Many of my ghostwriting clients are aware of self-publishing but aren’t sure how it works. They wonder what steps are involved, how difficult it is, and what does it cost?
Here’s a brief look at self-publishing, based on the questions clients have asked me.
#1 – What are the self-publishing steps?
In other words, what does it take to turn a manuscript into a finished book that people can read or listen to? Generally, it involves these steps:
- Cleaning – Editing and proofreading the manuscript to ensure the writing is entertaining and/or enlightening, as well as error-free.
- Designing – Creating attractive and informative front and back covers, arranging the interior design with the appropriate font style and size, placement of pictures and other images, and otherwise making the book attractive and easy to read.
- Printing/digitizing – Printing physical copies of the book and/or making digital files that people can read or listen to.
- Placing – Making it available for purchase or as a giveaway via brick-and-mortar bookstores, online stores, libraries, and other venues.
- Marketing – Creating awareness of your book through marketing and/or advertising.
These steps can be embellished or added to, but that’s self-publishing in a nutshell.
#2 – Do I have to work with an editor and proofreader?
Yes. Do not skip this step! If your book is riddled with typos, grammatical errors, inconsistent logic, or storylines that stutter and wander, you will lose both your credibility and potential readers.
Major standard publishers handle the editing and proofreading for you. But when you self-publish, it’s up to you to make sure it’s done, and done right.
For more, see “Copy Editor or Proofreader: What’s the Difference?” To get an idea of pricing, see “What Does It Cost to Edit a Book?”
#3 – How do I actually “do” self-publishing?
There are a couple of approaches:
- DIY – You can literally do all the steps yourself, including designing your own cover, creating the interior design, printing the book at a local copy shop, delivering copies to bookstores, and so on.
- Hire individual experts – You can hire a proofreader, cover designer, interior designer, marketer, and other experts to handle their pieces of the publishing process. You are responsible for directing and paying them, as well as coordinating their activities.
- All-in-one – You can pay for the services of a “turnkey” self-publishing company that does everything for you, such as Xlibris or Lulu.
- A combination of the above – You might, for example, use a self-publishing company to edit your manuscript, design the cover and interior, and list it on Amazon, but handle the rest of the distribution and all of the marketing on your own.
#4 – If I use a self-publishing company, does it become the publisher?
You can hire firms such as Outskirts Press and Archway Publishing to handle the editing and cover design, print and sell it, and send you royalties as the book sells. Given all this work, it may seem as if they’re the publisher. But that’s not the case.
If you’re paying, you’re the publisher!
This is a very important point: The publisher is the one who pays the bills and makes the decisions.
This means that self-publishing companies do not really publish your book. They simply handle a “bundle of chores” for you.
A standard publisher such as Simon & Schuster pays to turn your manuscript into a polished and printed book, pays to distribute it to physical and online bookstores and other sales outlets, and pays to market it. It may also give you an advance payment as an inducement to let them publish and profit from your book. (Think of this as a down payment on future royalties.)
A self-publishing company won’t pay for any of these things; that’s your responsibility. The company may provide you with valuable services, but since you are footing the bill, they are not the publisher.
Ask yourself who is paying and you’ll know who is publishing.
#5 – What about those books I see on Amazon published by Xlibris and other self-publishing firms?
This has to do with the ISBN, or international standard book number. Whoever supplies the ISBN is the “publisher of record.”
Self-publishing companies often give authors a free ISBN or make it a part of the packages they sell. This makes them the publisher of record. The author may allow the company to call itself the publisher for various reasons, such as having the use of a “publisher’s name” on the spine of the book, rather than her own name.
But being “publisher of record” is not the same thing as being the actual publisher. Remember, the publisher is the one who pays the bills.
#6 – Should I get my own ISBN?
You must have an ISBN in order to sell your book in bookstores, via Amazon, and through most other venues.
You must also have a different ISBN for each edition and “version” of your book—hardcover, softcover, e-book, and so on.
It’s possible that your self-publisher, if you use one, will get an ISBN for you or sell one to you. You can also purchase an ISBN directly from Bowker, the official source for ISBNs in the U.S.
Generally speaking, it’s better to purchase the ISBN. If you use one given to you by a self-publishing firm, you may not be able to “move that number” to a different selling venue. For example, if Self-Publishing Company A gives you an ISBN and, at some point, you decide to list your book on Company B’s website, you may be forced to get a second ISBN for the same book. This can create confusion. People will wonder if it’s the same book or not.
If at all possible, get your own ISBNs.
#7 – Is Amazon a publisher?
You can certainly publish your book through Amazon. But Amazon acts as a retailer that offers assistance with publication.
You’re still paying the bills and making the decisions, which means you are the publisher.
#8 – Do I need to print and send copies of my book to Amazon for distribution?
You can, but you don’t have to. There are several ways to sell on Amazon:
- You print and send for storage – You hire a printer to print copies of your book and send them to an Amazon warehouse, where they are stored. Amazon displays your book on its website and takes orders, shipping books to customers as orders come in. You pay Amazon a fee for the space rental and another fee for each book they pack and send.
- You fulfill orders – Amazon displays your book on their website and takes orders, which are passed on to you. You pack and ship the books yourself. Amazon may charge you a monthly fee for its services, depending on the seller’s program you select, and also takes a fee from each of your orders. But you don’t pay a storage fee to Amazon, because you have the books.
- Have someone else fulfill orders – You hire a “turnkey” self-publisher, such as Author House, to print and receive orders for your book. Amazon displays your book on its website and takes orders, passing the orders on to your self-publisher, which prints, packs, and ships your books. The self-publisher deducts the costs and its fee from your royalty.
- Go with POD – POD stands for Print on Demand, meaning that books aren’t printed until they are ordered. You upload your manuscript and book cover files to Amazon. They handle it from there, taking orders and printing, packing, and shipping your book. Since no books are stored, you don’t need to rent warehouse space.
#9 – Is Amazon’s POD service any good?
It’s good for many books, but not good enough for others.
With standard printing, you can choose from various paper sizes, types, and colors. You can also select from many types of book covers and other options. In short, you can get almost anything you are willing to pay for.
With Amazon’s POD, your choices are limited. For example, there are only a few paper colors to choose from, and you cannot insert pages of glossy paper in the book for photographs. If you would like to have a lot of options or need specialty paper, rough-cut edges, a certain kind of book cover, or other embellishments, POD can be too limited for your needs.
Until recently (May, 2021), Amazon offered POD for paperback books only. They would not create a hardcover copy of your book on demand. But they are currently beta-testing POD hardcovers. The options are limited. There’s only one type of hardcover, laminated case wrapping, a smooth, glossy cover that is perfect for some books. However, there are no dust jackets, embossed covers, or other fancy treatments that might be more appropriate for your book.
#10 – Is Amazon the only game in town?
Amazon is by far the largest online marketplace, but it has competition.
There are other sites displaying and selling books, including Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo. There are other sites such as Smashwords that will distribute your book to quite a long list of book retailers. And there are sites like Shopify where you can create your own online store.
#11 – How important is marketing when self-publishing?
It’s incredibly important!
Simply listing your book on Amazon and waiting for it to sell a million copies isn’t good enough. Amazon does not market your book for you; it’s just an online store where people browse and buy. And since your book is thrown in with a million others, the odds that anyone will find it on their own and purchase it are extremely low.
In short: if you don’t market your book, it’s highly likely that it will die.
Some of my author-clients don’t care about sales. One wrote a book for his family and friends and only put it up on Amazon in case future descendants wanted to find it. Another wrote his book to burnish his reputation within his field, giving out copies for free. This was fine because these books had particular, limited purposes, and it didn’t matter if they sold a single copy.
But if you want to sell, you have to market. There’s truly no way around it. You have to learn how to build your author platform, and then you have to use it.
#12 – Will I have to sign a contract?
Yes, you do. And you should check it carefully before signing on the dotted line.
Self-publishing firms have contracts of different lengths, covering items such as services provided, copyright, cost, the book’s sales price and royalties, whether or not you can work with other firms, and more.
For a lengthier discussion of this, see our “A Look at Self-Publishing Contracts.”
#13 – Do I have to hire a cover designer?
An attractive, compelling cover is a major selling point, which makes it a must. If you work with a self-publishing firm, you’ll have the option of using their cover designers—for a fee, of course.
If you prefer to oversee the design yourself, you can find many cover designers online.
You may also want to consider using a premade cover. These are covers that have already been designed. You can view them on the designer’s website, pick out the one you like, and ask the designer to pop in your book title, subtitle, and author name.
#14 – What are hybrid publishing, vanity publishing, and other things I’ve heard about?
Let’s take a quick look at the terms used to describe different types of publishing.
Standard or traditional publishing
This is what most people think of when imagining themselves as authors. A New York publishing house purchases their book, gives them an advance payment and handles the editing and other aspects of book production. Then it gets the book into the stores and launches a marketing campaign to spur sales.
The author acts as her own publisher. She is responsible for the editing, book design, printing, distribution, marketing, and all other aspects of publishing.
The author may literally do it all, may hire individual people or companies to handle various items, or may enlist the services of a self-publishing company to handle all of the chores.
Do-it-yourself self-publishing, entirely. The author hires an editor and proofreader, hires and works with a cover designer and interior designer, pays for the printing, and either handles all the publicity or hires someone to do it for her.
The author shoulders all the responsibilities, makes all the decisions, and pays all the bills.
Hiring a firm to handle the self-publishing chores for you. There are many such firms, and they offer a variety of packages and a la carte services.
A mixture of traditional and self-publishing.
This is an evolving category that lacks a strict definition. You can think of a hybrid publisher as one who asks you to shoulder much or all of the costs but is very selective in what it publishes.
Since they don’t publish any old authors, hybrid publishers may do a better job with distribution and marketing.
Some hybrid publishers work on a crowdfunding model. That is, they insist that you develop a following and get a certain number of pre-orders before they publish your work.
An old term used for self-publishing. It was used in a negative way, hinting that the books were so uninteresting or poorly written that their authors had to pay to have them published. Since no one would want to read these books, it was all an exercise in vanity.
That was probably true with many vanity press books, but then again, many famous writers used the vanity press.
IF YOU’D LIKE HELP WRITING YOUR MASTERPIECE…
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