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Want to write a book? Here’s all you need to know from a do-it-yourself superstar author

A few weeks ago I gave a talk about my latest book at the Eslite bookstore in Hong Kong. What I found interesting was that during the Q&A session after my speech, many of the questions were actually not about the content of the book but about how to do self-publishing. And I’m more than happy to share my experience about why and how.

Johan Nylander with his book, Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley Johan Nylander with his book, Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley

About a half year ago I launched a short-read titled Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon
on Amazon. After just a few days it became the Number 1 bestseller in its China section, and bubbled in the Top 5 in the section for books on innovation. In short, self-publishing is the most fun and challenging thing I’ve done in a long time. And, believe me or not, it has been surprisingly profitable. But hey, I’m a journo and used to being paid as one.

Why did I decide to do self-publishing? I’ll give you two explanations.

Some 10 years ago I wrote a management book titled Simplify! which was published by one of Sweden’s biggest publishing houses. I was naturally honoured to be published by such a prestigious company, but it turned out to be quite a disappointing experience. In short, I did all the work and they took the money. Although I managed to get really good media coverage and even won an award for it, the publisher didn’t distribute the book to the most important bookstores. I could go on.

Secondly, for a long time I’ve been trying to figure out how to make money as a writer in today’s media industry. If you’re a fellow writer you probably recognise this scenario: You do a feature story for an international media outlet, spending time travelling, researching and writing, and in the end getting paid breadcrumbs. And the day after the story is published online, dozens of other websites might have unlawfully copied it. It’s not the best business model.

So I was thinking, what if I write the story longer, and yet a bit longer, and again longer. Instead of 1,000 words I write 10,000 words, or 15,000 words. I write it so long that it suddenly turns in to a short book. And if it’s a short book, I can publish it on Amazon. If it’s published on Amazon, as an e-book and paperback, I can sell it globally to anyone, possibly for years. Amazon gives you 70 per cent commission on the consumer price, which is about 10 times higher than traditional publishing companies.

Sounds easy? Well, it is. And fun.



Find a topic that includes these two ingredients: You enjoy writing it and the readers will buy it. Either you have an idea that you believe many people will want to read, or you scan through the categories on Amazon till you find a gap in the market that you think you can fill. I had luck with my book about Shenzhen; high demand (many people searching on Amazon) but limited supply.


Cover design and title are key. To stand out against the competition, the cover and title have to stick out and be search engine friendly. My subtitle is jam-packed with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) boosting keywords: “China”, “smart city”, “Silicon Valley”, and “challenging” to add some drama.


Writing and designing is only half the job. The second half is marketing. To successfully launch your book you need to first figure out a plan how to drive traffic to your Amazon page and get people to pay. Try to get buzz on social media before launch and notify friends and colleagues.


The first week is crucial. Amazon’s algorithm loves newly-released books that draw attention and if you manage to get good sales and reviews, the system will promote you. There are several tricks and tips, some quite cheeky. One is to set the price at US$0.99 during launch week, and then increase it later.


I also printed 2,000 copies at a local printer in Hong Kong, and the book is now for sale in most bookstores here. I’m grateful for all my friends and 11-year-old son who have helped me to carry heavy boxes across town, sometimes with taxi drivers swearing and shouting when we fill the trunk and backseat with books. Self-publishing is not always glamorous, but it is always fun.

Johan Nylander is an award-winning author and freelance China and Asia correspondent. He is frequently published by CNN, Forbes and Sweden’s leading business daily, Dagens Industri. He has penned bestseller Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley, and plans to launch several more self-published books.

Read more about Johan here.


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