What a Beginning Self-Publisher Should Know

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(No, this isn’t me–but I do feel this young when I’m writing!) (image copyrighted by Antonio Guillem and licensed from www.shutterstock.com)

After almost four years as a self-published author, there’s still a greal deal I don’t know. When I think back to what I knew when I first started, though, I realize that I do have at least a few things to share with those of you just starting out. (Some of these ideas were already up on the old version of the website, but since its content has been lost, I’ll include those ideas here, just in case.)

However, before we get started, you may be wondering something:

Is self-publishing really right for you?

We are fortunate to live at a time when writers have many different options, but a wide range of choices can be a mixed blessing. In the table below I’ve compared traditional publishing and of self-publishing, using the experience of other authors I’ve heard from, as well as my own. It is important to note that the statements I make are by no means universally accepted. Some authors still argue that only traditional publishing is a good option, while others contend that self-publishing is now clearly the best choice for everyone. I’m inclined to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As you can see, your priorities may influence which one is the best course for you.

FeatureTraditional PublishingSelf-Publishing
EntryEntry is time-consuming, difficult, and for many publishers requires an agent.Anyone can enter.
Cost (not counting the many hours of writing, which would be the same for both)Upfront costs are extremely low; publishers, distributors, and agents take a percentage of your royalties after publication.Upfront costs include whatever formatting, editing, and design you can't do for yourself, as well as any marketing costs; the distributor still takes a percentage, but otherwise you keep all royalties.
Time AllocationYou can spend more time writing.You have to allocate a certain amount of your available time to promotion.
Chances of SuccessBecause of the selective nature of traditional publishing, a higher percentage of writers involved become successful.Because anyone can self-publish, and the field is very crowded, the chance of success is lower than among those selected by traditional publishers. However, data from Author Earnings Report suggests that a larger raw number of writers become successful in self-publishing than in traditional publishing.
Creative ControlThe amount of creative control is dependent on your relationship with your editor and others at your publishing house.You have total creative control.
Ability to Shift DirectionOnce you have signed a contract with a publisher, your book (and possibly future works) are governed by the terms of that contract.You remain a free agent, except to the extent that you might commit to a distributor on a temporary basis (KDP Select).
Access to Physical BookstoresTraditional publishers have a better chance of getting paperback and hardcover editions of your work into stores.Some bookstores will consider taking your books on consignment, especially if you are a local author.
Likelihood of Conversion to Other Media (TV, Movies)Most books that are converted have been traditionally published.Occasionally, self-published or originally self-published books do make the jump ("Eragon" and "The Martian," for example)
PrestigeMore people are likely to recognize you as a "real" author if you have been traditionally published.Although there is still bias against self-publishing, it is declining.

Keep in mind that publishing doesn’t have to involve an either-or choice. A number of authors are hybrids, with some works traditionally published and others self-published.

Traditional publishers typically won’t be interested in republishing a work that you already self-published (unless it’s a bestseller). However, that doesn’t prevent you from submitting later works to a publisher. Also, when the rights to a particular traditionally published book revert to you, you can re-release it as a self-published work; these days that happens more often than you might think.

Hybrid authors do have some constraints, however. If they are working with an agent, they can typically only self-publish those titles the agent isn’t interesting in representing to traditional publishers. Also, traditional publishing contracts often give a publisher the right of first refusal on any new work by the author. In both cases, read your contracts carefully.

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The sky may be the limit–but you need to build the spaceship before you can get there! (image copyrighted by Elwynn and licensed from www.shutterstock.com)

Keep your expectations reasonable.

While it’s not impossible for someone to have a runaway bestseller the very first time out (like The Martian, for example), very few people manage to do that. As a new author, it’s going to be tough for you to get the word out when you first publish. Not only that, but the number of self-published books out there is growing so fast that you will have a hard time getting noticed, even if you find a really effective way to advertise. You may succeed some day, but don’t expect that day to be tomorrow. From studying the KDP forums over the last four years, one of the things I’ve noticed is that those authors who claim to be successful have been publishing for quite a while. They generally report that they started to get some traction on the third or fourth book. I’ll talk a little more about that part of the process later.

It stands to reason that, if success may take a while to come, don’t quite your day job. Most people wouldn’t do that until they were actually bringing in enough money to live on, but just in case, no, don’t do it! There are self-publishing writers who make a living, but hardly anyone does that right away.

Schedule time to write.

Because you will probably need another job, and you may have other obligations as well, it is easy for the writing to get shoved out of the way without your even realizing that that’s what happened. If you are serious about writing, you need to plan for it. If you’re not–then why are you wasting time reading this article?

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Plan ahead for expenses; there will be some.

In a sense, self-publishing costs nothing. Anyone can open a free KDP account on Amazon and upload a book, also for free. However, those steps should be the end of a long process, and some of it is going to cost money.

People forget sometimes what self-publishing means. You are not just the author; you are also the publisher. In traditional publishing, if a publisher bought your manuscript, that publisher would pay for rigorous editing and proofing, professional layout, and professional cover design. Then the publisher would pay for marketing the book as well.

In self-publishing, who has to provide all those services? Short answer: you do.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to spend thousands of dollars perfecting your book. For example, if you train yourself to be a good enough editor, you won’t need to pay for the minimum three rounds of editing a traditional publisher would normally provide–though you will probably need to pay for at least one.

If you want to be successful, you have to have a quality product. To have a quality product, the substance of the book needs to be the best that you can make it.

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Don’t rush.

The biggest mistake I made on my first book was publishing before it was ready–which left me with a lot of errors to fix. To be clear, I didn’t realize there were still problems. It’s very important to keep in mind that, even if you are a good editor, you won’t catch everything the first time, perhaps not even the fifth. It’s easy to get swept up by the excitement, get through a reading of your manuscript, and talk yourself into believing it’s ready. However, if you read the manuscript again, you will almost always catch more problems. Writing a book doesn’t have to take ten years, but it is one of those tasks that takes as long as it takes. If you caught significant errors in your book on your last reading, you should read it at least one more. Keep doing that until you can get all the way through it twice without finding any problems.

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Get professional editing help.

I have known a few writers who could do without this, but not many. You will probably have blind spots where your own writing is concerned. As a teacher I often saw evidence that supported the theory that your brain autocorrects, sometimes perceiving what is supposed to be there rather than what is there. There are ways to short-circuit this tendency if mechanics is really the only concern. For instance, reading the manuscript out loud makes it harder for the brain to miss mistakes. However, other problems, such as thinking something is clear when it really isn’t, can’t be so easily beaten. For that reason, I recommend investing in at least one round of professional editing. Every time I’ve done that, the editor had at least a few suggestions to make the book better, changes I would not have thought of on my own.

Remember that the quality of your text is fundamental to your success. If there are flaws you could have avoided, you will be less successful. It’s really that simple.

Learn how to format the manuscript if you can; if not, then get professional help for that as well.

It’s easier to become a proficient formatter than a an excellent editor, and if you can learn what you need to know to format your writing correctly, I highly recommend you do–that’s definitely one place where indie writers can save money.

There are two basics formats, digital and print, and each has its own potential pitfalls. There is plenty of good material on how to prepare each format, and I won’t try to duplicate all of that here, but I will offer a few suggestions:

  • You will be able to handle the digital format more easily if you use Scrivener to create your manuscript and then convert it to digital format. For most things, I love Word, but it wasn’t designed with ebooks in mind. Scrivener was built from the ground-up with ebooks in mind, and it creates far fewer problems. In particular, because Scrivener’s native format is RTF, it doesn’t inject the kind of hidden formatting into the manuscript that Word does. There are ways to make Word or any other decent word processor produce the output you want, but many of the things you have to do to the original file to get to that point Scrivener does for you automatically. When I first started self-publishing, I used to puzzle over why I seemed to have so few problems getting my uploaded books to perform correctly. The answer was simple: I was doing my writing in a program that also provided good conversion. I know a few people who aren’t enthusiastic about Scrivener’s conversions for technical reasons, but in practical terms the digital files it generated always worked flawlessly for me.
  • KDP allows you to upload PDF (but don’t ever do that!), DOC, DOCX, HTML, EPUB, and MOBI. The last two are easier to test beforehand. You can load a mobi file into one of the Kindle Reading Apps to see how well the file performs, and you can do the same with an epub file in Adobe Digital Editions. The difference is that you can also edit the epub file in a program like Sigil if you need to, and you’ll need an epub file anyway if you plan to submit your book to vendors other than Amazon. For those reasons I recommend epub, though you can just prepare a mobi file if you are only planning on selling on Amazon.
  • Always buy a copy of your ebook as soon as it is available and double-check it again to make sure everything is functioning as it should. Even though you’ve checked the source file already, some things may change during the conversion process. It is better to spend a little time checking the finished product than to spend much more time later overcoming the damage to your reputation a malfunctioning ebook could cause.
  • Even though self-published authors tend to make most of their sales in the ebook format, you will want a paperback. Its presence makes you look more like a “real” author, it’s good visual advertising, and it makes a good giveaway item.
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    I would recommend using Createspace for your paperback edition for several reasons. The primary one is that it produces books of good quality yet has the lowest production costs. Why are production costs important? Because higher production costs raise the retail price of your book. POD (print on demand) publishing is inherently more expensive than the large offset print runs major publishers use, meaning that indie writers start out at a disadvantage in this area. If you want your prices to be competitive, you want to go with Createspace. In addition, A CS paperback is always going to show up as in stock on Amazon, where most of your sales are likely to be. That said, if you are really interested in bookstore and library placement, Ingram Spark is a better bet. Createspace doesn’t offer the return capability or high discount bookstores normally demand, and Ingram Spark has better distribution channels for libraries and certain other possible buyers. However, Ingram Spark (and Createspace as well, if you use expanded distribution), because it builds the third party share of the royalties into its price structure, will end up making your book more expensive (almost $3 more in my experience). Your price becomes less competitive, and having better access to other sales channels is no guarantee that you will actually make sales on them. For example, all of my paperback sales have been on Amazon. When I tried a different distributor, and when I tried expanded distribution through Amazon, I lost all my Amazon sales without getting any compensatory sales from other channels, though other authors have reported different experiences.

  • If you use Createspace, make use of their onsite resources. They have very good material about how to format your paperback edition successfully, and they also have templates if you need them. Creating a paperback basically involves making your manuscript look like a print book, but it does involve some technical issues. For example, your margins will depend to some extent on how long the book is. The bigger the book, the bigger the gutter (extra space in the center) to allow for proper binding.
  • Assuming your paperback file (PDF in this case) passes all the initial checks, always order a proof copy to make sure everything is all right. Sometimes things look fine in the online checker but don’t come out the way you expect.
  • If you try to format your book but can’t get it to come out right on either or both formats, use a professional formatter. If your book looks amateurish, particularly the part that will be visible on the Look Inside feature in Amazon, you will lose potential customers even if you have written the most brilliant book in the world. Looks matter.

Unless you are an artist or a graphic designer, consider hiring a cover designer.

You can get decent results with a stock photo and a graphics program to add text. That would create your ebook cover, and you can use a variation of that in the CreateSpace cover template to produce your paperback cover. You can check out my video on the subject for more information on how to use the templates:

Video Thumbnail
Using CreateSpace Cover Templates
Using CreateSpace Cover Templates

That said, unless you are an artist or a graphic designer yourself, you’re better off paying someone to create a truly professional looking cover for you. The cover is the piece of advertising that every potential customer will see.

Decide where you want to sell your book.

Since Amazon now has something like 85% of the indie ebook market, selling through Amazon is pretty much a no-brainer. However, you can sell just on Amazon by joining KDP Select, or you can sell everywhere.

I recommend that each writer experiment to see what works best for his or her books. Joining KDP Select means you have access to programs like Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) and Kindle Unlimited (KU). Not joining means you can market your book in many other venues.

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Even a brief look at Amazon’s KDP forums will reveal widely differing opinions on this subject. That’s why I recommend experimentation. It’s clear that some authors make more money just selling through Amazon, while others make more by “going wide.”

AMS ads are potentially powerful, because they give you an opportunity to advertise to people while they’re shopping on Amazon. It take a while for people to learn how to target the ads, and you may have to tweak quite a bit to get a decent ROI (return on investment), but that those ads sell books I wouldn’t doubt for a minute. (At this point I’ve sold well over two hundred books just from those ads, and I suspect I’ve also made quite a bit on KDP borrows that way, though Amazon doesn’t make that particular statistic available.)

Kindle Unlimited is an all-you-can-read subscription program that pays authors by pages read (at a little under half a cent a page currently, though the exact amount fluctuates every month). In a typical month, I make roughly half my income from borrows, far more than I used to get from all the other venues combined.

On the other hand, some authors make significant sales on other venues, more than they make from KU. That’s why you need to experiment. When dealing with other venues, I recommend using an aggregator who will get your book up several places in exchange for a small piece of the royalties. The one I had the best experience with was draft2digital, though Smashwords is not without its proponents. They have somewhat different distribution channels, though both cover the major ones. Draft2digital tends to have faster service and a somewhat less torturous upload process.

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Once your book is up, devote as much time to marketing as you can.

Though you shouldn’t market so much that you don’t have adequate time to write, some promotion is essential. With thousands of new books hitting the digital shelves every week, the likelihood of being discovered by readers without pushing a little is very small. In my experience, not promoting means not selling–which defeats the purpose of writing in the first place, at least if you are writing for an audience beyond yourself. (If you’re not, then why self-publish in the first place?)

Below I’ve identified some important promotional resources, both free and paid. Start with the free ones, then begin to incorporate paid ones to the extent that you can afford them.

Social Media

Facebook and Twitter are probably the most important for marketers, though there are obviously others. I would start with those two at minimum and then spread to others if you have enough time.

The key to successful social media marketing, at least for indie authors, is to spend most of your time not marketing. Though this advice sounds paradoxical, think about it. Do most people go on social media to look at ads? Probably not. They will see ads, of course, and if they are good ads, they may click on them, but unless you want to spend a ton of money on Facebook and/or Twitter marketing, you don’t want to have to chase people; you want them to come to you.

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The secret is providing interesting content that will make people want to like your Facebook author page or follow your tweets. Usually, this will be a mixture of material that helps them get to know you–readers seem to want to make some personal connection with indie authors–and subjects that interest them. I don’t claim to be an expert, but you can check out my FB author page here. One of the things you’ll notice is that the content is very eclectic. I write YA, so it’s not surprising a big chunk of my fans are teenagers, but actually the biggest group is new adult (18-24), and I have fans scattered across all other range ranges. They’re also scattered geographically and in other ways.  What they will strongly react to isn’t always predictable, so I try to fit a wide range of interests. The one constant is that posting consistently boosts commitment and engagement. When I started posting regularly, my page likes accumulated twice as fast. Tweaking the material boosted the rate still further and got more of those likers actively engaged.

If you want to save time on content curation, you can invest a little in a service like Post Planner that gather a lot of engaging content in one place and give the tools to schedule posts on both Facebook and Twitter–and, in Post Planner’s case, Pinterest as well. (I’ve also used Hootsuite, which lets you post to Google+ in addition to Facebook and Twitter, though I found Hootsuite’s content suggestions to not be as interesting as those on Post Planner.

In the early days you might find a little advertising valuable to gain more Facebook fans and Twitter followers. As time goes on, you will start picking up both organically, but it can be tough in the beginning, when you are essentially talking to yourself most of the time.

It’s important to note that not every fan and follower is going to buy your books. Social media advertising is a long-term strategy. It’s about building relationships with people. Over time, some of these folks will become real fans. Some of my biggest boosters are people I met through social media. However, it took months for a lot of those relationships to develop.

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Mailing List

A number of quality providers, including Mailchimp, provide free service until your mailing list reaches a certain size. You can advertise more openly to your list than to your social media followers, but even then you need to give them a reason to keep opening your emails and to stay subscribed. For example, occasionally I do a giveaway that I advertise only to my email list.

That said, one of the things I discovered was that making subscribing to the mailing list an entry option in a giveaway is a mistake. I got a huge number of signups that way, but most of them were people who actually didn’t care about my writing. I found I was more likely to attract people with genuine interest by offering a free ebook to those who subscribed to the mailing list. True, I accumulate far fewer signus that way, but the people who do sign up are much more likely to open the newsletter emails and to interact with the non-giveaway content.

Giveaways

While we’re on the subject, yes, you can do giveaways for a variety of purposes. They can help build your social media presence, drive traffic to your website, and, most importantly, make more people aware of you and your books. I picked up some very active fans as a result of giveaways. There are several types of giveaway available. The most common are listed below.

  • Amazon giveaways. Near the bottom of the product page of any eligible item, you can see a Set up a giveaway button. Many authors establish giveaways for their own paperbacks or ebooks, though in theory you can do a giveaway for any eligible product. You select how many prizes to give, how the winner or winners will be selected, and what one thing you want to require of entrants. The most popular choices are to follow you on Amazon (followers get automatically notified of new releases) or to follow you on Twitter, though there are other options as well. The giveaways provide a good opportunity to get some books into circulation without having to use the KDP Select free days, which many authors (myself included) believe have become ineffective because of the number of free books in circulation. Amazon giveaways are also handy because Amazon handles sending the prizes to winners.
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    Goodreads giveaways. As you may be aware, Goodreads is a very popular site for readers. I haven’t tried the ebook giveaways Goodreads recently introduced, but I’ve had good luck with the paperback giveaways. They are less convenient than Amazon’s in that you have to ship the prizes yourself, but they do have the advantage that Goodreads encourages winners to leave reviews. In my experience about 30% chose to do so. In case you’re wondering, customer reviews are hard to come by. I recently saw an estimate suggesting that far less than 1% of purchasers normally leave reviews. I’ll talk a little more about the potential value of reviews later, but accelerating the process of getting them makes the Goodreads giveaway worthwhile.

  • Rafflecopter giveaways. Rafflecopter provides an easy way to set up giveaways, provides contestants an easy interface to enter in the way(s) you’ve prescribed, and draws random winners. A free plan is available, but if you want more social media entry options, email list integration (though I wouldn’t recommend that part), and more analytics, other plans are available. You can see them here. Especially if you’re on a tight budget, I’d start with the free plan and see if the giveaways bring you enough interest to justify a heavier investment.
  • Sponsored giveaways. Someone else runs the giveaway, usually through a service like Rafflecopter, and you pay a fee to become a sponsor, which normally means a certain number of the entry options are connected to you. You can see an example here. Good author-specific examples are here and here (both from Kindle Book Review). I haven’t tried the solo option yet, but the first always produced a good amount of social media exposure and some sales for me.
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Customer Reviews

Whether or not customer reviews directly sell books is controversial. I would say a book doesn’t necessarily need a huge number of positive reviews to be successful, but it’s good to have some, especially if the book has been out for a while. Also, reviews have a number of indirect benefits. For example, many advertisers require a minimum number of reviews and/or a minimum average rating before they will advertise your book.

The problem, as I mentioned above, is that very few customers leave reviews. If you sell a hundred books–and in the beginning that will take a while–you might get one review. At that rate, it might be years before you could qualify for some of the more effective advertisers.

That said, be sure to be ethical in your pursuit of reviews. Do not encourage family or close friends to leave reviews. Amazon’s review policy doesn’t preclude fans of your work from leaving reviews–that would be pretty silly. It does prohibit people with whom you have a close personal relationship from reviewing your book because of the potential biases such people could have.

Even more important, you cannot ever give a reviewer any form of compensation except a free book. Paying for customer reviews is a violation of both Amazon policy and Federal Trade Commission regulations. You may offer a free book in exchange for an honest review, but in the review the reviewer needs to state that he or she received a free copy.

How can you offer potential reviewers free copies? You can use services like NetGalley, though if you plan to join KDP Select, you need to use such services only before you publish–Select rules prohibit digital distribution of your book anywhere except KDP. The same is true of disseminating free copies from your website. You can still distribute free copies to potential reviewers if you are Select member, but then you need to distribute those copies in the form of Amazon gifts or use the giveaway process and select the links option. In the latter case, Amazon sends you the number of links you requested, and you email the links to the reviewers.

Of course, it may be hard to find willing reviewers if you aren’t using something like NetGalley, but you can allow people to make requests through your website. There are also Facebook groups devoted to helping authors connect with possible reviewers. If you use a company to facilitate the process,  I would strongly recommend Choosy Bookworm, which seems to have a strong pool of readers and is very aware of what the rules are. (Yes, companies normally charge fees for the service, but they make potential reviewers aware of your work faster than you could on your own.)

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Advertising with promotional services

There are a large number of companies offering promotional services for indie authors. Most people seem to agree that the single best one is BookBub, famous for the large number of sales its promotions produce, the follow-after sales of other titles in the same series, and the long “tail” (extra sales after the promotion is over). Unfortunately, it is also infamously difficult to be accepted, and I’ve never managed it. I’ve gotten the best results from Ereader News Today, as well as reasonable results from Book Gorilla and Fussy Librarian. Others have varied from selling enough copies to cover the cost to not moving the needle at all. As with Kindle Select results, however, different authors get different outcomes. I’ve heard people praise companies that didn’t do me any good at all and damn companies that worked well for me. Some differences could be caused by differences in genre, though there are probably other factors in play as well. You may need to experiment and see what other writers in your genre have to say before you can develop an accurate picture of what companies will do the best job for you.

The ones I’ve had the most success with are the ones that use targeted (aimed at readers of a specific genre) emails. If you think about it, that pattern makes perfect sense. Most readers don’t like all genres equally, and it doesn’t make too much sense, for example, to promote a romantic comedy to someone who only reads horror.

As with other aspects of the publishing, there are different options depending on your budget. Be aware that some companies have inexpensive or free offerings, though those are unlikely to produce the same results as a more expensive offering from the same or a comparable company. However, some advertising is better than none. Unless you already have a huge fan base, you need to do something to keep your books visible. I find that when I promote, I sell. When I don’t promote, I don’t sell.

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AMS advertising

Amazon Marketing Services ads have a key advantage over any other advertising: they can target people shopping on Amazon at that very moment. I’ve found that the more times a potential customer has to click to get to my book, the less likely they are to make it all the way there.

Despite that advantage, AMS ads often don’t have a good ROI (return on investment). That’s because you pay based on the number of times people click on your ads, and a typical conversion rate is about one in a hundred. Even at one in ten, though, if you’re paying twenty cents a click, and you could be paying more–the rate is determined by what you and others are bidding for the ad exposure–if the book is $3.99 ($2.79 royalty) you’ve only made $.79. If it took you twenty clicks to make that sale, you’d lose $1.21. If it took a hundred clicks, you’d lose $17.21. In popular genres, the clicks often cost more than twenty cents. Do you see the problem? The ad conversion rates aren’t bad, but ebooks just aren’t expensive enough to generate enough royalties to make a clear profit under that model.

Whether or not AMS ads are worth it for you depends on two things: how much time you have to spend fine-tuning your targeting, and how important expanding your base is. There are at least a few authors who kept revising their targeting until they end up with a good ROI, but they put a lot of hours into the process. With regard to the second point, sometimes when a writer is starting out, it’s worth spending a little more than one is making to get the book into people’s hands. If you’re on a tight budget, you won’t be able to afford that kind of strategy, but if you have some cash to spare, investing in long-term audience growth might make sense. Over time I’ve lost money on the ads, but I’ve gained over two hundred readers I wouldn’t have had otherwise–and they may buy more books in the future. Unfortunately, AMS ads don’t track follow-on sales by people who bought an initial book as a result of an ad, then bought more later. AMS ads don’t track someone who clicks on the ad for one book and then buys one of the author’s other books, either. They don’t even track how many people click on an ad and then borrow the book under KU. My KU borrows quadrupled as soon as I started using AMS ads, dropped again when I stopped, and rose again when I restarted. You can’t always calculate the full, long-term benefit of this kind of advertising.

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Editorial reviews and Contests

These are two very different things, but I’m grouping them together, mostly because in both cases whether or not they actually promote book sales is a matter of considerable controversy.

Editorial reviews are professionally written reviews of a type that traditional publishers have long used to promote their books. Self-published writers have to pay for editorial reviews (you pay the company, not the reviewer, however, so there’s no ethical dilemma). Typically, editorial reviews aren’t cheap.

Self-published writers aren’t eligible for consideration by the major literary awards, but a number of contests have sprung up in recent years that cater to the self-published. While some are scams (see below), others are legitimate.

I can’t offer any concrete evidence that either editorial reviews or self-publishing writing contests increase sales. That said, I have seen anecdotal evidence that an especially glowing editorial review or a big win in a legitimate contest can catch the eye of a publisher, which might be an advantage for someone considering making a transition into traditional publishing. I’ve had a few small publishers flirt with me after either a good editorial review or a good showing in a contest, and the audio book producer for Living with Your Past Selves, Common Mode, approached me after I became a finalist in the Next Gen Indie book awards; in fact, the folks at Common Mode told me explicitly it was the contest that brought me to their attention.

Both editorial reviews and contests tend to be reasonably expensive, and, as I’ve said, they don’t necessarily sell books. They may have other long-term benefits, however, so whether you give one or both a try may depend upon how much spare money you have in your promotional budget.

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Avoid scams.

Unfortunately, one of the facts of self-publishing life is that scammers are everywhere. The most pernicious are fake traditional publishers, but there are also fake agents, fake literary contests, and grossly overpriced service providers. Particularly abhorrent are the ones who charge gullible authors lots of money for things the authors could easily do themselves.

How do you avoid being scammed? Always do your homework. There are many sites, including Preditors and Editors, filled with information about previously identified scams. New ones are popping up every day, however, so don’t hesitate to seek out advice in places like the KDP forum or other writers’ forums and/or groups with which you may be familiar. Keep these basic principles in mind:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Be skeptical of promotional packages that cost hundreds of dollars. There’s only so much even a good promoter can do for you. If you have to sell hundreds of books to break even, how likely is it that you’re going to? (As I mentioned earlier, it sometimes is worth spending a little more than you make, but having a slightly negative ROI from legitimate advertising is a lot different from being cheated.)
  • Be even more skeptical of companies without obvious track records. BookBub is pricey, but they have the record to back up that price. Most companies don’t. Check books and authors the company has promoted in the recent past. How are they doing? If they don’t appear to be doing well, that’s a good indication of how much those promotional services are really worth. If you can’t tell who the company promoted recently, that’s an even worse sign.
  • Run away from publishers who want your money. A true publisher is not a paid service provider and should not be charging you for services a publisher would normally provide for free. A number of scam publishers are really overpriced service providers who deliberately give you a false impression so that they can both charge you for services and collect a percentage of your royalties. I’ve seen a few rare exception, where someone is trying a hybrid publishing model, but these are still very uncommon at this point, so it’s safe to assume the worst.

Keep writing.

If you really are a writer, you won’t need to be told to write; you’ll just do it. However, it is worth pointing out that new releases are one of the best forms of promotion. Assuming your new book is related to your previous books, the new release will stimulate sales of the older titles. Remember that very few indie writers become overnight successes on the first book. Those who do become successful do so through gradual build-up, and new releases are an indispensible part of that.

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(image copyrighted by KieferPix and licensed from www.shutterstock.com)

Don’t give up.

It’s easy to become discouraged if you don’t instantly succeed–and you probably won’t. However, success is possible. I suggest you keep an eye on Author Earnings, a site well known for its developing an accurate way of estimating sales on outlets like Amazon that don’t divulge exact figures. If you look at the information available, particularly the May 2016 report, you will be amazed. According to that report, there are actually about 1000 self-published writers making at least $50,000 on Amazon sales alone, many of those making considerably more than that.

There is a path to success–if you are willing to put in the time and effort, and if you have the patience.

29 thoughts on “What a Beginning Self-Publisher Should Know”

  1. Dotty J Boucher

    These are all great tips and suggestions but truly it comes down to the individual how they want there piece to be published. I think no matter what one knows there is always more to learn.
    @tisonlyme143

  2. Wow! As an avid reader I had no idea what it takes to get a book published let alone getting one self-published. Makes me appreciate books even more!

  3. Very informative. Thanks. Does create Space allow someone to publish their book in ebook format, and also in paperback? If for example the person wishes to have a few copies in paperback. Thanks for your assistance.

    1. Amazon has two services for very different purposes. Use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for ebooks. Use CreateSpace for paperbacks. CS does have an option to upload your source file to KDP, but DON’T DO IT! I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. The PDF you submit to CS will create all kinds of problems if uploaded to KDP, at least in most cases. Honestly, I don’t know why Amazon continues to offer an option so unlikely to succeed.

      The good news is that you can get your book up in both formats. Just be sure to use the right tool for the right job. Each format has its own layout issues that really need to be addressed separately.

      Did I answer your question completely? Please feel free to follow up in you need more information.

      1. Thanks for your valuable advice. But how could I have published at the same time my book as an eBook and a paperback one? Can I use KDP for my eBook and create Space for my paperback as I I would like to have the both formats, using the same book title would it create any problems? I figure the cost would increase getting both formats. Thanks again for your help.

        1. Yes, you can use KDP for the ebook and CS for the paperback, and no, using the same title does not create problems. In fact, that’s what you want to do, so that the two formats will become associated with each other. Someone finding your book in a search or coming to the product page for one of the formats will see that you have both, so potential buyers can pick the format they prefer. (Indie authors tend to sell far more ebooks, but there are exceptions, and virtually everyone who has a paperback edition sells some.)

          As far as cost is concerned, that depends on how you prepare your two editions. Both KDP and CS will publish your book for free, but you need to have a viable file in each case. For KDP you’ll probably want to convert your original document to either mobi or epub. Word files can be submitted, but you need to format very carefully in order for them to convert. PDF doesn’t convert well regardless. There are several different ways to end up with an appropriate file, depending on what format you’re starting with. After you upload, there is a point in the process at which you can download the converted file. Do so and check it to make sure everything functions properly. (If you don’t have a kindle device to load it to, you can use the kindle app for pretty much any hardware you have (Mac, PC, IOS, Android). You’ll want to make sure the TOC functions as it should, and you’ll want to look for odd breaks or other anomalies, so that ideally you can fix those before the book goes live. Once the book goes lives, buy a copy and do the same check, just to make sure.

          The paper edition is easier in some ways and harder in others. For that you need a PDF, and, in contrast to the digital edition, in which the text will reflow, and many aspects of the layout are controlled by the kindle device, the layout for the paper edition will be exactly what you make it, so you want to make it resemble a published paperback as closely as possible. The cover design is also different. For Kindle you just need the equivalent of a front cover, but for print you need the whole traditional cover. CS provides templates for both text and cover.

          Once your print manuscript passed CS’s automatic check, you have the opportunity to order a copy, which you should do. As with the digital edition, look over your proof copy very carefully. Generally, things do come out as you would expect, but even if you’ve done everything right, there are occasionally glitches, so checking is essential.

          The higher cost you mention could come if you can’t do one or both formats on your own. I think it is possible for someone to learn how to do the format on his or her own, but if you haven’t the time or the patience, there are many companies that will set up the material for you. CS itself has a formatting service you can buy. An outside formatter who is very well thought of is http://www.booknook.biz/. I think the prices are comparable. I haven’t used either one for formatting, though I have been pleased with the CS editorial services, and people who have used BooknookBiz seemed quite satisfied with it.

          Though the content of the book is obviously the most important part, the formatting can be off-putting if it doesn’t look good or work the way it should, so you’ll want to put the time in yourself or pay to have it done. It’s a mistake to publish something that is less than the best you can manage.

          1. Wow, you are the best. Thanks for such valuable advice. I love your clarity on these issues. Once again thanks a million.

  4. Sir, Could you recommend cover designers for my paperback book who are not too expensive? I am working with a budget and looking to get published. Once more thank you.

    1. The one I use and like is actually fairly pricey (Generally the ones that do some original art tend to be pricey, though this one has the advantage of including unlimited revisions until you are satisfied.) My previous one–also an artist–was in the same price range.

      There are, however, good budget alternatives. Since I haven’t worked with any myself, I’d recommend checking the KDP forums. If you haven’t discovered this already, there is a lot of good information there, though you might have to spend some time searching. Just the other day there was a designer offering to do a certain number of indie covers for free. There are a number of threads in which people talk about their experiences with different cover designers. Also, if you search online, you will find a lot of designers who display samples and are very clear about their pricing and what’s included.

      Be careful of the really cheap ones (Fiverr), as sometimes they will use stock photos they haven’t properly licensed, and if there is a copyright issue, that can come back to bite you, even if you weren’t aware of it.

  5. Wow thank you! So much detail and you broke everything down very nicely. And this will be helping to figure out the direction I will be heading in. You made it much easier for me. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing all of this information.

  6. Wow, what an incredibly helpful and informative post! Thank you so much for sharing! I love how easy you make things to read/comprehend! 🙂

  7. Great post! May I ask you do you use an editor for your books? I’ve purchased several of your books and didn’t find any credit.
    Thank you!

    1. My earlier books don’t have editor credits because I was using Createspace, and when they were offering editorial services, they didn’t provide the names of the editors working on the project. My current editor is George Donnelly. He’s very good. His feedback is always detailed and helpful.

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