Disclaimer: these ideas are based on my experiences, business goals, and temperament. You will bring a different perspective to self-publishing, so consider what resonates and ignore the rest. Also, this post is not financial advice or legal advice. Seek assistance from an accountant or an attorney for legalities and money matters. Every state has different statutes to follow for your small business.
Establishing a publishing house
By self-publishing your books, you have become a small business owner. You are selling a product that you create. Your publishing house is a small business; run it like a professional.
Name – Consider picking a name for your publishing house. I picked “FictionEtc Press” since my initials are ETC. I also recommend searching the internet and the US Patent and Trademark Office for your “publisher name” to ensure you don’t violate a trademarked name.
Type of business - Decide what type of business you are forming. Ask fellow authors about the pros and cons of an LLC, the various categories of corporations, etc. I chose to be a sole proprietorship--which meant I had to research what was expected in my county/state for someone who was operating a doing business as (DBA) company. My county does require registration as a DBA, which cost about $35 and only took an easy, notarized form.
Banking – Retailers will want to send 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. There are instances where you will have to provide a postal address, and if you're like me, you want to be careful about surfacing the address of where you live. I’m paying $100 for a year’s lease of a mail box at USPS facility.
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. The state of North Carolina does require quarterly payments of sales tax.
Income taxes – Keep good records for your business expenses and revenues. You may wish to consider a small business financial package for your computer or careful use of Excel. I hired a tax accountant to assist me my first year of self-publishing, but my husband and I have been managing it ourselves since. (Turbo Tax does a great job for us!)
Buy your own set of ISBNs. File for copyright protection.
ISBNs – International Standard Book Number is a 10-digit or 13-digit number that uniquely identifies a book. Having your own ISBNs is optional for some distributors, so this step is not required. I wanted my own ISBNs for my books. It's a control issue; I don't want the author platform telling me how to use them. 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." I bought my second 10 ISBNs for $100.
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 . It'll take a couple of months to get the document. This step is not required; your book is copyrighted as soon as it's in tangible form. But having the copyright filed gives me peace of mind. YMMV.
Know your supply chain. Understand the difference between distributors and retailers.
Author Platform - most distributors/retailers of e-books want to make it as easy as possible for you to load your digital books for distribution. They will provide a "staging" website that we generally call "the author platform." The platform has tools to help you format your books, price them, upload covers (or get one of their designers to create for you), etc. Some author platforms are easier to use than others. Amazon's is good. B&N's is getting better. I don't use Apple's (because I don't have an iOS device.) There are also author platforms that are not associated with a specific retailer; you can load your books to a centralized site--and they will ship it to retailers on your behalf. Setting up your books on an author platform is free.
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) your royalties 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 (also known as the author platform) to upload your book and then they, in turn, distribute it to the retailers that you choose. A distributor stores your books, provides to the retailers, and tracks your royalties. The distributor gets a cut of your royalties, the retailer does, too--and you get whatever is left. For instance, KDP is the distributor of ebooks to Amazon. KDP is transitioning to becoming a distributor of print books to Amazon and other retailers. B&N has its own e-book and print book distribution. 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 could cost you sales. Freelance editors vary greatly in price. For a 70K book, you could pay anywhere from $500 to $2000 for developmental edits. (And the more expensive fees do not guarantee better edits.) Ask for recommendations. You should also consider line-edits, copy-edits, and sensitivity reads (if you are including diverse characters or issues that you don't have firsthand experience with.)
Front matter – Front matter is the first 3-4 pages of a book--before you get to the text of the story. You should always include the title page and copyright page. You can also, optionally, include a dedication page, a list of your other books ("Also By"), your acknowledgments, and a "call to action" for signing up for your newsletter. 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, Author Biography, and bonus content, such as an excerpt for your next book. The back matter may also include the acknowledgments and a list of your other books. (This is my preference--to have Acknowledgments and "Books By" in the back matter.) Additionally for e-books, you can include buy-links to your other books and links to your social media sites. Note: most retailers do not allow you to include buy-links for competitors. For instance, Apple does not surface any buy-links for Amazon. You'll likely produce multiple versions of your e-books, a unique version for each retailer with their specific buy-links.
The interior layout of your book is the presentation of your book's content. You can go for a no-frills approach or invest in applying more care to the format. When making these choices, 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 (or enhanced content.)
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. (I also made an effort to notice them in other books and decided that they're just noise that adds to the book size.) 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, using at most 2 fonts 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 contracted out the interior layout for my first 2 self-pubbed books. I asked self-pubbed friends for recommendations. The going price seemed to be $75-$150 per book. Now, I do the interior layout myself (but I'm also a software developer, so I do this stuff at work for my day-job). Draft2Digital (a distributor) has good tools for turning WORD docs into pretty layouts. You may use them (even if you don't use D2D), and download the books. I haven't used their tools, since I do the work myself.
The text and images (such as covers) that you include in your book can be published in different publishing formats. Your distributor has a required publishing format that they use for creating and distributing books.
PDF – the text and covers of print books are always uploaded to distributors in PDF. The distributors I use (Amazon/KDP 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 $150 to $1000 or more. I've paid $150 for covers and $500 for covers. The quality was good with both. It is possible to create your own covers, but take care that it doesn't look thrown together. Bad covers can kill sales.
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 for my former cover designer. My current one handles the licensing fees herself.
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, Overdrive, several international retailers)
The author platforms for KDP, Kobo, and D2D are amazingly easy to use. Very author friendly. NookPress and Smashwords, not so much (although NookPress is getting better.) 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 or $3.99. Amazon and Kobo give me around 70%, B&N - 65%, Smashwords - 50%, and D2D - 60%. Note that Amazon/KDP charges a delivery fee based on the ebook file size.
Release date – Amazon, D2D, 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" on the release date, and it releases immediately.
Now, let's go over releasing print books.
Cost – Amazon/KDP 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, KDP 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. (Watch IngramSpark for promotions. In March, I took advantage of a promotion and set up 3 books for free. In June, I uploaded changes to 2 books for free.)
Distributors – I use KDP 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. KDP 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 KDP books and less than $1 with Ingram. (I may drop Ingram because it's a lot of work for lower royalty, but it does have stronger, more loyal distribution to libraries and indie bookstores.)
Release date - KDP 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 book-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 happily lean on the expertise of marketing teams and cover designers. A traditional publishing experience works best for me when, of course, I can get a contract.
Another factor that I have to consider is my target market. Historically, I've written teen fiction in a narrow sub-genre. Since teens prefer print books over e-books, I have to sell print books, which are harder to produce as a self-pubbed author 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 a month or two after you earn them)
- 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