The Last Starving Author Has Died. The Era of Teaching Micro-Skills Has Begun.

Want to write for a living? You can. You just can’t put a $2.99 price tag on your book if you want to eat.

I’ve been ranting about pricing for the past five years.

Charge more. Just fucking do it.

That’s what I’ve been telling my fellow web developers and web development company owners. That’s what I’ve been training myself to do.

Now that I am finally ready to finish writing a book, I see that the same web development lessons about pricing apply to publishing books as well. There are so many talented writers out there, but they’ve been making the same mistake as I used to do: they set their price based on what everybody else does.

And everybody else is wrong.

If you haven’t been writing and publishing since the dawn of the social era, chances are your audience is tiny or non-existent. You can’t sell books at $2.99 apiece and start your writing career if your audience consists of 50 followers, most of which are friends and family.

If you want to perpetuate the myth of a starving author and play the martyr, do so in silence.

What I’ve discovered recently is that there’s a booming market for self-published technical and business books. Geeks who slouch on computers by day write books by night and earn up to high five figure numbers. In U.S. dollars.

What are they doing differently?

They’re not waiting to become good enough. Every day they fight their inner demons who whisper to them that they’re not good enough. Who the fuck do you think you are? They know they’re good enough now.

They’re not waiting for permission from their peers, friends, role models, celebrities, mothers, lovers and bosses. They give themselves a permission to write, to hit publish and to put a price on their work.

They’re not waiting to be saved by others. They’re not waiting for a big publishing company, Techcrunch, Amazon, a Twitter user with hundreds of thousands of followers, a VC or an agent to discover their talent. They know that they only need a couple of hundreds of readers who will discover their talent during the very process of writing the book.

They’re not waiting for a big audience to emerge from thin air. They start with a mailing list of two users (themselves and their closest soulmate) and they just fucking start writing and hitting that publish button until their thumbs are red.

If you know a skill that other people use to make money, you can make a living by teaching that skill. ~Nathan Barry, Authority

What Skill Do You Have?

Skills are like assholes. Everybody’s got one. ~Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry in The Dead Pool

(I might have slightly edited the above quote.)

I don’t know about you, but one of my best skills is knowing how to sell a website using only phone and email. I’m going to teach people how to sell hundreds of websites without meeting clients in person. That’s not the only way to sell a website, but it sure as hell is something a lot of web designers and web agencies have to do every day. They talk to prospects on the phone and write sales proposals, but waste a lot of time and energy in the process. I figured out a way to do it well enough to run a company on it.

(If you want to be notified about my “Sell More Websites” book, subscribe to my business mailing list).

Teach your micro-skills.

Am I the best salesperson in the world? I’m not. If I decided to write a comprehensive guide titled “How to Sell”, my lizard brain would laugh so hard and so loudly and so persistently that I would not be able to quiet it down.

I don’t have the guts to write a general book about sales. I also don’t need to nor want to. That would be a mistake because a general book about a general skill talks to no specific audience and solves no specific problem. When your target audience definition is all over the spectrum, you end up selling to nobody. That’s the dark place where starving (technical) self-published authors live.

Look at these guys who teach micro-skills by writing books:

Backbone.Marionette.js: A Gentle Introduction - 2034 books sold

Sublime Productivity - 1386 books sold, earned over $16,000

Everyday Rails Testing with RSpec - 3835 books sold

Why programmers work at night - 1854 books sold

A JavaScript library out of hundreds of thousands of them. A text editor out of hundreds of them. A Rails testing framework out of I have no idea how many of them. An analysis of a particular behavior pattern of a specific group of people.

Are you fucking kidding me?

No, I kid you not.

It’s the readers who are starved for acquiring specific micro-skills and micro-knowledge that they need to be more awesome on their jobs. The geeks turned authors are a living proof of that.

Here, take a look at this guy: The Grumpy Programmer’s PHPUnit Cookbook - 778 books sold at $29.00 a pop.

778 readers times 29 bucks = $22.000+.

Twenty two thousand dollars, earned by teaching a significant subset of all programmers in the world (PHP programmers only) who want to learn about one specific skill (unit testing with PHP).

Granted, the author probably did not cash in the full $22K. He was probably selling the book at a discounted price while he was still writing it.

(that’s what Leanpub is all about: you can charge money for an unfinished book and people are happy to pay. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Yes, you’re welcome.)

What this author did not try to do is write a PHP Bible for everyone and his mom. He isolated one tiny problem that has significant consequences if not handled and decided to teach a couple of hundred people how to test their PHP code the right way.

Did you notice the word sold up there? These geeks teach micro-skills and micro-topics and charge real, good dollars for their work. They have built small publishing empires which sell their books by the thousands. Their books also promote their businesses. Some of them probably write the books as a clever form of marketing their core business.

What the Fuck Are You Waiting For? Why Aren’t You Teaching?

Does the word teach scare you? It can be overwhelming. It is overloaded with meaning and subtext. Your lizard brain is having a party in your head at the mere thought of you becoming a teacher, isn’t it? :) Crush the enemy within. Simply replace the word teach with sharing all the knowledge I’ve got on the subject and you’ll be fine. Suck on that, lizard brain!

Are you waiting to become better at the skill you’d like to teach? News flash: those geeks I mentioned got better at their skills because they chose to teach them.

I knew this intellectually, but didn’t really understand how little I really knew about Ansible until writing the book. In one short month, I’ve gained a much fuller understanding of Ansible and grown in my knowledge of Linux system administration and application deployment. If I do something once, I don’t really understand it. If I do it again, I might know more about what I did, but I still don’t really understand it. If I teach others about it (in writing or teaching), I force myself to understand it so (a) I don’t look like a fool, and (b) I don’t waste other people’s time. ~ Jeff Geerling, Server and author of Ansible for DevOps

Are you waiting until the whole book is clearly laid out in your mind’s eye? I’ve got news for you: ain’t gonna happen by magic. Nope. The breadth and the depth of your future bestseller will have been defined after your hiney had been kissing your chair for a few hours.

Oh, so you’ll first work on increasing your Twitter followership and your mailing list and only then will you start writing, when you have a bigger audience? Aren’t you the complicated one :) You grow your audience by writing every day and by talking about writing to your mailing list and on social media.

Write. Leave a small digital footprint about your writing on social media and on your blog. Write more. Leave more digital footprints. Do this every day.

But I don’t have time. I work a soul-crushing 10-hour day job. Or, my clients take the best of me.

Boo hoo. Poor you. Here, have a cookie.

Do you feel better now? Ok.

You don’t have time nor do you find time.

Time is not something you are able to possess.

You make time.

Franz Kafka sat down at his desk at 10:30 or 11:00 PM and worked until 1, 2, 3 AM. He fucking made time for his craft. He probably knew he owed it to the world. Without him consciously making the time, this would have been just another nobody’s tombstone.

When you say I don’t have time, what you’re saying is this is not important enough to me.

I guess a soul-crushing job or demanding clients are more important to you. You must really love your job to keep postponing your life’s calling.

Writing a book has completely changed my business and career. My long term goal was to be running my own business, and now I’m doing that. ~ Jarrod Drysdale from StudioFellow in the book Authority

Your English-as-a-second-language isn’t perfect? That’s what human editors are for. Don’t tell me you can’t google right now and find one native speaker who would love to edit your book without breaking your bank! If you’re strapped for cash, crowdsource your book editing. Ask a dozen of your English-speaking followers to read your book and find problems in it. Reward them with your free ebook.

Ok, I Don’t Want to Wait Anymore. You’ve Convinced Me. What Do I Do?

I have no idea! Don’t look at me. I’m not an expert.

But here’s what I would do.

  1. Think of a micro-skill that you already have. A good micro-skill to teach is the one that enough people need to earn money. The more money those people have to spend, the better. If you can teach entrepreneurs in a niche close to your heart, please do. The entrepreneurs are the ones with money.
  2. Go online and run a few Google searches. A fancy, Silicon-Valley-style word for this activity is “validating your idea” or “market research”. Do people ask questions online about that skill? Do you hear them discussing problems that they suffer from because they lack the skill? Hang out in their online communities and listen to their conversations. For example, I follow a few subreddits where web designers and web developers hang out. I hear them mentioning specific problems I solved with my good sales skills a long time ago. What are they complaining about? Could you position your micro-skill as one of the solutions to their problems? Talk to those people, participate in their discussions. Comment on their threads. Ask them if they would like to learn your skill. They’ll point you in the right direction.
  3. When you have validated that one of your ideas for a book has merit, decide to write the book. I will write this book is what you say to yourself in the mirror. Out loud.
  4. Start working on the outline of the book. Outline is a fancy writer’s jargon for “series of headings and subheadings in the book, broken down to a single idea”. If your outline starts looking like any table of contents you’ve seen in any book, you’re on the right track. Ask yourself: What is the one most important thing to know about this skill? What is the second most important thing about it? And so on. Write it all down in a tool of your choice: Google Docs, Evernote, text editor, whatever. Write down all ideas you want to mention - just puke them out on a piece of digital paper - you’ll organize them later. A set of chaotic bullet points is good - anything that moves your needle.
  5. Start writing. Pick a single idea that seems like something you’d like to explore now. Yes, explore: that’s what you’re doing. You’re exploring an idea in writing. The good thing about writing about single ideas is that it doesn’t feel like writing a book. It feels like writing a blog post, one at a time. Do you know what a collection of finished blog posts on a single topic is called? It’s called a book. A guide. Even the ultimate guide or the definitive guide. Finish writing two to three chapters and take a one day break. You deserve it!
  6. Edit those three chapters. Editing means that the next day you re-read what you’ve wrote and correct anything that does not sound right. The best way to spot bad writing is to read what you wrote out loud. If it sounds weird when you say it, it sounds weird when you read it.
  7. Go to Leanpub publishing platform because they take care of everything for you. You’ll publish your book to the world there. I can’t believe how little money Leanpub asks in return for their awesome services (they only take 10% + 50 cents per each sale your book makes via their platform). Create an account there, create a minimum viable book description using the tools provided, upload your first three chapters and attach a price to your book. Don’t worry about not making everything perfect. It’s your first time. Luckily, the Leanpub environment is one of the most forgiving places to start writing a book. If you screw something up, nobody will yell at you.
  8. Set up a Mailchimp mailing list, put it on your website and start collecting email addresses. Announce to the world that you’re writing a book and that people should subscribe to your mailing list to get notifications about it. Link to your published and unfinished Leanpub book from your website and mention it in your newsletter.
  9. Start a blog on your website. A WordPress website with a blog will do. Write about writing your book, about why your topic is so important and how it helps your target audience be more awesome at what they do. In my case, I plan to educate my business blog readers about how to interview clients on the phone for the first time, what to say exactly and in what order. I discard a ton of ideas when I write a book, but I don’t just throw then away - I publish them as blog posts or tweets or Google+ posts. That’s why I don’t have to worry about inspiration for my blog or social media updates. I don’t let any clever brain fart go unpublished :) I just don’t put all of them in my book.

That’s Enough to Start. This Is Where You Are Now:

You’re now angry with me because I yelled at you. Don’t be. You’re cool. It’s not you who I yelled at. This blog post is a publicized internal monologue I had to have with myself this morning. Most of my blog posts are like that: just me talking to myself.

This is what you have now:

  1. A book topic to write about.
  2. An outline of the future book.
  3. A first few published chapters.
  4. A website with a blog.
  5. A mailing list, capable of accepting new subscribers.
  6. A cool publishing platform (Leanpub) which does not reek of cheap like does. The upper pricing limit for a book on Leanpub is $500. Leanpub lets you keep 90% of your earnings at all price points, while Amazon lets you keep only 30% if your book is anything above $9,99. Be on Amazon but don’t count or wait for it to save you. You will save yourself.

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