For most of publishing’s history, if an author wanted to self-publish, they had to invest thousands of dollars with a so-called “vanity” press, or otherwise learn how to become an independent, small publisher.
That all changed in the late 1990s, with the advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology, which allows books to be printed one at a time. As a result, many POD publishing services arose that provided authors with low-cost self-publishing packages. They could be low cost because—without print runs, inventory, and warehousing—the only expense left was in creating and designing the product itself: the book. Outfits like iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse (which have merged and been consolidated under AuthorSolutions) offered a range of packages to help authors get their books in print, though most books never sat on a bookstore shelf and sold a few dozen copies at best.
Just as traditional publishing has transformed due to the rise of ebooks, today’s self-publishing market has transformed as well. Most self-published authors earn the bulk of their money from ebook sales. Furthermore, 85% or more of all US ebook sales happen through a single online retailer, Amazon. Anyone can make their ebook and print book available for sale in the most important market—Amazon—without paying a cent upfront.
That means the full-service POD publishers that used to make a killing are now largely irrelevant to most self-publishing success, even though you’ll find them advertising against Google search results for “self-publishing.” Don’t be immediately lured in; first understand your options, explained below.
There are several ways to self-publish in today’s market.
This post will expand on how to self-publish completely on your own. Before I explore that process in detail, here’s an explanation of the other choices you have.
This is what I call the “write a check and make the headache go away” method of self-publishing. If you have more money than time, and have no interest in being a full-time career author, this may best serve your needs.
Service packages and publishing arrangements tremendously vary, but the best services charge an upfront fee, take absolutely no rights to your work, and pass on 100% net sales to the author. They make money on charging authors for the services provided (editorial, design, marketing, and so on), not on copies sold. Such books will almost never be stocked in physical retail bookstores, although in some rare cases, it may happen. Most assisted publishing services have different packages or tiers of service, while others offer customized quotes based on the particular needs of your project.
The benefit is that you get a published book without having to figure out the details of the publishing industry or finding freelance professionals you can trust. The best and most expensive services (which can easily exceed $20,000) offer a quality experience that is comparable to working with a traditional publisher. You should avoid companies that take advantage of author inexperience and use high-pressure sales tactics, such as AuthorSolutions imprints (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, WestBow, Archway).
Examples of good assisted services include Matador, Mill City Press, DogEar, Radius Book Group, Book in a Box, and Girl Friday Productions. To check the reputation of a service, visit Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine.
Some self-publishing (or assisted publishing) services have started calling themselves “hybrid publishers” because it sounds more fashionable and savvy, but such companies may be nothing more than a fancy self-publishing service. Fees dramatically vary and quality dramatically varies. You have to do your research carefully. I discuss hybrid publishing in more detail here. As with self-publishing service companies, you will fund book publication in exchange for expertise and assistance of the publisher; cost is often in the thousands of dollars. You may receive better royalties than a traditional publishing contract, but you’ll earn less than if self-publishing on your own. Each hybrid publisher has its own distinctive costs and business model; always secure a clear contract with all fees explained.
Increasingly, agents are starting to help existing clients as well as new ones digitally publish their work. Help might consist of fee-based services, royalty-based services, and hybrid models.
Such practices are controversial because agents’ traditional role is to serve as an advocate for their clients’ interests and negotiate the best possible deals. When agents start publishing their clients’ work and taking their 15% cut of sales, a conflict of interest develops.
In their defense, agents are changing their roles in response to industry change, as well as client demand. Regardless of how you proceed, look for flexibility in any agreements you sign. Given the pace of change in the market, it’s not a good idea to enter into an exclusive, long-term contract that locks you into a low royalty rate or into a distribution deal that may fall behind in best practices.
Today, anyone can get access to the same level of online retail distribution as a traditional publisher, for both print and ebook editions, through services such as Amazon KDP, Pronoun, Draft2Digital, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark. I will explain how and when to use these services throughout this post.
You don’t “pay” these services until your books start to sell. Every time a copy of your book is sold, the retailer takes a cut, and if you use a distributor, they’ll take a cut, too.
You, the author, manage the publishing process and hire the right people or services to edit, design, publish, and distribute your book. Every step of the way, you decide which distributors or retailers you prefer to deal with. You retain complete and total control of all artistic and business decisions; you keep all profits and rights.
Self-publishing on your own means making decisions about your book’s editorial, design, and production quality. I offer a checklist for the book publication process here.
What follows is an explanation of how to self-publish once you have a final, polished manuscript and/or printer-ready files.
Some of the services I reference, particularly CreateSpace, offer fee-based services related to editing, design, and marketing. These package services may work OK for your needs, but I think it’s better to hire your own freelancers and always know who you’re working with. Also, you can take a look at Joel Friedlander’s book template system, which offers a way for total beginners to prepare ebook and print book files that are ready to be distributed and sold.
You don’t have to set up a formal business (e.g., in the United States, you can use your Social Security number for tax purposes), but serious self-publishers will typically set up an LLC at minimum.
For the basic information on how to establish your own imprint or publishing company, read Joel Friedlander’s post, How to Create, Register, and List Your New Publishing Company.
The first and most important thing to understand about ebook retailers and distributors is that they are not publishers. That means they take no responsibility for the quality of your work, but neither do they take any rights to your work. Here are the characteristics of major services:
Again, it’s important to emphasize: By using these services, you do not forfeit any of your rights to the work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your ebook has gone on sale, you are free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you’ve used.
Most e-publishing services fall into one of these categories:
One popular approach for independent authors is to sell and distribute directly through Amazon KDP, then use a distributor like Pronoun or Draft2Digital to reach everyone else. Because none of these services demand exclusivity, that’s possible.
A note about ISBNs: While an ISBN is not required for basic ebook distribution through most retailers, some distributors and services require one. Therefore, to maximize distribution, you’ll need an ISBN for your ebook. Some self-publishing services will provide you with an ISBN, or you can obtain your own ISBN. (If you’re US-based, you can buy through MyIdentifiers.com.)
Nearly every service asks you to upload a final ebook file that is appropriately formatted. Services vary widely in the types of files they accept. Because standards are still developing in the ebook world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services.
Here are the most commonly used formats for ebooks:
Most major ebook retailers and distributors accept a Word document and automatically convert it to the appropriate format, but you still must go through an “unformatting” process for best results. All major services offer step-by-step guidelines for formatting your Word documents before you upload them for conversion.
Important to note: There is a difference between formatting and converting your book files. Conversion refers to an automated process of converting files from one format into another, without editing or styling. It’s often easy to convert files, but the resulting file may look unprofessional—or even appear unreadable—if not formatted appropriately.
Useful tools for formatting and converting ebooks include:
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the idea of converting and formatting your own ebook files, then you may want to use a distributor or service that’s customer-service oriented in this regard, such as Draft2Digital. If your ebook has special layout requirements, heavy illustration, or multimedia components, you should probably hire an independent company to help you (eBookPartnership is one option).
But if your book is mostly straight text—such as novels and narrative works—then you might be able to handle the conversion and formatting process without much difficulty if you’re starting with a Word document or text file.
There are a number of special considerations for ebook cover design. People may see your cover in black and white, grayscale, color, high-resolution, low-resolution, thumbnail size, or full size. It needs to be readable at all sizes and look good on low-quality or mobile devices. For these reasons (and many more), it’s best to hire a professional to create an ebook cover for you. One designer I frequently recommend is Damon Za.
Even though ebooks are the best-selling format for self-publishing authors (especially fiction), ask these questions before you begin:
There are two primary ways to publish and make a print edition available for sale:
Print-on-demand technology allows for books to be printed one at a time. This is by far the most popular way to produce print copies of your book because it reduces financial risk.
Pros of print-on-demand
Cons of print-on-demand
Most books printed by U.S. traditional publishers are produced through offset printing. To use a traditional printer, you usually need to commit to 1,000 copies minimum.
Pros of offset printing
Cons of offset printing
While it can be fairly straightforward and inexpensive to get a print book in your hands via print-on-demand services, virtually no one can get your book physically ordered or stocked in bookstores. Self-publishing services may claim to distribute your book to stores or make your book available to stores. But this is very different from actually selling your book into bookstores. Bookstores almost never accept or stock titles from any self-publishing service or POD company, although they can special order for customers when asked, assuming the book appears in their system.
Also, think through the paradox: Print-on-demand services or technology should be used for books that are printed only when there’s demand. Your book is not going to be nationally distributed and sitting on store shelves unless or until a real order is placed.
The 3 key factors are:
You also need to anticipate your appetite for handling the warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping of 1,000+ books, unless a third party is handling it for you, which will reduce your profit. When the truck pulls up to your house with several pallets piled high with 30-pound boxes, it will be a significant reality check if you haven’t thought through your decision.
If you choose print-on-demand for your print edition, then I recommend the following:
I recommend using both Ingram Spark and CreateSpace to maximize your profits and ensure that no one is discouraged from ordering or stocking the print edition of your book. As you might imagine, independent bookstores aren’t crazy about ordering books provided by CreateSpace/Amazon, their key competitor. However, if you use Ingram Spark to fulfill orders through Amazon, you will reduce your profits because Amazon offers more favorable terms when selling books generated through CreateSpace. So it’s much more advantageous financially to use CreateSpace—but limit the scope of that agreement to just Amazon orders.
As soon as your printer-ready files are uploaded, POD books are generally available for order at Amazon within 48 hours. With Ingram Spark, it generally takes 2 weeks for the book to be available through all their channels.
This is for a $14.99 standard 6×9 paperback, about 240 pages.
With print books, your success is typically driven by the quality of your book, your visibility or reach to your readership, and your cover. With ebooks, the same factors are in play, plus the following:
This is but a scratch on the surface of the world of ebook marketing. Author Nicholas Erik maintains an excellent beginner’s guide.