Is this what product management looks like?

...or what the self-publishing process can teach us about picking fonts and the need for version control in writing software

If you haven’t heard, I’m writing a book on content creation for developers and it’s currently available for pre-order. If you’re a technologist from an underrepresented group, enter the book giveaway for a chance to receive one of 70 free copies of the book. Listen to me talk about the book with Tonya Evans on Tech Intersect podcast.

I’m now almost six weeks into a seven-week project: publishing my first book. I’m still so deep in the weeds that I’ve not fully processed everything I’ve been learning. This essay is an attempt at processing this experience.

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

Self-publishing makes publishing and marketing a book more accessible to more prospective authors, but it doesn’t make the end-to-end publishing process less daunting. It makes it more approachable.

The traditional publishing route isn’t an easy one for any author, especially one who hasn’t written their debut book. In traditional publishing, publishers handle everything from book acquisitions to editing (developmental editing and copyediting), marketing, public relations, and design. And every publishing house focuses on specific genres and targets a specific audience; these inform the kinds of books they buy and how they bring these books to market. In addition, many publishers don’t accept solicited manuscripts, which means that book agents broker deals between publishers and authors. Agents, like publishers, have genre preferences, and agents might have existing relationships with specific publishers. Prospective authors have to pitch agents, and if an agent picks them up, the agent will shop the author’s book to various publishers until someone buys the book. It is not unusual for authors to get turned down by multiple publishers. And once an author receives a book deal, it may take months or years until their book is finally published.

The self-published author as context switcher

A self-published author, however, cuts much of this out. There is no need for an agent. There is no need for a publisher. But a self-published author now has to handle a lot of the work traditional publishers (and other ancillary professionals) do: editing, marketing, public relations, book design, setting prices, and finding a platform to publish their content.

In my case, I handled everything except the editing process and the giveaway program. (I am, however, on the hook for proofreading the final versions.) In just seven weeks, I wrote a full book, had it reviewed and edited (by two editors), selected a platform, created a landing page, and promoted on social media. I’ve spent the better part of two weeks designing the EPUB and PDF versions of the book, learning the limitations of writing software, the importance of spacing, and the joy that is selecting the right font for a header.

The context switching is intense. For the first two weeks of this project, I was the writer. I conducted research and spent hours each day trying to hit my word count. When I wasn’t writing, I was marketing the book: drafting the book positioning statement, crafting social media copy, refining landing page copy, posting tweets at various times during the day. Then some folks asked if they could donate books, and I went into program manager mode, calculating how many books I received per donor, ideating what the giveaway program would look like, and finding an agency to run it for me. I spent two weeks in editing mode, reviewing the edits from each editor in a separate Word doc, trying to reconcile those changes in a master doc. (Not coming up with a proper plan for version control is definitely one of my regrets.)

Now, the last two weeks have been quieter on the marketing front but heavier on the book design front. I’ve spent so much time on the layout that I have had dreams about line spacing. Are the colors right? Should this section start on a new page? How much space does there need to be in between each bullet? Is this font size readable enough? These are the questions I’ve spent hours for two weeks trying to answer confidently. I’ve read through the book a few times in the mockup to ensure that I catch typos. Inevitably, a few pop up, and in some cases, I’ve made small rewrites. A writer’s work is never done. Writing a book about content creation for developers has forced me to follow the exact advice I dole out in my own book!

Perfection is also the enemy of done, and at some point (January 28 @ 7 AM Eastern, to be exact), the book will ship. To be fair, I could have hired help at every step. But I wanted to experience every step of the journey every bit as much as I want to finally hit “Publish”. The last three weeks have felt really long, but in terms of publication schedules, seven weeks is incredibly ambitious. And the end is in sight!

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Because I work in tech, I found it easier to describe my book project as product management than anything related to book publishing. So when researching product management for this essay, I sought images that showed the product development lifecycle as high-level steps that could be applied to different kinds of products, like books.

Instead, I found many that looked like this (rather intimidating) illustration of the product development cycle:

Image of the product development life cycle. Clockwise, the steps are as follows: Requirement Gathering & Scoping; Research & Usability Engineering; Prototyping; Development; Testing & QA; Deployment; Training & Sales Support; Maintenance & Technical Support. Image credit: A Global Wall.

It was very clear that self-publishing a book is an imperfect example to illustrate product management (especially as it relates to software). But it works. A product manager is not the one doing everything, but they are overseeing the entire product development lifecycle. (In my case, it just so happens that I’m the dev and the UX designer and the UX researcher and the product marketer and QA and the PM.) Pretty soon, I’ll have shipped a product.


What I’m Reading

  • Work is Work by Coda Hale

  • Critical Code Studies by Mark C. Marino (I was accepted into Mark Marino’s Critical Code Studies Working Group and we’re reading one of the upcoming book’s chapters.)

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