How to Self-Publish – Phase 1: Preparation

We’re publishing (in three easy chunks) a really useful guide to self-publishing by digital guru David Gaughran. He blogs here and his book, Let’s Get Digital, is available from Amazon and other fine e-providers. This opening part of the guide deals with getting everything prior to the formatting/upload stage of things.

Are you ready to publish?
I’m assuming that you are either considering self-publishing, getting ready to self-publish, or approaching that point. If that’s not the case, and you’re just procrastinating, get back to writing. Go, scoot. You can worry about this stuff when you are ready to publish.

While we are on the topic, by “ready to publish”, I mean that your manuscript is finished, you have printed it out, read it, read it aloud, made all the necessary changes, have given it to at least one fellow writer for an objective critique. I’m assuming they gave it a thorough going over, that you incorporated their suggestions (or batted them away with compelling counter-logic), and they have given the thumbs up to the final version. I’m also hoping that there was at least one point between the last draft and being ready to publish where you let the manuscript sit for a few weeks, so that you could read it with fresh eyes.

Okay, so you’re ready. Now you need to turn that unedited manuscript into a professional-looking e-book – meaning you need an editor, a cover designer, and either to learn how to format e-books yourself, or a hire a professional.

Self-Publishing Service Companies
Before we get into the details, some of you may be tempted to use one of the many self-publishing service companies that have sprung up. In short, avoid. Out of the three main steps – writing, publishing, and marketing – publishing is by far the easiest and these companies will give you no help with writing or marketing. And anyway, the value of the assistance they provide with publishing is questionable. Most of these companies overcharge for basic services both through a hefty upfront fee, and by taking a big chunk of your royalties.

Avoiding these companies doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself; you can hire help at every step along the way, for much more reasonable fees, and with far better results. Finally, you really want to do the actual uploading yourself. Not doing so will mean that your account is in the control of a third party, and they, rather than you, will have access to crucial data such as your live sales figures, and will be telling Amazon where to send the monthly cheques. If you really, really must use one of these services, at least go with someone like BookBaby, who only charge a (comparatively reasonable) upfront free, and don’t touch your royalties.

The publishing landscape is changing continually; it’s essential to keep in touch with developments so that you can exploit opportunities as they arise. The following blogs are must-reads: Dean Wesley Smith, Joe Konrath, and The Passive Voice.

The Kindle Boards Writer’s Cafe is the most popular hang-out for self-publishers – a real mixture of those starting out and those that have already sold tens or hundreds of thousands of books. It’s a great place to find editors, cover designers, formatters, artists, and to get advice on all aspects of self-publishing. I have found that the best way to get recommendations for any service provider is to ask a fellow writer.

This might be where self-publishers skimp most of all. Unfortunately for them, readers will spot the errors straight away. But even if they have eliminated the obvious stuff, such as typos or grammar issues, there may well be deeper problems.

If you are on this site, I will presume you have a healthy respect for the importance of editing. When you dip your toe into the indie marketplace, you will notice many editors charging surprisingly low rates. I’m all for a good deal, but I would urge extreme caution here. An editor that is charging $200 is probably only going to do some quick proofing. Self-publishers get dinged in reviews about editing more than anything else. By employing a qualified, experienced editor to give your manuscript a real edit, you will be ahead of the pack. [We agree! Ed.]

Every time I get an MS back from my editor, her suggestions have improved the work immeasurably. But much more importantly, I learn something. You aren’t just investing in your book, but in yourself as a writer. If you don’t engage a professional editor, you will regret it. Most readers sample a work first and most e-book retailers allow them to download a chunk for free to decide if they want to buy. The size of the sample is around 10% on Amazon, but can be larger on the other sites.

I know what the main objection will be – price. But you must consider it an investment rather than a cost. If you can’t afford it, find a way. Save, barter, crowdfund, agree a payment plan with your editor, give up that diamante-encrusted ham you are so fond of – whatever it takes (although I would draw the line at getting into debt and/or an elaborate heist).

Your book’s cover is the face it shows the world. You want to make a good first impression, don’t you? A smart, professional cover makes all the difference. People really do judge a book by its cover. I can hear the complaints: this stuff shouldn’t matter; it’s all about the writing. Look, the world is unfair. Get over it. If you want your book to stand out from the crowd, if you want to send the reader a signal that you have taken as much care with the inside of the book, you better make sure the outside looks good. In short, get a professional to design your cover.

Joel Friedlander has an excellent post on common mistakes book cover designers make, and I have a post here covering design basics and the process I go through with my designer. I recommend reading them both (note: Joel’s site has an astonishing number of fantastic posts on all aspects of self-publishing. He also runs monthly cover design awards, providing expert commentary on most entries).

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