Self-publishing original content, academia, freebies and SEO

Three related questions — and some long answers — that may be of use to aspiring writers globally.

Julia on FB writes,

I wondered, of course, out of selfish reasons — how did you do it? Seriously — if I wanted to publish a book, what would I need to do? Do you have any advice for a novice writer?  I am becoming your number 1 un-official fan… or a groupie, if that’s allowed.

Groupies are more than welcome!  Perhaps one day there will even be roadies…

As far as the self-publication route and things to consider, the short and simple answer is compare Amazon’s KDP program, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! program and Apple’s iBook program.  For cover art and illustrations you can hire some freelancer at Fiverr.  Finding an editor can be tricky but a few google searches could help narrow the options down.  Then most importantly: create fresh, original content and find your own voice (more on that below).  The longer Ned Flanders answer involves tying this in to a conversation I had a month ago with a French friend of mine who just finished defending his dissertation in physics.

CV from Paris writes,

Hi Tim, I’m starting to explore ways to publish my PhD, and I am not sure how to proceed. Since you are also publishing books, I would like to ask you some advice on the possible plans I have in mind. The desired outcomes are:

(1) Publish my PhD as it will be after the defense, at Vrije Universiteit Press (VUB) Press.
(2) Publish my PhD as it will be after the defense, or slightly improved with Springer.
(3) Publish my PhD as a popular book, which requires some rewriting to make it more accessible and concise.
(4) Publish both my PhD as it will be with options (1) or (2); and then make a more popular version (3).

What do you think? What would you advice? Do you see other options?


The too long, didn’t read response to CV is: because business-related content describes dynamic actors (e.g., consumers), in order to stay relevant content creators will probably need to publish and update more frequently than their counterparts in the hard sciences.

I had 3 or 4 professors in college who jokingly noted that the content of many science textbooks in nearly every classroom globally were out of date.  That is to say, because of the lengthy publication process (e.g., drafting manuscript, proofing, submitting to press, copy editing, etc.) that as cutting-edge as the content may be, it will inevitably take a couple years to reach the end-user, the student.1 This is not necessarily a priori, a bad phenomenon, at least not in the sciences.  For example, last week the team managing the Planck spacecraft (which is currently hanging out in L2 orbit) announced that the Universe is about 80 million years older than previous estimates.  This more refined date, while invariably helpful to the astronomical community is probably not a game changing discovery that nullifies the value of current textbooks (that is what standard deviations and sigma’s [σ] are all about).  Similarly most math books are still useful even if they do not include the latest calculation of Pi (π) from Shigeru Kondo.  For more commentary about this, be sure to check out In Defense of Teaching “Outdated” Material by Brett Lunceford.

On the other hand, business-related topics are inherently not scientific (human preferences change, laws of physics do not).  For example, gravity does not change due to seasonal differences in San Diego yet business models must evolve with economic trends and subjective tastes as well as take into account the dynamic impact from season and climate (e.g., when and where to sell winter clothes or advertise the upcoming spring lineup).  Because prices of supply and demand are effected by subjectivity and intertemporal choices (that is, valuation changes based on different points in time), certain business models may not work in other regions of the world (like the Barbie versus Hello Kitty example in Chapter 7).

Thus, I would argue that while general principles of marketing and management found in a standard college textbook may be applicable to many business operations (like conducting a SWOT analysis or how to motivate employees), other academic literature used in business schools have an increased diminishing utility due to the ever changing business conditions of a globalized world.  For instance, some consumer behavior generalizations made prior to 2004 are no longer useful or applicable in an always-on smartphone-filled social networked world filled with groupbuying websites and check-in-based discounts that simply did not exist a decade ago.  And the consumer behavior landscape will become altered in the near-future once more with the proliferation of wearable products like Google Glass.

While it may be useful to know how consumer spending changes over the long-run, for all intents and purposes those pre-2004 academic passages have become intellectual deadweight and probably do not need to be studied in-depth by the average MBA student (otherwise entrepreneurs would spend all their time studying the entirety of the past instead of creating the future).  Of course there is a fine line between learning from past mistakes like Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream turnaround versus using Fannie Mae as a successful model to emulate (seriously, it was used in Good to Great).  This also raises another tangential issue: the idea that pop business books sold at bookstores which are typically written by experts with actual business experience and are therefore more practical to entrepreneurs and businesspeople versus subscribing to academic business journals which may be more abstract — which is argued at length in a ten year old AMLE journal article (which ironically is still applicable today): The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye by Pfeffer and Pfong.  But this is a topic for another day.

While the academic writing and publication cycle is a different process then the world of popular media, my response to CV was as follows:

  • Do you want to work in academia?  If you plan to work in a college I recommend trying to get published in the best journal you can so that way you can improve your chances of getting tenure.
  • Do you want to eventually work at an NGO or some non-academic institute or even the private industry?  Then you would probably have to rewrite portions of each chapter to attract and satisfy that target audience.

Furthermore, since he is looking for a career in academia and because the material he is publishing is not necessarily time-sensitive, I would try to get published in the best, most prestigious journal that he can (perhaps breaking his dissertation into a few parts and submitting them to other journals).

Bringing it altogether

How does this apply to self-publication?  As Barney Stinson might say… wait for it.  And now the third person, Brian on TLS writes,

How can you afford to write a book with so much great information and then make it available for free?

Good question.  There are a couple answers to it, but to start with lets discuss opportunity costs.

Consider, for example, free apps or demos available on smartphones.  Why would a developer such as Rovio utilize scarce resources (time, capital, skilled labor) only to give Angry Birds away for free?  (Note: 25% of all global Angry Birds downloads come from China, see Chapter 13.)  Perhaps developers do this so they can get their name and brand out into the public, to build buzz so that they can later sell a future app.  In the case of King Gillette, while he did not invent the freebie business model he purportedly popularized it: he gave away the shaving handles with the intention that consumers would need to buy his blades to be of any use.  However, contra Chris Anderson, even that is arguably not the best utilization of resources either (see The Razors-and-Blades Myth(s) by Randal Picker). 2

I suspect that many aspiring writers never fully recoup the costs of their own self-published works.  In fact, based on my research over the past several weeks, very few self-published authors make a profitable return-on-investment solely from book sales when all costs are accounted for (many more may reach positive territory if consulting and speaking engagements are included).  Not only would you need to generate enough sales to cover the editing, illustrations, typesetting and promotion (like paid ads), but you would also need to generate more revenue than you would have earned in an alternate timeline, one in which you worked a 2nd part-time job instead of writing a manuscript (e.g., if you spent 20 hours a week working on your book unpaid, what other paid activities did you forgo?).3 These are the unseen opportunity costs and while it varies case-by-case, indie writers should do their own due diligence and cost/benefit analysis.  For instance, last summer Suw Charman-Anderson looked at some of the potential earnings and ultimately came to the conclusion that aspiring writers should focus on building content instead of endlessly promoting your first or second or third book.

What about SEO?

My own opinion of SEO is negative.  In theory it is no different than marketing or advertising.  However, if you spend much time in the industry it is pretty clear a number of SEO gurus treat it as a get-rich-quick scheme.  That if you could manipulate passages and content around special keywords, epic floods of traffic will head your way and with it, advertising dollars.  But this is a fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc conflating cause and effect.4 Readers want useful relevant content, not spam.  Keywords do not create lasting readership, content does.  If you are following the advice of some SEO evangelist, then others are probably too and thus all of your content is diluted and becomes indifferent mush from the background noise that is all the other like-minded echo-chamber bloggers doing the same thing.

Specifically, consider the opportunity costs of trying to game and trick the continuously changing algorithm systems.  Every minute spent trying to tweak SEO keyword placement is another minute you could have spent creating original content for an audience.5 Which raises another question: if other people like the gurus are telling you what do and say, you are not finding your own unique voice and style — which is a necessary process each writer must undergo independently, one in which there are ultimately no shortcuts.  Thus for some, SEO becomes a self-defeating, downward spiraling process.

At South-by-Southwest (SXSW) held a couple weeks ago in Austin, Guy Kawasaki asked Amit Singhal (a VP at Google) how companies can improve their search rankings.  Singhal’s response was:

“We at Google have time and time again said—and seen it happen—that if you build high-quality content that adds value, and your readers and your users seek you out, then you don’t need to worry about anything else,” Singhal said. “If people want that content, your site will automatically work… you could make a bunch of SEO mistakes and it wouldn’t hurt.”

In other words, original content is king.

Thus to answer Brian’s question, while I won’t go into specifics today, I do have a long-term plan that does not involve the traditional book publishing model in order to recoup all the seen and unseen costs of producing the content.  A hint: while it does involve creating regular fresh content, it does not involve SEO or books sales.  After all, the web copy is free.

  1. For the exact steps see: Waiting for It from The New York Times and The Book Production Process from []
  2. While Chris Anderson does raise some interesting points in Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing I think that his overall thesis is fundamentally flawed as dissected by Fernando Herrera-Gonzalez in Is Our Future Really $0? []
  3. For good measure you should also calculate how many hours were spent searching and adding your book to e-book promotion lists.  Also, an argument could be made to differentiate leisure activities that produce goods and services versus intentional work, but that is the exception to the rule. []
  4. This is similar to the disconnection inherent to Cargo Cultism, see Chapter 20 []
  5. As Senator Dirksen might have said, a minute here, a minute there, pretty soon, you’re talking real time. []
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One thought on “Self-publishing original content, academia, freebies and SEO

  1. Tim, thanks for the insightful post. I would love to read more about your long-term plan to recoup your invested time and effort. I’m sure your readers would be interested!

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