How to Publish a Book in 2020: A 10-Step Guide for New Authors
If you’re a writer, a dreamer, or anyone with something important to say, chances are you’ve thought about writing and publishing a book. Of course, in days past, no one knew how to publish a book except those in industry circles, and only traditionally published books were able to “succeed.”
Fortunately, a lot has changed since then. Today’s authors have more publishing options than ever — and better yet, these authors have a shot at success no matter which path they choose! That said, successful publishing still requires a great deal of expertise and finesse, and very few bestselling authors get there without any assistance.
Which is why, to help you emulate them, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to how to publish a book! Here you’ll find a 10-step plan that will lead you down the path to success, whatever that path might be. Speaking of which, the first thing you’ll need to do is…
1. Decide how you want to publish
We just mentioned that authors today have more publishing options than ever before, and we meant it. There’s no single right way to publish a book — which is why we’ve designed the steps in this guide more as “best practices” than mandatory actions for every author.
That said, the way you choose to publish will inevitably affect your approach to some of our steps, and even enable you to skip a few of them. So before you proceed, you need to decide: do you want to self-publish your book? Or do you want to traditionally publish through either a small press or a larger publisher?
Only you can determine what’s right for your book. If you haven’t looked into it yet, we’d highly recommend our full post on the advantages of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing! However, for those who just want the takeaways, we’ve summarized them in the table below.
Pros and cons of three different publishing routes
|Self-publishing||Complete creative control, faster publishing time, custom distribution, higher royalties (70% for ebooks, 50% for print books)||Author responsible for all production costs and marketing efforts, lower eligibility for mainstream prizes and bestseller lists|
|Small press publishing||Small teams to work with you more closely, faster production than with major publishers, may be best if you’re writing for a niche audience||Less control and lower royalties than self-publishing, less notoriety than Big 5 publishing, slightly higher potential for publishing scams|
|“Big 5” publishing||Established creative team behind you, distribution to physical stores, more mainstream publicity and literary prestige||Minimal creative control, long publishing time (typically 1-2 years after final edits), much lower royalties (5-15% for print books)|
Still want to do a little more research before choosing your publishing path? Check out the following posts to help you confidently take this step on your "how to publish a book" journey:
📘 If you know you want to publish traditionally, check out our guide to how to get a book published, which covers both fiction and non-fiction.
Now we’ll go over the advice that every author should take into account, regardless of which publishing route they go down.
2. Perform a thorough edit
Take it from us: the greatest gift you can give your manuscript (besides bringing it to life in the first place) is to thoroughly edit it once it’s done. This is true whether you’re self-publishing or sending your manuscript to tons of agents; either way, people will be reading it, judging it, and making decisions that affect its success.
Luckily, we’ve already written a guide on how to edit a book from start to finish! This post contains tips and checklists for every major element like plot, characters, and conflict, as well as smaller details like dialogue and descriptions. It's a great jumping-off point for editing novices (as is this video on self-editing).
Do I really need to edit my book?
In short, yes — though you may be able to skip the developmental edit, depending on the state of your manuscript. If you outlined and drafted meticulously, you can probably get away with a thorough copy edit before you publish.
However, these manuscripts are rare, especially among first-time authors. So while it may be intimidating to tackle a full developmental edit, don’t fool yourself about the amount of work your book needs! It’s much better to fix “big picture” problems like plot holes and pacing issues now, than to be rejected by publishers or crucified in book reviews later.
And if you’re feeling out of your depth re: editing, there’s an excellent alternative to doing it yourself — hiring a professional editor. Need a deep-dive developmental edit? A careful copy edit? One last eagle-eyed proofread? Professional editors can take care of every detail and ensure that your book is practically perfect before it goes to press.
3. Get feedback from others
Whether you hire a professional editor or not, remember that any kind of thoughtful third-party feedback is invaluable to your book. So throughout the editing process (most authors go through at least two or three rounds), share your manuscript with friends, fellow writers, and beta readers to see what they think.
We know it’s hard to open your work up to criticism, but it’s also the only way to address mistakes in your blind spot! And again, it’s much better to fix these problems now than to publish a book that’s riddled with them.
To make sure you’re getting the most out of the feedback process, do the following:
- Send your book to multiple readers at a time, along with a Google form, so they can submit feedback anonymously.
- Include a list of specific elements (plot, characters, prose, etc.) for them to rate on a scale of 1-10.
- For every problem they find, ask them to suggest a solution. This ensures constructive criticism and puts them in your shoes as a writer, which should help them give more nuanced feedback overall.
Where should I look for feedback?
If you feel comfortable asking your friends and family for feedback, you definitely should! However, we know that this can be a delicate process, and it may be better not to involve anyone you know personally — which is why we’ve compiled a few other options here.
- Online critique circles are a fantastic alternative to asking your friends for feedback. Joining a critique circle allows you to get notes on your book and hone your own critiquing skills, plus it’s cool to be part of a tightly knit writing group! There are dozens of critique circles to choose from, so whatever your preferences, you’re sure to find a great fit.
- Larger writing communities can also be really helpful. Many of these communities have built-in critique circles, but it’s worth checking their individual forums to see if anyone’s looking for a critique partner — or, if you’re lucky, offering free critiques. You can check out our list of the 15 best writing communities right here.
- Beta readers are another great way to get detailed, honest feedback from people who are invested in your book. Most authors use beta readers after they’ve done some self-editing, but before they pass their book off to an editor. Click here to learn more about beta readers.
4. Choose an unforgettable title
If you’ve come this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of what your book’s title will be. But if you haven’t quite settled on it — or if the editing process changed your manuscript so much, you feel like you need a new title to match — now’s the time to choose an amazing book title!
We have some stellar resources to help you out with this, including our book title generator (which you can customize by genre, and which offers over 10,000 possibilities!) and our post on how to choose great book titles. But for the most part, you’ll be fine if you take these three things to heart:
- Keep it short. Think about how many bestsellers these days have one-to-two word titles! Titling your book “The [Something]” is a timeless approach for a reason — it gets the idea across, fits on the title page, and is easy for readers to remember and repeat.
- Make it intriguing. Another advantage to a short title is that it naturally creates intrigue; still, when in doubt, add another layer of mystery. Ann Patchett could have just as accurately called her 2019 book The Codependent Siblings, but The Dutch House is a much more intriguing, elegant title.
- Don’t mimic anyone too closely. While it’s great to use tried-and-true formulas, you don’t want your title to sound so familiar that people think, “Haven’t I read that before?” Steer clear of The Great Garfield, To Kill a Hummingbird, and The Catcher in the Pie. We know it sounds silly and obvious, but it’s always worth double-checking to make sure you’re not subconsciously copying anyone!
5. Format your book carefully
Now that you have the text of your book prepared, title and all, you’re ready to format it carefully and professionally. Again, this is crucial whether you’re self-publishing or sending it to agents or publishers! No one should have to endure 300 pages of atrocious formatting — moreover, you’ll lose them after just one page if the interior of your book is a mess.
Basically, if you want readers to take your book seriously, it needs to look like an actual book. You’ll need chapter headings, page numbers, standard margins, and perfectly spaced text in precisely the right typeface… not to mention the rigmarole of front and back matter.
The good news is, we’ve designed a book formatting tool that takes care of all these things and more. The Reedsy Book Editor is a free, web-based tool that makes it easy for anyone to write and format their book. Watch the video below to see how the RBE works and sign up today to try it!
More book formatting options
We’ll admit to slightly favoring the RBE, but we realize that some authors might prefer different methods of formatting their books! There’s no harm in trying new things, so for those who are curious, here are three more ways to format your book for publication:
🙌 Free formatting software. Other than the Reedsy Book Editor, you can try Kindle Create and Apple Pages, both of which provide pretty decent formatting templates for free. However, each software caters to its own store, so converting your file for other retailers may get a bit messy.
💸 Paid formatting software. You can also pay for more elaborate formatting software like Scrivener ($45) or Vellum ($200). The nice thing about these programs is that you can try them for free, and if you like what you see, pay the license fee and use that software to format as many books as you want.
👩💻 Hiring a professional typesetter. Another option, and one that may be prudent for those hoping to print on demand, is to hire a professional typesetter. This is by far the most expensive formatting option, but it ensures that your interior design is immaculate — which matters a great deal if you’re printing it, since formatting mistakes become glaringly obvious on the printed page.
In summary: if you want to a) self-publish an ebook or b) send your manuscript to agents, DIY formatting software will serve you well. But if you want to print your book yourself, consider hiring an experienced typesetter to format it first.
🛑✋ Now take a moment to stop and think…
So far, this guide has applied to both methods of how to publish a book, self-publishing and traditional publishing — but this is where things diverge. The steps you take from here will depend on your particular publishing route:
- If you plan to self-publish, follow the rest of this guide in its entirety.
- If you plan to publish traditionally, now is the time to start querying! The last few steps of this guide will be handled by your eventual publisher. However, if you want to publish through a small press (which means more hands-on involvement) OR you’d simply like to get a better grip on the publishing process, feel free to keep reading for more info.
6. Design an amazing cover
Let’s talk about cover design and why it’s so important to invest in a strong cover before you publish your book. You may think that the contents are more important, and in a perfect world, this would be true. But in reality, readers constantly judge books by their covers — which means your cover design can have a massive impact on sales.
So what does a well-designed cover actually look like? Let’s glance at some examples from our book cover art gallery:
As you can see, there are many ways to create a quality cover, and “quality” doesn’t have to mean complicated or expensive! The cover of Entanglement is text-based with very minimal design, and the cover of Damaged Joy centers on a single photo. These covers clearly demonstrate that a simple design can be just as effective and appealing as an elaborate one.
That said, both of these “simple” covers were designed by veteran design professionals. Which brings us to our next point: unless you happen to moonlight as a cover artist, you must hire a professional book cover designer. While getting professional assistance has been optional up until this point, it’s a non-negotiable part of designing your cover.
Why do I need a cover designer?
A cover designer is the only person with the talent, experience, and industry knowledge to create a worthy cover for your book. You might think you can do it yourself, but cover design is a special skill that takes years to master, and making an amateur attempt at your book cover will only hurt your sales. (Trust us, we’ve done the research.)
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any input! On the contrary, your designer will consult you frequently throughout the cover design process. So if you haven’t already, start thinking about…
- Potential color schemes
- Whether you want a photo-based or illustrated cover
- Cover conventions of your genre and how to emulate them
- The font and placement of your title and any other text
Your designer will add their professional expertise to your creative vision and get to work. You may have to go through a few iterations, but the final result should be a cover that’s beautiful and marketable — a cover you’ll be proud to have representing your book for years to come.
7. Optimize your metadata
For those who may have been dreading this step, don’t worry — optimizing your metadata isn’t as technical as it sounds! In publishing, metadata is simply the information that defines your book: the keywords, categories, and description that appear with every retailer. And if you want readers to purchase your book, it must be optimized to entice them.
Your book description is perhaps the most important part of your metadata; luckily, it’s also the part over which you have the most control. As a self-publishing author, you’ll write your own book description and tweak it across platforms, so it’s vital to know what to include.
Our post on how to write a book description that sells will probably be the most helpful at this juncture, but the basics of writing a strong book description are:
- Hook readers with a headline. Whether it’s a dramatic statement, a pull quote from a rave review, or the actual first line of your book, your headline should get readers invested right away.
- Introduce the plot or main idea. Note that we didn’t say “summarize” — you don’t have room for that! Give basic descriptions of your characters and their conflict(s), or if you’ve written a nonfiction book, mention a couple of core concepts you’ll be covering.
- Leave them wanting more. End on a question, a hint at a twist, or even an outright cliffhanger. Make it impossible for readers not to preview your book (if only because they’re skeptical that you can pull it off).
When in doubt, look at the descriptions of bestsellers in your genre and try to emulate them. Read 5-10 of these descriptions and you’ll likely see a pattern start to emerge — from there, your description will practically write itself.
Keywords and categories
If you know anything about how Amazon organizes its content, you might already be familiar with keywords and categories. If not, allow us to shed some light on the subject:
- Keywords are related words and phrases that people could search in order to find your book. For example, if you’ve written a self-help book about eating intuitively, a few of your keywords might be “how to eat healthy,” “best diet plan,” and “change your life.”
- Categories are the genre groups to which your book belongs. These can be as general (“Nonfiction”) or as specific as you want (“Nonfiction > Biography & Autobiography > Personal Memoirs”).
The best way to choose keywords and categories is to imagine yourself as one of your target readers. What would they search in order to find your book? What similar books might they be reading, and what categories do those books fall into? (You can check this in each book’s product details — on Amazon, they’re listed under “Amazon Best Sellers Rank.”)
Some authors also use keyword tools like Publisher Rocket or hire a metadata specialist to assist with their keywords and categories. The great thing about metadata is that you can always update it to test out new strategies! That said, you should still optimize it as much as possible before your book’s release date in order to hit the ground running.
8. Develop a detailed launch plan
Your book isn’t going to sell itself, and the first few days after it launches are critical. So one more thing to do before you publish is develop a killer launch plan. This plan should raise awareness, tap into your existing audience, and kick up a fuss about your book. To that end, here are four actions you should include in your launch plan:
- Form a street team. This will be comprised of friends and collaborators who promote your book on their own platforms. Remember, joined forces and social proof are much more powerful than a single, self-serving effort. For more info on building your street team, click here.
- Reach out to reviewers. By far the greatest external influence on book sales is other people’s reviews. If your title has zero reviews when it launches, people won’t realize it’s worth reading! Prevent this debacle by reaching out to reviewers early and often. Learn more about how to get book reviews here.
- Post on social media. Nearly everyone has Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram these days. As a result, these may be the only places where you have a decent-sized audience — so even if you don’t usually post promotional content, now is the time to leverage your platforms for sales. Read our best tips for using social media as an author right here.
- Throw a virtual launch party. Not just on social media, but on your author website (if you have one), and by guest-posting on other people’s blogs. Make it a big event; shout about your book from the rooftops! And once you’ve done your digital launch duty, go ahead and celebrate with your real-life friends.
Bonus tip: submit your book to Reedsy Discovery for exposure to thousands of readers, plus a shot at a professional review.
9. Publish your book
Now you’re ready to finally, blissfully, thrillingly publish your book! You’ll be glad to know that out of the entire publishing operation, this part is one of the easiest. Amazon and other retailers take you through the upload process step-by-step, and as long as you have your materials prepared, you should have no trouble at all. Here’s what you can expect to do, in order:
- Enter your title and metadata
- Upload your manuscript file (MOBI for Amazon, EPUB everywhere else)
- Add your book cover (JPG, TIFF, or PDF)
- Price your book and hit “publish”!
Pricing is another decision that every author must make for themselves. That said, if this is your first book and your main goal is to gain recognition, you should price your book pretty low — between $2.99 and $5.99 to start. You can also run price promotions to make your book even cheaper, or free, for a limited time, which can be a huge boon to your downloads!
Should I publish outside Amazon?
Another big question when it comes to publishing: should I publish only on Amazon, or “go wide” with other stores like Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo?
For first-time authors, going Amazon-exclusive is often the best option, simply because it offers so much in return. Amazon-exclusive KDP Select allows you to run those price promotions we mentioned and add your book to the Kindle Unlimited library, where more readers can find it.
However, cutting out other platforms may be to your disadvantage if you live in an area where Amazon isn’t quite so monopolistic, like Canada or Germany. It’s also not great if you plan on making your book “permafree,” since Amazon only allows limited-time free promotions, or if you don’t think your book will get many readers through Kindle Unlimited.
Bottom line: do your research and figure out what’s right for you. We’ve actually written a whole post on ebook distribution and the pros and cons of Amazon exclusivity, so if you’re weighing your options, that’s a great place to start.
10. Market like a boss
Your book is polished, published, and (with any luck) pulling in readers already! But that doesn’t mean your job is done — far from it.
The final step of how to publish a book is, of course, marketing it to the fullest. Once again, we’ve already written a number of posts on book marketing ideas and promotional hacks for you to consult! However, here are a few essentials that you’ll want to take into account:
👩💻 Build a website and mailing list. You’ll need an author website with a clear signup area for your mailing list in order to acquire and retain readers. Get on WordPress or hire a web designer, and start learning all you can about author mailing lists.
🤝 Do more blog tours and connect with authors. Guest-posting to promote your book isn’t just for your launch plan! Continue reaching out to relevant blogs, especially those owned by other authors who might be willing to cross-promote.
🤑 Make the most of price promotions. Unless your book is permafree, the price can always be better for customers. If your downloads are dipping and you haven’t run a price promotion in awhile, that should be the very next thing you do.
💁 Employ third-party promotional services. Burnt out on self-marketing, or simply don’t have the influence you’d like? Third-party book promotion services can be immensely helpful. Look for services that cater specifically to your book’s target audience.
💪 Always be prepared for opportunities. You never know when you’ll have the chance to promote your book in a life-changing way! If you were to run into Reese Witherspoon tomorrow, you should have a preview of your book ready to airdrop onto her phone.
Publishing a book is an absolutely enormous undertaking, whether you choose to self-publish or publish traditionally. The good news is, if you’ve read this far, you now know exactly what your options are, plus the specific pros and cons of each.
We can’t publish your book for you (try as we might, Reedsy is not actually a publisher). However, we’re confident that you have all the information you need in order to achieve this lifelong goal! Enjoy the journey as much as you can, keep your eyes on the destination, and send us a postcard when you get there. We're so excited to see where you end up. ✨