I sometimes get asked how to self-publish a book, as I’ve gone through the process many times. So I put this article together to give an overview of how it works. What’s involved with self-publishing and what do you need to know? Read on, dear writer!
Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: What’s the Difference?
With traditional publishing, you query agents or publishers with your novel, and, after you’ve been accepted for publication, they take care of almost everything—editing, layout, art, printing, marketing, etc. You still might be asked to do some publicity appearances and social media, but mostly, your job is writing the book, working with an editor on revisions, and then you’re done. You don’t pay anything, and the agent and/or publisher takes a percentage of the book’s profits. If you want to see your book in physical bookstores and you don’t enjoy any of the other parts of publishing, traditional publishing is your best bet.
With self-publishing, you’re responsible for everything, from writing the book to getting it into readers’ hands. You pay for any freelancers you hire to help with the process and anything else needed to publish your book (e.g. ISBNs, distribution fees, advertisements, etc.). You have complete creative control over your novel, including its publishing timeline, and you don’t share royalties with a publisher. You can make your book available for online orders from major retailers. It can also be made available for physical bookstores to stock in their stores, but it’s on you to encourage them to actually do so.
Neither option is better than the other, and choosing one over the other completely depends on what you want, but if you’re here, I’ll assume you’re interested in the creative control and entrepreneurship of self-publishing!
How to Know if Your Book is Ready
How do you know when your book is ready to be edited and published? Should you even publish your book?
There’s a common misconception about writing out there—that you’re either good at it or you’re not. However, writing is a skill that takes practice, just like any other endeavour. I like to compare it to learning a musical instrument. Do you expect to be a piano virtuoso the first time you sit down to the instrument? And even if you’re doing great at Grade One piano—you’ve polished your song and you’re ready to perform it at your piano teacher’s year-end recital in front of your family and friends, does that mean that you should be performing “Hot Cross Buns” at Carnegie Hall in front of thousands of people and critics? No, dear writer, you should not. You still need some practice, maybe even years of it and many songs learned before you’d be ready to perform there.
Self-publishing before you’re ready is like performing a Grade One piano piece at Carnegie Hall. People will come expecting your piece to be polished, exceptional, and more complex than a Grade One piece, and when it’s not, they might remember you. They might not come back to your next concert, the one in which you flawlessly perform Chopin and Rachmaninoff after you’ve spent much more time practicing and learning your craft.
Is it career-ending to publish a book before you’re ready? Probably not—but it might slow you down and give readers a bad first impression of your work. Once you publish a book, it’s out there forever. It can also be a disheartening experience—pouring your soul into every step of the process only to have your efforts result in few sales and mediocre reviews.
So how do you know when you’re actually ready to self-publish? I will give you a piece of advice that most writers hate to hear: if it’s your very first novel, you’re probably not ready. There are always exceptions to this, and while you might be the exception, it’s more likely you’re in the majority. And there’s nothing shameful or wrong about that! I don’t expect a Grade One music student to be ashamed that they’re not performing at Carnegie Hall. Brandon Sanderson wrote thirteen novels before his sixth was picked up by a publisher. Amanda Hocking wrote more than five novels before self-publishing and selling nearly half a million books. Lauren Royal did sell her first novel, but she re-wrote it twenty-three times first.
Side note: I’m writing here to people who want to make money from publishing. If you love writing and just want to publish your 600,000-word, unedited crime-thriller for fun, go for it! No one is stopping you! But if you want a money-making career, publishing should be taken on with care, and your book should be just as polished as a traditionally-published novel.
After checking out this post from author Anne R. Allen on “12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career,” the best way to know if your book is ready is to listen to critiques. What are your beta readers saying? What needs work in your novel? (And something does need work—no first draft is perfect.) Have you self-edited, listened to critiques, and reworked the book? Have you stepped away for a time to get some distance, then come back with fresh eyes? If you’ve answered yes to the above questions, and have decided to go the self-publishing route instead of traditional, then you might be ready for the next steps.
What Are the Steps Involved in Self-Publishing?
After typing “The End” to your novel, considering beta readers’ comments, self-editing and rewriting till the story is as fine-tuned as you can make it, what comes next? The following is a brief overview of each step.
Step 1: Editing
I highly recommend hiring a developmental editor—preferably, someone who specializes in your genre—to work with you on honing your draft. They should be able to help you with your story’s structure, characterization, dialogue, tension, and more. Does that character’s motivation make sense? Is that dialogue boring? You might be too close to your story to tell, but an editor will let you know!
While beta readers are incredibly helpful, they are not professional editors. They will often be able to tell you when something feels off, but won’t necessarily be able to tell you what or how to fix it. A professional editor is key to getting your novel publication-ready.
Check out this article on the four types of editing your novel needs and how to work with an editor. I also have a database of sci-fi and fantasy editors here.
Step 2: Titling the Book
This doesn’t necessarily need to be done after editing, but can happen at any time before the cover design. A book’s title should be memorable, fit within its genre, say something about the story, and, ideally, not be the same as another book (at least, not another famous book).
Step 3: Cover Design
Many indie books look unprofessional because authors skimp on this step, assuming it’s not as important as the book’s content. Your book’s cover, however, is the first impression your potential readers get.
Unless you are a designer or artist specializing in book covers, you will probably want to hire a professional to create the cover of your book for you. It should fit your book’s genre and attract readers so they want to see what’s inside. If you write sci-fi or fantasy, check out this database of cover designers.
Covers also require an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and barcode on the back. In Canada, ISBNs are free. In other countries, you have to purchase them.
Step 4: Layout and Formatting
In order for your book to be published, it needs to be formatted with elements like margins, chapter headers, and page numbers. This is the final file that will be sent to the printer (or ebook distributor). You choose the formats available—paperback, hardback, large print, and/or ebook (audiobook is a separate beast that I won’t go into detail about here). You decide on the trim size for physical formats. You will need a separate layout for each physical format, because spine width changes depending on the page number.
You can learn to do a book’s layout yourself (and there is software out there, like Vellum for Mac, to help you do so). Or you can hire a book formatter.
Step 5: Proofreading
Proofreading is the final editing phase before publication, and it occurs after your book has been formatted. This is the last chance to catch wayward typos and make sure nothing was messed up during formatting (e.g. a bolded header might have been missed, a paragraph might have an unnecessary space before the next, a widow or orphan might make the page look unbalanced, etc.).
You can proofread your novel yourself or hire a professional proofreader, as they are trained to look for specific issues that you might miss.
Step 6: Distribution
Once your book is edited and formatted with an eye-catching cover, you need to make it available to readers. You can do this by printing a bunch of copies yourself and selling them in person, but print-on-demand services are the less-expensive way to go. For example, you can upload your book to Amazon through a program called Amazon KDP, and then, if someone orders your book from Amazon, Amazon will print a copy and mail it to the person. Other distribution programs, like IngramSpark, will get your book into other online bookstores and make it available to libraries and physical bookstores. Print-on-demand distributors take a percentage of book royalties, but are the easiest and least-expensive way to get your book into the hands of readers.
These are the distributors I prefer to use—Amazon KDP for e-book and print; IngramSpark for print; Draft2Digital for e-book. Going direct wherever you can is always best, because you will get a higher percentage of profits, but I like the convenience of Draft2Digital and IngramSpark, as they distribute the books to various places for me.
Step 7: Marketing and Publicity
Marketing is about communicating directly to the consumer about your book—it involves paid advertising, contests and giveaways, website content marketing, and more. If you’re spending money to promote your book, it probably falls under marketing. Publicity is about media coverage and meeting you, the author—it involves guest appearances, interviews, and social media posts. If you are doing something to promote your book that doesn’t cost you anything, like writing a tweet or guesting on a podcast, it probably falls under publicity.
Getting your book into online stores is one thing, but people won’t buy it if they don’t know about it. Without a publisher behind you, the marketing and publicity falls on your shoulders. If you want early reviews, a blog tour, a book launch event, to guest on podcasts, to advertise on social media or Amazon, or anything else to promote your book, you’ve gotta plan it!
Self-publishing a book isn’t just about writing. You are running a business, and marketing and publicity is a big part of it if you want to sell your book.
I hope this demystifies some of the process. Self-publishing is a valid option and appeals to authors who appreciate creative control, have at least some budget to work with, and enjoy being entrepreneurs. It’s not a quick way to get rich or famous (neither is traditional publishing, in most cases), but removes barriers that previously stood between writers and readers.