My journey of self-publishing a non-fiction book, part 1: Motivation, planning & writing

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Personal

After a long time of wanting to write and publish a book, I finally made it happen! “The Human Centered Brand” is now available both in ebook and paperback format, so check it out if you want to learn how to create a brand for your service-based business.

It wasn’t easy to create a book, and it took way longer than I thought it would. In this series of articles I’ll talk about the whole process, and why I made certain decisions along the way. It’s not intended as advice, but I hope it provides some insight in case you want to self-publish a book of your own.

The series is divided into four parts:

  1. Motivation, planning & writing
  2. Production & distribution
  3. Marketing & selling
  4. Tips for authors

My journey of self-publishing a non-fiction book, part 1: Motivation, planning & writing

In part one, I’ll be covering:

Let’s get right to it…

Why write a book?

Perhaps the real question behind this one is: how do I know when I’m ready to write a book? And why a book instead of some other format, like a course?

My short answer is: I write a lot and I write regularly, so it made sense for me.

My articles are pretty long, and that content alone could be enough to fill 2 or 3 modest books. No matter how much I write, I always feel like I could write so much more, and that I’m barely scratching the surface. I’m basically the opposite of Seth Godin. I need so many words. After a while, I realized articles alone don’t do it for me. I needed more room to explore my ideas, to lay them out in a logical order, and provide enough detail so that anyone—regardless of their previous knowledge—could get the most out of it.

Writing a book was always in my cards. This wasn’t even the first book I attempted to write. (I mentioned my previous failed attempt here.) But wanting to write a book “someday”, and talking myself into writing a book now are two different things. To make myself actually start, I needed a little more this-is-going-to-pay-off-in-the-long-run motivation. I needed to know this was a good idea.

People like Nathan Barry and Tara Gentile have convinced me that writing a book relevant to my expertise would help me get more and better clients, more paid speaking engagements, more press, interviews etc. Essentially, more people would think I’m a “big deal” if I had a book.

Of course, anyone can write a book nowadays, so it’s not such a big deal anymore. Some marketers even go as far as to recommend business owners to manufacture significance by self-publishing low quality drivel. But I wanted to write a really good book, a book that readers would love and recommend.

Since I’m specialized in working with small service based business owners, I’ll never work on huge household name brands. I’m unemployable, so you’ll never see me work at top branding agencies. I can’t “borrow” my credibility from the organizations I work with. I’ll never be introduced as the designer who worked on this or that world-famous project.

Almost all of the credibility I have is based on the passion projects I did in my spare time. That’s how I even got started as a designer in the first place. (I didn’t attend a design school.) So once again, I set out to create my own credibility by pouring out every gram of what I know into a book.

Another important reason for me to write a book was to offer an affordable product to my audience. My design services are too expensive for most beginner business owners and independent artists. When I initially set out to create a course (more on that later), I realized it would still be out of budget for many of them. A book is a no-brainer—even the most cash poor businesses can save up $25 dollars if it really matters to them.

I’ve been broke myself, and I relied on free and cheap information to get my business off the ground. I’ve used “pay what you can” options before I was able to afford the full deal. I know what it’s like to really appreciate someone’s work, but not be able to give back because all the paid options were out of reach. I wanted to give my loyal audience the opportunity to compensate me for the value that I provide without breaking the bank.

(If you need motivation for writing your own book, the post The Benefits Of Writing A Book For Business by Naomi Dunford is a great read.)

How I decided on the book topic

If you’ve been reading my blog for longer than 10 minutes, you’re well aware that the topics I cover are pretty wide: from art, design, marketing, business, productivity, meditation… the list goes on. It’s hard for me to settle on a topic that won’t bore me after a while.

My background in design made it pretty clear that the best book for my business would be something relating to my profession. The subject of my book needed to be:

  • Rare enough so that there are no well-known competing books.
  • Broad enough to keep my interest.
  • Relevant to my audience.
  • Something I know very much about.
  • Tied in with my purpose of empowering people’s creative self-expression.

I chose the topic of authentic branding for service based businesses. Not the most original topic in the world, but at the moment when I began writing it, I had not yet found anyone who has written a notable book on it.

I didn’t pull this topic out of thin air. I’ve been writing about branding for small businesses on my blog for several years, and even wrote an outline and a detailed plan for a course and an in-person workshop. This course outline was based on my idea for a brand strategy framework, which I’ve tested with some folks. The course then took a back seat as I was focusing on other things, but in the meantime I’ve released the workbook that was to be a part of the course and my free gift for newsletter subscribers.

I didn’t so much “choose a topic” for the book, as the topic evolved organically out of my blog and other projects. This served me wonderfully, because I went into this knowing exactly what I wanted to write. It was just about putting in the time to get those thoughts out of my head.

Ultimately, the financial and logical reasons weren’t enough: I needed a deeper reason for writing it, because I’m not just the “branding gal” wanting to make a name for herself.

As I was writing my book, I held my people in my mind—the creative misfits who have a brilliant gift, but their communities don’t value it. I imagined my friends, blog readers, online acquaintances, and other folks I’ve met who had to make a compromise in their careers because their work wasn’t taking off as well as it should have. I wanted to show them that there is a place for them in the world (and the capitalist marketplace), and help them claim it, so that they could develop a career of their dreams.

Given the reader feedback I’ve heard so far, I’d say it was a success.

Why self-publish?

Since this was my first book, I wanted to keep as much control over it as possible. In today’s publishing world, authors are largely left on their own when it comes to book marketing anyway. The few benefits a publisher would provide is the book advance, distribution in physical bookstores, and legitimacy. (If a publisher endorses your book, people think it’s of better quality.)

I knew that with my knowledge of graphic design, and with the support of the right people, I could create a book on par with traditionally published books.

My biggest drawback with traditional publishers is that I wouldn’t be able to control my own timeline—missing a deadline would be a huge issue. With self-publishing, I was able to work on my book when and how I wanted.

A traditional publishing deal may happen in the future for some other project (or even this one in its next edition). I was curious to see what the whole self-publishing thing is about, and I’m glad I did because I learned a ton.

Finding the time to write a book

The paperback is over 300 pages long. I work full-time in my business, I teach part-time 6 months of the year, and I used to volunteer a lot. Finding the time to write so much content was a challenge, to put it mildly.

I originally thought I’d be able to write and publish it in less than a year, but it took me over a year and a half. Compare this to Sean McCabe’s achievement of writing a book in less than a month… But to be fair he did block off that month from any other obligations. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to organize a month off only for writing my book, so I had to work it into my schedule somehow.

Clearing the plate

One difficult decision I needed to make is to cut back on my volunteering activities and speaking engagements. I have a hard time saying no, but my book became the perfect “excuse” (not that I need one to say no). When I was tempted to say yes to something, I remembered my self-imposed book deadline, and decided it was more important.

One common mistake people do (and that I do all the time) is committing to too many things in the far future. We think we’ll manage to do it all somehow. Then as the deadlines approach, we realize we’ll have to throw our normal life out the window in order to get it done.

This time I was smarter, though still not smart enough. I booked 2 speaking events for the summer of 2018 because I wanted to use these opportunities to promote the book. There was another trip I had to take for volunteering reasons, and I wasted a whole day on a conference that was almost useless. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve rethought the decision to align the book launch with those events to take some of the pressure off. (After all, I knew about the events well in advance, and I set my own book deadline.)

A big decision I made in late 2017 was to pause my weekly blogging schedule so I could focus all my writing efforts on the book. Blogging was taking up so much of my time, and it felt like the right decision for me. I only published when I felt particularly inspired to write something other than my book.

Writing on a schedule (or not)

I scheduled a recurring weekly appointment for 3 hours every Friday to write my book. I prefer writing deep-dives to short sessions. This seemed great at first, but I soon learned that Fridays are either my “picking up leftover work” days, or “mental exhaustion” days. I kept missing my Friday appointments for months, so I switched to Tuesdays. This worked a bit better, but there were still weeks when I had so much client work to do, and I couldn’t make it. If I had any energy left over in me I’d write on the weekend, but that wasn’t often.

As you’ll see in the chart below, my writing schedule was spotty. I wrote in bursts whenever I had a quiet phase in my business, and then as client work piled on, I had to take a break. I went for 3–4 months on occasion without writing a single word. When I did write, I wrote 5–10 thousands of words on some weeks.

My book writing statistics

In the last few months, I picked up the pace and wrote a bit almost every single day. Several chapters consisted of many small sections, so it was easier for me to dip in and out. While I was writing the longer sections, I wanted to be able to dedicate more time to gather my thoughts and research.

When writing on demand, I write best in the morning. On the weeks when I wrote regularly, I’d start the day with writing for an hour or two, before moving on to client work. This replaced my personal creative practice ritual completely—I couldn’t fit in both.

It’s typical for me to get an idea late at night as I’m laying in bed, so many sections in the book were typed on my phone after midnight. I’d be surprised with the word count in the morning, as these sections often ran long, for 1–2 thousand words or more.

I squeezed in the most writing in April and May 2018 (trying to catch the July publishing deadline), and in those months I turned down nearly all client inquiries and was surviving only on my savings and teaching. This is the main reason I wanted to publish the book as soon as I could, because I really wanted to go back to doing client work and actually making money.

Would I prefer to have done it differently? Sure, I wish I started writing regularly earlier, so that my output was more even over the 18 months I’ve been working on it. That way the final months would’ve been far less stressful. (To be honest I don’t think I’ll do any better on my next project, because last-minute hustle is my jam.)

If you need time saving tips, I recommend Naomi Dunford’s post Writing A Book When You’re Busy As Hell.

My book writing process

Encouraged by Tara Gentile’s CreativeLive class “How to Write and Publish an eBook”, I set out to create the book proposal and the complete outline. The proposal was super useful because once I got clear on my motivation to writing my book, and what change I wanted it to make in the business world, it served as a reminder for my goals when I wasn’t really feeling it.

My book outline was based on the course and workshop outline I previously mentioned, but I added a bunch of ideas for new content which were excessive for the class but would fit well within a book. My outline started out as a board with post-its, which I later turned into a digital project.

Book outline with post-its

I’ve set up my Trello board and created all the tasks I’ve anticipated having to complete to get my book into the world, and kept adding more to my lists as I got more ideas.

Trello book project board
Click to see larger image

After preparing everything, I got to work. Per Tara’s advice, I gathered all the existing content I had on this topic from the course and my blog posts, and I copied them into a new Google Drive document that was to become my first book draft. I didn’t keep count, but I think I must have started with around 10 to 15 thousand words right out the gate, which was encouraging!

I chose the arbitrary number of 80 thousand words as my target. It seemed doable, and I wanted to make sure I included enough original content so that my audience doesn’t feel like they’re just reading a compilation of my best blog posts. I edited most of the repurposed content so that it flows better with the book.

I continued to write the chapters in whichever order I felt inspired. I don’t work well with planning in advance what I’m going to write when. I would sit down (or stand by my tall dresser which I used as a standing desk), examine what’s left to write, and go straight for the part that seemed most interesting to me at the moment.

There were one or two instances when I wrote a very long blog post, and then realized it would fit perfectly within the book as well. I also wrote an outline for my signature talk “The Human Centered Brand” that I re-used the parts of in the book introductory chapter. I used these opportunities to tie the content I needed to produce into my book, so that my book would progress even when I had other obligations.

Google Docs was a great tool for the most part, because it allowed me to work from my desktop, laptop, and my phone (in those wee hours of the night). Of course, I would download copies on my local disk, external disk, and Dropbox after every writing session. (I became very meticulous about backups after losing all my work in a disk crash of 2004.)

Slight problems started showing up when I went past 65 thousand words, or around 150 pages. It started taking longer for the entire document to load, and sometimes Firefox would pop up that yellow “website is slowing Firefox down” message and I had to click “Wait” for 10 times in a row. It didn’t happen as often enough to push me to switch to something else, but it was a bit annoying.

While I was writing, I sent my finished chapters to Siobhan (my editor and official cheerleader) who sent me her notes and suggestions on improving the structure and flow of the book. By the time I was finished with the draft, I had enough info to immediately dive into the editing, which we’ll talk about in the next part of this series.

When the draft was done, it had around 107 thousand words. You see why I needed to write a whole damn book? Turns out once I bother to start writing, I can’t stop.

At this point it was finally time to stop writing, and to start pruning end editing. In the next part of the series, I share about the whole editing process, involving beta readers, as well as designing and illustrating the book.

The Human Centered Brand by Nela Dunato: A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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