Permission Publishing: How to Self-Publish a Classic (Without Wasting Time or Money)

August 9, 2019

98% of self-published books look like that thing above. So why would you bother writing one?

Then again, 62% of traditionally-published books look like this:

Not to mention: ~96% of authors seeking agents get rejected — and of those 4% who “succeed,” only ~67% of manuscripts are sold.

It’s really f*cking hard to “get published” traditionally.

Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence: 121 times. Lolita was rejected by all major American publishers — Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus and Doubleday. Nabakov had to flee to France to get a deal.

Harry Mothaflippin’ Potter was rejected 12 times. That’s just what writers do: get rejected.

I won’t even get into the facts that the average publishing deal is meager, publishers take ~80–90% of royalties and final creative control, while doing virtually no marketing.

(After my first self-published book made over $14,000 in profits, I got a $6,000 offer from Simon & Schuster. I laughed and declined.)

There seem to be two options:

  1. Beg an agent to beg a publisher to get you a crappy book deal. Most likely fail and waste months or years of time.
  2. Enter a writing cave for months or years to write your self-published book. Wake up from hibernation and publish … with a 98% chance of failure.

Fortunately, there’s a third way. I call it: Permission Publishing.

In the publishing world, nobody talks about things like The Lean Startup. It’s all nonsense about agents and queries and MFAs and hoity-toity writerisms.

It makes you feel like you don’t belong. But have you heard the story of Instagram — how it started as a Foursquare clone called “Burbn?”

Burbn was not, however, terribly successful. The app was too complicated, Sawyer points out, and had “a jumble of features that made it confusing.” Systrom, however, kept tweaking the app. He paid attention to how people were using it. He brought on another programmer, Mike Krieger; the pair used analytics to determine how, exactly, their customers were using Burbn. Their finding? People weren’t using Burbn’s check-in features at all. What they wereusing, though, were the app’s photo-sharing features. “They were posting and sharing photos like crazy,” Sawyer notes.

At that point, Systrom and Krieger decided to double down on their data: They focused on their photo-sharing infrastructure and scrapped almost everything else. Burbn would become a simple-photo-sharing app.

As you know, the rest is history.

In the startup world, this type of thinking is commonplace. You don’t put your head down and work on an idea for years without feedback.

You build an “MVP” (minimum viable product) as quickly as possible, test that offering with your “minimum viable audience” — and see how they react.

If they react well, double down.

If they don’t, pivot and try again.

Basically — startups are taught to spend as little time and money as possible until their product idea is validated by their market.

Your idea may sound great in your head — but that means nothing until it has entered the real world and people prove they like it.

(Not to mention — you can recruit users while you improve on the product, versus waiting until post-hibernation.)

In the publishing world, we’re taught to do the opposite.

Read 17,000 novels before writing a word. Spend $100,000 for journalism school. Work as a reporter for 13 years. Write 44 unpublished novels; leave them in your fancy wooden desk. Yell at your muse when she finds them and tells you they’re good. Send one out, get rejected 439 times.

Drink whiskey, die a failure — then six years later, become a posthumous success. Turn over in your grave and curse Lord Zuckerberg.

If 98% of self-published books suck, that means 2% are actually good!

Did you know The Martian started as a series of blog posts … and then a 99-cent self-published book?

And Fifty Shades of Grey began the same way? (Laugh all you want — EL James is one of the most successful authors ever.)

Shit, e e cummings self-published. Dickens self-published a Mothaflippin’ Christmas Carol, too.

In the online business world, self-publishing successes are even more common. Tons of books like David Goggins’ Can’t Hurt Me (~1 million copies sold) are “independently published” — which is the same thing as self-publishing, except that the author paid one company/person to organize all of the publishing, instead of gathering freelancers himself.

In the past, you needed a traditional publisher to test your idea in the market. There was no Amazon to distribute your books — and there was no print-on-demand to print so quickly and cheaply that now you don’t need to pay for a single copy until someone buys one.

Freelance cover/interior designers are often better than those on a publisher’s staff. There are solid options for every budget — if you have nobudget, you can still use templates or software, or bootstrap funds through crowdfunding.

It’s easy to emulate a publishing company on your own — like mine, Platypus. If done properly, your “indie” book will look just like a “regular” book.

Again, most books — whether self-published or traditionally published — suck.

For traditionally published books, a publisher guesses that people want to read your book — and is wrong 50% of the time.

For self-published books, you guess that people want to read your book — and you’re wrong 98% of the time.

There’s only one way to guarantee readers will want your book, before wasting months or years writing.

Get your readers’ permission beforehand.

In 1999, Seth Godin published a classic book that coined the phrase, Permission Marketing.

The concept is simple and genius: Most advertising is interruption. But the winners will start focusing on getting their audience’s permission. It’s more generous — not to mention more effective and sustainable.

Publishing is exactly the same. Most books (especially self-published ones) are interruption. Nobody asked for them.

So if you want to write a book: Where the hell do you start?

You could beg a publisher for permission — but remember, most traditionally published books suck, too.

Do you know who published Harry Potter? Moneyball? The Bible?

Seriously: Think of your favorite book. Do you have any idea who published it?

If publishers don’t determine the quality of a book, who does?

Your readers. Duh!

So why not ask them for permission before wasting months or years writing?

Storm past the gatekeepers and go straight to the judges.

Would you propose to someone you just met?

Maybe start with a date.

Would you sell a book to someone who’s never read your stuff?

Maybe start with a free chapter.

Earn trust. Get proof they care. Start by asking for a smidgen of attention before demanding hours and dollars.

Nobody minds a free sample. Everyone hates an unprompted sales pitch.

Get permission, one step at a time.

Obviously, this is easier said than done.

It’s hard to find your readers, especially if you have no platform.

It’s hard to find an idea that will light them up.

And once you have permission — it’s really hard to write a good book.

But it’s all doable. Let’s take it one step at a time.

Step 1: Audit Your Life for Ideas

“There is no smartest person in the room. Wisdom is the insight that each of us has something to learn from any of us. Great wisdom is the insight that each of us has infinite things to learn from all of us. Living wisdom is the experience that each of us is always learning something new, fresh, vital, life-changing from every single person they meet.” —@umair haque, Three People Not to Be

Whenever I tell someone my first self-published book was about sports betting, they go, “So you must be pretty good, eh?”

Not really.

Sports betting is just a hobby for me — I’ve just about broken even in my seven years of gambling.

But I’m proud of my book. It’s genuinely good, and it’s been a serious success (the one that made over $14k and got me a publishing offer from Simon & Schuster).

How the hell could I write a good book on sports betting if I’m a mediocre sports bettor?

I always say: Life is a neverending ladder (until we die).

Everyone has a next step they want to reach.

You want to write your first book. I want to write my fourth. My 62-year-old Dad wants to reach retirement. LeBron James wants championship number four. Bill Gates wants to eradicate Malaria. My five-year old cousin wants to pass Kindergarten and get to first grade.

I repeat: Everyone has a next step they want to reach.

Here’s how you write a nonfiction book idea that works:

  • Find people you relate to
  • Connect emotionally
  • Grab their hand
  • Guide them to the next level

The same goes for fiction and memoir:

  • Find people you relate to
  • Connect emotionally
  • Grab their hand
  • Take them on an emotional, entertaining, transformative journey

(I also recommend The Story Grid for more specific advice on fiction/memoir.)

So, to find your idea — find people you relate to, and identify their next step. Or go back in your past, and identify your previous steps.

My previous step was: Being godawful at sports betting (I lost $10,000 as a poor college kid) and becoming mediocre (I now basically break even).

So I promised the same to the other diehard sports fans out there.

I didn’t promise riches; I promised lack of catastrophe.

That’s relatable. That’s empathetic. That’s connection.

You don’t have to write everything about your topic. Don’t write a textbook — nobody likes textbooks.

Write a script.

Since most people write books to prove their intelligence, even the few true “experts” often write from a pedestal.

They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. LeBron James wouldn’t waste his time writing a book on how to get good at basketball, but if he did, you probably wouldn’t relate. Have good genetics, practice seven hours a day, do cryotherapy, have a personal chef, and get daily massages!

Uh, how do I make my middle school team?

Your inexperience is your gift.

If you still don’t think you’re expert enough, ask: What are you currently struggling with? By documenting your process and hopefully overcoming it yourself, you’ll relate to everyone in your shoes.

Like Jia Jang, who failed miserably in his dream of raising money for a startup — so he wrote a book on how to overcome rejection, by intentionally getting rejected every day for 100 days.

It’s valuable because it’s real.

People’s bullshit detectors are sharp — don’t test them.

Ask these questions to audit your life and find a book idea:

  • Who are the people I want to teach or entertain?
  • What community do I want to lead?
  • What are problems I’ve been through and solved?
  • What problems am I going through and want to solve?
  • What problems have I helped friends, family and coworkers with?
  • What types of things do I read?
  • Where do I spend a disproportionate amount of my income (literally comb through your credit card statement)?
  • What are my biggest accomplishments in life?
  • What are my strengths and skills … and how can they help people get what they want?
  • What comes easily to me, that my friends complain about?
  • What do people compliment me on?
  • What do I pay (time or money) to learn?

For fiction and memoir, of course — you’ll have to get more creative. But it may help to start with the above questions to find a theme — and then you can get creative in creating a premise that can embody the theme. (Or do it in reverse.)

Step 2: Find Your Minimum Viable Audience

Another golden Godin-ism: Don’t try to reach the maximum audience. Reach the smallest audience possible — in the deepest way. You’ll have much more success with 1,000 True Fans than 50,000 mildly interested spectators.

If you already have a platform, this is easy. Talk to them! Ask questions, test ideas, listen.

If you don’t have a platform, study the audience you eventually want to reach.

Ask these questions:

  • Where do these people hang out — in person and online?
  • What media do these people consume (forums, blogs, newspapers, podcasts, radio, etc.)?
  • Do I know any of these people in real life — or does someone in my netork know them? (If so, reach out and talk to them!)

Now, study your potential readers. The Internet is the World’s Largest Therapy Session.

People shout their souls into forums, subreddits, blog comments, Quora questions, FAQs and Amazon book reviews.

  • What problems do they seem to have?
  • What do they get emotional about? (positive or negative)
  • What hopes and dreams do they have?
  • What seems to be getting in their way?
  • What seems to be missing from the market?
  • What could you write that would delight them?

Take your ideas from Step 1 and iterate based on your research.

Step 3: Write Your Minimum Viable Book

You now have a vague idea and potential readers.

Pick one place to interact with them. It could be a website you can guest post on … a subreddit … Quora … a Facebook group … Twitter/Instagram community … it doesn’t matter.

Anywhere you’ll get eyeballs.

Now, distill your vague idea into something small and testable. A potential hook you can cast into the sea of potential readers — to see if they bite.

This can be:

  • A story (ideally something vulnerable, surprising, transformational and/or funny)
  • A prescription (a quick pill that will give your audience a tangible result)
  • A combination of both
  • Anything that might connect emotionally, then hook them

Don’t overthink this.

My first MVB was “The 10 Commandments of Sports Betting.” A hokey, quick article I wrote to my 46-person email list.

But people liked it. It was good enough. It added some value — and therefore was better than staying silent.

You don’t need permission to test something small (and free), but you sure as hell want permission before wasting months, years or dollars.

The point is just to see: Will they react emotionally to your premise? If, in the future — you say, “I have a book about X” … will they click, read and buy?

Or will they ignore you like 98% of crappy self-published books?

Step 4: Cast Your Bait and Ask for Permission

Likes, clicks and reads aren’t proof that people will read your book.

You want something better:

  • End with a cliffhanger, and ask people to email you or sign up to a newsletter (Mailchimp is the easiest way to start) for more.
  • End with a prompt, and see if people respond emotionally.
  • Explicitly ask something like: “Would you read a book that goes deeper into this?”

If people take time out of their busy lives, respond emotionally and actually take real action because of your MVB — you have permission to write a book.

Step 5: Try, Try Again

Your first attempt might not have worked.

Try a different hook.

Did you get an emotional response yet?

If not, try again.

If you try a few times and fail, your book idea probably isn’t great.

Go back to Step 1 and keep trying.

And be thankful you only wasted a few hours — instead of months or years.

Once you get permission, it’s time to write your damn book.

Once you have permission — your odds of success are much higher than 2%.

Step 6: Turn Your Hook Into a Book

“A lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.” — Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Everything I’ve said above is really just the recipe for a good blog post.

So how do you turn a hook into a book?

How do you turn clickbait into bookbait?

Something ephemeral into something Lindy?

That’s a topic for another article (which you’ll hear about on my free newsletter), but in short:

Your hook is what brings people in (like your physical attractiveness).

Your theme and effect is what gets them to stay (like your soul).

Step 7: Continue Getting Permission as You Write

Remember: Your first readers gave you permission to write a book.

That means they want what you’re writing.

Build an email list (again, Mailchimp is free and easiest to start — I personally use ConvertKit) — and keep your readers in the loop.

Share bits and pieces of your writing as you go.

Are they still responding positively?

If not, iterate.

Ask for feedback.

Are they asking or saying things that you haven’t considered including?

Give the people what they want.

Engage, listen — and integrate feedback.

You may find that your book idea wasn’t perfectly conjured beforehand — it emerged through interaction with your readers.

Write for your readers, with your readers.

Step 8: Publish The Right Way

There’s obviously a lot more to writing a good book, but the prerequisite is getting permission.

Have you gotten permission yet?

To help you implement everything above, I created a free, 5-day email course titled No Idea to Chapter One: The First Step to Self-Publishing a Classic.

You’ll complete the course having written the first chapter of your book— and once you’ve finished, I’ll guide you through the next steps of acutally writing and publishing your book, so that it truly is a classic.

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