4 Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing My First Book

February 15, 2012

1:09 pm

Last week, I accomplished a lifelong goal when I published my first book (an Appalachian Trail Book).

But allow me to back this story up a bit.

March 2011

I was self employed as an Internet marketer, making good money, residing in the vacation destination that is San Diego, CA, and working part-time for the San Diego Padres.  On paper, life was good.  But, as any sports fan can attest, the box score does not always tell the full story.

Due to an obsessive work ethic, I was voluntarily pushing myself into 80-hour workweeks.  You, the entrepreneur, probably consider an eighty-hour week part-time labor.  But unlike you, my work lacked fulfillment- I was chasing a paycheck.  I learned first-hand that my hours weren’t scalable, and by the time I came to this conclusion, the fuse had already blown.

So I did what any over-worked, unfulfilled person should do- go on a half-year backpacking trip through the mountains.

Fast forward to August 22, 2011

This would mark the day I completed my much-anticipated goal – I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, a 2,181 mile path extending from Georgia to Maine – a feat that only 3 in 10 attempting hikers make from start to finish.

Despite having never been on a single backpacking trip prior to embarking for the AT, I was able to join the minority of hikers who actually complete this half-year expedition. How was I, the computer nerd, able to accomplish something that many experienced backpackers often cannot?

Simple – I prepared for a mental battle rather than a physical challenge, whereas the majority of hikers take the opposite approach.  My premonition proved correct.  After a few weeks on trail, your body adapts to the rigors of 20+ mile per day hikes.  A hiker’s mind, however, has a tendency to lose strength over time.

Upon finishing the trail, I noticed there were a plethora of how-to books about thru-hiking the AT, whether it be logistics, endurance training, gear, topography.  None of these books confronted the part of the trail where hikers were consistently failing however, the mental trials of long-distance backpacking.

That’s why I wrote Appalachian Trials.  As is, it’s the only resource that psychologically prepares hikers for a half-year backpacking trip.

But I digress…

In the process of writing this book, I quickly realized two things.

1) Getting a major publisher to sign my book idea was very much a long-shot and

2) Even in this off-chance, I would make almost no money from these sales

Not exactly a capitalist’s dream scenario.

It was at that exact point I decided this book was going to be self-published. Even if the sales weren’t where I thought they should be, it would be an invaluable learning process. It has been nothing shy of just that.

I would like to share with you, the faithful Tech Cocktail reader, what I have learned in the process of self-publishing my first book.  Also please note, this isn’t the typical self-publishing how-to.  There are other articles (separate links) that do a good job with that.  I want these learning lessons to be unique to anything you would find else where.  Without further ado, here are…

4 Learning Lessons from Self-Publishing My First Book

1) You are only as strong as your community

I save the best for first.

During my expedition, I made a point to blog my experience whenever I arrived into a town.  In the process, I developed a rather passionate following.  Each week I would receive a host of comments, e-mails, and even packages (think Oreos and whiskey) from total strangers.  Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think anyone outside of my circle of friends and family would give two shits about me walking through the mountains.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Since returning from the trail, I have used my Facebook page as an open forum to interact with those who followed my journey.  I am candid, engaging (at least I try), and most important, authentic. It’s been abundantly clear this has resonated with this community.  Not only have these people taken an interest in my work, they have become my greatest advocates and marketing resource.

In the first 10 days of releasing my book, I’ve gotten 17 reviews on Amazon (as of 2/14/12), all of which are 5-stars.  These individuals eagerly purchased the book, wasted no time in reading it cover to cover, and took the time to share their positive feedback with the world.

These same individuals post pictures holding Appalachian Trials in hand on Facebook and demand that all of their friends check out the book.  They post reviews on their websites, in countries across the world.  They suggest major media outlets check it out.  Basically I have a PR staff of 500 friends (whom I have never met face-to-face).

While on the trail, I received an e-mail from a high school English teacher asking if she could share one of my blog posts with her class.  Since that time, we’ve periodically exchanged messages.  When I announced my intentions to write this book, she immediately e-mailed me and volunteered to edit the entire thing for free.  How could I say no?

The Appalachian Trials book page was built by another fan of the site and fellow hiker who has since become someone I interact with on a near-daily basis.  Again, free of charge.

My PR, my editor, and my web designer have all contributed to this project pro bono.

But here’s the million dollar question: how?

The answer is more simple than you might think.  I call it the three “A’s”.

1)  Be awesome – And humble.  There’s no shortcut around this.  People have to like what you offer.  Creating good content is the foundation.  Simple as that.

2)  Be accessible – For of the above reason, people will naturally be drawn to you.  You add value to their day.  It’s natural for them to want to get to know you personally.  Let that happen.  I very openly offer my e-mail address, encourage comments, and Facebook posts whenever possible.  I give a thoughtful response whenever free time allows.  Bridge the gap between fandom and friendship.

3)  Be authentic – No one likes a politician.  Be authentic.  I incorporate my humor in both my on-site writing, and my interactios with my readers.  I am myself, even if that means the occasional clash with new-comer.  If you try to appeal to everyone, you will appeal to no one.

2) Free Market Research

Market research is expensive.  I was working with the budget of someone who had just spent five months in the woods and the next five writing a book.  Needless to say, cash was (is) hard to come by.  To the boot-strapping entrepreneur, you know what I’m talking about.

Instead of using the Tim Ferriss method for testing titles (i.e. testing with AdWords – even that was out of my price range), I again went to my community.  I gave them my spec titles (trust is a two-way street), and they would very quickly let me know what worked best.

At the end of my book, I have a lengthy FAQ section.  I had a feeling that there were still questions not being answered in other AT books that prospective hikers wanted to know.  I again polled my Facebook and Twitter followers to learn what their most pressing AT-related questions were (many who read my site are aspiring AT hikers) and offered a thorough answer to each.

Since the book’s launch, this is one of the chapters that has received the most positive feedback.  Without my community, I would have wasted hours digging through hiking and backpacking forums trying to hunt these questions down and probably still would have failed to get the same depth.  I posted one question, and within a matter of a day, had an extensive list of hikers’ greatest curiosities (aka prime book material).

There are other ways to do market research, but not for free.  Take time to build a community around the concept of your book.  Within your community, offer teasers, ask questions, answer theirs, share new insights, etc.  If you are onto something, people will find you.  They will be eager to help you along the way.

3) Take nothing for granted

Unfortunately, not every learning lesson is positive.

In an attempt to build a little publicity, I decided to auction off the last page of my book.  The winner would get to post their name on that page (silly, I know, that goes back to the authentic part).  I would follow up by writing a post on my website announcing the winner.  The thought was that after reading the book and curiously seeing someone’s name (who wasn’t the author )on the last page, would immediately Google “name + Appalachian Trials” and my blog post would be the top result.  The post would offer the winner a chance to input any message, a link to their business, a picture of their cat- whatever they want.

To show this wasn’t a simple ploy to make a few bucks, I decided to give 100% of the winning bid to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the non-profit that maintains the trail).  Not only would the money go to a good cause, but they would surely help spread the word about the promotion.  Right?


Because I publicly announced that the ATC would be receiving the money before actually hearing back from them, they declined to share the promotion amongst their social network or e-mail database.  I already agreed to do it without any conditional return.

I don’t regret giving the money to the ATC, because they are a good cause and maintain an excellent trail.  But, I firmly believe if I would have presented it as “if you help me spread the word, then I will choose the ATC as the organization….”  I took their participation for granted.  As a result, the publicity of “get your name on the last page of some book” never really escaped my network.  Opportunity = squandered.  Either way, I’m still very grateful for the auction’s winner.  (Thank you Ryan Mogan, you rock!)

When building your marketing plan, be meticulous about the details.  The small things (i.e. timing, angle, returned value) make all the difference.  Take nothing for granted.

4) Expect an uphill battle

Publishers and media are going to have the same question when you pitch your book: “Who the hell are you?

It’s a fair question.  We are in a rare point in history.  You can get your million dollar book-idea available for purchase without a traditional publishing house ever entering into the conversation.  For that same reason, so too can Joe Schmoe.  You better have a compelling differentiator if you want anyone to listen.

Even being the first person to take on the most challenging aspect of thru-hiking the AT, I am still often confronted with this question: “Who the hell are you?”  Noticing a gap is one thing, filling it is another.

Here are the facts: 1) this is my first book, 2) the AT was my first backpacking trip, and 3) I have never been published by any major outdoor media outlet before.  Although the early feedback confirms what I had already believed – there was a gap, and I did good job in filling it – the above questions are enough to make any media outlet approach cautiously (putting it lightly).

Instead of expecting Outside Magazine to eagerly jump on reviewing my book, I have to aim small (bloggers, social media, forums, etc).  I have a mountain ahead of me – I can’t jump to the summit in a single stride.  That being said, if you know someone who works at Backpacker or Outdoor Magazine, I will not be upset if you pass this along. 🙂

Unless you have a truly unique idea or a reputable name to bank on, you will be fighting an uphill battle.  You have to lower the bar for your expectations, at least early on.  You have to find a unique and impressionable way to get your book in the hands of those who can amplify your message.  You have to prepare for a long hike ahead.

And I know just the book to get you there.  😉

So I hope you’re able to learn from my lessons (successes and failures alike) to give your book the wings it deserves to take flight.  Please, leave comments below.  Your feedback is always appreciated.  

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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