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Top 10 Questions on APE: the new bestseller on self-publishing by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

The inimitable Guy Kawasaki is the best-selling author of 10 books, the original chief evangelist for Apple, a venture capitalist, founder of Alltop.com,  an ice hockey player and father to four children.

He’s also the co-author, with the talented Shawn Welch, of  APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur | How to Publish a Book. It’s the best, most comprehensive (over 300 pages) book thus far on the topic of self-publishing. I give it an A+ and wish I’d written it myself. And yes, APE is self-published.

One of Guy’s trademarks is Top Ten Lists. He kindly agreed to an interview and to answering 10 questions about self-publishing APE. We talked about pricing, the ability to write well (and the effort it takes), working with a co-author, the unusual name of Guy’s publishing company and more. Below are his answers, along with those of co-author Shawn.

DW: Guy, one of my favorite things about your writing is what I call Guy-isms: “If you suck as a person, your platform will suck,” “Jerks seldom build great brands” and an oldie but goodie, “Eat like a hummingbird, poop like an elephant.”

What you’re saying, I think, is that being generous and offering tremendous value to your readers (or customers) is what will make someone a successful published author.

You emphasize in APE that writing a book to make money, to increase your visibility or to establish yourself as an expert are the wrong reasons. The right reasons include: enriching lives, the intellectual challenge, to further a cause and as a form of catharsis.

#1 DW: Tell us which right reason best describes why you wrote APE.

Guy: Shawn and I co-wrote APE in order to empower people to express themselves through writing a book. We hope that APE is a key factor in the democratization of publishing and information.

#2 DW: Despite the fact that you say “making money” is not a good reason, it looks like you’re doing very well with the eBook version of APE. What specific goals did you set for the launch of APE?

Guy: We really didn’t have specific goals–or at least I didn’t. Maybe Shawn did. I just want APE to become standard reading like The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Twenty years from now, I hope people are still reading it.

Note: as of this writing APE is #2 on Amazon’s list of Best Sellers in Authorship Reference, two spots higher than The Chicago Manual of Style. – DW

2nd note: it occurs to me that many of the references to tools and platforms in APE will be outdated in 20 years. But I didn’t get to ask Guy a follow-up question. Maybe he is planning updated editions. – DW

Shawn: My two biggest goals for the book were to keep up with Guy and release it on time. Honestly, I went into the project with zero sales expectations. If I can afford a month’s rent because of it, awesome. But that’s a side effect, not a goal.

#3 DW: The launch price of $9.99 seems audacious for an eBook, even if it’s 300 pages. I’m not sure anyone except you, a best-selling traditionally-published author, could pull it off. Comments?

Guy: I am certain that people will get what they pay for, so they should pay for what they get. Is APE worth a couple of Starbucks Cappuccinos? I sure hope so. And at a tactical level, we can always reduce the price but increasing the price is harder. The trick is to combine great reviews with a high price, so that the price seems reasonable. Problems occur when you have mediocre reviews and a high price.

Shawn: I agree with Guy. $9.99 seems high if you compare APE to an adult fiction novel, but it’s actually very low if you compare it to other trade books. Specialized knowledge trade books are, for economic reasons, priced higher than novels. They are far more complicated to produce, require hours more research, fact checking, technical editing, etc.

Just take a look at O’Reilly’s Safari books (a collection of technical how-to style trade books) and you’ll see that $9.99 is actually on the low end of the spectrum for ebooks. And if you’re looking for a self-pub example, check out Nathan Barry’s App Design Handbook, a self-published ebook that is sold as a $39 PDF. Nathan seems to be doing just fine at $39 and doesn’t have Guy’s star power.

In case you’re wondering why the term self-publishing is not in the title of APE

Guy tells us in APE that he did keyword research when he was choosing the title. Using Google Adwords Keyword Tool he discovered that 1.5 million people were searching for the term “How to publish” every month, compared with 110,000 searching for “self-publishing. – DW

#4 DW: How many copies of the eBook version have you sold since launch day on Dec. 17, 2012? I know you (and Shawn) are getting 70% of each sale at the $9.99 price point but Amazon also charges a download fee depending on the size of your .mobi file. People love the specifics and I hope you are willing to be transparent. What is your net so far?

Guy: This is between Shawn and (me) and our tax accountants and car dealers.

DW: Ha! OK, good answer.

Shawn: This goes back to the goal thing, but let me say this. This is a trap that A LOT of self-published authors will fall into, because stats and numbers are available—in most cases—in real time.

Let me pass on some advice I learned from developing and selling apps (which also comes with realtime tracking of sales). Don’t look at them. Seriously. You can look at them weekly, or monitor them when you have a marketing campaign going on, but you will drive your self crazy clicking the refresh button if you just worry about sales.

Instead of worrying about sales, worry about the reviews, visibility, and ranking of your book (or app). If people are happy and the book is visible, sales will follow.

The companion website

For a model of best practices in how to market a book, take a look at apethebook.com. You’ll find blurbs, photos of the book and authors, a long list of reviews, downloadable templates, the 350 links featured in the book and more. There is an APE Google+ community in which both Guy and Shawn actively participate.
- DW

#5 DW: Guy, you write that “If you suck as a person, your platform will suck.” But what if you want to self publish and you “suck as a writer”? You say in APE not to use a ghostwriter. I happen to agree with you. What do you suggest? A co-author? An exceptionally talented editor? Forget about writing a book??

Guy: I wouldn’t forget about writing a book, but if it’s hard to produce a great book if you can’t write. That said, I believe that many people can become a good writer if they find a subject that means enough to them, and they are willing to work hard. There’s nothing easy about writing a great book–people should get over the concept that the process is easy for anyone. Writing is pouring your blood onto the screen.

Writing is pouring your blood onto the screen.
- Guy Kawasaki

Shawn: If you want to self publish and you “suck as a writer”, the answer is, “get better as a writer.” It’s not going to be easy, you have to practice. Read, write, read, write, and read some more. Honestly, it’s just like anything else. If I want to finish a marathon but “I suck at running”, the answer isn’t to try and find someone to run it for me, it’s to get off the couch and run until I can do it right.

So, er, do you need help writing a book?

If you’re inspired by Guy and Shawn and the path they lay out in APE and if publishing a book is on your bucket list, you might want help with the gut-wrenchingly hard part of the process: writing the damn book. Pre-register for the March 2013 session of my Beta Author writing program and save $400. Plus Early Birds get a cool bonus. The 8-week program focuses on writing a short eBook but we also cover smart tactics for publishing to Amazon Kindle.  - DW

#6 DW: What is your best advice about choosing and working with a co-author? It seems like Shawn Welch was a perfect fit for APE.

Guy: You should ask Shawn this question too, but the key to me is that the authors complement each other. For example, Shawn understands the technology much better than I do. I needed him to make APE whole. God help us if we both thought we were marketing experts. I’ve never worked with a co-author before, so this was a novel experience for me too.

Shawn: I think sometimes two people just click. Guy and I have such similar writing styles (you can go back and read my books if you don’t believe me) so it wasn’t a challenge to work together. We have similar personalities, work ethics, and beliefs about the world; but have different skill sets in how we approach it. I think we just got really lucky that our skill sets overlap in a way that leaves very few holes. Thank God for copyeditors!

#7 DW: The paperback version of APE (release date Jan. 7, 2013) is now listed on Amazon for $24.99. As with the eBook version, that seems high for a self-published book. Why are you pricing it so high? What are your expectations for print sales?

Guy: We are applying the same pricing philosophy for the printed version as the ebook version.

Shawn: We covered pricing variables in APE, but to provide some transparency to our logic:

1) The final page count of the print book is 384 pages, it’s not a short book (almost 200 pages longer than Enchantment—double the pages).

2) Competing titles like Publishing for Dummies and Publishing Ebooks for Dummies have list prices of 19.99 and 24.99 respectively with shorter page counts. We think we provide a better book than these guys and have no problem pricing along side them.

3) A list price of $24.99 is actually on the low end of Guy’s previous books.

4) We still have a much cheaper ebook available if $24.99 is too much.

5) This is a specialized knowledge trade book, which typically means higher prices in comparison to fiction (For example, my last iOS book has a list price of $44.99, the one before that $34.99).

6) $24.99 is the street price. While we can’t guarantee it, Amazon typically adds a discount after a title is released. If history tells us anything, we think that street price should be around $20. Again, that’s not a guarantee, but show me a book on Amazon that isn’t discounted…

Bottom line, we think it’s the best book on the market for self-publishing, so we priced it along side competitors while keeping it on the low end of specialized trade non-fiction and heavily discounting ebook version.

The big lesson from Guy and Shawn

If you’re self-publishing, don’t put yourself in a lesser category. With all the tools, platforms and resources now at your disposal, you can compete head-to-head with big traditional publishers. You can put together a talented editorial and design team and publish as stylishly and smartly as a traditional publisher. Guy and Shawn call this “artisanal publishing.” Using print-on-demand, you can distribute your book almost as widely. The one exception is bookstores, but who buys books there anyway. And of course, you have the freedom and flexibility to price and market your book as cleverly and aggressively as you want.

- DW

#8 DW: Did you use Lightning Source for the print-on-demand version of APE? Any lessons learned or additional tips?

Guy: I’ll let Shawn answer this one.

Shawn: Yeah, we’re using LSI (Lightning Source) for Ingram distribution and wholesale orders. Lessons learned? Start early, the application process for LSI takes about 2-3 weeks and they expect to be dealing with someone who knows what their way around the publishing world. If you’re not ready for that level of commitment, consider using CreateSpace.

#9 DW: Guy, the name of your publishing company is Nononina Press and the entity behind Alltop is Nononina, Inc. What does Nononina mean?

Guy: Nononina is the first two letters of the names of my four children. Lots of people have attributed the name to more clever memes than this. Sorry to disappoint them!

#10 DW: Guy, now that you’ve self-published two books (the first was the Kindle edition of  What the Plus!), would you do another book with Portfolio, your New York publisher? What would it take? A big fat advance? Or is it something else??

Guy: The people that I work with at Portfolio are uniformly excellent. The rules and conventions under which they work, I believe, constrain them. I would hire any of them as independent consultants. I would return to Portfolio or work with a different traditional publisher again—all it would take is an advance so large that I could cope with the loss of marketing flexibility. I’ll let you know if this happens!

DW: Thanks hugely, Guy and Shawn.

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