I’ve spent the last two days talking about what self-publishing is, plus who might want to self-publish and why. That leaves us with when, where, and how.
For me the answer to when is now. This week, in fact. If you have an appropriate project, why wait? To give you an idea of how long it takes, I started in February and I now have The Eyes of Pharaoh available as an e-book and print on demand. My second self-published novel, an adult romantic suspense called Rattled (written under the name Kris Bock), is going up now and should be available for sale next week. (The books were written and edited before February, of course.)
Wait a minute—traditional publishers typically take at least two years to release a book. How can self-publishing be so much faster and still be any good?
For one thing, publishers have to place your book in a queue of other books. They’ll add lots of extra time at every stage, in case someone misses a deadline. They may need to wait for an illustrator to become available. They have to wait for monthly meetings. They want to get the book into their catalog and send out copies for review in advance. All that takes time (though not always as much time as they use, as proven by hot topics rushed into print in a few months).
To self-publish my books, I needed a few weeks to research what I needed to do, get the manuscripts proofread, and contract for cover art. It’s not hard to set up an account on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc. and start publishing. Then it takes one or two days to get the e-book version available and a couple of weeks for print on demand if you want to review a proof copy first.
Let me break down the steps.
I’ll be fairly detailed here, to give you a good idea of the work required.
Write and edit a book. Get feedback to make sure it’s good. This is obviously the hardest and most time-consuming part of the equation. That’s always true, even with traditional publishing, but here you’re putting the work out without an agent or publishing house editor’s guidance, so take extra time to get feedback. Don’t count on family and friends, or even a beloved critique group (unless you have several critique partners who are published writers and skilled editors/teachers). You may want to hire a professional editor. Many of the best editors lost their jobs in the last two years, and some of them now offer freelance editorial services. You’ll also find many of us among the professional writing community who will critique or edit your work for a fee.
Write any front matter: title page, dedication, acknowledgments, “other books by,” “this is a work of fiction” statement, etc. (You can follow the format in other books).
Write any author’s note for the end of the book. You may also want a bio at the back of the book. Include all this front matter and back matter in your document.
Make sure you don’t have two spaces between sentences, spaces at the start of paragraphs, etc. Make sure everything is formatted the same, e.g. all quotes are smart quotes, dashes are em dashes with no space around them, ellipses are spaced consistently and so forth. Word’s “Find and Replace” function is a life-saver here.
Hire a professional copy editor and approve/reject their suggestions. Prices for a professional copy editor tend to be about .015 cents per word, so $500-$1000 for your average middle grade or YA novel. Don’t skimp here, though, or you risk publishing a book that looks unprofessional, which is worse than no book at all. Make sure you hire a professional who follows a specific style sheet, not just someone who’s “good with English.” (I saved money by trading a manuscript critique for proofreading at this stage.)
Hire an illustrator. Prices for cover design can start as low as $200 if you use stock photography. Photographic covers are common in young adult novels and suitable for some contemporary middle grade novels. If you’ll need an original illustration, expect to pay about $500. Most print-on-demand publishers and independent printers will offer cover design services, but you may be better off going through your local SCBWI branch or posting a request for illustrators on the SCBWI discussion boards.
Cover art is more of a challenge for speculative fiction writers, because it’s hard to find stock photography that appropriately captures a fantasy or science fiction world. Paranormal authors might get away with a photo of a spooky setting or a ghostly image created with a transparent layer, but for most speculative work you’ll need an original illustration. Whatever you choose, make sure you’re getting a fabulous, appropriate cover, because it’s one of your most important sales tools. Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest has 10 tips for effective book covers (mostly what to avoid).
You can save money by hiring an illustrator who is trying to break into the industry, or who isn’t getting enough work right now, but make sure you get a professional. Don’t skimp and wind up with something cheesy. You also need someone who can get the specifications right and provide the correct digital formats. Make sure you understand whether you are getting only cover art, or complete cover design with title and (for print on demand) spine and back of book. Keep in mind that not all illustrators have experience with book design (the font and placement of the title and author name, the information and layout on the back, and so forth). Make sure you also both agree on how many revisions the illustrator is willing to make.
I hired Lois Bradley for the covers of my first two self-published books. She’s a published illustrator starting her career, and as a bonus is also a graphic designer. We worked together on the cover art, trading ideas. Because I have a background in art and my husband is a graphic designer, I felt comfortable working without a separate professional book designer. We did market research on Facebook by posting variations on title placement and so forth and eliciting feedback from my Friends, many of them authors and illustrators. Since these were Lois’s first book cover jobs, we negotiated an excellent “friends” rate and she’s taking some of the payment in trade.
The Inside: E-books
Save a copy of the manuscript to use with e-books. These take minimal formatting—you don’t even choose the font style or size because people have their own preferred settings on their readers. Include section breaks between chapters, but no page breaks within chapters because the text will flow differently on different devices. Use a basic font like Times New Roman or Courier and avoid any unusual formatting other than italics and bold. You can include interior B&W illustrations. Amazon’s Kindle site offers more specific guidelines.
You can upload the document to Kindle as a Word .doc file (not .docx), but they recommend translating it into an ePub document. You’ll want the ePub anyway for other sites. This online program will convert the document to an ePub file. Check to make sure it properly formatted italics, bold and so forth. It worked perfectly for me. Although it seemed to remove all blank lines and centering, the Kindle translation added them back in. If you want special formatting, you can do that with html (which I’m not going into here).
You can now set up accounts and upload your ePub document on Amazon’s Kindle site, Barnes & Nobles’ PubIt! site for the Nook, and/or other sites. Some sites such as Smashwords publish your book in multiple e-book formats, including Kindle and Nook, taking a small percentage. For maximum exposure, you may want to use all these sites. Most authors currently do best with Kindle sales, but some have better Nook sales, and Kindle might not always dominate the market.
You only need a front cover for e-books. The various sites will ask you for information such as a description of the book, author, illustrator, age group, genre, tag words, and so forth. Once you hit publish, the electronic version should go live in a couple of days. You can make changes to the document at any time in the future. You can also play with your description, price, and even cover art to see what sells best.
Print on Demand
The formatting is more challenging with print on demand. You’ll choose every aspect of how it looks. To do it yourself, you’ll have to understand font size and style considerations, when and how to adjust the page size, margins, leading, and kerning, and how to get rid of widows, orphans, and rivers. Layout can be easier with a design program, but it is possible with Microsoft Word. If you want to upload your own print-ready interior PDF, CreateSpace has detailed info. CreateSpace also offers Professional Manuscript Layout Starting at $299, and I’m sure you can find other options.
Walton Mendelson is kindly offering a free download of his 98-page Build Your Book instruction guide, targeted specifically at CreateSpace users using Word to do layout, which covers basic book design, typography, basic how-to on scanning and shooting art, and more. The amount of info is a little overwhelming but you could do your own design with this help. Mr. Mendelson apparently also offers design services.
When you’re finished with layout, save a copy as a PDF—make sure you have chosen “standard” format. Doublecheck that all your formatting came through, such as italics and spacing. Now you are ready to upload your document. CreateSpace leads you through the process step-by-step, asking for information such as title, subtitle, and description to be used on the webpage. Your cover must be a single PDF that includes the back cover, spine, and front cover as one image, with at least .125” bleed. CreateSpace offers guidelines for determining your spine width based on your page count. (I’m not specifically promoting CreateSpace; it’s just the one I used so I know it best.)
CreateSpace will assign a free ISBN, which works with all distribution channels and lists CreateSpace as the publisher. You can also supply your own ISBN, or you can pay $10 to use their ISBN and list your own “imprint” name.
With POD, you can make changes after your final review, but you will have to pull the book off the site for a week or so.
Phew! Sounds pretty complicated when you list it all together. Aspects are definitely tricky—for me, learning to use Word as a layout tool provided several days of frustration—but certainly not impossible. You can find help online, in more detail than I’ve given here, and it’s fascinating to learn about all aspects of publishing. Just don’t expect to rush too much. Take the steps one at a time and give yourself a month or so to get through them.
If you have some money to spend and only plan to self-publish one book, you may want to simply hire services from the publisher. If you think self-publishing might be an option for a number of your books, it’s worth taking the time up front to learn the system yourself, especially if you’re tech savvy and/or have graphic design experience. (If you’re releasing an out-of-print book, and you can get a copy of the layout and permission to use the cover art/design, the process should be easy.)
Tomorrow: earning money from self-publishing.