The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

Chapter 1: Getting Started in Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is often anything but “do-it-yourself”; strategic self-publishing requires evaluating what kind of help you need and the various types of services that can meet those needs. Before you decide to self-publish, it’s important to have the right expectations of what skills are required and what you can accomplish. Here we’ll walk through six key questions to ask yourself, not least of which is: How much of an entrepreneur are you?

We’ll review the differences between full-service publishing providers, book distributors, and book retailers that work with self-publishing authors, while explaining which type of service is best for your situation.

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The full article INCLUDES:

Should you self-publish?

And 5 other key questions to ask yourself.

What are the qualities of the audience you are targeting?

Some genres or categories of work are ideal for self-publishing efforts because the audience or market is already primed to discover their next read through online channels.

Evaluating the publishing help you need

How to find the right serviceswhether you have an unpublished book or want to re-release a previously published book.

And more…

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The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

Chapter 1: Getting Started in Self-Publishing


Just as traditional publishing has changed on account of the rise of online retail and e-books, today’s self-publishing market has transformed as well. E-books constitute about one-third of all U.S. book sales, and about 60 percent or more of all U.S. book sales (both print and digital) happen through Amazon. Literally anyone can make her book available for sale in the most important market without a middleman or third-party assistance. That means the expensive publishing service providers that used to make a killing in the self-publishing market—for print editions—are now on the decline, and make little sense if you’re focused on publishing and marketing your e-book. However, because of self-publishing’s history, you may still think these companies 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 a range of do-it-yourself services and distributors that directly cater to independent authors. One could say that sales and distribution through these channels are free. You don’t “pay” until your book starts to sell. Every time a copy of your book is sold, the retailer or distributor takes a cut.

Should you self-publish?

As late as the mid-2000s, a significant stigma surrounded both self-published books and self-published authors. I recall speaking at the Chicago chapter of the Romance Writers of America during that time, and running a workshop on how to self-publish. About three people showed up, and two of them were already self-published; it was by far the worst-attended session I’ve ever hosted at a major writing event. Self-publishing was not a well-regarded path to success, and it indicated some kind of author failing or eccentricity—whereas today, romance authors are by far the most successful indie authors and lead the charge in innovation in marketing and promotion for self-published titles.

Even though it’s become straightforward and more attractive to self-publish, authors need to carefully evaluate their goals in doing so. Here are the key factors to consider.

Do you expect or want to see your book stocked in bookstores across the country?

It is next to impossible for a self-published author with a single title to achieve wide-scale distribution for her book at brick-and-mortar stores. You may be able to get your book stocked locally or regionally, especially if you have the right connections or are a well-known person in your community. But for the most part, a self-published author’s books will sell primarily through online retail, whether as a print book or an e-book. That’s not the drawback it used to be.

Do you want to hit the New York Times bestseller list or secure major media attention?

If your goal is a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ll probably need a traditional publisher’s muscle behind you. It’s also very challenging to get any major media outlet to pay attention to you as a self-published author unless you’ve previously received coverage. (Of course, traditionally published authors struggle as well—just not as terrifically hard.)

That said, self-published authors are not uncommon on the USA Today e-book bestseller list, as well as Amazon bestseller lists. And if your book appeals to a niche audience, the media outlets that serve that niche audience are probably open to covering your work.

It’s very difficult to score traditional book reviews or traditional media coverage—or even to hire a traditional publicist—when you’re a self-published author. New indie authors find how much they’re ignored by traditional media to be exceptionally frustrating. Traditional publishers have a much easier time getting those doors to open.

Does your book appeal to a specific audience that you can (or already) reach on your own?

It makes little sense to partner with a traditional publisher when the book’s audience is one that you already reach easily and comprehensively on your own—whether that’s through your own business, website/blog, speaking engagements, or anything else that brings you in touch with your readership or fan base.

If you’re looking for a book to increase your readership in some way—or to help you pivot—then a publisher can be useful in setting the stage, helping secure traditional media, or extending distribution in a way that supports those goals. As an example, bestselling indie author CJ Lyons partnered with Sourcebooks when she started a new young adult series, since it was a departure from her previous work, which focused on adults.

What are the qualities of the audience or the market you are targeting?

Some genres or categories are ideal for self-publishing efforts because the audience or market is already primed to consume material digitally and to discover its next read through online channels. Romance and erotica are prime examples. But then there are other markets where you’ll find it very difficult to gain traction because they either haven’t moved predominantly to digital consumption, or the traditional publishers still perform a valued gatekeeping role—providing needed or wanted validation and curation. Literary work is one such market: you’ll find it hard to gain acceptance within a certain community unless your work has been editorially selected; plus the literary audience still prefers print. Children’s books—especially for the youngest readers—is another area where it can be challenging to gain acceptance without a traditional publisher. Educators, librarians, and others who are in a position to introduce books to children are using trade publications, reviews, and other traditional methods to guide their selections. Self-published authors need to have a very high level of proficiency in the publishing business to get attention—or a lot of luck.

How much of an entrepreneur are you?

Becoming a self-published author means you are fully responsible for your book’s success. If you’re a first-time author, you may have little or no knowledge of what a professionally published book looks like, or you may not understand the editing or design process, or how sales and distribution work. You’ll need an entrepreneurial mind-set to undertake a serious self-publishing career, and a willingness to learn the business of publishing. Some authors are not eager to learn and would rather outsource as much of the work as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—as a self-published author, you can hire whomever you want to assist you—but some authors’ personalities are a poor fit for the demands of a professional self-publishing operation.

If you would rather work with a team of people, or feel like you have a business partner, you may be better suited to traditional publishing. Some authors have always dreamed of working with a traditional publisher, and nothing will satisfy them until they get that experience. This isn’t something to be ashamed of; in fact, if you can figure this out sooner rather than later, you might save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort self-publishing because you think that’s the “right” or “better” thing to do.

The catch-22, however, is that once you experience what traditional publishing has to offer, you may end up disappointed by it. Or maybe not. Authors’ experiences vary so widely—even within the same publishing house—that it is very difficult to generalize.

Finally, a successful self-publisher must have some level of proficiency and confidence when it comes to online marketing and digital media.

Because most of your sales will happen through online retail, you need to show up and be familiar with how books get marketed and promoted in online environments. You’ll need a professional author website, some level of activity on social media, and a willingness to experiment with online sales and marketing tactics.

Evaluating The Publishing Help You Need

Self-publishing is often anything but “self”; every author typically requires some level of assistance in order to get her book to market. Strategic self-publishing requires producing and distributing at least two editions of your work: print and e-book. E-book is the easiest and least expensive edition to produce and distribute; print requires more knowledge and investment.
So how much help do you need? Here are the most common scenarios.

You need to go from unpublished manuscript to finished book on sale.

If your work has never before been published, you have the greatest potential expense and work ahead of you. Depending on your level of confidence in the manuscript, you may need to hire editorial help to revise or polish. If you’ve never published a book, you may be unfamiliar with the publishing process and what’s involved in getting a book produced, distributed, and sold.

Authors in this situation may prefer to hire a full-service publishing provider (more information in the chapter on  Full-service publishing providers) to help them through every stage of the process, although this can be expensive and time-intensive. Unfortunately, this is where the largest number of questionable author services operate—where you can be charged thousands of dollars for average or substandard publishing work. However, with appropriate research and an accurate understanding of the services you need, you should be able to find help that fits your budget, assuming that budget isn’t zero.

Authors with prior experience in the publishing industry, who have more awareness of the various stages of book editing, design, and production—and have some experience dealing with freelancers—are in a better position to oversee and manage the process of getting their book published without involving a services company.

You want to rerelease a previously published book.

If you’ve reacquired the rights to your work from a publisher, then rereleasing the work is a fairly straightforward matter of producing printer-ready book files and professional e-book files. Some publishers will allow you to purchase some or all of the book’s production materials, which is an ideal scenario. If this isn’t possible, the best way forward is to hire individual freelancers, then deal directly with distributors or retailers yourself to make your work available for sale (see Most Commonly Used Services). However, if you’re an author with multiple titles that have reverted, you may prefer to deal with an agent, distributor, or service willing to act as an administrator and manager for a percentage cut of sales.

You have professionally formatted book files ready to go.

If you have printer-ready files for your book—a cover and book interior in PDF form—as well as e-book files (EPUB or MOBI), then you can get your book available on sale within roughly 24 to 72 hours, depending on the distributor or retailer you choose.

Most of the work involved in self-publishing is getting your work produced as a printer-ready book file (always a PDF file) or as a professional e-book file (EPUB). Once you have the files in hand, there is little cost or work involved in making the title available for sale, and you don’t need to hire a service to help you do what is easily accomplished yourself, unless you have many titles to manage.

What services are available to help you?

The service landscape breaks down into roughly three categories.

  1. Full-service publishing providers. For the purposes of our discussion, a full-service publishing provider is a company that sells you a package of services that include editorial, design, and production help, and likely handles distribution, marketing, and sales as part of that package. How much of the company’s help you actually need is the biggest challenge you’ll face when deciding what type of service package to buy. Most authors require editorial and design help, as well as assistance with marketing copy (such as back cover copy or book descriptions). Assistance with distribution, advertising, publicity or promotion, and digital media may be overpriced and unneeded. Examples of well-regarded providers include Matador, Mill City Press, and SilverWood Books. Author Solutions imprints also fall under this category.
  2. Book distributors and book retailers that also offer publishing services. Some distributors that are very popular offer a la carte services to help authors with various aspects of the publishing and marketing processes. Examples include CreateSpace, BookBaby, and Lulu.
  3. Distributors and retailers without any service component. Many of the same distributors and retailers that traditional publishers use are also open to self-published authors. While the up-front cost is zero, you must have your files in order and ready to go; no assistance is provided, and the platform is 100 percent “do-it-yourself.” Examples include IngramSpark, Smashwords, and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

As explained earlier, the first category best suits authors who have little or no familiarity with publishing, but the service provider needs be chosen carefully to avoid excessive expense for limited return. It’s also good for authors who have more money than time, or would like to feel as if they are going through a more “traditional” publishing process, with a team of people working on their book.

The second category works well for authors with a limited budget who need some amount of help, but don’t want the stress or confusion of figuring out where and how to hire the right freelancers. Sometimes the uneducated author ends up in this place because she knows enough to go to a book distributor or retailer for self-publishing help, and she assumes it’s best to hire the distributor or retailer to take care of her other needs. Maybe, maybe not! (See Hiring Freelancers.)

The third category is best for more experienced authors who are not intimidated by the publishing landscape, or who have experience hiring freelance help (or have preferred editors or designers) and have a rough understanding of the various steps in the publishing process. It is possible for first-time authors to be successful with this category as well, especially if they have an entrepreneurial spirit and are armed with a decent guide to the process—such as this one.

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