Disclaimer: these recommendations are based on my experiences, business goals, and temperament. You will bring a different perspective to self-publishing, so use what resonates and ignore the rest. Also, this is not financial advice or legal advice. Seek assistance from an accountant or an attorney for advice on legalities and money matters. Every state has different statutes to follow for your small business.
Establishing a publishing houseBy self-publishing your books, you have become a small business owner. You are selling a product that you create. Establish your publishing house, and treat it like a small business.
Name – Consider picking a name for your publishing house. I picked “FictionEtc Press” since my initials are ETC. I also recommend searching the internet for your “publisher name” to ensure you don’t violate a trademarked name.
Type of business - Decide what type of business you are forming. I chose to be a sole proprietorship.
Banking – Retailers will want to send your royalties on a periodic basis. Be sure to have your bank routing/account numbers or a paypal account ready. I have a separate bank account and credit card for my publishing house.
Snail mail address – If you don’t have a personal mail box, consider getting one for your author business mail. I’m paying $150 for a year’s lease.
Sales tax – if it’s possible that you’ll be selling print books directly to readers, you should check with your state’s department of revenue to see whether you’ll owe any sales tax.
Income taxes – Keep good records for your business expenses. You may wish to consider a small business financial package, like QuickBooks. I also hired a tax accountant to assist me my first year of self-publishing.
Stake a claim for your books by buying your own set of ISBNs and filing for copyright protection.
ISBNs – International Standard Book Number is a 10-digit or 13-digit number that uniquely identifies a book. They are not required by all distributors. I wanted ISBNs for my books, so I bought a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker for $250. Each book format (ebook and print) needs a separate ISBN. Bowker periodically runs promotions, so watch for a sale and "stock up."
Filing for copyright – I recommend filing for copyright protection of your book. It costs $35 and takes about ten minutes to complete the application online at copyright.gov .
Know your supply chain. Understand the difference between distributors and retailers.
Retailers – Retailers are the companies that sell your books to readers on your behalf. Retailers keep a portion of the retail price and send “the publisher” (that is, you) the rest on a periodic basis. The biggest retailers are Amazon, B&N, and Apple. Overdrive and Baker&Taylor are big for libraries. And there are thousands of other online retailers and independent bookstores—which is why you need a distributor…
Distributors – Distributors give you a central place to upload your book and then they, in turn, distribute it to the retailers that you choose. Most distributors make it really easy to upload your book, get it ready for distribution, and receive royalties. For instance, KDP is the distributor of ebooks to Amazon. CreateSpace is the distributor of print books to Amazon (and potentially other retailers.) Ingram can distribute e-books or print books to pretty much everywhere. More on this later.
Preparing the book to sell
Produce great content – First and foremost, write a great book. Then I strongly recommend that you have your book professionally edited and proofread. If you, as an author, get the reputation for producing sloppy books, that impression can be hard to fight and will cost you sales.
Front matter – Front matter is the first 3-4 pages of a book--before you get to the story / content. You should always include the title page and the copyright page. You can also, optionally, include a dedication page, a list of your other books ("Also By"), or your acknowledgments. Most retailers of e-books require that you have a Table of Contents in your front matter.
Back matter – Back matter is the final 4-10 pages of your book--after The End. Back matter provides a good location for any Author Notes and the Author Biography. The back matter may also include the acknowledgments and a list of your other books. (This is my preference--to have Acknowledgments and "Also By" in the back matter.) Additionally, inside e-books, you can include buy-links to your other books and links to your social media sites.
The interior layout of your book provides the presentation of your book. You can go for a no-frills approach or invest in applying more care to the format. When making this choice, consider your personality, the costs involved, and the conventions for your book's market.
Making the interior pretty - The interior layout is all about making the appearance of the book’s content pretty. Some frills that you can add include fancy fonts, fancy chapter headings, scene break images, "left flush" or "drop caps" for the first paragraph of each chapter / scene, and maps.
Scene break images: I used scene break images for my first two self-published books, but I've stopped now because they are really hard to get right. If you hire a layout expert, they should be able to handle scene break images for you.
First paragraphs: I left-flush the first paragraph of each chapter and each scene break. I played around with drop-caps, but decided I didn't like the way they looked.
Fonts: I limit myself with the fonts, mostly using 2 in a book, a serif font for regular text and a san-serif if my characters are texting. The Garamond font is used for 90% or more of the text in my print books. I use "free" fonts in my e-books. There are some weird legalities with "purchased" fonts in e-books.
Hiring a layout expert - I recommend contracting out the interior layout for the first few times you prepare a book to sell. I asked self-pubbed friends for recommendations. The going price seemed to be $75-$150 per book. I do the interior layout myself (but I'm also a software developer, so I do this stuff at work for my day-job).
The text and images (such as covers) that you include in your book can appear in different publishing formats. You must check with your distributor to know which publishing formats to use.
PDF – the text and covers of print books are always uploaded to distributors in PDF. The distributors I use (Amazon Createspace and IngramSpark) have templates available to ensure that you get covers right.
ePub – nearly all retailers use the ePub format for e-books, except Amazon. There are plenty of tools out there to convert WORD documents to ePub. I use an open source tool called Calibre to create my ePub files and then upload them to the distributors. If you prefer, the distributors have tools to convert WORD to ePub; these conversion tools work very well, but you do lose a little bit of control over the interior of the book.
Mobi/azw – Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) has its own proprietary format for distributing e-books to Amazon. You can hire someone to create this format for you, or you can upload a WORD doc, HTML file, or ePub and it will be converted. The KDP conversion tool does a nice, no-frills job.
Book covers – This is your number one marketing tool, so do it well! There are many cover designers out there. Ask for recommendations from your self-pubbed friends. Distributors often have cover designers available. There are also several crowd-sourcing sites that allow you to get “bids” on your book cover design. Prices can run anywhere from $200 to $1000 or more. I paid mid-range.
Licensing – your cover designer may ask you to pay license fees for stock photos and/or specialized fonts. I paid $10 to license fonts and $50 to license stock photos.
Releasing the Book
Let's look at e-books first.
Cost – once you have your interior layout and cover completed, it costs nothing to establish yourself with an e-book distributor. You just open an account, set up the royalty payments and your preferences, and upload your files.
Distributors – Each distributor has a website known as their "author platform." I have accounts with the author platforms on:
- KDP (Amazon),
- NookPress (B&N),
- Kobo Writing Life (Kobo),
- Smashwords (many small retailers),
- Draft2Digital (iBooks and Overdrive)
The author platforms for KDP, Kobo, and D2D are amazingly easy to use. Very author friendly. NookPress and Smashwords, not so much. It is a pain to go to so many platforms. Every time you add a new book, you have to publish it multiple places (in my case, 5).
Royalty – review the royalty percentages carefully with each distributor; percentages change with differing price ranges. I have my ebooks priced at $2.99. Amazon and Kobo give me 70%, B&N - 65%, Smashwords - 50%, and D2D - 60%.
Release date – Amazon and Smashwords allowed me to set the release date in the future and accept pre-order sales. On the release date, everything magically worked. With the others, you just click "publish" and it releases immediately.
Now, let's go over releasing print books.
Cost – Amazon CreateSpace charges nothing to set up print books. IngramSpark charges $49 per book. If you need to upload changes to your book after it is established, CreateSpace charges nothing. IngramSpark charges $25 to take changes. I did pay $20 to both distributors to ship a proof copy. Both distributors allow authors to purchase “author copies” at approximately $5 per book plus shipping&handling.
Distributors – I use CreateSpace to distribute paperbacks to Amazon. I use IngramSpark to distribute to everyone else. The quality of Ingram books is a little better, and their worldwide shipping is faster. CreateSpace has better domestic shipping plus you will make much more money per book.
Royalty – review the royalty percentages carefully with each distributor. I make about $2 royalty on my Createspace books and less than $1 with Ingram. (I may drop Ingram because it's a lot of work for lower royalty. But it does potentially reach libraries.)
Release date - Createspace releases your book immediately once you have indicated that the proof is acceptable. Ingram allows you to set the release date. If you accept the proof in advance, they will treat it as a pre-order until the actual release date.
The good and the bad with self-publishing
Let me close these notes with a brief discussion of my opinions about being self-published.
My business goals - Before you make a decision about how to publish your books, be clear about what is important to you for your writing career.
- Do you write because you have something to say?
- Do you like the research and potential travel opportunities?
- Do you want to earn a living as an author?
Consider your unique situation - As an author, I love to collaborate with a publishing team to help produce my books. I love knowing that there are editors committed to improving my story. I lean on the expertise of marketing teams and cover designers. A traditional publishing experience works best for me.
Another factor that I have to consider is my target market. I write teen fiction, in a narrow sub-genre. Since teens prefer print books over e-books, I have to sell paperbacks, which are harder to produce and make a smaller profit margin.
Self-publishing works especially well for genres with a strong e-book customer base and for authors who can produce quickly and steadily. Neither is true for me.
What I like about self-publishing:
- Faster release dates (you publish when the book is ready)
- Higher royalty rates
- Faster data (it's instantaneous)
- Faster receipt of earnings (usually every month)
- Controlling my own price points
What I don't like about self-publishing:
- The time I spend writing versus publishing "biz"; I'd really rather spend 100% of my "author" time writing the book
- Making decisions about factors that I have no expertise with (such as book covers and promotion)
- Working on my own (I love collaborating with a publishing team!)
- The correlation between social media presence and earnings