The Secret to Successful Self-Publishing

by | Feb 11, 2010

1121685_13744542.Mateusz-Stachowski.jpgThe effort involved in self-publishing is never trivial. But there’s a chance that, in the end, you might discover the secret to successful self publishing. That’s what happened to me, and I’m going to tell you how I discovered it.

The Journey to this Point

Of course, even to get to the point of having a book ready to go to press, you may have:

  • started a publishing company,
  • opened bank accounts, merchant accounts, Paypal accounts, and created an identity for your company,
  • registered your company with RR Bowker and the Books in Print database, to get your ISBNs,
  • figured out how the book distribution system works, or might work for your company,
  • established a presence on the internet and in social media to promote the launch of your book,
  • found freelance service providers for editorial, design and production help, or if not,
  • worked out how to edit, layout, proofread and paginate your book, then make a PDF for your printer,

In short, you’ve done whatever was necessary to create the infrastructure of a company and make sure your book is available to buyers as best you can.

It Was Fun While it Lasted

I followed this same path when I became a self-publisher. Just the power of bringing a brand new book into existence was intoxicating. It felt like I had a power I had never imagined I could exercise. It was awesome.

Putting a book together is a creative and exciting activity. Picking covers, typefaces, categories, and trying to position the book in its genre exercise some fine faculties. But when it comes to marketing and sales, for most people it becomes a long, hard road. Most successful self-published books take quite a while to become a success.

Oh, sure, there’s always someone you read about who got a contract from a big publisher, or sold the rights to a movie producer. But I’d wager the majority of self-published books are abandoned by their authors. It’s just too hard to keep swimming against the stream.

Here’s something I read last month by agent Chip MacGregor, in response to a question. (The Competitive Analysis from Chip

Publishers bascially sell in lines—that is, if they are currently selling a lot of fitness and health titles, they’re going to want to publish more fitness and health titles in the future, since they know how to market and sell those. … “THIS book is similar to THAT book. If you could get excited about THAT title, you’re sure to like THIS title.” Make sense?

The Secret Is Out

It dawned on me one day that I had done all this work to establish my publishing company and all the connections it needed to exist within the publishing industry, and all my chances for success were riding on one book. Every time I sold a book, I hoped to have a happy customer, but I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew they weren’t going to buy two copies of the book.

I realized that I now had the machinery in place to actually become a publisher. In my case, not just a self-publisher, but a publisher of other people’s work as well. And why not? With a contract, I could relive the fun of making books and, when the book was finished, I now had two products to sell that customer.

In short, I went from being an author to being a businessman.

And this is the secret to success in self-publishing:

Start thinking about your next book today. Right now.

Take Chip MacGregor’s advice. Look at your book, and see which direction you could extend what you’ve started. Here are some ideas:

  • If your book presented a theory of something, you might create a workbook to complement it.
  • If you wrote a history, think about a biography of the most important figure of that era.
  • If you created a self-help book to address the needs of a specific population, what other challenges is that population likely to face?
  • For a follow up to a business book, think about creating a book of case studies.
  • To follow up on a book concerning social issues, create a sequel that tells how the story has continued to develop. Were you right?
  • Novelists write sequels, prequels, stories in the same era, or simply in the same genre.

And I’m sure you can think of many more of your own.

In other words, put yourself inside the brain and heart of your reader, the reader who has just finished your book with satisfaction. How can you help further the understanding you’ve already started?

We Live in a World of Complex Interconnectedness

Every discipline connects to the world at numerous points, each of which are fertile ground for further work. John McPhee, the great American essayist and writer, started writing a magazine article about oranges. Just regular, Florida oranges, nothing fancy. Before he had finished, he had written a whole book about oranges. Every part of orange farming touched many other activities, other markets, science, meteorology, the history of the orange industry and the personalities who shaped it.

Each facet of the problem that you study and write about, that you explain to your readers, constructs a bigger, and more complete picture of your study to your “tribe.”

Once you have two books, or three, or a whole series of books on your specialty, you gain authority and influence in your field. The cost of every promotion you do is spread across all your titles, giving you that much more chance to succeed.

You have many pillars to help support your publishing enterprise. By diversifying, you have also spread your risk. You learn from early missteps, and become more efficient, savvier with each book. You learn to listen to your market, to find solutions to their problems, satisfaction for their needs.

Congratulations. You are on your way to success in self-publishing.

Image: Stock.xchng / Mateusz Stachowski

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joel

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry it got caught in the spam filter, probably the number of links.

    Fantastic story about your elementary school report, got a good laugh from that. I’m developing an e-book at the moment, and you’ve given me some great ideas about ways to use the content in different venues. Thanks!

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    Publishing is addicting. I formed Silver Sands Books in the fall of 2008 with the plan to publish one book, and I’m now working on number seven and eight. Each book gets easier and — I hope — better.

    Self-pubbers should be mindful of multiple ways of packaging the same work for different markets. When I was in elementary school I used a report on James Buchanan in fifth and sixth grades. When I was in college, I used the same basic research for term papers in three courses. When I was a freelance writer, I sold variations of the same article to Rolling Stone, Esquire, Car & Driver, Crawdaddy and Country Music.

    Last year I wrote and published a 396-page/$29.95 book about telecommunications, and then published a 216-page/$19.95 version, and finally a 181-page/$5 eBook. Next will be a “private-label” verson that will be given as a gift by a telecom manufacturer. That’s four books based on the same work.

    Words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters can be easily recycled, rearranged and reused. Articles and blog posts can be expanded into books. Books can be chopped up into articles and blog posts. I’ll probably expand what I’ve written here to use on my own blog. Thanks, Joel, for making me thing about it.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — president, Independent Self-Publishers Alliance,
    — author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,”
    — author of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” coming 4/1/10.

  3. Joel

    Nathan, you are living proof! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Nathan Lowell

    Now you know why I’ve published 7 books in 3 years.

    Nothing promotes your last book like releasing the next one.



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