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How My Book Became A (Self-Published) Best Seller



Digital technology has made it possible for anyone to publish a book. Last year there were 211,269 self-published titles, according to Bowker, which provides the numeric book identifiers known as ISBN numbers–up from 133,036 in 2010. But turning that book into a successful commercial venture is far more challenging. For more than one year after self-publishing my book, Estate Planning Smarts, promoting it was practically my full-time job.

I didn’t take the decision to self-publish lightly. In fact, I turned down offers from two big publishers because I wasn’t happy with the money they offered. McGraw-Hill’s offer was missing a zero—and I told them so.

One from Bloomberg Press (which published my last book) was more than three times as much, but still pathetically low. We spent three months trying to negotiate a compromise that would give them print rights and allow me to retain electronic rights before the deal fell apart over contract wording. On Halloween of 2008, an auspicious day, I made the decision to self-publish.

The reason for publishers’ low offers was that statistics show estate planning books don’t sell well. I had a vision for a book that would prove them wrong, but the big companies would never have allocated the resources to produce it.

My business model involved going against the grain by spending money where big publishers are cutting corners: high-quality paper, two-color graphics, printing on a Web press, rather than print-on-demand. And while big publishers were cutting experienced staff, I retained top talent for editing and graphics, on a freelance basis. The goal was to produce a high-quality product that advisers would give to their clients and friends and family would share with each other.

To edit the book, I turned to Joshua Mills, chairman of the journalism department at Baruch College who had edited many of my freelance articles for The New York Times. For design, I enlisted Laura Zavetz, who had done layouts for more than 80 articles I had written for various Bloomberg publications. Her husband Craig deftly implemented Laura’s highly creative vision and also designed the book’s Web site. He is the Web master who helps keep the book’s site up-to-date.

Wayne Kirn, the crackerjack production guy on my team, came highly recommended by Workman Publishing, where he had spent 25 years before recently retiring.

It was Wayne who accompanied me on the trip from New York to the printer in Berryville, Va., on Dec. 10, 2010, to oversee the printing of the book on a two-story Web press. He showed up with his camera, and when I asked why, he said, “You’ll see.” Now I do. The photo on the right is me climbing up the three-story press to watch my book being printed. (This self-publishing thing tends to attract micromanagers.)

About seven months later, I got an e-mail from Florrie Binford-Kichler, president of the Independent Book Publishers Association asking if she could interview me for an upcoming webcast on self-publishing success stories.


It seemed that the program co-sponsor, Baker & Taylor, which wholesales my book, supplies all the big chains and 95% of the libraries in the country, had identified  Estate Planning Smarts as a small press title in their database that had done phenomenally well. Florrie wanted to interview me about how I had done it.

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