how to self-publish a book

At this point I’ve gone through pretty much the entire process of self-publishing a book—both as an ebook and as a traditional paperback—and I figured I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject, or what I like to call the Critical Awesomeness self-Publishing Pointers You’d Best Observe, Obey, and Know. Or CRAPPYBOOK, for short.

I kill me.

Anyway, moving on…

Write a book. Pretty obvious, but there are some points worth considering. For one thing, a traditionally published first novel by an unknown author should be right around 80,000 words. But for a self-published author it can be as long or short as you want it. Plus, when you don’t have to worry about impressing an agent or publisher you have the complete freedom to be as much of an “artiste” as you wish. You can write something as “unique”, “groundbreaking”, and “exceptional” as your heart desires, and you don’t have to worry about it being shot down by some stupid elitist agent or publisher.

Just don’t be surprised when no one wants to buy it.

Formatting. A traditional manuscript has fairly rigid guidelines you should follow. Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins, a specifically formatted cover page, etc. Anne Mini’s Blog Author! Author! gives fantastic advice on formatting a manuscript for submission to a literary agent—and on every other aspect of submission as well, really. AgentQuery also has some good no-nonsense formatting tips.

Surprisingly, writers who plan to self-publish should also follow pretty strict guidelines—and not necessarily the same ones you’d follow if you were planning on submitting your manuscript to an agent. Whether you plan to self-publish your work as and ebook or paperback—or both—it’s best to format it the same way to begin with. Because you may change your mind later, and it’s a huge pain to go back and reformat everything, so you might as well start with a simple and easy-to-convert format from the beginning.

Mark Coker of Smashwords has written an excellent style guide for formatting an ebook. The Word for Kindle Guide is also extremely useful. For the paperback, CreateSpace has excellent resources on their site, and I’d also recommend reading this.

I could write an entire blog post just on formatting, but I’d basically just be taking stuff I learned from the links I just posted and passing it off as my own knowledge. If anyone wants more details on my personal experience just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to respond, but there are far greater experts out there on the internet than I.

Editing. Professional editing is one of the major advantages of going through a traditional publisher, and like it or not the reputation of self-published books is that they’re a mess of poorly-edited nightmare fuel. You can hire a freelance editor even if you self-publish, but is it worth it? If you’re like me, the answer is no. If people are going to assume it’s poorly edited anyway, why bother? But if you are like me, you’re probably not as good of a self-editor as you think you are, so you’re going to need at least five or six anal-retentive friends you can count on to read through your manuscript and check it for mistakes and typos. And even after they’re finished with it there will almost certainly remain grammatical, structural, style, plot, character, and punctuation errors. Such is the nature of self-publishing.

The Cover. Even an ebook needs a cover. If you have access to an artist, utilize them! A self-made, amateurish cover makes potential readers cringe instinctively, and since you’ll be self-marketing as well as self-publishing, you want your cover to look as professional as possible. I designed the cover of my book myself because I wanted to go through every aspect of self-publishing a book on my own for the sake of experience, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see another book cover designed by me.

Publish! Well, self-publish, anyway. Once you’ve got your manuscript formatted and edited and your cover is ready to go, it’s time to pick your means of sharing your creativity and awesomeness with the world. Amazon and Smashwords are the big names for ebooks (as far as I know), and Lulu and CreateSpace are the big names for paperbacks (again, as far as I know). I went with both Amazon and Smashwords for the ebook because Amazon is probably the most well-known ebook retailer, but Smashwords “ships” ebooks to Sony, Barnes & Noble, and many other retailers. I went with CreateSpace for the paperback, but I’m thinking about self-publishing a collection of short stories with Lulu, just to see how their services compare.

Both Amazon and Smashwords give you 60-70% of the profits from every sale, which is a damn good deal considering how they basically host and catalogue your books for free. They let you set the price as well. I’ve set mine at $2.99, which means I get about $2.00 for ever sale I make, which is pretty sweet, really.

The deal with paperbacks is slightly less good. Again I get to set the price, but I’m required to set it at above $14.00 just for the publisher to break even. If I set it at $14.99, I make 25 cents per copy. If I set it at $15.99, I make 85 cents. Don’t ask me how that works.

Shameless Self-Promotion. The other big drawback to self-publishing is that you are 100% responsible for getting people to buy your book. Which means you have to be getting your message out there constantly, with Facebook, Twitter, blogging, book bloggers, forums, email signatures, lurking in alleyways, etc.

I…I can’t do this. I just can’t bring myself to go around and tell people that they should buy my crappy book. The other night I went out with a couple of guys I met on the internet (no, it’s not what you’re thinking) and somehow I got on the topic of my book. I explained the premise, and one of the guys said he’d actually be interested in reading it. So I told him I’d email him a PDF copy. I just couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well, you can buy it from Amazon or Smashwords for the low low price of $2.99.” I just couldn’t do it.

Also, I fucking hate twitter.

Okay, I did create a page on Facebook and a blog specifically to promote the book, but I only did so as part of the learning process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel like a filthy, dirty book-whore. But the fact is, if you want to sell copies of your book, people are going to need to know it exists, and for that you’re going to need an internet presence, and some kind of platform, such as a blog or webpage. And that sucks if you’re like me and aren’t too fond of shameless self-promotion, but that’s just the way it is.

Book Bloggers. Book bloggers are, as the name implies, bloggers who read books and then blog about them. This is great for a self-publisher, as the New York Times isn’t exactly going to be reviewing your unedited self-published masterpiece any time soon. Surprisingly, positive reviews from book bloggers actually can skyrocket you to fame and fortune. That’s how Amanda Hocking did it. Unfortunately, most book bloggers aren’t too keen on reviewing self-published books either because of their reputation for lack of quality. As far as I can tell, the only way around this is to join a lot of reading and writing forums, make personal relationships, and then gently broach the subject. Basically, whore yourself out. Metaphorically.

Or literally, if you think that would work.

Note: DO NOT get your friends to give you 5-star reviews on Amazon. People are catching on to this. When a self-published book has twelve 5-star reviews from people who haven’t reviewed any other book, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. And this can backfire on you big time. Don’t do this. Trust me.

And yeah, a friend of mine did give me a 5-star review on Amazon, but I didn’t ask him to. But aside from the 5-star part, he actually did do a really good job of describing the book.

And finally….

Write your ass off. Some people seem to think that anyone can bypass the traditional publishing industry and rocket to million-dollar stardom through self-publishing. Hell, a 26-year-old girl did it in a year. Well, apparently these people didn’t read the fine print. If you read Amanda’s own account, she’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and sometimes she writes 9-12 hours a day. And no, she didn’t really just do it all in a year. She took writing classes, she submitted her work to agents, she took the advice agents gave her along with the rejection letters they sent, and she constantly worked to improve her writing ability. She’s also hired professional editors and cover designers. And now, in spite of all her self-publishing success, she’s signing on with a traditional publisher.

So yeah, you can have a lot of fun with self-publishing, but it’s not some kind of magic ticket to success. A lot of people have tried to do exactly what Amanda’s done, and still they toil in obscurity. If there were a single guaranteed route to success, everyone would be taking it. There are a lot of factors you can’t control, and for sure not everyone will succeed.

But if you want to maximize your chances, you have to read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot, and take a lot of criticism.

And you should probably be reading someone else’s blog besides mine.


About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

2 Responses to how to self-publish a book

  1. John Aon says:

    You should add Don’t start fights with people who’ve given your book a bad review to the list.

    I’ll try and find the link to a book review where the author starts a comment fight with the reviewer about how he didn’t review it properly. Very amusing read.

    • Is it the one about, um, “Greek Seamen”, and the lady says something like, “Look at your ball, all of you!”

      Because that one was hilarious.

      But yeah, there’s definitely lots of other stuff that should be on that list, but I cut it short because the blog post was already starting to get a little long.

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