So you’ve written your book! Congratulations! Now what? For many people, the whole world of publishing is confusing. Traditional publishing, vanity publishing, or self-publishing? What’s the difference between the three, anyway? How do I get started?
First of all, here are the main differences between traditional publishing, vanity publishing, and self-publishing.
Traditional publishing involves sending a cover letter and synopsis to prospective agents and publishers. You research these yourself, picking out companies and agencies who are looking for books in your genre. This takes quite a lot of work and research, but if you manage to land a deal with one of the “big six” (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, or Macmillan), it’s safe to say that as a writer, you’ve “made it.”
There are plenty of other publishers out there, but getting a deal with one of these six is the author’s equivalent to landing a lead role in a Hollywood movie. Well, sort of, anyway. Being published in the big leagues means you’ll have your book in shops with the media backing and a possible future movie contract.
However, it’s extremely difficult to break into being published this way. The market is constantly shifting, and agencies or publishers will often pick up what they think will sell, not what is necessarily appealing to them personally. Plus, as an unknown writer, you might never find someone willing to take the risk. Many people write to publishers and agents for years without getting any interest at all.
Vanity publishing is something I personally don’t recommend. It involves paying (often a lot) for a company to do all the publishing work (cover design, editing, and the publishing of the book itself). Often they promise authors they’ll quickly make their money back, and the industry is notorious for shoddy work that’s not really worth the price. The reality is that you can do most of this stuff by yourself at a much cheaper price; you just need to know how (and that’s what this article is for!)
Self-publishing is what this article is all about. A self-published writer sorts out everything by themselves and has complete control over the process and the rights to their books. This includes who to hire as an editor, the design of the book cover, and the release date of their books.
A big downside to self-publishing is that you also have to do all the marketing yourself. Without a huge publisher behind you, you’re virtually unknown in a highly saturated market. However, the good news is that it’s relatively easy to get published with this route.
If you’ve decided to go for self-publishing but you’re not sure where to begin, this article is for you. I’m an indie author of three books and have been working with self-published writers for most of my adult life. I’ve made mistakes, learned from them, and am still constantly learning and improving. It’s great fun, and I hope you’ll have fun, too!
Before we begin, don’t forget to sign up for Poppy’s monthly newsletter for a free book!
Here are the steps you need to take to self-publish your first book:
1. Make it as perfect as possible
You may have typed The End, but chances are there’s still a lot of work to do before your masterpiece is ready for publishing. Self-editing, beta reading, editing, proofreading, formatting. In that order. Here’s a rundown of what each of these means:
- Self-editing: this is the process in which you go through your book, checking details, cutting out fluff, making sure each sentence sings, and re-checking the overall quality. Check your notes. Cut out unneeded scenes or details. Make sure your story has avoided common first-time writer mistakes.
- Beta reading: this is the stage where you get volunteers to read your book and provide honest, helpful feedback. When you’ve double and triple-checked everything yourself and your work is ready for other people’s eyes, find willing people who are interested in your genre to read your story and help you out with things that don’t make sense and can be improved. Beta reading is an essential part of the process because people can find problems you may have missed before you’ve already published it. If you’re still unsure about this process, check out my Owlcation article on how to beta read a novel.
- Editing: this is different from self-editing. If you’re a seasoned writer and you have a good team of beta readers, chances are you may not need a developmental editor (an editor who examines the “big picture” elements of your story). However, everyone needs a copy editor. They check your manuscript and improve the flow of sentences, making sure your voice is consistent and engaging.
- Proofreading: this is the final process for the manuscript itself. A proofreader finds any typos, grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors the copy editor may have missed, cleaning up your book and getting it ready for publishing. Don’t skip this step! Even the most seasoned of writers can make typos or silly mistakes. Automatic spell-checkers can help with basic corrections, but they won’t catch errors like “their” instead of “there” or similar-sounding words.
- Formatting: once your manuscript is as close to perfect as it can get, it needs to be ready for publishing with correct formatting. This is an essential step that, unfortunately, many people skip. And it shows. You can pay someone to do formatting for you or learn how to do it yourself. Keep in mind formatting for a paperback or hardcover is a lot more difficult than formatting for Kindle.
Be sure to follow these steps before publishing. Once it’s out there and you’re asking money for it, you’re offering people a product that they’ll pay money for. If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, then make sure you’re offering professional-standard work.
2. Write a Blurb
All books need a blurb. A blurb is the text at the back of the book, on the book’s website, or the Amazon description that entices people to click “buy.” This is not to be confused with the synopsis, which is a summary of the whole book including the ending.
A blurb is extremely important, and should tell the readers the main characters, the conflict in the story, and a hook to make people want to know more. Most blurbs are around 100-250 words, but this can vary depending on the length of your book and whether or not it’s a series.
If you’re stuck on your blurb, grab your favourite books and take a look at the blurbs for ideas.
3. Get a Book Cover
This is possibly the most exciting part of the publishing process! As a self-publishing writer, you’ll have full creative control over your book’s cover and what it’ll involve. Book cover design can cost anything from $10 to $1,000, though I personally haven’t ever paid more than $250 for a paperback cover.
Some may opt to design the book cover completely by themselves, but I personally advise against that. Trust me, I’ve been there, and no one is honest enough to tell you if it sucks.
Here are some tips on getting your book cover designed.
- Hire a professional. Please, please, go with someone with experience and a portfolio. Look at your favourite book covers and think about what you love about them. Do not design your own unless you’re a cover designer yourself. A professional has a good understanding of what draws the eye and what is appealing to potential readers, which is really what a book cover is all about. You can find some amazing cover designers on Fiverr. or you can choose unique premade designs on The Book Cover Designer.
- Have a short and powerful explanation of your book. Chances are your cover designer will not read your book (and don’t ask them to). You should be able to explain the genre, theme, and basic overall story to your designer so they can capture the mood and essence of it on your cover.
- Have an idea of what kind of font and cover image you’d like to use. A lot of YA (Young Adult) books, for example, have characters on the cover. Research other books in your genre and see what’s popular. Your designer, if they have experience, will be able to help out with this, but the clearer your vision for your cover, the easier the process will be for you both.
- Have your blurb ready (when designing the paperback cover). The blurb must be finalised for the designer to be able to add it to the back cover.
- Know your paperback/hardback size requirements. Chances are your designer will have experience in publishing on Amazon at least, and know what the dimensions should be. Know the final page count and the size you’d like the book to be. Make sure your designer is happy to make adjustments if needed. It’ll save a lot of headaches.
4. Decide on Who You’ll Use For Publishing
Authors are spoilt for choice with who we can use to unleash our masterpieces onto the world! Ideally, the website you go with will not charge a fee for publishing (most charge a cut in sales, but no upfront payments). Be wary of any website, company, or individual who asks for money to publish. It’s free to do yourself.
Your main choices are:
- Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. This is by far the most popular and has many great perks for writers, including the opportunity to enroll your book in Kindle Unlimited (sort of like Netflix for books. Readers can download ten books a month for free with their monthly subscription, and the writer is paid depending on how many pages are read). KDP is also easy to use and is a favourite among authors.
- Smashwords. This website is for ebooks and is a decent website for those who’d prefer to keep away from Amazon’s monopoly on the market. Formatting rules are different to Amazon’s, so keep it in mind if you’re planning on publishing on both platforms (which you are welcome to do; however, keep in mind that to enroll your book on Kindle Unlimited, your book must be published on Amazon only).
- Kobo. This is another place where you can publish your book. Like with Smashwords, you have to purchase your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) if you plan on publishing outside Amazon (or in paperback; you must have a separate ISBN for different formats of your book).
- Barnes & Noble. B&N’s clean interface makes it another popular choice for indie authors.
There are other sites out there, but these are the ones I’ve personally used.
5. Start With Amazon
Whether you decide to go with just Amazon or with as many vendors as possible, start with Amazon. It’s the easiest to use and you’ll reach the most readers this way. Then you can decide whether to do with some of the above websites as well.
Should you stick with Amazon only? That depends on your goals. Some writers avoid Amazon because they want to support smaller websites, but the fact is that Amazon sells the most books in the world, and you’re losing a big chunk of potential readers by avoiding them. Publish on Amazon first (with an ebook) and see how you feel.
6. Properly Format Your Book
Find the submission guidelines for the publishing website of your choice and follow them to the letter. This is especially important for formatting, as improper formatting can lead to terrible-looking books that you’ll be embarrassed to sell.
You can pay someone to format for you, or you can learn how to do it yourself. KDP has this excellent guide on formatting your ebook for publishing. They also have a paperback manuscript template for when you publish a physical copy. Keep in mind different vendors might have different rules. Smashwords, for example, has slightly different requirements when it comes to page size and introduction page.
7. Know the Genre and Keywords of Your Book
Chances are you know your genre already. If your story is part of an unusual subgenre, that’s even better. If your book is a short story, be sure to choose that in Amazon’s list of genres. Which genre your book belongs to can affect your sales rank, so it’s important to choose the correct ones.
Keywords are slightly different; these can be things like “strong female lead,” “books about time travel,” “books for teenagers,” “outer space,” etc. They’re the kinds of words and phrases potential readers might search on Amazon to find your book. Make these as relevant as possible for maximum results.
8. Get an ISBN
An ISBN is a book’s unique serial number. It can’t be sold, swapped, or reused, so the number belongs to that book forever, even if it’s unpublished. You need a separate ISBN for an ebook, a paperback, and a hardback edition, even if the manuscript is identical.
All books need ISBNs unless you’re planning to only publish your book on Amazon Kindle in ebook format, in which case you get an ASIN for free. If you want to publish a paperback book or publish an ebook anywhere other than Amazon, you need an ISBN.
9. Prepare for Launch
Some people say timing is essential when it comes to launching, but in reality, if it’s your first book not many people will care about the exact date it came out. Marketing is essential for sales, but not the launch date. So take your time and make sure everything is correct before uploading. You can re-upload manuscripts if there are errors, but it’s ideal to get it as right as possible the first time.
10. Publish Your Book!
Now that everything’s ready, you can publish your book! Make sure that you’ve:
- Followed the instructions on the website.
- Made sure your manuscript is properly sized and formatted, including font size, typeface, page breaks, headings, page size, page numbers, line spacing, and indentation.
- Prepared a beautiful HD cover with the correct dimensions.
- Uploaded your blurb. This should go in the box marked “book description” or something similar.
- Chosen the genre of your book and, if applicable, keywords.
- Chosen a publishing date. You can offer the book for pre-order if you like, or you can publish it right away.
After that, your book is ready, and you’ll officially be a published author! This is a huge achievement, and an exciting one marking the beginning of your author journey. Whether you’re publishing one book that’s close to your heart to share with friends and family or you’re planning on making this into a career, this article has hopefully been useful in providing the stepping stones to make your dreams a reality.