In 2012, I wrote and published the book How to Get Started As A Technical Writer. I did it without any preparation, marketing plan, mailing list, or ‘book deal’–nothing but an idea and a self-imposed deadline. Now, I’d like to share my experience–one person’s journey from self-doubt to success.
Why did I write a book?
Like many people, I’d fantasized for years about writing a book but never took it seriously enough to sit down and write one. But in 2012, I found myself looking for a new job after a layoff and discouraged by job hunting. I also had a toddler in the house, and the fantasy of “taking some time off” collided with the reality of “I need another job”. Writing a book was the last thing I expected to do.
One day, as I sat in my basement home office taking stock of my job search efforts, I found myself making a list of “things I want to write”. The very last item on the list was ‘how to get a technical writing job’. I put that list aside, distracted by other things. But when I looked at the list again a few days later, that last item stood out in bold.
At first, I thought “this would make a great blog post”. I spent an hour or two making an outline, and by the end I realized: this could be a book. Then: I could write this. It was an exhilarating feeling, and I hadn’t even started yet.
Before writing the book, I had nearly 20 years’ experience as a technical writer in the software and hardware industry. In those 20 years I was asked dozens of times “how do I break into technical writing?” It was a perennial question often asked by people with liberal arts degrees, or career-changers who heard the word ‘writer’ and saw the booming tech industry as a place to be. And as a technical writer, explaining things to people was something I enjoyed doing.
So, I had what a publisher might call a sellable proposal: experience, an idea, and a possible audience.
But even then I had a lot of self-doubt; my wife, on hearing me explain it out loud, didn’t have those doubts. “Just write the damn book”, she said. And so I started.
How I wrote the book
I tracked my efforts: it took 54 days of daily effort to write the book, from start to finish.
To write it, I followed a simplified version of the general process I’d used to write software manuals:
- Identify and analyze the audience: what are their goals and problems? What do they want and need to know and do? How will they use the book? I already had a good idea of this.
- Outline: because I began with a clear idea of the contents, the basic outline wrote itself, and only changed slightly as I got closer to finishing the book.
- Write and edit
- Prepare for publication: Formatting and preparation for distribution as an ebook.
The first step was fairly easy for me; I’d been in the industry for a long time, had heard all the questions people asked, and had a good sense of the challenges involved. Plus, I’d interviewed a lot of technical writers over the years, and had my own sense of what it took.
I also knew my general strategy:
- Focus on getting the first job, not how to do the work: I wanted to write a book focused on how to get your first technical writing job, not how to do the work itself–there are already many books on the process and technique of technical writing (this turned out to be a key distinction that many readers didn’t get).
- Keep it short, sweet, and practical: The book needed to be concise, not too long, and have practical activities that readers could do to accumulate information they could use in their own job search.
- Ignore the rules and ‘best practices’: I’m happiest when writing in a direct, personal style, and that’s what I wanted to do with the book. Much of what the book ended up containing isn’t the typical ‘advice’ you’d get from technical writers. I view that as one of its strengths.
- Write until done: I knew from experience how easy it would be to get distracted or discouraged, and to put the book aside for ‘later’. So, I committed to writing daily until I finished.
How (and why) I self-published the book
At first, all I knew was that I wanted to see the book in print. I wasn’t sure how.
I knew several people who wrote technical books for publishers like O’Reilly, Wiley, and Microsoft Press, and I’d heard their experiences: months of rewrites and editorial passes, with varying degrees of control over the end product–and mediocre pay for a significant amount of work. The average ‘contract to publication’ pipeline seemed to run 12-18 months. As in fiction, the ‘prestige’ of a publisher putting out your nonfiction book means a lot to some; but I didn’t care about that. I wanted:
- Complete control over the book, including the pricing, format, and distribution
- To make the book available as soon as possible, to as many people as possible
- The option to publish updates when I wanted to
It was clear from the beginning that I always wanted to publish the book myself.
I’d bought books directly from authors (mostly technical ebooks) for several years. While writing my book, I also stumbled across a few blogs of self-published fiction writers, and looked at how they sold what they wrote.
I soon realized I wanted a kind of hybrid of those two: I didn’t have the time (or established audience) to sell the book myself off my own website, but I wanted an established way to distribute the book as widely as possible.
The ‘traditional’ advice for self-publishing a book is to first establish an audience, and promote your book to them even before you publish it, building a list of willing buyers who will make a successful launch. I didn’t follow that advice; not because it isn’t a good idea or doesn’t work, but because I wanted to move faster.
Amazon turned out to be the best answer–automated distribution, some algorithmic promotion on Amazon sites, and a fast, low-friction write-to-publish process. In other words, Amazon had the distribution and audience.
So, I chose Amazon. I heard self-published fiction writers rave about how easy it was to publish and distribute, and I could earn most of the cover price.
I won’t describe the entire process of publishing your own book on Amazon, but when I published my book, the basic process went something like this:
- Set up an Amazon account
- Format and convert your book into Amazon-mandated ebook format ( .mobi, used by Amazon’s Kindle).
- Design and include the cover (Amazon provides templates and guidelines)
- Upload the files for validation. Amazon checks the files, and when they’re approved, they’re ready for publication.
- Click to publish: When I did this, the book was available on Amazon in less than a day.
It’s really that simple. I also published a print-on-demand version, which involved a separate (but similar) set of steps through a partner service called CreateSpace (today, Amazon owns CreateSpace and it’s all one process).
The first year after publication
Amazon (and others, too) set an upper price limit (I think it was $9.99), but made the rest easy: if my book was $2.98 or less, I earned 30% of the cover price; if $2.99 or more, 70%. I introduced the book at $4.99, based on a quick look at related books and what I’d heard about how competitive book pricing was on Amazon and other sites.
The first sale
I sold my first copy of the book on Amazon within 48 hours, and 30 copies (both print and ebook) within the first month. By the third month, I’d sold a few hundred. Every copy sold was cause for celebration, as any author will tell you.
The first review
I got my first review (on Amazon) a week or two after publication. I’d mentioned the upcoming book on a blog, and the blog owner decided to buy and review the book. Four stars. It felt incredible.
Publishing a print (on demand) version
After publishing the book (ebook version) on Amazon, I set about formatting and preparing the book for print on demand. This was a bit trickier then, though I’m not sure why; CreateSpace rejected my book file a few times before it was successful. After approval, it took about three days for it to appear on Amazon. Though it’s simple today, in 2012/2013 you had to do a fair bit of wrangling to get your print and ‘Kindle’ version to appear on the same page.
A crash course in the self-publishing world
While the books were selling on Amazon, I read obsessively about self-publishing and what other options I had. This led me to put the book on Barnes & Noble and a few other services, all as ebooks. I continued to learn about self publishing, and even bought a few books about self-publishing. Most were overwhelmingly focused on publishing fiction. The rest were too generic or self-promotional to be of much use to me.
Sales and (a lack of) promotion
By the end of the first year, I’d sold about 2,000 copies across several services (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo), and with a few clicks the book was available worldwide. I sold many copies outside the US.
All without following any advice about marketing and promotion. I was stunned.
Year two and beyond
The weird and wonderful world of online reviews
As reviews started coming in, first on Amazon but later on sites like Goodreads, I began to see patterns. One and two-star reviews were usually either blunt, terse ‘this sucks’ messages, or a complaint about Amazon itself. On Amazon, the ones I found most useful were three and four-star reviews; these called out potential flaws and reader desires that helped me think about improvements. Five-star reviews are great for the ego, but don’t usually offer much useful feedback.
Eventually, I realized I could safely ignore review comments, or at least take them with a grain of salt. And as far as I could tell, they didn’t seem to affect sales.
Making a website–then abandoning it
Eventually I set up a website, but it contained only two things: links to buy the book from various outlets, and a selection of quotes from the positive reviews the book received on Amazon. I linked this website to the book’s Amazon page and my Amazon author page, and tracked the website traffic for over a year. It received almost no traffic, and not a single visitor clicked one of the purchase links. So I took it down after a few years and let the domain lapse.
Experimenting with an Amazon 24-hour ‘free giveaway’
At the beginning of the second year, I tried one of those ‘free giveaways’ on Amazon. For 24 hours, I made the book free to download and read. There were hundreds of downloads. Afterward, I saw a very slight uptick in sales for a few days, but I attribute those to the slight increase in visibility on Amazon’s site. Then–it went back to normal.
Sneaking my book into the library
After about a year, I wondered how books made it into public libraries, especially self-published ones. After encountering several dead ends, I wondered–couldn’t I just donate my book to the library? Sure enough, my local library system took donations. I called them up, explained that I wanted to donate copies of my book to the library, and they were happy to get them. I dropped them off at the nearest branch, and a few weeks later, they were in circulation.
Eventually, I discovered that my book had made it into eight library systems, scattered around the world from the United States to far-flung locales like New Zealand and Botswana. I can only claim credit for one of them.
Who’s making these large purchases?
After a year or so, as I tracked sales, I noticed periodic purchase of several copies of the book at once–always the print version, and typically in quantities of five or more. One order was for 17. I couldn’t imagine what was happening; was it bookstores? A library? After a bit of Internet sleuthing, I finally stumbled on a clue: a college instructor in Texas had put my book on the required reading list for their class, and it coincided with a large purchase I saw. Bingo. As time passed, I found other mentions of the book in college courses and undergrad papers. This little 85-page book had really gotten around.
Around 2017–about five years or so after I published the book–I noticed a steady decline in sales. It wasn’t sudden or precipitous, but it was steady. Reading around, I found out that this was not only common, but that it usually happened much sooner than five years. And, given the complete absence of effort to promote the book, it’s not surprising. More practically, declining sales on Amazon become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the less a book sells, the less likely it is to appear in front of customers viewing the website.
The book is still out there, selling regularly. I still don’t market it. At last count, I’ve sold several thousand copies and earned far more than I expected.
- Books sold: approximately 13,500 (roughly 60% ebooks, 40% print).
- Total royalties: I don’t want to quote an exact number, but it’s north of $12k. About a third of that total was in the first year or so.
- Distribution: Most copies sold in the US, but I’ve sold copies in 14 other countries
- Libraries and colleges: I’ll never know who’s using the book, but I’ve counted at least four or five colleges, three college papers, and eight libraries who have bought (or wrote about) the book.
The two most common criticisms I’ve heard about the book?
- It’s too short
- It doesn’t say much about how to do technical writing
I agree with number 1, though the book’s length was intentional. I wanted to focus only on the essentials of getting a job, and to publish that within a few months. I met those goals, but it’s clear that there’s a demand for more information.
Number 2 is more complicated. Despite the book’s explicit title, and explaining its focus in the introduction of the book, a lot of readers also expected to learn how to do technical writing, not just get a first job.
I know that I made many mistakes and missed out on opportunities to sell my book and better establish my ‘author credentials’. I suspect any established writer who’s self-published will see a lot of mistakes and missteps in what I’ve described here.
1: It’s critical to have something to say, and a potential audience who might want to hear it
I’m the first to admit: I got lucky. I had a lot of professional experience in a subject, and a history of a potential audience asking me about it. Those two helped me know from the start what I wanted to say and who to say it to. But I had no clue if anybody would buy the book or find it useful. So often, I see books in search of readers, rather than the other way around. The most interesting book is a paperweight if nobody reads it.
2: I got what I wanted from self-publishing–mostly
Book publishing (in any genre) is brutal and strange. In ‘traditional’ publishing there are a lot of gatekeepers between you and readers, and those gatekeepers can offer a lot of benefits, typically in marketing and distribution services. But today that’s far less common in any genre, nonfiction or otherwise–publishers expect newer authors to come with an established platform or following, and to participate heavily in their own marketing. Only well-established, successful authors tend to get the concierge treatment from the publishing industry. Book publishing is risky, and publishers are looking to (surprise!) minimize risk and maximize income.
In the end, self-publishing meant I didn’t need to get permission from the publishing industry, an agent, or anybody else. There was a simpler path to readers, and I took it. Self-publishing was viable and easy, and I wouldn’t have gained anything from going the ‘traditional’ publishing route.
But to be clear: Amazon is a gatekeeper too, and I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that. They dictate book format, payouts, and pricing limits, apply DRM (to ebooks), and limit how you can use their services when using competitors. And the Amazon ‘algorithm’–how they determine where and when to promote your book to website visitors–is opaque. You have no access to it. Amazon has a lot of advantages, but they come at a price.
3: Online reviews are an unreliable metric
Like I said before–reviews tend to be either effusive praise, random complaints, or (occasionally) useful feedback. Only one of those categories was useful to me, though I admit to taking the first few 4 and 5-star reviews as proof I had done something right. But after a few years of watching them accumulate, I realized they weren’t a useful measure of how ‘good’ my book was.
4: I shouldn’t have waited to publish an updated edition
After the book was published I procrastinated, wasting a genuine opportunity to build on something that people clearly found useful and help more people. But I had no plan or Big Goal other than to publish one book and to try and help a few people with it. After the first year or two, however, it was clear that demand was there, and I had useful feedback and ideas ready to go.
5: I love teaching and explaining and can help people with it
I knew this about myself long before I wrote the little book, but publishing it gave me some powerful feedback. It’s been beyond gratifying to hear from so many people about how the book helped them, and how they wanted more. I never expected it.
What happens next?
To date, I’ve received 86 emails (and numerous other informal contacts) asking about a new, expanded edition of the book. Will there be one? What’s in it? When will you publish it? I realize that most writers would kill for this kind of interest and attention.
A few years ago, I ramped up efforts to write and publish a second edition. I had an outline, and armed with several good ideas for additions and revisions I started. One of those was to include a ‘real world’ chapter that included Q&A with several working technical writers. But–career shifts, changing house, growing children…life had other ideas, and I put the book aside. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, could’ve done better but I don’t mind.
Today, I’ve pulled out the outline for the second edition. I’m looking at it now, and thinking about how I could make a better, more useful book. How I could reach people, create other materials, and do more. I’d better make up my mind.