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February 18, 2013
By Alex Palmer
Guy Kawasaki walked away from a major publishing deal to spread the gospel of self-publishing.

For most authors and agents, a book deal in the mid-six-figure range would be an unqualified win. But when a major publisher made just such an offer to Guy Kawasaki—tech entrepreneur, Apple “evangelist,” and in-demand corporate speaker—for his 12th book, he decided there might be a better option. Kawasaki opted to pass over the major publishing houses and publish on his own.

He had several good reasons to go the self-publishing route. Chief among them was that the book was about the benefits of self-publishing. Titled APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, it makes the case that the spread of distribution technology and the growing role an author plays in marketing his or her book has reduced the need for major publisher support.

Another reason goes back to an incident that occurred with the last book that he published traditionally (through Penguin Portfolio). Kawasaki had a buyer interested in sending copies of the e-book version of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, to 500 customers as part of a promotion. But when he reached out to the publisher, who then referred him to Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, he was told the only way the buyer could do that was to buy the single promotional code 500 individual times.

“I thought, as Steve Jobs would say, ‘there must be a better way,’ ” says Kawasaki.

He saw this as part of a widespread inadequacy in the traditional publishing model as it stands today. In an age where consumers are used to instant information and technology allows for lightning-fast turnaround, Kawasaki found that the three to six months it takes to go from the finalized manuscript to sitting on store shelves “made you scratch your head.”

Self-publishing— or “artisanal publishing,” as Kawasaki prefers to call it, likening his approach to that of an artisanal brewer or baker—seemed to offer the better way he sought. It provided not only a royalty scheme that he found fairer than a traditional contract, but also the control and quick response that appealed to the restless and prolific entrepreneur.

“In the self-publishing world, you upload the book on Monday and the season starts Wednesday,” he says.

The fact that an author of Kawasaki’s stature chose to venture into the woods of self-publishing shows how far the technology and industry have evolved. But his experiences in doing so, not to mention the advice he offers in APE, which he co-authored with Shawn Welch, also provide lessons to authors and publishers about where things are heading and in which ways the traditional publishing model is still hard to beat.

Trying Something New

Kawasaki’s insights about technology, management, and creativity have enabled him to sell tens of thousands of books. Originally from Hawaii, Kawasaki found his calling in 1983, when he went to work for Apple and became a “chief evangelizer” for the company. This led him to write The Macintosh Way: The Art of Guerrilla Management (HarperCollins), published in 1987. Its success established him as a major voice in the tech and business worlds, and he left Apple that year.

Since then, Kawasaki has become something of a technology Renaissance man, leading the Macintosh database company ACIUS; inventing then selling the e-mail product Emailer; founding venture capital firm Garage; and creating the Web site, which culls the top stories from across the Internet. Throughout all these projects, he continued to write books and columns, speak, and build his audience.

Before APE, Kawasaki wrote 11 books, 10 of which he published through traditional means. The predecessor to APE, 2012’s What the Plus! Google+ for the Rest of Us, was self-published in e-book format through Amazon Digital Services, but the print edition was handled by McGraw-Hill.

The concept for APE came to Kawasaki while working on What the Plus! To better understand the process, he bought shelves of books on self-publishing, and was especially influenced by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath’s Be the Monkey, in which the two have a dialogue about e-books and self-publishing.

But as he put the book together, Kawasaki repeatedly ran into questions that did not seem to have obvious answers.

“I was just amazed by how hard the process was and how many so-called experts disagreed on how to do it,” says Kawasaki. “It took awhile for me to figure it out.”

One of these questions came up over the punctilious question of how to stylize bullet points in Microsoft Word, so that they would appear correctly on a Kindle. Kawasaki heard conflicting suggestions, so he posed the question to his Google Plus followers. Shawn Welch, an app developer and e-book author himself, responded. He offered not only an explanation but demonstrated to Kawasaki how it worked by using photos of his Kindle with Kawasaki’s text, bullet pointed as requested.

The two hit it off, and Welch’s knowledge of all areas of digital publishing, which he learned from putting out his own books as well as four years working in Web and multimedia at a traditional publisher, impressed Kawasaki. He saw the potential for a future project that would help clear up the questions he had run into during production of What the Plus! but that could also take a wider view of artisanal publishing and book marketing.

“We sat down at a coffee shop and said, ‘We just made it through the self-publishing process, and not a lot of people know how to do what we just accomplished,’ ” says Welch. “There are lots of books about writing, or how to make an e-book, or sell an e-book, but not the all-in-one.”

Kawasaki asked Welch if he would be interested in coauthoring the book. Welch immediately accepted.

An All-in-One Approach

For about eight weeks, Kawasaki outlined the book while Welch researched. They then spent about six weeks writing it on a shared Word document in Dropbox, and another 10 weeks on the editing.

“We did a full edit on six versions of APE printed as a manuscript, and once we got to that, we crowdsourced feedback on it,” says Welch. “We then turned it over to a professional copy editor.”

As the title suggests, APE illuminates the process of self-publishing through the lenses of the three roles someone looking to put out a successful book would want to master in today’s market—author, publisher, and entrepreneur.

The Author section details the pros and cons of e-books and self-publishing, as well as such nuts-and-bolts advice as what type of computer to use for word processing (MacBook Air, according to the authors) and how to use Microsoft Word to ensure easy transfer to self-publishing platforms. The Publisher section outlines everything from using Lulu and Blurb to creating an audio version of the book.

But Entrepreneur, which covers building an author platform properly using social media, and pitching to bloggers and reviewers, is the hardest and most important of the three, according to Kawasaki. He believes a combination of authors not understanding marketing or not seeing the need for it leads them to fail to make it central to their publishing plans.

“Most authors are living under this misconception that you write the book and you’re done and it magically starts selling,” Kawasaki says.

During the lead-up to APE’s publication, Kawasaki and his agent, Sloan Harris of ICM Partners, had “some lively and interesting conversations about what his options looked like,” for publishing the book, according to Harris. He discussed several options with Kawasaki for how to approach the project, including the potential of going through a major publishing house, as he had done so successfully with previous books.

But Kawasaki decided that in this case, the best route both financially and for connecting with the intended audience was to self-publish.

“In the final analysis, a book about self-publication ought to be self-published,” says Harris, emphasizing that his role with Kawasaki, as with all his authors, is to offer them the best possible options, but ultimately let the author make the final decision.

“Guy is smart enough to know which projects belong in which channels,” he adds.

Kawasaki put out the e-book using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for 90 days, thereby getting promotion through the KDP Select program, and made print-on-demand versions available through Lightning Source.

Making the Artisanal Approach Work

Kawasaki sees self-publishing as an especially attractive option for authors now, more so than even a year ago, and one he expects to become even more worthwhile in the near future. In the shifting publishing market, the author’s platform is more important than ever, and it is one of the chief factors in a publisher’s decision to go forward with a book.

Kawasaki boasts a platform that most writers would envy: 1.2 million followers on Twitter, 3.8 million on Google Plus, and 286,000 on Facebook, as well as an active presence on every other social media platform. If an author like Kawasaki can command this kind of an audience on his own, he may wonder just how much value a publishing house can offer in promoting a new book.

And that is a point Kawasaki continually comes back to in making his case for self-publishing.

“Now, you ship far fewer dead trees to retailers, so that’s not a key value add anymore,” says Kawasaki. “Publishers are getting 80% of the [royalties], but I don’t think they’re providing 80% of the value.”

While major publishers used to be the 800-pound gorillas that shaped the publishing world, now the “APEs”—Kawasaki’s term for those who adopt his approach—are big enough to fend for themselves. Additionally, he maintains that publishers no longer serve as the arbiters of quality in the same way they once did.

“If it came from Random [House], or Putnam, or Penguin, Simon & Schuster, McGraw Hill—that was a proxy for a quality book,” says Kawasaki. “I never buy a book based on the publisher anymore— today I think the proxy of quality is the number of stars in the Amazon rating, and the first few reviews.”

Through a get-out-the-reviews campaign that he has refined over his last several books (and which is outlined in the book’s Entrepreneur section), Kawasaki helped generate some 280 Amazon reviews for the book as of the time of this writing, almost all of them five stars. This, rather than a prestigious imprint, will convert a browser into a buyer, according to Kawasaki.

Another area he finds self-publishing to be superior is in sponsorships and special sales of e-books. Kawasaki sold 6,000 What the Plus! e-books to Samsung, with the agreement that the company could include an ad with a link to the company website on the first page of the PDF. It was a win-win agreement, but the kind of arrangement, like those 500 copies of Enchantment, that would “give most traditional publishers an aneurism,” according to Kawasaki.

Kawasaki urges wannabe APEs to also keep in mind that total control can be a curse as much as a blessing in some situations, and that they must know when they should look for outside help — specifically with copyediting, cover design, and layout. To publish APE, Kawasaki hired a freelance copy editor and designer, costing him a few thousand dollars.

“The irony is that many traditional publishers are using freelancers anyway, so you can in fact get the same people who a traditional publisher would have assigned to you as a freelancer,” says Kawasaki.

His hands-on approach also provides readers with particular benefits. Kawasaki and Welch have taken to updating the entire book as regularly as they please. Taking an idea from app development, the authors offer a update log at where readers can see exactly what additions have been made from one version to the next.

“As soon as we released APE in December, we already had changes to make to the next version,” says Welch.

Not Everyone Can Be Guy

But while Kawasaki may be enthusiastic about his approach to self-publishing, the lessons he offers may have their limits.

“It’s hard to compare Guy Kawasaki to other authors, given that he not only has this vast experience but he’s a marketing genius,” says Karen Mender, cofounder of the Self-Publishing Book Expo. “He has the platform, he has the know-how, he understand sales, he understands the audience. For him to control his own destiny is different than for many other authors.”

Mender believes that Kawasaki’s example might be applicable to other megaselling authors but that she doesn’t see it as a trend that’s catching on—yet.

“It certainly could happen,” says Mender. “It will come down to an author-by-author, book-by-book decision based on their know-how, their energy—they have to have a lot of energy to take it on by themselves.”

While Kawasaki is an evangelist for self-publishing, he says there are some for whom it doesn’t make sense, or that it should be used in combination with traditional publishing opportunities. There is “Plan A,” for bestselling authors or those who can pull a big advance. Then there is “Plan B,” the APE approach. But Kawasaki also urges that authors consider “Plan C,” which combines both.

“You do the APE plan. Lo and behold you have a book that sells well. Then a traditional publisher acquires that book and your next two titles,” says Kawasaki. “That is a very good plan.”

That is how Kawasaki approached What the Plus!, which McGraw-Hill picked up for print rights after its e-book version took off (though Kawasaki maintains e-book rights). He also remains open to this kind of arrangement for APE as long as he can maintain some freedom in how the e-books are published and distributed.

Kawasaki also points to foreign rights as an area where a traditional publisher remains better equipped than a DIY author.

“It’s always that I get a call from the foreign rights person at the publisher, saying, ‘Guess what? We sold your book for $2,000 in Croatia!’ And I say, ‘Hallelujah, that’s $2,000 I never would have gotten,’ ” says Kawasaki. “But if someone was to e-mail me personally and say, ‘We want to make the Croatian version of APE,’ I don’t know if this is the most prestigious publisher in Croatia, or one guy in a dorm room.”

He also sees some traditional publishers evolving as quickly as the technology. Kawasaki gives the example of O’Reilly Media, which has virtually given up on digital rights management, and includes digital copies of the book with every hard copy purchased. The company also produces and markets webinars for their authors, rather than expecting the authors to conduct them independently.

Kawasaki expects to see more of these kinds of steps from publishers in the future as they try to make their offerings work more effectively for authors.

“If nothing else, I think the traditional publisher has to wake up and see that they’re not bringing 80% of the value to the party,” says Kawasaki. “They need to answer the question, ‘What business is the publisher going to get for the author that the author would not have gotten by himself or herself?’ ”