If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re thinking about publishing a book, so congrats! The first step of publishing a book is the drive to publish it in the first place. These days, we’re no longer reliant on saturated publishing houses to get our books into the hands of eager readers—we can just do it ourselves.
But how on earth does one self-publish a book?
My early experience: trial and error.
I self-published my debut novel in January 2021, and I’ve learnt so much more about the process since then. My aim is to impart the collective wisdom I have accrued from the hours of experiments, online courses, and webinars to you, and, by doing so, will hopefully help you in your own self-publishing journey.
But wait, should I self-publish or go trad?
Only you can decide this. Each has its respective pros and cons, and the popularity of self-published series’ such as Zodiac Academy and Ice Planet Barbarians shows that the stigma surrounding the quality/popularity of trad vs indie books is (rightfully) being shattered. I chose the self-pub route because I wanted to work on my own timetable and maintain complete creative control, but do whatever feels right for you.
How do I get my book ready to self-publish?
Well, the first thing is to ensure the plot is shiny and the text is error free—and this is only done through editing (and likely more than one round). How much editing is needed (developmental edit, copyedit, proofread etc) is entirely down to the quality of your writing, your budget, and, frankly, you. You are your own publisher, so it’s your call. My only advice would be to remember that you get what you pay for (a mistake I learnt the hard way).
Step two is to make your book look pretty. Interior formatting is entirely possible using some sneaky trickery in Microsoft Word, but I’m a huge fan of Vellum—a MacOS book formatting software that (not to be dramatic) has literally changed my life. Atticus is a great Windows alternative.
Step three, the cover. Now, we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is, we all do. Whether you’re browsing a bookstore or scrolling Kindle Deals, the cover is the first thing we see, so it’s a crucial step in hooking those readers. My advice is to research the popular book covers in your genre, look around, and get plenty of quotes.
You can buy pre-made book covers online for a very reasonable price, and custom covers can cost anywhere between £30 and £500. If you’re a whizz at graphic design, then you could do it yourself—just ensure you use free-to-use/non-copyrighted images. Also remember that the book market is constantly evolving, and you’ll likely have to change your cover after a few years to stay on trend.
Once your book is all glammed-up, you’ll need an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)—a unique identifier assigned to your book. Each edition and physical copy, be it paperback and/or hardback, requires an ISBN. It’s not strictly necessary for ebooks, however the option is there if, like me, you feel weird omitting it.
I strongly encourage you to purchase your own ISBNs. Some self-pub platforms, such as KDP, offer to assign their own ISBNs to your books for little or no cost, but this means your book is registered to the platform (e.g. Amazon), not you. By purchasing your own ISBNs, you maintain creative control over the metadata (crucial for libraries, bookstores etc), you can move your book to other platforms (since the ISBN belongs to you, it won’t change depending on where you publish it), and, most crucially, when Netflix scours those ISBN records for their next big series, they’ll be contacting you, not the company who registered the ISBN.
Each country has its own ISBN agency (Neilsen for the UK, Bowker for the US), and prices vary depending on how many you buy. Any Costco-lover knows that wholesale bulk-buy is boss—the same is true of ISBNs, which are much cheaper to buy in blocks of 10, 100, etc. Have an idea of how many books/editions/formats you’re likely to self-publish in the future and buy as many ISBNs as you can. It’s a big spend initially, but your future wallet will thank you.
Unlike ISBNs, barcodes are just used to manage stock inventory. Print-on-Demand platforms, like KDP, usually slap on barcodes as and when they print the books—a free feature I’m all too happy with. On the other hand, if you were to order books directly from a printing house, you’d need to provide your own barcode before you distribute them to retailers. You can purchase a barcode from your local ISBN agency, or there are free online tools that do this for you. Whichever you decide, the ISBN is required to generate the barcode.
Where can I publish?
For ebooks, there are several providers you can self-publish through. Each provider will have its own royalty rate, not all of them are free to use, and the popularity of each provider depends on the country. Amongst others, this includes KDP (Amazon), iBooks (Apple), Kobo, and Google Books.
For paperbacks, popular Print-on-Demand services include KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu, and Barnes and Noble Press—and all have different policies/fees. For example, KDP is free, but IngramSpark charges a hefty fee each time you upload, or re-upload, your book.
If you’re publishing across multiple platforms, aggregators make life a heck of a lot easier. Of course, you can manually upload your book to KDP, then iBooks, then Kobo, etc., but it takes time, all have various levels of finicky-ness, and be prepared to do it all again if you want to upload an updated file.
Aggregators do all this heavy lifting for you. If you publish your book through an aggregator company, they distribute it across all the major retailers—for a small fee, of course. Draft2Digital, for example, takes 10% of the retail price for that sale.
It’s worth noting that you can use different aggregators for different book formats. For example, many self-published authors use IngramSpark to distribute their paperbacks/hardbacks and use Draft2Digital for the ebook versions.
KDP Select vs Wide Distribution
When publishing through KDP, you have the option of enrolling in KDP Select, which allows your ebook to be read through Kindle Unlimited (KU).
KU is Amazon’s book lending subscription service, where subscribed readers can “borrow” any KU-eligible book for free. It’s not a sale (though it does count as such in the Book Ranks) and the book is “returned” once it’s been read. Authors who enrol their books in KU are paid per page read.
Enrolling in KU has many perks: people are more likely to read free books or take a chance on an unknown author, you get access to Free Promos and Kindle Countdown Deals, and (a little pessimistically) if someone returns your book, you’re still paid for however much they’ve read. KU royalties are set independently of your book price, too, meaning that it’s possible to get a higher royalty from a KU borrow than for an actual sale.
The disadvantage of enrolling in KU is that you can’t publish your ebook, or have any other digital copy, anywhere else on the internet (even if used as a perk or a reader magnet).
So, what do you do? Be Amazon exclusive, or go wide? There’s no right answer, I’m afraid.
Genre has a lot to do with KU successes—romances, for example, do incredibly well—and series, in general, do better than standalones because they’re a low-risk purchase combined with a high read-through. Personally, over 75% of my royalties come from KU (there’s a big BUT here, which I’ll get to shortly), but I can’t comment on the “missed” sales from pulling out of iBooks, Kobo etc. The good news is that the KU enrolment period is only 3-months, so you can hop on, see if it works for you, then go wide if you prefer.
A word of warning: If you have more than 10% of your KU-enrolled ebook anywhere else on the web, Amazon will find you, and they will shut your account down. Seriously, don’t risk it.
What do I need to launch?
Ideally, you need to create a buzz around your book. People need to hear about your book and say, “Holy crap, I need to read this RIGHT NOW!”
Advanced Reader Copies—or ARCs—are a good way to start. As the name suggests, ARC readers receive the book ahead of publication and post their reviews in advanced. Word-of-mouth is still the easiest way to get news flowing, and if you have enough people spreading the same news to different audiences, it’s easier for the buzz to catch.
Anyone can be an ARC reader, and you can “recruit” them using sites like NetGalley, or through newsletters and social media. It’s personal preference how many ARC readers you choose to have, but just be aware that it’s unlikely every ARC reader will post a review (and others may need a little nudge).
Online book tours are another fabulous way to bring in new readers—especially when it shows off your glorious new book cover. Get in contact with influencers and pitch your book, offer them an ARC copy, or ask to be a guest on their podcast (if they have one).
You’ll likely get a plethora of paid review offers—approach these with caution. They cost a fortune, and paid reviews are against Amazon’s rules anyway. An account ban on Day 1 isn’t worth an extra review!
I’ve published! But now what?
Marketing, my friends.
Your book-baby is out there. Now spread the word.
Marketing is arguably the most difficult part of the whole process—and I’m still trying to figure it out. But one thing is universally clear:
Social media does not sell books.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great marketing tool and crucial for networking/engagement—but it rarely equates to direct book sales. Changing algorithms, poor targeting, and a busy feed when scrolling means that a huge bulk of your target audience won’t even see your posts, let alone buy your book.
Instead, marketing efforts should be focussed on building newsletter subscribers—be it through reader magnets or swaps—and paid advertising/promos. Amazon, Facebook and Bookbub are your best bets when it comes to ads, and it can take months of trial and error before you start seeing results. Remember I said over 75% of my royalties came from KU? That’s been solely down to Amazon Ads, but I was only in net profit once I had three books out and organic read-through took over. That’s not to say you shouldn’t promote your book if it’s a standalone, or if it’s the only book in a series, as these can still encourage newsletter sign-ups, pre-orders, and reviews/ratings.
If you’re in KU, take advantage of those free promos and countdown deals—and let your readers know about it through newsletter promo sites such as BookBub, Freebooksy and The Fussy Librarian.
But, most of all, continue to write, and research, and build your experience for the next launch. Learn from your mistakes and intensify your successes.
And remember that your author career does not ride or die on launch week. Self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.
Meet Esme Carmichael
Esme Carmichael is an independent author based in Liverpool (UK) and a Brand Ambassador for The Writer Community. She has been writing stories for as long as she can remember and published her debut novel in January 2021: a dark, dystopian fantasy called 'The End of Everything'. This is the first book in 'The Connection Series', which Esme began writing almost 10 years ago. Esme enjoys putting a dark twist on familiar tropes, creates stories with vivid worlds and writes characters full of snark, body and life. She's currently working her way through editing and publishing her long list of stories, ranging from high fantasy tales to paranormal romances. When not writing, Esme works full time as an ocean scientist and is gradually working her way through her ever growing TBR pile.