Self-Publishing: Lesson’s I’ve Learned Starting From Zero

Aaron McHugh

People ask me about my experiences of self-publishing. I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the lessons I’ve learned about the art and science of self-publishing.

This is an excerpt from a correspondence I had with another self-published author. He asked me about what I’ve done that “works”. I was hesitant to answer his direct question and instead offered some ideas about my approach to growing and scaling influence.

Author credibility vs. sales

I’ve found that self-publishing a book is more important as a credibility asset vs. a significant income stream by itself. Although I sell books every month, they do not compare to the revenue opportunity from a single speaking engagement. The speaking engagements have become much easier to acquire once I had a book published. I’m sure you’re finding this to be true as well. I wouldn’t recommend self-publishing a single book with the intention of it instantly becoming an independent recurring revenue stream.  Instead, think of your first book as getting into the game. Most successful authors are deriving their income from a repertoire of works, all contributing to a body of work (thanks Pam Slim for that idea). 

Breaking through a crowded noisy world

It’s very crowded. There are so many people who write and speak…or would like to. I’ve discovered that I need to giveaway 98% of my content for free in order to sell 2% of what I create. That isn’t perfect math, but it’s close. I hear a lot of first time authors, bloggers and podcasters talk about what they are going to sell before they’ve actually created anything meaningful or valuable. 

I believe you have to earn the right to be heard before you have enough people listening to ask for them to purchase anything from you.

I write a blog and produce a podcast. All of that content is free. But it has enabled me over 5 years to earn a voice of influence with subscribers/listeners. The best way to punch through a noisy world is have something meaningful to offer and do it over and over and over again for free. Then you won’t be “selling” anything. You’ll simply be offering practical tools and solutions to your tribe’s challenges. 

See my newest work 99 Ways to Navigate Your Best Life free digital download.

Picture from my Limited Edition coffee table book of 99 Ways to Navigate Your Best Life

I changed my messaging

I’ve found it’s important to concentrate on what/how I can help readers/subscribers vs why I’m credible. I’ve narrowed down my story to “I want to help you restore balance and discover a well lived life”. I’ve researched a lot of other authors-speakers that I like their work. They all took this approach “here’s what’s in it for you” vs. “here’s all the reasons you should listen to me”. 

I’ve found it’s easier to be heard in a noisy world if I distilled my message & talks into benefits to the reader/audience. See my speaking page for examples. Example in your arena, “I help top performers win more on the field and at home.”

I’ve found that people need a simple 5th grader friendly explanation to understand what we do and how it will help them.

Work Life Play -I want to help you restore Balance and discover a well-lived life


I think the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” fits well with results. I love that you have a goal of 1.9 million people. That’s cool. I’m less scientific in some senses. 

Seth Godin wrote a book called Tribes. It’s about the idea of creating and leading a group of likeminded people. He talks about the importance of creating raving fans vs. followers. He will say you only need 100 people giving you $1000 a year to make a nice living (paraphrased). But that means you have to have 100,000 or more followers to have 100 raving fans-the people who love everything you create. (Not literal math-example)

That takes time. Scaling influence takes patience, fortitude and guts. Listen to my podcast with Carl Richards– NY Times author he talks about his eight to ten years of scaling and growing trusted influence with his tribe “Real Financial Advisors”. His work is at

I’ve found this approach to be slow, arduous and lonely at times and immensely rewarding. 

There are a lot of tips and techniques out there….and gamesmanship to grow an audience. I find the challenge will always be keeping & retaining people’s attention. It’s longer and slower to build raving fans but they aren’t as fickle.

Less is More

I’ve found that Mark Twain’s quote is true, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead”. The noisier and more crowded the world gets, I find economy of words helps reduce the burden on the reader-subscriber to get the benefit. I’m not the fastest writer. And I believe less is more, which adds overhead to my creative process. I pay a lot of attention to word counts. The challenge is that sometimes I may not dive deep enough into a topic. I choose to write on a topic and then also create a podcast to flush it out further.

Here is a recent example of a post and podcast on the same idea,

Podcast: Learning to Budget Your Emotional Energy Investments & Expenditures

Field Report: Lessons in Managing Your Emotional Calories For Optimal Output

Guide vs. Hero

I’m really sold on the idea of positioning myself as The Guide instead of The Hero of the stories I tell. My favorite authors and speakers, call me forward and help convince me that I’m fully capable of tackling big challenges. I tire quickly of the writers/speakers who make it all about them and how to exactly emulate their success. Author Donald Miller taught me about this idea of positioning myself as The Guide and enabling my reader to be The Hero

The Hero claims, “I have this all figured out, here are the amazing lessons I have to teach you, I’m the expert, do what I do and how I do it. You’ll succeed if you do exactly what I did.”

The Guide says….“Look what I found. I want to share it with you. I think this might be helpful to you on your journey, endeavour, project, or quest. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Here are a few you pitfalls you want to avoid. You might be able to learn from my mistakes and hopefully not repeat them. You’re going to do great at this.”

The difference is the focus shifts to the reader as The Hero. The Guide (me) helps them achieve their objectives. Taking this approach shifts the attention off me and empowers the reader to step up and engage their role as the Hero.

This has helped me check my motives and reframe stories to help listeners/reader achieve their goals. Hopefully, I become a helpful guide vs. the focus of my achievements or wisdom (the Hero).


I’m told by other authors that Amazon creates 90%+ of all book sales. Less than 10% come from all other channels combined.

Secondly, having five to seven total works in your author store seems to be a higher probability of a tipping point. It helps drive up total sales by having multiple assets for a buyer to pick from or add to their cart. I’m releasing my second next month (99 Ways is releasing in Kindle in Feb ’17). Still a ways from the five to seven. But chipping away. I go to Rebecca Livermore with Professional Content Creation for my self-publishing advice. 

Amazon Reviews

It is important that your book has a handful of positive reviews that are from people who purchased your book. I found it helpful to go ahead and ask a few key people to provide an honest review. After you acquire 15-20+ reviews, which helps a potential reader feel at ease and eliminates the risk of “what if it’s bad”. My book Fire Your Boss is up to 27 reviews. Please add a review for me. It really does help. Everyone likes to make a safe decision. The more people who vote “yes” feels like it must be good.

Giveaway a lot of free copies of your book

I regularly drop ship free gift copies of my book from Amazon to a reader, podcast guest I interviewed and someone who wrote me an email asking about my work. I largely reinvest the money I make from book sales back into spreading the word. My original motive for writing Fire Your Boss was helping people rethink their career in order to experience more satisfaction and career fulfillment . This approach allows me to keep advancing that cause. 

Resources I go to

Michael Hyatt: Intentional leadership. Former CEO of large publishing company.

Donald Miller: Story Brand and how to make your reader the hero. Most known for his book Blue Like Jazz.

Seth Godin: Tribes and his daily blog. Can’t say enough positive things about him and his work. 

Jeff Goins: Incredible story from blogging to now best selling writer. Provides practical tools on how publish.

Rebecca Livermore: Creating professional content, self-publishing, promotion and book release strategies.

Jon Cook: Keynote Content, perfect for editing and content development help.

Lorie DeWorken: Mind the Margins, typesetting and book layout for self-publishing.

Ben Larson, Bottle Rocket Design, graphic design genius and content visualization.

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