On self-publishing

~ 12 September 2007 ~

Regrettably I don’t have as much time as I’d like to author this article in polished format, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there while they’re fresh. You’d think I’d have time to slow down now that the book is done, but with running a job site, preparing material for several presentations before the year is over (including a ginormous workshop), maintaining this site, oh and a family and full-time job, “busy” is a severe understatement.

Warning: I’m typing this up without any of the spit & polish I usually put into my writing, so whatever comes of it is what comes of it.

I could probably summarize my thoughts in one sentence: The process of self-publishing isn’t as glamorous as some (myself) thought it would be.

One evening shortly after the book was published, I recounted with Suzanne everything I had done over the last 10 months to go from an idea for a book to a finished, published book. Having already co-authored one book through a publisher, I compared the experience of self-publishing, and here’s roughly what I described:

Chapter outline - This is usually where you begin, publisher or no publisher. Chapter titles plus a few bullets for what each chapter contains. Fortunately, I’ve had the mobile web on my mind long enough that I knew roughly what I wanted the book to include. But a publisher will often start as early as this stage with an author, providing tips and recommendations for chapter flow and content ideas. I started creating the outline in October 2006, began some initial writing, but didn’t have the outline roughly as it stands today until December 2006.

Content gathering - This is where I verified that I indeed would have enough content to support the chapters I outlined, based on previous articles I’d written and speaking material. I wasn’t about to head down the long path of authoring without knowing I could come up with enough stuff to write about. I had gathered most of the content that would support the ensuing writing by around March 2006.

Writing - This stage, of course, is the meat of the project. Day after day after day of writing. I began writing in earnest around April 2006 and averaged around 1 hour per day for the next three months, most of that writing done on the light rail commute to and from work and on Saturdays. While a publisher will certainly help in this stage, it’s really up to the author to shoulder the burden of writing. So the difference between self-publishing and publisher is marginal in this stage. Update: Maybe it’s not so marginal. I failed to mention two other reasons I chose to self-publish: schedule and page count. I didn’t want to stick to the stringent schedule and deadlines imposed by a publisher (usually 6 months) nor the 250-300 page count they often demand. I figured I’d say what I needed to say on the subject, and whenever I was done — time or length — I was done.

Editing - This is a biggie. I’ll stop the conversation here and say if you’re not a good writer, don’t self-publish. A publisher-supplied editor is invaluable in this stage. They’ll not only correct grammar and clarify confusing sentences, but they’ll often rewrite entire sentences or even paragraphs to help you make your point clearly and succinctly. And yet ironically, this was one of the driving factors for me to not use a publisher even though I had a couple offers along the way — I didn’t want to endure the rigorous editing process that follows writing with publishers. And I like to think I can hold my own with writing and editing, whether or not that’s really the case.

Technical review - This is an important step for most technical books, but especially this one given all the varied opinions and ideas floating around a topic as volatile as the mobile web is right now. A publisher will typically supply a technical editor, and with most web standards books, that person is pretty well-known and experienced with writing (think Molly, Dave Shea, etc). I didn’t have the luxury of a publisher-supplied technical editor, but fortunately I have a lot of contacts in both the mobile and web industries. I realize, however, not everyone is as fortunate. But I was able to get the likes of Russell Beattie, Barbara Ballard, Bronwyn Jones, John Gruber, Jared Benson, and a dozen others to offer feedback. And that feedback was absolutely invaluable.

Layout - So, once the content is polished, you usually hand everything over to the publisher, and your work is largely done at this point. Not so with self-publishing. Guess who has to format the book’s interior pages? With a publisher, you’ll likely write everything in Word and then send over the final document with any images you’ve prepared. They take it from there. As a self-publisher, your work is just beginning when the writing & editing is done. I cheated here and formatted the book as I was authoring it. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but the entire book was authored in Apple’s Pages program. It never graced InDesign or QuarkExpress, as I admit I don’t know either of these programs nearly as well as I should. However, Pages has some pretty decent typography and layout controls, so it did the trick. All images were prepared in Photoshop, while most of the diagrams and tables were created in Pages.

Cover - Oops, still not done. A publisher typically has designers on staff who take care of the cover artwork for you, even though many design authors prefer to help out with cover design. This wasn’t a terribly challenging stage of the project, at least not for the PDF version. The one-piece jacket artwork for the upcoming print version, however, was plenty more work.

Promotion - Ha. You think everything above was a lot to tackle? Try getting your book in the hands of customers. Where do I begin? I knew from the start I’d publish this initially only in PDF format, and that meant I’d need a place to sell the book. Sure, I could do it on cameronmoll.com, but I wanted a more permanent home. So I elected to go with a separate site entirely, mobilewebbook.com.

The entire site is essentially just two parts: home page and order page(s). However, still I knew I’d be overwhelmed with everything above and therefore outsourced the design and development of the site — all of it. I wanted this to be a Cameron Moll-quality site, if that doesn’t sound overly self-serving, and therefore I trusted the design with one of the few persons I could trust it with: Long-time friend Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain of 31Three. I did some light art direction for the design, but to take credit for the incredible design would be to rob Jesse of due credit. Jesse’s the real star and he did an awesome job.

The coding and backend was handled by none other than the same two developers who work the magic behind the scenes for Authentic Jobs: Jonathan Linczak and Myles Grant. Jointly the two executed the markup, front-end development, Paypal integration, database, PDF delivery workflow, admin, and lots more. I couldn’t imagine doing all that without their incredible talent. (Orchestrating the efforts of three designers/developers was no small task either.)

The PDF creation & delivery process: Lots have asked about it. In short, we looked at using E-junkie to automate the delivery of PDFs, emails with links, etc, but in the end we chose to embed the buyer’s name in the PDF, and at the time E-junkie didn’t offer this service (though my sources tell me they will very soon). So we built our own process to embed the name in the PDF, send an email to the buyer with link to download the PDF, expire the url after a certain number of days, etc. The process isn’t flawless yet, but it’s worked well for most customers to date.

Print version - From literally the start of the project I knew I might publish a print version in addition to PDF at some point, and therefore I wisely created any images for the book in hi-res along the way. I’m happy to report I’ve submitted all the necessary files for a print version to Lulu, and I’m now awaiting proof copies in the mail before opening up orders to the public. But even this stage was no small chore, largely due to the fact that Lulu doesn’t support anything exported from Pages currently. I ended up having to export the book as individual Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) pages — all 108 of them — using Adobe Acrobat, and then I rebuilt the book inside of InDesign by importing the individual EPS files. Yeah yeah, I should have used InDesign to begin with, but learning InDesign properly was low on the list of tasks above.


By the time I finished describing all of this to Suzanne, you can imagine my astonishment as I said out loud, “Did I just do all of that? No. way.”

So can I recommend self-publishing to all of you? I’m not sure. One of the driving factors for me choosing to self-publish was the fact that I’d get nearly 100% of the profits. You don’t write a book in this industry to make money, as the publisher’s advance of a few thousand dollars and royalties of just a few percent make few rich in our business. But looking back at the countless hours spent on everything above over 10 months’ time, I’m not sure I’ll break even on my investment anytime soon.

But here’s the more important question: Was it worth it? Absolutely. Absolutely again. I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. And the fact that I can look back and say “Hey, I did all that” is extremely, extremely rewarding.



Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.

1   Michael ~ 12 September 2007

Boy, just reading that makes me tired.

2   Michael ~ 12 September 2007

I should probably clarify my comment. Reading all that is involved in writing a book, particularly self publishing, makes me tired. :-)

3   Andrew ~ 12 September 2007

AND he took some time out of his crazy busy schedule to do me a personal favor. What a guy.

Congrats on the book!

4   Jason Beaird ~ 12 September 2007

Even in my own book-writing experience, I don’t think I can really comprehend how much work that was. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out if I didn’t have editors, and Andy Rutledge’s input along the way was invaluable. When I was first getting started, Sitepoint asked if I wanted to do the page layout as well, I thought about it for a while and eventually decided to leave that up to them. After finishing the writing and revising, I was really glad I didn’t take that on too. But man, you did all that and more. Cheers to you for an awesome product, and with the iPhone price drop I’m sure I could justify (with the wife) ordering your book and a new phone! :)

5   ty (tzmedia) ~ 12 September 2007

Thanks for the insights into the steps required to “Get a book out there”.
I hadn’t noticed this title was self-published. I really feel you must get a print version to be successful. To many people just may share the pdf version, but many of those would happily invest in a hard-copy version.
Is the book available on the likes of Amazon and others, I couldn’t find it searching now.
Do they distribute electronic books only.
I don’t see why they wouldn’t pick up your book. All the web designers have probably heard of it, you’ve done an excellent job there.
Good luck!

6   Adrian ~ 12 September 2007

Well congrats on seeing the project through and thanks for sharing an honest, behind-the-scenes summary of the process. I’m very much enjoying the book so far as well.

7   Tim Van Damme ~ 12 September 2007

Wow, didn’t realise it was THAT much work…

Will people who bought the PDF-version get some kind of coupon for a cheaper version of the printed version? I would like to have it on my book-shelve…

8   Hamish M ~ 12 September 2007

Thanks for putting all that hard work into the book Cameron. It really sounds quite overwhelming.

9   Cameron Moll ~ 12 September 2007

Will people who bought the PDF-version get some kind of coupon for a cheaper version of the printed version?

I’m looking into that, and I’m hopeful I can make it work. Lulu doesn’t currently offer discount codes or anything like that, but there may be a way around that. If I pull it off, anyone who’s already bought the PDF will get a pretty substantial discount on the printed version.

10   Ryan Parman ~ 12 September 2007

I’ve had this idea hanging out in the back of my brain for quite some time to write a SimplePie book. After looking at 37 Signals’ PDF-book and reading about your experience, I’m tempted to give it a whirl…

11   Benjamin Curtis ~ 12 September 2007

Ryan, do it!

I’ve gone through this process with a couple of (much shorter) PDF offerings targeted at Rails developers, and it has been a blast.

Even developing the PDF purchasing, name-stamping, and delivery system was fun. But then, I’m a developer. :)

12   Nate Klaiber ~ 12 September 2007

I skimmed, and the part that caught my eye was ‘avaiable in print.’ I feel left out that I haven’t read the book yet, but I really am holding out on getting a print version. I’m personally not much for reading books on a screen. Reading a book is my time to get away from the computer for a bit, so I am excited about this possibility.

I will keep watch…..

13   Tony ~ 12 September 2007

Was the an/a mistake in the editing section intentional? ;)

14   Cameron Moll ~ 12 September 2007

Fixed. You can’t say I didn’t warn you my writing would be messy :)

15   David Holmes ~ 12 September 2007

Get over yourself.

16   Soroush ~ 12 September 2007

It was very interesting to read about the whole process! All the ‘behind the scenes’ as they say!

17   paul ~ 12 September 2007

i hear you man on the amount of work that goes into self publishing. my band just independently put out an album, and the sheer amount of non-music related (and in your case, non-writing related) things is just astounding!

18   Stoyan ~ 12 September 2007

Thanks for the good write-up. Like you said, you can’t get rich by writing IT books, actually I read somewhere the pay is below the minimum wage when you count all the time you put into the process. But there are the other rewards, such as the industry recognition and the overall satisfaction of being a “published author”. Another piece of wisdom I saw somewhere:

Writers don’t like to write, they like to have written.

I worked with a publisher (Packt) for my books and I’d say I’m happy about it. All the work they did, the reviews, the editing… life’s too short to do all this by myself and especially since English is not my mother tongue, they definitely did a better job than I could have. Another good thing is that you sign a contract with a schedule and deadline for every chapter. That really helps as a kick in the behind to sit down and do the writing, despite your (natural programmer’s) laziness.

19   Greg ~ 12 September 2007

Nothing wrong with Pages. I love it (I switch from PC to Mac 2 years ago and will never go back). I’ll admit the last time I used Quark was version 4 back in college around 97 (I never liked print, that’s why I went into web).

Thanks for the primer on writing a book.

20   Clifton ~ 12 September 2007

You forgot to mention the really difficult part of it all:

Buying several iPhones as prizes, not getting to open and play with them all, and giving them away. *gasp*

That’s like me ignoring a pack of Double Stuf Oreos. Psh. Nevuh.

You’re the man, Cameron.

21   topfunky ~ 12 September 2007

I think the problem with tech publishing is that authors and publishers think they have to write a massive 300-800 page tome everytime they pickup a pen.

What if Cameron had published the book chapter by chapter for $5-10 each? People would have had access to the material sooner and it would have been less work and more income for the author.

Developers need to be educated on current topics at short intervals. One can build a sustainable income on that kind of material, and it provides a greater benefit to developers, too.

22   Rick Moore ~ 12 September 2007

You’ll have to show me the Lulu.com printed stuff…I still want to get that children’s book I am working on published and have been really interested to see what the quality is like.

23   Elliot Jay Stocks ~ 13 September 2007

Thanks for this, Cameron. Lots of questions answered. I’m feeling inspired!

24   Ian Lloyd ~ 13 September 2007

Cameron, just wondering about the process with lulu.com. I self-published my holiday diary (from my round the world trip - http://lloydi.com/travel-writing/round-the-world-trip/) - not to make money or sell, just for my own purposes - and I effectively created one *giant* web page. I then used print CSS to style it and create page breaks where needed. Then, all I did was go to File > Print, then select the Save as PDF option on OSX. It created a PDF that lulu could just use as-is, and the result is here:


Might be worth considering if you ever decide to do the same again (or make revisions to it).

Anyway, I best be checking out yer book now :-)

25   Cameron Moll ~ 13 September 2007

You’ll have to show me the Lulu.com printed stuff…I still want to get that children’s book I am working on published and have been really interested to see what the quality is like.

I’ve got a copy of Kevin Cornell’s Swap Meat Scrapbook (also printed with Lulu) and it looks really good. We’ll see if the same holds true for black and white interior pages. My only complaint, and I confirmed this with Kevin, is that currently Lulu doesn’t offer a non-glossy (matte or uncoated) cover.

I then used print CSS to style it and create page breaks where needed.

Incredible! The book looks fantastic, Ian.

26   Shane ~ 13 September 2007

Congrats on a job well done.

I would imagine that if you spend that much time spent on something, it should feel REALLY rewarding to see the finished product, but also see so many people embrace it.

Well done!

27   Lisa ~ 13 September 2007

Thanks for a great write up - as someone who’s worked in trad print publishing on books and magazines, I can’t imagine how much work it is to do all of the above, but you did it! Many congratulations Cameron :)

28   Jim Jeffers ~ 13 September 2007

Cameron, could you share any insite into the process you used to embed the user’s name into the PDF. I’ve always wanted to take an existing PDF document and append dynamic data into it but didn’t know of any solution that exists. Well at least not one that’s open source.

29   Cameron Moll ~ 13 September 2007

I believe we used PDF Toolkit. Myles, can you confirm?

30   Matthew Clark ~ 19 September 2007

You took my advice and went through Lulu?

I am thinking of doing a self published photography book.

31   Jeff ~ 24 September 2007

I just got my copy and look forward to reading it! Though I’m curious, since you outsourced the design of the site and back-end programming, why not also outsource the book’s layout to a book designer? There’s no reason an ebook has to look like a Word document when a book designer can create a format as appealing as a commercially published book.

32   ~dL ~ 24 September 2007

Nice “rivers.”

33   Audiophile ~ 28 September 2007

Do they distribute electronic books only.

34   Layte ~ 08 October 2007

I’m in the editing stage (thank God I have
a personal friend who IS an editor)and am
crosseyed reading all the requirements in
self-publishing but I didn’t spend 2 years on this memoir - (sounds boring but isn’t) to get a quarter a book in royalties from a big Publisher -Have you heard of MillHouse Press??? I pay only the exact price of printing after their “Package Price” which LuLu and IUniverse, etc. have but they UP my price of each printed book for a bigger income for them. I get 100% royalties after publishing, minus expected chgs. I am hiring
a pro Website designer and hosting. I VERY MUCH appreciate your time and thoughts on Self Publishing. I’d love your feedback on MILLHOUSE PRESS if possible.
Thank you again! Layte

35   tapety ~ 28 November 2007

It is good that someone writes articles which really matters something. Thank you for this article, it’s full of knowledge which is hard to find in tons of rubbish in our famous world wide web. Regards and good luck!


Authentic Boredom is the platitudinous web home of Cameron Moll, designer, author, and speaker. More…

Come in, we're hiring

Full-time and freelance job opportunities. Post a job...

...view all jobs »


A selection of fine reading, available for a limited time only:

In Print

CSS Mastery CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standard Solutions A solid round-up of indispensable CSS design techniques by Andy Budd, Simon Collison, and Cameron Moll.

Mobile Web Design Mobile Web Design A guide to publishing web content beyond the desktop. Tips, methodology, and resources. Now available.


Letterpress Posters Letterpress Posters The unassuming beauty of a freshly letterpressed print.

Wicked Worn That Wicked Worn Look. Techniques for that worn, aged, distressed look.

Mister Retro Mister Retro Machine Wash Filters Turn the dial to “Instaworn” with these filters.

Blinksale Blinksale Dive in and enjoy shamelessly easy invoicing from Firewheel Design.

Basecamp Basecamp My preferred web app for internal and client project collaboration.


HOW Conference HOW Conference Austin, June 24–27. Pentagram, Adobe, P&G, et al.

Web Design World Web Design World Seattle, July 20–22. Practical sessions on web design.

An Event Apart Stimulate Salt Lake City, September 2009. Entrepreneurship and design conference.

Feed Me
Articles: RSS
Linkage: RSS

Follow me: Twitter