So you’re thinking about self-publishing a book.
You’ve heard self-published authors can make more money, especially on a per-copy basis. You like the idea of having more control over the inside and outside of your book, and you want better access to marketing data so you can sell more books more effectively.
But self-publishing a book can be daunting. There are so many factors involved:
- Choosing a cover design
- Uploading it to Amazon
- Figuring out what KDP stands for
- Setting up a sales page
- Advertising and promoting your book
- Building a platform and growing an audience so readers know you have a book for them to read.
Self-publishing, also known as indie publishing, is not for the faint of heart.
If you’re just getting started in the world of self-publishing, that list may feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it all yourself or all at once.
However, it is very helpful to know what the process looks like so you’ll know what to work on next.
James Blatch is familiar with the self-publishing process from start to finish. I asked him to give us an overview and help us navigate the jungle of self-publishing. As the co-host of The Self Publishing Show, he’s been helping authors self-publish for a long time.
Why does self-publishing feel so overwhelming for so many people?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Why does self-publishing feel so overwhelming for so many people?
James Blatch: There are many moving parts to self-publishing, all of which you’ve got to master to some degree in order to be successful. But the good news is that you don’t have to do everything at once.
When authors are starting out, we coach them to focus on one particular area.
For instance, you do need to master Facebook ads at some point, but not at the beginning of your self-publishing journey.
On the other hand, at the beginning of your career, you do need to understand how book covers work and how your relationship with an editor works. Once you compartmentalize the different aspects of self-publishing, it becomes easier.
That overwhelming feeling may never fully go away. Like any immersive business, the challenge is part of the fun.
Thomas: People tend to feel overwhelmed when they don’t know how something works. When you don’t know how something works, you assume it’s difficult. I know many people who’ve worked hard to create their book, and they assume that putting it on Amazon is really difficult.
Those authors are targeted by companies who offer to upload a book to Amazon for a fee of $5,000. Since the authors don’t know how to do it, they’re thrilled to pay $5,000. They don’t realize it only takes 90 minutes of answering some questions on Amazon to get the job done.
That final step of uploading your book to Amazon isn’t that complicated, but it does require some sweat to figure it out the first time.
Step 1: Write the Book
Whether you’re traditionally publishing or indie publishing, the process of writing the book is similar, but there are differences in publishing those books.
Traditionally published authors are thinking about the acquisitions editor and agent while writing because that’s who they have to thrill first.
Indie authors are thinking about thrilling a reader in their particular sub-sub-category on Amazon.
How does an indie author begin writing a book?
James: Indie authors at the beginning of their careers don’t usually realize they’re writing for readers. Most people who have a book in them imagine themselves writing a literary book like Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan.
Few people say, “I’ve got a book in me, and it’s like a Lee Child book.” They think more in literary terms.
Authors need to understand that there is a difference between the sort of books that you see on posters at the railway station that are published by Harper Collins, which are literary books. Perhaps it’s the new Margaret Atwood book. Atwood’s book probably fits into a genre broadly, but it doesn’t have to because it’s got a big advertising campaign behind it and a well-known author.
You’re not Margaret Atwood, and you’re unlikely to be like her. I don’t mean that in a rude way. You are writing to a genre, and you sell your book by fitting very neatly into a genre.
In the traditional industry, they call it commercial fiction or genre fiction, and it is the lifeblood of the self-publishing industry.
You can write what you want when you’re starting off just to find your voice. But when you write the book you want to self-publish, you must think about the sub-genre you’re going to write in.
That is already a bit of a journey, and most people haven’t considered it.
Thomas: Many people do it wrong the first time. First-time authors typically write their first book because they want to write a book. They don’t realize they need to know the subgenre.
That’s one reason I urge people not to publish the first book they write. That first book is for helping you learn to write. It won’t be your smash hit.
As Larry Correia says, “Publishing is the one industry where your whole career is judged by your performance in your rookie season.” Most athletes don’t have their best year in their rookie season. They’re figuring it out during that first year, and they peak much later.
In publishing, even if you write a 21-book series, everyone will judge the whole series based on your first book. Your 17th book will be better because you’ve developed as an author, but your series will be judged by book one.
The other difference between indie authors and Margaret Atwood is that Margaret has to determine where her books fit in a physical bookstore. A brick-and-mortar store only has a few sections for fiction and nonfiction.
Indie authors are placing their books on virtual shelves in online bookstores where there are thousands of subcategories for fiction and nonfiction.
Your book won’t likely be in the physical bookstore, so it’s critical that you place it on the correct digital shelf in the sub-sub-category where it fits best.
Don’t believe anyone who sells you a publishing package that promises to “get you into a bookstore.” Even a publisher needs a sales team to convince the bookstore to sell their books.
Indie authors make most of their money selling through online bookstores to readers who are primarily Kindle owners who shop for books online. Those readers don’t walk into their neighborhood bookstore and ask the bookseller what book to buy.
James: They’re buying books because Amazon spotted their tastes and can show them what they like. That’s a very different buying environment. It’s like walking into the bookstore where the assistant knows quite a lot about you. They know the last hundred books you’ve read, and they can jump in front of you and ask, “What do you think of this one?”
It doesn’t feel like you’re being harassed on Amazon as a customer, but that’s the environment you’re writing into as an author.
Step 2: Editing
Thomas: In traditional publishing, editing is more of an emotional journey. An author is assigned an editor who has a lot of authority. Authors often feel like they’re in a tug-of-war with the editor over how the book should look. That tension is actually beneficial, especially for beginning authors, because that editor has more experience and the authority to push back on things.
The indie author hires their own editor as an employee or contractor. In that relationship, the author has the power and doesn’t have to listen to the editor’s suggestions. Additionally, no one forces you to hire a good editor, so many indies will hire their high school English teacher or their friend with an English degree to edit the book, neither of which is a good option.
Indie authors need to hire several editors with experience in the genre they’re writing.
What advice do you have for an author who has finished the first draft and is searching for an editor?
James: They need to understand the various types of editors.
Broadly, there are three types of editors: a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proof editor.
With each editing pass, the editing gradually gets less editorial and more technical. The proofreading edit is where your editor moves the commas and makes sure the grammar and spelling are correct. The copy edit is a bit about your style and consistency, and the developmental editor is a lot about style and story. They are asking whether major aspects of the story work.
I’ve never been traditionally published, but I imagine that developmental edit accounts for the two-year writing process when they go back and forth on the story and character journey. They don’t worry so much about the copy editing until later.
That’s probably the way we should be looking at the editing process as indies.
I went through that developmental editing process with my first book, and I absolutely would not be here, having published three books and writing my fourth, without going through that developmental editing process.
In fact, I used a book coach, which is a new thing that sprung up around the indie industry. A book coach basically does development editing as you go along. With a book coach, you write chapter by chapter. You’ll turn in one chapter and receive editorial notes on that chapter while you’re writing the next one. That allows you to correct the things you’re getting wrong all the way through.
I found it absolutely invaluable, and I would strongly recommend a developmental editor when you’re starting out. It’s a bit like having a university lecturer hold your hand and teach you on the job.
It’s better than writing your 100,000-word book completely in the dark and then handing it to a developmental editor who has to read the whole thing and go over what doesn’t work.
Thomas: That’s why I really recommend that authors start by writing short stories. It’s much easier to get feedback on your short story than on your 100,000-word novel. It will cost you less to hire an editor for a short story, and it’s a more reasonable ask for your readers.
After you’ve written a dozen short stories, you’ll have one that rises to the top and makes a much better first impression as a reader magnet.
Why do you need multiple editors?
Thomas: Your developmental editor and copy editor are different kinds of people. One person sees the big picture, and the other sees details and grammar rules.
Some indies make the mistake of falling in love with their editor, and they hire that one editor to do all types of editing.
Even if that editor is a magical unicorn who’s good at both kinds of editing, they still become blind to the errors just as the author does. Hiring another editor, even if they’re not as good, will give you a set of fresh eyes that can catch more errors and add more feedback.
It’s important to have a team of editors.
James: That happened to me with my first book. The development editor did the copy edit. He said, “I’ve been through this book so many times; I’ll be amazed if it needs a proofreader.” We both read it so many times that we couldn’t see the wood for the trees anymore. But it was full of typos.
I learned to have separate editors for each stage. Reedsy is an online marketplace for editing services, and nearly every editor I’ve used has come from there.
Thomas: I also recommend hiring three developmental editors initially. Have each one edit the same chapter. Pay them all for their work, and then pick the best one to finish editing the book.
You can also find an editor on our job board at AuthorMedia.social.
If you hire only one editor, you’ll be trying to decide whether to have your book edited or not. That’s the wrong question. You should be asking, “Which of these editors will do the best job for this book?”
Some editors will edit a page or two for free. If you’re on a budget, that’s fine, but I like paying them for a chapter. I think editors should get paid for their important work.
James: I’m considering changing my development editor. He’s done a good job on my last couple of books, but I want to move on from the male fragility theme in my books. He’s good at that, but I might have put a bit too much weakness into a strapping test pilot in my last book. I got a few comments from readers saying a pilot couldn’t get to that stage with that amount of self-doubt.
I think that theme has run its course.
My next book is in the same universe, but it’s more espionage. I’m quite happy to go a bit more machismo in this book. I think it will be good for me to have a different development editor to give a perspective that the first editor may not be seeing anymore.
Thomas: That is a very indie way of thinking. You’re thinking about the editing team you want for your new book with a slightly different style.
Traditionally published authors don’t have that level of flexibility in themes or teams. The publisher assigns an editor, and the author has little choice.
Indie authors are more like movie producers. A producer hires different actors to form the team for each film. An indie author may need specific kinds of editors and cover designers to fit into a niche genre.
James: That’s a great analogy. Studios would think carefully about assigning a director to a film based on its theme, tone, genre, and the director’s past work.
Step 3: Typesetting
Thomas: When you typeset the book, you turn the Word document into pages that are formatted as they would be in a book or on Kindle.
How do you typeset your books?
James: I use Vellum, which is Mac-only software. It’s a lovely bit of software, and it’s easy to use. The designers are ex-Pixar people. Vellum makes typesetting a very pleasurable part of the process for me.
Vellum is probably the lightest touch from a user’s point of view because it does a lot in the background. You’re just making it look pretty on the front end, and the back end spits out all the technical stuff that’s recognized by KDP when it’s uploaded.
You’ll have stylistic choices to make, including fonts and scene-break graphics. For example, romance readers prefer certain fonts, particularly on the front cover. A scene break graphic in a romance might be a flourish, but in a thriller, it might be a thin line.
When you’re typesetting, you’re thinking about things you’ve never thought about before, but I’ve enjoyed that process. If you don’t know what to choose, ask Google or ChatGPT to suggest fonts for a thriller, and you’ll find the answers are quite easy at hand.
Thomas: The easiest hack is to use the font a well-known author in that genre used. I would be very cautious about using a font no one in your genre has ever used before. That kind of innovation requires expertise.
You’ll also need to decide whether you want white or cream pages.
James: I like white, but ultimately, I think white pages make the book like home-printed. Cream-colored pages make it look like a book you bought from a bookshop.
Thomas: Traditionally published book pages all turn cream-colored eventually because of the acids used to break down pulp for recycled paper. Some of those acids continue to break down the paper over time, causing a yellowing. Low-quality paper yellows faster. But most books don’t yellow quickly. Big printers use higher-quality paper.
Step 4: Book Cover
Thomas: People judge your book by its cover.
Indie authors often make the mistake of choosing a cover they like. They think the cover should be pretty. But from a publishing and marketing perspective, a pretty cover could be completely worthless.
How do you choose a cover?
James: Just as you want your fonts to fit the genre, you also want your cover to fit in. It’s a bit counterintuitive.
There are a million thriller book covers with the character walking away from the camera into a dark alley. Many authors believe they need to do something completely different to make their books stand out.
I’m here to tell you that is the wrong approach. You don’t want to stand out; you want to fit in. Your book should be one of those million that looks exactly like that.
Because your cover is not there to be pretty or win an art award. Your cover should do the technical job of immediately communicating the genre. You want readers to recognize it as the type of genre they read or don’t read. Readers who are confused about your genre will leave bad reviews.
Your book should fit in and not stand out.
However, your covers may evolve as you settle into a genre. For example, I did a very traditional cover with a guy walking away from the camera. Then, I worked out that my book fitted into a slightly different subgenre of people who were interested in aircraft, aircraft carriers, and tanks.
Those books tended to feature the vehicle on the front cover. After a year, we redesigned my covers to fit into the subgenre based on that intelligence. You’ll need to research and be prepared to react to fitting in instead of standing out.
The other mistake people make is giving the designer too much direction. They describe a brilliant scene set in Brussels just outside a restaurant where a blond character is talking to a woman wearing a knee-length skirt.
None of those details matter because the reader hasn’t read the book at this stage, and they won’t remember the cover when they get to that scene anyway.
Don’t get bogged down with details. Designers find it annoying to make changes based on details you described in the book. None of that matters. Be relaxed. Remember that your cover is doing that one job.
Thomas: And that job is to make people curious to learn more about the book.
In a perfect world, the job of the cover is to sell the book, but people rarely buy books based on the cover alone. You want them to turn over the book and read the back.
If you’re indie, you want them to click the cover and read the book description.
Indie authors need to remember that the thumbnail-size book cover image is more important than the full-size image on the physical copy. For every person who sees the physical copy of your book, thousands will see the thumbnail version. The image must be simple, and no one will notice the fiddly details in a thumbnail-size image.
Indie authors also make the mistake of sending a PDF of their cover to their friends or fellow authors to ask for feedback. Most of the time, people want to add complexity to the cover when they actually need to be simplifying.
Authors should be sending a thumbnail-size image and asking whether people can determine the correct subgenre from the tiny cover image.
James: I always think about the customer journey as though the customer is driving down a motorway. Everything has to align for them to stay on the road.
You force people from the road if you’ve chosen the wrong genre or gotten carried away implementing your friend’s cover advice. If you have a complex, confusing cover, people won’t stay on the customer-journey road.
There are loads of confusing covers on Amazon that don’t keep people on the road. Every aspect of your book, from the cover to the blurb, must reinforce the same thing repeatedly.
If you have written a police procedural set in Florida, you must say so in the text and the story. Both have to deliver the tropes that people who read police procedurals expect; otherwise, you’re going to get bad reviews.
Your cover has to say, at a glance, “This is a police procedural.” The blurb and tagline have to reinforce it. It all must align to keep that person on the motorway.
In digital marketing, 10,000 people might set off on the customer journey toward your book, and if you’re lucky, less than 1% make it through to the end to buy a book. That’s a numbers game. But as you widen that percentage from 0.5% to 1.5%, you’ll see the difference between having a loss and making a very good profit.
Thomas: To learn more about book cover design, check out our episode on Effective Book Cover Design, where you can hear my interview with a professional cover designer. Or download a worksheet on How to Create a Design Brief for Your Book Cover.
You need to be crystal clear on who your book is for and what your book is about. If you can communicate it clearly to your designer, your readers will have an easier time spreading the word about your book.
The goal of marketing is to entice the right people to try your book so that they’ll talk about it to their friends. If you’re not clear, they won’t be able to talk about it clearly, and your book won’t sell.
Step 5: Put it on Amazon
Thomas: By this point, you have a PDF of the typeset interior and a JPEG of the cover. This is where many people get scared. It seems like a complicated process.
How do I turn these files into a book that people can buy on Amazon?
James: It’s not complicated. It’s like filling in a form. You’re simply answering questions. When it says, “Upload your EPUB here,” you find your EPUB file and upload it.
I strongly recommend spending a few days writing your book blurb (or book description) before you upload it. Spend as much time on the blurb as you did on the cover and everything else we’ve talked about.
Amazon has a new question where you have to say whether the robots have been involved via AI. You’ll choose which genre or categories you want your book to appear in. There’s a lot of help on the internet to help you decide where to put your book.
In the last couple of months, it’s become less complicated. Dave Chesson, who’s a bit of a nerd on the metadata and categories, created a very informative YouTube video explaining that some of the categories you get to choose aren’t real categories. Your book won’t be able to rank in them and won’t get a bestseller tag if it gets to the top because there’ll be no top to get to.
You’ll want to do a bit of research.
Thomas: Dave Chesson is the go-to guy. Check out my interview with him about his new Amazon Description Generator.
Some authors want to hire a company to complete this part of the process, but with the simple question-and-answer format, it’s just as easy for you to answer Amazon’s questions directly. If you hire a company, you’ll still have to answer all those same questions. In fact, I would say it’s easier to just type them into Amazon yourself than to email back and forth with somebody from a company.
There’s no reason to hire a company that will “self-publish for you.” Just go to Amazon KDP directly. KDP publishes the ebook, and KDP Print publishes the paperback.
The complexity of indie publishing gets easier every year. The steps get simplified, and the tools get better.
If you’re trying to decide whether to indie publish, the complexity of the publishing bit shouldn’t be your determining factor. The most complicated parts are hiring the editor and cover designer and doing the research.
Step 6: Promotion
Thomas: For your first book, I recommend having a preorder window so you have time to make fixes to your Amazon page. It’s easier to make fixes on a page no one is viewing than on launch day when you’re freaking out. Give yourself some time.
What are the critical book promotion tactics that every author needs to try?
James: In those early days, you have to view promotion as audience-building.
You typically don’t make money until you have a series for readers to read through. People in business have known this for years. You’re probably going to have a loss after your first year in business. In your second year, you should aim to break even. In your third year, you can make a profit.
That’s how we should think about it with our books.
- Book one is not going to make money.
- Book two may start to give you some return on your advertising investment.
- Book three might be your profitable moment.
When you’ve published 35 books like Mark Dawson, you can start counting the numbers in front of the decimal point.
One of the most important things an author can do early in their publishing career is to build a mailing list of readers who like to read what you write.
I started building my main email list even before I’d published my book. I ran simple Facebook ads with the cover I’d had designed saying, “Coming soon! Join my email to get on the list.”
It was an expensive campaign, but it got me going. That’s how I got my first few hundred people who were excited about buying a book with a Vulcan, which is the bomber aircraft on my front cover.
The beauty of building this mailing list is that when you come to launch book two, you’ve got a warm audience who will help you launch your second book. That will continue to escalate as you go through your career. Having that email list audience is as important with books one and two as it is with books 35 and 36.
If you learn one thing from the myriad, complex world of marketing books, learn how to build a mailing list.
Thomas: I’ve done many tests, and I have yet to find anything that converts better than email on a per-person basis, a per-CPM basis, or a per-dollar basis. Nothing converts better than the mailing list.
The act of building the mailing list forces you to start thinking about your readers. You’ll realize you need to be able to talk to strangers about your writing in a way that’s compelling.
Building an email list gives you a chance to start practicing that. You can start building your list if you have a reader magnet before your first book comes out. You get to practice promoting a book, and you mature as an author while simultaneously building an asset that builds on itself.
Even if you’re going traditional, your traditional publisher will want to know how many email subscribers you have on your mailing list.
James: Your email list is even more important than social media followers. You don’t own your social media followers, but there are people out there who want to be your fans.
The mailing list is a way of turning readers into fans who feel close to you. Some of those fans will turn into super fans, and some of the super fans will turn into advocates who forward your emails.
Some of your advocates will become ARC (Advance Reader Copies) readers, who are an important part of your business. You’ll send advanced copies of your book to people who are familiar with your writing. They’ll help you make sure your book is as good as it can be when it goes to publication.
Thomas: Readers can also reply to your emails, and you get to have a dialog with real people. The better you understand your readers, the better you can thrill them. It’s rewarding and useful to know your audience.
Step 7: Advertising
Thomas: Advertising is a major part of your approach. How do you do it?
James: In 2009, when Kindle came along, you could write your thriller book and upload it, and you’d be guaranteed readers because there was a scarcity of material. Kindle owners were devouring everything.
Facebook has become a much more competitive environment for advertising, and the organic reach of the various social platforms is deliberately limited.
If you want to reach people beyond your followers, you need to pay, and that means entering the advertising ecosystem.
Advertising looks complicated from the outside, but it’s absolutely within the reach of everybody. You do need to spend some time learning it. There are no shortcuts to that, but once you know the techniques and the optimization, it is probably the main show in town for driving traffic to that page you’ve created on Amazon.
Advertising is a numbers game. If you want to sell 500 books, you need 25,000 people to see your ad. And you need them to see your ad as cheaply as possible.
Thomas: Advertising is where you find out whether your cover fits and your blurb is clear.
Once indie authors start getting that advertising data, they can start making tweaks to the blurb or changing the cover to see what works.
It creates a very quick feedback loop in an iterative process that increases the quality of the book everywhere. The feedback allows you to use a book cover that works on Facebook and Amazon. Advertising has some nice ripple benefits beyond the immediate sales from the ads you buy.
James: And isn’t it brilliant that we can learn all that!
In the old madman days of advertising, their adage was that half of all advertising worked, but they don’t know which half.
We now have a level of precision that allows us to identify what’s not working.
Thomas: Advertising can get very expensive. You pay on a per-click or per-impression basis for the advertising.
I counsel authors to pay for education about running ads before they start paying to run ads. The training will pay for itself many times over.
You can learn those lessons yourself by doing your own experiments, but it will cost you a lot of time and money.
What courses do you have for authors?
James: We have two main courses. One is called the Self-Publishing Launchpad, and it covers what we’ve talked about. We always say the Launchpad course is for after you’ve written “the end” on your manuscript.
We don’t cover the craft of writing, but we do cover everything else.
- How to create your KDP account
- How to open your Apple and Google accounts
- How to decide whether to be exclusive with KDP or go wide (and what that means).
- How to choose a cover design
The Self-Publishing Launchpad is a course for you if you are just starting out in self-publishing. It will show you all those nuts and bolts, and it’s a constantly updated and evolving course.
The next course is slightly more advanced. After you’ve published your first book or two, we recommend Mark Dawson’s Ads for Authors. You’ll learn how to master advertising.
If you get advertising wrong at the beginning, you may lose money, but we’ll also teach you how money is not really lost as long as you know how to analyze the data you get from it. Even if you haven’t made money on sales, you’ve learned something. Every ad you run gives you incredible data, and the course will teach you where to find that data and how to use it.
What final tips or encouragement do you have for authors?
James: Writing books is hard, but it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my life, aside from having children.
It’s hard to write a novel and publish it. It would be a shame to go through all of that and not spend time learning how to get it in front of readers.
Thomas: Well said. Writing a book-baby is slightly less rewarding than giving birth to a real human child.
Life has its problems, but if we stay focused on the positive, we will lead happy and successful mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual lives. My book is a 50-year collection of inspirational stories and quotes (think Chicken Soup for The Soul). It has something in it for everyone – young and old.