Self publishing: a flawed but useful overview

Guy Kawasaki's new book on self publishing#APETheBook: Buy the ebook not the softcover. Pick your chapters. Enough value to justify the price but some silly stuff to ignore.

Last month I gave a short talk to the Arizona Mystery Writers group in Tucson, Arizona. The presentation was supposed to be an overview of ebook production for self-published authors. But I ended up broadening the topic to attempt an overview of the larger process of self publishing, that is, how to target, produce, sell, and promote your own book.

One of my main themes was that authors who self-publish embark on an adventure that is much more like being a software entrepreneur than it is like being a writer. Both the technology and the markets are changing out from under you. Every day is full of too many good-ideas-that-should-be-done-right-away. The technology entrepreneur’s life is a sea of hard choices and risky trade-offs.

I thought that was a fairly original, clever idea until, late in my preparations, I came across a reference to Guy Kawasaki’s new book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book. Kawasaki and his co-author Shawn Welch not only made the same connection I did, before I did, he wrote a whole book on the topic. How’s that for embarrassing and affirming at the same time?

I didn’t have a chance to read the book before my presentation, but I did toss a reference to it into my hand-out. And I placed an order for the print edition so it would be waiting for me when I got back from Tucson. When a master entrepreneur and author arrives somewhere before you do, the only thing to do is stand back, bow respectfully, listen and learn what you can.

I bought the print edition because I was pretty sure I’d want to share the book. And, indeed, I ended up ceding right-of-first-read to Bret, who was on the cusp of publishing his own book of short stories. But now I’ve read the book, thrown the book across the room a couple of times, re-read and digested some of the good parts, stomped across the hall to Bret’s office to rant more than once, and, finally, am ready to recommend it, with reservations.

Kawasaki’s basic premise is spot on.

A successful self-publisher must fill three roles: Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur — or APE. These roles are challenging, but they are not impossible — especially if people who have done it before explain it to you.

. . . publishing is a parallel, not a serial, process that requires simultaneous progress along multiple fronts. A traditional publisher has the luxury of throwing multiple people at these parallel activities. A self-publisher doesn’t . . .

Self-publishing is akin to launching a start-up. Entrepreneurs must create a product, test it, raise money, recruit talent, and find customers at the same time.

Some reviewers have criticized the Author section of the book as “throat clearing” — which I guess implies it contains little meaningful content. I sure don’t agree. You may, personally, have no use for Kawasaki’s discussion of the good and bad reasons why you might want to write a book, Chapter 1. But the high-level perspective offered in Chapters 3, The Self-Publishing Revolution, and Chapter 4, The Ascent of Ebooks, is likely to be useful for anyone weighing the benefits of, or even already embarked upon, the journey from writer to self-published author.

I would say your mileage will vary from chapter to chapter throughout the book, so be prepared to skim in some places, dive deep and ponder in others.

You can buy the Kindle version of APE from Amazon. Oddly Kawasaki, who is so closely associated with Apple, Inc., has chosen to not publish an iBook version, yet. But remember that you can read Kindle books on just about any device simply by installing one of the free Kindle reader apps

Picks and Pans:

Here’s a quick overview of my Picks and Pans, click a link if you are interested in the details.

Pick: Buy the ebook, not the print edition
Pick: Most of the Publisher and Entrepreneur chapters are pretty good.
Pan:  You do NOT need a MacBook Air to write your book
Pan: Book conversion — no great choices, but InDesign?, really?
Pan: How to upload your book

Pick: Buy the ebook, not the print edition

It’s not about money, it is about currency — the timeliness kind. Even though the ebook is only $9.99 and I paid almost twice that for the print edition, I got enough out of my copy to justify the purchase. But a printed book is just too static a container for this content.

As I have pointed out before, ebook technology and marketplaces are in a state of continual flux. Kawasaki Welch promise to keep the ebook version updated with new material. And with Amazon’s new opt-in Automatic Book Updates feature you can get new content whenever they upload a new version of the book. The print version, of course, will not update itself.

However, take this e-promise with a grain of salt. My print version says it is Version 1.2 (Baldacci). It was printed in October of 2013 but, as I write, it’s the same version as the one available for Kindle, which was uploaded on March 5th, 2013. That means that both versions will tell you that the Calibre ebook conversion tool does NOT work with Word docx files and that has been not-true for a few months now. The content getting out of date is no surprise. Even the best laid plans of authors to keep up with current technology can be scuttled by the speed of change and their own busy lives. There’s no guarantee the ebook will be updated, but at least it CAN be.

Also, the print version has a glossary but no index. Grrrr. An index is often one of the big benefits of a print edition; a good index can put you miles ahead of an ebook search tool. But with no index, you had better have search available.

Pick: Most of the Publisher and Entrepreneur chapters are pretty good.

With the couple of exceptions listed below, I learned a lot from these chapters. I don’t agree with it all and a lot of details will change. But, given all the chaos in the industry right now, I think Kawasaki has done a really honorable survey of the state of the self-publishing. Chapters 11, Understanding Book Distribution, and 12, How to Sell Your Ebook, seemed particularly strong to me.

Pan:  You do NOT need a MacBook Air to write your book

I’d like to think the Computer section at the start of Chapter 5, Tools for Writers, was written tongue-in-cheek. But I can find no contextual evidence that is true. It certainly does a disservice to the fairly decent advice in the rest of the chapter.

Kawasaki asserts that, while you may not definitely need a MacBook Air, you do definitely need a computer that

  • weighs less than three pounds,
  • lasts more than five hours on batteries, and
  • enables you to “take it with your wherever you go” and “write all the time”

Oh for pity’s sake. Which is my mom-the-author’s phrase. And she is appropriate to invoke here. In the last 15 years, she’s produced 15 full length novels, 13 published, one currently in production, and one poor thrice-rewritten stand-alone that is still waiting for a publisher to love it. While she has sometimes used a laptop, she has never had a Mac.

APE’s reader would have been much better served if Kawasaki had opened this chapter with a more practical overview of the importance of tools.  Something more like what Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas wrote in the classic The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master:

Every craftsman starts his or her journey with a basic set of good quality tools. . . . Then begins a process of learning and adaptation. . . Tools amplify your talent. The better your tools, and the better you know how to use them, the more productive you can be. Start with a basic set of generally applicable tools. . . . expect to add to your toolbox regularly. Always be on the lookout for better ways to do things.

So, here’s my own, more pragmatic Author list:

  • You need a place to write where you can be productive. (Yes, Virginia, this is STILL an issue for a lot of people.)
  • You need a computer in good working order with which you are comfortable.
  • Buy Word if you can afford it. If you can’t, be prepared to invest a certain amount of your time and energy accommodating the Word-using world around you, and then get on with your writing.

Pan: Book conversion — no great choices, but InDesign?, really?

Kawasaki writes in the book’s Preface that he “asked five knowledgeable people about the best way to self-publish an ebook, and I got eight answers — two of which directly conflicted with each other.” He mentions this again, at the start of Chapter 13, How to Convert Your File, just before he plunges into a multi-page, click-by-click set of instructions on how to use Adobe InDesign to convert your Word manuscript into either of the two standard ebook formats.

This was a book-throwing section for me. (Another reason I was glad I bought the print edition.) InDesign is clearly the tool of choice for small publishers, who routinely use it to produce their print editions. But, in my opinion, it’s never been a good choice for the self-publishing author. Now that Calibre can convert Word docx files, I think Calibre should be an even more obvious candidate than it has been. Granted, Calibre is an overly complicated tool and was originally built for a completely different purpose, but both those problems are even more true of InDesign. And Calibre is really, truly free, not just has-a-free-trial. I don’t expect Kawasaki to change his recommendation; he has co-author Shawn Welch to do his InDesign work for him. And, with a free trial, you may want to give InDesign a try yourself. But don’t let problems with learning InDesign hold you back; keep looking for a tool that will work for you.

Pan: How to upload your book

Another click-by-click set of instructions, this time for an Amazon-only process subject to change at any moment. The help pages on the Amazon site or someone’s recent blog post HAVE to be better sources for this info, by definition. A good generic diagram with some pointers on what the different marketplaces are doing under the covers would have been much more useful and timeless.


APE has its own website with pointers to additional information and resources.

And, remember you can buy the book in either format from anywhere you like as long as it is Amazon.

One Reply to “Self publishing: a flawed but useful overview”

  1. Bill Adams

    An informative review, Ann, thanks. I think this is a book I can skip. I remember reading Kawasaki columns in MacUser, a print periodical, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, before there was an internet (all we had to eat was dirt, and we were glad to have it!). He struck me then as an entertaining writer, but too light and airy for useful analysis.
    Your Tucson talk to the Mystery Writers ( was more strategic, if also more discouraging about self-publishing ebooks, in emphasizing the diverse challenges (software, marketing, accounting, etc.)
    Kawasaki’s APE is apt, but I know of few serious writers who have much interest in going into business. Writing fiction, especially, is a totally different skill set. So even though I have published several ebooks, and even sold a few, I’ll be looking for a traditional publisher next time out. Life is too short.

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