Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP8 - From pain to product Masterclass with Amanda Thomas
57 min

In this episode…

Amanda has learned the hard way that publishing beautiful books on the Kindle and other e-readers is a pain in the ass.

In this hour long masterclass, Amy and I help Amanda through her first steps in turning this deep vein of pain into her first product.

We talk about:

  • Choosing and narrowing an audience (including some critically counterintuitive lessons)
  • How to spot evidence of a market (where's the proof that lots of people have the same itch you're trying to scratch)
  • Designing who your product will resonate with first
  • How to develop marketing content (we call them ebombs)
  • How to use audience jargon to connect with your audinece
  • How to figure out what your audience already knows (and use that to your advantage)

...and a lot more

This recording originally appeared on:


Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What’s up my friends! This is Alex Hillman, your co-host for Stacking the Bricks. I am so excited to welcome you back to another episode of the show.

This episode we’re going to be doing something that Amy and I have never done before. We’re going to be coaching someone live for you – well for them – but you’re going to get to listen in.

But before we get into that, I just want to send a personal welcome and thank you to all the new listeners of Stacking the Bricks, because a ton of you joined us in just the last week.

Now, last week we shipped an episode called The Life-changing Magic of Shipping. It was a bit of a riff on a book that Amy was reading called The Life-changing Magic of Tidying and surprise, surprise – at least to us, this episode was a huge hit. Thanks to you guys – the listeners – and many of you who have been longtime readers, of course.

Our show spent nearly three whole days topping the charts in iTunes. We hit number seven in the business category overall. We hit number two in the careers category – the subcategory of business and tons of new people found the show.

We’re so excited to meet all of you, so excited to welcome all of you back and we can’t thank you enough for listening, for rating, reviewing, emailing us, tweeting at us. The outpouring of appreciation of this show has been overwhelming and a ton of fun. And of course, those of you who have shared the show with people in your lives and your business, we can’t thank you enough. Now regardless of whether you’ve been reading Amy’s blog for a while, or if you’re brand new listener to Stacking the Bricks, you’re about to hear something that is completely new. We’ve never done anything like this before, because it’s one thing to think back on how things went while you were building something, or shipping something, or growing your business, or whatever you were learning – and you can sort of clean things up into a neat, tidy little story and then share it with the world.

Well, we want to challenge ourselves because we think it’s something else entirely to work through challenges, the real challenges of creating something new; it’s raw and imperfect and it’s tough to get that stuff.

Today’s episode you can think of is more of a masterclass than a lecture – or even story, because our goal with today’s episode is to help you see the practical application of our 30x500 principles and to capture the experience and emotions that everybody goes through when learning how to do this stuff and launching their first product business.

You’re about to hear a real, live coaching session with a very good friend of mine and Amy’s. Her name is Amanda Thomas.

Amanda works with me at Indy Hall and she has an independent publishing business with a friend of hers and they recently uncovered a gold mine of pain. In the process of converting eBooks into Kindle and Nook formats. It’s something that we hear a lot about in our audience, people struggling with, and it’s something that Amanda had never done, before recently. And I’m going to let Amanda introduce herself and this problem in just a moment.

Before I do, there’s a couple of things that I’d like you to look out for while listening to this episode. First, I want you to realize that while she’s resourcefully self-taught, Amanda will be the first to admit that she’s not an expert in eBook publishing, not even close. Second, I want you to notice some of the specific hesitations, concerns, reservations and anxieties that Amanda has about putting this product together, because maybe, just maybe, you’ve had some of these similar hesitations yourself.

Now that’s enough of that. Let’s get on with this little micro-masterclass all about how to turn pain into a product. So, say hi to Amanda Thomas of Lanternfish Press – and I hope you enjoy this episode.

Amanda Thomas: Well, I am Amanda and I started a little publishing company with a friend about a year ago at Indy Hall. Part of what I do there now is eBook conversion. We started publishing just a couple of books last year and are hoping to publish four this year. So, a small, but hopefully growing publishing company.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So those were print books that also have eBook components?

Amanda Thomas: Yes and now some eBooks that are standalone, just eBooks, especially public domain content.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: If I remember right, you learned how to do the eBook conversion stuff, basically while doing it.

Amanda Thomas: Yes. When we put out our first book, we paid somebody to do the eBook conversion the first time, and I spent more time babysitting that person than was entirely reasonable. So I taught myself how to do it the next time.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: And you’re not a programmer?

Amanda Thomas: No, I’m definitely not a programmer. Just married to one!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: We see him in the background.

Amanda Thomas: Yeah. Thomas, you can say hi!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: No, not the same Thomas that I talk about, for the record.

How did you learn how to create the eBooks yourself - and by eBooks we’re talking about Kindle and EPUB formats, right?

Amanda Thomas: Yes. I started by just reading everything I could find, like I started with Wikipedia and went from there and the first real hurdle that I bumped into is that creating the EPUB archive on the Mac. You can’t just change the file extension from like a zip to EPUB; you actually have to get the thing stacked up correctly.

So, I dug around looking for a tool that would basically zip and unzip the file correctly and with some help from Thomas, I found some little forum post with this little zipper/unzipper tool.

Once I got the archive open, then like it’s just HTML and CSS underneath and the IDFs puts out a really detailed spec on exactly what documents you need and I just sort of started working through them one at a time.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So did you find a lot of great resources out there that held your hand during this process?

Amanda Thomas: No! I can’t even find a decent editing tool. I tried using two open source tools, one called Sigil and one called Calibre and they were both useful because it sort of let me see the overarching file structure in the beginning, but they both have serious problems because they don’t necessarily conform to the current EPUB 3 specification. There’s not good documentation that shows you where they comply and where they don’t. They individually have different problems from each other. So, I had a lot of trouble for instance, with a table of contents issue that I couldn’t figure out because one was for EPUB 2 and one was for EPUB 3 and they wouldn’t talk to each other, so there’s no good tools.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What do other people do? Like how do people survive?

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: How are these housewives who write vampire novels, and self-publish them on the Kindle store – how do they do it?

Amanda Thomas: I am assuming that they are simply paying somebody the 250 or 300 bucks to get their thing digitized. My guess is it’s just a straight up export from whatever program they’re using and then hope for the best.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: There seems to be a lot of very badly formatted books out there.

Amanda Thomas: Yes and I think that the dearth of tools is probably a good reason why. Once I figured out how to open up EPUB files, I started taking eBooks that I knew were good and that looked beautiful and taking them apart so that I could see what they did.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Again, just beginner steps!

Amanda Thomas: Yeah.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So in addition to the motivation to do this, to have a nice looking Kindle book, and in addition to the desire to, I guess, as part of that, have a commercially successful Kindle book, in addition to that, you had to literally dissect a file, like an archive and it just so happened that you had enough HTML, CSS knowledge to be dangerous. Again, the motivation and willingness to learn more. And the spec, let’s never forget the spec! That’s not exactly a deck stacked in your favor.

Amanda Thomas: No, but I think that, I mean, some of the credit goes to Thomas who is a programmer. So when I was stuck and didn’t know how to proceed, I had someone to ask and be like, what is this? How do I do this? Thomas has since taught me how to use nifty things like source control, which is really helpful. I have I’ve even stuck my toe in the water on things like Vim, though the learning curve there’s about like a brick wall. So we’ve gone that far.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: It’s not worth it!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Were there things that you were digging into before you even were like, okay, I have to hunker down and like learn all this technical crap? Like other guides, other resources, even other people asking the same question as you, were you bumping into stuff like that out on the web?

Amanda Thomas: I mean, there’s a lot of stuff out there now to learn HTML and CSS, especially like there’s things like Code Academy. There’s a lot of good books out there, but basically, I think I stumbled across one or two books that were about the EPUB format itself, but they weren’t guides on how to actually do it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What were they then?

Amanda Thomas: Predominantly informational, there’s one, ‘What is EPUB 3’ I think was the most helpful. It’s an O’Reilly publication.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: No shit!

Amanda Thomas: That is all it is. It’s just like, what is this thing? And it was helpful when I found it, because it told me what the pieces that I needed were, and it helped me to better understand the technical specification that I was trying to read, which didn’t have any of I guess the technical specification says you need these specific things, but it doesn’t tell you what they are or what they do. So having these two things together was helpful.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: But it didn’t actually say “Here’s how to make a nice book.”

Amanda Thomas: No, there was no process. There was no guide on what to do in what order or why to do it that way.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Just for those of you who are following along with audio only Alex is now cradling his forehead.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I watched the SNL 40th anniversary thing. I’m channeling Stefan with my little, teepee of secrets. And I mean, so Amy and I know Amanda well, and so Amanda is all of those things – motivated and creative and resourceful, but I cannot imagine – and I mean, Amy and I have intentions of publishing Just Fucking Ship in these formats and it’s part of where this conversation started is like, “We’re not going to do this!”

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Amanda came over for coffee and she was telling me about how she made an eBook cover that crashed the reader and I was like, “Fuck that! Can I pay you to show me how to do it so I don’t have to go through that myself?”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Then the other part of it is you had already paid somebody to do it and that wasn’t a solution, either.

Amanda Thomas: They did a terrible, terrible job. I really think that she expected to just be able to take our file, which was all beautifully formatted for print in inDesign. And it was a big file, this book is 280 pages, with illustrations and interesting typography and other things going on.

I think she expected just to like push the export button and have it work. It didn’t work. We spent three- or four-weeks kind of going back and forth on a daily basis going, “No, you actually have to make that image go where it goes.”

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So it wasn’t just a couple hundred dollars you were mentioning earlier, it was just weeks of time.

Amanda Thomas: Right. We learned a lot of other things in that process too, though, which was helpful. Like for instance, we learned a lot about international font licensing, which is a really complicated issue…

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: All fun!

Amanda Thomas: The eBook converter that we paid was in Canada and so the license that we held in the United States, which is a software license, not a creative :00] license, doesn’t apply for her. So we had to do this weird negotiation with the foundry in the Czech Republic to ensure that our eBook converter in Canada had the rights to the font and like all that stuff.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Oh my God!

Amanda Thomas: It was an adventure!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: This is like a soap opera! As the eBook turns…

Amanda Thomas: It gets better…

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Does anyone die and come back to life?

Amanda Thomas: Well after did all this for the first book, which was public domain, Sherlock Holmes. I did the eBook for our second book, which was The Afflictions and we had a particular font that we wanted to use and so I went through the shenanigans of figuring out how to get it properly put into the EPUB file and have the right encryption and be subsetted and all that stuff, only to discover that our print on demand provider couldn’t handle it and they kept kicking back the file because they couldn’t deal with the font encryption. They couldn’t apply certain kinds of DRM and they only allow you to submit a single EPUB file and then they convert it to multiple formats and they send it out to all of these retailers.

So we ended up having to go all the way back and choose basically, an open source font, because there was no way that we could both adhere to our font license and get these people to distribute it for us.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: We’re just staring at her!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It’s just stressing me out so much!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Alex is turning red!

Amanda Thomas: I admit that I had a couple of days in there where I just sort of rage-quit my job and went home after lunch.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yeah, I think you earned it! So people call it scratching your own itch, which half the time – if not more – leads to things that nobody wants, because you are not going to be your customer, but when you have so much evidence of a market, like the Kindle self-publishing market is enormous. They’ve got tons of hits, they’ve got lots of people who are not world renowned who are making a great living. If you’re finding service providers aren’t offering it and the books aren’t helping, and the forums are useless – because no one even understands the problems that you have, that says opportunity.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Amy, when you say service provider, are you referring to the contractor?

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: I was thinking the full stack! You’ve got the contractor didn’t know what she was doing – which in my experience of hiring contractors, nine out of ten contractors in any field, don’t know what they’re doing. I mean, you spent a month of your life on this, which pretty crazy. The font license people don’t sound like they know what they’re doing! The distributor doesn’t sound like they know what they’re doing, and before Amanda started talking to me about all these travails, I had no idea what a book distributor was for if you were publishing an eBook, for example. So it never even occurred to me that I had to worry about font licenses and all that stuff. So it’s like, you don’t even know what you don’t know.

Amanda Thomas: That’s the story of this whole process.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Right! And it seems like nobody knows.

Amanda Thomas: I think there are people that do know, I certainly bumped into my fair share of forum posts in some squirreled away corner of the internet that had some tiny snippet of useful information, but I didn’t find anybody who bothered to gather it into one place.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Okay. That’s good. That’s good evidence right there.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. We normally advise our students to go a hundred percent from finding watering holes where people are discussing their problems, they’re asking questions, but that – while extremely valuable – there’s other types of evidence too, which we’re talking about now.

So someone today, walked up to you and said, “I need to do an EPUB and a Kindle version of my eBook. What do I need to worry about that I don’t know about?” And you could tell them. It’s like the hidden lurking dangers and people don’t even know that they’re going to have.

Amanda Thomas: I think especially with things like, particularly the font licensing, I think that there are a lot of eBooks out there that are in violation of their font licenses and if you’re self-publishing a book, that’s probably not a huge deal. If you’re a publisher, then that matters.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Right. Well, even if you self-publish, it’s a risk exposure that you don’t need. Especially if you haven’t set up a corporation to shield yourself and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Amanda Thomas: Right

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So, where has that brought you to today, Amanda? I know we’ve been chatting a bit back and forth about sort of outlining all this stuff that you had to learn and sort of like bullet pointing out, sort of what you even gathered and where you’re at. So, what is it that you’ve pulled together at this point?

Amanda Thomas: So at this point, I have a pretty solid outline of a process for how to do this that starts with setting up the tools that you need and getting the various pieces together to sort of set yourself up for success. All the way through the very last stage was just like sort of testing and debugging things preferably on actual hardware, if you’ve got it. That’s how I found things like my cover-size bug. But really it’s a fairly simple process and I think a lot of what I learned says that it’s really important to do your design upfront so that you know, what you want your eBook to actually look like. So you’re not both trying to make it look that way and figure out what that is at the same time.

Then taking the time to set up your file structure correctly and get your images into the correct formats and the correct sizes so that when you go through and do the styling, it’s pretty fast to just sort of clip through the content and get it done. I kind of took a trip down memory lane to the days when I was a social studies teacher, thinking about how to layer in this information in a way that would help other people figure it out. I have a pretty fleshed out outline at this point of what that is.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Do you discuss at all whether people should go with a distributor or things like that, decisions that are sort of further up the chain?

Amanda Thomas: I actually hadn’t really thought too much about whether or not, like you decide to go with a distributor or not. I think that applies more, especially if you’re doing both print and eBooks. So for instance, we didn’t have a choice about going through a distributor with an eBook because the book was with them in print and that means we have to do it through them. But I think that if you’re producing your own work, especially to self-publish, it’s not necessarily a really pertinent question. It’s much more relevant for a publisher.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: That’s true. But a lot of these people seem to do print as well. Not all of them and not even a huge chunk, but a lot of the people aspire, I think, to have a paperback as well.

Amanda Thomas: I think that that’s true and I think that particularly Amazon sort of allows you to separate the two, but there are a number of print on demand services now that sort of cater to this market. Amazon’s Create Space and IngramSpark are the two big ones. We’re currently using IngramSpark for our own print on demand. I don’t really know what to say about them, other than I can’t wait to have a real distributor! It’s a little disconcerting when you’re a small publisher and you interact with your distributor and Amazon starts to look friendly. That’s a little awkward!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Well, I’m wondering if even in the realm of what we often advise. So again, a lot of our advice can fall on a spectrum, even the fact that there’s a distinction between people who were just doing eBooks and people who are doing eBooks as part of a bigger package. I think there’s a big advantage to zeroing in on just the eBook publishers for now. If for no other reason it leaves you the opportunity to do a second edition with some focus for the publisher decisions, the font related things, licensing and so on.

The big benefit – well, there’s two big benefits of the top of my mind, and Amy, I’m wondering what you think about this as well. The first one is it allows you to narrow the scope of the product. It’s faster to get out there. You can focus on sort of the end to end, not just the technical knowledge, but the way you described it as a process. So it’s “Do this, then do this. Then do this, then do this” and the more decisions that you introduce, the more likely it is that people either stop at a step or get confused, or again, you’ve just had a fork in it sort of like two groups of people that you’re trying to explain how to do it to.

Amanda Thomas: Well and I feel like especially the step of making the design decisions – that’s a lot of decision making and I’m not sure that how much people appreciate the number of decisions that go into the way a book looks on the page. But then, the next time you crack open a book, look at how much space there is at the bottom of the page. I promise you if somebody thought about how much space there should be.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: I think given a lot of the books that I read, there’s no one thinking about them, at all!

So, what Alex said about narrowing the scope, making it, what we call crispy. So it’s like, so you want to publish your first Kindle book, is kind of like the level of specificity that we’re talking.

I think it makes complete sense to not address the distributor stuff. However, that would make a great ebomb, a blog post that would get people in who were at the top of the funnel, so to speak and then kind of suck them in to – it’s more like a whirlpool really.

Suck them in into your orbit, your vortex.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It also lets you test out like if a post, like that gets a lot of traction then you’re like, okay, I know there’s people that actually care about this versus those publishing houses that – to Amy’s point – they’re not thinking about it. They don’t prioritize it. And so, they’re not going to spend money on it.

This is something that I think there needs to be evidence for. There’s something very special about the artisinal nature of what you do as a publisher that the big publishers – even though they’ve got a lot more money to spend than a lot more resources to throw at the problem – just don’t care.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: It’s true. But I was thinking like, “Should I go with the distributor or not?” That’s a question that doesn’t need to make it into the book, but it’s a great bit of marketing content. You could do other things like, “Why is my eBook crashing readers?” Like that that’s the general lesson you want to have in the product itself but it’s also something that people might find when they’re having a problem. People search for problems, especially if you can cite other places or other people that’s happened to.

As far as design education goes, a lot of people who are setting out to self-publish a book are not going to have the eye that you have. The whole reason you guys got together to put out the Sherlock Holmes is to make it beautiful and wonderful and hand illustrated. If you could get 10% of the Kindle authors to even know what a margin is at all – that would be a huge accomplishment!

Amanda Thomas: I think there’s also, under that design umbrella, I have a whole bunch of little bullet points for myself and some of them are things just like, how do you do digital publication for more technical books, digging through all of these HTML and CSS resources to figure things in my mind, I start thinking, “Oh man, how would I put this on an e-reader?” And making design decisions that help you support content that makes the content more understandable to the reader, that’s one of my little tidbits that I have buried in there too.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So you’re thinking about how to include illustrations that look really good and how to format code and things like that on the Kindle as well?

Amanda Thomas: Yep.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: See, that’s extremely crispy.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So, and that’s actually the other reason I was saying, so part one, in terms of narrowing the decision, crispification – if you will. Narrow the scope to, is it makes it much easier to communicate what the product is, what problem it helps solve. Like there’s the big problem of the fact that this is just a complicated process and there’s so many unknowns, but really, is this a getting started? Is this a design guide? And the fact that we’re talking about how to make Kindle books that look great is more specific than how to publish a Kindle book.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yes. But the thing is, it’s less about what is this product about, even though that’s the phrase that just comes out of anyone’s mouth when I talk about this stuff. What we’re actually doing is designing who it will really resonate with. So “How to make a Kindle book” is going to probably be vague enough that it doesn’t attract anyone. “How to format your design or software technical book for the Kindle and EPUB” is really clear immediately who’s going to be interested in that. Now it may not be the size of the audience you want, and it may not be the best focus to start with. That’s going to take research to find out, but the question is who buys and who can you help the most right now?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: And I’m wondering, When you’re looking for someone like the contractor that you were looking for, how did you actually go out and find that person?

Amanda Thomas: I think Christine had gone out and looked for somebody in her extended network and found somebody who had done the eBook conversion for a friends self-published novel several years ago and she had a decent portfolio and it was a reasonable price. So, we were like, “Oh, well, this is more known than a stranger from the internet, so we’ll try it.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Got it. You just said another bit of jargon that had sort of, it’s just not top of mind for me, but the idea of conversion. People are out there looking at how to convert an existing design or layout, is different from the word create or publish.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Or design.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Or design. So again, very intentionally choosing that word in title and in description can let you focus on parts of…

Amanda Thomas: It’s one of the more popular Google search terms for this problem.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: See, there you go. The whole point of our class, of what we teach, is you have to let the data, the other people who would be your customers lead you, what are their problems? What phrases do they use? Do they buy things? How do those things spread among them? So, you want to make sure that if you want to reach a certain audience, you want to use the words that they use versus design. If they say convert, then use convert. If they say design, then say design. If they say sell, then you say sell instead of publish or whatever it is that they do so that you can reach them.

But within the peak group of people who want to make Kindle books, that’s not really an audience. It’s more like who, what are the segments inside that, who think and behave alike? So like your self-published romance authors probably hang out in different places than your self-published technical book authors.

Amanda Thomas: And to a certain extent, I think there’s some division in terms of what readers people are using as well.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yeah that makes sense.

Amanda Thomas: I guess sort of my experience coming up through this was that the Nook is the most finicky, horrible thing to develop forever. I did that one last as a result. I basically made the nicest possible book I could using the EPUB format and reading it out on the iPad and then used that as the base file to convert to the Mobi version, which is for the Kindle, and then went back and modified and changed a bunch of things in order to make it behave nicely on the Nook.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: And which one was crashing?

Amanda Thomas: What happened was I was testing an EPUB format in the Nook app on the iPad and the cover image was too big and it crashed the Nook application and then it crashed the OS too!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Books are dangerous!

Amanda Thomas: And you had to delete the whole Nook app, including your entire library.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: You made a nuclear cover!

Amanda Thomas: It was just a little too big and not by a lot, it was like 50 pixels in one direction too big.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: But it’s the right with the right 50 pixels or the wrong 50 pixels as it were.

Amanda Thomas: I was very glad that I had learned how to use source control by the time I bumped into this, because for the life of me, it would have taken me a week to figure out otherwise!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yikes! So you’ve got an outline of your process and sort of all the things you want to take somebody through in a guide. The biggest missing piece left in the puzzle for the product’s even built though, is how are you going to reach the people who are into this sort of thing? So you’ve already got, you spent some time out there searching and you found some of those weird obscure corners. If you found them, odds are other people have found them and will continue to find them.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Weird corners are made of people, Alex! There’s no weird corner of the internet that was created just by machines.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: It’s true. It’s true. And there’s very few weird corners of the internet that Amy hasn’t found!

So the technique that we talk about to sort of close that gap of “How do you find those people and how do you get them into your orbit?”, so to speak, more importantly than even aware of you, willing to trust you and say, “Amanda’s someone who can help me”, is ebombs like Amy was talking about. Those couple of potential ebomb topics, things that you can sort of pluck out that are relevant, on sort of a concentric circles graph around the core problem that you’re solving and for the core audience that you’re addressing, but it lets you sort of dabble.

I’m wondering what kinds of really quality-free tip tips, techniques, the fact that this is code maybe templates and code snips, you can put out there that address known problems that people are already looking for and tie that sort of stuff back to, “Hey, I’ll send you”, if it’s a code sample, for example, “I can send you a zip file. You just need to shoot me your email address and I’ll shoot you the zip file” – that sort of thing.

That’s sort of the technique we used for having a good reason for somebody to give over an email address then you can continue slinging them more great stuff over time and then when your product is ready, you’ve got the ability to say, “Hey, all that stuff I helped you with has gotten you closer. Here’s the thing they can take you across the finish line”.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: He’s not talking about personally people emailing you, but signing up to a mailing list and getting an automated free kitty.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Exactly.

Amanda Thomas: I think the thing that jumps into my head as the most obvious choice would be a little checklist guide of some kind about how to format images for the different platforms, like make them this size, do it this way and distribute them across these files.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: How I blew up the Nook: a guide images that don’t explode your customers e-readers.

Amanda Thomas: Yes.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Especially if you tie that to the story. Like the little story of “Bet you didn’t know you could literally destroy to the point where you have to uninstall and re-install. I think that’s the kind of, it’s fun stories that people will share, but then you can come at it with a solution.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yes. So like stuff like, it’s really easy to be tempted. It’s really easy to flee from sharing free content, because you’re like, “Well, won’t that make them not buy the book” or whatever. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one goes to the food court at the mall, eats one bite of bourbon chicken, and then never eats again. It may not sell you bourbon chicken, but it doesn’t totally kill your appetite for any food ever. That’s a terrible metaphor, forget I said that, I’m hungry.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Now I want bourbon chicken!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: I’m going to have some pulled pork after this! Anyway, giving away some of the content that’s in your book, you don’t have to write the content and then give it away. You don’t have to write the book and then give a free chapter. It’s a free chapter. No one ever wants a free chapter. What they want is to solve a problem.

So if you, for example, have this image formatting guide, and then of course there’s a lot more information in your book. You can tell a story of exploding it and you can say, “Hop on my email list and I will send you my guide for images.” And then you can say, “By the way, all this other stuff is in my book and you want it”, and you can say, you can have a blog post on like, “Here’s how to do drop caps” or something in this specific scenario, or, you know, “Here’s how to add those little thingies between chapters” or “What to do if your little thingies between chapters won’t show up”.

But you don’t have to, you can tell people some stuff, and then they’re going to want more. And more importantly, you solve one problem for someone and then they realize they have a bunch of other problems. It’s the feeling of scarcity where like, if I give away this, they won’t buy anything. It’s not true.

Amanda Thomas: I learned so many things doing this. There’s plenty to tell people!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Right? You could probably go on forever.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: One of the things that I know a lot of our students have struggled with is they write useful things, but they don’t know how to get it in front of the people that would find them useful. So another narrowing technique. I think this example of this image formatting thing is awesome as like a major, super high value – I think this is like the equivalent of a mini guide of some sort.

This is going to be super high value. The thing that can bring people back to that are more narrow focused questions that people that are already actually out there asking. So rather than making it like, “Hey, I wrote this post” and then trying to find everywhere on the internet to post it to, which is sort of the default, like “I want to post it to Twitter” or “I want to post it on Reddit Self-Publishing and you should do all that stuff.

But the place where it’s most likely to get traction is where there is a person already looking for it. So, on those, again, those obscure forms full of very real people with very real problems, going into these places and looking for, “Oh, here’s a question that I also had, didn’t have an answer, now I have an answer” and you can literally say just that, “Hey, I had this problem too. Here’s how I solved it.”

You can write a little excerpt about the solution in the forum post or whatever. “I wrote a more complete guide over here, check it out.” And then when they go check that out, they read through it. It shows them how to solve the problem, at the footer of that blog post or in the sidebar, wherever it ends up sitting, you can then link to your more epic guide to “Here’s how to avoid blowing up your Nook app” sort of thing.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: But the epic guide doesn’t even have to be an epic guide. You could just literally have a one pager that says “These are the dimensions, these are the sizes, this is the code to include it.” That alone can be huge, hugely useful. And then people realize they have other image questions or issues or other formatting issues and then you can sell them on the book that way.

Amanda Thomas: Part of what I’m trying to do with setting up the structure is for each of the things that you absolutely have to do in order to make this thing function, it really should just come with no more than a one page checklist of “Do these things in this order.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: One of the things that’s interesting, and this is just sort of, I guess again, I got a privilege of knowledge about the publishing business that you have and you probably know more about this than I do that. There is likely to be some crossover audience in people that are trying to design really nice books, because they care about the craft of making nice books, and interest in your books. Not that this is something that you need to really be focused on now, but I’d be curious about down the road, finding ways to present Lanternfish products – as in your books – to the audience of people who had enough desire and thought. Whether it’s simply to look at it as an example of “This is what a beautifully looking formatted Kindle book can look like”. Or as “Hey, as someone who appreciates the craft of making really awesome looking books, take a look at some of the stuff that we’ve made.”

So I see it like throwing a rock in the pond. There’s a couple of ripple effects down the roads and some secondary tertiary benefits of having a list like this. That it’s really tough to build a list like this for a consumer audience.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Who just buys books to read? Like novels?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Exactly, where you’re sort of at the mercy of the platforms like you were talking about before, to have a list of people who are super into books, digital books that you own that list. When you launch something, you know that you’ve got some control over, “Hey, we launched something new. In addition to the technical stuff we have, we make real books. Check out the new book we made.”

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: As opposed to those fake books.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Electronic books.

Amanda Thomas: Fake books are the ones that are still in the slush pile.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: They’re not fake!

Amanda Thomas: think some of them might be fake.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Fair enough.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What kind of questions do you have looking ahead of where you are now, Amanda? And what do you think you want to be doing next and what questions are being raised in your mind?

Amanda Thomas: The one big question that I still kind of have lurking is how much time I should spend trying to teach things like HTML and CSS, because those were things where I had some base knowledge coming in and a lot of support around me during the process, but if you’re a complete newbie who finished your novel, your book, whatever that you want to convert, that’s a huge knowledge gap that I’m not sure I’m the best person to fill. So, I’ve been kind of grappling with that issue.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So that is not a question that you can answer, I think by looking inside yourself, but it’s time to look out to the data. Are there communities of people who know enough HTML and CSS to get along who are also discussing how to format their eBooks and have questions and help each other and buy things?

Amanda Thomas: Probably.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So if the audience is overwhelmingly people who don’t already know CSS and HTML, that proposes a different fix for their problems than a book that teaches them HTML and CSS and all that stuff because that’s years of knowledge and you won’t be there to help them. They don’t probably have a programmer leaning over their shoulder to assist and it can be quite terrible, really. So that to me would suggest that you need some templates that they can then just edit.

Amanda Thomas: That’s a good idea.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Because that’s how everyone learns to program anyway.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. I was going to say, I’m trying to think of how did I learn, other than “Here’s how to, you know, drop in this bit of code. See what it does. Take it out. See what stops doing.”

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: But writing for experienced people who just need to know some implementation details and writing for people who have no idea what it is – You cannot do both in the same book or a product without having problems.

That is where you need to understand your audience in order to choose which solution to pursue, what format that looks like. We always tell our students; you can’t just sit down and write a book all about X because you don’t know who the buyer is, the buyer is going to have specific, I mean, you certainly can write it, but it’ll be hard to market. You want to know who the market is, what problems do they need to solve.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Hard to market and hard to finish too, and for this very problem, because there’s always a thing where you’re trying to figure out, do they know this or not and if you’re not sure the temptation is “Well, I’ll put it in there anyway.” That’s how that’s how books become giant. That’s how O’Reilly writes books.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: It’s true! Or they fix something like explaining the spec and offloading the job of scoping to someone else who also was bad at it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I think that the best part about the starting place where you are, is already thinking about it as an end to end process and the fact that there’s a couple of adjustments along the way, it’s not going to stop you from starting to do all this stuff. This is also stuff that you can test with ebombs by the way.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yeah. Basically for free.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. You can introduce a tip that assumes some technical knowledge into a watering hole and see if people go “That’s awesome!” or, “Yeah, but what’s HTML””

Amanda Thomas: Right!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Then you got your answer, right?

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make an Apple pie from scratch, you must first invent CSS and HTML” actually, he said, “You must first invent the universe, but the point stands.

Amanda Thomas: Yeah, no, I’m already, we have an intern with us who will be with us until the end of March and her capstone project is doing an eBook conversion of a public domain work for us. So I’m kind of testing out the usability of some of these things on her and thinking about how to order and structure the process by watching someone do it, who doesn’t know how.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s awesome!

Amanda Thomas: Then I feel like once I have that in front of me, I will be able to cut and trim and reorganize and pare it down to something that works.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: But the question is, is a person like her going to be the one who buys the book or whatever it is, whatever form it takes. So, I mean, it’s great to watch somebody like that. That’s honest to God ethnography, which is Sales Safari. Our research technique is based on, which is awesome. One doesn’t normally get the opportunity to literally peer over someone’s shoulder as they make mistakes but, you have to ask who’s buying? Who would buy it, who would buy it?

Amanda Thomas: Yeah, I guess that’s not the question that I’m necessarily trying to ask when I’m testing it with our intern. What I’m trying to ask is, do I actually have the necessary pieces here?

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Right.

Amanda Thomas: I know that the document that I write to that comes out of that process is going to be enormously long and a bit of a rabbit warren. But I think that doing those observations will ensure that, I kind of have everything in front of me to pick and choose to tailor it to an audience, but maybe this is a silly worry, but I worry very much about somebody picking it up and thinking that it will be a particular solution when I don’t fully understand the steps to that solution from the perspective of a newbie. It’s really, really hard to step outside of your own knowledge and your own head and figure out what should be there.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Totally. Which would make me suggest, if you’re my student, then why are you targeting it at newbies? You could literally spend your entire life training people how to do book layout, wherever, whatever the topic and whatever the format, rather, the more formats there are, the longer you could be doing it.

The whole inventing the universe thing. What I would suggest is that you go for the low hanging fruit that you already know how to do and then you can also do different versions of it later for the newbie or for, you know, the poet. If the market shows that those audiences exist and seek assistance and pay for things.

Almost all tech books now are also published digitally and self-publishing your own technical book is becoming a much bigger thing. That group of authors, as well as every other group, except academic authors. It’s worth finding out, who can I serve right now? And you can do that while writing posts about specific problems you’ve solved or specific questions people have.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Especially if you’re targeting folks who have some design shops, there’s a very good chance that they also have some basic HTML CSS shops at this point. So you essentially rub that problem out of the equation right there.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: I move that we don’t use that verb in that sentence again.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Deal! I caught myself mid-sentence and I tried to fix it.

Amanda Thomas: I don’t know. I guess maybe some of my perspective here just comes from being in a classroom with a bunch of students at a whole bunch of different levels and trying to figure out how to serve all of them at once.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: it’s very different when it’s completely of their own volition and you’re taking money for it.

Amanda Thomas: I can see that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Nothings stops you from creating a second edition. Creating a newbie’s edition. Basically, you can always add to it. So, in terms of what’s the thing that’s going to help the people that you’re most equipped to help right now? Just narrow it to that. It’s going to be easier to speak to them anyway, because you know their language and for all the reasons you said you were fearful of approaching newbies, flip that on its head.

It’s all the reasons that you’re best suited to approach people who have intermediate to advanced design experience, but have never done the Kindle conversion. And to Amy’s point, a growing number of those every day and given their audience that is more design savvy, when they hit export and it comes out and it looks like garbage, they’re like, “Well, what the hell do I do now?”

Amanda Thomas: Right. Then there’s a process.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: For the record, these issues are things that Alex and I, and people in our bootstrapping group talk about on a fairly regular basis because we’re all expanding into eBooks.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: And one of our fairly recent alumni – Justin closed out $18,000 in presales to launch period, which is fricking awesome.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Go Justin!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Super, super excited for him. He did this and I just, I did a blog post about why we didn’t do EPUB and Kindle for Just Fucking Ship and why the JFS answer is, “Do the easiest and add another one later,” he shared some of the code snips of what he had to do to make his technical book look good because it was a priority for him and because he, you know, it was a priority for his audience, but he did some stuff that he’s not proud of in terms of how he accomplished that result. Even just even just having a conversation about the pain of formatting in Kindle was enough to catch his attention and speak up that spoke volumes to me. I think that is a common theme and will increasingly be a common theme.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: It’s not like, “Oh, well my friend said he’d buy that book” is a good basis to make something, obviously, even if it’s us. But if you survey the market – and by survey, I don’t mean send them a survey, but survey with your eyes and a telescope. Professional land-surveying type, you look out there and you find that there’s a substantial number of people who are having these discussions on their own, elsewhere and those weird corners of the internet. I mean, pop in and say, “Hey, I had some HTML and CSS experience in blah, blah, blah. I learned and blah, blah, blah. And here’s how you do this thing that you’re trying to do. And here’s the code”. That is huge. Serve the people where they’re at.

Now I’m all for building better customers, which is something I learned from Kathy Sierra, and to educate people, once you educate them, they’re basically yours for life. So I think you should absolutely reach out to the much bigger world of self-publishing later.

Amanda Thomas: Okay.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Because you’re you absolutely deserve your intern. You should record, you should make notes, but that project could literally be infinite – which is a recipe for failure, even if you’re really good at finishing things, which you are, obviously.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So I think we’ve done – I hope we’ve done – a good job of addressing that concern. Is there anything else sort of burning in your mind in terms of what you’re going to bump into coming up soon?

Amanda Thomas: I mean, I guess our fall catalog looks pretty scary. I really want to get this particular project wrapped up and moving along because we want to put out four books this fall with probably September, October, November, December releases.

We’d like to take all of those books to the Brooklyn book festival, which is in September. So, between now and August, we need to produce and print and have on hand four different book – which is a little scary! I think my big anxieties, like, “Oh man, I gotta get this done so that I can do all these other things”.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: That’s especially where it pays to do the simplest thing that can help the most people, for the amount of effort you put in. There should be some complicated hand gesture for that.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Do the most for the least or something, it sounds like he could put it on a dollar bill. Do the most for the least, like JFS has helped so many people already. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine. We’ll do different stuff later. We’ll do video courses and we’ll do workshops and all that crap.

I would focus on people you can help immediately without having to worry, “How do I teach them HTML and CSS?” Really, it will make your life better. None of this is final, right? This is not a book you have to send to the publisher and it’s a novel and it’s going to stand on its own forever. This can evolve forever, so don’t worry about that.

Second, you’re probably not going to have a huge launch and that’s okay because unlike a book that you have to sell in bookstores, you can relaunch additional product anytime. It’s not about making a splash of an announcement, it’s about helping the customer, so whenever you find a new group of customers that you can help, that’s basically a new launch.

Amanda Thomas: Right.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Before you even get yourself too far down the path beyond the outline that you have, would be to start, basically set up the infrastructure to be able to start dropping some ebombs and collecting email addresses to make the most of that launch.

The truth is, is, we’re not talking about thousands of people we’re talking about…you can have, you can make a lot of money with hundreds of people on a list and getting a sense of what the response from the watering holes that you already know about will give you a bit of a gauge of, “Okay, this is going to be easy to fill up a mailing list with a bunch of people” or “I’m going to need to try a little bit harder or adjust my approach or figure out what it is that these people are going to respond to” before you’ve invested time in the product itself.

Amanda Thomas: Yeah, no, I already have the bones of a webpage going, we haven’t settled on the URL for it yet. So that’s in the works and I do have a,Squarespace page that’s already linked up to a MailChimp then sort of got that sort of infrastructure stuff taken care of. I know I have quite a bit of writing to do, which is a little scary, because I haven’t done a lot of writing in a long time.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Well, keep it scale appropriate, right? So an ebomb doesn’t need to be any more writing or even more difficult writing, than a slightly polished email or again, if we’re talking about going into one of these forum posts, finding a problem, the way you would respond to somebody would be ideally fairly comprehensive, but again, treat it with the appropriate scale and effort.

This is not a publish once, set in stone kind of guide. Put out the help in the easiest format you can, because the goal is to help them quickly. The longer it takes and the harder it is for you to get it out to them, the slower they can feel the benefit of being helped and thus sort of like kick-starting the rest of the entire process.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Also, different formats can help. So when you were trying to translate a technical thing to words that are on a page that are linear, it helps a lot to instead do a video and it doesn’t have to be a great video. It doesn’t have to have awesome lighting or perfect sound because you’re teaching a result. You’re not selling them on some music or something.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah, a 10 or 15 minute screencast where you just sit down and take them through the steps that you do could be just as effective, if not more effective in a lot of cases, because they’re not having to transpose back and forth between what are you describing and what does it look like? And where is it in the app and what does the code look like? All of those things. Actually, that’s a great point.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Your move a lot of abstraction where they have to mentally translate it and where you have to try to make sure that they can do that. Well, you can just eliminate that completely.

Amanda Thomas: Right, that’s a good thought too.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I’m excited for you. I’m really excited for you.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Yeah, I think it’s gonna be great.

Amanda Thomas: I’m excited about this project too. It feels like something that is a manageable size that could do really well.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Well, like I told you the time you came over for coffee, you told me that story. I don’t know if you had decided to do a product yet or not, but I was like, I would pay for that knowledge. I don’t want to discover that on my own. I would break!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Having been through just the discovery of new technical stuff while Amy and I worked together, I know Amy’s temperament for, “I have to do what now? Are you kidding?” And there’s like just things slamming and a lot of swearing.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: You’re making me sound like I go on a rampage!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I mean, it’s friendly. It’s never been threatening to me. I sometimes worry about the thing which is actually being threatened, I’ve never actually felt like I’m in danger.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: I haven’t broken a piece of technological equipment since 2001 when I destroyed a fax machine, but it was asking for it!

Amanda Thomas: I got a guy from Sparkhub to hang up on me when he couldn’t fix my font encryption problems. I finally called, I was like, look, there’s two ways to get off the phone with me. You can fix my problem, or you can hang up. Two and a half hours later, he hung up.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: That’ll make a great story recorded or on a blog post!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Agreed!

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Especially when people are starting out, I mean, as a technical person, I would assume it can’t be this bad. So to some, I wasn’t thinking I needed to buy a product to teach them how to do this until you told me that story. And I was just like, fuck, I don’t want to discover that on my own. So sometimes you make them feel the pain by telling a story, and then they not only trust you cause you’ve gone through it already, but then they realize that they need help.

You need to write these stories down or record them or something. I mean, obviously they’re in this podcast now, but, that would get play I think on Twitter. Stories of tech horror, people love that stuff.

Amanda Thomas: Okay. Yeah, I have a few that came out of this whole process.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: So for your next steps, you have Squarespace. I’m assuming that has a blog component. You’ve got a mailing list. What Alex and I would probably recommend you do is find a few questions people ask or questions you asked yourself as you started this process. Write up a brief, but informative answer. Have a backlog of three or four of those on your blog with your calls to action to sign up for the mailing list and say that you’re going to send out a guide for images or a cheat sheet.

Then come up with one sort of splashy piece of content. Like one of these horror stories; the crashing one, or the phone call one, or maybe both together. That could be like your sort of splash out. People will read that and then they’ll notice you have a few other posts and then they’ll likely sign up for your mailing list, kind of thing.

That doesn’t take a lot, it takes like maybe four or five blog posts, and they don’t have to be long.

Amanda Thomas: That sounds like tackle-able inside a week.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Exactly. That’s the point. That’s the whole point.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: The most for the least. Get something useful up there and it’s targeted and get it out ASAP. That’s the best way to do it.

Amanda Thomas: Sounds good.

Amy Hoy Amy Hoy: Awesome. I’m really excited and I think we’re gonna buy it no matter what it looks like so…

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. We need it sooner than later!

Amanda Thomas: Alright. I’ll get on that!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Cool. Thanks Amanda.

Amanda Thomas: Thanks you guys!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Amy and I are excited to be able to check back in with Amanda real soon and be able to update you with progress on how she’s doing with her shipping of ebombs, building of her audience and as soon as this product is available, I know that we’re going to need it and we’ll let you all know about it then.

But in the meantime, you’ve got a lot more stuff like this to look out for. Next week we’ve got another one of these masterclasses coming up. So, you’re going to want to subscribe to the mailing list, subscribe on iTunes, podcasts, wherever it is that you’re listening to this so that you don’t miss the next episode, tons more great stuff coming and we’re looking forward to seeing you back real soon.

Thanks for listening and have a great week!

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