Ebook or hard copy?
Haven’t tried hard copy yet – but I have published ebooks on Smashwords.com, Feedbooks.com, Scribd.com, Bookiejar.com, Obooko.com, Bibliotastic.com and Wattpad.com. Going down the ebook route is a good way of dipping your toe in the water – you can always do a hard copy version after that (you never know, your ebook may even get some reviews which can be used to market the hard copy version more effectively). And whilst in principle, there are various whizzy things you could potentially do with ebooks which you can't do with hard copy, most people don't seem to be bothering with any of that (see this post) - so you shouldn't feel you have to do something different for the ebook version.
If, however, you are particularly keen to do something different with your book, then programs like Apple's iBooks Author may be worth a look, since they allow you to integrate more interactive and audiovisual elements and really make the most of full colour tablets like the iPad (as opposed to boring old e-readers).
How difficult is ebook conversion?
It varies according to the platform you use. Some sites – like Feedbooks or Bookiejar – allow you to simply copy/paste your text into an interface and upload (they will then convert it into various ebook formats). Others, like Smashwords, allow you to do it in a Word file – but Smashwords is quite pernickety about formatting, so you need to follow their style guide quite closely (you can't just upload any old Word document). And some platforms, like Obooko, require you to provide your own .epub and .mobi files (which you can do using free software - see this post). Overall, I haven’t found any of these processes particularly difficult, but be prepared to put in some time and get yourself a decent-looking cover image (helps if you are handy with graphics software).
If you are nervous about the whole process of ebook conversion, you might want to try some of the lesser-known platforms first, like bibliotastic (see below). This is because their submission process is not automated so you will have contact with a human being - and in the case of bibliotastic, they will do the ebook conversion for you. Once you are more comfortable with the whole thing, you may feel more confident about tackling Smashwords or Feedbooks (but it really isn't that hard, honest !).
If you genuinely can't face ebook conversion, it's possible that some of the non-profit publishers on this list may be able to help (assuming they like your material) - this interview with Frank Burton (who runs Philistine Press) will give you an idea what kind of help non-profit publishers can offer more generally (and whether you should try that route before embarking on your own adventure in self-publishing).
Free or paid-for?
Free is only really an option if you’re going down the ebook route. I’ve made my ebooks available for free, because having readers is more important to me than making money from my writing (and I doubt that I would make much money anyway). There is some evidence that making your book free gets you more downloads; for instance, according to Smashwords, free books are downloaded on average 92 times more than paid-for ones (but remember that being downloaded doesn't necessarily equate to being read).
Anyway, if you're intrigued but unsure about the free route, try reading this post by Michael Graeme, an author who's done rather well on Feedbooks (far better than me). And you can always switch to a paid-for model later, if you think you've built up enough of a following. At least one author whose free novel I've reviewed on this site has done just that (he's taken his novel off Smashwords and Feedbooks and made it available only via Amazon). But I've no regrets about going down the free route - see this post.
Which ebook platform is best?
In my (admittedly limited) experience, Feedbooks generally gets you more downloads than Smashwords (see this post) - but at present that’s only an option if you’re prepared to make your material available for free. Smashwords allows you to charge (if you want) and gives you wider distribution to other ebook retailers e.g. Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony (although I seem to have had relatively few downloads from these). People also seem more inclined to post reviews on Smashwords – and reviews are obviously extremely helpful from a marketing perspective. But you may have to be patient (it took me 8 months to get my first review).
Feedbooks isn't always better than Smashwords in the download stakes though. For example, downloads of my novel from Smashwords have now overtaken Feedbooks - in part because I submitted it to a site called getfreeebooks, which produced a big spike in downloads of the Smashwords edition (see below and this post). That seems to have pushed it up the Smashwords rankings - which seems in turn to have led to more downloads. I think the main conclusion from all of this is that, if you are happy to make your book available for free, put it up on both Feedbooks and Smashwords - and maybe on some other platforms as well (see below).
What about Amazon and other major ebook retailers?
Smashwords has apparently reached a deal allowing distribution of its ebooks via Amazon, although progress seems slow. When I emailed them about it in 2012, they said that if I wanted to self-publish via Amazon’s own Kindle Direct Publishing, that was fine by them and I should just go ahead (rather than wait for Smashwords to distribute for me). I will probably do that (and have opted out of Smashwords' distribution to Amazon) - but I don’t think that Amazon will let me make my material available for free (so I will have to charge their minimum price).
If you are really prepared to put the time in (and you like the extra control it gives you), you can also publish directly with many of the other mainstream ebook retailers through their equivalents of Kindle Direct Publishing e.g. Kobo Writing Life, NookPress (Barnes & Noble) or Apple iTunes. There are also also providers like Draft2Digital which, like Smashwords, offer distribution to most of the major ebook retailers (click here for a very informative post by Dave Gaughran comparing Draft2Digital with Smashwords).
Of the other platforms I’ve tried, Wattpad was (for me at least) a total waste of time (and it doesn’t allow downloads to e-readers, being aimed primarily at teenagers with smartphones - click here for more grumpy-old-man-style musings on that subject). Scribd and Bookiejar were straightforward to use although so far, they compare poorly with Feedbooks and Smashwords in terms of downloads (of the two, Scribd has been better for me than Bookiejar, although it is hard to predict what will do well - click here for more on that).
For more information on my Bookiekar experience, (including how to access their hard-to-find download data), click here. Note also that Scribd only allows downloads in PDF, not ebook reader formats (although it will allow you to put up a full colour PDF with images etc, so you can present the book just how you want it to look - which you can't do to the same extent with ebook readers). But if you’re making material available for free, you might as well have it on as many platforms as you can be bothered with (see list at bottom of this page).
Click here for my Obooko experience - note that it requires you to provide your own ebook files. Rather like Obooko, Bibliotastic is a smaller, less well-known site, but is worth considering because of its emphasis on reviews/feedback and also if you are nervous about ebook conversion (see above). Click here for my Bibliotastic experience and an interview with one of the founders of the site.
Are book trailers worth the effort?
If my rather paltry YouTube viewing figures tell the whole story, the answer would seem to be "No" - but perhaps it's too early to tell (or perhaps my trailers were crap). Still, they were quite fun to do - and the trailer for my novel got picked up on a couple of other sites. I will probably carry on doing them as I think they're not a bad way of differentiating myself from indie authors who can't be bothered with trailers (but maybe they are the sensible ones and I am just sadly deluded).
How much promotion will I need to do?
Hard to say - I had expected to have to do quite a lot, but haven't done all that much (and what I have done hasn't been particularly effective). Yet despite all that, I've still managed to get what I consider to be a reasonable number of downloads - see this post. If you have lots of ideas about how to promote your book, well, that's great - but my experience is that it's easier said than done and the thing that helped me the most was getting several positive reviews. I don't think there is any magic recipe for getting reviews (and I may just have been lucky) - but if your work isn't "out there", no one's going to review it. So I would say that the main thing to concentrate on is making your book available as widely as possible. But don't just take my word for it - see point 7 of this blog post by self-publishing guru Mark Coker - the sub-heading says it all: "Passive discoverability trumps other book marketing methods").
Should I worry about piracy?
Piracy is certainly a risk, especially if your book is available on a site with no DRM/copy protection (as will be the case if you put it up on Smashwords or Feedbooks, for example). By piracy, I mean things like someone copying your book and putting it up on a platform that allows the dastardly pirate to charge for it (and keep any proceeds). But in my (admittedly limited) experience, sites like Amazon are quite good about taking down pirated copies (see this post) - so it's worth running some checks now and again to make sure your work is only appearing where you would expect to see it. My novel has now been pirated twice on Amazon.
Are peer review sites worthwhile?
Peer review sites such as Youwriteon.com or Authonomy.com offer a means of getting feedback from other authors - so may be worth considering before you publish. I used Youwriteon partly to convince myself that I had something good enough to self-publish - and partly to get some reviews that I could use to convince an understandably sceptical reading public that it might be worth giving my stuff a try. See this post for more details of my own experience of Youwriteon (I haven't tried Authonomy) and this post for my take on whether it's OK to quote from reviews that you get via peer review sites.
What about audiobooks?
I have no experience (so far) of producing audiobooks, but I mention them here because it does seem that an awful lot of readers (or should I say, listeners) like them - if you don't believe me, check out this post from Tom Lichtenberg. Not that many authors put their work out in audiobook format, so it may well be easier to avoid your book disappearing without trace beneath a tidal wave of other people's stuff (which is a problem on Smashwords, for example). That said, it does look as if you need to be prepared to invest in a decent microphone and put in some time in order to get a professional sounding result - see the tips on podiobooks.com, which will host your audiobook for free. Apparently it also helps if you're a Hollywood actor (in the unlikely event that you are one, how about doing an audiobook of some of my stuff?).
No one is downloading my book - what can I do?
If you are trying to make people pay for your book, but no one is buying, my advice would be to consider making it free. "Free" isn't an instant route to a vast readership though; as this very sensible post from Mark Coker of Smashwords points out, the vast majority of books (free or paid-for) do not do terribly well. But as he also indicates, there may be steps you can take to boost your downloads. The main things I would add to his advice are:
1. It's worth thinking about sites that will point readers towards platforms where they can download your book. I've not got very far with this but have submitted to Getfreeebooks.com - see this helpful post from Tom Lichtenberg about the impact it can have on your downloads. I got well over 100 downloads over a 24 hour period when my novel was first featured on getfreeebooks - as you'd expect, it tails off after that, but it's well worth taking the trouble to submit (although it's possible they may have a bit of a backlog - the last book I submitted was in September 2012 and it didn't get featured until October 2013, so be warned).
2. I'm also on Goodreads. It looks to me as if you need quite a few reviews on Goodreads before it will have much impact on your downloads, but the reviews are picked up on certain other sites, like Sony - which may help (although that may stop now that Amazon has acquired Goodreads). As ever, be prepared for the reviews to be a bit hit and miss (see this post).
3. Think about distributing your work up on other platforms or even as an audiobook (see above) - just because you haven't done so well on say, Smashwords, that doesn't necessarily mean you won't have more success elsewhere.
4. Finally, be patient - self-published authors are largely reliant on the right readers stumbling across their books, which is likely to take some time. As noted above, it took me 8 months to get my first review and although I think positive reviews have helped, none of them has produced an immediate and dramatic increase in downloads. Initial downloads on Smashwords can be particularly disappointing, because so much new material is being published there that your own material quickly loses visibility. Downloads can also improve over time - which has only really occurred in the case of one of my books, but that would never have happened if I had simply given up in disgust after a couple of months.
For more detail on all of the above, see my blog.