Self-Publishing: Beginners’ Road Map

We’ve come a long way since the invention of hieroglyphics, the quill pen, and the printing press. Today, a growing army of people who think they have something worthwhile to say (or who think they can make money by saying something stupid) spawn a torrent of information in the form of blogs and self-published books. (There are plenty of commercial publishing houses that contribute to this deluge as well.)

Your path probably won’t be exactly like the one described in this article. However, most successful self-publishers follow similar paths …. though they may have made some costly side trips in the past.

Needless to say, there are plenty of newcomers who want a piece of the action, and this is one of the most common questions they ask:

Is it easy to publish a book?

The answer is a resounding yes!

Unfortunately, they asked the wrong question. They should have instead asked something like this:

Is it easy to make money from self-published books?

For those who have goals loftier than capitalism, here’s an alternative question:

Is it easy to publish a book that sells more than ten copies?

The key words in the preceding text are “army” and “torrent.” There are millions of blogs, paper books, ebooks, audio books, and on and on piling up all around us like the ash from a super volcano.

Merely getting noticed is difficult even for many of the best authors. However, self-publishers are a different caste. Things are much harder for us.

With that long introduction out of the way, let me cut to the chase and give you some tips on self-publishing. There’s a lot to learn, and I don’t know one tenth of it. However, I think I can give you a pretty good overview.

Let’s start with a list of five basic processes.

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Book Cover Design
  4. Interior Formatting/Design
  5. Sales

Here’s a list of software you may wind up using.

  1. Text Editor (e.g. Apple Pages, Mickeysoft Word)
  2. Graphics Software {e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator}
  3. Epub Software (e.g. Sigil, Calibre)
  4. Audio Software
  5. Formatting Software {e.g. InDesign}
  6. Spreadsheet

And here’s a list of companies you’re (hopefully) going to be doing business with.

  1. IngramSparks
  2. Draft2Digital
  3. Amazon
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Kobo
  6. Apple

What’s missing?

Well, I could list some of the companies that focus on book promotion, along with organizations that (supposedly) help authors in general. However, I’ll save that for another article.

Right now, I want to get way ahead of myself and give you a road map to success (or failure). Nothing is carved in stone, but I would be tempted to bet a lot of money that you will wind up following this road map with but a handful of minor deviations, particularly if you write non-fiction.

  1. Write a manuscript.
  2. Hire an editor(s).
  3. Hire someone to design a book cover.
  4. Hire someone to design the interior of your book.
  5. Sell your book.

Notice that this list is virtually identical to the first list I posted above. However, I’m now going to add some details.

Yes, you want to hire an editor and a book cover designer. It’s standard practice, and you’re probably going nowhere without professional editors and book cover designers. A professional book cover will (hopefully) help you sell your book, while editing will 1) help convince people to recommend your book and buy your next book, and 2) help you become a better writer.

When you hire a book cover designer, you’re going to ask them to create a front cover, back cover, and spine. You will need those for a paperback version, while the front cover will also accompany your epub, or ebook version.

Step #4, interior formatting or design, is a little more confusing. It’s arguably not as important as book cover design. However, if you want readers to buy your next book, it helps if you make a good first impression with a nice book cover and a good lasting impression with an attractive interior. Moreover, this is something you might be able to do on your own, particularly if you publish mutiple books.

The invisible elephant in the living room is spelled e-p-u-b. There are simply a variety of ways to create an epub.

For example, if you hire someone to format your book as a paperback, they will very likely use a software program made by Adobe called InDesign. After they’ve finished designing your paperback, they can export a similar design as an epub.

Or you can use a software program like Sigil or Calibre to create your own epub. There are other possibilities as well.

The nice thing about epubs is the fact that they’re typically viewed as slaves of the devices people use to view them (e.g. Kindle). In that spirit, it is customary to create “reflowable” epubs with lots of default settings. (You can let the reading device dictate the font family and line spacing, for example.)

That makes your job much easier.

I’ll have much more to say about software programs and work flow in another article. For now, suffice it to say that our manuscript has magically transformed into an epub and a paperback. You’re now ready to sell your book(s), which brings us back to this list:

  1. IngramSparks
  2. Draft2Digital
  3. Amazon
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Kobo
  6. Apple

The first two companies can be thought of as printers and distributors. Give them your files, and they will turn them into commercially marketable paperbacks and epubs. They will also make those paperbacks and epubs available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors and libraries.

So what’s the catch?

No one is going to sell your books for nothing. All the distributors and vendors listed above collect royalties. The other catch is the fact that IngramSparks and Draft2Digital will effectively charge you twice. If they distribute your book to Amazon, and Amazon sells your book for $9.99, your royalty might ordinarily be $7. However, Ingram or Draft2Digital will also want their cut, reducing your royalty.

The solution is simple: Market your books directly to Amazon and perhaps some of the other major vendors (like the ones listed above). After you publish your books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., then you can do business with Ingram or Draft2Digital, which will pitch your book to lots of bookstores and libraries you’ve never even heard of.

The Road Map

Let’s take another look at our road map, which should make a little more sense now …

1. After you finish writing a book, you should hire an editor and a book cover designer. (Remember to ask for the works—a front cover, back cover, and spine.)

2. You will probably want to hire someone to format/design the interior of your book as well.

3. Now that you have a paperback, you want to create an epub as well. If you hired a pro to do the interior design with InDesign, then they can probably spit out an epub for you pretty easily. Otherwise, you can use a software program like Sigil or Calibre to turn your manuscript into an epub. There are other solutions as well.

4. Your next step will probably be publishing your paperback and epub to Amazon. Next, you might want to publish them to some other major vendors, notably Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

5. With that out of the way, you can now choose a distributor to help you reach even more booksellers and libraries. Your two main choices are IngramSparks and Draft2Digital.

Learning to Fly

It’s that simple!

Of course, it seems simple to me because I’ve actually done it, and I learned a lot from the countless mistakes I made along the way.

To be perfectly honest, it still isn’t that simple for me; I feel like I spend half my time jumping through hoops. And did you wonder why I listed spreadsheets among the sotware you’re going to need? It’s all about organization. You may not need a spreadsheet if you publish just one book. However, if you publish multiple books, then you’re probably going to need a spreadsheet to help you organize all the information you’re going to collect, from ISBN numbers to retail prices.

If you’re new to all of this, it probably doesn’t seem simple at all. You may not even fully understand what I’m talking about.

Nevertheless, those five paragraphs highlighted in yellow above are the road map that takes many people forever to find. You can deviate from the script any time you want, but those simple instructions will probably work for 90% of self-publishers, or at least 90% of the self-publishers who write non-fiction.

Of course, there are 10,000 details you need to know about. Moreover, I’ve scarcely mentioned promotion, which is a huge topic by itself. I may write additional articles that fill in some of the blanks, or I might turn this exercise into a book.

In the meantime, you can take your self-publishing road map and simply explore each step on your own. Do some research on editing and learn how to connect with competent editors, for example.

A word of warning: There are a lot of hucksters, scams, and clowns out there. It pays to do your homework, solicit advice from others, and proceed with caution.

We might go one step further and tackle propaganda, cancel culture, and banned books. Could the publishing industry be just as corrupt as the media? Are they one and the same?

I’ve had lots of experience with all the above. In that spirit, if I decide to write a book on this subject, it might be titled Guerilla Publishing or The Anarchist Guide to Publishing.