’m about to embark on my next book so I see that I’ll need to rework my plans. Thanks, Joel, for your insights.

  2. Omar Luqmaan-Harris (@BookMarketing33)

    Hi Joel,

    Loved this post! From a business/marketing perspective you are definitely spot on. I do believe that a product produced in the linear fashion, as my pub companies 4 novels were can still find an audience via the following process that I also advocate during the writing process:

    -Define your book’s main/secondary genre
    -Research the top 10 books/authors in your main genre (Amazon page, pricing, # of likes, tags, categories, reviews, covers, book description, websites, social media activity/presence)
    -Develop a positioning statement and messages that will speak to readers of this genre but also differentiate your book
    -Design book cover keeping in mind what is selling in your genre and how you have positioned your book
    -Begin building social media presence (website, blog, FB fan page, twitter, pinterest, tumblr, slideshare, author profiles)
    -Decide on book formats (ebook, print, enhanced e-book) and distribution channels
    -Set the books price competitively, relative to the competition
    -Create the book launch plan and budget

    I think this process may work whether you go in backwards or forwards. What do you think?

  3. Joanne

    I can confidently state that I will never write a book this way.
    For me, the story will always come first, not the marketing. Call me an outdated old dinosaur – you’re probably right – but the best stories are, or should be, well-crafted art that changes the market, not reverse-engineered widgets designed to fit the market.
    If this method works for you, go for it! But I’m going to skin my story cats a different way.

  4. Scott Fields

    I found my way to your website here through another writer (who, in turn, I’d never heard of either). Ironic that this, of all articles, is the one he highlighted, the one that led me to you. I agree completely with your inspiration for this. I had a similar inspiration myself a while back. I’ve been working up my book in this same reverse order, only I added a couple of steps to the early stages of the process (which you might consider adding to your list):

    1) Design a book trailer
    2) Write a blog about process of crafting the book

    This last has been the key for me. Most authors write their books, publish them, THEN start marketing them through a blog or website. I’ve been gathering an audience for while now, all of whom can’t wait to see the book on the shelves and who will provide excellent word-of-mouth promotion when the time comes.

    In a recent interview about this process, I called it “premarketing.” In today’s world of self-publishing and e-books, I can’t think of a better approach–if not to make money, then at the very least to increase your audience (isn’t that what we’re writing for ultimately anyway?).

    Excellent article, Joel. I’ll be looking back through your archives to see more.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the input, Scott. And “premarketing” sounds just right. And blogging about the creation of the book has been shown to work quite well, for instance in Joanna Penn’s case with her year-long development of a novel she published a few months ago.

  5. Jacob Duchaine (Writer Tank)

    Excellent article. =)

    This isn’t going to be good for everyone. For example, fiction writers who just want to write their dreams into reality. But for anyone actually hoping to make a living self publishing I think the information in this article could really change the way they operate for the better.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Jacob. Sometimes it’s difficult for writers to understand they can write that dream, but the way they do it can just as easily be influenced by what they know about their market. I guess the message is to look around and think about where your work will go before you sit down to commit an act of literature. Thanks for your comment.

      • bowerbird

        of course, sometimes the very _best_ thing
        that an artist can do is to ignore the audience
        and their expectations, and trust our gut, so
        we come up with something that is unique…

        because, in the long run, those are the artists
        which the audiences come to value most highly,
        the ones who take them to a totally new place.

        “if i had asked people what they wanted,”
        henry ford is often credited with saying,
        “they would have said ‘a faster horse’.”


        the other thing, in our new world of publishing,
        is that — even if you can determine perfectly
        what it is that people want (no small task) —
        and write a book to fill that desire, there will be
        a plethora of other books competing against it.

        so unless you can manage to write the one that
        will out-compete those others on its own merits,
        you will now find yourself in a marketing contest.

        there was a good reason why, in the old days,
        a publishing company was reluctant to get into
        a niche that was crowded with too many books.
        it”s too easy for an audience to get subdivided
        to the point where no book can “make a profit”.

        the bottom line is, if you want to make money,
        there are lots better ways than publishing a book.


  6. James Byrd

    I think your approach certainly makes sense for most non-fiction authors who have the goal of selling a lot of books (whether for profit or to spread their message). The best way to appeal to the market is to figure out what your target market wants or needs, and then give it to them. Susan and I have been banging that drum for several years now.

    I also know that the technique can work for fiction writers as well. When Amanda Hocking got serious about replacing her day job with a career as a writer, she researched what was selling hot at the time. She picked the genre and topics she was most interested in and then wrote books that would sell into that market.

    It sounds mercenary, but in reality, all you are doing is giving people what they want. As long as your creative sensibilities are satisfied by the process as well, it seems fair and reasonable to me.

    Using a market-driven approach makes sense no matter what your motivations are for writing, if your ultimate goal is to share your message with the largest audience possible. Your goal could be to give all of the profits to your favorite charity, and that charity will benefit the most if you publish a book that sells well.

    In fact, I believe the enormous slush piles of the major publishers are partly due to the marketing disconnect between the publishers and their authors. The authors operate in a vacuum of their own making, merrily writing away at the book they *want* to write. Then they present their brainchild to a publisher, who looks at the market to see if the book can sell. It doesn’t matter how good the book is: no market, no contract.

    All this marketing stuff aside, I think the best thing self publishing has done for the world is allow authors to write exactly what they want to write. Your target market may only consist of 3 people, but if that makes you happy, then you walk away from the publishing game a winner.

  7. April L. Hamilton

    Joel, I think this is an excellent approach for nonfiction books, but not so much for novels because the “write the book” phase for a novel can take months or even years. I think it would be a mistake to drum up interest that far in advance, because it will be nearly impossible to sustain. On top of that, there will be a constant sense of background pressure on the author to get the book released, which will likely lead to taking shortcuts and ultimately publishing a shoddy book.

    I’ve only seen this approach work for a novel in one way: when the author actively shares the writing journey with his audience, posting draft chapters to his site for feedback as they’re written, and more or less crowdsourcing the book’s content. I tend to think this strategy would result in a book that’s somewhat homogenized; I mean, how could it not be when the author is allowing his audience to dictate its content and allows the majority to rule? Then there’s the issue of shared credit: at what point has a given audience member contributed enough to deserve acknowledgment in the book? Finally, will audience members be moved to buy a book they’ve already “read”?

    RE: mind maps, I learned about them a long time ago and agree they’re an excellent tool for brainstorming and organizing ideas. =’)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks April. Of course you are right, and this is really a map for the creation of nonfiction content. I’ve been bitten by the mindmap bug and I’m really enjoying the fluid organizational process of using them. Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  8. Ryan Bradshaw

    Thanks for this article. Some authors only focus on the creative aspects of writing while others write to sell. It does take the best of both of these worlds to be a great writer and be able to get that message out. Thanks again Joel for your content and I’ll definitely be back often to read and offer commentary.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, Ryan. It’s difficult to write a book that will resonate with other people if you’re not passionate about some aspect of your subject. On the other hand, creating a book that’s designed to be attractive to buyers takes a marketing mindset. Combining these two is how you create something really special. Look forward to having you back.

  9. Mark Ryan

    There is one assumption through all of this. Self-publishers are trying to make money.

    I’ve started writing a novel based on a piece of fan fiction written years ago. If I was business minded this would mean I have at least 150,000 potential customers. However, that’s not why I’m writing. It’s a hobby for me. I research my subject material, I research writing techniques and manipulation of the English language. I’ve indulged my CGI skills to produce a book cover. I have a nice flashy blog I’m using as a bible for the novel. I intend to undertake a couple of courses from the London School of Journalism. I may even pay for a professional edit.

    Why am I doing all this? I enjoy the intellectual stimulation. I may never even self-publish it. At the end of the day I got bored reading on the train. I enjoy the stimulation of writing on the train more than I did reading the generic, formulaic stuff that’s published. When I do read now I tend to read self-published because you never know what you’re going to get and more often than not I’m pleasantly surprised.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mark, thanks for your comment. As I’ve often said, there are as many reasons to publish as there are publishers, and goals for self-published books are entirely in the hands of their creators. I’ve done numerous books that were essentially private publications, and I celebrate every one of them. Publishing for profit is only one side of the self-publishing world, although it does seem to be the one that’s getting a lot of attention these days. Good luck with your project!

  10. Bill Benitez

    Thanks Joel,

    While I admit that I really enjoy writing, I also enjoy making money with my skills. I have experienced some success selling my niche books and from now on I will use your mind map to create them. For those of us interested in profiting from writing and publishing, it makes great sense. Thanks for sharing.


  11. Liz Alexander

    You’ve hit the nail on the head yet again, Joel! One of the “disciplines” I take my self-publishing clients through (and, heck, some of them are so resistant to this because they just want to get on and write!) is the book proposal process. Yes, the same process that they would need to go through if they wanted to be traditionally published. That way they get a much clearer idea of what their book is about, who it’s for, what “pain point” it addresses, where those readers might be found, and how to reach them etc.

    When clients come to me they want their book to serve as a calling card for speaking engagements, to attract new clients etc. The marketing piece is an important factor in helping them reach their career or business goals. The concept statement we write can often double up as the back cover blurb. Nothing that goes into this exercise is ever wasted…and those who do the work find that they can write a more compelling and “tight” book quicker and easier than they ever thought possible.

    But, as I say, this is a tough sell sometimes. For example, I met with someone a year ago who decided that, no, he didn’t want to invest in the time to develop a mini book proposal, he’d just go ahead and write his book without my help. I wasn’t going to argue with him. Recently he got back to me with a 100,000 word manuscript (for some reason he thought that constituted the size of an average self-help book) and asked me to take a read. My assessment was that he had two books and about a dozen stand-alone articles in there. The writing was excellent but this wasn’t a “book,” just a jumbled mess.

    Now he’s trying to fit the book idea around his existing content (few people are prepared to “kill their darlings” as Stephen King advises) because he couldn’t see his way to clarify the book idea FIRST and then write the content that would meet that focus. It amazes me how many aspiring authors want to plunge into writing without any clear idea of the scope and structure of their book. That’s where mind-mapping (I’ve been using that method for a couple of decades now, ever since I interviewed Tony Buzan, the originator, in the UK when I was a journalist) comes in really handy.

    Certainly people write books for many reasons, but my take is that nothing counts unless it sells. We write to get our message out into the world. If no-one is buying our books, how is that going to happen? Understanding what is involved in marketing a book these days is crucial…preferably before you start to write. Just ask all those new authors on LinkedIn and other social media forums who are bemoaning the fact that they now have a book but no obvious market for it :-)

    William Zinsser identifies the issue in On Writing Well. As he points out, a writer needs to think. And preferably think hard both before and during the writing process.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Liz, thanks for expanding and extending this article in a most useful way. The relationship between an author and her book, especially if it’s a first book, is a complex one. I think all of us who work with authors know this and have learned to deal with it in one way or another. It’s almost like we need a shift in mindset to learn to look at ourselves and our books from the other end of the telescope. But it’s a shift worth making.

  12. bowerbird

    i can tell that michael n. marcus has read
    “how to win friends and influence people”.

    i read your post and thought “oh no,
    joel has got things completely wrong”…

    but michael? michael starts off with:
    > Excellent advice, Joel, as usual.

    but by the end of his comment, it’s:
    > While market research, and profit,
    > are important in publishing, they are
    > not necessarily important in self-publishing.
    > There’s nothing wrong with
    > self-publishing for pleasure.

    which, of course, is exactly why i’d thought
    you “had it all wrong”, joel. and i would’ve
    led with that. because, you know, i’m an
    idiot like that. but the dale carnegie people
    know you have to get the influence-target
    to _agree_ with you first, and you do that
    by finding something “nice” to start off with.

    but yeah, now that michael has done that,
    i feel safe coming in and reiterating that
    — if you haven’t put any money into it —
    there’s no need to consider your e-book to
    be a “business” that has to “turn a profit”.

    that was true in the old days, where moving
    your book to the ink-on-paper stage required
    lots of money, so you needed to think about
    how you were gonna recover the investment.

    but in today’s world, where the up-front cost
    consists of uploading a file to the web? well,
    selling has ceased to become a “requirement”.

    you can write a book for _fun_, or because
    you have _something_big_to_say_, or simply
    because you think you might have the talent.

    everyone has a story. each of us have lived
    a life that’s totally unique, to us, in some way.
    why not share that with people? _why_not?_

    think of it this way. future generations are
    going to live in a completely different world.
    when they look back to our time, it’s gonna
    be just as alien to them as when we look at
    the middle ages. so they’re almost certainly
    going to be extremely curious about this time.

    the grandchildren of your grandchildren will
    be totally fascinated by you, and your life, so
    write something down! give them the chance
    to get to know you as a living human being!

    it’s not “publishing”. publishing is a business.
    it’s _self-expression_ — you making a mark.

    so don’t “explore the market” to try to learn
    “what people are buying this season”. that’s
    garbage. say what it is that you need to say.

    and contrary to what a lot of people tell you,
    that’s _not_ necessarily an ego thing. indeed,
    anyone who has actually _completed_ a book
    — taken it to the stage of being _finished_ —
    will tell you that it’s a heck of a lot of work…
    so you darn well better put your ego to bed.

    and furthermore, when a person doesn’t care
    whether they will sell any copies of their book,
    how can you ascribe it to them having an ego?

    the person who “has an ego” is the person who
    wants to sell a _ton_ of their books, and who’ll
    spend hours and days and weeks and months
    out on the hype trail, doing their “marketing”.

    and yes, joel, i realize that you _can_ see the
    picture from this perspective, and that often
    you even _do_. so it’s not an either/or thing.
    it’s like that famous figure/ground picture that
    looks either like a vase or two people facing
    each other. you can look at it either way, but
    if you’re looking at it one way, you cannot see
    it the other way. so it _is_ an either/or thing,
    even if nobody can say which way is “correct”.

    but that also means that neither side can say
    that the other side is “doing it backwards”, eh?

    by the way, thanks for all your help in getting
    some people to come sign up for my converter.

    i’ve got 100, and the first beta is actually up:

    i’m looking for some brave volunteers to ensure
    that the windows and p.c. versions don’t explode
    in your face, or steal your significant other. ;+)

    so don’t tweet the word too far until we know that.

    (i developed it on a mac, so that version is safe.)


    • Joel Friedlander

      Agreed, bowerbird, it’s not an either/or thing. Book publishing is big, big enough for all of it.

      And congratulations on releasing your Jaguar Publishing System, I know it’s been a long time coming.

  13. Gold

    The value or worth of any creation is determined by what someone will pay and parts with money for it. Think of the definition of “fair price”.

  14. Jim Crigler

    Taken as a strict ordering, this ordering works best when there’s not a scarcity of labor. Given a one-person shop, all the writing phases (back cover copy, sample chapter and outline, write the book) might take place in the given sequence, but the other 6 parts (approximately in the order given) should take place in parallel. Market research should probably precede everything. Perhaps the best way would be to write 4 days a week (or 5 or 6) and set aside one day per week to carry out the other, more directly business oriented, activities.

    There would probably be some variation between fiction (my “night job”) and non-fiction.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Small business owners and solo entrepreneurs are often encouraged to spend 15% of their time marketing, and I don’t see why it would be any different for an indie publisher. Your arrangement of parallel work streams is probably more realistic, too, since most of us write and publish in addition to other work. Thanks for your comment.

  15. Judith Briles

    As an author myself (including Show Me About Book Publishing) and Book Shepherd to many, I know first hand that if the author doesn’t see in a crystal clear way what goes in that back cover (including grabber headline) and who the book is for … the marketing needed to support the book and target who it’s for doesn’t get off the ground.

    Publishing is a business … unless the author fully grasps that it is, the book will limp along at best. The transition from self and vanity publishing stays in granite and the indie publisher doesn’t surface. Strategize. Create. Develop. Publish. Achieve.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Judith, thanks for that. I find the exercise of asking the author to write the back cover as early in the process as possible has a terrific clarifying force. Also, pick the category that will be on the back, and try to write out the best testimonials you hope people will give you about the book, then ask yourself if your book could evoke those responses.

  16. Michael N. Marcus

    Excellent advice, Joel, as usual.

    Many newbie writers (and other artisitic people ranging from painters to restauranteurs) are ego-driven, rather than market-driven. In a parallel to the philosophy in Field of Dreams, they believe, “If I publish it it, they (i.e., the readers) will come.” It could take hundreds of thousands of dollars for an unknown producer to become well-enough known to sell lots of unneeded products to strangers. It’s much simpler to produce a product which people Google for every day.

    Many kids in junior high school dream of becoming writers. I doubt that many dream of becoming publishers. Most colleges teach creative writing. I wonder how many teach publishing.

    It’s unlikely that new authors will think about marketing before writing, because they say “I want to write a book” rather than “I want to sell a book.”

    The initial satisfication is the completion of the writing process and holding a book, not receiving the first check. Fortunately, with POD, the downside of insufficient demand for a book, is losing money or merely breaking even. Before POD, the downside was spending many thousands of dollars to print a great many books which never sell.

    While market research, and profit, are important in publishing, they are not necessarily important in self-publishing.

    There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing for pleasure. The cost of publishing a book may be much less than the cost of a boat, a vacation or even a pool table — and nobody expects them to show a profit. If you can afford to publish for fun, do it. If you can make money while having fun, that’s even better.

    Michael N. Marcus (reviews of books for writers)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Joel Friedlander

      And it’s good to remember that there are as many reasons to publish as there are authors. Many self-publishers are not motivated by profit or anxious to start a business. But if you do hope to actually sell books, it makes sense to find out first if you’re creating the right product.



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