Christina Wodtke on self-publishing

This month, we sat down with Women Talk Design founder and Present Yourself co-author Christina Wodtke to discuss her experience with self-publishing. As an author, teacher, and established thought leader, Christina has published multiple books on topics ranging from OKRs to drawing. We wanted to dive into her knowledge of book publishing, particularly when it comes to self-publishing.

Women Talk Design: To start off, could you talk a bit about what you do and give us a little background on your writing career?

Christina Wodtke: I am a full time lecturer at Stanford, where I teach design and product management. I’m in the computer science department, in the HCI group–Human Computer Interaction. Very, very committed to help make technology better for human beings that experience it. 

I also write books because I love books. Books kind of saved my life when I was a bullied kid. I’d go hide in the library and just lose myself there. Books are very important to me. I’m an autodidact–which means I teach myself everything–so obviously books are a critical part of that too. Books are really core to my existence. 

For a long time before I started teaching, I was working in industry and it didn’t afford a lot of time for writing. I did write something in 2000 during the dotcom crash about information architecture back when I was really into that sort of thing. Then, I didn’t write a book again until 2016 when I wrote Radical Focus, which is about objectives and key results. That one did extraordinarily well. I’ve also written books about empowered teams and using drawing to think effectively in product design and management.

WTD: Are all of your books self-published?

CW: No, originally I worked with a publisher for my first book. But, I have been a product manager and I’m a control freak. I knew what I wanted my cover to look like, so I fought with them over the cover and then I thought the quality of their copy editing wasn’t good enough so I hired my own copy editor. I just was like, why am I paying someone? Why are they taking such a huge percentage of the sales for doing so little?

Self publishing was finding its legs at that point and I thought, “I know how to do this. I’ve been a creative director. I’ve been an entrepreneur. So, why not just publish it myself?” That ended up being a really good decision for me because the book I published was the one that sold extremely well and so I’m still making money on that. I have friends who’ve sold more and have made less [with a traditional publisher]. 

When you self-publish through Amazon, you get a 70% cut, versus publishing with a publisher, at which point you could be getting 6 or 12% or somewhere else in that range, depending on the publisher.

I don’t think it’s for everybody, you know, because it is a lot of work. You have to hire everybody. You have to find your development editor, copy editor, your proofreader, your formatter–ebook formatter and print formatter. You have to find your cover designer. If you want to do audiobooks, you have to find a producer and figure out how ACX works. 

This happened over time [for me]. I started with just “let me just put it on Amazon and see what happens.” Then I would add one more thing as I learned it. So it’s a lot of work, but you can go at your own pace versus I’ve heard stories of publishers forcing you to go faster, go faster. And I’ve heard stories of publishers who said, “No, we can’t publish it right now because the presidential environment will interfere with the book” or whatever. With self-publishing, I can do whatever I want. I’m happy with that. 

WTD: When you were first starting to learn how to self-publish, what were some of the things that were most challenging? What are the things that you wish you had known before you went into it? 

CW: I learned that just because somebody says they can do a job doesn’t mean they can do a job. I hired a copy editor and I thought, “Okay, they copy edited it, I’m done now.” And they had made so many mistakes. They just weren’t very good at what they were doing.

You have to go in really looking at what quality you want. I pulled a little trick where I hired three different copy editors to go through the book the second time. As long as they kept catching things, I just kept putting it through until I was sure that it was clean and well done.

I also found a professional book artist whose style I liked. That’s another thing–a lot of people just hire someone to do the book cover, but sometimes people don’t do things that are to your taste. You know your book very well–if you have a cartoon on the front, it’s going to say one thing and if you have a gloomy mountain with the moon above, it’s going to say something else. The best way to hire a cover designer is to go on Behance or and really look through people’s portfolios and find someone who’s already doing exactly what you want. 

WTD: When you’re thinking of self-publishing, who else do you want on your team for the project?

CW: For me, the number one thing I start with is a development editor. People think an editor is an editor and they think of them mostly as just fixing your grammar. The development editor is the person who does so much for you. I work with Cathy Yardley and I wouldn’t write a book without her. She sets deadlines for me, she talks me off the cliff, she reads my writing and tells me when I’m not making any sense or when I’m pulling my punches and not creating enough drama.

The development editor is really the one that is that fresh pair of eyes when you’ve been working on it too long and you’re just losing your mind. For me, they’re almost as important as the author.

When you start, that’s all you’re doing–it’s just you and your dev editor. You’re sending stuff, and they’re like, “You still aren’t making sense”, or, “Wow, this is kind of boring”, or, “What if you swap this chapter and this chapter?” A really good dev editor can work with you in the way that really helps.

Writing is such a personal experience, even if you’re writing a how-to book, or nonfiction. It’s still your words on the page, and some people can be very protective of that. The editor really has to have a sense of how you want to work. 

WTD: We’ve talked about how you write and how you work with a development editor. Then, later on in the process, how do you finish a book? 

CW: Different books need different things. When I did Radical Focus, I actually created an MVP. I wrote a very short version of it, got it quickly edited, made a hundred copies and sold them at SXSW and over Twitter. I treated Radical Focus like a product.

It was barely even a book. But, I got a lot of good feedback from that. Then when I went to the second version of it, some of the things I learned blew my mind. I had this idea of how books should be, but everybody said, “I love how short it is.” So I ended up making a much shorter book than I had originally planned to do, which is good because that means there’s no fluff. I learned a lot about where it was clear and where it was unclear from the people who consumed the book. It let me play with pricing and get a sense of what people will pay for it.

When I made my drawing book, Pencil Me In, because it had so many drawings, it was a very physical thing. I would print out versions of it, fold it myself and then I had my kid proofread it quite a few times–how old would she have been? Somewhere around 10 or 11. I wanted it to be super friendly and easy to read and so she was my first editor. Then, I went and showed it to other people, showed it to my students at California College of the Arts (CCA), things like that.

The Team that Managed Itself was the first time I ever wrote as part of NaNoWriMo–the National Novel Writing Month where you try to write 50,000 words in a month. I was able to take it with the guy who invented it. We’d be sitting there going, write! Go, go, go! Then I had a lot of words that I didn’t know what to do with and it took me a long time to revise it. It made for a very difficult job. But I learned a lot from that. 

That’s the thing–people think there’s only one way to write your book, but really your biggest job as a writer is to learn how you write, where you write, what the thing is that produces work you’re happy with. You have to be very playful. 

When I do the next book [after Present Yourself], I’ll definitely do it the way I did Radical Focus. Am I writing to a good market? Is it going to reach people? Is this a topic people care about? Am I telling it in a way they expect? There’s a lot of thinking about your market that goes into the business of writing. 

If somebody’s reading this and thinking about writing a book, I would say, know who you’re writing for. Sometimes you’re writing for yourself, and that’s okay. It’s completely okay to write for the seven people who think like you. It’s not very profitable, but honestly, put it down. 

You can hope for 5 million people, but the thing with trying to write for everybody is if you water down what you’re writing, nobody will want to read it because it’s boring. If you want to reach a lot of people, you have to tell your story and hope that it resonates. Be very, very true to who you are, write something that’s fundamentally human and a problem that everybody struggles with.

WTD: What does it look like to bring the book out into the world?

CW: Okay, so we get towards the end, I’ve got my ISBN, and I’ve mailed off a copy to the Library of Congress. The thing is, you have to start marketing before you start writing. So what I always do is when I’m thinking about writing something, I start putting stuff on social media by writing short essays about it. It’s sort of like an early testing system but it’s also a way of getting people excited. Then, you point everybody at your mailing list–who else cares about this topic that you’re excited by? Who else is interested in it? When you talk at a conference, you should have a link on your slide saying, “I’m writing a book” or at least your URL. 

It’s called audience building and it’s pretty much the single most important thing you’re going to do. You want to have a one-on-one, personal relationship, preferably unmediated, where you can reach out to people who are interested in what you’re up to and they’re going to be the audience for the book.

When I have those lists, I try to treat them with the respect and love I would have for a house guest. I’m not going to email them five billion things and poke at them. I just write something when I’ve done something interesting. These are your fans and these are the people who trust you enough to give you an email address so don’t abuse that

The best advice I ever read was from Tim Ferris. When he wrote his first book, he said that the best thing he did marketing-wise was give his book out to anybody who might actually read it. And I have done that. So many of my purchases have come from word of mouth reading. That’s another thing with publishers–they’ll give you 25 comp books. If you work with a publisher, push them up to 100, because that’s going to be valuable. It’s going to be the thing you might give to a client, it’s the thing you might want to give to your boss, you might want to give it to a book reviewer, you might want to give it out to a conference organizer. You might even want to just give it out to somebody online who you think is cool.

WTD: My last question is about the Present Yourself book. I understand a lot of the content comes from things that you’ve written about or talked about in the past. What are you most excited about for this project? Why do you feel like this needs to exist in the world? 

CW: Well, it’s funny because Danielle said, “Even if you don’t join me, you’re still the co-author.” So much of it was things that I had invented for myself or things I’d invented with Danielle while working on the early workshops classes. We co-taught in the very beginning [along with a couple other guest instructors]. There’s lots of wacky stuff that came from my CCA class on story or other things that I did and then, of course, Danielle made everything so much better–blew it all out, made it more systematic, figured out how people learn from it.

I’m really excited to see Present Yourself go out in the world because when I was trying to figure out how to be a good speaker and how to compete with men, it felt like everybody said, “This is the way–this is how you speak, this is the language you use, this is when you tell a joke, this is how you stand.” So much of that is for guys. I had been in some of the classes and it is so clear when the things they ask for just aren’t for you. Like, if you’ve ever taken a lanyard mic and realized it doesn’t work on your shirt because women’s shirts button the opposite way than men’s shirts–that’s how this advice felt.

What Danielle and I did with Present Yourself was make it about who you are, what you want to say, what your story is. Ask how do you come across authentically as yourself? And address the things that might interfere with people being able to understand you. 

For example, if you’re really anxious, that might get in the way, plus it makes it worrisome for you, it’s exhausting for you. So, what are some ways you can get rid of your anxiety? But instead of saying, “Do exactly this.”, we offer a bunch of different tricks. Are you going to do yoga? Are you going to meditate for a few minutes? Are you going to do an affirmation? 

The idea that everybody has their own path and their own story, but also their own way of telling that story. And I want more people to have access to that knowledge and that’s what makes this book so special to me.

I’m hoping that people will pick it up and read it and say, “Oh, I don’t have to pretend to be giving a TEDTalk. I can actually talk like myself about the things that I care about.” That’s my dream.

WTD: It brings it full circle back to the reason why you chose self-publishing–because you wanted to do it your way. Speaking is also a thing that you do your way.

CW: I believe in all the unique voices that are out there. That’s what we need. We need the voices that aren’t saying the obvious, because the obvious has not done so well for us as we go through the hottest summer–everything on fire. Maybe we should be listening to some new people and some new voices.

WTD: Thinking about the project, is there anything else that you want to say to our Kickstarter backers, to our community, or to the people that have chosen to trust us with their email addresses?

CW: You know, a lot of the Kickstarter backers were guys and they did it because they believe in the project and because they have somebody in their life that they think the book could help. And this book isn’t just for women. It’s for anybody who really wants to be more authentic and more impactful.

I would ask the Kickstarter backers to think about who else they could help. When they have this knowledge, how can they pass it on? You put out your money and you got this piece of knowledge and then think about it–who could you lift up? Who’s somebody–maybe a young woman or a young person of color–that is a little shy and doesn’t quite know what they’re doing? Share some of the wisdom that you have and that you’ll hopefully get from us. That’s what I would ask.

Thank you Christina for taking the time to chat with us! You can learn more about Christina on her website here and read our previous interview with her about community

If you’re not already on our email list for Present Yourself: The Book, please go check it out. We’re sharing monthly updates, highlighting everything we’re learning as we bring this book to life.

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