Adventures in Self Publishing and Home Building


I released the eBook version of my book Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More back on August 4th. It's available in Kindle, Apple Books, PDF, and formats compatible with other electronic book readers and apps. If my initial hypothesis was, “People might buy this book,” I'm happy to see that people have been buying it and the reviews on Amazon are 100% 5-stars.

I've been working on getting the paperback book produced, printed, and put up for sale. I've been taking pre-orders for signed copies, but I've otherwise had to ask people to be patient. I've had to ask people to sign up for a notification email list.

About once a week, somebody has asked when the paperback would be available. Some say, “It's a matter of age, I prefer paper books,” but younger people have also asked for a paperback for a number of reasons (there are, of course, many advantages to a traditional paper book). 

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) Summary:

I thought the paperback would be available by the end of 2018. They should have been available by now, actually. But, there have been some problems, unfortunately.

I'm switching to a new contractor that will result in a month's delay, with hopefully better quality.

Past Adventures with a Publisher

In the past, my books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen were published by Productivity Press. In the past, I got frustrated with them due to the slow process (generally 7 to 9 months from manuscript submission to book shipping), the delays that seemed preventable, and errors and defects that were injected along the way — not all of which were caught before it hit print, as I blogged about (errors on Page 1 of a book = facepalm):

Everything about my experience with a publisher screamed “good people, bad process.” I've heard similar complaints from authors, irregardless of who their publisher was.

Had I chosen to submit my manuscript to a publisher on August 4th, there wouldn't be anything available for sale right now. Because I used the Leanpub.comLean Publishing” process, I was able to see partial in-progress books all throughout 2018, getting valuable feedback and further testing the “will anybody buy it?” hypothesis.

With traditional publishing, there would have been batchy back-and-forth cycles of editing, answering questions from the editor, reviewing the typesetting draft, giving feedback, etc. The paperback would have been available, at best, in early February. Sometimes, the Kindle version lagged that by a month or two.

I'm frustrated that the paperback isn't available yet. Again, at least the eBook options are there now for those who prefer that format. I'll write a bit about my reflections, including mistakes I made, in the hope that it helps other authors.

My Self-Publishing Process (and my Regrets)

Back in August and early September, I checked out different companies that would do the print-book page layout and design for me. This meant I got to select a vendor / partner and I'd have to pay them to do the work (50% up front and the remainder when done). 

One advantage of traditional publishing is that I wouldn't have had to front that money. But, then again, the return in terms of royalties is much higher when you self publish. Thankfully, I was able to make that investment in my book. That would also mean playing “general contractor” (or customer) where the publisher would play that coordination and project management role (and I never really felt like a customer of the publisher).

Hiring somebody means they're accountable to me, which should be better.

I have been using a book coach during the writing process, and she was incredibly helpful in every way. She recommended a few companies that she knew of and I found a few through my own online searches. One of the companies recommended by my coach said they didn't have to time or capacity to work on my complex book at the time, so they politely passed (which I appreciated).

It came down to a choice between Company A (via my coach) and Company B (via my own search). Both companies offered similar design services and estimated similar timelines. Company B would have cost twice as much… I ended up selecting Company A.

It's ironic that my book that builds on principles and methods from W. Edwards Deming had a series of events that reminded me of Point #4 in his Fourteen Points:

“End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total costMove toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.”

W. Edwards Deming.

I trusted the advice of my book coach. Being busy, I interviewed the two companies, but I didn't ask for detailed bios and work samples. I trusted the book coach. But, I'm not blaming her. I'm kicking myself a bit.

First came concerns about timing and schedule. The company I chose said I'd get an initial draft back in about seven days. Even if they meant seven business days, it took much longer than that. I was busy with other work, so I wasn't micromanaging or nagging. Maybe I should have. They said the “book would be ready for upload in six or eight weeks.” That's been missed.

The person I was working with kept giving excuses about being busy and traveling. I had to pull and pry status updates out of him. I was trying to be patient.

On October 16, he said, “This may take another week.” I had to ask for a status update on October 29. I was told I would get a sample “tomorrow.” That didn't happen either. I got more complaints about being busy traveling, as if that was any of my concern.

On November 14, I finally got a sample document with the first chapter and a half. That was more like seven weeks, not seven days. I know my book is complex, with many many charts and figures, but the company knew this when they sent a proposal (I had shared my self-made PDF that's available for sale through Leanpub). 

I gave feedback… there were some things I didn't like… he was still struggling with the volume of charts and figures. But, I was trying to be patient. It's better to do it right than to do it fast. I thought I was waiting for quality. 

There were more delays and more excuses, but I finally got the full document to review on December 7th. I wasn't happy with what I saw, long story short.

Company A seems more geared toward “we'll help you navigate self publishing, including doing some page layout” when I think I really needed to hire a “designer,” which is more of the profile of Company B. I own that initial choice. 

We had a talk… the lead person from Company A understood why I wanted to walk away and offered to send me a refund, which I appreciate. He said it was the first time he's ever had to do that, but he understood how I felt. So no hard feelings, either way. The choice of suppliers and my choice to switch is on me.

Switching to Company B means adding about a month's delay. I hope the books will be available in January, 2019.

This book is important to me, personally and professionally. I want a printed book that looks great, not just OK. I think Company B can deliver that, as big of a challenge is that might be.

I apologize for the delay… live and learn. Again, I never like seeing a company blame their suppliers for a problem. I've always said, “Well, you chose the supplier and need to take responsibility for that choice.” I had my complaints about Company A, but I take responsibility for having chosen them. 

Parallels to (Attempts at) Home Building

I've never blogged about it, because it's too frustrating to think about, even almost three years later. But, when my wife got transferred back from San Antonio to the DFW area, we searched for a house. Even though I had said, “Let's never build a house… it will probably drive me nuts” (based on stories I heard from others), we decided to put a 3% deposit down on a spec home that was being built in a new development.

It wasn't a “custom home” — it was basically a “yes or no” decision about did we want to buy what the builder planned on building on that lot (it was just a foundation with pipes, at that point).

Sure, enough, we found problems. There were a number of really obvious mistakes and quality problems being made (which makes you worry, then, about the problems you cannot see). Our builder merged with another builder, which caused a delay. Our site didn't have a full-time on-site project manager (a problem made worse by the merger and the delay in hiring somebody).

Then, the house was going to be done at least three months later than initially “promised.” We learned that a promise or an estimate means nothing in home building when you are forced to sign a one-sided contract that says the builder can deliver whenever they want.

So, we opened up our search again. We found an existing home that we loved — and the price had fallen after being on the market a while. We tried getting our deposit back from the builder and they said “no” (remember the one-sided contract).

The deposit was “sunk cost” and it was painful to walk away. But, the house was eventually delayed another three months and we moved into the existing home much earlier. And, we've been happy with that decision. The price of the newly-built home dropped a fair amount (the developer wasn't selling homes as quickly as they had hoped). So, had we gone through with that purchase, we might have ended up losing home value instead of losing the deposit. And, we would have been living in a construction zone instead of an established neighborhood.

Now, we hadn't violated the Deming rule about choosing based on price alone. But, I guess we learned sometimes it's better to walk away and try again, so that's a parallel to Measures of Success. I would have been willing to walk away from the 50% deposit, but I didn't have to (thankfully).

In both cases, I think I did follow Principle #1 of “The Toyota Way,” for what it's worth:

“Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.”

– The Toyota Way 

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • I wouldn’t need design help if not for the 130 graphics and charts in my book, which creates a design challenge compared to a book that is all text or mostly text (like the “Practicing Lean” anthology that I edited — I didn’t need help with that).

      Producing an eBook is, perhaps ironically, much easier to produce and publish because the concept of “page layout” doesn’t exist like it does for a static paperback book.

      • I’ve found e-books to have page layout problems as well when images, etc., are included because HTML is unstable. Flowing text is no problem, as you note. All of my books have many images, tables, etc. That’s why I waited years to produce e-book versions of my print books — until the software was created that could convert .pdfs into facsimile copies that preserve the format and layout of the printed versions.

        • Ebooks are not HTML.

          Also, doing an eBook as a PDF page replica defeats one of the main benefits of eBooks – the ability for the reader to adjust page size and the font to improve readability for their eyes and their device.

          • I was frustrated when my publisher did the 3rd edition of Lean Hospitals (and Healthcare KaizenLean Hospitals had a process like this:

            1) I submit a Word doc with images
            2) Publisher converts to a format that doesn’t have spellcheck, errors get introduced on their end, all don’t get caught by visual inspection
            3) The book goes to print
            4) The publisher has to convert BACK from the paper book software to Kindle, which they claim is majorly time consuming and expensive (even when they offshore work overseas)
            5) The Kindle book was released well after the print book

            It’s easeier for the publisher to throw a PDF at Amazon. I’m not sure it’s better for the reader.

            I asked the publisher why they don’t simply convert from my Word doc into Kindle format (which is easy if not automated) and publish in parallel to the paper book…

            “But that’s not the way we do it…”

            Self publishing is far less frustrating than working through the publisher. I might screw some things up, but it’s my decisions, my responsibility, and my control over the project… including the pricing.

            • Royalties from publishers are lousy (15%) and paid slowly (every six months and it might also lag six months). The publisher does take on more of the upfront list, but the low royalties are a vestige of the days when an author NEEDED a publisher. Now, publishers NEED authors or they have no content.

              If my publisher had a “large income,” then they wouldn’t be doing constant layoffs in what looks and sounds like a “death spiral.”

  1. Thanks for sharing some of your struggles. It’s easy to wonder, “Am I the only one who sometimes struggles with vendors?” It’s nice to know it happens to others too. Who knows? If all your readers put their cards on the table, there might be plenty of commiseration to go around. :-)


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