How to Self-Publish a Book: A Step-by-Step Guide

Young Black woman in a mustard blouse unpacking a box of books in a home office

Self-publishing used to be a huge undertaking and you ran the risk of a garage full of unsold books. But now self-publishing has never been easier, allowing you to reach a global audience with an afternoon’s worth of work!

But where to begin? The first thing you need to figure out is…

Do I Want to Self-Publish?

The publishing industry uses a lot of terms that can be confusing to outsiders. And, unfortunately, there are a number of people who are willing to prey on unsuspecting writers and charge you for “services” that are normally free.

There are three ways to publish a book, and there is no one best choice for all writers and all books.

  • Trade, or “traditional,” publishing is when an editor at a publisher like Penguin Random House or Macmillan buys the publishing rights from the writer. The publisher’s employees edit, format, and print the book, while distributors like Ingram get the book onto the shelves of bookstores. The author only makes money, never paying for any services, but many large publishers require a literary agent to submit materials; they get a cut of the royalties as well. The publisher manages and pays for all marketing campaigns so the writer can focus on writing their next book.
  • Vanity publishers will print any book brought to them and the author bears all the cost. The author is also responsible for any distribution or sales. You get all the royalties, but there is a high up-front cost. Printing a book of family recipes at FedEx to give out at Christmas would be an example of vanity publishing.
  • Self-publishing is when the author does everything themselves. This can include anything from printing a zine on your home printer to putting your book on a major eBook marketplace.  For this article, we’ll be focusing on the latter.

Any “publisher” that is asking for reading fees, editing fees, distribution costs, or the like but calls itself a “traditional” or “hybrid” publisher i most likely a scam. There are businesses that offer services to help you self-publish but they are honest about this from the get-go. Before doing business with any publisher, it’s wise to research if they’re a legitimate operation. Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware is an excellent source for protecting yourself.

So What Does Self-Publishing Entail?

When you self-publish, it’s on you to edit your book, format it, get a cover, and get it onto platforms where readers can buy it. And, once that’s done, it’s up to you to market it! Of course, you can pay people to do these things for you, but professionally editing a novel can cost thousands of dollars and many writers can’t afford it. It requires you to wear many different hats, which can be intimidating. But it also means you have full control of the process.

One important thing to keep in mind is that, when you self-publish a book, you can’t take it back, and that makes it ineligible for trade publication. Publishers only want to publish brand-new books; if your self-published book didn’t sell any copies, then they see that as proof that there is no audience for your book.

“But what about 50 Shades of Grey?” you’re probably saying. “Or Eragon? Or The Martian? They were self-published and picked up by major publishers!” But those books were lightning in a bottle; for every example of a self-published book that made it big, there are millions of books that didn’t. If your book sells that well, then publishers will approach you, but it’s not something you can expect to happen.

This is also true of series: if you self-publish book one of your epic space opera on your website but want book two to be picked up by Tor, you will be hard pressed to have that happen. Readers want to buy every book in a series in the same place, in the same format.

So before you self-publish, make sure it’s what you really want to do. But also don’t think of it as a last-resort or less valid than trade publishing. There are plenty of writers that only self-publish and are very happy with the process, just as there’s plenty of writers who would never dream of giving up their trade publishers.

What Are My Options?

When you think of a trade published book, you picture a physical book made of paper and wood pulp sitting on a shelf at a cozy store, maybe there’s a cat sleeping among the stacks. And when you think of self-publishing, you might imagine a digital storefront on your favorite eReader. But trade books have eBooks, and self-published books can have physical versions, too!

eBooks are great because they can be purchased and read instantly (no storms to delay mail or supply chains to worry about!), they’re easy to check out from libraries (they “return” themselves when the time is up), and the reader can make the text different sizes to be more readable instead of hoping a large-print version gets printed. Because there’s no physical inventory to ship around or take up space in a warehouse, more of the list price can be profit. Even some trade publishers have imprints that are eBook-only, as certain genres have more digital readers than physical ones.

Physical, paper books were the only option for hundreds of years and many people still prefer them. One of the main draws of trade publishers is their ability to print and distribute books to thousands of stores. But some titles, including self-published titles, can be purchased as physical books thanks to print on demand technology. What this means is that, once a book is ordered, a special digital press prints off one copy of the book, which then gets shipped to the customer. It allows millions of books to be available for purchase without taking up space in a warehouse. Physical objects have costs related to them, so there is less margin for author royalties. An individual print on demand book will cost more than a similar mass-printed title due to the economics of scale, but it doesn’t require several hundred books to be printed to be economical.

Audiobooks, or “books on tape,” are popular for people on the go or with low vision or other accessibility needs. Some can still be purchased as physical CDs to put into your car or CD player, but most are purchased and played from online storefronts through apps. A narrator needs to read the book and record it, and then the audio files need to be edited and formatted for release. This is something you can do yourself, but ensure you can do it in a quiet space and with good equipment, which is not cheap!

When you decide what formats you want your book to be, think about your ideal reader. How do they normally read books? Cookbooks and picture books work very well as print books, but an audiobook of a cookbook would be difficult to use. Even if you have strong opinions on print vs eBooks, your readers might feel differently, so it’s worth it to study your target market.

Now, with all that out of the way, time to find out how to get self-published!

 1 | Complete Your Manuscript

Just like trade publishing, you can’t publish your book until you’ve written it! And, luckily for you, this is the hardest step. There are countless books, videos, podcasts, courses, webinars, etc. on how to write. That’s because writing is an art and every artist has a different approach for what works best for them. You’ll have to figure out which is best for you, which takes time and practice.

Some books that we recommend you check out to learn more about creative writing:

Another way to learn how to write is to read widely. Don’t read just the classics like Asimov and Tolkien, but newly-released books in your genre; modern readers want modern voices and styles. Experiment by reading other genres or for other age groups, you’ll never know what might spark your next great idea.

2 | Edit Your Book

This is more than hitting spellcheck or ensuring your homophones are in order. As they say in film, “a story is made in editing,” and this is absolutely true of written works as well. Even your most carefully laid-out outline might include plot holes or a character’s eye color changes from one chapter to the next. These are the kinds of issues that will bother readers the most, and it’s not something any writing software can help you with.

This is called developmental editing. You (or an external editor, if you have the money) go through your story and look for ways you can improve it, like making scenes tighter, fixing logical inconsistencies, or keeping details straight. Nobody’s first draft is perfect, but this is the step where you make it feel cohesive. If you have writing buddies, you can swap stories and give each other feedback.

Next is line editing. You go through each sentence and improve it. Not 100% sure if you used the right word? Time to look it up in the dictionary. Could you have picked a better verb instead of a weaker verb and an adverb? Are your sentences overly verbose, full of padding and extra words, or were they full of passive voice, rendering your characters logs just kinda swept up in the plot or something?

The final step is copy editing. This is where paying an editor can be the most helpful, as all the work you’ve done before should have already caught the most glaring errors. But if you have issues with commas, verb tense shifts, or can’t tell the difference between an en dash and am em dash with a hole in the ground, outside help can do a lot here. Writing software can pick up some of these things, but they can often get it wrong, which is why human editors still exist.

Even if you plan to have an editor do it all for you, it will greatly benefit you, as a writer, to learn how English works, as it’ll mean less to fix in future books. Dryer’s English by Benjamin Dryer is written by Random House’s copy chief and can help you learn professional-level editing techniques. The St. Martin’s Handbook is required reading at many colleges and is helpful for writers at all levels. It also means there are plenty of used copies for sale!

Top view of a woman sitting at a desk with a paper in hand and several in front of her. There is a desktop monitor open to a double-page screen.

3 | Get a Cover

You know what they say about books and covers, right? Well, people do judge. Especially if they’re scrolling through an online store and all they have is the cover and the title to decide if they want to click through to learn more. Even trade publishers can make a truly-awful cover but, when you self-publish, the onus is on you to keep that from happening.

Even if you’re a graphic designer by day, you might not know what makes a good cover. How many fonts are you going to use? Will the contrast between the text and the background be legible? How much can you fit on the back? If you can only pay for one thing, it should be your cover.

But, if you do decide to make your own, make sure to keep in mind:

  • The technical requirements for the image, such as file type (JPG, PNG, TIFF…), color space (RGB or CMYK?), dimensions, dpi… Each marketplace will have information on what these should be for different formats, so you might have to make several different files for different uses.
  • You have the proper rights to all images and fonts. Since you’re selling your book, you will need commercial licenses. Just because a font is available for you to use doesn’t necessitate that you can make money off it.
  • What other books look like. Scope out your competition: Can you get away with just text and some colors? Or do you need an illustration? A stock photo of a hunky shirtless model would fit in romance, but not so much for a book on accounting.

4 | Format Your Book

You’ve probably noticed what you see in Microsoft Word doesn’t look like the interior of a book. The font and size you write in is probably quite different and then there’s fancy chapter headings, numbered pages…but wait! eBooks don’t have page numbers, since you can re-size text and the screens come in all different sizes.

When you self-publish, you upload a finished file of your book to the marketplace. A print book and an eBook will require different things in order to look right to the reader. Each marketplace will have guidelines, and some, like Draft2Digital, even do the formatting for you. And some writing software, like Scrivener, can make an eBook for you.

No matter what option you choose, make sure you go through the finished product yourself before you sell it to ensure everything looks as it should be. This is where “proofreading” comes from, as you’re reading the proof copy before publishing.

5 | Purchase an ISBN

If you tell your friend to go buy you a copy of Dune, there’s dozens, if not hundreds, of potential books they can return with. Hardcover, soft cover, different editions with different art, large print, audiobooks, eBooks, different languages…so how do you keep track?

In publishing, ISBNs are a unique identifier for one specific version of a book. A hardcover and a softcover of the same title will have different ISBNs, as they will be different prices. If you’ve ever bought college textbooks, you’ll know how important it is to get the proper edition and ISBNs are a clear way to communicate all of this information.

When bookstores and libraries stock books, they use ISBNs as part of their inventory control. A book without an ISBN can be sold, of course, but it will be much harder to find. The platform you use to self-publish will have ISBNs for sale. And don’t reuse ISBNs! You will make librarians very sad if you do.

 6 | Upload Your Book

We’re almost done! Now we need to pick a platform to distribute your book. You could go to every service and upload it one at a time, but that would take awhile. Luckily, there are companies such as Draft2Digital and IngramSpark that can get your books into the hands of customers all over the world:

  • Catalogs libraries use to purchase books, along with services patrons use to check out digital materials, like OverDrive and Hoopla
  • eBook storefronts such as Scribd, Kobo, and Kindle
  • Your favorite places to buy books online, like Barnes & Noble, Walmart…and Alibris!

If you limit yourself to only one service, like Amazon, then you miss out on customers who don’t use it, such as people who rely on libraries for books. If you see a self-publishing platform mention they distribute books through Ingram, it means your book will be available for purchase at nearly every bookstore you can imagine.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll find your book on the shelf of your local Target. Bookstores, especially independent bookstores, have limited shelf space, so they only stock what they believe will sell. So that means a lot of Colleen Hoover and Dean Koontz and the latest celebrity memoir, not so much a self-published author who has yet to make a sale. But if you make good sales, and the bookstore believes their customers would like your book, you can have that conversation. If your book is based on local history or you’re a well-known member of a community, this can be appealing to an indie bookstore.

Regardless, make sure to fill in all the fields when you upload your book. Metadata is information about an object, such as title, author, publication date, genre, keywords etc. This is what websites use when people search for books to find the best matches.

7 | Hit Publish!

Young caucasian man with his hand up in excitement sitting in front of an open laptop with a pad of paper next to him.

You did it! It’s possible that you might need to edit your upload in case it doesn’t meet certain specifications, but that should only be a minor bump in the road.

8 | Market!

Now it’s time to hustle. Do more than tell your family and friends that you published a book. Make an author website so people can find you on Google and learn more about you. Buy ads on social media targeting fans of books like yours. Join local author support groups and learn what you can about marketing. There’s a lot you can do, and best practices are constantly changing in digital marketing.

One of the best things you can do to get your name out there is to befriend and support other authors. Even if you don’t get picked up by a trade publisher, one of your friends might, and wouldn’t it be great if they told their thousands of fans about your book? You can even put a blurb from them on your cover!

What Comes Next?

There is a paradox  that, once an author has a certain number of books, it drives readers to pick them up. Have you ever found a new favorite and then ran out to buy the rest of the series? Readers of self-published books are much the same way. Some genres, like romance, are always looking for new series and characters to fall in love with. So even if your first book doesn’t do great, it doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

One of the interesting quirks of publishing is it’s impossible to know what will be the next big thing. A midlist title might become an overnight New York Times bestseller or people can’t get enough of the latest Netflix show and are now looking for books about the same themes. When Twilight came out, every other author who already had vampire romance books published saw a boost in sales.

Trade publishers can take several years for a book to make it to the shelf of a bookstore, but self-published books can come out much faster. If you can write and publish a book in a few months, you can take advantage of trends that trade publishers cannot.

Self-publishing comes with unique challenges, but it can be rewarding, both artistically and financially. And, as a writer, you’ll constantly be improving your craft. Keep at it!

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