How to Self Publish a Book: The Definitive Guide
[Last updated: 10/30/2018]
Learning how to self-publish a book and getting your ideas into the world is easier than it’s ever been. There is a wealth of knowledge available online, shared by authors who have developed proven techniques for selling more books. There are also a number of ways new authors can get access to professional services without breaking the bank.
In this post, Reedsy will share a common-sense, jargon-free approach to ascending the heights of the self publishing world.
- History of Self Publishing
- Bypassing the Gatekeepers: Advantages of Self Publishing
- Two Common Approaches to Self Publishing
- Write the Book
- Edit the Manuscript
- Design the Cover and Format the Interior
- Self Publish as an eBook and in Print
- Master the Kindle Store (and Other Retailers)
- Market Your Book Effectively
- Create an Awesome Launch Plan
- The Dollars and Cents
- Additional Resources
A History of Self Publishing
By self-publishing, we generally mean printing and selling books outside the ‘traditional’ model — where companies pay authors advances and a royalty, working with them to edit, design, and distribute the book.
Since the advent of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century, many authors have bankrolled the publishing of their books. From the Brontë Sisters to Beatrix Potter, even now-classic writers started off as independent publishers. In the 20th century, authors could successfully self-publish to small markets they had access to (think church organizations or industry conferences). It wasn’t until the advent of ebooks and Amazon, however, that world-domination as an indie author became possible.
Today, anybody with an internet connection can write an ebook and make it available to hundreds of millions of readers — pretty much for free. The new challenge is to make these books bestsellers without the marketing might of a HarperCollins behind them — which many writers have managed to do.
The current stars of self-publishing include:
- E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades trilogy was initially self published as Twilight fan fiction.
- Hugh Howey, the American sci-fi author whose novel Silo first become a bestseller when they were self published as a series of novellas.
- Guy Kawasaki, the Silicon Valley tech evangelist whose book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur laid out many of the principles self publishing authors now use to find success.
But what defines success in publishing? If it’s the ability for authors to support themselves as full-time writers, you might be surprised to learn that it can often be easier to achieve without a publisher — for reasons you will discover in the next section.
Bypassing the Gatekeepers: Advantages of Self Publishing
There are many benefits that draw authors to self publishing. Without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing world, you will find:
- Creative freedom. You have full control over the content, the title, the length, and the cover art. You have the option to collaborate with editors and designers — but in the end, the only editorial approval you’ll need is your own!
- A guarantee of publishing. If you need to release your book by a certain date, pretty much the only way to guarantee it is to do it yourself. After all, you’re not beholden to the schedules of a gargantuan press.
- A greater portion of royalties. By essentially cutting out the middleman, the self-published author will retain all the proceeds (minus the retailer’s cut).
- 100% ownership of rights. As part of their book deals, traditional publishers sometimes ask for exclusive rights to reprint, film adaptations, and merchandising. The self-publishing route at least ensures you remain in full control.
Two Common Approaches to Self Publishing
Almost all independent authors choose one of two routes: DIY or Assisted.
This is where the author does everything by themselves, including the editing, designing, and marketing of their books. There are few (if any) people who can do all of this well, as many parts of the publishing process are usually overseen by professionals with years of experience in the field. Doing everything to a professional standard by one’s self is next to impossible.
Self publishers can choose to work with freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, and marketers on their book. Because they tend to work with limited budgets, prudent independent authors will learn and do as much as they can by themselves before bringing in the pros to take care of everything outside their expertise.
Write the Book
An author with an advance, an agent and a regular editor will have a support team in place that helps guide the first draft. But, by and large, the process of writing a manuscript is the same for any author: with a little planning, discipline, and know-how, a new author can work their way from the first chapter to the final page.
Plan your first draft
An author’s plan for a book will depend on the type of publication they’re writing.
When you're writing a non-fiction book that's either a how-to book, or a title that aims to solve a readers problem, the planning might include:
- Research and interviews to develop content, and
- The creation of a ‘book proposal.’
A ‘book proposal’ is common to traditional publishing: it’s a document that shows publishers what the end result of a book will be. More independent non-fiction authors have recently found it a useful to create one as well — to ensure that their book delivers on its promises. To get a sample template, check out this guide to writing a book proposal.
While also based on true events, memoirs require a slightly different approach to non-fiction books. Unlike most other types of non-fiction, memoirs tend not to offer solutions to a reader’s problems. If you’re writing about your own life, check out this guide to outlining a memoir.
In the preparation phase, most fiction writers will lay some groundwork and develop the world of their novel, sketch out their characters, and map the plot. To learn more about planning a novel, check out these articles:
- What is a Narrative Arc? – A breakdown of your protagonist's journey, as influenced by the three-act structure
- Dynamic Characters: How to Write a Compelling Protagonist – A look at how to write a compelling protagonist that is grounded in reality
- First, Second, and Third Person: Which Point of View is Right for Your Book? – Find out how to choose which perspective might best serve your story.
- Worldbuilding Tips from the UK Editor of The Martian – Editor Michael Rowley breaks down the basic of worldbuilding, focusing not only on sci-fi and fantasy but in all commercial genres.
Create a routine
Finding the time to write is an enormous challenge for authors — especially those who have to balance a full-time job and family obligations. To make sure you don’t lose momentum and interest in writing, you need to establish a sustainable writing habit that works with your schedule.
- How to Create a Regular Writing Habit – Author and book coach Kevin Johns reveals his process for creating a writing schedule that will work around your life.
- Stop Procrastinating! Build a Solid Writing Routine (Free Course) – Using cutting-edge behavioral science, this course aims to help writers chase down their procrastination gremlins.
Perfect your craft
Writing a book is like developing any other skill: it requires time, effort, and a willingness to learn. If your goal is to be a better writer, make sure you’re always learning from your mistakes and building on them.
- How to Write a Novel (Free Course) – A comprehensive course by indie novelist Ben Galley.
- How to Write a Memoir – Top tips from bestselling ghostwriters on writing a life story.
- What is the Theme of Your Story? – How to identify and include underlying meanings in your book.
- Writing Dialogue – Tips and exercises to bring your story to life.
Edit the Manuscript
Editing is a pretty broad term that ranges from an author’s rewrites of their first draft to the final proofread before the book launch. In this section, we offer our recommended approach to editing your book for self publishing.
Self-edit as much as you can
An editor’s time is money: your money. Before you hand your work off to a professional, make sure you do everything you can for it — or you’ll just end up wasting money paying an editor to clean up basic mistakes.
If you’re a novelist, that might mean working through a few drafts to iron out the story and characters; for non-fiction, that might mean sharing the manuscript with a focus group and re-writing it based on feedback. Here are a few resources to help you revise and self-edit your manuscript:
- Chapter Length Matters and How Long Should Your Novel Be? – Two posts that explain the importance of understanding the average book and chapter lengths in your genre.
- What to Expect From Beta Readers And Where to Find Them – An introduction to getting fresh (and free) eyes on your manuscript.
- Novel Revision: Practical Tips for Rewrites (Free Course) – A 10-part course that includes great lessons on working with critique partners and beta readers.
- How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro (Free Course) – Tips on how to spot the ten most common writing mistakes.
Let a professional help you over the finishing line
Once you’ve taken your manuscript as far as you can by yourself, it’s best to bring in a fresh pair of eyes (that ideally belong to a professional editor). These days, finding your ideal editor is more straightforward than ever. For example, on the Reedsy Marketplace, you can search for (and request quotes from) professionals with experience in your genre.
Before getting too far down the editing rabbit hole, it’s important to understand the different types of editors, and what each of them does.
- What can authors expect from their fiction editor? – This post explains crucial differences between developmental editors, copy editors and proofreaders. It focuses on fiction, but the principles broadly apply to non-fiction and memoir too.
- What is an Editorial Assessment? — A quick look at how authors can get help with their book’s ‘big picture’ without paying for a full developmental edit.
And of course, once your manuscript has been edited, polished, and proofread, it’s vital to make sure your book looks as good as it reads.
Design the Cover and Format the Interior
When we talk about book design, the first thing that jumps to mind is the cover, which is crucial. After all, self published authors rely heavily on a cover to sell the book, whether it's with ads or just by attracting readers on retailers like the Kindle store. However, it’s also important not to forget about interior design: the way that the words are formatted on the page.
Here are a couple of great resources to help you wrap your head around making a beautiful, readable book:
- Book Cover Design: A Definitive Author's Guide – Includes a description of different book design methods and the best way to hire professional cover creators.
- Top 7 Resources to Design Your Own Book Cover – A list of free and low-cost tools DIY publishers can use to make a cover.
- 68 Book Cover Ideas That Can (and Will) Inspire Your Next Book – Understanding what works on the market is key. This post is a great starting point.
- What is Typesetting? – A comprehensive look at interior book design.
- How to Format a Book with the Reedsy Book Editor – A quick introduction to a tool that lets authors format professional-grade book files for free.
- The Back of a Book Cover: How to Build One That Actually Works – Includes a template to make sure the back of your jacket meets the basic requirements.
Once you’ve completed the step of designing and formatting, you will have everything you need to start selling your book. That takes us to the next stage.
Self Publish as an eBook and in Print
In days past, self publishing a book would involve getting a print run, which involves paying up-front for thousands of copies. Understandably, you risk ending up with copies that you struggle to sell. Thankfully, modern publishing has provided two solutions to this problem.
Print on Demand
With POD (Print on Demand), authors can upload their book files to a printing service, which will churn out individual copies as, and when, they are purchased. The cost-per-unit is higher than with traditional printing methods, but the lack of risk makes this the preferred option of self publishing authors.
The two largest POD services in the world are IngramSpark and CreateSpace, both of whom provide comparable products at similar costs. It is, however, worth investigating both options to see which one makes more sense for the kind of book you’re printing.
- Print-On-Demand vs Offset Printing – A look a the pros and cons of POD.
- What is the Best Service for Print on Demand Books? A comparison of four major POD services
- What are the Standard Book Sizes in Publishing? – POD services will allow you to choose from a number of formats. Picking the right size can make or break your book.
Sales on the Kindle store are a self publishing author’s bread and butter. After all, it offers the highest percentage royalty, and eBooks are usually priced lower than print books, which appeals to readers who might not want to drop $15 on an author they’ve never heard of. Also, once the book is on an e-reader, the quality of the product is virtually indistinguishable from something that a big publisher puts out.
- The Complete Guide to Ebook Distribution – Contains pretty much everything you need to know about selling your digital book. It includes sections about going ‘exclusive’ with Amazon, alternative retailers like Kobo and Barnes & Noble, and instructions on how to set your book up on retailers.
- EPUB vs. MOBI: Which Book Format Should You Use? — An explanation of the two most common ebook file types and how they affect you.
Master the Kindle Store (and Other Retailers)
Anybody can get their book onto the Amazon store for free — but few people know how to do it properly. When uploading your title, there are certain things you can do to make sure more of the right people see your book. Then there's the matter of getting the people who find your book to buy it. In short, you need to turn yourself into a bit of an Amazon expert.
- All You Need to Know About Amazon Algorithms (Free Course) – Learn to pick the right keywords and metadata, and get Amazon to do most of your marketing for you.
- Pricing Books for an International Audience (Free Course) – An intermediate course that will show you the simplest way to ensure your publication is priced correctly in all countries.
- How to Write an Amazon Book Description That Sells – A look at writing blurbs that specifically work for online retailers.
Market Your Book Effectively
Apart from the part where you write a great book, all of the other steps above can be accomplished by anyone who’s done an afternoon of research. When it comes to marketing in self-publishing, things start to get a little more involved. The good news is that there are tried-and-tested methods for promoting your title, including automated mailing lists, price promotions, and online advertising.
- 50 Book Marketing Ideas Every Author Needs to Know – A fantastic primer that covers all the major aspects of indie book marketing.
- How to Market a Memoir – Expert marketers provide their top tips for selling a book based on your own life.
- How to Set up and Grow Your Author Mailing List (Free Course) – In which you can learn all about the most essential tool in an indie author’s arsenal.
- Facebook Ads for Authors (with Mark Dawson) – The self publishing phenomenon explains how he used Facebook’s advertising platform to become a million-selling author.
- Amazon Ads for Authors – Two case studies that show the potential of Amazon Marketing Services.
Create an Awesome Launch Plan
A lot hinges on a book’s first few weeks on the market. To give yourself the best chance at thriving on Amazon and other platforms, your title must accumulate a healthy dose of sales and reviews soon after its release. With that in mind, a lot of work needs to go into preparing your book launch. Here’s what you need to learn:
- The World's Most Essential Self Publishing Checklist – A downloadable checklist that allows authors to cover all their bases before launch day.
- Creating an Effective and Timely Book Publicity Plan — An example timeline that will help you plan PR activities like reviews, interviews, live readings and podcast appearances.
- How to Build a Rocking Author Media Kit – A template that will make it easier to get your name out.
- How to Launch a Bestselling Book (Free Video Course) — A seven-step approach to ensuring your launch goes off without a hitch.
So far, we’ve covered writing your book, editing and designing it, planning your launch, and growing your marketing efforts. You now have enough knowledge to actually go and self publish — assuming that your finances are in place...
The Dollars and Cents
Money is an obstacle that nearly all self publishing authors will face at the start of their career. After all, they are solely responsible for funding everything to do with the book. That being said, it doesn’t always mean that the author needs to empty their savings account.
The Cost of Self Publishing
Here are two resources that can help you determine your costs and find alternate ways to cover them:
- How Much Does it Cost to Self Publish a Book? – Based on data pulled from the Reedsy marketplace, we’ve determined the average costs of editing and designing a book.
- Crowdfunding for Authors (Free Course) – Discover tips and hacks for running a crowdfunding campaign that will help fund your book’s production and boost your launch.
The upside to all this, as we hinted at earlier, is that by bearing most of the costs, the self publishing author also gets to enjoy most of the spoils.
To give you an idea of the money you can expect to make from each copy sold, let’s look at the royalties offered to both self published and traditionally published authors.
Author royalties on paperbacks:
- Traditionally published authors can expect around 5%.
- Self published authors will see 20-50% depending on printing costs.
Author royalties on ebooks:
- Traditionally published authors tend to see 20-25% of net (after the retailer’s cut).
- Self published authors enjoy up to 70% if their book is priced reasonably.
This massive disparity is one of the reasons why J.K. Rowling has dipped her toes into self publishing. The ebooks and audiobooks of her Harry Potter series are now released by her own company, Pottermore, allowing her to take the publisher’s share of sales as well as the author's.
Knowledge is power, and for indie authors, it’s also our greatest asset. There's plenty to learn when it comes to becoming a smart and efficient publisher, so as a send-off, here are a few more resources to help you on your way to the top of the bestseller charts:
- Scams and Publishing Companies to Avoid – Outlining the basic scams that await indie authors, including vanity presses.
- ISBN for Self Publishers: The Complete Guide – Everything (and more than) you wanted to know about International Standard Book Numbers.
- What is Ghostwriting? And Why Do People Turn to Ghostwriters? — An intro to the world of ghostwriting, including reasons why many indie authors employ their services.
- How To Copyright A Book: A Definitive Guide – Tackling a fear every author shares: having their intellectual property stolen!
The journey to publishing a book can be treacherous, but if you prepare yourself adequately, and surround yourself with the right people, it can also be one of the most satisfying challenges of your life.
Do you have any thoughts or questions about how to self publish a book? Drop a comment in the box below and the folks at Reedsy will get back to you.