What is Self-Publishing? The DOs and DON'Ts You Need to Know
Welcome to our four-part guide to self-publishing. This guide will cover all aspects of self-publishing, starting here, with Part One, which will help you decide whether self-publishing is really for you by covering the basics of the process.
If you’re already set on self-publishing, are looking for step-by-step instructions, or would like in-depth overviews of other various self-pub topics, feel free to skip ahead to one of the other sections.
- Part Two: How to Self-Publish a Book
- Part Three: Cost of Self-Publishing
- Part Four: The Best Self-Publishing Companies
What is self-publishing?
Self-publishing is when an author publishes a book without the backing of an established publisher. The author manages the editing, production, distribution, and marketing of their book in exchange for a much larger percentage of royalties than is enjoyed by traditionally published writers.
Now that we’re clear on what self-publishing is, let’s cover the main DOs and DON’Ts of self-publishing as you set out on your journey.
DO consider all your self-publishing options
Since self-publishing (often also called "indie publishing") puts the decision-making back into your own hands, it's all the more important for you to understand what options you have before you. With that said, there are three broad routes of self-publishing.
- “True” self-publishing. Put on your entrepreneurial hat, because this option is the one where you are the sole driver behind your book’s success. If you decide to be a “true” self-publisher, you might hire freelancers to help with things like editing, cover design, or marketing, but the final call on the manuscript that hits the presses (or the Amazon bookstore) will all be down to you.
- Assisted self-publishing. This is when an author pairs up with a self-publishing company that takes on the responsibility of editing, design, and distribution. BookBaby is an example of such a company.
- Hybrid publishing. A hybrid publisher operates almost exactly like a traditional publisher: they have editorial, design, and marketing teams to help a book succeed. The key difference is that, while traditional publishers will pay an author to publish their book, hybrid publishers rely on authors to cover some (or all) of the production costs. For this reason, they’re often associated with vanity publishers — but not all hybrid publishers are scams! Learn more about how to know if you can trust a hybrid publisher here.
Once you’ve settled on the self-publishing path that’s right for you, it’s time to decide on the book format you want to publish… which leads us to our first “don’t.”
DON’T only publish a print version
When you set out to write and publish a book, you probably imagine yourself holding a print copy at the end of the process. And while there’s a certain romance in seeing your words printed and bound, publishing only a print edition is rarely the right choice for self-publishing authors.
Ebooks are by far the more popular choice for indie publishing — and here’s why.
In 2019, Joanna Penn reported that ebooks accounted for 69% of her total sales, while print tallied up to 22%. And she’s not alone. According to Bookstat, self-published books in the United States were worth $875 million in 2017 — and about $700 million of that was due to ebook sales.
Higher royalty rates
Ebooks priced between US$2.99 and US$9.99 will earn you 70% royalties on Amazon. Print books, on the other hand, earn 40-60% royalties on Amazon — and the print/delivery costs are deducted from royalties. Learn more here.
Lower production costs
Ebooks naturally don’t generate printing costs, and their delivery costs are negligible compared to print books. But there are additional budgetary details to take into consideration. For instance, print books require additional interior formatting and more complex cover design. If you work with a professional designer, you will need to take these overheads into account. If, on the other hand, you plan to go the DIY route, you will need to invest a large amount of time into learning how to produce a professional-looking print volume (and may still need to invest in design software).
Amazon’s marketing tools
Kindle Direct Publishing is Amazon’s self-publishing unit, and it offers indie authors an invaluable suite of marketing tools — most of which are geared heavily toward ebook sales. These include countdown deals, free promotions, and the opportunity to sell your ebook through Kindle Unlimited — Amazon’s “all-you-can-read-service.” Learn more here.
You might want to consider publishing a print version in addition to an ebook if...
- You’re planning to host a Goodreads giveaway as part of your promotions.
- You’ll be attending real-life events or conventions where you can sell/give away copies of your book.
- You hope to get your books stocked in local libraries.
- Your genre typically necessitates print copies — such as children’s books or reference books.
DON'T jump headfirst into a large print run
If you do decide that a print run is the right move for you, don’t invest immediately in a large print run. Instead, you will likely want to turn to print on demand (POD), as opposed to offset printing.
The key to understanding print on demand is in the title: your book is only printed when there’s demand for it. Have you sold one volume? Print a single copy. Have you sold 50 volumes? Print 50. This means you only pay to print the exact number of copies you need, and you’re not stuck with a garage full of unsold books that you’ll have to explain to your mother-in-law when she comes around for dinner. Learn more here.
With offset printing — previously the only option available to indie authors — a large number of copies are created in one go. While this option can sometimes offer a wider variety of size and paper options, it’s really only the better option if you’re sure you’ll sell enough copies to benefit from economies of scale — or if you’re publishing a specialty book that requires specific dimensions. While some POD companies do offer discounts on bulk orders, offset printing is built for printing large quantities of books.
Got the book format you intend to publish? Now it’s time to decide which self-publishing companies will be most helpful to you.
DO carefully consider which self-publishing companies you work with
The first thing to know is that not all self-publishing companies are the same. Self-publishing companies can be divided into book retailers, aggregators, and print-on-demand distributors — which one is right for you depends on your needs.
As a quick overview: aggregators help you put up your book on all of the major retailers for sale. Print-on-demand distributors like IngramSpark and BookBaby can help take care of your printing needs if you’re planning to go the print on demand route. Finally, if you'd like to pursue a wholly DIY route, most of the big book retailers (such as Amazon and Apple Books) also provide their own ebook publishing platform.
In exchange for helping you come to market (whether through distribution or pre-publication services), all self-publishing companies will take a cut of your royalties.
For extra clarity on the world of self-publishing companies, we’ve compiled these handy resources for you.
- What is the best self-publishing company? Read this post.
- Who should I turn to for POD services? This guide will help you choose.
- What’s the best way to go about distributing my ebook? Answers this way.
DON’T entirely abandon the notion of “gatekeeping”
At the end of the day, one of the biggest incentives of self-publishing is its accessibility: anyone can do it. You don’t need to wait for an agent to represent your book or an acquiring editor to tell you that it’s good enough. In this respect, indie publishing has been a huge boon for books that weren’t deemed “commercial” enough for publishing houses to buy — which has often included marginalized narratives.
So with self-publishing, you are the only thing that stands between your book and publication. However, the caveat is that publishing a quality book totally independently is very tough: for many authors, it’s tough to see the forest for the trees.
That’s why one of the best ways to enact your own gatekeeping — and to make sure you publish a really good book — is to assemble your own “production team.” Ideally, this production team will include:
A developmental editor
There’s a reason that many author-editor relationships have gone down in the annals of literary history: just look at Thomas Wolfe and his editor, Max Perkins, who shared notoriously tumultuous dynamics; or Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and his editor, a certain Charles Dickens, who named his child after the author.
A talented and devoted developmental editor could be the key difference that makes or breaks the success of your book. They’ll get their hands dirty as they comb through your story with you, providing detailed feedback on big-picture issues — like plot holes, gaps in logic, or structural issues — and ultimately help shape your book into its final, perfect version. Learn more here.
Don’t wait until your book is published to find out that it contains a number of embarrassing typos. And you really don’t want to find out about a misspelled country name or a misplaced apostrophe from a book review or snarky tweet. Instead, get a proofreader to ensure your book achieves the level of professionalism required in the competitive publishing world. Learn more here.
PRO-TIP: How to find professional editors? Ideally, you’ll want to hire a professional with industry experience. Reedsy, for instance, is home to hundreds of publishing professionals from Big 5 publishers, who you can contact here. Learn more about the different types of editing services here:
That said, you should always first take your manuscript through a few rounds of revisions on your own before bringing it to an editor. Here are a few resources to help you do just that:
- How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro
- Novel Revision: Practical Tips for Rewrites
- Story Editing for Authors
Beta readers are a great resource for authors who do not have the budget to hire professionals. Beta readers are people who review a manuscript before publication and provide feedback to the author. There are tons of online writing groups that can help you connect with beta readers — once you do, you can specifically ask them to watch out for particular issues such as mechanical errors or story issues. In fact, even if you do intend to work with a professional editor, you should still consider working with beta readers. The more work you can do on your own before hiring an editor, the more time and money you might be able to save. Learn more about finding and working with beta readers.
DON’T forget that you’re not just a writer now, you’re also a marketer
There is a great sense of achievement when you publish a book on your own. However, if you would like to turn self-publishing into your career and earn an income from your books, you don’t only need to write a great title — you also need to learn how to market it. The expression, “If you build it, they will come” holds zero clout in the world of indie publishing.
In fact, some successful self-publishing authors claim that they spend 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. You can hire a professional marketer to help you generate sales, but you should still be prepared to learn about the more practical aspects of publishing.
The good news is that book marketing will become easier as you publish multiple books and build your fanbase and author platform. Here are several free courses that cover the most important book marketing strategies you’ll want to learn as you get into self-publishing:
- How to Define and Find Your Target Readers. Before you do any kind of marketing, you need to learn exactly who you’re marketing to. This course will teach you how to identify your target readers — and how to connect with them.
- Facebook Advertising for Authors. Facebook allows businesses to target specific sets of people with their advertising, allowing you to spend money on promoting your book only to the people who might already be interested in its subject matter.
- How to Run a Price Promotion. One of the best ways to increase your book’s visibility is through a price promotion. Learn how to make the most of yours with this course!
- How to Get Book Reviews. Online retail thrives on user reviews, and the world of literature is no different. The best way to capture potential readers who land on your book’s listing is through positive reader reviews.
- How to Set up and Grow Your Author Mailing List. Setting up a mailing list for people to subscribe to allows you to create long-lasting relationships with your readers, meaning that the next time you publish a book, you’ll already have interested people to promote it to.
DO give yourself time to properly launch your book
From the time they’re offered a book deal to the day they actually see their book for sale, authors who publish traditionally can expect anything from several months to two years to pass.
Controlling exactly when your book is published is one of the great draws of self-publishing. However, just because you can bring your book to market in an afternoon (which you can!), it doesn’t mean you should. Traditionally published books take so long to come to market because they go through multiple rounds of editing, design, and approvals before they see the light of day — and you should take similar care polishing your product before it hits the shelves.
That being said, your ability to publish fast can also be your friend. Imagine how many copies Margaret Mitchell would have sold if she decided to publish another book after Gone With The Wind? If you achieve some success with one of your independently published titles and are planning on being a multi-titled author, it’s a good idea to strike while the iron is hot — especially if you’re publishing a series or if your book adheres to a timely trend.
DO set realistic expectations
Yes, self-publishing gives you higher royalty rates on your sales, total creative control, and the ability to publish when you want. But you need to be prepared to face its challenges, such as upfront costs and marketing responsibilities. You should also be aware that securing print book distribution in bookstores will be an uphill battle — though it’s not impossible with companies like IngramSpark — and that your book won’t be a contender for mainstream book reviewers or literary prizes. This isn’t much of an issue for people publishing in niche genres, but if you’re writing literary fiction, being excluded from these lists might be a sticking point for you.
Self-publishing is often stigmatized as a final, desperate option for authors who can’t secure a traditional publishing deal, but this perception is diminishing. In 2016, 42% of Amazon’s ebook sales came from self-published titles. And many publishers are picking up on this trend by signing well-performing indie authors — such as the Nelson Literary Agency or the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. Self-publishing has many benefits in its own right, and it’s now a viable, respected, and often preferable option for authors. This is thanks to the many self-pubbing authors who take their business seriously and put out high-quality books.
After checking out our guide to self-publishing, this is sure to include you! 😊
Want a step-by-step guide for self-publishing a book? Check out Part Two of this series here!