“This is a guest blog post, written by my co-author Cristobal Alonso about the Behind-the-scenes process of writing our book. i thought it could be valuable to share it here. Enjoy reading and #KeepPERFORMing “
Many of you know me as the CEO of Startup Wise Guys. And you probably also know how excited I am, every time we get a chance to support founders from the region to succeed and grow.
This year, my colleague and co-author Stoyan Yankov and I published our first book: PERFORM: The Unsexy Truth about (Startup) Success, which we started working on in early 2019.
Lately, I have been asked by many colleagues and friends about my experience, the process of writing a book, the do’s and don’t and the obstacles on the way. I do not consider myself an experienced book author, but certainly, this journey provided us with many lessons and learnings that I am happy to share.
- Choosing a co-author
The first learning is around writing your book with a co-author. Writing a book is an extremely time-consuming task and one that perhaps you have never done before. Just like in startups where co-founders take you out of the hole when everything looks dark (aka we will never finish this book or who thought we could write a book ?!!!), your co-author will be your support when going through hard times… Just as importantly, your co-author will keep you accountable on the deadline and deliverables, give you feedback, and inspiration and ideas.
For me, having a co-author who was a professional friend, but not a company partner, was very important. I could separate writing the book from my daily routine and duties. We both saw this as a joint project, and not being work colleagues kept us both very objective towards each other.
We spent a good amount of time, in the beginning, discussing and aligning our individual WHY. We discussed WHY each of us wanted to write this book, what were our individual objectives (and we had and have had different ones) and could we have these different objectives to support each other. Fortunately, that was the case.
We talked about “values”, we discussed how we see the overall structure and content of the book. And after being aligned on all, we were ready to give it a try.
Important to mention is: Stoyan and I knew each other for a few years already, having collaborated on lots of projects and established trust in between each other, which is the core of any partnership.
To sum up: don’t assume your co-author has the same objectives as you do. Talk about it, align and only if you are on the same page – move forward with it.
Using a Ghostwriter or not?
Since both of us were very busy, we considered bringing in a ghostwriter to leverage at least partially some of the writing. We recorded a number of workshops on video, which we sent to a ghostwriter. She did a fine job, but a very small part of her draft got used at the end. Part of the reason that idea turned unsuccessful was that we involved the ghostwriter a bit too early in the process; before the content was well developed before we did interviews and the examples and stories were chosen.
If you are writing your first book, I would say: don’t use a ghostwriter. You need to be at the core of the writing. If you don’t have time to write it now, wait until you do.
2. Where to start
Develop the book’s basic structure, the subchapters, and the unique selling point or focus of each chapter. Develop the storyline of the book and see if it has the power to inspire. When doing this, do some research around similar books, read their indexes, and improve yours. Write down why your book will be worth reading and have a clear target audience you will be writing for. In our case, it was “startup founders from NewEurope”. A region we knew very well, having worked closely with hundreds of founders. But also we found out, most startup books are filled with Silicon Valley examples and focused on the American market. Not so relatable if you operate here.
Develop an MVP. Yes, yes, this is a book, but you still need an MVP. It could be a series of Blog Posts that will provide you with feedback. You would also understand how long it takes you to write, to see how much research you will need when writing, and more importantly, to test if you enjoy the process of writing.
In our case, we developed a workshop series of 7 presentations, each of them being a book chapter. We split them among the two of us (I developed three and Stoyan four of them). For this, we respected our passions and strengths. For example, I did the chapter of “Purpose and Values” and Stoyan (who is a productivity coach) did “Effective Planning.” But also I got to write one chapter covering a topic that initially I didn’t care much about (“Roles and Responsibilities”). In fact, I did not even like the topic. However, it ended up being super-relevant, and it turned out to be one of the chapters that has been most useful to founders (and I did learn a lot in the process about the topic myself).
We collected lots of positive feedback from our Workshops MVPs and one thing was certain – the topics resonated with our audience, and they were engaged and entertained by our approach towards them. It was also clear that our combined style while different worked well together. So we had our MVP validated, and we were ready to start writing the book.
3. Plan, write and adapt…
The next step was to get to work and write the first drafts of each chapter.
We planned it would take us around 1 month per chapter to write the initial draft (bear in mind that we both have full-time jobs, and we are extremely busy, plus we used to be constantly traveling). So in total, it will take us 4 months to complete it. In reality, it took us nearly a year to get to that point. AKA, it will always take much longer than you think. So plan, adjust and go over each chapter several times.
Don’t fall in love with your writing!
Stress-test everything you write. You’re already too biased. Have people read the draft and ask them to tell you how they really feel about it.
In our case, we sent each chapter to a minimum of 5 people and required them to send us very specific feedback.
Sometimes the parts we liked most were also the ones people suggested we should cut out. Let go of your ego and focus on making a great book!
Based on the feedback, we had to re-write, erase and polish the chapters.
It was also important to define the format and structure of the book.
Will we write in first-person singular, or plural, or third person? Will our style be colloquial or formal? How will we refer to the founders and to SWG as a company… All this helped a lot to clarify prior to embarking on finalizing the first book draft. And then….. we brought an editor on board 😊
4. The editor
OMG, where can we start with the editor? I remember reading an advice post from an experienced business book author (like this one) about writing best-selling books. He explained that it was more than worth it to invest in an A-team in terms of support (editor, designers, etc…). We, of course, had somehow limited financial resources, but we aimed at hiring and working with the best within our networks.
So when asking around for recommendations for a business book editor, we came across Jessica Sandin.
Over time, you will experience the strongest love-hate relationship you could ever imagine with your editor. Just to give you an example, I don’t think that a single paragraph survived the editing process. Jessica uses a 3-colour coding when editing. Getting her reviews was always betting on how many rainbows you will get next.
We looked for a person with experience writing business books. We did not want a startup book expert (less biased) but someone that could relate to the business lingo.
We did a number of editing rounds. Firstly, Jessica would read our chapters and suggest how to improve the restructuring and would leave us hundreds of comments and questions to help us make the content better. After we corrected them all, she would do another round of feedback. (Sometimes more than twice). Finally, when both sides were happy with the structure and content, she went through the whole book and edited it to ensure proper language and style.
The editor will ask you more questions than you can ever imagine. She will force you to constantly prove each statement you are making in the book. She will challenge your sources and make sure you have explained each concept you have in the book. As an example, when we wrote about “accelerator batches”, she asked us to define what is “an accelerator” and what is “a batch”. The editor will also help you to be consistent in how you write across chapters, and will also make sure that both co-authors are writing in a coherent manner together. Jessica was also key to the storylining of each chapter. While the draft was always written before her reviews, she will challenge the order, if this paragraph or this part of the chapter should go first or later, basically ensuring the story flows as good as possible.
To give you an idea, it would usually take Jessica 3 days to edit each chapter (around 20 pages per chapter), then we would take 5-7 days to rewrite the chapter based on her edits, and then she would do a second review that would take a day. Overall, it took around two and a half months for the eight chapters of our book. Once we were there, it took Jessica 2 weeks to read the whole book in one go and provide the final edits.
I can’t emphasize enough how important Jessica was as an editor for us. She was always tough, but extremely professional, and I feel the book is at least 2-3 times better thanks to her work and her challenges.
So don’t go cheap or don’t just look for someone to only review your grammar. Get on board someone who will make sure your book is well written, the messages are clear, the statements are proven and at the end of the day, your book is fun to read. It will be the best investment you can imagine!
5. Design & Illustrations
We wanted the design to represent the energy of the book. Firstly, we worked on having a good book cover. It is important as very early in the process you need to send promo materials and a good cover is a MUST. There are many places and online marketplaces where you can find good book cover designers. We decided to work with people from our network. The cover evolved like everything else with time, and after a few feedback rounds, we had a cover we liked. We tested it with others and received good feedback too.
As for the interior design, we were happy to work with Agne Strimaityte. She developed all illustrations and created a very minimal, yet energetic style of the book.
It’s been a tedious process, as the book is very illustration-heavy. But it was all worth it. Now we ended up with a lot of original tools and graphs that are very helpful to our readers.
6. The Final Push
At that point, we had a solid draft, but the book was not finished yet.
We had to do formatting, review sources and references, finalize the illustrations, do a final proofreading, and include all acknowledgments.
In parallel, we sent the book draft to 10-20 trusted people to read it as a whole and provide us with final feedback. As previously mentioned, to get good feedback, try giving exact instructions. Ask specific questions and make it easy for people to feedback to you.
Last but not least comes the printing and all work related to it. As we were self-publishing, we learned a lot of things on the way. We decided to print the first 1,000 copies and personally sign them and send them out to people.
I recommend you take the time to find the right printing house as a trusted partner and carefully format the working files, so they fit their specific requirements. As our book is colorful and includes many graphs and illustrations, we had to be very careful how well the book was printed, what paper we chose, etc.
A piece of advice: think about the formatting from the very beginning. It’s one thing to have someone to do a great design and illustration, but another to have an expert in fulfilling the technical requirements of platforms like Amazon KDP. We had to pay the price, but lessons learned, and we are ready to be a step ahead for our next book.
So Voilà! Your book is ready. And you are ready to go into SALES MODE and distribute it to the whole world. But that’s another post on its own.
Let me know if you found the post useful. Happy to share if you have any questions.
Until then, have a great day and Keep PERFORM-ing!
Written by Cristobal Alonso