One of the classic ways to get recognized for your ideas is to write a book. In the past, the only societally acceptable way to do it was with a mainstream publishing house; self-publishing was only for the desperate. But that’s changed entirely in the past several years, as successful authors have decided to self-publish and self-publishing stars like Hugh Howey have been courted by New York houses.
Because of self-publishing’s increased legitimacy, it’s become a viable branding strategy for entrepreneurs who want to establish themselves as thought leaders. (As I describe in this post, working with a commercial publisher still has some reputational advantages, but if your market niche is small, the mainstream publishers likely won’t be interested, anyway, so self-publishing is a great option.)
That’s the route that urban planner Mike Lydon took. When I interviewed him for my new book Stand Out, he told me about launching his firm, Street Plans Collaborative, in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession. He quickly learned cities weren’t eager to pony up for large-scale municipal improvement projects. Meanwhile, he’d been observing the growing trend of low-cost experiments (famously, in places like Times Square) where previously traffic-choked areas were reclaimed for pedestrians and bicyclists.
He was fascinated by the emerging DIY ethos, and began compiling case studies about the phenomenon, eventually publishing a free PDF e-book on his website called Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change. The response was immediate, with 10,000 views and downloads within the first few months -- a massive amount within the small urban planning community.
It became so popular, he and his partner created Tactical Urbanism 2, showcasing even more case studies, and with a partner in South America, they created a third volume featuring Latin American examples. Together, the booklets have been viewed or downloaded more than 160,000 times, establishing Lydon as one of the world’s go-to experts on the movement.
When Lydon launched the booklets, his firm was still new and scrambling for business. But the e-books, and the many resulting speaking engagements, have solidified its reputation. “We’re becoming known for this work,” he says. “It’s been a differentiator for us and opened doors.” As interest in tactical urbanism grows, Lydon has even started to see communities create requests for proposals that specifically seek firms with that expertise. “We’ve been hired and sought out for the tactical urbanism component,” he says. “And as we build relationships, clients see we have other skill sets.”
Today, there are a wealth of tools to facilitate self-publishing. For Lydon, a simple PDF on his website was enough to drive substantial new business opportunities. For those who would like to create books available elsewhere, services like Amazon’s CreateSpace make the process simple.
With his series of e-books, Lydon built a powerful brand identity for his new firm that has enabled it to flourish, even in tough economic times. The books served as the ultimate calling card, an unparalleled opportunity to showcase his expertise and enable potential clients to test-drive his ideas. If you’d like to become recognized as a thought leader in your industry, it may not be necessary to land an agent and win a book deal. These days, self-publishing can also be a path to business success.