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How to self-publish your next book

Most researchers look down on self-publishing, preferring to pitch their manuscripts to prestigious publishers. Self-publishing is however becoming an increasingly popular option, as it has a number of key advantages over the traditional publishing model. In this blog, I am going to document the steps I take, as I take them, to self-publish my next book, The Productive Researcher. Depending on when you stumble across this, you may only have the first few steps, but keep coming back, and hopefully in a month or so, I'll have published the book and you'll have everything you need to replicate the process yourself if you want.

Why self-publish?

I published my first book with Routledge, and am in the process of writing another book for Sage, but I self-published my second book, and am doing it again for my next book. The first thing you will notice is that I have not given up on the traditional publishing model all together. You get instant credibility if you publish with an established, prestigious publishing house, and for some projects that is important. My first book was about climate change in collaboration with the United Nations and so needed the gravitas of an established imprint (Earthscan) of a well known publisher (Routledge). My second book was on a far less contentious subject about which very little had been written (research impact), and so didn't need the prestige of an established publisher to attract an audience. It probably helped that I already had a bit of a profile, which gave the work enough credibility.

Here's what I loved most about self-publishing The Research Impact Handbook:

  • You can set the cover price yourself, rather than a publisher deciding to put it on the market at an unaffordable price. If you want your book to get into as many hands as possible, making sure it is affordable is important, and you have complete control if you self-publish. I don't think a Kindle book is worth as much as a hard copy, so unlike most traditional publishers that might give a 10% discount, I was able to put it on Kindle for less than a quarter of the price of the physical copy, making it as affordable as possible to those who can't get the hard copy

  • You can change the price. I chose to set my cover price as low as possible to get it into as many hands as possible. However, when book shops approached me to stock it, they explained that they have to be able to mark it up by 30%. I had set the price so low that I wasn't able to give them a 30% discount. I therefore increased the cover price by 30% and drove as many sales as I could at the lower price before I raised it, by explaining to my audience on social media that the "introductory price" was coming to an end soon

  • You can run as many promotional discounts as you want. I regularly put the Kindle book on sale for free, and can put the book on sale price if and when I want. If I want, I can do affiliate marketing, where another business sells books for me online using a 15% discount code, and they get a 15% royalty for every book they sell. I've not done this myself, preferring instead to just give key influencers a 15% discount to their followers, if I want to break into a new market

  • You are in charge of the cover art. I know a lot of colleagues who have been unhappy about the images or designs chosen by publishers for their books. The danger of course is that the design of my cover isn't professional, but getting a freelance professional designer to come up with something is surprisingly affordable these days

  • You can include as many photos and colour pages as you want. The cost of each printed copy increases, but only marginally. I get each copy of The Research Impact Handbook in bulk orders from the printer with 12 colour pages for £3.71 per copy, so I could easily afford more colour if I wanted

  • You receive the majority of the cover price as the author, rather than the publisher. You put in the long hours of writing and made personal sacrifices to write this book, so why should the publisher take most of the profits of your hard work? For most people, the answer to this question is that it is a lot less hassle, and this is a very good reason. Self-publishing is a lot more hassle, but if you sell a lot of copies, then it may be worth it. The Kindle version of The Research Impact Handbook sells for £4.99 and I get a 70% royalty for every copy sold (Amazon takes 30%). The physical copy sells for £17.99, and I get a 60% royalty for every copy sold (Amazon takes 15%)

  • You can see sales in real time. I can watch sales every day, graph them and dig into them, seeing exactly who buys my book. Depending on how well your book sells, this can be pretty motivational

  • You can create as many new editions as you want, and as many changes as you want between editions, if you notice a mistake or need to update something. I get copies of the book in bulk, but when I'm ready for the next order, I can simply give the printer an updated file to print from. Its even easier with the Kindle version

Now for the downside:

  • You need to do a lot more work yourself, including hiring a freelance proof-reader, commissioning design and photos, formatting the book, uploading it to Kindle and selling physical copies. You can take a few short cuts if you're willing to lose much of your royalty. Amazon offer a service where they will turn your Kindle book into a paperback, and ship it for you, but the quality isn't great and they charge a small fortune for the privilege​

  • You won't have an editor to help you make difficult decisions, for example about what to include or leave out. Instead, you will need to rely on the good will of colleagues to pre-review the book for you and give you their opinion about what needs to change. If you choose your pre-reviewers carefully to match your intended audience however, their feedback may be better than an editor's

  • You will need to market the book yourself, which will take some time. If you already have a strong following on social media, then the benefits of having a publisher marketing your book using traditional channels are fairly minimal. If you don't already have a following, you will need to come up with a strategy to grow your online influence, ideally linking your book to an ecosystem of other resources that can help market your book, and that your book can help market. The Research Impact Handbook helps market Fast Track Impact trainings, which pay for me to provide lots of free online content (a magazine, podcast and various other resources), which in turn helps market the book. I've marketed The Research Impact Handbook entirely through social media (without paying for advertising), and have sold just under 1000 hard copies via Amazon, a similar number of Kindle copies, and almost 3000 copies direct to Universities or bundled with trainings. I regularly audit my time on social media and am currently average 35 minutes per day including my entire daily news intake and managing social media pathways to impact for a number of projects, so this doesn't have to take over your life

  • Shipping can be simple if you give copies to Amazon and they store it in their warehouse and ship it for you. This is costly however, so my company PA ships copies of my book, so we don't have to hire warehouse space from Amazon

Step 1: Write the book, get (and respond to) pre-review feedback from sample audience and proof-read

18th August 2017:

  1. Pre-review feedback: I finished the first draft before going on holiday at the start of the month and sent it to 10 colleagues who I thought might broadly represent my target market for the book, and who I thought would give me useful feedback from different perspectives (e.g. early versus late career, UK versus overseas, academic versus professional services staff). I received the feedback earlier this week, and have spent most of this week responding (I added 25 pages of new content in response to their great suggestions).

  2. Proof-reading: Today, I sent it to my proof-reader, a friend from University who had a career in publishing with Harper-Collins and others before setting up as a freelancer.

  3. Building some early anticipation: One of my pre-reviewers, Phil Ward from University of Kent, wrote a blog review of the book, which he published today. I'm going to talk about the book on next week's podcast, which I'll follow up with three weeks of excerpts from the book. I've also put excerpts into the next issue of the Fast Track Impact magazine, but the design process for that means that it might not come out before the book is published - we'll see...

  4. Launch team invitation: I quoted Phil's tweet this afternoon and asked my Twitter network if anyone wants to join my launch team (somewhat rashly saying they'd get a free PDF copy next week, before checking how long my proof-reader would take to read it). The idea of the launch team is to give a number of enthusiastic people (ideally including a few influencers) an early copy of the book, so they have time to read it over the next few weeks, on the condition that they write an honest review of the book on Amazon. A week before I launch the book, I will make the Kindle version available free, and will ask the launch team to download a free copy of the Kindle version, and then write their review (so it comes up as an authentic review of someone who bought the book, so Amazon recognises and counts the review in its stats). My goal is to launch with a minimum of 20 5* reviews, and I'll delay the launch date if necessary. This is in theory high risk, as I may get rubbish reviews, but given the positive feedback I got on the first draft from my sample audience, and the fact that I fixed the issues they pointed out, I'm fairly confident.

Step 2: Design and pricing

24th August 2017:

  • Assign ISBN: I bought ten ISBN numbers when I published The Research Impact Handbook, so today I assigned ISBNs to the paperback and e-book versions of The Productive Researcher and informed Nielsen

  • Price the book: I've done a bit of research online and for a book of this length (150 pages), books targeting my audience are selling for between £10-17. I could do a paperback version for £12.99 or a hardback version with hessian embossed cover and nicer paper for £15.99, both with a similar level of royalty (45% for paperback versus 40% for hardback). I think, given the nature of this book, that it would be nice to spend some time making it feel really nice, so it is something people really value, and still bring it in at a reasonable enough price, so for now I'm going to go with the hardback option. I'm self-publishing, so if I want to introduce a paperback version £3 cheaper at any point in the future, I can. If this is too pricey for some, I'll make sure the Kindle version goes on the market at half price

  • Photography and design: I met my photographer today who has been researching different types of forest as part of my brief for the book. She found the perfect one today - a birch wood in Aberdeenshire that will give her the types of abstract macros I want next to the start of each chapter. I'm meeting my designer tomorrow. She'll be getting the brief for the front cover (text and design on hessian hard cover). There will be a green inner page, and a canopy shot on the second inner page opposite the title, which I want her to use as the basis for her cover design. She'll have a colour page for the first page of each chapter, opposite an abstract macro photograph that she can draw colours from. I'm drawing inspiration from the look and feel of the unlikely best-seller, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, and will be bringing my copy of this book to our meeting

Step 3: Launch team and influencers

24th August 2017:

  • Reach out to influencers: I have identified a number of well respected researchers (H score >200) who are highly influential on Twitter (>20,000 followers) based on a flawed article in Science and systematically searching for Twitter accounts from the most cited researchers in the world according to Google Scholar. I have sent them all an email (finding their addresses was a bit of a challenge in some cases). I also reached out to Prof Brian Cox to see if he might write a foreword via email and Twitter, though I don't expect to hear back. But you never know!

  • Set launch date: I want to launch the book at Birmingham City University, where I learned and practiced many of the things I talk about in the book, hosted by my former boss, who I dedicated the book to. We have selected a launch date of 11th October. My proof reader will be done by 4th September, and I'm going to ask for the design to be ready the same day, ready to send the proofed and designed PDFs to my launch team. The printer needs this file no later than 11th September to make the launch date, but I hope to send it early so they can send me a proof.

  • Email launch team: I've sent the first email to my launch team, telling them they'll get the book w/c 4th September and will have till w/c 2nd October to read it, ready to review it on Amazon the week before I launch. You can see the email I sent and the emails I've scheduled to my team over the next month here.

5th August 2017:

  • I sent the book to my launch team today as a PDF. Yesterday I received and worked through feedback from my proofreader, and met my designer to sign off on her designs. I received the fully proofed and designed PDF this afternoon, and I'm really pleased with the look and feel, as well as the content. I have never written anything I cared this much about before, so seeing the final version was a surprisingly emotional experience. I'm now both excited and nervous in equal measure about the reactions I will get next month when my launch team start writing their reviews!

  • The review copy has gone out to 55 people. Sixty people responded to my invitation, mainly via Twitter, but I only accepted those I judged to be clearly in my target market. I put the invitation out via Twitter to ensure the majority of reviewers are on social media, so we can generate a bit of a buzz in launch week. A couple of the have accepted more people than is normally recommended to join my launch team, based on my experience publishing The Productive Researcher. For that book, I promoted it for a week for free and then for a following week at 99p. The theory is that this increases the number of reviews and boosts sales sufficiently to get your book at the top of your category, which then further boosts sales, which continue on into the full-price edition. However, I launched in a fairly obscure category that few people are browsing in, and so this strategy just meant I gave away a few hundred free copies. For my new book, I'm prioritising hard copy sales, based on the fact that this was the main market for The Research Impact Handbook, and I have been able to make the hard copy look and feel really nice, so I want as many people as can afford it to enjoy it in this form. For this reason, I'm prioritising reviews from my launch team, as these are more likely to attract hard copy sales. Although the book will be available free on the Kindle store the week before publication (so the launch team can download it before writing their reviews so they are writing about "verified purchases"), I won't be actively promoting this.

Step 4: Book printing and distribution

12th September:

  • Hard copy proofs are now in the post, on their way to my designer and photographer, and to my proof reader, to catch any final errors in the printed version. We have till Monday to finalise and upload the final copy for printing in bulk. The material that will be used to cover the books is still on order, so I won't see the finished cover till I get the bulk order. Fingers crossed it is right!

  • I pitched an opinion piece to Times Higher Education last week and heard yesterday that they are interested. The editor's comment was somewhat scathing, as my attempt at brevity meant I had omitted to explain how my "miraculous" approach actually worked. However, he is interested enough to give me a second chance, so I have re-worked the piece and sent it back this morning.

  • I have sent my revised opinion piece with a pitch to all 40 Blackwells bookshops in the UK, as they tend to be located at Universities. I'm suggesting they sell the book for £18.99, which is only 20p more than it costs including postage and packing on Amazon, offering them the book for £14 per copy plus postage if they order 10 copies or more. I didn't do this for the last book, but it was a 30 minute job, and I figure it might work - we'll see!

22nd September:

  • We sent the book for a second full proof and picked up a scary number of additional issues, which should have now all been sorted. We’re not taking any risks, so we’re expecting another hard copy proof to check before we sign off on the first print run

  • Next week I’m going into the studio to record the audiobook version, which will be available via Audible and iTunes

  • I've organised an evening lecture at Birmingham City University, in which I will present and discuss the ideas in the book. I’m not describing this as a “book launch” and will just have a few copies with me on the day, preferring to focus on the ideas and discussion as the reason for coming rather than an opportunity to get a signed copy!

28th September

  • Hard copy proof arrived today, but I'm in Dunfermline recording the audiobook version. Can't wait to see what it looks like tomorrow!

  • Recording an audiobook turns out to be remarkably difficult - I had no idea how difficult it is to read perfectly, pronouncing every word without fault! Luckily I have a producer as well as an editor, Dan Lyth, who is helping pick me up when I miss out words and mispronounce stuff. Even luckier, he is very patient!

2nd October

  • Sadly I only got two thirds of the way through the audiobook version in the two recording sessions I had scheduled, so I have arranged to go back in a month to finish it off. It will be worth the wait!

  • The proofs have now been approved and the first print run is happening now as I type!

  • I uploaded the Kindle version to Amazon today, and it is under review. As soon as it gets approved, I'll be sending a link to a free Kindle copy to my launch team so they can download it and write reviews of their "verified purchase"

  • Listen to an audio update on progress on my podcast

3rd October

  • The Kindle version is now live, but I'm waiting till my free promotion goes live tomorrow before telling my launch team, so they can download it for free before writing their reviews

  • I've had to revisit my pricing as a number of last minute improvements to the look and feel of the hardback version have added to the cost of printing. I'm not comfortable adding to the price, as it is a fairly short read at around 180 pages, and shorter than my previous book, which is on the market for £17.99. I'm therefore thinking that I will increase the price of the Kindle version to £9.99, which is still close to half price once you add the postage and packing onto the hardback version. Given that the Kindle version doesn't have the photography or the look and feel of the hardback version, I'm also hoping that this price rise may persuade more people to go for the hardback version.

  • So far, only one member of my launch team has told me they don't like it, so I'm hoping that reviews will be mainly positive. I'll start to find out tomorrow!

11th October

The day has arrived! Today we launch this book!!! My launch team has been amazing - the vast majority managed to post their review in the window I gave them. The reviews are far beyond what I had expected: 4.9 out of 5 stars on the UK store (based on 35 reviews), and 5 out of 5 (based on 5 reviews) for the rest of the world. Amazing! I've made a graphic in PowerPoint with some quotes from the reviews, which I've tweeted this morning. You can read many more excerpts on the official book page on my website. That's it. It is out there. Enjoy, everyone!

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