The question of how to become a self published writer is one I field on an almost daily basis. More and more authors are realizing that traditional publishing is going the way of the dinosaur and self publishing is shedding its “also-ran” status.
There are several reasons for this. Without going into every last one, the overriding reason that traditional publishers are losing ground is that they are not nimble. (This can be said of many industries and countries.) Technology evolves at a lightning clip and large companies aren’t geared to take advantage of this. It’s like turning a battleship around. It’s going to take time to adopt new systems and technologies and by the time a large company has done this, the technology has changed again.
Make no mistake, traditional publishers still offer writers prestige and standing as well as marketing and distribution juice. But the stigma of the words “self-published” is going away as more independent authors gain success and self publishing itself becomes more commonplace. In truth, most readers don’t check to see (or even know to check) what company published a book.
A More Professional Product
Self published writers have better access to tools that create a more professional product. When writers first started self publishing, the technology was known as “desktop publishing” and layout was still a complicated process. Amazon changed the marketplace: Writers could upload a Word document or a pdf file and Amazon would create an electronic version of their book for distribution. Print on Demand technology, provided by companies like Lulu, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark removed the price barrier for writers. Prior to print on demand, writers could use vanity presses to print their books but had to order a minimum number of books—anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 to start, which priced most aspiring authors out of the self publishing market. With print on demand, a writer could order one copy, ten, or a thousand. More important, it became possible for the consumer to buy a single print book without a publishing house having to print thousands of books.
Today, it’s possible to create a book that is every bit as professionally turned out as one from a major publishing house, no matter what format: eBook, paperback, or even hard cover. There are graphic designers who specialize in interior layout and cover design who can be easily found on sites like Upwork and 99Designs. A strong editor will ensure your manuscript shines and your meaning is clear.
There is help available at every step of the way in the self publishing process if you want or need it. One of the potholes that I see new self published writers fall into is paying too much for services. For some, this is the cost of doing business. For others, it’s a financial disaster. I have a free Self Publishing Pricing and Resource Guide available to give writers some parameters.
What do you need to have in place to self publish your book?
- A Completed Manuscript
- An Editor
- Interior Formatter or Layout Skills
- Cover Designer or Cover Design Skills
- Publishing Platform
A Completed Manuscript. While your marketing should start before you finish your book, you want to complete your manuscript before sending it to an editor. (If you’re having trouble completing your manuscript—you’re stuck or lost in the weeds—consider hiring a book coach.) You want to give an editor the “cleanest” copy of your work that you can—look for typos, misspellings, grammar mistakes, jumps in logic, incomplete thoughts or half-developed ideas. The cleaner the manuscript is when your editor gets it, the better job she can do. More important, the messier the manuscript, the more money it is going to cost you for editing. It could also affect the quality of the editing—the more errors there are, the more likely that the editor will not catch all of them. In fairness, no editor or even group of editors will catch every mistake. But the more you can clean up before your manuscript hits your editor’s desk, the better off you will both be.
An Editor. Every book benefits from editing. It’s more than having another set of eyes look your manuscript over. Your 16 year old niece who got an A in English is not the editor you want or need. You need a qualified, experienced editor.
Most people think of copy editing when they consider editors. A copy editor looks for mistakes on a very technical level—proofreading, spelling, grammar, typos, punctuation. A line editor addresses the actual writing style. They look for shifts in verb tenses, point of view, tone, as well as redundancies in the text. A higher form of line editing is developmental editing which looks at the entire book, how it is organized, the structure, consistency. For more detailed information on types of editing, check out my post on types of editing.
Editing is expensive. Many people who put themselves out as editors are really proofreaders. If that’s all you can afford, do it. If you can afford a line or developmental editor, your book will be stronger for it. You can also ask for beta readers—people who will read your book and give you feedback on it. These people will be helpful in finding inconsistencies and things that aren’t clear as well as catch some of those grammatical errors.
There are two places to put your money when you’re self publishing: editing and your cover design. Get the best editing and cover design you can for your budget. A book riddled with errors screams amateur. You worked hard writing your book. Make sure you give it the best chance you can to be successful.
Interior Formatter. You can do your own interior formatting. Most of the online publishing platforms have templates for you to use. You download the template and copy and paste your manuscript into the template chapter by chapter. There’s a bit of learning curve but you can create a serviceable interior using a free template.
A professional formatter understands how to create running headers, properly format the front matter, and can deal with page numbering which can get difficult when you’re shifting from the front matter Roman numerals and moving into the Arabic page numbers. Can you do it? Probably, especially if you’ve got excellent Word or design skills. If you don’t or if your time is better spent doing something else, hire a professional formatter.
One of the benefits of using a professional formatter is that they will create both print and eBook formats. If you are using multiple platforms, their requirements can differ. Having the book in several formats allows you to distribute your book widely (i.e., to platforms in addition to Amazon).
Cover Designer. Ever watch people shopping in a bookstore? They see a cover that catches their attention. They pick it up and look at the cover and title. Then they flip it over to read the back. If that sustains their interest, they’ll open it and read the first few pages.
But the reason they pick up the book in the first place is the cover.
Online or offline, you need to have an attractive, professional cover. Cover design is an art and science. Designers know what colors attract various readers as well as how to create a design that leads the eye into the book. Different genres have different specs so someone who does amazing work in the science fiction and fantasy genre may not know how to design a cover for a business memoir. You want to hire a designer who has done work in your specific niche.
Before you hire a cover designer, look at the bestselling books in your book’s genre. What are the colors that are most popular? What are the design elements? Do they use photographs or graphics? Are most of the covers dark or bright? What fonts stand out? You may not know what the name of the font is, but you can tell what font is easier to read than another.
You can pay anywhere from $50 to $5,000 for a cover design. You don’t need to break the bank. You can get an attractive, professional, and effective cover for under $500, usually for under $300. I’ve found great cover designers on Upwork, 99Designs, and 100Covers.
If you’re publishing with little to no money, then use the cover design templates that the publishing platforms provide. Yes, there’s a learning curve. But even I have made covers using the templates and I have no graphic skills whatsoever. They don’t look great, but they are serviceable. With the exception of maybe one of my covers, you can definitely tell when I have designed a cover vs. when I’ve used a designer.
Publishing Platform. If you’re only going to use one publishing platform, you need to use Amazon. They are the 800 pound gorilla in the marketplace. Even if you distribute your book to other markets, Amazon will account for 80% of your sales, if not more.
If you want to be distributed in places like Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, etc., you can use platforms like IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, Lulu, and Smashwords. There are actually a lot more self publishing platforms than people realize. They are all easy to use, though each has its quirks, and they all distribute to Amazon.
All of the self publishing platforms are menu driven. You set up an author account, upload your manuscript and cover, and fill in the information they request. Once you hit publish, it can be a matter of a few hours (with an eBook) or a few days before your book goes live on the platform.
So, how to become a self published writer?
Here’s the secret: There’s no one stopping you. You don’t need the writer gods to anoint you and give you permission to self publish.
Complete your manuscript. Have it edited. Then format the interior of the book or pay someone to lay it out. Once you have the interior laid out, you will know how many pages the book is, which determines the width of your spine. Upload your file to the publishing platform. Fill in the information required starting with the mundane such as title and author and moving into the short and long book descriptions, choosing your keywords and categories, and deciding on what to charge.
The self publishing process is all menu driven and becomes easier with each iteration. The technical part is fairly cut and dried. The devil is in the nuances. What’s the best category to put your book in? Should you put your book in Kindle Select? Do you buy your own ISBN or use the Amazon number? All of these things are learned along the way.
Nervous? Write a Practice Book
When I first started self publishing, I wrote a short ebook using a collection of tips I had written. I uploaded it to Amazon as a practice book. I did everything myself. The interior layout was nothing more than the Word document I had assembled. The eBook cover was a jpeg I made in Paint. (This was pre-Canva days.) I knew nothing about keywords. I chose the category based on the most logical, i.e., obvious choices. I priced it to get a 70% royalty on Amazon, between $2.99 and $9.99.
Now I wish I could tell you that test book went viral and I made tens of thousands of dollars. It didn’t. It was a test way back in the early days of Amazon. But it gave me the knowledge and confidence to publish more books and to help other people publish their books. And that has made me hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.
While hitting that publish button can be scary, there is nothing like seeing your book for sale and holding an actual print copy of it in your hands. What’s stopping you?