How to Publish a Book
How to Publish a Book: An Overview of Traditional & Self-Publishing
For any writer who aspires to be an author, knowing how to publish a book is essential. It's a common scenario — you have an idea for a book but you have no way of knowing how to translate that idea from your computer screen into print or online.
Now, more than at any other time in history, there are more opportunities and possibilities to write, share, and publish a story — and interact with an audience. Whether you are after the traditional publishing experience, complete with an agent, editor, and publisher, or want to self publish your book, it's completely within your grasp. You decide what works best for you and your work.
We're going to guide you through the book publishing process and give you the resources to choose which publishing option fits your work best. But first, you should know about traditional and self-publishing.
Traditional book publishing is when a publisher offers the author a contract and, in turn, prints, publishes, and sells your book through booksellers and other retailers. The publisher essentially buys the right to publish your book and pays you royalties from the sales.
If you want to publish a book traditionally, most writers need to find an agent. In order to find one, you must identify the right category for your writing. If you are or want to be a non-fiction writer, you will need to submit a book proposal with three sample chapters, and a synopsis of each chapter. If you are writing fiction, you must have your manuscript complete.
Once these steps are accomplished, you're ready to write a query letter. This letter is what you will send to potential agents. It's important to mention the different parts that make up a query letter. You should be sure to mention the synopsis of your book, the chapter summary, the market or audience your book is meant for, and a description of yourself.
There are a variety of different publishing models, including print-on-demand, vanity, subsidy, and self-publishing.
Print-on-demand (POD) publishers accept all submissions &emdash; anyone who is willing to pay is published. POD publishing uses printing technology to produce books one at a time through a company at a cost-effective price. The books are printed individually as orders come in. Therefore, you can adjust the book's supply to meet the reader's demand.
POD cuts back on costs and eliminates the need for space to store unsold copies. Typically editing, proofreading, or marketing is offered at an additional cost and you make money off of royalties from sales. In terms of rights, some can go to the POD publisher for a set amount of time but this varies depending on the publisher.
A vanity publisher, also known as a book manufacturer, publishes any anyone's work provided they have the money to pay for their services. The manufacturer prints and binds a book on the author's dime and does not offer editing, marketing, or promotional assistance. However, the author owns the printed books and retains all profit from sales.
A subsidy publisher is similar to a vanity publisher in that the author has to pay for the printing and binding process of the book. However, this type of publisher contributes a portion of the cost to editing, distribution, warehousing, and marketing. In this case, the publisher owns the books until they are sold and the author makes money from royalties.
Self-publishing requires the author to invest their own money to produce, market, distribute, and warehouse the book. While this can be a huge time commitment, the process can be more cost-effective than vanity or subsidy publishing.
What's the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?
In traditional publishing, the publisher handles the marketing, distribution, and warehousing for your book. This is the traditional method to book publishing because there is no expense to the author—mainstream publishers make a profit from the book's sales.
Whereas in self-publishing, depending on which type of publisher or platform you choose, the majority of the work falls on your shoulders and you pay for all expenses. The main advantages of self-publishing are that you control when the book is published, you retain all rights to your book, and you receive 100 percent of the profits.
In both cases, you have the option to choose what format your book will be published in—printed book, e-book, audio book, cd, dvd, and many more. If you pick an e-book, which is essentially a book published in digital form and available on e-Readers and other electronic devices, it can be downloaded instantly, has the ability to be translated into different languages, and can never go out of print. However, the as e-book formats and file types develop and change over time, many may need to be converted to a new file or format.
How do I know which one is right for me?
If seeing your work in print is to fulfill a personal goal you have or you view yourself as a hobbyist, choose vanity publishing.
If you're writing a family history, memoir or book of poetry that has a limited audience, and don't want your book stocked at bookstores, using POD is probably to your advantage. They are often nonreturnable, not sold at a discount, and you won't have to store any unsold books.
Printing in bulk via self-publishing may be your best bet if you have a visible platform established to reach your audience, both online and offline (such as a website, Twitter handle, and Facebook fan page), have credibility with your readers in your genre/category and are prepared to dedicate your time to marketing and promoting your work.
Self-publishing is also a good option if you have a time-sensitive manuscript, as a commercial publishing company can take up to 18 months to get your book from manuscript to final production.
On the flip side, here are a few things to consider. If you don't know how to find or reach your readers, don't have an online presence, don't have the time to spend online or dislike social media, want to be in a brick-and-mortar type of bookstore and have a publisher handle the marketing for you, the traditional publishing route may be the best option.
Ultimately it is up to you to decide!
How do I publish my book, traditionally?
Once you a ready to find an agent, do your research. Check out websites such as WritersMarket.com and Writer's Digest magazine. Contact agents by sending them your query letter. The best case scenario is for one of them to accept your proposal and offer you a contract.
Last updated October 2015: The following post is an introductory guide to the major self-publishing options available to authors today, and how to choose the right service and approach for you.
Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” version if you’re looking for my service recommendations. I will edit this list immediately if and when my recommendations change.
- CreateSpace: for print distribution to Amazon (zero upfront cost)
- IngramSpark: for print distribution to non-Amazon universe ($49)
- Amazon KDP: for ebook distribution to Amazon (zero upfront cost)
- Draft2Digital: for ebook distribution to everyone else (zero upfront cost)
These services provide little or no assistance. That means you have to do all the work of preparing and uploading your files for publishing and distribution. If you’re looking for a fair service provider (or a one-stop shop) to help with print and ebook formatting, design, and distribution, try BookBaby.
First, A Little History
For most of publishing’s history, if an author wanted to self-publish, they had to invest thousands of dollars with a so-called “vanity” press (or otherwise study up on how to be an independent publishing entrepreneur, a la Dan Poynter or Marilyn Ross).
That all changed in the late 1990s, with the advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology, which allows books to be printed one at a time. As a result, many POD publishing services arose that focused on providing low-cost self-publishing packages. They could be low cost because—without print runs, inventory, and warehousing—the only expense left was in creating the product itself: the book. Outfits like iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse (which have merged and been consolidated under AuthorSolutions) offered a range of packages to help authors get their books in print, though most books never sat on a bookstore shelf and sold a few dozen copies at best.
What’s Changed Since 2007
Just as traditional publishing has transformed due to the rise of e-books, today’s self-publishing market has transformed as well. E-books comprise 30-35% of all US book sales. Furthermore, 60% or more of all US book sales (both print and digital) happen through an online retailer, primarily Amazon. You can make your book available for sale in the most important markets yourself, without a third party helping you.
That means the full-service POD publishers that used to make a killing are now largely irrelevant to most self-publishing success, and make little or no sense if you’re focused on publishing and marketing your e-book. However, because of self-publishing’s history, you may still think they offer something you need. For most authors, they do not.
Today, you can get access to the same level of online retail distribution as a traditional publisher, through services such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark. One could say that distribution through these channels is free. You don’t “pay” until your books start to sell. Every time a copy of your book is sold, the retailer takes a cut, and if you use a distributor, they’ll take a cut, too.
First, I’ll address how the e-book side of self-publishing works. Then we’ll return to the question of print.
Before You Digitally Publish
Even though e-books are skyrocketing in adoption, ask these questions before you begin:
- Do your readers prefer print or digital?
- If you don’t know what your readers prefer, is it common for authors in your genre to release e-books only? If digital-only publishers exist in your genre, that’s a good sign.
- Is your book highly illustrated? Does it require color? If so, you may find there are significant challenges to creating and distributing your e-book across multiple platforms.
- Do you know how to reach your readers online? People who buy e-books will probably find out about your work online.
An author who is primed to succeed at self-publishing has an entrepreneurial spirit and is comfortable being online. Ideally, you should already have an online presence and an established website. You also need to be in it for the long haul; sales snowball over time, rather than occurring within the first months of release.
How E-Publishing Services Work
The first and most important thing to understand about e-publishing retailers and distributors is that they are not publishers. That means they take no responsibility for the quality of your work, but neither do they take any rights to your work. Here are the characteristics of major services:
- Free to play. You rarely pay an upfront fee. When you do, usually in the case of a distributor (such asBookBaby), you earn 100% net. If you don’t pay an upfront fee, then expect a percentage of your sales to be kept.
- At-will and nonexclusive. With all e-book retailers, you can upload your work at any time and make it available for sale; you can also take it down at any time. You can upload new versions; change the price, cover and description; and you can sell your work through multiple services or through your own site.
- Little technical expertise required. Major services offer automated tools for converting your files, uploading files, and listing your work for sale, as well as free guides and tutorials to help ensure your files are formatted appropriately.
Again, it’s important to emphasize: By using these services, you do not forfeit any of your rights to the work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your e-book has gone on sale, you are free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you’ve used.
I should also acknowledge here that some of these retailers/distributors may have services they try to sell you—for editing, design, and marketing. When possible, I recommend authors retain their own freelancers rather than hiring through a middleman. You want to know exactly who’s doing work on your book and have them be accountable to you, not the middleman service.
Two Key Categories of E-Publishing Services
Most e-publishing services fall into one of these two categories:
- Single-channel distribution. These services—which are retailers—distribute and sell your work through only one channel or device. Examples: Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press. Single-channel distributors do not offer any assistance in preparing your e-book files, although they may accept a wide range of file types for upload.
- Multiple-channel distribution. These services primarily act as middlemen and push your work out to multiple retailers and distributors. This helps reduce the amount of work an author must do; instead of dealing with many different single channel services, you deal with only one service. The most well-known distributors are Smashwords, BookBaby, and Draft2Digital.
Multiple-channel options are multiplying, and each works on a slightly different model. Some act as full-service publishing operations, requiring no effort from you, the author. However, in exchange for the services of a multi-channel distributor, you typically have to pay an upfront fee and/or give up a percentage of your sales.
One popular approach for independent authors is to start by distributing through Amazon KDP, and to then add multi-channel distributor Smashwords, which has no upfront fee and distributes to all major devices and retailers except Amazon.
A note about ISBNs: While an ISBN is not required for basic e-book distribution through most retailers, some distributors and services require one. Therefore, to maximize distribution, you’ll need an ISBN for your e-book. Some self-publishing services will provide you with an ISBN as part of the fee for their services, or you can obtain your own ISBN. (If you’re US-based, you can buy through MyIdentifiers.com. Unfortunately, US authors pay a lot more than authors in other countries for their ISBNs.)
Converting and Formatting Your Work
Nearly every service asks you to upload a completed book file that is appropriately formatted. Services vary widely in the types of files they accept. Because standards are still developing in the e-book world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services.
Here are the most commonly used formats for e-books:
- EPUB. This is considered a global standard format for e-books and works seamlessly on most devices. While you cannot directly create an EPUB file from a Word document, you can save your Word document as a text (.txt) file, then convert and format it using special software.
- MOBI. This is the format that’s ideal for Amazon Kindle, although you can also upload an EPUB file.
- PDF. PDFs can be difficult to convert to standard e-book formats, and do not display well on grayscale reading devices.
Many e-publishing services accept a Word document and automatically convert it to the appropriate format, but you still must go through an “unformatting” process for best results. All major services offer step-by-step guidelines for formatting your Word documents before you upload them for conversion.
Important to note: There is a difference between formatting and converting your book files. Conversion refers to an automated process of converting files from one format into another, without editing or styling. It’s often easy to convert files, but the resulting file may look unprofessional—or even appear unreadable—if not formatted appropriately.
Useful tools for formatting and converting e-books include:
- Calibre: Free software that converts and helps you format e-book files from more than a dozen different file types.
- Sigil: Free WYSIWYG editing and formatting software for e-books in the EPUB format; you can start with plain text files saved from Word.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the idea of converting and formatting your own e-book files, then you may want to use a distributor or service that’s customer-service oriented in this regard, such as Draft2Digital or BookBaby. If your ebook has special layout requirements, heavy illustration, or multimedia components, you should probably hire an independent company to help you, such as Brady Typesetting.
But if your book is mostly straight text—such as novels and narrative works—then you might be able to handle the conversion and formatting process without much difficulty if you’re starting with a Word document or text file.
Designing an E-Book Cover
There are a number of special considerations for e-book covers, not least of which is how little control you have over how the cover displays. People may see your cover in black and white, grayscale, color, high-resolution, low-resolution, thumbnail size, or full size. It needs to be readable at all sizes and look good on low-quality or mobile devices. For these reasons (and many more), it’s best to hire a professional to create an e-book cover for you. One designer I frequently recommend is Damon Za.
Maximizing Your Sales
With print books, your success is typically driven by the quality of your book, your visibility or reach to your readership, and your cover. With digital books, the same factors are in play, plus the following:
- If you check the e-book bestseller lists, you’ll see that independent novelists charge very little for their work, usually between 99 cents and $2.99. Some argue this devalues the work, while others say that it’s appropriate for an e-book from an unknown author. Whatever your perspective, just understand that, if you’re an unknown author, your competition will probably be priced at $2.99 or less to encourage readers to take a chance. Typically, the more well known or trusted you are, the more you can charge. Note: Nonfiction authors should price according to the competition and what the market can bear. Sometimes prices are just as high for digital editions as print editions in nonfiction categories.
- As of this writing, Amazon Kindle accounted for at least 60–70% of e-book sales in the United States. Your Amazon page (especially as displayed on a Kindle) may be the first and only page a reader looks at when deciding whether to purchase your book. Reviews become critical in assuring readers of quality, plus the Kindle bestseller list is watched closely by just about everyone in the business and can be a key driver of visibility and sales.
- Price + Amazon. Amazon is well known for paying 70% of list to authors who price their e-books between $2.99 and $9.99. The percentage plummets to 35% for any price outside this range, which is why you find authors periodically switching their price between 99 cents and $2.99. They maximize volume and visibility at the low-price point (and attempt to get on bestseller lists), then switch to $2.99 to maximize profits.
This is but a scratch on the surface of the many strategies and tactics used to sell and market self-published work.Read these guides for in-depth coverage.
Should I Set Up a Formal Imprint or Publishing Company?
Much depends on your long-term plans or goals. You don’t have to set up a formal business (e.g., in the United States, you can use your Social Security number for tax purposes), but serious self-publishers will typically set up an LLC at minimum.
For the basic information on how to establish your own imprint or publishing company, read Joel Friedlander’s post, How to Create, Register, and List Your New Publishing Company. It also discusses the ISBN issue.
What About Agents Who Offer E-Publishing Services?
Increasingly, agents are starting to help existing clients as well as new ones digitally publish their work. Help might consist of fee-based services, royalty-based services, and hybrid models.
Such practices are controversial because agents’ traditional role is to serve as an advocate for their clients’ interests and negotiate the best possible deals. When agents start publishing their clients’ work and taking their 15% cut of sales, a conflict of interest develops.
In their defense, agents are changing their roles in response to industry change, as well as client demand. Regardless of how you proceed, look for flexibility in any agreements you sign. Given the pace of change in the market, it’s not a good idea to enter into an exclusive, long-term contract that locks you into a low royalty rate or into a distribution deal that may fall behind in best practices.
How to Produce a Print Edition
There are two primary ways to make print editions available for sale:
- Print on demand (POD)
- Traditional offset printing
As described earlier, print-on-demand technology allows for books to be printed one at a time. This is by far the most popular way to produce print copies of your book. If you’ve investigated services like AuthorHouse, iUniverse, or any of the many subsidiaries of Author Solutions, then you were looking at services that primarily offer POD publishing packages. Traditional publishers also use POD to keep older titles in stock without committing to warehousing and inventory costs.
Pros of print-on-demand
- Little or no upfront costs (if you avoid full-service packages)
- Your book can be available for sale as a print edition in all the usual online retail outlets (Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, etc), as well as distributed through Ingram, the largest U.S. book wholesaler.
- Most readers cannot tell the difference between a POD book and an offset printed book.
Cons of print-on-demand
- The unit cost is much higher, which may lead to a higher retail price.
- You may have very few print copies on hand—or it will be expensive to keep ordering print copies to have around!
Most books printed by U.S. traditional publishers are produced through offset printing. To use a traditional printer, you usually need to commit to 1,000 copies minimum.
Pros of offset printing
- Lower unit cost
- Higher quality production values, especially for full-color books
- You’ll have plenty of print copies around.
Cons of offset printing
- Considerable upfront investment; $2,000 is the likely minimum, which includes the printing and shipping costs.
- Increased risk—what if the books don’t sell or you want to put out a new edition before the old one is sold out?
- You’ll have plenty of print copies around—which means you have books to warehouse and fulfill unless you hire a third party to handle it for you, which then incurs additional costs.
Important: While it can be fairly straightforward and inexpensive to get a print book in your hands via print-on-demand services, virtually no one can get your book physically ordered or stocked in bookstores. Services may claim to distribute your book to stores or make your book available to stores. But this is very different from actually sellingyour book into bookstores. Bookstores almost never accept or stock titles from any self-publishing service or POD company, although they can special order for customers when asked, assuming the book appears in their system.
Also, think through the paradox: Print-on-demand services or technology should be used for books that are printed only when there’s demand. Your book is not going to be nationally distributed and sitting on store shelves unless or until a real order is placed.
Should I Invest in a Print Run?
The 3 key factors are:
1. How and where you plan to sell the book. If you frequently speak and have opportunities to sell your books at events, then it makes sense to invest in a print run. Also consider if you’ll want significant quantities to distribute or sell to business partners or organizations, stock in local/regional retail outlets or businesses, give to clients, etc. I do not recommend investing in a print run because you think bookstores or retail outlets will stock your book. If such an opportunity should arise, then you can always invest in a print run after you have a sales order or firm commitment.
2. Where you’re driving sales. If you’re driving your customers/readers primarily to online retailers, you can fulfill print orders with less hassle and investment by using POD. Ultimately, you do have to use POD regardless if you want to be distributed by the largest U.S. wholesaler, Ingram. (More info below.)
3. What your budget is like. Not everyone is comfortable investing in a print run.
You also need to anticipate your appetite for handling the warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping of 1,000+ books, unless a third party is handling it for you, which will reduce your profit. When the truck pulls up to your house with several pallets piled high with 30-pound boxes, it will be a significant reality check if you haven’t thought through your decision.
The majority of independent authors report selling about 100 e-books for every print book. Much depends on the genre, but in the U.S. e-books represent 30-35% of all books sold. So also keep this in mind as you decide how many print copies you need.
If you choose print-on-demand, then I recommend the following:
- Use Ingram Spark to produce a POD edition for all markets except Amazon. By doing so, your book will be listed and available for order through the largest and most preferred U.S. wholesaler, Ingram.
- Using CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) to produce a POD edition for Amazon sales. For many authors, the majority of sales will be through Amazon.
I recommend using both Ingram Spark and CreateSpace to maximize your profits and ensure that no one is discouraged from ordering or stocking the print edition of your book. As you might imagine, independent bookstores aren’t crazy about ordering books provided by CreateSpace/Amazon, their key competitor. However, if you use Ingram Spark to fulfill orders through Amazon, you will reduce your profits because Amazon offers more favorable terms when selling books generated through CreateSpace. So it’s much more advantageous financially to use CreateSpace—but limit the scope of that agreement to just Amazon orders.
As soon as your printer-ready files are uploaded, POD books are generally available for order at Amazon within 48 hours. With Ingram Spark, it generally takes 2 weeks for the book to be available through all their channels.
Wait, How Do I Get Printer-Ready Files?
As with e-book retailers/distributors, Ingram Spark and CreateSpace may offer you fee-based services related to editing, design, and marketing. These package services may work OK for your needs, but try to hire your own freelancers if you need someone to produce printer-ready files.
Alternatively, you can take a look at Joel Friedlander’s book template system, which offers a way for total beginners to prepare a printer-ready PDF file. There’s also PressBooks.
I Still Have Questions
I would expect so! This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more on this topic at the following posts:
- The Basics of Self-Publishing by David Gaughran
- Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine offers in-depth reviews of just about every publishing service out there. Read his review before using any service. You can also hire him for a consultation if you need expert guidance.
I Want to Pay Someone to Self-Publish My Book
Here are two full-service providers who are high quality.
The rise and rise of self-publishing has meant an influx of writers into the market, and many established authors with back-lists are also joining the fun.
There is a LOT of information out there on how to publish your book, but I still get emails every day asking me how to do it.
[Please note: this post is updated over time so the information is current]
I also get emails from people who have paid $20,000+, have been utterly ripped off and are devastated with the results. This happened to me once, although with a lesser financial impact, and I am passionate about making sure authors don’t fall into these traps.
With big name publishers like Penguin/Random House and Simon & Schuster signing up with Author Solutions to further exploit this kind of vanity publishing, you guys need to know there is a better and cheaper way.
I have a whole page on Publishing options here, but I thought a round-up post was called for. There are options below for publishing ebooks and print books, with DIY options and easy, paid services, so there’s something for everyone.
Before you publish
Yes, you need a great book, and I believe you need to go through anediting process, and also get a professional cover design.
If you have existing contracts for your books, and /or have been published in the past, check you have the rights before you publish. If you’re a new author, you have the rights and you can do what you like. You can publish in any or all of the following ways. There are no rules and you can sell globally! [woohoo!]
How to publish an ebook – the DIY option
(1) Format your book in Scrivener to create a .mobi (for Kindle), ePub for Kobo and Smashwords (very soon) or Word, PDF or loads of other formats.
Scrivener is only $45 and the compile function is just one part of the amazing writing software, which many authors (including me) swear by. I also recommend (and use) the brilliant Learn Scrivener Fast video training program which includes formatting videos.
(2) Publish on the ebook stores
For the best royalty rates, you want to go direct to the retailers if you can and the process is easy. There’s plenty of help on each of these sites.
- Publish on Barnes & Noble NookPress (which opened up to UK and some European countries in March 2014)
You can also publish to all these stores and more through Smashwords (free with % royalty per book sales) or BookBaby (costs upfront but 100% royalty paid to author, or paid option with % royalty) or Draft2Digital (free with % royalty). Here’s a useful post on Bookbaby vs Smashwords so you can evaluate the services.
How to publish an ebook – the paid services option
I know that some people don’t want to mess around with ebook files. I used to feel like that too, but seriously, if you’re publishing a lot, then try Scrivener. It will save you loads of money.
But if you definitely want help, there are lots of services that can do this, so you should shop around, check reviews and testimonials and ask other authors what they think.
Here are some options:
- Createspace conversion to Kindle file (for Amazon only)
- Ebook Architects – for more complicated books
- Bibliocrunch author concierge services – or post a job to get someone to help you
How to publish a print book
Most independent authors make more profit from ebooks, soyou should only consider print if you really want it for personal reasons, or if you have a live platform to sell it (e.g. speakers). Then you should consider print-on-demand as the best option as you don’t have to pay upfront printing/storage or shipping costs.
If you’re going to produce a print book, then also consider interior book design. You can get a Book Construction Blueprint and reasonably priced Word templates to DIY for Print on Demand services through Book Design Templates.
Only do a print run if you have the distribution sorted out – too many authors lose money this way (I certainly did!)
If you want a DIY option, and the best financial deal, then LightningSource is probably the best bet. However, you need print ready files for your cover and interior and you have to know what you’re doing.
If you want an easier DIY option, with wizards and extra help, then go with CreateSpace.com,Amazon’s own self-publishing company. They also have an option to make the ebook as well. If you have your own print-ready files, it is free to publish. Here’s a comparison post between Createspace and LightningSource.
If you want to do print properly, soak up everything you can from TheBookDesigner.com – one of the very best blogs for self-publishers.
In terms of premium services, there are more companies offering these every day, some of them at astronomical prices, so please be very careful.
Check out Amazon’s Createspace Premium prices here. Then compare what they offer to anything else you check out, since you know if you go with Createspace that you will be able to sell on Amazon.
If you like the look of a company, then check Preditors and Editors publishing guide for red flags, because a professional online site may still mean a rip-off.
Please note that Author Solutions, which is the service Random/Penguin & Simon & Schuster have chosen is marked: Not recommended. A company that owns or operates vanity imprints AuthorHouse, DellArte, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, West Bow, and Xlibris. Here’s an article about their dishonest marketing tactics on Writer Beware,
What happens next?
Obviously once the book is available at all online book retailers, it won’t fly off the shelves without some help.
Read this post for starters: Help! My book isn’t selling. 10 questions to answer honestly if you aren’t making enough sales.
If you want to read a book on the topic, then I recommend the following:
Want to join a community of active self-publishers who help each other out with information and advice? Check out the Alliance of Independent Authors. (I’m an active member and advisor). There’s also a great blog: How to successfully self-publish
Do you have any questions about publishing your book?
Please do leave questions or comments below. This is a community of LOTS of authors, new and experienced, so together we can likely answer everything! I’d also love people to recommend any services they have actually used and thought were good. (No posts from companies though – only authors!)
How To Self-Publish Your Book Through Amazon
Not so long ago, the first hurdle for an aspiring book author was to get past the gatekeepers. First you would have to spend weeks or months writing a book proposal and sample chapters. Then you might contact a bunch of agents to see if they would be interested in pitching your book to major publishers. Most would grumble that your idea would not be likely to make a lot of money, or that it sounded “more like a magazine article than a book.” At this point you might abandon the project or, if you were really persistent, send your proposal directly to publishers. If they didn’t ship the package back to you unopened, they would either send you a form rejection letter or make you a lowball offer.
Various tools for self-publishing have taken down these barriers for authors who prefer to go it alone. I’m one of them (see my post, “How My Book Became A (Self-Published) Best Seller). Paul Jarvis is another. He’s a web designer and author who has self-published four books, includingEverything I Know, which between the print and ebook versions sold a total of 4,000 copies. His upcoming book, The Good Creative, due out June 4, explores 18 traits of the world’s most interesting and respected creative professionals. In the following guest post he provides a roadmap to the various Amazon services that have liberated authors from traditional publishers. You can follow him on Twitter.
Most independently published authors fall into one of two camps: Those selling books on their own website using an ecommerce tool; and those selling only through Amazon.
I started out in the first camp two years ago when I used Gumroad to self-publish the ebook, Eat Awesome. Gumroad allows you to sell a variety of digital products from your own web site, including ebooks, music and software. Setup takes less than five minutes. They take a very small percentage (5% + 25 cents) of each sale. I sold 5,410 copies of the book I published with them, netting about $12,033 (after they took their fees).
My second book, Be Awesome at Online Business, I sold exactly same way. I also signed up for distribution through Bookbaby, but didn’t promote those avenues, so I noticed little or no sales.
Curious about Amazon’s services for independent authors, last year I listed my third book,Everything I Know, for sale exclusively through their website. Sales during the first four months exceeded 4,000 downloads. That’s more than double the number of downloads of either of the previous two books during the first four months of publication. I also now sell paperback copies, which Amazon prints as orders come in, accounting for 10% of my book sales each month. Typically I sell 70 to 100 print books per month, netting around $400 per month from that version of the book. In addition, I’m averaging about 700 digital downloads per month, which net me $2,870.
Amazon’s suite of services for independent authors makes it possible for me and many other authors to bypass traditional publishing companies. It gives us the tools to create and sell digital books; print and sell paperback copies on demand; add author pages and even market books. Here are five Amazon services, all of them free to set up, that every indie author needs to know about.
Kindle Direct Publishing. This service, known by the shorthand KDP, enables indie authors to sell the digital version of their books on Amazon.com (or other Amazon country websites). There’s no charge to upload the file. Authors get royalties of 35% to 70% of the sale price, depending on whether the book is sold on KDP or through another Amazon service called KDP Select (more about that below).
Unlike most other digital retailers, KDP uses the format known as “mobi.” This is simply the file format for digital books that Amazon uses, and it works on all Kindle devices. You can upload your book on Amazon using other formats as explained on the Amazon site, including ePub, which is the most popular one (that’s what Apple uses), and others such as HTML, Doc, and RTF. However, in my experience it looks better if you start out with a mobi file because any formatting you create – for example for images, charts and tables – stays intact.
Let’s say you have written your book in Word and want to convert it to mobi. You can do this using the free software Calibre (available for PC or Mac). I’ve used the Mac version and it works very well if your Word document has no page numbers. For best results it should include links to each chapter in a table of contents that’s formatted to meet Amazon’s specifications listed here.
Another option is to pay one of the many digital publishing or formatting companies that offer the service of converting a Word file to the digital format of your choice. Pricing is either per book or based on the number of words. With a professional service you should expect to pay in the hundreds of dollars to have your book set up, formatted and converted from a Word DOC to a mobi or ePub file. You can locate less expensive services through fiverr.com. But as with so many other things, you typically get what you pay for, so look at the company’s portfolio and speak with some of their author clients before retaining the firm.
You will also have the ability to preview your Kindle book before it’s published on Amazon.com, so if you catch any mistakes, you can make your changes and re-upload.
One of the nice things about KDP is that Amazon does not require digital exclusivity. So authors can still sell the same digital book anywhere else on the Internet on through other stores like The Nook Book Store or iTunes.
KDP Select. By using this service, rather than the plain-vanilla one, you tap into Amazon’s marketing muscle. To do that you must give them an exclusive on your digital book for 90 days. In return, KDP Select pays higher royalties (closer to the 70% mentioned earlier), and allows those books to be part of the lending library for their Prime Members. Authors get paid a percentage of the total amount Amazon Prime members pay for each book lent out.
For example, if the total amount Prime members pay in April is $1 million and 300,000 titles are lent out, if your book is lent out 1,500 times you would make .5% or $5,000. Last month it worked out to $2.12 per book for me, which is average. This month alone 127 people have grabbed Everything I Know from the lending library, so it’s a decent chunck of “sales.”
KDP Select also gives you the option to make your book free or discounted for up to five days, as part of your promotional campaign. During that time, it appears on sales pages on Amazon.com, which drives more people to it. Though you will obviously earn nothing from these sales, it can help build buzz for your book just as you are launching it.
If you subscribe to the theory that offering a book for free – even briefly – can ultimately pay off, there are also lots of websites that promote free or discounted Kindle books to massive audiences.Bookbub is the largest, with over 2 million subscribers. Bookbub and other larger promotion websites will charge you a fee (from $40 in less popular categories to $400 to $1,500 in very popular categories) to advertise with them. I think it’s worth it (if you can afford it), to put your book in front of a much larger audience.
Using Bookbub, Book Gorilla (the second largest Kindle promotion company) and my own marketing efforts, I drove 39,000 downloads to Everything I Know in just three days. Four weeks later, after the book went back to the normal price of $6.99, sales continued at a slightly higher volume than prior to the sale. I have now sold more than 4,000 copies.
Based on my conversations with other indie authors and their posts on various message boards and blogs, other authors also see huge sales on days when their books are discounted, and even more massive downloads on days when those books are free. This, in turn, leads to higher than usual sales on the days right after promotions (when the book has gone back to its regular price), and generally helps to expand awareness of the book.
CreateSpace. This is Amazon’s print-on-demand service for indie authors. It lets you sell a paperback copy of your book either on CreateSpace.com or directly from Amazon.com. All you have to do is upload a PDF based on their specifications and set how much you’d like to make. (They give you a base price; you make the public price something over that.)
You don’t pay for book printing – you simply collect a commission whenever it sells. You’re in charge of the price and associated commission as well. When you upload your book, Amazon tells you what their costs are — $2.50 for example, for a 150-page book. From there you can price your book at anything higher, say $9. Under that scenario, for each paperback sale, Amazon keeps $2.50 and the shipping costs that it charges the buyer, and you keep $6.50.
Authors design (or can have CreateSpace design for an extra fee) a cover and upload their content in PDF format. Once it’s uploaded you can download or physically order a “proof” copy or view it directly on their website. That way, if you need to make changes, you can do that before it’s made available for sale.
CreateSpace also lets you link a Kindle version of your book to the paperback. This way, purchasers can pick their format on the same sales page, which is a helpful customer-oriented feature. All it requires is that you upload a properly formatted Kindle version as well. If you’re already added your Kindle version to KDP or KDP Select, Amazon will connect your paperback to the digital version on the same page on their website.
Print on demand is perfect for most indie authors because it’s hard to judge how well your book will sell, and ordering copies before they’re sold can be a massive expense. With CreateSpace, those obstacles disappear. However the current limitations are that there’s no hardcover option and I’ve found the binding and spines of the books printed through them are weak. You also have to use one of only a few options for the size of the book.
I didn’t think print was worth it for independently published authors since it can leave you with unsold inventory (which you will need to store at your house or arrange to store elsewhere). But as soon as I started offering paperback copies of Everything I Know through CreateSpace, I noticed that at least 10% of my sales were physical copies. Since it’s printed on demand through Amazon, there’s no inventory — just royalties, automatically deposited to my bank account each month.
Amazon Author Central. Whether your book is published by a traditional publisher or you are an indie author, Amazon lets you create an author page like this one. You can add your biography; your photo; editorial reviews; and your blog’s RSS feed (so it grabs new articles). It’s even possible to share upcoming speaking and book-signing events and show your latest tweets.
Every Amazon page for your book links to this enormously useful marketing tool, so it cross-links other books you have published, too. On your author page, readers can even sign up to get email notifications from Amazon when you release new books.
Having an Author Central page doesn’t require using other Amazon services. All that’s necessary is that one or more of your books is for sale in any way on Amazon. From there it’s simply a matter of letting Amazon know that you’re the author and following the prompts to set up the page.
Amazon Associates. This is an affiliate service that pays you for linking to products on Amazon.com. You can use this to link to your own books (it’s not against the rules), and make an extra 4% to 8% on each sale. You also get commissions from any other item someone buys on Amazon.com if they landed on the site by using your affiliate link.
Anyone can sign up for a free affiliate account — you don’t even need to be an author. After that, there’s a step-by-step walk-through for generating affiliate links. I use affiliate links on my own website, as that’s a large sales channel. So each time someone clicks the link to buy my book from my website, I get paid twice: once from the affiliate and once from the royalties I receive.
On average, I make a few hundred dollars each month from my affiliate account, because every time I link to my books from my website I use an Amazon Associates URL that’s got a tracking ID attached. This tracking ID tells Amazon that I sent that sale to them, so they’ll send me a commission of that sale.
There are important rules to be aware of with Amazon Associates. For instance, you aren’t allowed to use associate links in newsletters, emails or PDFs. It’s also against the rules to shorten your affiliate link on social media (which Twitter and Facebook do automatically).
The downside of selling on Amazon is that authors don’t get access to customer information (like name or email addresses) and the royalties are lower than they would be selling directly on an author’s own website, using services such as Gumroad.
Returns or refunds are handled by Amazon. I’ve never seen a refund request for any paperback copies of my book, but Kindle ebook purchasers do request them within the seven days that Amazon allows. Of course some buyers abuse the system, reading the book and then returning it. There are even petitions from authors to stop or shorten the refund time. But I don’t object to the policy. The return rate for my Kindle books has only been about 1%. And I even think the policy helps encourage customers to take a chance on indie authors. If they dislike the book enough to request a refund, they should get one.
Self-publishing through Amazon makes sense for authors who are willing to give up the customer details and accept lower royalties for a potentially higher sales volume. I’ve seen a massive spike in sales by selling this way, rather then with services like Gumroad. Everything I Know, which has only been out a few months, has already had double the sales of my previous book, Be Awesome at Online Business, which has been out 1½ years. So I don’t plan to ignore Amazon anytime soon.
For future books, though, I plan to sell on both platforms. I will still use Amazon but avoid the exclusivity that’s part of KDP Select.