Home Business Idea #6: Self-Publish How-To Books

I received an e-mail from someone who has been reading this series of home-business essays and wondered if I would offer some advice on writing and self-publishing books. Okay, here goes....

I shall begin by deferring to E. B. White, who wrote the following to a class of fourth graders in 1968. They had written to him asking how to write a book:

”First, you have to want to write one very much. Then, you have to know of something that you want to write about. Then, you have to begin. And, once you have started, you have to keep going. That’s really all I know about how to write a book. I’ve written seventeen of them and I’m almost ready to quit—but not quite.”

Personally, I’ve written ten books, seven of them have been self-published. E.B. White’s books, which include “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stewart Little” have sold millions of copies and been made into movies. My books have sold only a few thousand and none have been made into movies (unless you count all those Whizbang Chicken Plucker videos people have put on YouTube).

Me and Elwyn Brooks are birds of a feather, but he was an eagle and I am a sparrow. He wrote essays for “The New Yorker” and “Atlantic Monthly,” and was paid well for them. I write essays for “The Deliberate Agrarian,” and get paid nothing.

Nevertheless, E.B. White’s advice to those 4th graders is something I can relate to, and it is spot on.

In another letter, written the same year, White relates to William Zinnser another particularly insightful (and encouraging) bit of wisdom for aspiring book writers:

”Sid [Perelman], of course, commands a vocabulary that is the despair (and joy) of every writing man. I have to get along with a vocabulary of about fifteen hundred serviceable words that I just use over and over again, trying to rearrange them in interesting order. Sid is like a Roxy organ that has three decks, fifty stops, and a pride of pedals under the bench. When he wants a word, its there. Sid even speaks with precision—a feat many a writer is incapable of.”

In other words, you can be a fine writer without an overly-extensive vocabulary. And that part about many writers being incapable of expressing themselves with the spoken word is something else I can relate to. E.B. never gave a speech. I’m not inclined to give speeches either.

By the way, anyone who has any kind of desire to write any kind of book would be wise to read E.B. White’s little volume titled “The Elements of Style,” which is a resurrection of a book originally authored (and self-published) by his college English professor, William Strunk, Jr.

The other classic writing book you must read and absorb, especially if you desire to write nonfiction, is William Zinnser’s, “On Writing Well.”

The nice thing about producing a how-to book is that, if the information is good, it should have a ready market for many years. That isn’t as much the case with fictional books. Thus, if you want to write and self-publish a book, and you want to make money from it, I recommend it be a practical how-to book of some sort.

As for getting your how-to information into actual book format, I’m probably not the best source of advice. All my self-published books (except one) have been produced the hard way. I composed each page on my computer using the basic Appleworks word processing software. I printed each page out on a laser printer and hand-drew the illustrations directly on the page. Sometimes I glued corrections and other copy in place on the page.

In the printing world, such pages are known as “mechanicals” and that is what you submit to a printer. Producing mechanicals is exacting and tedious, but it is also simple to do, so it suits me.

I’m convinced that how-to books sell best when they measure 8-1/2” by 11.” That’s something to keep in mind. And I’m also convinced that you should price the book at $14.95 to $19.95 to adequately cover your production costs and make the kind of money you should make for your time and effort and overhead expenses.

The simplest way to get a fledgling how-to book published is to take it to a local quick-print shop and have them make 100 copies. Then start marketing the book. Send sample copies to appropriate magazines for review. Send review copies to your local newspaper. Include press releases. Spread the word on the internet. You’ll find that producing your own book is very easy compared to marketing it.

If the book delivers useful information clearly, word will spread and you’ll start selling it. When that happens, take your mechanicals to a bigger printing company and get 1,000 copies. They will be of better quality and cost you less than photocopy editions from the quick-print shop.

You'll also want to try to sell your book wholesale to established book sellers. You'll have to discount the price 45% off retail to them. That means you don't make so much per copy. But they will sell more copies than you can.

That is the significantly condensed version of how to write a how-to book and bring it to print on the cheap. My book, Anyone Can Build A Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker is the classic example of a homely little homemade how-to book that was produced just as I’ve explained. It has now sold a little over 5,000 copies in the past eight years and continues to sell at a steady rate.

It is worth noting that my plucker plan book is the best selling (by far) of my self-published books. It is also worth noting that 5,000 copies is really nothing to crow about.

I got an e-mail a couple weeks back from Jeff Eberbaugh in West Virginia. He bought my plucker book and said he was going to build a Whizbang for himself. Then he related to me that he wrote and self-published six humor books and has sold 275,000 copies. That is awesome. It makes me want to write another book, or another ten. Sales like that would buy me the land I’m working towards.

Are you curious about Jeff’s best seller? The title is Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking and Other Fine Recipes. Whodathunkit?

My experience has been that, yes, you can make some part-time money producing and self-publishing your own books. And a few people make a LOT of money. But it is not fast money, and self-publishing books is never sure money.

I would liken the writing and self-publishing of books to planting seeds in the garden. Planting and caring for the garden is a lot of work, and it takes awhile for the harvest to come. Sometimes it is disappointing. Sometimes it is very satisfying.

In the end, it boils down to E.B. White’s beginning advice about how to write a book:

”First, you have to want to write one very much.”


This essay is part of a series on home business ideas. CLICK HERE to go to an index of all essays in the series.