Self-publishing is a huge area and whole books have been written on the topic. I have tried to condense what I’ve learned into a few short(ish) sections, but if you plan to self-publish you will need to explore each of these sections in much more detail.
Before you publish your book, you must ensure it is as good as it can be. This will involve several rounds of editing, using spelling and grammar software and incorporating feedback from friends, beta readers and professional editors. This is a time-consuming process but absolutely essential if you want to release a quality book.
Is it necessary to hire a professional editor?
Most blogs and author groups who discuss self-publishing will tell you that you absolutely must hire a professional editor. I am going to sway from conventional thinking and say – it depends.
Let me be absolutely clear upfront that I am not suggesting anyone should publish a book laden with spelling and grammatical errors with no plot, poorly developed characters and large portions of exposition. Publishing poor quality books does a disservice not only to yourself, but to others who choose to self-publish their books and who do so in a professional manner.
However, editing is probably the most expensive element of publishing a book and you need to be reasonably sure you will get a return on that investment. Say, for example, you know you will earn €2 royalty per book when you finally publish. If an editor costs €1,000, you need to sell 500 books before you get that money back. You have to consider, realistically, if you’re likely to sell that many books.
I read one article that said traditionally published books typically sell only 3,000 copies in their entire lifetime, while self-published ebooks typically sell only 250 copies in their lifetime. Your book has to be a cut above the rest to sell more than those averages.
Will your book be better as a result of professional editing? Undoubtedly.
Will you sell more books if you get your book professionally edited? Not necessarily.
It is important to note that quality alone does not guarantee sales. You could have a brilliant book, well written, well edited, with excellent typesetting and a gorgeous cover, but unless you put a lot of effort into your marketing, no one will ever know it exists and therefore you will sell very few books. So before you put money into hiring an editor, you need to be sure you have the knowledge (or will to learn) and determination to continuously market your book to your potential readers. Even those who are good at marketing still struggle to get sales, simply because there are so many other good books out there vying for the same readers. Self-published authors have to work extremely hard to get their books into bookshops, get media coverage, etc. You are up against the might of the traditional publishing industry.
If you release a book that is full of spelling and grammar mistakes, clunky sentences, underdeveloped characters and factual inconsistencies, no one will want to read it, so beyond the few friends and family you manage to flog it to at your book launch, no one is going to buy it.
If, however, you are a good writer to begin with and you put time and effort into self-editing, using every free tool at your disposal, including spelling and grammar software and beta readers, you should end up with something that is readable and enjoyable. If it is your first book and you have a limited audience through your social media pages, it might be worth taking the gamble to see how it sells before investing more money in the book. If you find sales are going well, you can always release an “improved” second edition. If, however, sales are slow, at least you haven’t lost too much money. From a purely financial standpoint, not editing your book and subsequently selling no books is cheaper than editing your book and not selling enough books to earn back the cost of that edit.
It is also worth noting that no amount of editing will turn a bad book into a good one. If a number of your beta readers can’t get through your book or tell you they didn’t enjoy it, there is probably little point in engaging a professional editor. You need to relook at the book in detail yourself, perhaps even scrapping this particular book and starting a new project. You can put that first book down to experience – you will have learned a huge amount from the process of writing and editing it.
How much does an editor cost?
This is a “how long is a piece of string” type question. The cost of editing can vary enormously depending on the type of book (non-fiction tends to be more expensive than fiction, historical fiction can be expensive because of the level of fact-checking required), length of work (often, the charge is per page or per thousand words) and the quality of the work submitted. If you submit a manuscript that is full of spelling and grammar mistakes, large chunks of exposition, factual inconsistencies and other significant errors, it will obviously take longer, and therefore cost more, to edit. It is worth spending time making your work as clean as possible before submitting to an editor.
In addition, not all editors are made equal. Those who are highly experienced and highly regarded will cost more than those who are new to editing. Of course, cost does not always equate to quality – just because one editor charges more doesn’t necessarily mean they do a better job. Similarly, an inexpensive editor, who might be a very talented editor just starting out, could do a fantastic job. You need to do your research and find an editor within your budget who will provide you with the best value for money. Most editors will do a small sample edit – typically one chapter – for free so you can see what you will get for your money.
Note that there are several different “levels” of editing, from looking for plot holes and weak characters to a simple spelling and grammar check. Be sure you understand the different levels and know which you need before you hire an editor.
Once your manuscript is in tip-top condition, you need to format it for print or ebook publication. This is called typesetting. There are many rules and industry standards to follow in relation to typesetting, so be sure to familiarise yourself with these if you are considering doing this work yourself.
Note that unless you have special typesetting software (such as Adobe InDesign), you may struggle, particularly if preparing a book for print release. Typesetting in MS Word takes a long time as many adjustments need to be made manually and on an individual basis.
If you’re planning a print release, this is one area where you probably need to hire a professional. For ebook release, you don’t need to go to quite the same lengths as the book is reformatted to suit each person’s eReader, whether that’s a Kindle, phone or tablet.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does – so be sure yours is gorgeous!
Bear in mind that very often potential readers only see a thumbnail-sized version of your cover on sites like Amazon. You need any fonts or images on your cover to be clear and readable, even in such a small image.
You can usually tell a homemade or amateur cover from a quick glance. The images are not sharp, the colours clash, the fonts are boring or unattractive, the font colour doesn’t stand out against the background, etc. With so many books available, you must ensure your cover is enticing enough to attract attention from a potential reader scanning through online sites.
Terrible books with great covers get bought.
Great books with terrible covers do not.
Unless you are very skilled at graphic design, you probably need to hire a cover designer. Many cover designers offer pre-prepared covers that you can purchase “off the shelf” – when you pay for the cover, they will swap out the sample text with your book title and author name. If you need a bespoke cover, these usually cost more, but do shop around – there are plenty of inexpensive cover designers who do fabulous work.
One word of caution: There are some unethical cover designers who infringe on the copyright of others by using unlicensed photos or images. They often edit these to make them look quite different, but unless the original copyright owner has given permission, they are still breaching copyright. If you publish a book with a stolen cover, you will be the one in breach of copyright and could end up with a hefty fine. Always do a background check on your cover designer before you hire them to ensure they only engage in ethical practices.
If you do design your own cover, make sure you have proper licences for any images you use. This includes a model release form for any real-life people who appear in the images. You also need licences to use certain fonts for commercial purposes. It is a good idea to share your finished design in writers’ groups on Facebook or elsewhere online for feedback. Authors understand the need for a good cover and they will be both honest and kind. While not everyone will agree, you will get a general sense of whether or not your cover “works”. If you’re struggling to impress, it’s time to bring in a professional.
There are two main options for printing your self-published book. You can go to an established printer and get a print run of your book, which is usually a minimum of 1,000 or maybe even 2,000 books. In this case, you need to pay for all the printing yourself, upfront, before you’ve sold a single book.
The other option is print-on-demand (POD), whereby you offer your book for sale via online sites such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, without providing these retail outlets with actual hardcopies of your book. Instead, you upload the fully formatted content and cover files to distributors like Amazon KDP or IngramSpark. When a book is ordered from these distributors, one book is printed and dispatched. Because you are not printing in bulk, the cost per book is higher. However, this option removes the need to invest upfront in printed copies of your book.
Many self-published authors use a combination of these, perhaps using POD for online sales and printing a small number of books for themselves to sell at events or to bookshops. The two biggest POD companies, Amazon KDP and IngramSpark, both offer the option for authors to print copies for themselves at a lower cost than the RRP online.
These days, if you don’t have an ebook version of your book available, you’re missing a trick. In many cases, self-published authors will ONLY release ebook versions (and not print versions) because the costs associated with producing an ebook are so low. Amazon KDP is probably the biggest ebook distributor, but IngramSpark does also offer ebook distribution to devices such as Kobo, Nook and Apple. Whichever distributor you choose, you need to ensure your book is properly formatted before uploading.
Vanity publishers & self-publishing services
There are plenty of companies who will help you self-publish your book, usually for a hefty fee. Some of these, known as vanity publishers, make themselves look like traditional publishers, telling you that your book is amazing and that they’d love to publish it – for a sizeable fee. They usually add a remark like “as you are an unknown writer, we are taking a risk publishing your book. We’d like you to share that risk with us by contributing €xxx”. This is utter nonsense. Every single published author was unknown when they first published a book. If a traditional publisher likes your book, they will publish it without charge and give you a royalty based on the number of books sold. They take all the risk. They also, in turn, make most of the money. Vanity publishers should be avoided completely unless you have a guaranteed audience for your book, such as a large customer or student base.
There are other companies who charge not for publishing, but for doing each of the elements needed to get your book into the market, such as editing, typesetting, cover design, ebook formatting, loading onto sales systems such as Amazon KDP or IngramSpark, etc. They often offer packages to cover all elements, or you can buy just individual elements, depending on your own skill levels. For example, you might feel comfortable typesetting your book, but need help with editing and cover design.
As with all situations where you are spending your hard-earned money, shop around. Not all service providers are made equal. Search online for those who have been recommended by other authors and always be sure exactly what you’re paying for before handing over any money.
If you have published a book via a traditional publisher or by self-publishing, you are now ready to move on to Step 5: Market & promote your book.
For more about this post series, see here.
I have now amalgamated all the posts from my “5 Steps to Publishing a Book” series into a short ebook, available from just 99c!