What I’ve Learned After Self-Publishing 8 Books

Have you ever entertained the idea that someday you’ll write a book? But does the process of taking your writing from thoughts scribbled in a notebook or typed into your computer to an attractive, published product seem overwhelming? There’s so much to know and do, it can easily seem intimidating.

Regardless of whether you have a finished manuscript or have only taken a few stabs at it here and there, this article will guide you along that path. Hopefully, it will answer some of your questions and others you may not have thought to ask. Most importantly, I hope this article encourages and motivates you to move forward and do it!

There are many ways to publish a book. You will probably make different choices than I did, which is perfectly fine. Other authors might have different advice based on their experiences. But I hope you find some of my experience and advice useful.

Let me start by asking you a few questions. How you answer these questions will inform many of your choices later.

What do you hope to accomplish with your book?

Do you hope your book will top the New York Times bestseller list? Do you envision seeing your book proudly displayed on a table inside the entrance of bookstores across the country? Do you dream of cross-country book tours and appearances on popular talk shows?

Or are you writing your book just for the satisfaction of writing it? If you’re writing your memoirs or your family history or creating a collection of your poetry, recipes, jokes, etc., you may have no plans to sell it to the public. You’ll only order some author copies and give them to your family and friends as gifts.

Or do you fall somewhere in between? You’re realistic enough to know that your book probably won’t be a bestseller, but you hope to sell at least enough copies to recoup the cost of producing it.

If you’re a professional speaker, trainer, or consultant, you might regard your book as a way to establish greater credibility in your field. After all, if you’ve written a book you must be an expert, right? You can sell it at a table in the lobby or give it to attendees with the cost wrapped into your speaker fee or the fee people pay to attend the event.

In any case, being clear and realistic about how many copies of your book you’ll probably sell will help you answer many of the questions below. Reality check: Not to discourage you, but you probably won’t sell as many as you think.

Who is your audience?

If you think the answer to this question is “Everyone!”, please think again. No book is for everyone. Your book is probably not going to be of interest to both a teenage girl and a 90-year-old retiree; a CEO and a prison inmate; an urban gay artist and a rural, conservative farmer.

Having a clear picture of your target audience will inform the voice with which you write your book and how you promote it. The more specific you can be about your audience, the better.

Here’s an important point: Don’t assume all your friends will buy your book. Some will, but most will not. Don’t take that personally. As I said above, no book is for everyone. They may not enjoy books in your genre. They may not read books at all. I have friends who write murder mysteries and sci-fi. I’m just not into those genres. I may buy a couple of their books to support them and perhaps to pick up some tips from their writing style, but I’m probably not going to buy all of their books and read them.

Will your book be published by a traditional publisher, an indie publisher, or yourself?

I cover this topic in greater depth in this post, but here is the short version.

A traditional publisher will give you the most resources regarding professional editing, cover design, formatting, and wide distribution. You’ll also make the smallest royalty per book, have the least artistic control, and wait the longest between when you submit your manuscript and the book is released (often a year to a year and a half). You must be represented by an agent for your book to be considered by a major publisher. Agents are the gatekeepers of access to the major publishers. Be prepared to spend months querying agents and receive many rejection letters. Even if an agent agrees to represent you, there’s no guarantee that a publishing house will accept your book. Oh, and the agent gets 15% of your earnings.

Independent (indie) presses are a middle ground. You can submit your work directly to the publisher without an agent. You’ll make a higher royalty per book, but the indie press may not have the same marketing and distribution resources as a major publisher. An indie publisher who specializes in your genre or reaches your target audience (for example, an LGBTQ publisher for LGBTQ authors and books) may be a better fit than a major publisher. Lead times for indie publishers are usually six to twelve months.

Finally, there’s self-publishing. You can approach this in either of two ways. You can hire a publishing house to format your book, perhaps create the cover art, upload your book to Amazon and other distributors, and perhaps do a minimal amount of marketing. The company charges a flat fee to do this work for you. A friend of mine uses Book Baby*, which costs around $400. Different companies do different amounts of work for you and are priced accordingly.

The alternative is complete self-publishing, where you do everything yourself. This is what I do. This requires the most time and skill, but you’re not paying anyone else. Self-publishing a book on Amazon is completely free. You only pay for the author copies you order, at cost plus tax and shipping.

I will devote the rest of this article to giving you the knowledge and suggestions you’ll need to publish your book yourself.

Which format(s) should I choose?

This depends on the type of book you’re writing and the intended audience.

In most cases, you’ll want to release your book as a paperback. They’re cheaper to produce than hardcover books and most buyers will appreciate the lower cost.

However, some books are better suited to hardcover, such as children’s books, textbooks, books that will be retained for a long time (such as family history books), and books you hope will be carried by libraries.

If your audience is mostly seniors, you may want to consider a large print edition.

EBooks are usually a good choice, except for children’s books, textbooks, and books with lots photographs or illustrations.

Audiobooks are a good choice for some genres and audiences. This is an example of why it’s so important to define your audience as clearly as you can. You’ll need to hire a professional narrator at a cost of at least a few hundred dollars, often higher. You should only do this if you can reasonably expect to sell enough audiobooks to cover the cost, or if you don’t mind spending the money. You should only attempt to record an audiobook yourself if you have an excellent speaking voice, a high-quality microphone, good recording and editing software, and a noise-free, acoustically sound recording environment.

Should I publish my book on Amazon and/or other companies?

You should definitely publish on Amazon (a.k.a. Kindle Digital Publishing, or KDP). Even if you despise Jeff Bezos and resent Amazon for driving so many brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, Amazon is where the vast majority of people buy books. I do 95% of my volume through Amazon. Some of my successful author friends use only Amazon.

The KDP website has thorough instructions on how to do everything related to publishing on Amazon. Take some time to explore the website and you’ll find lots of useful information. One important point: On the page where you set the paperback book’s prices, do not check the box for Expanded Distribution. If you plan to sell your books beyond Amazon, use IngramSpark (below).

But what else is there? While Amazon is the king of print-on-demand sales directly to consumers, there are others, such as Barnes & Noble. I have published my books (paperback and eBook) on Barnes & Noble’s website, but have had very few sales.

All sales of your physical books (paperback and hardcover) to bookstores, libraries, and online sellers other than Amazon are handled by IngramSpark. IngramSpark is a wholesaler; it does not sell directly to consumers. You upload the interior of your book and your cover to IngramSpark in much the same way you do with Amazon.

For eBooks, there’s a company called Draft2Digital. You upload your eBook on their website and they will distribute it to practically all eBook vendors, including Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and many others that operate primarily in other countries. You earn a 60% commission and Draft2Digital takes 10%. You could earn the entire 70% commission by opening an account with each of these sellers and dealing with them directly, but it’s probably not worth your time for the few sales you’ll make. Again, Amazon has 95% of the market.

Before I move on, I should mention KDP Select, a.k.a. Kindle Unlimited (KU). Kindle Unlimited is to books what Netflix is to movies and Spotify is to music. Subscribers pay a flat monthly fee and consume as much content as they want. You get paid depending on how many pages people read. The rate varies, but it’s usually around $0.004 per page. People can still buy the entire eBook at the price you set. The biggest consideration is that if you enroll in KDP Select, you cannot sell your eBook on any other platform, including your website. One author friend claims that KU is one of his largest revenue streams. I tried it for three months and felt it didn’t earn enough to offset the revenue lost from not selling my eBooks on other platforms such as Apple and Kobo.

Do I need writing software for my book?

Not necessarily. There’s an app called Scrivner that some authors recommend. I bought it and tried it. It has some advantages, but I’ve found that I can do perfectly well with Word.

If you choose not to use Microsoft Office, there are other Word-like tools such as Google Docs. These tools are fine for capturing your words on paper, but Amazon (a.k.a. Kindle Digital Publishing) prefers a .DOC or .DOCX file for your eBook manuscript and .DOC, .DOCX, or .PDF for your paperback manuscript.

What is an ISBN? Should I buy one?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies your book. This number will be used to generate the barcode on the back of your book, which is required for your book to be scanned at the point of purchase in a bookstore. The ISBN is also how your book is identified in book catalogs and the inventory systems of various distribution channels.

For all physical media, you need an ISBN. You need a separate ISBN for each book format. For example, if you publish your book in paperback, hardcover, and large print formats, you’ll need three ISBNs. You do not need an ISBN for an eBook (at least on Amazon).

You buy ISBNs from Bowker. This is the only source in the US. They will offer to sell you one, 10, 100, and 1,000. The cost per ISBN decreases dramatically the more you buy. You do not need to buy barcodes from Bowker. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IngramSpark will add the barcode to the back of your book.

Amazon, IngramSpark, and any other print and distribution service will offer you the option of using one of their ISBNs. This might seem tempting because you’ll save the cost of buying ISBNs from Bowker. But I strongly recommend buying your own. If you use your ISBN, you can use the same ISBN on Amazon, IngramSpark, and any other printer you might use. You can use an Amazon-provided ISBN only on Amazon, and an IngramSpark-provided ISBN only on IngramSpark. Plus, the book will show as being published by Amazon or Ingram, not by you.

If you’re not planning to sell your book and you will only order some author copies to give away, it’s fine to use an ISBN from Amazon.

Should I hire an editor?

Most websites that offer how-to advice for authors state emphatically that you should hire an editor. In many cases, you should. But it depends on several factors.

How good are you as a writer? Are you an expert at good grammar, spelling, and sentence structure?  Let’s be honest; most of us aren’t quite as good as we think.

It also depends on what you’re writing. If you’re publishing your poetry, jokes, or family recipes, you probably don’t need an editor.

If you know that your book will reach a small, limited audience, an editor probably isn’t economically justifiable. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to publish an amateurish, error-filled book even for a small audience. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

To complicate matters, there are many types of editors. There’s no agreement on how many types there are and how their roles are defined, and their scopes may overlap. But at a high level, here are a few:

  • A Developmental Editor focuses on the “big picture” of the manuscript. He/she looks for plot holes, inconsistencies, and missing information, and suggests improvements in story development, character development, dialog, etc.
  • A Line Editor optimizes content for clarity, style, and tone. Line editors may recommend improvements in sentence structure and choice of words to make the writing clearer and more concise.
  • A Copy Editor focuses on correcting inconsistencies in spelling, capitalization errors, shifts in tense, and similar issues.
  • A Proofreader is primarily concerned with finding mistakes in spelling and punctuation. They are focused on objective quality, not subjective.

If you hire an editor, make sure the editor is clear about which type of editing you are hiring them to do and what your expectations are.

I hired an editor for my three retirement books, but I edited my novels myself. I have found two tools that are extremely helpful regardless of whether you self-edit or hire an editor. One is Grammarly. They offer a free version, but there’s a paid version with more features. Once you install it on your computer, it watches for misspelled words, incorrect verb tenses, extraneous words, clunky phrases, punctuation errors, etc. It’s on duty constantly, whether you are writing your book in Word, composing an email, posting on Facebook, or anywhere else.

The other is Hemingway. You copy and paste your writing onto their website and it will immediately analyze your writing for long, complex sentences, overuse of adverbs, weak language, and passive voice.

These two apps go a long way toward eliminating errors and improving my writing style. Some authors recommend ProWritingAid. I tried it briefly and decided that it overlapped with Grammarly and Hemingway. There are others, along with plenty of articles that rate and rank them.

I have found it immensely helpful to read my book out loud. Not only do I spot typos and missing words more easily, but I can tell when I use the same word too often or when sentences do not flow well.

For my novels, I recruited a team of beta readers. I’ll write about that below, but they were usually diligent about pointing out typos and grammatical errors.

Should I hire a cover artist?

As with hiring an editor, most how-to websites for authors implore you to hire a professional graphic artist to design your cover. That’s excellent advice since the cover is the first thing a potential reader will see. A cheap, amateurish cover will likely be an instant turn-off.

That said, the same economic considerations apply.

I paid a professional graphic artist $400 to design the cover of my first book. She produced an excellent cover. She was also extremely difficult and frustrating to deal with, but that’s another story.

After that experience, I asked myself whether this professionally designed cover resulted in at least $400 more profit than I would have made had I designed the cover myself. I decided it did not. So I have designed all my covers since then. In the process, I have learned a lot about cover design. Here are a few tips:

Cover styles vary significantly by genre. Look at the covers of bestselling books in your genre and you’ll probably notice some common characteristics. For example, children’s books are almost always illustrated with child-like designs in bold colors. Young Adult novels are usually illustrated too, but with more minimalist drawings and softer colors. Romance novels look feminine, with elegant swirling letters. Murder mystery covers are often dark with red accents, and the fonts sometimes have dagger points. Sci-fi novels have bold block letters and cover illustrations with bold colors. Some non-fiction books, such as self-improvement or business books, often have simple clip-art-style illustrations or no illustrations at all – just letters arranged in an eye-catching way.

Avoid using fonts that come installed on your computer. There are a multitude of free fonts available on the internet. Choose an eye-catching font that suits your genre and conveys the mood of your book.

Do not – I repeat – DO NOT assume you can use any image (photograph or illustration) you find on the internet. Every image is a copyrighted work, even if you can’t find a copyright notice. Some websites, such as Unsplash (my favorite), Pixabay, and Pexels, offer free, unrestricted photos and graphics that can be used for any purpose. The creators have released the rights to their work. Others, such as DepositPhotos (the cheapest and my favorite), Shutterstock, and iStock, charge a small licensing fee and offer hundreds of thousands of high-quality images. Use an image from one of these sources to avoid being sued.

What are beta readers, and do I need them?

Beta readers are people to whom you provide a nearly-finished manuscript to solicit their feedback. I use beta readers to get feedback on the “reader experience.” In other words, are there parts of the book that drag or parts that need to be developed further? Are there moments in the story or the dialog that aren’t believable?

I have found that I get the most useful feedback when I communicate clear expectations and ask specific questions. For example, ‘Is Chapter X too long, too short, or the right length?’ or ‘Should I shorten this story element, cut it out entirely, or leave it as is?’

Before I learned to provide clear information about what I wanted, I received vague comments like, “I really loved it!” or the beta readers assumed the role of proofreaders (which was very helpful, but not what I was seeking).

What is a launch team, and do I need one?

A launch team is a group of readers who agree to receive an advance copy of your finished work (usually as a PDF file) in exchange for writing a (presumably favorable) review of it on the day it’s released or as soon thereafter as possible. If they also post about it on their social media accounts, so much the better.

Remember to thank your beta readers and launch team members in the Acknowledgment section of your book.

Do I need a website and an email list?

Yes and yes, in most cases. But again, this depends on the size of the audience you intend to reach and whether you hope to reach people beyond your current friends and family. It also depends on whether you intend to write only one book or plan to write several – or many.

Nowadays, people expect any business or enterprise to have a website. It’s an indication that you’re a legitimate, serious author. It’s a great way for potential readers to learn about you, your work, in what format(s) it’s available, and, most importantly, where they can buy it. You can offer an excerpt of your book, display a few reviews, and offer the opportunity to sign up for your email list.

Since I have created and managed several websites (including AuthorDaveHughes.com and RetireFabulously.com), I opted for a web hosting plan that allows multiple WordPress installations. WordPress is a website creation tool that makes it easy for non-programmers to design their own websites. There’s some skill involved, but it’s pretty easy to learn. I use Hostinger for my web hosting, and I’ve been very pleased. It’s quite inexpensive. Whatever you do, don’t use GoDaddy.

If you don’t want to get that involved, a good option is Google Sites. You can buy a domain name (i.e. YourName.com) from a company such as Hostinger, then redirect it to your Google Site. If you don’t want to do any website development, you can buy a domain name and redirect it to your Amazon author page. You lose a lot of functionality this way, but it does direct people to information about you and your books and, of course, they can buy them – from Amazon.

Regarding email lists, I believe you need to have one if you want your audience to grow beyond the friends and family you already know. Yes, email seems old-fashioned, but it works. Everyone has an email address. You may be tempted to use your social media platform(s) rather than send emails. But not everyone is on social media and they’re not on the same platforms. Besides, social media platforms have their despised algorithms that decide whether your posts even get seen. So while it’s okay to use social media, do this in addition to, not instead of, an email list. And don’t try to be everywhere. Stick to one or two, depending on where your intended audience hangs out.

Send emails (or newsletters) to your list regularly – say, once a week or twice a month. Don’t email them only when you have a new book to sell. In fact, most of your emails shouldn’t be selling something. They should be giving your readers and would-be readers information about you and your upcoming book(s). The purpose of your newsletters is to build connections with people. I highly recommend the book Newsletter Ninja, by Tammi Labrecque to learn how to build an engaged email list.**

Don’t underestimate the importance of letting your readers get to know you. You don’t need to share anything deeply personal, of course, but the more readers connect with you, the more they will become enthusiastic about buying your next books and recommending your books to their friends.

You should use an email management system. Several good ones offer a free plan for smaller lists. A current favorite among authors, bloggers, and others who use email lists is MailerLite. It’s free for lists of up to 1,000 subscribers. I use the lesser-known EmailOctopus, which allows up to 2,500 addresses in their free tier. I’ve been very pleased. MailChimp is no longer favored by many authors (including me) since they have reduced the number of addresses to 500 and removed many features from the free version.

You may be tempted to simply maintain your list of email addresses yourself and send from that. Technically, that’s not legal unless you remember to include verbiage at the bottom of every email that offers people the option to unsubscribe. The email management systems mentioned above do this automatically. Also, it is illegal to add anyone to your email list unless they have signed up to be on the list (either through a form on your website or a paper sign-up list at an event) or they have done business with you (bought a book or downloaded a free giveaway).

Email marketing systems can provide you with an opt-in form to put on your website, automatically send welcome emails to people when they join, and give you statistics for how many emails get opened and how many links get clicked. So use one. The free packages are all you need until you develop a larger list.

How do I promote my book?

That’s a very good question. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Let me know if you do.

Marketing your book is the single most difficult part of writing your book. As mentioned above, not many of your friends and family will buy your book. It’s not because they don’t love you, it’s just… well… they don’t really want it. Please accept that, don’t take it personally, and don’t hold it against them.

As mentioned above, one of the most effective things you can do is to build an email list.

Let’s return to the first question. What do you hope to accomplish with your book? If you’re hoping to reach beyond your family and friends, you have to find ways to market it. A lot depends on how much money you’re willing to spend. If you’re willing to spend some money, Facebook ads and Amazon ads work for some people. If you belong to online forums that match closely with the audience you’re trying to reach, that can help. Be advised that some forums prohibit selling or marketing products on their forums. But you can let people know about your book (both while you’re writing it and after you’re done) without overtly selling it to them. It’s a fine line.

There are many books and online resources for marketing your books. I recommend David Gaughran. Visit his website and subscribe to his weekly newsletter. His website is full of free information and he has a few inexpensive books on how to self-publish and market books. He has a page titled “How to Self-Publish a Book” that goes into far more detail than I have here. He also offers a free book – so snap that up.

Learn as much as you can and start trying things. Again, the better you define your target audience, the better you’ll be able to market to them. But there’s no silver bullet. What works for one genre or audience type may not work for others.

I hope you found this helpful. Even more, I hope this has inspired you to move forward on your journey to publishing your book.

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© 2024 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
Laptop on table: kaboompics
Books on a table: S. Hermann & F. Richter
Printing press: Janet Gooch
Pen and paper: Pixabay
Man reading a book:
Stanislav Kondrashov
Dave speaking at a book release party: Gregg Edelman

How to Publish a Book

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