How I Self Published a Book that Sold 5,000 Copies

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Dear subscribers,

In January 2020, I self-published a book called Principles of Product Management. Since then, the book has sold over 5,000 copies.

For my last post of 2020, I thought it would be fitting to share my journey writing this book. If you want to be an author someday, here are ten steps to make that goal a reality:

  1. Know your why

  2. Find an audience

  3. Make an outline

  4. Start writing

  5. Cut, cut, cut

  6. Find early reviewers

  7. Try traditional publishing

  8. Build a launch plan

  9. Get professional help

  10. Launch


1. Know your why

Don't write a book to make money. Write because you have something to share.

It took nine months to write my book. I wrote before dawn, in the subway to work, and on the weekends. Often, I had to sacrifice time with my family to write.

From a financial perspective, writing a book doesn’t make a lot of sense. I made about $35,000 pre-tax after Amazon's 30% cut. While not insignificant, people had earned more from newsletters and video courses with less time investment.

So why did I write a book? I wrote it because it was difficult for me to become a product manager. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

Days passed with no response, and I began to feel anxious. Finally, late on a Friday afternoon, my product director stopped by my desk and asked if I had time to meet. We walked into that same windowless conference room. "Peter," she said, "You did well on two of the interviews, but your leadership examples weren't great. I'm afraid you didn't pass the loop." My heart sank. She tried to comfort me: "I know you did a great job over the past six months, and the team loves working with you. You could always try again in another year.”

This story is all too common for new and aspiring product managers. I wrote the book that I wish I had when I was failing PM interviews and wondering if I'll ever make it.


2. Find an audience

Before I started writing, I tried to answer three questions:

  1. Who is my customer? 

  2. What is the customer problem?

  3. How will this book solve the problem better than other resources?

My customer was new and aspiring PMs. New PMs often struggle to pick up best practices on the job. Aspiring PMs need help breaking into a field that looks for product experience.

Existing solutions include blog posts, product courses, and interview prep books. Nobody had written a practical guide that walks new and aspiring PMs through leading without authority, building products, and landing a job all in one place.


3. Make an outline

I had a target customer with a problem that my book could solve, but I was still staring at an empty Google Doc.

Finally, one morning, I decided to draft an outline.

An outline transformed my hazy goal of "writing a book" into an actionable plan.

I spent a week just revising that outline and reviewing it with other PMs. With their input, I landed on three main sections for the book:

  1. Principles to lead without authority.

  2. Product development to understand the problem and identify the right solution.

  3. Getting the job with PM transition tips and interview questions and answers.

At the end of each section, I included interviews with product leaders to offer other perspectives. People like Lenny Rachitsy, Sachin Rekhi, David Weekly, and Sharmeen Browarek (my old boss!) were kind enough to share their insights with me for the book.


4. Start writing

My outline gave me the freedom to start writing from any chapter. After a few paragraphs, however, I would inevitably look back and think, "This isn't good enough." 

After a few weeks of writing and editing the same dozen pages, I knew that I had to move faster. I made a rule for myself:

I would finish a first draft for each chapter before making edits, no matter how crappy I thought that draft was.

This rule dramatically increased my output.


5. Cut, cut, cut

Before I knew it, I had several chapters written. Now it was time to edit.

Editing = Making the point with fewer words.

I hated reading non-fiction books that just repeated one idea ad nauseum, so I was determined to cut all unnecessary words, sentences, and anecdotes from my book. I re-read each chapter over and over on my computer, phone, and print-outs to find more concise ways to express my ideas (Grammarly also helped).

I estimate that I cut over 30% of the words from every chapter.


6. Find early reviewers

In addition to self-edits, I also wanted to get my writing in front of my target customers as soon as possible.

Over the years, I had mentored several new and aspiring PMs. Whenever I finished self-editing a chapter, I would send it to them to review. 

I wrote the book in partnership with my target customer.

These early reviewers gave me valuable feedback about what chapters resonated the most with them and where they saw gaps.

I also tested each chapter by repackaging the material into PM training sessions that I ran at work and at organizations like Product School. Getting positive face to face feedback from my target customer encouraged me to keep writing.


7. Try traditional publishing

I started researching publishing options six months into writing my book.

I’m not a famous author and didn’t have an online following. Nevertheless, I wanted to give traditional publishing a try. I emailed a few publishers who specialized in tech books. Here are some of the responses that I got: 

  • "So I think if the book is positioned right, it could find a home, but I also think it will be tough to get visibility among others in the space."

  • "It's especially tough for a first-time author because you don't have a platform to leverage."

  • To be transparent, we will only look at bringing in a title if it will sell 10,000-20,000 copies in the first year."

I didn't even know if I could sell 1,000 copies, never mind 10,000. 

Traditional publishing, I realized, was more for established thought leaders or people with a large online following.


8. Build a launch plan

My detour into traditional publishing didn't work out, but I was still determined to publish. Self-publishing meant that:

Marketing my book was just as important as writing it.

Three months before my launch date, I started drafting a marketing plan with:

  • A launch schedule

  • Kindle listing details (e.g., book description, keywords)

  • People who I would send the book to for early reviews

  • Channels that I would use to promote the book

I also created a pre-launch website (principles.pm) to collect email addresses from interested readers. I used carrd.co for the template and MailerLite to trigger emails.

I promoted this website on social media and PM communities while still writing the book. By launch day, I had 1,000+ email subscribers.


9. Get professional help

After eight months of writing and editing my book, I was ready to hire professional help. I paid for an editor ($500) and cover artist ($440) on Reedsy

Editors can provide development edits on book structure or line edits on word choice and grammar. I felt confident about my book structure after getting feedback from early reviewers, so I only needed line edits.

I spent more time working with the book cover designer. Having an eye-catching book cover is critical, so I sent the designer different book covers that I liked and ran through many iterations with him. 


10. Launch

I started prepping for launch shortly after New Years 2020. I decided to split the launch into two phases, separated by a week:

  1. Soft launch: I listed the book on Amazon at a steep discount ($2.99 vs. $9.99 regular price) and encouraged friends and family to buy it and leave an honest review. Many of them had already read my manuscript so could write up a review quickly. I had about ten reviews as social proof for public launch.

  2. Public launch: A week after the soft launch, I promoted the book publicly by sharing it with my email list, posting on social media (e.g., FB and slack PM groups), and listing it on Product Hunt. The book made #2 Product of the Day on Product Hunt and sold 500 copies in the first week. It has continued to sell a few copies every day throughout 2020.


In hindsight

If I could do it all over again, I would make the following changes to my plan:

  1. Build an audience first by writing in public. Many people want to know how to publish a book and many new and aspiring PMs want advice. If I shared my journey and insights on social media while writing my book, I would have built a much larger audience by launch day. With a large built-in audience, I could have tried to sell the ebook version on Gumroad, which takes a much smaller cut than Amazon's 30%.

  2. Don't sell yourself short. I listed the book for only $2.99 during the first week of my public launch because I wasn't confident that it would sell. In hindsight, my target customer can afford to pay $9.99 for a book.

In the end, the best part of writing my book is knowing that it helped my readers achieve their goals:

For someone who struggled to become a PM, these messages have made all the difference. 

Here's to a great 2021 pursuing your dreams.

Let’s connect on Twitter and you can also find my book on Amazon.