You’ve got a killer idea and it’s just pouring out of you. You forget to eat or sleep — you absolutely have to write this book.
But you know about the labyrinth of traditional publishing — that the odds of getting through it are relatively slim.
Thanks to the internet age, self-publishing isn’t just possible, it’s popular. And it doesn’t mean your book isn’t a “real” book; in fact, many now-famous volumes started as self-publishing efforts, including Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
That said, self-publishing isn’t as simple as uploading your manuscript and waiting for readers to flock to it. Particularly for writers who hope to earn a profit, self-publishing takes more than just passion. It takes promotion.
And yes, it also takes a fair amount of money.
Still, independent publishing is a way to get your words in front of readers without the constraints of a traditional publishing contract.
How to Self-Publish a Book in 5 Not-So-Simple Steps
If you’re considering self-publishing a book, you’re going to want to go into the project as informed as possible.
Here’s our guide on how to take your book idea from just that — an idea — to an actual thing with pages and a cover.
1. Write the darn thing.
Although the other steps to self-publishing take effort, the hardest part by far is the thing you have to do first: actually write a book.
Although the image of a frantic artistic genius may sound romantic, for most of us it’s not realistic. Writing takes time. And a lot of willpower.
It’s also not a linear process: Chances are you’re going to have to edit, rewrite and perhaps even restart. Maybe more than once.
Many writers recommend setting aside a certain amount of time each day, ideally on a regular schedule, and forcing yourself to work on your manuscript. Others force themselves to hit a minimum daily word count. Maybe your dedicated writing time is an hour in the morning before the kids get up, or maybe it’s half of your lunch break. Whatever structures you have to put in place to meet your goal, stick to them.
Don’t expect this to happen overnight. The average novel is about 50,000-80,000 words. That is a lot of words to dream up, polish, and put in order. It’s going to take a while. And you’re also going to need help.
Which brings us to:
2. Yes, you need to spring for an editor.
Self-editing is good. Enlisting the help of some enthusiastic volunteer readers is better.
But if you really want your book to knock it out of the park, you need to spring for a professional editor.
There are different levels of editing you can pay for: proofreading for grammar; copyediting, which is a little bit more thorough than proofreading and dives into the structure of the language; and full-on line editing, which focuses on broader, thematic aspects of your manuscript such as character development, style and voice.
Of course, the more intensive editing you choose, the more you’re going to have to pay for it. For example, BookBaby offers editing at the following rates:
- Proofreading: $3 per page
- Copy editing: $7 per page
- Line editing: $10 per page
Many self-published writers choose to enlist help at all three levels, which means editing is likely to be your highest book-related cost.
Tampa-based journalist and romance writer Tamara Lush estimates she spent about $1,000 per self-published book on editing — “maybe a little less if you skip a proof or use a beta.” (Beta readers are people who are willing to read your book before publication to check for errors and provide feedback, often for free.)
There are many editing services online, and you may be able to score a better deal if you negotiate with a live, human editor one-on-one. Not sure where to start? ACES, an international members’ alliance of editors, has a directory of editors for hire who you can reach out to individually.
3. Now for the fun part: Design and format!
If you’ve successfully written a book, first of all: congratulations. You’ve definitely earned a few deep breaths and a piece of chocolate.
But now it’s time to get those words in front of some eyeballs. And the first step toward that goal is to format your book and design the cover.
Like other aspects of self-publishing, you could make this a DIY effort. If you’re fairly savvy, you could design a book cover yourself on a platform like Canva, which has a dedicated book cover-making program.
Interior layout is also doable with a program like InDesign, but can be a heady chore for someone who doesn’t have experience. Many people who self-publish choose to hire a professional designer for either the layout, cover or both.
And again: this part can get expensive.
“You can spend around $100-$200 and get a great cover, at least in romance,” said Lush — but she also admitted she’d spent as much as $450 one time. The cost goes up if you add in extras, like an audiobook-version cover.
Camille Knox, another Tampa-based writer and media consultant, chose to self-publish in large part because of the creative freedom it affords. “Sometimes, when people go through big publishers, you end up getting sort of lost in the process,” she said. “Your vision gets a bit blurred.”
Although she’d drummed up some interest when she queried traditional publishing houses and agents, she decided she wanted to retain control of her work.
Along with tapping her network for a photographer, editor and website guru, Knox was able to hire a graphic designer friend to design the cover as well as well as her publishing company’s logo — but even at the “friends and family” rate, she paid $550.
If you don’t have an artsy gang of friends, there are other options. Reedsy is a platform that matches authors to designers (and editors, and marketers!) to help you create a book that’s physically eye-catching. You’ll negotiate your pricing with the individual designers you hire, and you might expect to pay $250 or for each designer’s labor.
Of course, there are more bargain-friendly routes available. You can sometimes find designers willing to work for cheap on platforms like Upwork or Fiverr. Bookalope is another platform for authors, and basic book “conversions” start as low as $49.
That said, making sure your book looks the part is just one of the steps it takes to actually get the thing to sell. Which leads us to the next, and perhaps most important, step.
4. The make-it-or-break-it moment: Plan your launch and marketing campaign.
With traditional publishing you get a good amount of help in the launch and marketing department. Self-publishers, however, are on their own, and how your book is received when it’s first launched is critical to ensuring its ongoing success.
So you need to have a marketing plan in place well before you actually hit the “upload” button. You need to drum up excitement about your book ahead of time to ensure that once it hits the market, people will be ready and waiting to buy it. You also need to be ready to continually self-promote once your book hits the shelves — or virtual shelves.
Many first-time authors think this is going to be as simple as spamming their book title on Facebook or Twitter, but that isn’t usually enough. Making a sustained and intentional effort to grow and engage an audience takes a lot of time and research — and the best path depends on what kind of book you’re writing.
Dana Sitar, author of A Writer’s Bucket List, says her best promotional tool as a nonfiction writer was guest blogging. “Target blogs in your niche that have a substantial audience and – more important — clearly have an audience who are willing to spend money,” she said. “I ran a ‘blog tour’ to promote my book and used that hook to pitch guest posts and ask for a link to sell the book.”
Knox, on the other hand, took full advantage of her media contacts. She timed her book launch and the launch of her content development company to coincide, so she could market the book at the in-person party she hosted in January 2020. (Both her book and her business were born in December 2019).
“I invited a bunch of friends who work in media anyway,” she said — and their influencer status was able to push her reach on Facebook and Twitter much further. She was also able to sell all the physical copies of the book she brought to the party.
Knox got her book on the shelf of a local library simply by asking the friendly folks behind the front desk if it was possible. It was as easy, she said, as filling out a form.
But not every writer finds the marketing demands of self-publishing to be feasible, especially if they’re hoping for book sales to be their main source of income. Lush, for instance, went on sabbatical from her day job for nine months to focus on her novel writing. She ended up turning her back on independent publishing after learning exactly how sophisticated and expensive it could be.
For her genre in particular, she says, paid ads are “essential.” And although she made $70,000 on her books last year, she spent $45,000 on business costs — the bulk of which were ads. At her height, she says, she was spending $200 a day on Facebook ads, which left her “squeamish. It made me feel like I was gambling,” she said.
And still, she found, others were matching her game and then some. “It’s very very hard to compete when people are spending $1,000 a day on Facebook ads,” she said. “A lot of people who are publishing on Amazon, they’re writers and also marketers, and in some of the cases they’re marketers first and foremost.”
So if you’re starting from absolute ground zero as far as audience and online presence, be realistic about what your sales might look like.
“Writing a good book isn’t all that’s necessary to be successful, unfortunately,” Lush said.
It is possible to build a campaign from the ground up, of course — though this also might involve hiring a professional, which is not cheap. A professional PR campaign can help land you speaking spots on podcasts, create an author media kit to help you get your name out there, and get you in touch with the contacts you need to achieve serious reach.
This is the oldest advice in the book, but if you haven’t already, fleshing out an email newsletter mailing list is a great way to build a ready-made audience of buying customers. (How to get people to actually give you their email address? Offer a free deliverable upon signup, like a written scene or other insider snippet related to your book.)
5. Go ahead: publish!
Now comes the moment you’ve been waiting for: Actually. Getting. Published.
The simplest way is to publish through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. It’s free for authors to upload and list their books, and readers can choose to order the ebook version or have a print copy made for them.
However, Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly on the self-publishing world. You can publish on other ebook platforms, like Apple Books Kobo, or take advantage of private print-on-demand companies like IngramSpark.
Keep in mind, though, that Amazon controls about 80% of the ebook market in the U.S. and the U.K., and authors who publish through the platform can choose to enroll in KDP Select. In exchange for your agreement not to list the book anywhere else for at least 90 days, KDP Select will give you access to unique promotional tools that can help increase your visibility.
Although self-publishing a book is laborious — and potentially expensive, to boot — self-published authors don’t have to kowtow to the demands of a large press, and they get to keep more of their book sales proceeds.
Who knows? Maybe you’ve got the next Fifty Shades on your hard drive. In fact, we’re willing to bet you’ve got something better.
Jamie Cattanach is a full-time freelance writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.