Lessons from self-publishing a book

John Stepper_Cover

There’s something special about holding a physical book in your hands. The feeling is even more special when it’s your book. It gives the ideas more weight somehow (no pun intended, honest). The contents weren’t just written, they were published.

Well, now it’s easier than ever for you to publish your own work, whether it’s the next great novel or just stories from your life for your kids to read.

Earlier this year, I self-published Working Out Loud. By sharing what I learned in the process, I hope to encourage you to publish too.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

The trade-offs

The benefits of using a traditional publisher are that you get more services: editing, design, marketing. But those things come with a cost. Because the publisher is providing those services, you tend to have little or no control over them. They’ll cost you in terms of reduced royalties too. (Though it’s the rare author who makes money from publishing a book no matter how they do it.)

Also, the value of their services, particularly marketing, has decreased over time. Because publishing margins have gone down, and because the expectations for most authors are low, a publisher won’t spend much on marketing your book beyond offering it in their catalog to wholesalers. As for the other services, it’s easier than ever to find good copyeditors and designers.

Perhaps the biggest cost is a mental one: you have to be picked. You’ll spend time and emotional energy searching for validation which will be hard to come by, and the vast majority of aspiring authors will never get past the gatekeepers.

Resources to help you self-publish

The best book I’ve found on self-publishing was self-published by a popular and acclaimed author, Guy Kawasaki. Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur is the single best reference guide on the process and the different options. Reading this book can save you a lot of time and help you avoid some grave mistakes.

Author Publisher Entrepreneur

Your First 1000 Copies will help you think about reaching an audience for your book. Without the traditional marketing and distribution channels of a publisher, you’ll need to do something yourself. This book helps you understand what that is and how to do it.

Your First 1000 Copies

Pleasant and unpleasant surprises

While self-publishing necessarily means you’ll be doing work that a publisher would have done otherwise, some context might be helpful. In terms of hours spent, my rough estimate is that 98% of publishing my book was writing and 2% was publishing. So while publishing is important, those percentages make it clear where you should focus most of your time and energy.

I chose Createspace because it’s owned by Amazon and provides a complete set of services. The editing service was excellent, and they easily customized the cover design I had done elsewhere. They created the Kindle version automatically without any work on my part.

My biggest mistake was related to the interior design of the book. I naively assumed I would just submit a Word document and they would “format it.” But the first proof copy came back with issues ranging from header sizing to spacing to capitalization mistakes. It took me three more months of scrupulously checking every line – and ordering more proof copies and paying more fees – till it looked the way I wanted. I could have avoided that by setting up headers more carefully in Word and providing more detailed instructions for formatting from the beginning.

Createspace has some limitations. They don’t print hardcovers, so if you want one you’ll have to use another service (and distribute it yourself). They also don’t offer the same discounts to bookstores as other publishers (20% instead of 40-50%). If you want a bookstore to carry your book, you’ll have to sell it to them yourself.

All things considered, I will use Createspace again for my next book. (Note the self-affirmation in that last sentence!) The Createspace staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the entire process cost well under $2,500. On June 10th, after years of working on it, my book was available on Amazon sites around the world as a paperback and ebook.

I remember the thrill of opening up the Amazon app on my phone, searching for “working out loud,” and seeing my book there. Just like all the others.

Choose yourself

Each of us has our own story and our own ideas. Now, more than ever, it’s up to you to decide whether they are worth sharing, whether what you say might help or entertain or inspire someone else.

You don’t have to wait to be picked. You can choose yourself.

The world needs more good stories and good ideas. Why not yours?

Arbitrary power

Arbitrary power at work

Around the year 1721, Ben Franklin was indentured to his older brother in a printing business. Though Franklin was to be a printer himself later in life, he hated working for his brother who often beat him and gave him only tedious work. A footnote in his autobiography caught my attention:

“I fancy his harsh & tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

“Arbitrary power,” I thought. That’s what’s been motivating me too.


I also had an older brother with a volatile temper, and as I was growing up in the Bronx, I noticed that the people with power were the ones who were violent or threatened violence. They were uneducated bullies, and I hated that they were the ones in control of things.


I was in the 8th grade when I saw that bullies come in other forms too. I still remember my math teacher from that year. She was, to my 13-year-old self, the meanest person I had ever met. The kind of person who wore a permanent scowl and was contemptuous of the people in her charge.

One day, for example, when a lovely hearing-impaired student didn’t respond quickly enough, the teacher yelled: “Is your hearing aid on?!”  She made it clear she was in control and could humiliate any of us.

Once it was my turn. Thinking she had caught me talking and not paying attention, she berated me in front of the class, made me stand up, and asked me the answer to a question. I usually backed down in the face of such aggression, but I managed to give the correct response, much to her chagrin.

I was shaken, and remember crying in the hallway until another, kinder teacher came by to console me.

“Why,” I thought, “is this woman teaching?”


Since then, I’ve seen arbitrary power in the form of bosses at work across the many different jobs I’ve had. Most were administrators more than managers or leaders. Some simply didn’t know what to do or know how to relate to people. A few were downright mean-spirited and dysfunctional.

In these cases, too, I bitterly asked myself, “Why are these people in a position of authority over me?”

Arbitrary power at work

“More power to you”

Over time, though, I’ve learned that the universe isn’t fair, at least not in the short-term. There will continue to be bullies, mean teachers, and bad bosses. I’ve also learned that, now knowing each of their individual stories, I needn’t judge them. My anger and resentment wasn’t helping anyone, certainly not me.

What you can do instead is take some control for yourself both by controlling your reactions and by expanding your network. It’s a big world, with more smart, creative, wonderful people and more opportunities for you to make a difference than you could possibly know. You can discover those people, access those opportunities, and shape your life.

As I write this I’m reminded of a phrase my mother would use if you did something good through your own effort: “More power to you.”

I didn’t think about it then, but now I understand that you can interpret that literally. Instead of being a victim of arbitrary power, you can take control yourself. For each of the bullies and bad bosses in your life, you can channel that negative energy into deepening relationships with people who make life better somehow.

When you do that, “more power to you.”

When work doesn’t feel like work

For years, I’ve heard platitudes about people who love what they do. How it doesn’t feel like work. How they would pay to do it.

“How annoying,” I would think to myself.

During most of my career, we used the expression “combat pay” to capture our feeling that we earned our money because we were so often stressed and unhappy. I figured a job wasn’t meant to be fun or enjoyable, and that’s why they paid you. That’s why they call it work. 

This week, though, I saw for myself how – and why – work could feel like something else entirely.

Whistling while I work

Channeling my inner Snow White

I was on a plane heading for holiday in Japan with plenty of options for passing the time: books, movies, sleep. But instead I worked on presenter notes for slides. Even more unusual is that the notes weren’t for me, but for people I’ve never met.

It took me several hours, and as I was working on it I felt happy.

A few days later, my wife and kids were visiting friends and I was on my own for the day. I could have taken a train and visited any of a number of spots in Japan that I love.

Instead, I worked in various Kobe cafes for 6 hours, updating peer support guides. This was harder than working on presenter notes as it involved more thought and creativity, as well as uncertainty about whether the outcome would be worth it. It wasn’t fun. Yet at the end of the day, after making good progress on the guides, I felt fulfilled. Later today, I’ll be on high-speed train and I’m looking forward to working on them again.

It’s remarkable even to me. Why am I happy to spend precious holiday time doing these things?

5 reasons 

Some of the reasons will be clear to anyone who has studied motivation or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

As I was working on the notes and the guides, I was tapping into these intrinsic motivators and more:

Autonomy: I was self-directed, without a boss, process, or system controlling me.

Mastery: I was actively researching and learning while trying to improve my work.

Purpose: I knew why I was doing my work – to help other people access a better career and life – and that higher purpose ennobles even mundane work.

Connectedness: Though I was working by myself, I was interacting before and afterwards with people around the world who were giving me feedback and expressing thanks.

Compassion: At first I labelled this generosity, but it feels like more than that. We may or not be wired for generosity beyond our inner social circle, but there’s plenty of evidence that compassion, or living with an other-centric viewpoint, is a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.

The $$$ question

My sense is that anyone who has donated their time to a good cause can relate to my experience this week.

A question for me is how money would change things. More precisely, if there was an extrinsic motivator involved – Every WOL circle pays $10! The client is demanding it on Monday! – would it rob me of my feelings of fulfillment? Would it feel like work again?

It seems obvious that the answer is yes. But perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps you could give away most of the work and figure out ways to monetize a portion of it. Then you might be able to retain most of the feeling of joy and fulfillment, of flow, knowing that the paid portion makes all the rest possible.

What do you think? Have you seen people do this well? Are there role models to emulate?

photo (11)

Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

The 6 feelings I experienced when my book was finally on Amazon

As of Thursday, June 11th, you could buy “Working Out Loud” on Amazon.

I thought I would simply feel happy. But it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Working Out Loud on Amazon



My first reaction was surprise. You might find that odd considering I had been working toward publishing the book for a few years. But on Wednesday, I was told it would take “3 to 5 business days.” Then on Thursday morning at 10:15, I saw this:

Pia Helm buys Working Out Loud

My pulse quickened. I didn’t know Pia Helm from Munich. She must be mistaken, I thought. So I went on Amazon, searched for “working out loud,” and there it was.

Pis Helm buys Working Out Loud - pt 2


I sent out tweets and Facebook updates to let people know, and the next 2 days were filled with congratulations and good feeling from around the world.

A colleague I have never spoken with before wrote this beautiful Amazon review:

“I am using this book currently in a Working Out Loud Circle at work and I am so impressed with how simple it is to implement and how effective the techniques are. After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career. I believe at the end of 12 weeks, I will be well on my way to new habits to accomplish my goal. I believe I will return to this method to reach future goals, and hope to implement many of the insights in my day to day work habits as well.

Bravo! It is long overdue for someone to address the problem of work not being as fulfilling as it could be. The secret indeed lies with us, our interactions with our fellow human beings, and gratitude and kindness.”

Although I’ve been writing for a while, it’s still an extraordinary thing to feel connected with people around the world. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers – all connected by their interest in an idea. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good.


All the nice comments from my network made me happy. Seeing a bulk order from my firm for 350 copies (one for every intern in the US) made me feel even happier. Not just because I sold books but because it felt like a symbol of institutional validation.

The day the book was available, I was invited to give a keynote speech in Sydney. And I spoke to two other companies who are interested in spreading the practice of working out loud among their employees.

I was feeling happy about the present and also about the possibilities.


Anxious? Yes. It didn’t take long for the snakes in my head to appear: What if someone gives it a 1-star review? What if they don’t think it’s good enough? What if there’s a problem with my thinking, writing, or research?

As those thoughts popped into my head, I remembered the two quotes I cited in the book.

“You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world who hate peaches.” – Dita Von Teese

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it.” – Seth Godin

Slight letdown

Of course I looked at the online royalty report to see how many I sold. I won’t tell you how often I did that but it was more than once. It’s clear that whether I sell 1,000 or 10,000 or even 100,000, it’s still a small number compared to how many people I want to help.

In my letter from my future self that I wrote over five years ago (and is also in the book), I included that I’ll have known I reached my goal when “I will have authored a book or other notable content that more than 20,000 people read.”

Now I know that books alone are not enough.


I remind myself that the book is both a culmination and a beginning. It’s an important step, and now there are other steps to take.

One of the most important next steps is a movement to form at least 1,000 Working Out Loud circles this year. In the first few days after it was announced, already people from 7 countries have pledged over 300 peer support groups. (You can see the growing list and add your own name here.)

Other steps include making it easier for people to take their own steps and make working out loud a habit. Working with companies and HR associations to include working out loud as a practice. Helping students work out loud so they have access to opportunities. Work with people who normally don’t have such access to equip and empower them to get it.

Nine months ago, when I thought the book was almost finished, I wrote that the book launch party might take three years. That sounds about right.