Self-publishing can be an extremely rewarding experience, both financially and otherwise. It allows you to write on your own schedule, set your own deadlines, and have a hand in every step of the publishing process. At the same time, it also means you won’t really have anyone to hold your hand and help you as you publish your book. Luckily, I’ve written up this handy guide that will teach you the basics and help get you started on your self-publishing journey.
I’m going to cover the basic steps involved in prepping your work for self-publishing, tools you can use for different parts of the process, and tactics for getting your work out there. While this covers the basics of what you’ll need to know, there is always more to learn. If there’s something you have more questions about after you finish this post, leave a comment so we can chat further!
Editing – The First Step to a Finished Product
Writing your story is only half the battle. Editing your work is the first step of many to self-publishing your work. I have a few posts about the process of editing your work on your own that start here. I am a big fan of doing some self-editing before asking for help. Once you’ve gone over your story yourself, though, it’s very important to get some fresh eyes on your book. If you want your work to truly be its best, it’s also important that those fresh eyes belong to a professional.
There are lots of different kinds of editors. Some (like me!) are line editors who willing and able to help at all or most parts of the editing process. Other editors focus on specific areas, like developmental editing or proofreading. This article at The Helpful Writer gives a good general overview of different kinds of editors and the services they provide. A professional can give your story the polish it needs.
Paying for editorial services can get expensive, though, especially if you’re hiring more than one person for different parts of the process. If you really don’t have the extra cash to hire an editor, ask friends and family if they’d be willing to help. Check to see if your library or local community college has a writing workshop. Poke around the internet to find critique groups, both online and off.
Whether you pay an editor or get feedback from friends, honest feedback from people who understand story structure and grammar will be your best friend. Get really good at listening to critiques of your work and seek out a LOT of it. It can be hard to have someone tell you “this character doesn’t really leap off the page” or “I found this chapter confusing.” There might even be times when you disagree with the feedback and don’t end up using it. Still, hearing it is good, and getting diverse perspectives on your work is helpful.
Digital, Physical, or Both?
After the editing is done and you feel like your book is ready to go out into the world, you need to figure out whether you want to release your book digitally, as a physical book, or both. Consider your goals for your work and how much capital you have to invest in the initial publishing process.
Digital publishing is going to be the cheapest way to publish your book. Digital publishing is basically free once you’ve gotten editing and cover art out of the way. You don’t have to have an ISBN (more on that later!) as you do with physical publishing. For an indie author who is just starting out and doesn’t have a ton of cash, this is likely where you’ll start.
Physical publishing is a bit more capital-intensive. Your cover will need to be more than just a simple cover image–you’ll need a design that covers the front, binding, and back of your book, which requires more work and skill to create. Then, you’ll need to purchase an ISBN for your book. After that, the process is much the same as it is with digital publishing: you’ll research distributors and choose the ones that work best for you and sell your books.
The ideal option for most writers is to do both. Doing both gives you the broadest possible audience to market to and ensures readers will be able to get your book in whatever format they prefer. Still, a lot of that comes down to your goals for your work and how much you can invest. If you decide to publish both digital and physical editions of your work, you’ll need to make sure you purchase 2 ISBNs, one for each edition. While this will give you more avenues to distribute your work, particularly for your digital edition, it does require some up-front investment.
Every option available to you is valid and they each come with different benefits and drawbacks. The great thing is, you don’t have to stay married to one option or the other. When you’re self-publishing, you have the flexibility to publish a different edition of your work later on. If you start out purely digital, nothing is stopping you from eventually getting into physical publishing. The same goes for starting with physical publishing. Regardless, you should know what editions of your book you’re going to publish when you start out. It’ll make some of the decisions you’ll have to make down the line a little easier.
Cover Art – Because We All Judge Books By Their Covers
Obtaining cover art is an integral part of the publishing process. Whether we admit it or not, a book cover can make or break a reader’s decision to buy your book. A quality cover results in more sales.
For those of us with limited design skills (ahem), this part of the self-publishing process can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, you can find a cover artist who specializes in the kind of cover you’re looking for.
Hiring a cover artist is especially important if you’re planning on having your book printed or using print-on-demand services. Physically printed books require some extra help in order to make them look truly polished and professional, as I mentioned earlier. Rather than just a standard rectangular book cover, you need someone to design your front and back covers and the spine of your book. If you have the money, paying an artist to create a great cover for your book is 100% worth it.
If you don’t have the cash up front to pay an artist, there are simple ways to make an attractive-looking cover. Photoshop and InDesign are amazing for creating DIY covers, especially if you have a template to work with, but they’re expensive. My two favorite free resources for making any kind of graphic? Canva and Unsplash.
Canva is a simple, free tool for creating graphics. They provide thousands of free templates for every graphic you can imagine, including book covers. It’s easy to learn and won’t cost you anything. They also have a phone app that’s super functional and easy to use. Unsplash is a great source of beautiful stock photos that you can use for any purpose for free–including popping them into a book cover template on Canva. With those two tools, it’s easy to make a simple, attractive ebook cover. Caveat: Canva doesn’t have any built-in templates for physical book covers, so it works best as a tool for ebook covers. However, there are ways to make it work. If you download a book cover template from CreateSpace, you can upload that template to Canva or another tool like Photoshop or InDesign and use the template as a base.
No matter what option you choose, make sure it looks good! Get feedback on your cover from people you trust to make sure it’s eye-catching and attractive to more than just you. God knows there are times when you’re working on a graphic for so long you totally lose perspective. Extra eyes are a huge help.
Formatting – More Important Than You’d Think!
Formatting is an oft-overlooked part of the self-publishing process. Depending on the channels you will be distributing your book through and the format your book will be published in, you will need to format your book in specific ways. Most distributors will provide you with simple guidelines for formatting ebooks. Very simple formatting works well in ebooks, so if you’re only publishing digitally and your book doesn’t contain complex graphs or images, you can definitely do it yourself.
Formatting for physical publishing takes a bit more work. This write-up over at DIY Book Formats is an excellent overview that can help you figure out how you want to format your book. (Seriously, I learned so much from just that one post.) There are also some really good examples of what certain print formats look like elsewhere on the site, plus more detailed instructions on how to format your book using Word and InDesign. It is totally doable to format your book by yourself, and that’s what most self-published authors do.
Of course, some people prefer to outsource this work. There are professionals that specialize in formatting ebooks and print books. If you’re not the most tech savvy, don’t have much of a design eye, or would prefer to hand this work off to someone else, look into hiring someone to handle this part of the process for you.
ISBNs – What the Heck Are They and Why Do I Need Them?
If you are only planning on publishing an ebook, this is a section you can skim. However, if you’re planning on having your book physically published or are interested in wider distribution for your ebook, listen up!
First, a definition: ISBNs (or International Standard Book Numbers) are unique numbers that can be used to identify your book worldwide. ISBNs are not required for ebooks, though they can be helpful and boost your visibility as an author. For physically published books and audiobooks, though, ISBNs are a must. Giacomo Giammatteo explains how ISBNs work and the process of purchasing them in great detail here. (One important detail that he mentions that I want to emphasize: you should purchase your ISBNs directly from Bowker or whoever your local provider of ISBNs is rather than from CreateSpace or a similar company. Purchasing your own ISBNs gives you more freedom in terms of distribution avenues.)
If you’re in the US, you’ll need to purchase your ISBN through Bowker at this link. Bowker offers discounts on bulk purchases of ISBNs. They also provide barcodes that you can print on your book, which are required for many physical distribution channels. Keep in mind that you need a separate ISBN for every edition of your book. This means that an ebook would get one ISBN, a physical book would get another, and an audiobook would get a third. If you come out with a new edition of your physical book that’s in a different size, that would need another ISBN.
As a budget-conscious writer, I can’t really justify spending the money on ISBNs at the moment, especially since I want to focus on ebook publishing. However, as Giacomo points out in his article, ISBNs can allow you to include your book in more distribution channels and therefore earn more. By skipping out on an ISBN, you miss out on potential sales through libraries and services like OverDrive, even if you’re just publishing digitally. Weigh your options and decide what’s best for you. You can always purchase an ISBN for your ebook after you publish it.
There are a huge number of distribution options for a self-published book.
Amazon Kindle is often the first choice of many authors. It’s easy to use and gives you access to millions of readers all over the world. But there are a whole lot more self-publishing options than Kindle, and they’re all worth looking into. Aside from Kindle, you can publish through Apple iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, the Google Play Store, and more. Working directly with each of these channels is possible and ensures that you’re getting the maximum amount of profit out of your book. Still, managing all those individual channels can be exhausting. That’s where aggregators come in.
In a nutshell, aggregators allow you to publish your book through them. They then get your book into a whole bunch of distribution channels without you having to do a whole bunch of extra work. It’s a good way to maximize the number of eyes that will see your book. The drawback is that aggregators take a cut of every purchase, usually somewhere around 10%. For the amount of work they handle, it seems fair. Aggregators are also usually non-exclusive. You can use multiple aggregators who have different distribution channels to increase your book’s footprint.
There are also lots of options for aggregators, and new ones pop up all the time. The one you’ll hear about most often as an indie author is Smashwords, which distributes to all of the channels I named in the paragraph above along with numerous others. This blog post gives an awesome overview of the top aggregators in the market.
Most of those aggregators are focused on ebooks. Ingram is the top distributor for many physically published books, and is used by indie authors and publishers. Ingram distributes both ebooks and physical books and has a worldwide reach. They are trusted by independent bookstores and chain retailers alike. Amazon’s CreateSpace offers similar services, and many recommend that authors use both CreateSpace and Ingram.
And, Finally, Publish Your Book!
Once you have all your ducks in a row, publish! your! book! Give yourself a pat on the back, go grab a mimosa, and relax for a bit. You earned it.
Have more questions about the self-publishing process? Have some information or resources on self-publishing you’d like to share? Let’s talk in the comments!