Skip to main content

Should I Self-Publish? - Part Two

In the previous post in this series, I discussed how we each have a great project buried in our computers, notebooks, or desk drawers that would make for a fun self-publishing project as opposed to a traditionally published book. Some things just weren’t meant for Random House. And while the small press world is dynamic and growing every day, sometimes you just want complete control. But remember, self-publishing isn’t a shortcut to success, and it still requires a lot of work. A LOT. If you’re not willing to learn some technical aspects of publishing along the way, self-publishing is not going to be a fun or inexpensive time for you.

I say approach the project with the sense that you’re doing it for fun, for the experience, and if greatness befalls that little book-o-yours, all the better. As the New York lotto jingle goes, “Hey, you never know.”

Here are a few tips I picked up along the way to help you prime your book for the best possible chance for success. These tips will focus more on the putting-together aspect of the self-publishing process. I’ll have more tips on what to do once you made your book in Part Three (coming soon).

Money In, Not Money Out (aka, POD is Your Friend)

Print on Demand (POD) has always been the way to go when it comes to self-publishing, in my opinion. Sure, if you have an extra five grand in the swear jar on top of your fridge, then go for the other options where you pay a lump sum up front and a publisher will edit, design, distribute, and maybe even market your book for you. But I don’t personally know a single soul who has that extra cash, so the various POD options where you still have to pony up a little money for things like ISBNs (POD publishers offer some inexpensive choices here) and proof copies is a far less expensive route for everyone involved.

Work in Your Trim Size

When you submit your book to the POD publisher (if that’s your choice), you’ll need to submit the Word document pre-seized to match your future book’s trim size (6 x 9, 5.25 x 8, etc.). You can adjust this by clicking File then Page Setup. You’ll have to adjust all margins and gutters to meet the different requirements requested by the publisher, too. Do this the very first time you compile all of your poems, short stories, essays, or whatever and work in that trim size for the rest of the project. Altering the size and margins means everything shifts in funky ways, and you want to clean that up on the outset.

Set Your Table (of Contents) With the Fine China

Your book needs a TOC, and it better not look half-baked by trying to format one manually. They’re pretty simple to insert. In Word, click on Insert, then Index and Tables, and you’ll be able to set one up. Be sure your cursor is on the page where you want it to appear. Also, for each heading and subheading you want in your TOC, you’ll have to go through your book, highlight the chapter header with the cursor, and change that style to “Heading 1” or “Heading 2” for subheads in the TOC, etc. You may need to manually change the font and size of the chapter title back to match the rest of your book, but as long as you tagged it as a Heading, it will appear when you create your TOC. If you get confused, Google “How to Create a TOC in Word.” Google knows all. Even the NSA knows that.

Get Cozy with PDFs

You may need to convert your files to a PDF at some point (do this at the very end). Newer versions of Word will allow you to do this, but some older ones are a little cranky. There are some sites online that offer to convert them, but I found the easiest thing is to download Apache OpenOffice. It reads a wide variety of Word-like programs and lets you convert them into any of the others, PDFs, JPEGS, etc., with just a click. But always review a document after you convert it. Things always shift. Always.

Get Thee to a Gallery

Hiring an artist to design your cover is wise, but it can be expensive. Designing it yourself from scratch is tricky unless you’re a Photoshop and InDesign pro. And even then, it can come out looking like a mes. If you don’t know what you’re doing, seek help, ask students in a local art or design program, ask other writer friends, or at least don’t start from scratch.

I personally know enough of each program to get by, but I always buy a piece of art to work from. For my latest collection of short stories (The Cards We Keep) I wanted a playing card themed cover and looked through artwork at both Saatchi Online (for fine artists) and deviantART (for more illustrative and graphic design stylings). That’s where I found Emmanuel Jose, who creates his own custom playing cards and posts images of them online. I saw one I liked, emailed him, we worked out a simple one-time use contract for the image for cash and copies, and presto, I had a cover I loved that I added some text to in Photoshop to complete the image. Check out those art sites and see if there’s an artist who speaks to what you’re writing about. Reach out and see where it goes. And always offer to pay. Artists need to eat, too.

Careful With That Template, Eugene

Any Pink Floyd fans out there? Yes, no? Anyway, much like the song, trying to upload your cover to a publisher can quickly turn into a nightmare scenario. I tried uploading a cover I created and every thumbnail, digital proof, and printed proof came out off-center and cockeyed. After following differing guidelines on cover creation at one POD website and getting zero technical help from their customer service center, I decided to stop trying to go it alone and I used their online template designer.

If you start your cover from scratch using just their templates, your book will look generic. If you’ve created some files using artwork and design software at home, you should be able to find the one “blank” template they’ll have hidden in their assortment of styles. Use that, upload your art, make the necessary tweaks, and that should be the easiest route to get what you were hoping for. Once I did that, my cover was centered and clear. If I did that starting out, it would have saved me weeks of work.

Assemble Your Cabinet of Rivals

Ok, “rivals” might be a strong word, but this tip is common sense. Before you click that pretty green “Publish Now” button, make sure you had a few rounds of reviews. Hire someone (or ask someone you trust) to read it just for content. Do the poems make people want to jump off a bridge? Do your stories lack punch? Is the dialogue shaky? Is your memoir jumbled and confusing? Get someone who will tell you what is wrong, not what is right. Don’t look for a pat on the back, look for a kick in the butt. You want this to be perfect, so fix those faults.

Next, hire someone to proofread the book. Don’t do this yourself. Writers never ever ever catch all of their own mistakes. Specifically ask this person to just look for typos and punctuation. The nuts and bolts. And ask someone who actually knows what those nuts and bolts look like. Your aunt who reads a lot but really has no proofreading training won’t cut it. Neither will your son who is an English lit major at UCLA. That’s all fine and good that they want to help, but you need someone who has some proofreading battle scars. This is war, and you want Rambo riding shotgun, not Beetle Bailey.

You can do a last pass yourself, especially if you haven’t read the book in a while. Don’t change much at this point, unless you want to start the proofing process over again, but make sure you’re in love with the book before you say your final “I Do.”

Have any other technical tips to share? Add them below! In Part Three, I’ll speak a little bit to the various things you can do after you have copies of your self-published book in hand. And more specifically, things you should have done before that point to help you make your book a success.


James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 614

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a summer poem.

Give Your Characters a Psych Eval

Give Your Fictional Characters a Psych Eval

TV writer, producer, and novelist Joshua Senter explains why characters can do absolutely anything, but it's important to give them a psych eval to understand what can lead them there.

Writer's Digest Presents podcast image

Writer's Digest Presents: Vacation Reads (Podcast, Episode 6)

In the sixth episode of the Writer's Digest Presents podcast, we talk about what makes for a good vacation read, plus a conversation with authors Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser and our first ever WD Book Club selection from debut author Grace D. Li.

Trend Chaser

Trend Chaser

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, an attempt to join an online trend has gone wrong.