How to Self-Publish a Book: A Guide for Aspiring Authors

All my life, I dreamed of being a writer. But when I was a kid, I didn’t think it was a dream I’d ever realize. In my mind, making it as a writer was like winning the lottery — a goal with such out of reach odds that I might as well set my sights on something more realistic.

So, I pursued my degree in psychology and set out to change the world that way.

But when I was 26 years old, I had a health crisis that robbed me of my fertility and left me bankrupted by medical debt. I felt lost and alone, completely broken down by the events that had destroyed the life I’d always wanted. So I started doing the only thing I knew how to do to help me through the pain of all that.

I wrote.

What started as a blog in 2009 eventually became a memoir in 2013. I self-published the day before my 30th birthday, and Single Infertile Female became a success by all self-publishing measures — and it helped me launch a full-time writing career.

Still, none of it came easy. Self-publishing a book is a deeply involved endeavor. At least, if you want to do it right. Anyone can string some words together and hit publish. But doing so won’t earn you money or accolades.

You have to be willing to take the process seriously to find that kind of success. 

How to self-publish a book

Today I work as a writer and developmental editor, guiding as many as 20 clients a year through the self-publishing process. 

I’ve created a list I give to all my clients so that they know up front what this process will require of them:

  • Build your social media presence
  • Prepare your draft
  • Design your book cover
  • Polish your draft
  • Select a platform for self-publishing a book
  • Format
  • Establish copyright
  • Obtain an ISBN
  • Publish
  • Market
  • Write another book

Let’s talk about what each of these items means to a hopeful author wondering how to self-publish a book.

1. Build your social media presence

The truth is, you could write the greatest novel known to man. But without the use of social media, you’ll never be able to get it into anyone’s hands.

As a self-published author, marketing and building an author platform is your responsibility. 

You won’t have a team behind you taking on this task, so you need to be prepared to do that work yourself — which means starting now with your social media presence. You don’t have to be on every platform, but you do need to start connecting and building a public network as soon into your publishing journey as possible.

These people will be your potential readers, and cheering section, one day. Part of marketing a book comes down to first being able to market yourself. And that usually starts online.

2. Prepare your draft

You may think your first draft is flawless, but I promise you…it’s not. 

Self-publishing often gets a bad rap because some authors don’t take the time to truly polish their work. But in the traditional publishing world, a book might go through as many as 10 rounds of revisions before making it to print.

Hold yourself to a similar standard.

Consider hiring a developmental editor to help you work through some of the big picture issues with your book. Then utilize beta readers and critique partners to help you pinpoint any other problems you may have missed. Revise, bring in another set of eyes, and revise again. 

You will never regret taking one more stab at making your manuscript better, but you may very well regret leaping to publish too soon.

3. Design your book cover

If you’ve got some expert-level graphic design skills, fantastic! Get to designing your cover. But most authors lack those skills and will need to hire a professional to create something that will tell the story of their book in image form.

Because remember: Plenty of people do judge a book by its cover.

If you don’t know where to find a good cover designer, start by asking for recommendations in various online writer’s groups. You can also look inside the cover of indie books that have designs you like — most will credit the cover designer in those first few pages that contain other publishing information. 

4. Polish your draft (again)

Once you’re confident your revisions are complete, it’s time to send your book off for line editing and proofreading. 

Please know that no matter how skilled you are at spelling and grammar, you will still need a professional editor to catch your errors. Because everyone makes errors within their own work, even editors themselves. 

The human eye is amazing at glossing over mistakes when you know what you meant to say — so don’t trust yourself to catch those mistakes when the time comes.

5. Select a route to self-publishing a book

There are a lot of different options for self-publishing a book, all of which provide different benefits and drawbacks to consider. 

I personally published with CreateSpace years ago, because it made selling through Amazon simple. CreateSpace has since merged with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), if that’s a route you want to consider. Apple’s iBooks can also be great for e-book only printing, and Barnes & Noble Press and Kobo are other options as well.

As you try to decide which option is right for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you achieve your goals through this platform? (Do you care about Print books vs. ebooks? Because some platforms are e-book only. If you want the option of having a physical book, you’ll need to look for print-on-demand services as well).
  •  What percentage of each sale will the company take?
  • What protections do they offer to their authors?
  • Where will your book be available for sale?
  • Does the platform provide an ISBN?

6. Format

When you finally feel like your book is ready and you’ve selected a platform to publish through, you’ll still need to format your book to that platform’s specifications. 

Most offer in-depth guidelines, but e-book formatting, especially, can sometimes be tricky. I formatted my own print on demand documents, but hired someone to format my e-book, mostly because I didn’t trust myself to set up the coding for things like clickable titles correctly. 

You can find a good e-book formatter in the same way you found your cover designer: by asking groups of self-published authors for their recommendations.

7. Establish copyright

I remember all too well staring at my screen and wondering, “How do I copyright my book?” But the truth is, whether or not to copyright your book is a personal choice. 

Under U.S. copyright law, written works are protected as soon as you create them. But if you want to register your copyright (and there are various reasons to consider taking this step, to include the fact that it may make your case easier to prove if you do have to go to court), you can do so by visiting copyright.gov and selecting “Literary Works.”

The cost for officially copyrighting a book is $85.

8. Obtain an ISBN

How to get an ISBN number for a self-published book is a question that can be answered a few different ways. 

Some self-publishing platforms, like KDP, will automatically provide you with a free ISBN as part of publishing with them. Otherwise, you’ll have to purchase your ISBN, either through Bowker or your local ISBN agency.

9. Publish your book

At this point, you are ready to publish your book! Congratulations.

Make sure you follow the guidelines of your chosen platform so that publishing goes smoothly and your book is available for purchase as soon as possible.  

10. Market your book

But your work isn’t done! In fact, some might argue that now is when the real work begins. Because writing a book is only half the battle — marketing it is your next task.

If you’ve built up a decent social network presence, you can start by marketing there. But you’ll also want to consider other options for getting the word about your book out there. Perhaps you could talk to a local indie bookshop about hosting a reading and signing. Or maybe you want to print up promotional materials to hand out to people on the street. You may even want to consider a giveaway with a copies of your book as the prizes.

There are countless ideas for book marketing that you could potentially utilize, but you need to be willing to commit to this part of the process if you want your book to reach as many eyes as possible.

11. Write another book

One of the best ways to find success as a self-published author is to keep writing. The more books you have to your name, the higher your sales will be — as fans of one book will flock to the others. This is how you build a name for yourself in the indie publishing world, and how you grow and expand as an author. So keep writing!

Self-publishing a book: How much does it cost?

Some people may see self-publishing as the easier route, but all of the tasks and expenses a publisher would typically take on, you are responsible for covering yourself through self-publishing.

Instead of getting an advance, you’ll be paying for various services and working hard to ensure your end product is flawless.

So it’s only natural to wonder how much self-publishing will cost you. In fact, some of the most common questions I get from potential clients are, “How much does it cost to self-publish a book on Amazon?” and “Is it free to publish a book on Amazon?”

The answer is complicated. Because, while, yes, self-publishing to Amazon is free through KDP, preparing your book for that moment is not.

All those editors, designers and formatters we discussed above? They cost money. And a lot of the time, it’s money you won’t see back.

It’s harsh, but true. A large percentage of self-published books will never make back the money that was invested into them.

This is why marketing is so important, and why it has to be a part of your self-publishing plan.

But as far as that initial cost investment, I always tell my developmental editing clients it will ultimately come down to how much work they are willing to do themselves, and how much quality they’re willing to pay for in terms of services.

You can save yourself some money by formatting your own book, for instance. But good editors and cover designers don’t come cheap.

On average, self-publishing a quality book will run you anywhere from $1,000 to $3500, depending on the rates charged by the contractors you hire to help you prepare your book for publication. And you do get what you pay for. So don’t pay $75 for editing and expect to receive back an error-free end product.

How to choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing

When you’re pursuing the path of self-publishing, it’s inevitable that you’ll ask yourself at some point, “Is it better to self-publish or get a publisher?” or “Will self-publishing hurt your chances of signing a traditional publishing deal?”

The answer to both questions is…it depends. 

When I published my first book, I never even considered traditional publishing. It was a memoir written by a woman in her 20s about a chronic health condition impacting the female reproductive organs. In other words: very niche.

I knew finding representation for it would be near impossible, and because the book itself was part of my healing process, I just wanted to get it out into the world.

Self-publishing was absolutely the right choice for that book, and at that point in my life.

But today I’m shopping a fiction novel I’ve been working on for two years to agents. It has commercial appeal and is a concept I’m really proud of. Plus, I see traditional publishing as the next step in my career.

So for this book, and at this point in my life…traditional publishing is the dream.

Every book is different. If you’re trying to decide whether traditional publishing or self-publishing is right for you, you need to do some soul searching and really get honest with yourself about your book (is it something an agent is going to feel confident in selling?), your goals (what do you hope to gain out of this publishing process), and your future aspirations as a writer.

Self-publishing has proven to be a very viable career path for some. And traditional publishing is right for others. There is no single best answer here.

As far as whether self-publishing today will hurt your chances of traditional publishing tomorrow, the answer is yes — for this book. But not for future endeavors.

Once you self-publish a book, it’s usually off the table for agents and publishers to consider. Unless it’s a massive success (selling tens of thousands of copies), most won’t even give it a second look.

But having self-published a book won’t hurt you at all when trying to sell a different book to agents and publishing companies in the future. In fact, if your self-published book did well (sales in the thousands) it could actually help you, because those numbers prove your ability to be part of the marketing process.

Should you choose a small press?

While researching your options, you may have come across authors mentioning having published through small presses. 

This is a version of traditional publishing that doesn’t typically require an agent, as small presses tend to like working directly with authors. Small presses are also often more open to taking niche books and working with an author’s unique vision.

You would pitch your book to a small press in much the same way you would to an agent, with a query letter, synopsis and the first few pages of your manuscript (or whatever their submission guidelines request). If they’re interested, they’ll ask for more.

But there are two important things to keep in mind when publishing with small presses:

  1. The first is that they often only print a few books a year, which means you could be put on a waitlist that is several years out before your book will be published. They also tend to have small marketing departments, which means you need to be prepared to market your own book as aggressively as you would have with self-publishing.
  2. The other thing to be aware of is the fact that there are a lot of vanity presses masquerading as small presses.

“What’s a vanity press?” you may ask? Well, these are publication companies that will offer to publish your book — for a fee. They will usually charge you thousands (more than you ever would have paid for self-publishing) all for the vanity of being able to say you have a publisher.

Avoid them at all costs. Not only will they charge you more for the services you could have gotten cheaper with contractors you found yourself, they will also take a far greater percentage of your royalties than you would have had to give up through self-publishing. And you’ll lose some of the rights you would have maintained through self-publishing.

On top of all that, the marketing services they offer are nothing more than blasting your book to their wide network of authors, who all paid the same thing you did and are simply hoping to see their own books advertised.

This is not how to self-publish a book, it’s how to get ripped-off in the process of self-publishing a book.

Now, there are plenty of small presses that aren’t vanities, and many of them are lovely to work with. But do your research if you decide to pursue this route, and don’t go with any press that is asking you for exorbitant amounts of money to help you with self-publishing a book.

Have you ever self-published a book? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

The post How to Self-Publish a Book: A Guide for Aspiring Authors appeared first on The Write Life.