One of the first big challenges of marketing a book is getting endorsements or “blurbs” from influential people. It’s stressful because you are not only asking favors of people you admire, but you’re sharing the book for the first time. It’s easy to feel nervous about their perceptions.
I made a list of about 15 people and contacted them via email. To my surprise, nearly everyone responded. Some didn’t have time, but the majority agreed to read an early version of the book and provide an endorsement that’s used in at the beginning of the book and in marketing on bookseller websites, my website, and more.
I took on this project in February of 2020, expecting the book to come out in May. With the blurbs approved, I asked for each endorser’s mailing address and planned to send them a thank you card. Then, the pandemic hit, and the book’s release got pushed to September. I wanted to send them something as a thank you, but a card didn’t seem as safe as it once was.
So I made an animated gif for each person, using Common Craft artwork, and included it an email. Along with the gif, I included a photo of their blurb in the book. Here’s how it went:
I hope you are well. Normally, I’d send a card to say thanks for endorsing Big Enough, but I think we’re all better off using bits instead of atoms these days. So, I made this as a thank you:
Closing the loop on the endorsements is one more thing off a very long list. So, hooray for that and the people who took time to work with me on the blurbs.
While it’s probably true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, most people do. Covers can have a big impact on sales and getting the cover right is a big priority. Here’s the final front cover for my book Big Enough:
I had the help of Page Two Books and designer Peter Cocking. We worked together over a few weeks to give it the feel we thought was appropriate. While it’s a business book, I really see Big Enough as a book about a business. It reads more like a memoir or autobiography and we wanted the cover to feel personal and engaging. I wanted it to send the message “this is a business book that doesn’t seem like homework”.
The dog helps. It’s hard to look too serious with a cute dog on the cover. I thought the French bulldog was an iconic symbol for Big Enough: small in size, big in attitude. We call the dog “Big-E” and he has become part of the book’s marketing. Here’s a sticker I had designed for pre-orders that uses Big-E as inspiration:
I’m so thankful to those who provided endorsements, which are quotes about the book by influential people. There is one on the front from Auston Kleon, three on the back cover, and eleven endorsements in the first few pages of the book. It meant so much to me that they would take the time to read an early version of the book and provide a quote.
The Back Cover
The back cover is meant to help people get a quick feel for the content of the book. Along with endorsements from Seth Godin, Tara Hunt, and Jason Kottke, the back has a finely-crafted description of the book. Jessica Werb was a big help in getting it right.
Just before Big Enough went to the printer, I learned there were a handful of blank pages at the end of the book. The book designer asked if I’d like to use them for promotion or a section for “notes”, etc. It seemed strange. Couldn’t we just remove the extra pages? I asked my editor and she followed up with this article about printing books.
From the article:
“Page count is typically a multiple of 16, because the printer prints sheets of 16 pages (called signatures) and folds them up to create book pages. If your page count is just one page over a multiple of 16, you’ll have 15 blank pages at the end of the book.”
So, I started wondering what I could add to the end of the book. I asked about a photo and the designer said there was a good place for a photo on the opposing page from my bio, but it wouldn’t use up any extra pages.
In The Art of Explanation, I added a promotion for Common Craft at the end and I think it worked well. But Big Enough is a different kind of book and I want it to be less promotional. Instead, I decided to add an author’s note that is meant to offer readers the next step and an invitation to connect.
The problem with printing these sorts of invitations in the book is the timelessness factor. What you print must stand the test of time. For example, I chose not to mention a specific social media platform. Further, I was advised not to mention specific platforms, like Amazon, as it’s friendlier to booksellers to remain neutral.
Here’s the note:
I hope you enjoyed Big Enough. Like so much of what we do, this book was an experiment and an expression of the independence we’ve sought for so long. It was self-published, which means we’re personally invested in its success.
I hope you’ll consider reviewing it online or simply telling a friend. By sharing a few words on book review websites or where you purchased it, you can help more people discover the book and feel the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped an independent publisher.
The home of my writing is leelefever.com and I’m @leelefever on social media. I’d love to hear from you! Of course, our videos and ongoing business experiments can be found at commoncraft.com.
Again, thanks so much for reading Big Enough!
The thought of doing something like this crossed my mind early on, but I didn’t push it. Now that the note will appear in the book, it feels good. I like having a quick sign-off that thanks the reader and points them to a next step.
Big Enough, my forthcoming book, is arriving in May. It’s being published via a partnership between me and publishing industry pros.Below, I’ll explain why I made this choice, how it differs from traditional publishing and why this option might become more popular in the future.
In 2012, I worked with Wiley, a major book publisher, to publish The Art of Explanation. I enjoyed working with Wiley and I’m proud of what we produced. Our relationship represented how publishers have worked with authors for generations.
My goal with Big Enough, though, is to self-publish a book that’s indistinguishable from one produced by a major publisher. It will appear on the same bookshelves and be of similar quality. Before getting into that, I think it’s important to understand the variety of expertise that goes into publishing nearly any book destined for bookstores.
Books, of course, must be written. Authors are responsible for putting ideas on a page, which takes time and produces no direct income. Writing a book comes with opportunity costs and possibly debt.
Authors need editors. Books meant for the mass market must be edited. Working with a professional editor can transform a book and increase its potential to be successful. In addition to content editing, copy editors and proofreaders ensure the book’s grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct. This work ensures quality, takes time and talented editors don’t work for free.
Books need design. Professional book designers create cover art and select layouts, fonts, headings, and more. A nicely designed book relates to the content and stands out on the shelf. Designers also deserve to be paid for their work.
A physical book must be printed and distributed. Like any other product, books travel through a supply chain. Getting a book into this supply chain requires business relationships with both printers and distributors. Project managers are essential in this process.
Purchases require awareness. Marketing, advertising and sometimes, public relations campaigns can help a book be discovered. These activities require time, expertise, and can come with significant advertising costs.
The bottom line is this: high-quality books require significant investment and acceptance of risk. I think about it in terms of a break-even point. Will the book sell enough to pay for the cost of publishing it?
Now, let’s talk traditional publishing. In working with Wiley, I wrote the book and they handled most of the work I described above. I was not required to invest in editing, design, printing, distribution, etc. In fact, they gave me an advance payment while writing the book, which I paid back through book sales. This relationship insulated me, the author, from financial risk.
In this scenario, the publisher is betting that they can produce a book that, at least, breaks even. Because of their size and volume, they dominate the supply chains and can negotiate the best deals. They have in-house talent and decades of experience that reduce the risk. This is why “getting a book deal” is sometimes a struggle. Publishers must bet on the future work of authors.
Being an author in a traditional publishing relationship can be stressful because there is a sense of obligation. Because the publisher’s money is on the line, they call the shots. Many have a structured process designed for maximum output. Because the publisher’s money goes into production, they also keep much of the income from book sales. In this scenario, authors sometimes feel a loss of control.
Now, let’s switch to Big Enough.
I love the idea of self-publishing and have spent over a decade self-publishing Common Craft videos. One of the messages of Big Enough is that technology has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher and earn a living from their intellectual property. My approach to book publishing is an expression of this focus on independence.
Self-publishing, though, has some baggage. Once it became technologically possible, authors could publish e-books with a minimum investment and without the help of experts who ensure quality, like editors and designers. Without these gatekeepers, quality sometimes suffered and self-publishing became known as inferior.
This is where things have changed. Self-publishing isn’t defined by technology, gatekeepers, or quality. There is no reason a self-published book can’t compete with a major publisher’s book. The key difference can be boiled down to a simple question: who is taking the risk?
In the case of Big Enough, it’s me. I am investing in the expertise and relationship that I believe will make the book a success. I am putting my money on the line and betting that I can make Big Enough successful enough to break even. As such, I remain in control and earn a greater percentage of the income.
My partner in this adventure is a company called Page Two, which is owned and operated by industry veterans Trena White and Jesse Finkelstein. Page Two specializes in working with non-fiction authors to self-publish high-quality books. Their team of professionals does the work of a major publisher but on a mostly fee-for-service basis. Further, they have key relationships with printers and distributors that would be difficult for me to form. Page Two is my secret weapon in making Big Enough a major publisher-style book.
One of the things I love about this relationship is that Page Two, in publishing industry terms, is a start-up. It’s refreshing to work on a book with a young company successfully being disruptive. They encourage ideas, like direct sales from my website, that major publishers might not condone. Importantly, they reflect the values I believe are important, like independence and a sense of creative control.
I consider this model of self-publishing the best option for me and the message of Big Enough. It represents a personal risk, but it’s one I’m willing to take.
Over the last six months, I’ve been mentally preparing to publish my second book. During that time, most of the writing was completed and the process was on track. It felt good to see it take shape. But lingering in the back of my mind was always a voice reminding me that publishing a book means more than just writing it. One of the real challenges, especially for a less established author like myself, is introducing the book to the world. For Big Enough, my next book, marketing the book is the hill I must soon climb.
For longtime authors like Stephen King or Seth Godin, book marketing is less of a challenge because they’ve spent many years establishing their brand of writing and honing their marketing. Their names are attached to a genre, style, and perspective. Their fans will reliably buy any book they publish because they know what to expect.
I don’t have that luxury. Big Enough is a book about our business and fans aren’t currently beating down my door to hear what I have to say about the subject. In that context, I’m relatively unknown. This means I have to give them a reason to be interested and that’s more difficult than it sounds.
I’ve been through this once before. When I published The Art of Explanation in 2012, it needed to be introduced to the world, too. It was my first book, so no one had any expectations regarding my writing. But I had a secret weapon. Starting in 2007, the “explainer” style videos Sachi and I produced at Common Craft became very well-known, with tens of millions of views. We were, to a small degree, internet famous. A book about explanation skills was very much on-brand and expected. It was obvious why I was the person to write it.
Given this history of video production, my name is most often connected to creativity, communication, and education. And that’s the challenge. In publishing Big Enough, I am re-introducing myself as not only a video producer but an entrepreneur who has a business-focused story to tell.
The question becomes: how? How, over the next four months, will I change that perception and position myself as the right person for writing this book?
This is, at heart, a marketing challenge and one that’s not absolutely required. I could write and publish the book without marketing it at all. In this case, the book would suddenly appear on Amazon and bookshelves without anyone expecting it. And it could work. Sometimes a book can do well by simply existing, but I am not willing to take that risk.
For Big Enough, I plan to throw myself at the marketing beast. My challenge is to learn how to market a book successfully. If I can develop a marketing strategy that fits with my style, I will have a head start for future books.
Here’s the ideal scenario… Over the next few months, I publish multiple articles, blog posts and videos that focus on the ideas in the book and point people to the book web page. I appear on podcasts and do interviews that promote it. I share links on social media that are retweeted and shared on Facebook. Popular blogs and newsletters write about the book and point people to the book’s web page and sign up to receive a free chapter and be notified when it drops. Slowly but surely, demand builds and people become interested. They tell friends. Readers have been primed for action and on the day it’s released, it makes a splash that puts it in front of even more people and momentum builds from there. That’s the ideal scenario.
For me, that day is May 5th, 2020. My focus between now and then will be on that splash, how high it can go, and how far the ripples will travel.
Making this happen, even to a small degree, is a challenge that I’m not taking lightly. I’m cautious about turning people away or making a bad impression by selling too hard. To get through it, I am summoning my gumption. It’s up to me, the author, to put myself out there and say, “Order my book. Read my articles. Post a review. Sign up for my emails. Share my posts, please?”
I don’t take naturally to self-promotion or promotion at all, really. But I also feel that my book is something people in my market will enjoy and want to know exists. It would be a mistake to put so much effort into it and just hope for the best. Instead, my plan is to promote it in a style that fits with me and I’m ready for the challenge. I’m ready to experiment and push myself. Most of all, I’m ready to learn.
As a kid, I spent time reading skateboarding magazines. At the time, ads often included a line at the bottom that said, essentially, “Send us a dollar and we’ll send you stickers.” I can clearly remember how much I anticipated those stickers in the mail. Stickers have an appeal that goes beyond graphics, paper, and glue.
Today, I’m planning to send people my own sticker and this is the story of how that sticker was designed and how I’m planning to use it.
Why a Create Sticker?
Before my book, Big Enough, hits the shelves, I will encourage people to pre-order it, which means purchasing it before it is officially released. This way, when the book finally arrives, all those sales transactions happen in the same week and the book will hopefully make a bigger splash than it would otherwise. In this scenario, it helps to offer people an incentive for pre-ordering the book. If they (you?) preorder the book and send me the purchase receipt, I will send them stickers, and maybe more, in the mail.
Designing the Sticker
I am not a graphic designer, but I love working with designers and thinking through design projects. Once the idea of designing a sticker arose, I was pumped to work on it. The French bulldog on the cover of the book was my starting point. He’s symbolic of the Big Enough attitude: small and tough. I’ve come to call him “Big-E” and loved the idea of people having a fun, illustrated version of Big-E on their laptop or water bottle.
Instead of using the live-action image, I imagined a stylized cartoon version of Big-E and asked my publisher for the photo from the cover to use as a starting point. Then, I searched for dog illustrations in a style I liked. I found one that was close to what I wanted. It used flat colors and bold shapes that felt cool and modern.
Then I went to Upwork, which is a service I’ve used for years to find freelancers for small projects. I created a new job called “Digital Illustration of a Dog Based on Photo”. I included a description of what I wanted, attached the photo of Big-E and the example photo. I also said the illustration had to include the book website: bigenough.life
Next, I reviewed 15-20 profiles and invited a handful of people from around the world to apply. I’ve had good experiences working with international talent at affordable rates. I connected with a guy named Vadym from Ukraine and hired him. He got started quickly and provided a promising start.
But then, out of nowhere, he said something had come up and that he couldn’t complete the project. Such is life in the freelance market. Disappointed, I went back to finding designers and stumbled upon a profile of a woman named Brooke Braddy who had an affordable hourly rate and illustrations that looked promising. This image from her portfolio gave me confidence that she had worked in the style I wanted:
Brooke agreed to start the next day and estimated it would cost under $100 to complete the project. I was hopeful.
The project turned out to be incredibly satisfying. Over two weeks and about 40 messages back and forth, we tweaked the colors, fonts, padding, size, and more. Brooke was a good listener and had great skills. I enjoy working with people like Brooke who are independent and putting their skills to work from home.
Here are examples of how the sticker evolved over two weeks:
What I appreciated most was the iterative process of making the sticker exactly what I wanted. Every time Brooke sent a comp, another part of the design would grab my attention and kick off more changes. She took my feedback and made it work. For me, that’s how design happens. It’s a process of always asking “what sucks the most now?”
A couple of days ago, I deemed the sticker design complete. Brooke’s initial estimate didn’t anticipate the scale of my feedback, so I gave her a bonus for the extra hours. We were both happy.
A couple of days later, I thought back to those days of getting stickers in the mail and how I loved getting multiple stickers. Sure, I could send pre-order customers three of the same sticker, or I could create a set with different colors. Collect all three!
I went back to Brooke and she quickly whipped up a couple of color options. With just a bit of design time, I now have a set of three stickers for the kind souls who pre-order a copy of Big Enough. Here’s the set:
Last night I published my newsletter, Ready for Rain, and it kicked off a new direction for readers. Over the past year, I wrote every week about big events in my life and the projects that made them happen. This included leaving Seattle after 20 years, moving to Orcas Island and starting a home construction project. Each week, I focused on some facets of that experience.
In 2020, I am adding a new project to the mix in the form of publishing my book, Big Enough. I plan to share the phases of the process, what I’m learning, and how it feels. You can subscribe here.
Here’s an excerpt from the most recent post:
For Big Enough, I plan to throw myself at the marketing beast. My challenge is to learn how to market a book successfully. If I can develop a marketing strategy that fits with my style, I will have a head start for future books.
If you pick up just about any modern book, you’ll find short quotes from influential people saying nice things about the book and/or author. These are called endorsements or blurbs and they provide a bit of social proof.
On the front cover of Jason Fried and DHH’s book, Rework, words from Seth Godin appear above the title:
On the back cover of Paul Jarvis’ book Company of One, there are multiple quotes under the title “Praise for Company of One.”
In publishing a book, these endorsements can be a way to differentiate and give potential readers a way to evaluate what the book is about and for whom it is intended. This is also the case with my book, Big Enough. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to contact influential people and ask them, in the parlance of authors, to “blurb my book.”
To be honest, I dreaded this part of the process, in part, because it’s such a big ask. I am requesting that they spend hours reading a draft of my book and then come up with a pithy remark that serves to market my book, all within a deadline of a few weeks. Of course, their name on the cover or on the book website is marketing for them, too, so it’s not as one-sided as it seems. But still, I recognize the size of the request.
Today, I sent an early version of Big Enough as a PDF to twelve kind people who had agreed to read it and potentially provide a blurb. With that complete, I’m reflecting on the experience and most of what I feel is gratitude. Anytime you ask someone for a favor, there is always a chance of rejection. Going into the process, I figured that I simply wouldn’t hear back from most. That wasn’t the case at all. Of the 20 people I contacted via email, only two didn’t respond and there is some chance that email algorithms played some role in that process.
The endorsement worked like this for me…
My publishing partner, Page Two, provided a spreadsheet with labeled columns for helping me manage the blurbs. Using that sheet, I started brainstorming influential people I know whose work or reputation fit the context of Big Enough. I looked through my email contacts, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections and browsed the blurbs on related books. I listed a mix of people I knew directly and those who I planned to contact. With the names in place, I started reaching out one by one.
It starts with an email that explains the basics. For most connections, I would mention how we know each other, an event we attended or a personal connection we have in common. I remind them about Common Craft and explain that I have a book coming out. On a few occasions, I asked people in my network for an introduction to someone I didn’t know personally and that was productive, too.
Here’s a version of the message I sent to people aware of Common Craft:
I’m writing to ask for a favor. As you know, my wife Sachi and I have run Common Craft since the early 2000s. Our early videos helped established the explainer video genre, etc. Behind the scenes, we were always focused on entrepreneurship, technology, and business models. Over the last decade, we transformed Common Craft into a company that’s intentionally small, product-focused and designed to promote a healthy quality of life. The favor is this: I have a book coming out in May of this year. It’s called Big Enough and it tells our story. Today the book is being designed now and I’m reaching out to a handful of influential people to ask about reading the book and potentially providing a testimonial. I think you’d find it entertaining and relevant, especially in the context of technology’s impact on small businesses like ours. It’s relatively short (big enough?) and can be read in an afternoon. If you’re interested, I’d like to send you an uncorrected proof as a PDF. If the book connects with you, it would be awesome if you could share a few words I can use on the book and/or website. I would need the blurb by XXXXX.
To my surprise, it worked. The majority of people I asked responded and said they were happy to take a look. This doesn’t mean the blurb will happen, but it’s a step in the right direction. I am also grateful to those who responded with a simple “no”.
The next challenge is working with the blurbers to get their quotes in-hand and ready for production. I’ll probably have to send reminder emails and warnings about deadlines, but that goes with the territory.
Over the last couple of weeks, my dread regarding this process turned to excitement. I realized I was learning a new skill and developing a strategy I could use in the future. More than that, I was excited by reconnecting with old friends and potentially making new connections. In a few cases, my emails led to phone calls and online meetings. It felt like my network was getting stronger.
In much of our daily work, things happen on an ad hoc basis and that’s how we like it. An example is the release of a new Common Craft video. Since 2007, we’ve published a new video every month or two. Once a video is published, the clock starts ticking and over the following weeks, the pressure builds to publish the next one. Over twelve years, I’ve grown used to the constant production.
It works, in part, because we are in complete control. If we see an opportunity to improve a video, we can just delay the publishing date, or publish something else instead. No one is the wiser. Our goal isn’t sticking to a strict calendar, it’s building a quality video library over time. The same is true with blog posts and anything else I share. Our editorial independence and control of our calendar are big reasons the process has been sustainable.
Now that I have a book called Big Enougharriving in May, this free-wheeling approach to publishing must become more rigorous. Between now and the publish date, I am making it a priority to publish book-related articles every week, with occasional posts in between. For this, I am using an editorial calendar to keep myself on track.
The words “create editorial calendar” have appeared on my to-do lists many times before and have disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. This time, however, it’s different. The next few months are a time for me to write regularly and do everything I can to build awareness for the book. Because this is so important, I’m not willing to let it happen ad hoc. I need rigor.
For now, I’m promising myself to publish a book-related article once a week, on Thursdays. I hope to write more regularly and share more on this blog, but these book posts will be different. They will be more composed. They will be shared on platforms like LinkedIn and Medium.
Today, it feels like I’m standing at the bottom of a big hill. At the top is the release date of my book, Big Enough, on May 5th, 2020. Between now and then, I will climb that hill. Rather than just showing up and climbing, I’m planning and preparing so that it’s a smooth and manageable ascent.
While it feels a little daunting, I’m now looking forward to it and watching where it may lead. It is an experiment, after all.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.