So you want to self-publish your book? You're in good company. Plenty of authors have gone ahead of you, working to prove that high-quality books can hold their own in the marketplace without the support of a traditional publisher. Amazon, of course, has changed the entire publishing landscape, but authors have been taking control of the publication process as far back as Charles Dickens, or the Brontë sisters. Self-publishing works, if done well — and for the right reasons.
Even though you're reading an article titled "How to Self-Publish a Book", the first question to ask is: Should you self-publish your book? I'm going to assume, at this point, that you have a book; it might not be revised, it might not be edited, but it is drafted and you're starting to think about the publication phase.
Writing a book will almost kill you. By the end, you'll be exhausted, brain dead and filled with a bubbling sense of anxiety. I recently finished up my first book, and here are a few takeaways from the ordeal that can be applied to pretty much any large-scale project.
I'm also going to assume that you want to publish your book at the professional level. If you want to just put your book on Amazon and not worry about professional copyediting or a large-scale marketing campaign, that's cool. Plenty of people do that, and Amazon has excellent step-by-step instructions. You might even make a few bucks.
But this guide is for people who want to self-publish a book that can hold its own in the current literary marketplace — and help you build a reputation, if not a career, as an author.
It's also for people who want to self-publish because they have decided that's the right choice for their book.
"Some people do come to self-publishing saying, 'I know this is right for me, I'm excited about it, I want to get my hands dirty and figure all this stuff out,' and for some people it's very much a backup," Brooke Warner, co-founder of She Writes Press, explains. Although it's perfectly fine to choose self-publishing after querying your book in the traditional publishing market, you shouldn't go in thinking, "Well, I couldn't get an agent, so it looks like self-publishing is my only option." Self-publishing should always be something you actively decide to do.
So consider this post an aid in your making that decision. I want to reference (and recommend) two books that were invaluable during my own self-publishing process: Brooke Warner's Green-light Your Book: How Authors Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing and Beth Jusino's The Author's Guide to Marketing: Make a Plan to Attract More Readers and Sell More Books (You May Even Enjoy It). I reached out to both Warner and Jusino as I wrote this post, so you'll see their advice interspersed with mine.
Self-Publishing Pros and Cons
Let's start with some inspiration from The Author's Guide to Marketing:
You may have heard that this is the best time in history to be a writer. And it's true. Authors have more opportunities to reach readers than ever before, and if they want more control over the process, they can have it. Distribution changes have made almost every book in print available to every reader, wherever they are and whenever they want it. Online bookstore shelves are limitless and global. Print-on-demand technology makes it possible to keep a book in print forever. Finite bookstore shelf space or the demands of scale no longer limit publishing.
The first big "pro" of self-publishing is this lack of limitation; you, as an individual, can do nearly everything a traditional publisher does. (Notice I wrote "traditional publisher" and not "traditionally published author". Once you decide to self-publish, you take on the publisher role — and it's a big one.) If you have an idea that you want to turn into a professional-quality ebook, paperback or hardback, you can. If you want to sell that book in the same major marketplaces as bestselling authors, you can. If you want to set up a book tour, buy advertising, or get yourself podcast and media appearances, you can.
This brings us to the first big "con": You'll have to do all the work — and front all the money — yourself. Advertising is not cheap. Getting your book reviewed by major industry reviewers is not cheap. Buying advance review copies of your own paperback to distribute to reviewers and bookstores is not cheap — and getting bookstores (and podcasters, and media) to pay attention to a self-published book takes work. Being a self-publisher means taking full responsibility for your own book, from the cover you choose to the editor you hire, and that responsibility will cost both time and money.
Of course, for some people, having full responsibility (sometimes called "creative control") isn't necessarily bad. They want to run the show. They want to study successful covers and learn how to create one — or how to hire a designer who can create one. They want to learn how to legally quote song lyrics or reference brand names. They want to go in-depth on pre-orders and pricing and marketing campaigns.
Which brings me to another pro: If your book is successful, you will earn significantly higher royalties than a traditionally published author would. (You'll earn significantly higher royalties regardless, but that matters less if you only sell five copies.)
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I publish my ebooks through Pronoun, which gives authors 70 per cent royalties on ebooks priced between $US0.99 ($1) and $US9.99 ($13), and 65 per cent royalties on ebooks priced at $US10 ($13) and above. I publish my paperbacks through IngramSpark, and get direct publisher compensation on every book sold.
How does that compare to traditional publishing? I'll quote from Green-Light Your Book:
The industry standard is for traditional publishers to keep 85 per cent of paperback net sales and 75 per cent of e-book net sales.
With self-publishing, your royalties more than double. Although industry standards — and self-publishing standards — can and will change, self-publishing royalties are likely to stay higher than traditional publishing royalties because you are taking on the role of both author and publisher and collecting both shares of the money.
The flip side is that you won't earn an advance. Traditional publishing houses often pay authors a large chunk of money up-front, AKA "the advance". It's technically an advance against royalties, which means that the author doesn't earn any more money on their book until their royalty payments exceed the amount that was advanced to them — and many authors don't ever earn out their advance. But they get that advance money whether their book sells five copies or 50,000, and self-published writers... don't.
Crowdfunding has changed the game a little bit. Some self-published writers (like yours truly) have used Kickstarter and Patreon to earn "advance-level money" from friends and supporters. If you go that route, be aware that this isn't necessarily money you'll get to keep; you'll very likely pour a lot of it into the costs of publishing your book.
So. Should you self-publish? Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I ready to take full responsibility for my own book?
- Am I ready to finance the cost of publishing my book?
- Am I ready to take on all of the work required in publication — designing, copyediting, marketing and so on — and/or outsource this work to people who are more skilled in these areas?
There's also one more question to answer:
- Is my book any good? Is it ready for publication?
Or, as Beth Jusino puts it, "The biggest mistake a writer can make in self-publishing is hitting the Publish button on a book that's not GREAT."
If the answer to all of these questions is an enthusiastic YES, let's look at the various ways in which you can get the job done.
Self-Publishing Methods: DIY, Assisted or Hybrid
There are three basic methods of self-publishing a book:
- DIY: You do nearly everything yourself, from copyediting to formatting to marketing. You might hire another person to create cover art or do a developmental edit, but you're doing the majority of the work on your own.
- Assisted: You do some of the work yourself, but you also hire a team of editors/designers/publicists/and so on. to round out the skills you don't currently have. You can build this team on your own, or use a service that provides a team for you.
- Hybrid: You hire a publishing company to take on the complete "publisher" role.
I'm going to assume that the DIY and assisted methods are pretty self-explanatory, and focus on what hybrid publishers do, since they occupy a really interesting space in the publishing world. She Writes Press is a great example of a hybrid publisher, and here's a summary of their services:
Unlike traditional publishing houses, which buy the majority stake in your book but often don't deliver when it comes to providing the editorial and marketing help you need, SWP gives authors a traditional house experience, complete with traditional distribution and an experienced editorial and production team, while allowing you to retain full ownership of your project and earnings.
Many hybrid publishers, including She Writes Press, are selective about which manuscripts and authors they work with. This makes sense, for two reasons: First because it helps both you and the publisher ensure the project is a good fit, and second because it allows hybrid publishers to maintain a certain level of quality in the books they publish and promote.
Which method is right for you? I'll offer this piece of advice: Don't base your decision just on cost. A hybrid publishing service might look like the most expensive option — as of this writing, She Writes' all-inclusive She Publishes package costs $US5200 ($6947) — but no matter which method you choose, you're probably going to be investing a few thousand dollars (or more) into the publication process.
So you want to get paid for your writing, but you've never been published. You have no formal experience, and no one's ever hired you for a writing-related job. The professional legwork that comes with getting paid to write can be intimidating. Honing a few important skills can help you get started.
Instead, make your decision based on the skills you have, the skills you need, and the type of experience you want. Do you want a publisher to guide you, do you want a few people to help you, or do you want to navigate the self-publishing path on your own?
The Typical Self-Publishing Path
This is where I finally explain how to self-publish a book. (You're still reading, right?) Everybody's self-publishing path is slightly different, but here are a series of steps that, when followed, will lead you towards self-publication:
1. Write Your Book. Or Write Two.
Get that book written. Make it the best book it can be. Run it by writing groups or beta readers or sensitivity readers. Revise it. Revise it again. Do the proofread. (If you're thinking about hiring an editor, you can do it either at this stage or at the "build your team" stage, below.)
If you are planning on writing a series, it is to your advantage to write the first two books before you start publishing. Momentum is a huge component of success, so if you can get your first book out there and very quickly follow it with a second book, you'll have twice as many opportunities to promote your series, get readers excited, sell the second book by giving the first book away for free and so on.
2. Build your team.
If you're going the hybrid route, look for a hybrid service that publishes books like yours. If you're going the DIY/assisted route and hiring designers/editors/publicists, look for people who already have experience in your genre. Readers have specific expectations for romances, mysteries and so on, and you want your team members to be as familiar with those expectations as you are. (You are familiar with the expectations and conventions of your genre, right?)
"Ask for references," Warner advises. Hiring a designer or an editor is tricky because you can ask for samples of finished work but that won't give you much insight into their process. "You can ask editors what work they have edited, but they're not going to send over their editor's marks." So get those references and talk to other writers about their experiences before you bring someone onto your team.
When you finally get around to that book you're planning to write, you're going to need help. Reedsy helps you find editors, cover designers and publicists that can help you get the job done.
It goes without saying that there are plenty of scams out there. Check Writer Beware before hiring any publishers or signing up for any services, just in case you accidentally pick the one that's too good to be true.
3. Build your book. Also, start the marketing.
At this point you're at least six months from publication; potentially nine months, depending on how much editorial work your book needs. You'll be managing three big projects simultaneously:
- Prepping your book interior
- Prepping your book exterior
- Marketing your book
The book interior includes not only your text but also front matter, back matter, copyright information, author's notes, acknowledgements and so on. Every word that goes into your book needs to be written, revised, edited, copyedited and final-proofed — and there are a lot of words you won't realise your book needs until you start putting it together. (Are you going to include blurbs? Are you going to write a call to action at the end of your book, urging readers to leave Amazon and Goodreads reviews?)
The book exterior includes your cover design as well as a back cover, a spine, dust jacket flaps if you're going hardback, a potential author photo, and even more copy. (What are you going to write on the back cover, and how will that convince people to buy your book? Are you going to include quotes from industry reviewers such as Kirkus, which take up to nine weeks to get?)
Contrary to our romanticised notions, writers don't just sit around all day, drink coffee and scotch and wait for inspiration to strike. Like any other job, they have to be disciplined and productive. While that does involve lots of coffee, it also requires hard work. Here's how some famous authors have kept their nose to the grindstone.
You also need to make sure that your interior and exterior match traditional publishing standards. "There are ways to let industry folks know that you're self-published," Warner says. She regularly sees books without running heads, or covers that include the words by [Author's Name]. "Covers don't have the word 'by' on them."
While you're doing all of this, you might also be building a platform (if you don't already have one), building a mailing list, setting up a pre-order, booking interviews, sharing your industry reviews, writing about your process on your blog, doing a cover reveal on Instagram, and getting that buzz started.
"Marketing, at its core, is building positive impressions with your audience," Jusino explains. "It's never too early to start that. So even when a writer is still working on their draft, they should also be thinking about their audience. Who will be the core, passionate readers of this book? Who will get excited the first time they see it?"
If you read Beth Jusino's book The Author's Guide to Marketing — which I seriously recommend you do — you'll learn about her Attract-Convert-Transform marketing plan. Attract and convert should be self-explanatory; transform is about turning a reader into a fan (who will, in turn, help attract and convert more readers).
Everything you do to promote your book must cover at least one of the three A-C-T steps. A solid marketing plan balances its efforts to cover all three.
The book has worksheets to help you plan your own A-C-T strategies. (I love books with worksheets.)
4. Plan your launch.
You might be three months out at this point. Let's say your text is fully edited, which might still mean a copyedit or final proof but should give you enough mental space to start thinking about how you want your launch to go.
Launch is not a single day. I'm counting "launch" as "everything that happens from two weeks before publication through three months after publication".
Launch is also not a solo event. Ideally, it should incorporate the audience you've built up over the past several months, as well as the contacts you've been developing as part of your marketing and media strategy.
So what happens during launch? It could be any combination of:
- Articles (written by you) about your book
- Articles (written by others) about your book
- Interviews (print or podcast)
- Social media campaigns
- Bookstore and library appearances
What you're trying to do is get as many people excited about your book as possible. This means using the network you have — and the audience you've already built — to generate momentum that will carry your book further than you can promote it on your own.
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"If you're a totally unknown name and you throw a book into the vast ocean of titles on Amazon, it's going to be very, very hard for anyone to find it," Jusino explains. "But if you've done your homework and built your core group of followers before the release, then you have a built-in army of ambassadors who will help drive the attention."
Launch is also about what's coming next. If you are writing a series, let readers know right away that the next volume will publish a year from now, or six months from now. If you're doing a book tour, share that information with your mailing list and local news sites and Facebook and everywhere else — you can even put your tour information on your Amazon author page.
5. Publish your book.
Launch isn't a single day, but Publication Day is. Enjoy it.
Ideally, you'll have some interviews or blog posts scheduled to go live on Publication Day. You should also set aside time to interact directly with your readers, whether you're responding to their social media posts, setting up an online launch event, or hosting a book launch party at a local bookstore.
Publication Day is about you and your book, but it's also about your readers. Make them an integral part of the day, and let them know how much you appreciate the support.
6. Keep writing and publishing.
Here's what a lot of writers don't realise — it's a lot harder to sell a large volume of books than it used to be. I'll quote Green-Light Your Book one more time:
Fewer books than ever before are selling six-digit numbers (or even five-digit numbers) because more inventory means more choice for consumers.
Your first book is unlikely to be a six-digit success, but that's OK. The best thing you can do as a self-published writer is keep publishing. It might take you three books before you break your first 5000 copies sold — but if you self-publish you can get those three books out in two years, all while building your audience and refining both your "author" and "publisher" skills.
Yes, that means you're doing more work for less money than writers "in the past" had to do, but that's true for writers across the board (and for people in the majority of industries right now). You can view self-publishing as a way to build a writing career, but you can't necessarily view it as something that will be your sole source of income. It might happen, but it's more likely that you'll find a core group of readers that love your work and are excited about what's coming next — which, honestly, counts as success in my book.
What about yours?