Until recently, if you were a writer who had a novel or other work, there was essentially a single path to follow: you tried to find an agent who liked your writing, and who would be able to sell it to a publisher. The process could take months or years — assuming you were able to get on that merry-go-round at all.
David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital and other books about self-publishing, tried that route when he wrote his first novel about 11 years ago. It was an exasperating experience.
“I spent about 18 months querying every agent that I could find in the English-language world and didn’t really get anywhere,” Gaughran says. He was frustrated enough that he thought about giving up. “But then I started looking at self-publishing.”
Since then, self-publishing has become far more than a last-ditch alternative to traditional publishing — it’s a choice that many authors are making from the starting line. But while it’s not all that hard to put out an ebook these days, finding an audience takes a lot more than simply uploading your manuscript and clicking publish: it means going through the entire publishing process on your own, from editing to artwork to marketing, putting your book’s success entirely in your own hands.
Choosing to self-publish
Before the mid-2000s, the only alternative to mainstream publishing for the would-be author was expensive and often scammy “vanity presses” that would publish anything — for example, your uncle’s unedited, badly parsed family history — for a price. But then, new technologies appeared and revolutionized the industry.
First came print-on-demand (POD), the ability to produce single issues and small print runs of books rather than thousands at a time. Suddenly it became affordable for authors and small publishers to create professional-looking books on a budget — while, at the same time, the internet made it possible to sell them. Statistics published in 2009 by Bowker, the bibliographic information company, cited an “extraordinary year of growth in the reported number of ‘On Demand’ and short-run books produced in 2008 … a staggering 132 percent increase over last year’s final total.”
Authors have different reasons to self-publish: crowded markets, specialized stories, and more control
“It was about that time,” says Gaughran, “when [self-publishing] started changing from being the last refuge of the rejected author whose work wasn’t good enough or professional enough to actually get published to being an actual viable career path.” He also cites the release of Amazon’s Kindle 3 in 2010 as a turning point. “The whole ebook market took a giant step up at that moment.”
Authors choose to self-publish for different reasons. Rachel Aukes, writer of The Tidy Guide series to writing and publishing novels, had gone through the traditional publishing process before. Then in 2013, she wanted to write a zombie book and found out “the market was saturated,” she said. “And I thought, you know, why not use this to try self-publishing?”
That gave her the means to become a full-time writer. “Self-publishing gives me a more consistent income,” Aukes says. When working with a publisher, the company would give you an advance on royalty payments up front, “and then you can go six months or a year or even longer before you see another payment.”
Publishing an ebook is easy — publishing it well requires a lot more work
Melissa McPhail, author of the epic fantasy series A Pattern of Light and Shadow, started off as a self-publishing author in 2010. She decided to go with indie publishing because she felt her writing style would not be appreciated by the more staid publishing houses. “My work was somewhat specialized and very long,” she explains, “and I didn’t want to have to cut down the length of my novel because of an individual arbitrary decision on how long it should be.” The result? She’s about to publish her fifth novel and has won several awards for indie fantasy.
David Rogers, author of the Apocalypse series, has also been an indie author since he began to publish — and wouldn’t have it any other way. “‘I am not a fan of the traditional industry’ would be the polite way to put it,” he says. “I’m not happy with the way that they structure contracts, I’m not happy with the way that they keep grabbing more and more rights. And I’m definitely not happy with the financial arrangements.”
So if you’ve got a novel, haven’t been able to find an agent (or don’t want to try), and have decided to go the self-publishing route, where do you begin? Well, the first thing to do is to educate yourself — while the mechanics of publishing a book aren’t hard, there is a lot to consider if you want to be a successful indie writer.
Do your research
Experienced self-publishers all agree that the best place to start is online. There is a great deal of information now available to help guide the new self-publisher though the challenges of editing, promotion, and so on, much of it excellent.
Many writers’ organizations now offer advice and support to self-publishers, including organizations such as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and the Romance Writers of America (RWA). There are groups on Facebook and other social networks, and a variety of books and blogs that can give you a start (such as those written by Aukes and Gaughran).
“There’s no bush league in publishing.”
Face-to-face contact also helps. Aukes strongly suggests that writers and would-be writers start by attending a writers’ conference. “Even a local conference, one that would be minimal cost,” she says. “Just start to network and learn things, because there’s so much information shared at conferences.”
And be serious about your goals as an author. “You need to have a good business plan in terms of what your goals are as an author, and how you see yourself writing to the industry,” advises McPhail. “There are many strategies out there for helping you get started.”
Be professional — and use professionals
As with any business, it’s important for your books to make a good impression. In other words, don’t assume you can just go and throw your novel onto the market without some serious preparation. “There’s no bush league in publishing,” says Gaughran. “You’re going to be selling alongside Nora Roberts, Stephen King, and all sorts of household names.” That means working with professionals who can make sure your book is packaged and presented well.
Your book should still go through the entire publishing process, even though you’re doing it yourself, Aukes says. “Don’t publish a rough draft where you spent a half hour on your cover and let it go, because you only have that first chance to make a first impression with the reader.” She works with a team of people who help her produce her books, including an editor and a proofreader.
Self-publishing doesn’t mean doing every step yourself
If you can’t hire a copy editor, Rogers says there are several techniques that can help you catch errors, such as reading your manuscript out loud, or having an audio text reader speak it back to you. “Editing is something that trips a lot of people up,” Rogers says. “A lot of folks are not very good at proofreading or copy editing. A lot of people are not very good at catching all those little errors.”
Once you’ve got the manuscript in good shape, you need to format it for publishing. There are a number of tools available. Two that seem most often cited by experienced indie publishers are Vellum, Mac software that helps you format and produce both ebooks and print books, and Draft2Digital, an ebook distributor that offers free formatting. And as with editing, you can also hire someone to do the formatting for you.
And then there’s the cover.
“If you have a substandard cover, it won’t matter how good your novel is.”
“All the etailers require a cover image,” Rogers explains. “It’s really tempting to go: I’ll just knock something together with some words on it. That can get you into a lot of trouble. Because [the cover] is the first thing people see, so it’s real easy to make you look very, very amateur.”
“If you have a substandard cover, it won’t matter how good your novel is,” Gaughran agrees. “Because a reader will naturally assume that you’ve taken as little care with the inside of the book as you did with the outside.”
Aukes tried creating her own covers when she first started, and soon gave up. “I designed my own covers on my first self-published book,” she says, “and I spent probably 40 hours or more. I’ve learned that my time is better spent elsewhere. So I have a couple of cover designers who I always use depending on what genre I’m writing.”
Shopping for help
So how do you find editors and cover artists? A good place to start is to ask around among your contacts in online self-publishing groups, conventions, and meetups. There is the Editorial Freelancers Association, which offers both lists of freelancers and advice on rates and other hiring considerations. There are also sites that offer access to vetted lists of professionals, such as Reedsy.
And then there’s Google. Cover artists, says Rogers, are available online via a simple search. “Sometimes they’re artists, sometimes they’re Photoshop people, photographers… It’s not complicated to spend some time looking through and going, I like this person’s style, their rates seem reasonable, I’ll talk to them.” He suggests that a typical cover can cost about $300, although it can go higher, depending on what you’re looking for.
There’s no getting around Amazon — the question is how much you buy in
However, as with any venture, you need to be cautious. Gaughran warns against trying to cut corners by using a company that claims to do everything for you for a few thousand dollars. “Usually what happens is, you end up with a much worse product at the end of the day. And in a lot of cases, you’re going to end up getting scammed because the vanity presses haven’t gone away. They’re still there and still a huge business; they have often rebranded themselves as self-publishing service companies.”
A good place to go to check if a self-publishing service is legitimate is the Writer Beware site sponsored by SFWA.
Selling your book
So you’ve got a beautiful, well-prepared ebook ready for the marketplace. How do you sell it?
Well, one place to start is Amazon, the ten-pound gorilla in the publishing universe.
Amazon offers self-publishers two methods of ebook distribution: Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and KDP Select. While KDP allows you to sell your book through Amazon, KDP Select gives you access to a variety of useful marketing tools, higher royalties, and participation in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (which lends books to Amazon Prime members) and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Kindle Unlimited is a subscription program in which readers pay $9.99 per month and thereafter can borrow as many books as they like — sort of a Netflix for readers.
Many authors have a love / hate relationship with Amazon
Authors whose books are part of Kindle Unlimited earn royalties based on the number of pages read and the amount of money in a global fund. And because Kindle Unlimited is very popular, it can be an important source of income for self-publishers. It’s also regular: according to Amazon, KDP pays royalties monthly, about 60 days after the end of the month in which those royalties are earned.
However, there is, of course, a catch.
KDP Select, the more lucrative program, requires you to give Amazon exclusive rights to digitally distribute your book. That means you cannot distribute your book digitally anywhere else, including on your website, blogs, or other ebook stores. However, you’ll still be able to sell physical copies of your book.
The Kindle Unlimited program is so important to indie publishers (both for income and for exposure) that many refer to the choice as not between KDP Select and regular KDP, but between Kindle Unlimited and “going wide.” In other words, between selling your digital book solely through Amazon, or foregoing the KDP Select advantages and marketing through independent websites and other distributors.
As a result, many authors have a love / hate relationship with Amazon. Aukes suggests that beginners might want to start with KDP Select and then look around. “Amazon obviously is [responsible for] the bulk of ebook sales in the United States,” she says, “and so if you’re a first-time self-publisher it makes sense. It’s a great way to cut your teeth on the self-publishing process, but you’re also putting all your eggs in one basket.”
By going Kindle-only, people who shop at other stores just won’t see your work, says Aukes. “It’s a business decision and one I still struggle with.” She added that this year she plans to go “all wide.”
There are a lot of books out there. And so once your books are on sale, you have to make sure that people can find them and read them — and, hopefully, ask for more. This is often referred to in the self-publishing community as visibility.
If you’re going to use KDP Select, then a good place to start is to investigate all the various tools that Amazon makes available for promoting and marketing your book; for example, the ability to run limited-time discounts or free book promotions (which can be especially useful if you want to build up a series). But outside of that — and no matter how you’re selling your books — there are other services that have sprung up.
“Understand that everything falls on your shoulders.”
One popular site, BookBub, helps readers find books through recommendations, updates from favorite authors, and other means; it also offers marketing tools to authors such as book launches, preorders, and promotions. Book Funnel and MailChimp both offer help with promotional mailing lists, an important way for independent authors to sell their works. There are also sites for reading enthusiasts where you can join discussions and otherwise promote your book, such as Goodreads.
In the end, Rogers says, it’s all down to old-fashioned marketing. “You can do it with banner ads, with all kinds of online advertising. There’s places like BookBub that send out newsletters. You can talk to fan groups and you can go to conventions. Anything else you can think of that might qualify as marketing.”
Take responsibility for your books
Producing and selling your own work without a publishing house behind you means both the freedom to create your book the way you want to, and the responsibility to make sure it’s done as professionally as possible. “Understand that everything falls on your shoulders,” says Aukes. “You are accountable for the success of the publishing process. By taking on the kind of freedom and flexibility of self-publishing, you’re also taking on the accountability.”
In short, the process of publishing your own book can be both very simple and very complex. The actual mechanics of publishing an ebook, or even a print book, has become relatively easy, especially if you give yourself to the Amazon ecosystem. However, doing it well — and gaining a following of readers who will enjoy and buy your books — is not as easy. It takes trial and error, patience, and work. But if you’re a writer, and you want people to read your books, it’s certainly worth it.
McPhail urges new writers to stick with it. “There is disheartenment that can come along with reading reviews or the book isn’t selling quickly,” she says. “You have to have a lot of fortitude and conviction about your work so that you can stay the long haul — long enough to develop an audience for your work.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Rogers says. “It’s just a book. There’ll always be another book. If this one doesn’t work out or this one doesn’t launch really big or whatever, fine. Write the next one.”