How to Self-publish a Book: A Step-by-Step Guide for First-Time Authors
The term “self-publishing” is much in vogue now. Thanks to a spate of books that have broken records recently. Interestingly, a traditional publisher did not publish those books. Instead, they were self-published. A few examples that come to mind include E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” RupiKaur’s “Milk and Honey,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and AshwinSanghi’s “The Rozabal Line.”
In case you think that self-publishing is the domain of the potboiler and the airport bestseller, let me stop you right there. Some of the books today considered as literary classics have been self-published. They also prove that self-publishing has been around for longer than you thought. Are you surprised? Let’s look at two examples from a long list. Marcel Proust’s“Swann’s Way.” The publishers were not willing to touch “Swann’s Way” because they didn’t think it would sell. Proust did not let that bog him down. He published it himself. Then when it did so well, the publishers picked it up and published the rest of the series. The next book that took the self-publishing route was Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” The publishers rejected his classic of children’s literature. Why? Because they didn’t believe that women could write. How wrong were they!
The History of Self-publishing
There are stark differences between traditional and self-publishing. In the former, publishers pay authors to write a book that is then edited, designed, and distributed. Self-publishing is when an author or his team makes and sells a book. Self-publishing is not limited to books but also includes albums, pamphlets, brochures, video content, and zines.
Let’s go back a few hundred years. Ever since the invention of the printing press, many books have been self-published. The earliest self-published book was the British novelist Laurence Sterne’s “TristramShandy.” The first two volumes were self-published in 1759. Many authors chose to self-publish and distribute books through publishing companies. Others decide to start their presses. Authors like John Locke, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Martin Luther, Marcel Proust, Derek Walcott, and Walt Whitman were all self-published.
Till about twenty years ago, self-publishing had a negative name, vanity press, or vanity publishing. The underlying connotation was that authors self-published books to please their vanity. Another underlying implication was that authorschose self-publishing because they were not good enough for publishing. This stigma still lurks self-published authors even today. There are many reasons for this. Just like any kind of publishing, self-publishing produces both memorable and forgettable books. Before the current self-publishing boom, apart from some exceptions, many thought self-published books are usually forgettable personal projects and dismissed for being exercises in self-importance.
Then came the print-on-demand technology in the 1990s, which made printing books one at a time possible. So there rose many publishing services that offered low-cost publishing packages for authors. These cut out print runs, inventory, and warehousing, leaving creating and designing the book itself to the self-publishing firm. Some examples include iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse. They have since merged and consolidated under AuthorSolutions.
Then in 2007, the eBook trend started. The scenario of publishing changed because of the rise of eBooks. This non-traditional publishing method offered a plethora of digital options now available to writers. Writers now have a route to publishing themselves without a publisher and sometimes without a book. It completely changed the game. And today, self-publishing is transforming the whole publishing industry.
Not only are many classics and bestsellers self-published, the way people starting seeing self-publishing itself changed. The stigma is slowly fading away. Greg White, a self-published author, said in 2016, “Five years ago, self-publishing was a scar. Now it’s a tattoo.” (1)
Advantages of Self-publishing
Not everyone is comfortable with a tattoo. So to understand self-publishing, you need to know its benefits.
1.You get complete creative control. Unlike traditional publishing, the author is in control of the whole process. Traditional publishing does not allow the author a say in the book’s final cover design, title, blurb, and distribution in the marketplace. But self-publishing does. It makes the author the center of the publishing process.
2.Your royalty rate is higher: Traditional publishers offer royalty as low as 10% percent royalty. Publishing houses pick up authors who will turn in a profit. And this funds the publishing house. So the author does not get to keep the entire profits that he or she earns. Self-publishing offers nearly 100% of profits. It is possible because the author pays the team upfront and not from the royalty profits.
3.You pick your team. In traditional publishing, the publisher picks the team working on your book. It can be a compromise because the publisher allocates resources to your book based on availability and not merit. In self-publishing, you pick your team, and so know that your book is in good hands.
4.You decide the deadlines. In traditional publishing set up, publishers have to stick to publishing schedules, which lead to a lot of pressure. If the editing process takes longer than normal, then it becomes quite stressful for everyone involved. This situation does not arise in self-publishing.
5.You get a quicker publishing workflow.The traditional publishing workflow can take anywhere between a year to three years for a book to be on the shelves from the time you sign the contract. In contrast, self-publishing offers a shorter timeline, depending on what you want.
6.You keep the copyright: When you sign a contract with a traditional publishing firm, you might have to hand over your copyright or abide by their terms. It can be fine in the short term. But in the long run, if the publishing house folds up, editors quit, or the book doesn’t do well, you might find it problematic not to have the copyright. This scenario will never happen in self-publishing since you retain 100% of the copyright to your work.
7.You can explore your dream genre. Say you have a book that does not fit into any of the mainstream genres offered by traditional publishing, then they may reject you. However, there is no such thing in self-publishing. Whatever your genre is, you can still get it published.
8.You get paid more often: Royalty payments are either once or twice a year at a traditional publishing firm. This is not so with self-publishing, where you can get monthly royalty payments.
9.You avoid the gatekeepers. As an author getting a toehold into a traditional publishing firm means that you have to get the gatekeeper’s permission first. This gatekeeper could be an intern who sorts through submitted manuscripts or an editor who looks for books that fit the publishing house’s agenda or the publisher whose budget for the year is already spent. If you choose self-publishing, you will altogether avoid this process.
Disadvantages of Self-publishing
You have seen the pros of self-publishing. And indeed they are many. However, there are also a few cons or disadvantages as well. You need to be aware of them before you make your informed decision to self-publish.
1.You have less support: You will have to shoulder more responsibility than a regular author published by a traditional publisher. It also means you will have less support than them.
2.You will have to push yourself: The downside to full creative freedom is that you have to be very self-motivated to make things happen. You will not have an editor watching your back; you need to make deadlines and meet them, and you are your boss and employee.
3.You will have more upfront costs: Unlike traditional publishing, your investment is not just time and talent but money as well. Mainly you need to spend money right away.
4.You might have to face stigma: Let’s be honest here. Self-publishing has indeed come a long way. But it is yet to lose the stigma associated with it completely. You might have reviewers mentioning this aspect in the book reviews that will follow the marketing of the book.
That said, the advantages of self-publishing outweigh the disadvantages if you are a mature author who is self-motivated, is willing to invest money, and is not affected by the stigma.
Types of Self-publishing
Once you have decided that self-publishing is for you, you’ll need to make the next decision.
There are a few ways of self-publishing your books. Let’s look at each of them.
- DIY: As the name suggests, DIY publishing means doing it yourself. So this means the author does the editing, designing, and marketing of their books. Not many people can do this effectively as it involves mastering the entire publishing workflow. Usually, publishing professionals are experts who handle each step of the process. So for an author to step in and handle everything can be a bit difficult.
- Assisted publishing: In this method of self-publishing, the author takes the help of the experts in the field, such as freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, and marketers to put together the final product, the author’s self-published book. You can relax that your book is in the best hands when you choose this method of self-publishing.
- POD publishing: POD publishing means to be able to print your book at a moment’s notice. POD stands for Print on Demand. You can customize the number of copies you need, whether that is two or two thousand.
- Subsidy publishing: This kind of publisher reduces or subsidizes the cost of publishing the book. They have their team, much like a traditional publisher. But they retain the copyright as well. So the authors get a royalty amount from them quite like a traditional publisher. Subsidy publishers are not considered traditional publishers.
- Hybrid publishing: Hybrid publishing is a type of publishing that mixes some aspects of self-publishing and traditional publishing. Hybrid publishers use many different business models and approach for marketing and distribution. This type of publishing is still evolving.
Steps to Self-publish Your Book
By now, you have a background to self-publishing and are aware of the pros and cons of it and which type of self-publishing you want. The very next phase is to get on with the actual work on the book. Let’s look at them in detail.
Write your book
Plan: Once you know what you are going to write about, it’s time to write it. First, you need to plan your draft. Depending on the genre you choose, the way you go about planning your draft changes.
Non-fiction: If your book is non-fiction, your planning will include research and a book proposal. Book proposals are common to traditional publishing. But now would-be self-published authors also find that it is a useful tool to distill the focus of the book and keep it on track.
Memoir: If you are writing a memoir, you will have to outline your book first. This outline will save you a lot of time later on while revising it. An outline gives your writing a focus. Before you start writing, decide on the theme of your memoir as well. Follow the bell curve of exposition-climax-denouement to structure your memoir.
Fiction: If you are writing a book of fiction, find out about following narrative arcs, constructing dynamic characters, presenting the story from different points of view, and creating your fictional world. These are the tools that will help create a memorable story.
Time: After you have figured out what and how to write, you need to understand when and where to write. With a full-time job, family, and career, making time for writing might be challenging. So you will need to make writing a habit and schedule a time for it. You might have to be strict about time spent on every hour of your day to squeeze some time out of it for writing.
Take inspiration from E. B. White, the writer of “Charlotte’s Web,” who has this interesting insight:
I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.
In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. (2)
The popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami emphasizes the repetition of his schedule as a way to reach deeper states of mind. This helps him in writing.
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.
I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity. (3)
Craft: The next item you need to tick off your list is your craft. Writing a book is something that takes time, skill, and effort. The best way to learn is by reading other writers’ works and learning from your mistakes.
Choose a title for your book
Sometimes the title of your book appears first on the page while writing it. Sometimes it evades you till the editing is over. There is no hard and fast rule for arriving at the title of the book. Have a look at titles that have worked in the genre you are working in before you decide. Ask editors and trusted readers for their opinion. If it helps, you can have a working title which you will freeze by the end of the proofreading process.
Edit the manuscript
Many writers say that editing and writing do not go hand in hand. Write without editing anything first. When you revise your manuscript later, you can take care of all the concerns that jump out at you. Revise your manuscript again and again. You can also reach out to friends in the industry for their expert opinion. After you have done all the editing that is possible, hire a professional editor to work on it and give you feedback. It’s better to listen to that feedback rather than feel self-defensive about it. Cultivate beta readers who will give you a reader’s opinion without charging you for it.
After writing, editing, and proofreading your manuscript is ready for the next stage—design and typesetting or layout design.
Format the Interior & Design the layout
Once you have thoroughly edited your manuscript, the next step is to format your book. Formatting becomes essential since the readability of the book is hugely dependent on it. You need to format your book properly so that the book looks professional and appealing for the readers.
So now you have your final formatted the manuscript, it’s time to call in the typesetting or layout design experts. Book design does not mean the cover design though cover design is a part of it. Typesetting or layout design is a rather underrated part of the publishing process. It requires great attention to detail and a sophisticated aesthetic sense. You need to make many small layout decisions that will define the way the reader experiences your book. A book layout designer will keep these in mind and your chosen genre to create a book design that appeals to the reader.
Work on the cover design
At the same time that your layout designer is working on the layout, you will also need to get going on the cover design. Approach professional freelancers because the cover is the face of your book. You need a very attractive cover to make readers buy your books when they see them on the bookshelves. You can even try designing your cover if you have trained for it. But, it’s best to get professional help otherwise.
Ask the cover designer to create the back cover while you write the blurb at the same time. You can send your book to famous people who will be willing to give you a quote that you can use on the front or back cover of your book. Do this before the cover design process is over.
Do not forget to apply for an ISBN that will also go into the back cover of your book.
Consider your self-publishing options
Now the time has come to decide on the self-publishing options available for your book. You have to decide if you want a print book or an eBook. In the past, if you had self-published your book, you had to print some copies and wait for readers to buy them. But that is no longer the case. So your options are:
POD or Print on Demand: In this service, you upload your finished book as a file to a printing service. This service prints books as and when buyers buy a book. Each book might cost more than the ones published via the traditional publishing method, but here there is no risk of unsold books. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and IngramSpark are the two largest PoD services in the world.
eBooks: eBooks are online books in certain formats like EPUB or mobi available for sale only online. Kindle Direct Publishing also offers this service. Many self-published authors rely on eBook sales for their livelihood. Readers who will not spend on a paperback or hardback might be willing to invest in an eBook given its price. Readers can’t differentiate between eBooks from traditional publishers and new publishers based on the way they look on an e-reader. This means that your book will stand on its own merit.
Market your book
Once you have decided whether you want a PoD book or an eBook, you will need to decide on the marketing of your book. As with the other steps, you can do this yourself with some research on the internet or you can hire experts. You can rely on proven strategies such as automated mailing lists, price promotions, and online advertising.
Nowadays, social media plays a big role in the marketing of any book. This is the time to engage your personal friends and follower lists on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Medium. Some traditional publishers also rely on authors to engage in social media. The more followers you have, the higher the influence you wield and the more likely your book will sell.
The cost of publication
You can self-publish a book for a wide variety of budgets. The budget depends on you. The average cost of self-publishing your book is $1,500 – $2,000 (4) depending on which services you opt for. The cost of self-publishing a book will include editing, illustrating, designing, and marketing where you will spend the most amount of money. Many platforms allow you to publish your book freely. The total cost changes from author to author.
Royalties from self-publishing are higher than from traditional publishing.
- Paperback: An author using a traditional publishing house for his paperback can expect about 5 to 10% royalty. But an author who follows the self-publishing route can expect to see 20 to 25% depending on the cost of printing.
eBooks: An author using a traditional publishing house to publish eBooks publisher can see 20 to 25% net royalty after the retailer’s cut. An author who publishes an eBook through a self-publisher can expect to get up to 70% royalty from his or her work.
To sum it all up, self-publishing your book could be your masterstroke. Provided you know the publishing workflow from writing the book to the marketing and collection of royalties. You will have complete creative control and be able to make money from it. What more would you want?
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