Did you know that at one time, many books in the U.S. were actually published by their authors? It wasn’t until book publishing consolidated in response to industrialization and grew into a national industry that publishing your own work fell into disrepute. Eventually it came to be seen as the last-gasp effort of writers who couldn’t find publishers willing to put money behind their manuscripts.
But technology doesn’t care about what came before, and there’s no better example of this than the incredible resurgence of interest in self-publishing—and the rapidly disappearing stigma against it. In recent years, book publishing has been thrown into a state of almost constant change by three disruptive advances: the spread of the Internet, the rise of digital printing and print-on-demand distribution, and the mass adoption of e-books. These factors will continue to remake the publishing world in more profound ways than anything since the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago. And while the opportunities presented are exciting, the abundance of constantly shifting options can be overwhelming.
—by Joel Friedlander
So what’s a writer to do now? That’s the question that confronts you when, having read the amazing stories of authors who’ve made it on their own, you start to consider taking the leap into self-publishing. Here are four simple strategies to help you on your way.
Evaluate the latest options to find the best approach for your individual needs.
What is the dream you have for your book, or for your writing career? What exactly would make your book a success in your own eyes? Do you see this as a sprint for the top, or a well-plotted journey that could take years?
No one can answer these questions for you, but they’re critical to consider before you take even one step. For some writers the goal will be personal—perhaps publishing a book for a small group of people. Others won’t be satisfied with anything less than a New York Times bestseller. Today, self-publishing can be an appealing option for new writers determined to build a career from their books as well as for established authors who want to gain more control over their work. Understanding your goals and expectations is the most important thing you can do for yourself. You can’t set off on a journey if you don’t know your destination.
Aim to identify three things:
1. Who is your ideal reader?
2. What kind of books does she buy?
3. Where are most of those books sold?
When you answer these ultra-simple questions, you’re well on your way to figuring out the end goal of your book publishing. And your answers will come back into play later on.
Basic Printing Methods
For lots of authors, publishing means holding a copy of the finished book in their hands, and nothing else will do. And most books sold are printed books, though e-books continue to gain ground. (Editor’s Note: For more on your digital publishing options, turn to Page 23.) For print books, you’ll be looking at two main printing options: digital print on demand and offset printing.
You’re a good candidate for print on demand if: Your book is a standard size, its format doesn’t rely on photographs or other illustrations that have to be reproduced with great fidelity, and/or you don’t anticipate widely distributing your book to brick-and-mortar stores. In this method, you’ll simply need to upload files for your interior and cover to a print-on-demand vendor, and you’ll never have to pay for a big print run or to store cartons of books. The downside is that because your title will be printed as needed to fulfill orders, rather than produced in bulk, your books will be more expensive to make, reducing your profit per copy—but you won’t be risking thousands of dollars on a print run, and once your book is set up the process becomes automated. Every time a book is sold the profit is credited to your account, generating regular checks to you.
Ranging widely in size and scope, POD providers are easy to find online and by searching advertisements in magazines like this one. Two of the largest are CreateSpace (createspace.com/products/book), a division of Amazon that caters to solo entrepreneurs and low-cost startups alike with its offerings of online help and community resources, and Lulu (lulu.com), which has operated worldwide since 2002. Many subsidy publishers (more on that in a minute) also utilize POD technology.
You’re a good candidate for offset printing if: You plan on producing an odd-size book, or one that needs special paper or nonstandard binding; your book relies heavily on the inclusion of artwork; and/or you plan a campaign to put your book into stores nationwide (in which case you’ll also need to sign with a book distributor). In this model you’ll have to contract with a printer, and your initial print run will likely cost at least $2,000 … and possibly quite a bit more.
Although the steps you’ll go through are almost identical in getting your book ready to print either way, the financial model, the level of risk and the kinds of books that can be produced vary widely between these two options.
Main Approaches to “Self”-Publishing
There are three basic paths that authors take in creating their books, and you should consider each one.
1. Do it yourself: There are lots of tasks you’re going to be doing yourself regardless of how you go about producing your book. But some authors enjoy taking a truly DIY approach to the entire process, including the challenge of trying to produce beautifully edited pages and attractive covers. While lots of authors take this route, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good choice. It may look simple, but book production is actually quite technical and requires a specialized kind of expertise. So think back to the goal you established for yourself up front. If getting there is going to require impressing critics, agents, publishers or book buyers, be aware that you run the risk of looking like an amateur if you “hire yourself” to do these tasks.
2. Hire professional help: If you want to create a book that looks truly professional, you’ll almost certainly have to hire professionals to work on it. You’ll need at minimum a good editor and a competent book designer. Down the road, you can also consider seeking assistance with tasks like designing your website and marketing the finished product.
3. Subsidy publishing: For authors who simply want to hand their manuscript over to someone else, there are many firms happy to produce your book from start to finish using their in-house editing, design and printing services. Although these full-service companies can seem attractive, observe the advice of the ancients: caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.” Research the packages offered (which can be considerably expensive) as well as the terms of any agreement you plan to enter into, and reach out to other authors who’ve published with those companies to be sure they’ve had positive experiences. The principal problem you may face with books produced by subsidy publishers is that you typically don’t have control over the price, and can easily end up with a book priced so high it can’t be sold competitively. So do your homework.
Resources to Help You on Your Way
- aeonix.com: One of the Internet’s most comprehensive lists of offset and digital POD book printers.
- The Independent Publishing Magazine: This online hub offers reviews and ratings of all kinds of publishing services, from POD companies to subsidy publishers. mickrooney.blogspot.com/p/author-
- LinkedIn Publishing Groups: Within this underused resource, you’ll find dozens of discussion groups with thousands of members. You can ask questions, get referrals to suppliers and network for joint ventures. linkd.in/fQkvxd
- Lightning Source: If you’re serious about entrepreneurial publishing—meaning you plan to publish a number of titles and/or want to set your business up as a publisher—this division of Ingram Content Group is a leading choice for hardcover and paperback book printing and POD distribution. www1.lightningsource.com/benefits_small.aspx
- The Indie Author Guide by April L. Hamilton (Writer’s Digest Books): A resource for those looking to publish as independently as possible.
Put together a publishing team.
The next step is to find the kind of professional help you need to create a book that is in line with your goals. If you’re not looking to compete head-to-head with books from larger publishers, then find the kind of assistance that makes sense for your budget. (For instance, instead of hiring a professional editor you might enlist someone you know who has a good command of English to check your manuscript for obvious errors.) But if your goal is to create a book that will compete for buyers with the books from big publishers, you’d be well advised to hire professionals to collaborate on it. Fortunately for you, downsized publishing companies have made sure there are more freelance editors and designers available to work on your book than ever before.
You might start with a developmental editor to help shape the book, copy editors to correct the final manuscript and proofreaders to review the text after the layout is complete. Be sure to consult with editors familiar with your kind of book—many editors have specialties, and you don’t want a romance editor working on your snowboarding book.
Then, you’ll want a book designer to create a readable and properly organized interior and a cover that will attract the attention of your intended readers.
Resources to Help You on Your Way
- Editors’ Organizations: Groups maintain searchable databases of their members organized by specialty. Look for an organization based in your region (the San Francisco Bay Area Editors’ Forum [editorsforum.org] is a good example) or start your search with a broader-reaching hub such as the Editorial Freelancers Association (the-efa.org) or Editors’ Association of Canada (editors.ca).
- 99designs.com: This community of designers will give you a wide variety of choices at a fixed price when it comes time to do your book cover.
- elance.com: This site makes it easy to post jobs and look for talent for exactly what you need.
Seek support & knowledge from the self-publishing community.
Many writers are surprised to find that it’s not that simple to publish your own book. There are lots of details to be decided on, details you might not have previously given any thought to. Is the matte cover better than a gloss finish? Does it matter what paper you use on the interior? Will your POD supplier give you an ISBN for free—and if so, should you take it?
All of these questions have been faced by many authors before you—which makes forums and community discussion areas great places to start asking questions. You’ll find lots of people who are ahead of you in the process, and whose experiences are fresh and up to date—and the information they share can give you a crucial advantage (and save you time) in producing your own books.
There are also popular bloggers who detail their own self-publishing efforts in hopes of helping others stay
current with recent developments. A few to try: J.A. Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (jakonrath.blogspot.com), Bob Mayer’s Write It Forward (writeitfor
ward.wordpress.com), David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital (davidgaughran.wordpress.com) and Dean Wesley Smith’s self-titled site (deanwesleysmith.com).
Resources to Help You on Your Way
- The Book Marketing Network: This site is home to over 7,000 authors, editors, marketers and others associated with indie publishing. thebookmarketingnetwork.com
- Self-Publishing Yahoo! Group: Online since 2000, this is a gold mine of collective expertise from more than 3,000 members—and you’re welcome to ask questions. finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/self-publishing
- SPAWN: The Yahoo! membership list for the Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network (spawn.org) is especially beginner-friendly. groups.yahoo.com/group/spawndiscuss
- Absolute Write Self-Publishing and POD Forum: A discussion among a large and active community of writers. absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=219
- CreateSpace Community Forums: You don’t have to publish with CreateSpace to benefit from this valuable crowd-sourced resource. createspace.com/en/community/community/resources
- selfpublishingreview.com: Authors, designers, editors and others involved in self-publishing frequent this site for book and publisher reviews, news and more.
- publetariat.com: Here, you’ll find both community and information on independent publishing.
- thecreativepenn.com: Maintained by author and consultant Joanna Penn, this site dedicated to “helping you write, publish and sell your book” is full of useful articles for writers looking to become published authors.
Be your own best marketer.
Being an author today—no matter who publishes your book—means you’ll be responsible for most of your own marketing and promotion. While this may seem intimidating, the truth is there’s no better advocate for your work than you. No one knows better who the book was written for, what readers ought to be able to get from it, and how to reach those people. And understanding the needs and motivations of your potential readers will go a long way in helping you decide where and how to market your book.
You’ll likely find that some of the best places to do your marketing aren’t the usual big social media sites, but niche sites, places like discussion groups and forums that bring together people with similar interests. Self-publishing has a long history as an effective method of delivering information and entertainment to niche audiences. It’s much easier (and more effective) for a solo entrepreneur to address a small niche market than it is to try to sell to all the bookstores in the U.S. The savviest strategy is to target a specific audience, research where those people hang out, and then reach out to them by writing articles, blogging, making personal appearances and placing targeted advertisements.
Self-published authors can also benefit from the vast universe of book bloggers and reviewers online, offering an ongoing opportunity to keep introducing your book to new networks of readers. The choices can be overwhelming; start with those closest to your genre or subject matter, and work outward from there.
Another way to boost your book’s visibility is through annual book awards for independently published titles. Consider whether or not the entry fees could be a wise expenditure for you. Among some of the most established contests are the Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards (independentpublisher.com), Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Benjamin Franklin Awards (ibpa-online.org/pubresources/benfrank.aspx) and Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards (writersdigest.com/competitions/selfpublished). The formal recognition could be just the boost you need.
Resources to Help You on Your Way
- bookmarket.com: A vast collection of book marketing resources from longtime self-publisher John Kremer.
- boardreader.com: A site providing a handy way to search forums and bulletin boards by keywords and categories.
- Book Blogs: A huge community of over 15,000 book bloggers and reviewers—and a marketing bonanza for online authors. bookblogs.ning.com
- IBPA Marketing Programs for Self-Publishers: Promotional opportunities exclusive to IBPA members. ibpa-online.org/programs/programs.aspx
- Self-Published Book Awards: A comprehensive list of awards open to self-published books. thebookdesigner.com/book-awards