Lessons From Self-Publishing - Part I

So I’ve now written six books. The last being The LogStash Book which is also my first self-published book. That total might seem a little crazy but I love doing it. Obviously there’s some ego involved. Making something that people use and even better thank you for is an awesome feeling. It’s a nice boost to the self-esteem.1 Of course it also comes with some slaps too. It’s amazing how easily people criticize things: “That sucked.” Followed up by the ever-popular: “I would have covered/written about/done it like this/done it better.”2 My first few reviews actually made me nauseous.3

The creative side of it aside writing also brings a lot of frustrations. It’s time-consuming and for technical books often requires filling in the gaps of terrible documentation, dealing with untested software combinations, smoothing over hideous hacks to make them palatable for a reader and often becoming an instant expert in a core topic as well as a dozen side topics.

But my whinging about that aside, I promised several people I’d explain why I self-published this book, what I enjoyed and hated about the experience and what I learned.

Why not use a publisher?

Firstly I should explain why I didn’t go with a publisher, starting specifically with Apress with whom I have worked on my five previous books. I’ve not been overly open with my feelings about Apress in the past but I’ve decided it’s important to be honest about this given how personally upsetting my experiences with them have been in the last couple of years.

This is immensely saddening topic for me because these upsetting experiences are a recent change. In the past I’ve not hesitated to recommend Apress to budding authors. The team I initially worked with at Apress: Jim Sumser as an editor, Julie Miller in Marketing and the awesome editorial, production and project management staff made writing for them really easy and enjoyable. They also had reasonable and clear contracts where I felt I was getting a good deal.

From my recent experiences this is all gone and almost everyone I enjoyed working with has moved on. Over the last few years it has seemed to me that their relationship with their authors has deteriorated. It’s nearly impossible to contact anyone there. Problems take months of calls, voice mails, emails and complaints to resolve. The overall quality of the material has also fallen with books pushed out too fast without enough review. The final straw for me was having to email the Editorial Director of the company to get a technical reviewer paid months after a book came out. An experience that was both personally and professionally embarrassing.

I think I understand why though. Like most technical publishers, I suspect Apress is on life-support. They are lucky enough to be a subsidiary of a massive publisher: Springer. But they’ve had to cut costs to the bone and one of the first things that went with that was the warmth and relationships between their team and the authors who wrote for them.4

So why not write for another publisher? I’ve got good relationships with editors at both small and large publishers. Indeed there are good people at O’Reilly, Pakt, No Starch and other places for whom I’ve got a great deal of respect.

In the end I wrote a pros and cons list of reasons which I am going to reproduce here:

My Pros and Cons list

Pros

  • I wanted to work at my own pace. Working with a publisher usually means working against a project plan. A plan that often isn’t very flexible. I have a highly demanding full-time job. I need flexible. I need to be able to say “I can’t work on the book this week” and have the major impact be on my delivery not a publisher’s schedule.

  • Watching the book grow. There’s always been something weirdly awkward to me about writing single chapters, sending them off to an editor and then not really seeing them as a cohesive whole until the book is complete. This may just be my experience but there’s something very satisfying and encouraging to see the PDF generated from my content grow page by page. It’s also allowed me to more easily see the flow of the book. In the publisher model I’d send a chapter off, realise I’d forgotten something or had something in a later chapter change what I should have covered earlier. I’d then have to wait for the chapter(s) to come back and edit as best I could. If the book was towards the end of its development then I often had limited scope to fix things.

  • Errata and updates. With publishers errata is usually published on a separate web page and the book itself not updated until a re-edit or reprint is done. This is immensely annoying because many readers won’t know to find the errata and will be left with an unsatisfactory experience with the quality of the book. Doing it myself I can find errata or updates on the spot and even reissue the book if needed.

  • Marketing. Publishers usually have a lot of books on the go. When they are marketing your book, unless you’re John Grisham, you get a tiny slice of the marketing pie. With self-publishing marketing is my problem. If I want the book to be a success it’s up to me to make it one. Sure I might not have the resources or skills of a professional marketing person but knowing its on me ensures I am not disappointed when I only get the sliver the publisher provides.

  • Money. It’s worth mentioning that self-publishing means I get a much larger slice of the profits. Tech publishers offer royalties that float around the 15% mark with sometimes more for ebooks because their margins are better. Sure I am probably not going to charge the price a publisher would for my book but my estimate that I will get 95% of revenue after expenses. That feels good.

  • Challenge. Doing this is a challenge. I was interested to see if I could make it all work.

Cons

  • Formatting. Publishers are generally good at making books look good, know what readers expect to see and know all the tricks to made a book “readable”. It’s well established that a designer I am not. So making the book look good is down to me.

  • Indexing is a painful chore. Publishers employ people and tools that are good at this. Without them it’s “do it yourself” time which can be a painful and boring task.

  • Editing. I have immense respect for editors and proof readers. It’s a time-consuming and massively detail-orientated job. Reading thousands of pages of document and identifying and fixing issues requires skills I don’t have. I am lucky enough to have a journalist/editor for a partner who kindly offered to read the book and give it an edit. So far we’re still married too.

  • Artwork. I am not a designer or an artist. I can draw simple diagrams. Making them awesome requires skills I don’t have. Publishers have people on tap who can do this for you and make your figures look excellent.

  • Production. Publishers still make dead tree books and they have lots of experience producing ebooks and for platforms like Kindle. If you want to make a dead tree book or an ebook you have to learn how to do both and manage any resulting quality issues.

  • Marketing is also on the Cons list. Whilst you do only get a small slice a publisher’s marketing effort they do have contacts and leverage you don’t. A couple of good reviews in popular blogs or a Slashdot review of a book can make a huge difference.

So those are the items I weighed up. In the end the Pro list won, especially the element of doing it myself being a real challenge.

In the next part of this post, probably after the book is published, I’ll talk about the tools I used and the mechanics of how I went about creating the book.


  1. At this point someone always says “But what about the money?” Indeed. What about money? Well most authors and almost ALL technical authors rarely make much money. Between the publisher’s cut, book prices overall, and the limited lifespan of a technical book profits are often few and far between. There are exceptions but I consider money I make from publishing a bonus not a living. [return]
  2. Yeah you do that mate when you write your own damn book. :) [return]
  3. If the truth be known then every one of my reviews make me nauseous still. Seeing the review count increment on Amazon still fills me with dread. [return]
  4. The mileage of other Apress authors may vary. This has been my personal experience and I’ve received feedback from several other Apress authors that they feel similarly. [return]
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