Peter Nguyen is an artist, writer, designer, career coach, and champion for artists in the digital age. He has also been a constant in my own digital life. We met way back when on LiveJournal and since then, I've sought him out for advice on everything from fashion to relationships, moving cross-country (and back again), podcasts to coffee, career, business, and everything in between. Peter is the master of many domains: from his successful lifestyle blog/newsletter The Essential Man, his menswear label LÉON, and now his first book The Money of Art.
I've always been struck by Peter's transparency about his art, work, and process. Since reading The Money of Art, I've been suggesting and passing it along to pretty much every creative I know (it's currently on-loan to an indie musician friend, who's already applying Peter's tips to his work). This post started out as a book review, but with so many creative entrepreneurs in the Create + Cultivate community, I thought Peter had a very unique perspective and advice on expanding your brand and successfully self-publishing a book. You don't have to wait for a book deal to come knocking. There are plenty of ways to get a beautiful book out there yourself (and maybe even capture the attention of a publisher or book agent for your text title). Read on to see how Peter made it happen for himself. —JM
The Money of Art and How I Self-Published My First Book
I have been selling online for literally half my life. I started my first eBay business at 16 years old, buying and selling arcade games. Early in college, when I took an interest in fashion (which later led to a career as a menswear designer), I started buying and selling designer clothes. More recently, I launched my own menswear label and started a writing about my experiences on a blog called The Essential Man. In 2012, when I decided to revamp The Essential Man, I decided to give my readers something they had been asking for. I announced that I was writing a book.
As it so happens, that book never happened.
It's a joke among writers—if you search "working on my novel" on Twitter, you’ll get millions of results. There's even a blog dedicated to people announcing their books. Most of which never make it onto (or off the) page.
It wasn't until I picked up a book called Just F*cking Ship by Amy Hoy did I realize I was going about it all wrong.
Amy's book not only changed how I work forever, it has changed how I approach my goals. Two months after I finished Just F*cking Ship I had written my first book: The Money of Art: Make Money And Escape The Corporate Grind, While Staying True To Your Art.
So what was different this time? Below are 10 things that helped me write and finally self-publish my 1st book.
1. RE-DEFINE THE "REAL AUTHOR".
When other writers ask how I published and sold my book, and I say that I self-published, they always seem turned off. They tell me they want to do it the “old-fashioned” way. As a writer, of course I understand there is a certain romance with being “chosen” by a publisher and possibly, just maybe, hitting the New York Times best-seller list. But you have to decide what’s more important to you: holding onto an outdated, romanticized image of what it means to be a writer or embracing new opportunities to actually get your work out there for people to discover, love, and share.
"What’s more important: holding onto a romanticized idea of a writer or actually getting your work out?"
The best thing? You can still have your book printed in physical form. In fact, The Money of Art was published in paperback, hardcover, and digital. The difference was that I no longer needed someone else's permission to publish my book.
What makes you a real author? Writing a book and making it available for people to read. It’s as simple as that.
2. CHOOSE ONE PROBLEM AND SOLVE IT.
It’s tempting—especially with your first book—to cram your entire life philosophy within its pages, but it’s not going to do you or the reader any favors.
A lot of people I advise tell me that they want to write a “lifestyle” book or build a lifestyle business. The truth is, no one goes in a bookstore thinking “I need a book on lifestyle!” Instead they'll look for a book on vegan baking, turning a blog into a business, or DIY projects, specifically. Niche into a problem—specific problems that are part of a lifestyle. Find your trojan horse. In the case of my book: how to make money as an artist. And inside my trojan horse I hid the other things I wanted to teach, such as the psychology of money, redefining happiness, and doing work you’re passionate about. I believe my first ill-fated book for The Essential Man never worked out in part because I never defined a true problem.
3. DEADLINES WILL KEEP YOU ALIVE.
Flash back to high school. Remember how you seemed to do your best work when the assignment was due the next day? Was it because you’re just really amazing at working until the sun comes up, or was it the pressure of that deadline? I’d put money on the latter. When I announced my first book attempt, I chose the worst kind of deadline: coming soon. In my experience, “coming soon” is code for “never really going to happen.”
Here’s something I’ve never shared publicly: When I announced The Money of Art release date (in March 2015) and started taking pre-orders, I only had the outline finished. The timespan from the day I announced the book to the on-sale date was just 30 days.
I took to my Google calendar and broke up the work accordingly. I scheduled what writing, editing, sharing, and cover designing needed to be done on what days. And this time, I stuck to it.
Now, I don’t recommend you (nor anyone) try to write a book in 30 days, but my point still remains: deadlines help you get work done. Your self-imposed deadline should be close enough to scare you into doing the work, but not so far away that you'll put it off.
"Self-impose deadlines close enough to scare you into doing the work, not so far away you'll put it off"
4. THE OUTLINE IS HALF THE BATTLE.
In The Money of Art, I emphasize the importance of what I call "front-loading the work." It's something I learned from entrepreneur Ramit Sethi. Front-loading the work means putting in extra time and effort upfront to make the work later on much easier.
To that effect, I spent a good month outlining my book before I actually sat down and wrote a single chapter. I didn’t use anything fancy, just a Google Doc. The first thing I wrote was actually the last chapter—what I wanted the reader to get out of the book. In The Money of Art, my goal was to teach artists how to market themselves and sell their work online.
Then I worked my way backwards, writing the chapter titles as I went, and starting to write and edit the book in my head. After that, I got someone to skim it over. Did it flow like a real book? Was there something to expand on? Anything unclear? Just make sure the person you hand it to will give you honest, real—and sometimes blunt—feedback.
5. SET UP A MAILING LIST RIGHT NOW.
Setting up an e-mail list is basically a way for you to separate people that don’t really care about your work from the people who can’t wait to throw money at you.
Your mailing list also helps when you have future products you want to sell. The old business adage that it's harder to sell to a new customer than an old one is true. Customers who have purchased from you before are 4x more likely to buy from you than someone who hasn’t.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. I purchased my book's URL on Hover.com ($10), set-up a website through Squarespace ($8), and created a landing page that linked to my Mailchimp account (free). All the page said was: "To get news of the release of The Money of Art sign up here."
6. BEFORE (& AFTER) YOUR BOOK RELEASE, SEND AMAZING CONTENT.
Building a list and only e-mailing them when you're selling something is a guarantee that you will get no sales. You know that one friend or family member who only calls when they need something? Don’t be that person. People will stop looking forward to your call.
Long-term, the relationship is more valuable than the sale.
For example, before its release, I held a book cover design contest. The prize: A full “Pro-Package” of The Money of Art. It contained a signed hardcover edition of the book, instant digital download, a goodie bag, and a design credit in the book. Mailing list subscribers were shown three rough cover mockups, chose their favorite, and answered a simple survey via Squarespace. It was one-part crowdsourcing the most-liked cover design, one-part content to keep people excited while I wrote the book. It was a huge success. Not only did I get hundreds of responses, I got to interact with my mailing list to show them there was an actual human being on the other end of that sign-up form, and I cared about their thoughts and opinions.
I also sent chapters of the book AS they were being finished and fielded questions. Including one of my best chapters about the artist’s fear of being successful. Why did I give away one of my best chapters? Because when someone reads or shared that e-mail and says “Wow, that was good,” they’re also thinking “well, the rest of the book has to be amazing.” It’s incentive to buy and validates their subscription in the first place.
And now I keep the conversation going even after the release with exclusive content for people who purchased the book.
7. YES, WE DO JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS.
What your parents told you isn't true. Book covers matter. Romance Author JS Taylor doubled her sales overnight with a good cover redesign.
My most basic advice: collect a folder of book covers that instantly attract your attention, then try to analyze them. Pinterest is a perfect resource for beautiful cover designs.
If you're up for a challenge and want to be hands on, I recommend taking the Skillshare course on book cover design by Peter Mendelsund, who’s designed famous covers like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
What would I do differently for my next book? I’d invest in a professional to design it for me. Writing, formatting, and marketing a book is hard enough, and I think cover design is the first area I would outsource besides hiring an editor. The lifetime return for a great book cover in sales will outlast the couple hundred bucks you spend on a good cover designer. It’s your book’s best business card.
8. OUTSOURCING YOUR WEAKNESS IS A STRENGTH.
Speaking of outsourcing, I highly recommend owning your weaknesses and outsourcing them. After 16 years of experience selling, packaging, and mailing out orders, I knew I didn’t want to spend hours a day sending out orders of my hardcover book (paperbacks were handled by an Amazon-backed service for self-publishers called Createspace). I used an amazing service called Shyp (Editor’s Note: Shyp’s Head of Marketing, Lauren Sherman is a mentor at #createcultivateCHI!) to package and ship my orders. You simply take a photo of what you need sent, and Shyp comes by to pick it up. And recently, I hired a copy editor, which has made my writing process 100 times smoother, less stressful, and more fun.
9. LEARN FIRST, EARN SECOND.
One of my favorite entrepreneurs whom I mentioned previously, Ramit Sethi, talks about “optimizing for learning not earning” when you’re starting out. I will be honest, you probably won’t be replacing your main source of income with your first book... or your 2nd, or even the 5th. But as you keep publishing, it is going to get easier and easier.
Think of your first book like the beginning scenes in one of those bank heist movies—you’re casing the scene, getting familiar with how things work.
My book launch had the bigger-than-expected numbers because I took time to build an e-mail list before the book launch, seeded out great content, engaged with my list, and even e-mailed subscribers personally, asking what they were having problems with as an artist.
Through that effort, I pulled in about $1,305 on the very first day. Three months later, I sell about 2-4 book sales a day with little to no extra effort or advertising on my part. That comes out to about $150/month. Not life changing, but it’s passive income that has paid tenfold in credibility for my private career coaching and speaking engagements. And with each new book I write, I expect that number to rise.
As James Altucher, best-selling author of Choose Yourself!, put it, “the best way to promote your book is to write another book.“
10. BE PROUD OF YOUR WORK.
Now, you went through the process of writing a book. You finished it. You took the time to outline and find a good designer. So do me and everyone else a favor: call yourself an author!
So many of the creatives I advise are too humble, dare I even say, embarrassed when it comes to talking about their own work. It’s called “Imposter Syndrome” and it's no good for anyone. How many times have you seen on social media someone say "I wrote a little thing..." or "Oh, I'm just self-published writer" or "I have a start-up." A start-up is just a scared person’s word for “new business” and “I wrote a thing” is a self-conscious way of saying, “I wrote a mind-blowing resource for young business owners.”
People will start taking you more seriously when you use confident language that signals that not only are you serious, but you’re serious about your work.
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