Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know

Considering self-publishing a book? CNET's David Carnoy discusses the ins and outs of what it's all about.

Note to readers: I originally published the article back in 2008 and have updated it a few times, most recently on June 13, 2012. This article primarily addresses self-publishing a print book, though many of the tips apply to e-books as well. For specific information about publishing an e-book, see my companion article, " How to self-publish an ebook ."

I know, I know. This is a column about cutting-edge electronics. So, apologies to gadget-heads as I take a brief sojourn into the land of self-publishing, which has become a lot more high-tech than a lot of people realize.

A few years ago I wrote a book. A novel. "Knife Music." Contrary to what you might think based on my day job, it's not a cyber-thriller, though it is a mystery/thriller with a medical/legal slant.

Publishing Perspectives

Its short history is this: I worked on it for several years, acquired a high-powered agent, had some brushes with major publishers, then, crickets.

I could have tried to go for a small publisher, but I was told mine was "a bigger book" with more commercial aspirations and prestigious small publishers were interested in more literary tomes. I also learned that many small publishers were being wiped out by the "self-publishing revolution," a movement that's not so unlike the "citizen journalism" or bloggers' revolt of recent years that's had a major impact on mainstream media, including this publication. The basic premise is anyone can become a small publisher. You call the shots. You retain the rights to your book. And you take home a bigger royalty than you'd normally get from a traditional publisher--if you sell any books.

Against the advice of my agent, I began perusing the big self-publishing companies' Web sites and evaluating what they had to offer. Then I started poking around blogs and message boards to get customer testimonials. What I found was a veritable minefield with roads that forked in every direction and very few clear answers.

After much deliberation, I chose BookSurge, a print-on-demand (POD) outfit that Amazon owned along with the more no-frills POD operation CreateSpace. In 2009, after I published, Amazon merged BookSurge and CreateSpace under the CreateSpace brand name, so when I say Booksurge going forward, you should think CreateSpace. For those new to self-publishing, it's worth noting that CreateSpace is considered a subsidy press or author-services company. The key to these companies is that books are printed only when someone orders a copy; neither author nor publisher is forced into buying a bunch of books and having to hawk them.

Royalties are better than what "real" publishers offer, but there are caveats, and true self-publishing pros prefer to cut out the subsidy press (which takes a cut) and go straight to a POD printer like Lightning Source to maximize profits. But I was less concerned about making money from this venture and more interested in putting together a well-packaged product that I wouldn't be embarrassed to sell and some strangers might be willing to buy. If I did it right, I thought, and managed to get it some attention, some "real" publisher might come along and discover what a gem those 20 some odd publishers had passed on.

Well, thanks to a little publicity courtesy of Apple and a rejected -- then accepted -- free iPhone app, four and half months after I self-published "Knife Music," my agent sold it to The Overlook Press, an independent publisher that put the book out in hardcover in July 2010. A few months later it came out as an e-book and did very well, rising to as high as No. 4 on the Kindle bestseller list. Later this year Overlook will publish my second novel, "The Big Exit."

As I said, that's the short story, and many things have changed -- particularly for the e-book industry -- since I first wrote this column back in December 2008. But most of what I learned along the way and what I picked up from other people who've also self-published, applies more than ever. As always, feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section, and thanks to all the readers who've e-mailed in the past.

1. Self-publishing is easy.

Self-publishing a print book is easy. Self-publishing an e-book is even easier.

Since this article is mainly about self-publishing an old-fashioned print book, here's the skinny on what it takes to put together such a book:

You choose a size for your book, format your Word manuscript to fit that size, turn your Word doc into a PDF, create some cover art in Photoshop, turn that into a PDF, and upload it all to the self-publisher of your choice and get a book proof back within a couple of weeks (or sooner) if you succeeded in formatting everything correctly. You can then make changes and swap in new PDFs.

After you officially publish your book, you can make changes to your cover and interior text by submitting new PDFs, though your book will go offline ("out of stock") for a week or two. Companies may charge a fee (around $25-$50) for uploading a new cover or new interior.

Both CreateSpace and Lulu offer good instructions for the DIY crowd and it's not that difficult to come up with an OK-looking book (people's definition of OK will vary).

2. Digital, not print, is your best bet.

The first thing I tell authors who tell me they want to publish a print book is that print should be their secondary focus. I'm advising people who have text-based books (no graphics, illustrations, or photos) to test the self-publishing waters with an e-book before moving on to hard copies. It's much easier to produce an e-book, particularly when it comes to formatting and cover design. And you can also price a digital book for much less than a paperback, which makes it easier to sell (the majority of self-published print books cost $13.99 and up while the majority of indie e-books sell in the $.99-$5.99 range.

All that said, you can, of course, do both print and digital easily enough.

Once you have your book finalized in a Word or PDF file, it's relatively easy to convert it into one of the many e-book formats -- or just offer it as a download as a PDF. There are several e-publishers geared to "indie" authors, including Smashwords, BookBaby and Lulu, to name just a few. And needless to say, Amazon's CreateSpace steers you toward uploading your book to the Kindle Store via Kindle Direct Publishing.

Note: Please see my article "How to self-publish an e-book" for more information on e-book creation.

3. Quality is good.

I can't speak for all self-publishing companies, but the quality of POD books is generally quite decent. You can't do a fancy matte cover (yet), but the books look and feel like "real" books. The only giveaway that you're dealing with a self-published book would be if the cover were poorly designed -- which, unfortunately, is too often the case.

4. Since self-publishing's so easy, everybody's doing it.

One of the unfortunate drawbacks of having a low barrier of entry into a suddenly hot market is that now everybody and their brother and sister is an author. That means you're dealing with a ton of competition, some of which is made up of hustlers, charlatans, and a bunch of people in between.

The growth of indie publishing in the U.S. has been huge over the last couple of years. While that growth has started to level off as fewer writers have unpublished novels in their closets to publish, you can still expect to go up against thousands of other motivated indie authors.

5. Good self-published books are few and far between.

Again, because the barrier to entry is so low, the majority of self-published books are pretty bad. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say less than 5 percent are decent and less than 1 percent are really good. A tiny fraction become monster success stories, but every every few months, you'll hear about someone hitting it big (for those who don't know already the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy was initially self-published).

6. The odds are against you.

The average print self-published book sells about 100-150 copies -- or two-thirds to three-quarters of your friends and family combined (and don't count on all your Facebook acquaintances buying). I don't have a source for this statistic, but I've seen this stated on several blogs and as a Publishers Weekly article titled "Turning Bad Books into Big Bucks" noted, while traditional publishers aim to publish hundreds of thousands of copies of a few books, self-publishing companies make money by publishing 100 copies of hundreds of thousands of books.

7. Creating a "professional" book is really hard.

Barrier to entry may be low, but creating a book that looks professional and is indistinguishable from a book published by a "real" publishing house is very difficult and requires a minimum investment of a few thousand dollars (when all was said and done, I'd put in around $7,500, which included about $2,500 in marketing costs). You wonder why "real" books take nine months to produce -- and usually significantly longer. Well, I now know why. It's hard to get everything just right (if you're a novice at book formatting, Microsoft Word will become your worst enemy). And once you've finally received that final proof, you feel it could be slightly better.

8. Have a clear goal for your book.

This will help dictate what service you go with. For instance, if your objective is to create a book for posterity's sake (so your friends and family can read it for all eternity), you won't have to invest a lot of time or money to produce something that's quite acceptable. Lulu is probably your best bet. However, if yours is a commercial venture with big aspirations, things get pretty tricky.

9. Even if it's great, there's a good chance your book won't sell.

If your book is really mediocre, don't expect it to take off. But even if it's a masterpiece, there's a good chance it won't fly off the shelves (and by shelves, I mean virtual shelves, because most self-published books don't make it into brick-and-mortar stores). In other words, quality isn't a guarantee of success. You'll be lucky to make your investment back, let alone have a "hit" that brings in some real income. Don't quit your day job yet.

10. Niche books tend to do best.

This seems to be the mantra of self-publishing. Nonfiction books with a well-defined topic and a nice hook to them can do well, especially if they have a target audience that you can focus on. Religious books are a perfect case in point. And fiction? Well, it's tough, but some genres do better than others. Indie romance/erotica novels, for instance, have thrived in the e-book arena.

Note: If it's any consolation, the majority of fiction books -- even ones from "real" publishers -- struggle in the marketplace. That's why traditional publishers stick with tried-and-true authors with loyal followings.

11. Buy your own ISBN -- and create your own publishing house.

If you have market aspirations for your book, buy your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and create your own publishing company.

www.isbn-us.com

Even if you go with one of the subsidy presses for convenience's sake, there's no reason to have Lulu, CreateSpace, iUniverse, Xlibris, Author House, Outskirts, or whomever listed as your publisher. For around $100 (what a single ISBN costs) and a little added paperwork, you can go toe-to-toe with any small publisher. Lulu.com sells ISBNs, other self-publishing companies don't. The complete list of sellers is here.

Note: Most self-publishing operations will provide you with a free ISBN for both your print book and e-book but whatever operation provides you with the ISBN will be listed as the publisher.

12. Create a unique title.

Your book should be easy to find in a search on Amazon and Google. It should come up in the first couple of search results. Unfortunately, many authors make the mistake of using a title that has too many other products associated it with it -- and it gets buried in search results. Not good. Basically, you want to get the maximum SEO (search engine optimization) for your title, so if and when somebody's actually looking to buy it they'll find the link for your book -- not an older one with an identical title.

Note: On a more cynical note, some authors are creating titles that are very similar to popular bestsellers. Also, some authors use pseudonyms that are similar to famous authors' names so they'll show up in search results for that author. Check out this list of Fifty Shades of Grey knockoffs.

13. Turn-key solutions cost a lot of money.

You've written your book and God knows you'd like to just hand it off to someone, have a team of professionals whip it into shape, and get it out there. Well, there are a lot of companies that will offer to make just that happen -- and do it in a fraction of the time a traditional publisher could. But those "packages" range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upward of $25,000.

These folks can potentially put together a really nice book for you. But I've also heard a lot nightmare stories where people come away disappointed with the process and feel ripped off. You can do a search in Google for the companies you're considering and find testimonials -- good and bad -- from authors who've used the services. Proceed with caution.

14. Self-publishers don't care if your book is successful.

They say they care, but they really don't care. You have to make them care.

15. Buy as little as possible from your publishing company.

Self-publishing outfits are in the game to make money. And since they're probably not going to sell a lot of your books, they make money by with nice margins. That's OK. Some of the services are worth it -- or at least may be worth it. Way back when, Booksurge/CreateSpace used to have something called Buy X, Get Y program that paired your book with an Amazon bestseller. It was pricey ($1,000 a month) but in a special sale I bought 3 months for the price of 2 and ended up being paired one month with John Grisham's new novel, which put the thumbnail image of my book in front of a lot of people. Alas, BookSurge/CreateSpace has since discontinued this program because traditional publishers were upset that shoddy self-published books were being featured on the same page as their books. It was good while it lasted and it helped me sell dozens, if not hundreds, of books.

Personally, I'd never work with CreateSpace's in-house editors, copy editors, and in-house design people. That doesn't mean they're bad at what they do (I've seen some covers that are well-done). But if you can, it's better to hire your own people and work directly with them. Ideally, you should be able to meet with an editor, copy editor, and graphic designer in person -- and they all should have experience in book publishing.

Down the road, I suspect you'll see more self-publishers offer high-end programs that pair you with a former editor from a major publishing house. It's also worth mentioning that Amazon has become a publisher itself, with several imprints that it's either bought or created. Amazon is in the process of developing a new hybrid model for publishing that aims to take the place of traditional publishers, which it sometimes refers to as "legacy" publishers. You can see a list of Amazon's imprints here. With its flagship Encore imprint, it selects certain "exceptional" self-published titles from "emerging" authors and brings them under the Amazon umbrella so to speak. It's a good gig if you can get it.

Buy X, Get Y: Discontinued by CreateSpace. Amazon

16. If you're serious about your book, hire a book doctor and get it copy edited.

OK, so I've just told to avoid "packages" from publishers and yet I'm now saying you need editing and copy editing. So, where do you go? Well, before I sent my book out to agents, I hired a "book doctor" who was a former acquisition editor from a major New York publishing house (like most editors he worked at a few different houses). He happened to be the father of a friend from college, so I got a little discount, but it still wasn't cheap. However, after I'd made the changes he suggested, he made some calls to agents he knew and some were willing to take a look. He was part of Independent Editors Group (IEG), a group of former acquisition editors who take on freelance editing projects for authors.

While I didn't use his copy editor (I used a friend of a friend who currently works at a big publishing house), he and other editors in his group can suggest people. To be clear, this isn't going to be a better deal than what you'd get from a package deal with a self-publisher, but these people are experienced and are going to be upfront and honest with you. They're not just pushing your book out to move it along the line on the conveyor belt, though they are trying to make a living. (Warning: they don't take on all writers).

By no means is IEG the only game in town. There are plenty of good book consultants out there, including Alan Rinzler, who has an excellent blog and straddles the line between being an executive editor at an imprint of John Wiley & Sons and providing services to private clients. And there are plenty of others.

17. Negotiate everything.

CreateSpace and other self-publishing companies are always offering special deals on their various services. There isn't whole lot of leeway, but it doesn't hurt to ask for deal sweeteners -- like more free copies of your book (they often throw in free copies of your book). It also doesn't hurt to ask about deals that have technically expired. In sales, everything is negotiable. Remember, these people have quotas and bonuses at stake. (For their sake, I hope they do anyway).

18. Ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to complain.

When I self-published, I paid an extra $300 fee to be able to talk directly to a live person on the phone for customer support. Companies like Lulu and CreateSpace have complete DIY options and require no upfront setup fees. That's great, but when you're dealing with a superbasic package, you're most likely going to be doing customer support via e-mail or IM, and get very little hand-holding. It's nice to be able to call up and complain (in a nice way, of course) directly to a live person on the phone, so take that into account when you're examining your package options.

19. Self-publishing is a contact sport.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is that they expect to just put out a book and have it magically sell. They might even hire a publicist and expect something to happen. It's just not so. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, a lot people just don't have the stomach or time for it.

What's the secret to marketing your book successfully? Well, the first thing I advise -- and I'm not alone here -- is to come up with a marketing plan well before you publish your book. The plan should have at least five avenues for you to pursue because chances are you're going to strike out on a couple of lines of attack. It's easy to get discouraged, so you have to be ready to move on to plan c, d, and e (and the rest of the alphabet) pretty quickly.

These days there's a lot of talk about a "blog strategy," and many well-known authors do virtual book tours where they offer up interviews to various blogs. You probably won't have that luxury, but you can certainly research what blogs might be interested in your book and prepare pitches for them. There are social media campaigns to wage, local media angles to pursue, organizations to approach, and all kinds of out-of-the-box gambits you can dream up. None of this will cost you a whole lot -- except time and perhaps a little pride.

Then there's the stuff you pay for. And it's tricky to judge what's a good investment and what's not because the results vary so much from book to book. A friend of mine who has a "real" book from a traditional publisher experimented with placing $1,000 in Facebook ads targeted to people in "cold" states (his book is called the History of the Snowman and it does very well around Christmas). He's still trying to figure out what impact the ads had, but Facebook does have some interesting marketing opportunities. Google AdWords/Keywords is another popular option. And a number of self-serve ad networks are popping up, including Blogards Book Hive, which allows you to target a number of smaller book blogs for relatively affordable rates.

The author MJ Rose has a marketing service called AuthorBuzz that caters to both self-publishers and traditional publishers. She says the best thing for self-publishers is a blog ad campaign--it starts at about $1,500 for a week of ads (the design work is included) and heads up in increments of $500. She says: "We place the ads in subject-related blogs, not book blogs. For instance, if it's a mystery about an antiques dealer, we don't just buy blogs for self-identified readers -- who are not the bulk of book buyers -- but rather I'll find a half dozen blogs about antiques, culture, art and investments and buy the ads there and track them." Rose claims she can get your book in front of at least a half a million people with that initial investment. She also says that you can't really spend too much, you can just spend poorly.

I agree. However, I can't tell you what impact a week or month of ads on blogs will have on your specific book's sales. There are simply too many variables.

Bonus tip: When it comes to self-promotion, there's a fine line between being assertive and being overly aggressive in an obnoxious way. It also doesn't impress people when all you tweet about is your book (the same goes for your Facebook and Google+ posts). As one friend told me, the state you want to achieve is what she likes to call "comfortably tenacious."

20. Getting your book in bookstores sounds good, but that shouldn't be a real concern.

You may have always wanted to see your book in a bookstore but bookstores aren't keen on carrying self-published books and it's extremely difficult to get good placement in the store for your book so chances are no one will see the three copies the store has on hand anyway. Furthermore, your royalty drops on in-store sales. Some of the self-publishing outfits offer distribution through Ingram. CreateSpace offers its Expanded Distribution program for a $25 a year fee. It uses Baker & Taylor, as well as Ingram, as well as CreateSpace Direct to make your book available "to certified resellers through our wholesale website." You also get distribution to Amazon Europe (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.es, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.de).

21. Self-published books rarely get reviewed -- for free anyway.

Kirkus' reviews service for indie authors. Kirkus

Yes, it's true. It's very hard to get your self-published book reviewed -- and the mantra in the traditional publishing world is that reviews sell books. But that's changing a bit. People didn't take bloggers seriously at first and now they do. And what's interesting is that reputable book reviewers such as Kirkus and more recently Publishers Weekly are offering special reviews services geared toward self-published authors. In the case of Kirkus Indie, the author pays a fee to have the book reviewed (around $400-$550, depending on the speed) and a freelancer writes an objective critique (yes, they do negative reviews) in the same format as a standard Kirkus review. (You can also submit books that are in an e-book-only format).

As for Publishers Weekly, it offers something called PW Select. While you can submit your book for review for a fee of $149, only about 25 percent of the book submissions end up being reviewed. But for a lot of folks risking that $149 is worth the opportunity of getting into the PW door. Of course, there's always the possibility that the review isn't favorable.

A third option is BlueInk Review, another fee-based review service targeted at indie authors.

22. Design your book cover to look good small.

A solid indie cover effort. Amazon

Traditional book publishers design -- or at least they used to design -- a book cover to make a book stand out in a bookstore and evoke whatever sentiment it was supposed to evoke. Well, with Amazon becoming a dominant bookseller, your book has to stand out as a thumbnail image online because that's how most people are going to come across it. If you're primarily selling through Amazon, think small and work your way up.

23. If you're selling online, make the most out of your Amazon page.

I'm a little bit surprised by how neglectful some self-published authors are when it comes to their Amazon product pages. I've talked to self-published authors who spend a few thousand dollars on a publicist and their Amazon product page looks woeful -- and they've barely even looked at it. I ask, "Where are people going to buy your book?" They don't seem to realize how important Amazon is. True, some people market through a Web site or buy Google keywords to drive traffic there. But you need to have your Amazon page look as good as possible and take advantage of the tools Amazon has to help you surface your book ("Tags," Listmania, reader reviews, etc.). It may not have a major impact, but it's better than doing nothing. You should check out Amazon's Author Central to get some helpful tips.

One tip: Make sure your book is put into five browsing categories (it's only allowed five). It helps to categorize your book to readers and also will make your book look better if it's a bestseller in those categories. Way back when I self-published, no one at BookSurge suggested this to me; I had to figure it out on my own. (Again, they don't care, you have to make them care).

The manifestation of categorizing your book. Amazon

24. Pricing is a serious challenge.

The biggest problem with going the POD route is that it costs more to produce one-offs of your book than it does to produce thousands. I remember that you could buy my book -- it was a paperback -- from BookSurge for $5.70. It was about 370 pages. Now, if I went ahead and had the thing printed up directly through an off-set printer -- and ordered a few thousand of them -- I could probably cut the cost of the book in half, and maybe even a little more. But I'd have to pay the upfront fee to buy the books and then I'd have to figure out a way to sell them (this is how vanity presses used to work -- you had to agree to buy a few thousand books).

To get a rough idea of how much money you can make selling your book, you can check out CreateSpace's royalty calculator. Today, setting the price at $14.99, it looks like I'd make about $3.70 per book I sold. If you have a longer book, you'll have to set the price even higher to make money.

Overall, compared with what traditional publishers pay out, royalty rates for self-published books are actually quite decent. But the fact is, to compete against top-selling titles from traditional publishers, your book should be priced $8.99 or $9.99, and that's simply not possible if it's longer than 250 pages.

Many of the self-publishing operations have their own online marketplaces where you can offer up your book and get a significantly better royalty rate. Lulu.com, for instance, touts its own online store, which is well designed and has a big audience. But you obviously have access to a much larger audience on Amazon, which is the first place people generally go to look for a book when they hear about it.

The trick, of course, is making people aware your book exists. I could write an entire piece on the tricks authors pull to get their books to surface better on Amazon. Amazon Author Central and Google are your best friends for helping to discover ways to better surface your book.

25. Self-publishing is a fluid business.

Self-publishing is a rapidly evolving industry with lots of competitors that are constantly throwing out new information. Publishers are continually upgrading their facilities, infrastructure, and pricing, and what I -- or other pundits say today -- could be wrong just a few months from now. A few years ago, Amazon was only offering 35 percent royalties on e-books. Now it's at 70 percent for books price $2.99 and higher. What does next year hold in store?

Please comment. And please share any insights into specific self-publishing companies or the industry in general.

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