Self-publishinG: A guide
This page is for anyone interested in self-publishing their own fiction. I don’t consider myself to be much of an expert on this - I feel more like Australopethicus learning to use tools for the first time. But since altruism is supposed to be one of the things that marks out apes from other animals, I thought I'd attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt so far.
This page was last updated on 2.4.2016.
Why self-publish? Why not go down the conventional publishing route?
It's hard to think of a better endorsement than a publisher saying that they have such faith in the quality of your work that they're willing to stake their own money on it. But the unfortunate reality is that publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, so your chances of getting that kind of endorsement are not good (click here for more depressing stats on publishing generally). And even if you do manage it, you are quite likely to find that publishers talk a good game, but don't do much in the way of promotion, quickly lose interest in books which do not prove successful within a fairly short timescale (see this post) and sometimes can't even be bothered to do a good job of supporting some of their more successful authors (see this post). Besides, most publishers aren't actually much good at picking winners anyway (see this post).
So, what does self-publishing have to offer? Well, having self-published my own fiction, I have been pleasantly surprised by the results (see this post). Whilst some readers may look down on self-published work, there appear to be quite a few who don't take that attitude - enough to mean that the supposed "stigma" of self-publishing does not present an insurmountable obstacle to being read. E-books have also made the whole process a lot easier and I like the fact that I have control over all aspects of my books, from cover design and blurb to marketing - it's much better than being at the mercy of a publisher (see this article and this one, from Jon Evans, an author who has experience of traditional publishers and self-publishing). So, viewed from that perspective, self-publishing starts to look like the rational choice of the discerning author (rather than the slightly desperate last resort of someone who couldn't get themselves published professionally).
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, then with odd notable exception, 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).
Options for hard copy include Createspace (Amazon), Lulu and Feedaread - but I haven't gone down the hard copy route as yet. For a good overview of both ebook and hard copy routes to publication, see The Stinky Ink Guide to Publishing Your Book.
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 - if it were, there would not be very many ebooks on these platforms!).
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 Mark Coker of Smashwords, free books are downloaded on average 41 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). It doesn't necessarily mean completely giving up on that long-cherished dream of making your living as an author - because you can always switch to a paid-for model later, once you think you've built up enough of a following. In fact, several authors whose free work I've reviewed on this site have done just that (e.g. Chris Gallagher and Matthew Asprey). Alternatively, you can make some material available for free - effectively as a "taster" - whilst going down the paid-for route with other books (bear in mind here that "book" could include short stories - a bit like "Kindle singles" - so I am not suggesting you have to have written more than 1 "full-length" work before you launch yourself into self-publishing). But if you do go down the paid-for or mixed free and paid-for route, just remember that relatively few authors make really good money from writing. As for me, I've no regrets about going down the 100% 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 - Apple and B&N are the best performers, but hardly spectacular). 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 (and with some books - for reasons which I find hard to explain - it seems to have taken years; see the last 5 paragraphs of this post).
Feedbooks isn't always better than Smashwords in the download stakes though. For example, downloads of my novel from Smashwords have now overtaken Feedbooks by a considerable margin - 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).
Finally, it's worth noting that since late 2013, Feedbooks seems to have lost the ability to maintain an accurate total of the downloads that your book has received; so if you want to maintain an accurate record of how you are doing, you need to keep your own running total based on the daily downloads shown on the analytics page (although Feedbooks assure me that this problem has been fixed, I can assure you that - as at December 2014 at any rate - the running total still was still under-counting daily downloads by a significant margin).
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. Alternatively, there are 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).
- Wattpad: There's a great deal of hype around Wattpad, but I'm sorry to say that for me, it's been a total waste of time. It also doesn’t allow downloads to e-readers, being aimed primarily (so far as I can see) at teenagers with smartphones who like vampires (or whatever is currently the vogue in YA fiction). By all means give it a try if you like. Alternatively, click here to read more grumpy-old-man-style musings on why I think it will be a waste of your valuable time.
- Scribd: 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. I found it fairly straightforward to use, but it's become clear that very few people have read my work there (the stats are worse than Bookiejar - see below), so I am not going to bother with it any more - see this post. Also, as of 2014, Smashwords has started distributing to Scribd - so you could just rely on Smashwords to put you on that platform and avoid having to go to the trouble of putting your work up there yourself (which is what I plan to do in future).
- BookieJar: BookieJar allows downloads to e-readers and is similar to Smashwords, but with more of a social media angle to it. I've only had one story on there and downloads so far have been poor compared with Smashwords and Feedbooks, so I haven't put anything else on there. For more information on my BookieJar experience (including how to access their hard-to-find download data), click here.
- Obooko: I can't say Obooko has been brilliant in terms of downloads either - the organisation of the site tends to put more recent additions at a disadvantage (I'd say it's been better than Bookiejar but not much better). That said, I gather that a site revamp is in the works, which may improve things, and they were very nice to deal with (you get a friendly email back from a real person). It's certainly true that over time, some authors have done quite well on there in terms of downloads. However, they do require you to provide your own ebook files. I've explained how to do that here - it's not as bad as it sounds.
- Bibliotastic: Like Obooko, this is another a smaller, less well-known site and therefore probably isn't the best for downloads, but I would say it is still worth considering because of its emphasis on reviews/feedback. It is certainly better organised than Obooko - new additions get highlighted, as do books which get high ratings or higher numbers of downloads (although I've found it hard to get an accurate picture of my downloads). It's also worth a look if you are nervous about the process of ebook conversion because they will do it for you and you will have contact with a human being (see above). Click here for my Bibliotastic experience and an interview with one of the founders of the site. UPDATE 3.2016: Alas, Bibliotastic is due to close in 2016. Shame.
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".
There is a lot of stuff on the web about how it is absolutely essential to use social media in order to promote your work - but I think it depends a bit what kind of fiction you are writing and it also requires huge amounts of time, so I would advise caution before you invest heavily in that approach (see this post). I suspect that social media only really works if you have a very clear idea of your target audience. The audience for my genre - literary fiction - is extremely diffuse, which is why I think the best investment is in making your work as widely available as possible.
Is it worth entering self-published books in writing competitions?
Being able to say that your book has won an award is likely to help your credibility with readers. But so far, this isn't something I've done myself (although I have wondered about doing it from time to time). As with all promotional activities, you can spend a lot of time on this sort of thing without it necessarily paying much in the way of dividends - so it's worth thinking carefully about which competitions are really worth targeting. Many competitions (particularly the ones most people have heard of e.g. the Booker) don't accept self-published work (presumably for fear of being overwhelmed with submissions) - so these are clearly not worth bothering with. However, you can find a helpful list of those which will accept self-published books here. There seem to be 2 main issues you need to look out for:
- Entry fees - yes, quite a lot of them charge a fee, which may sound like a bit of a scam. The more charitable view is that it takes time and resources to organise these competitions - so it is reasonable to charge a modest fee. That said, you need to be on the lookout for ones which really are scams e.g. probably best to steer clear of the ones with higher fees and be sceptical about the ones without any track record of having made awards in the past.
- Rights grabs - read the terms and conditions carefully as you may be giving away your copyright. If all you are required to do is grant a fairly limited licence of copyright e.g. just to allow publication of excerpts of your work in a magazine etc, that's probably something most authors can live with (it's likely to be good publicity anyway). But if you are being expected to sign over more than that, it may be best to steer clear of that particular award.
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?
For the benefit of the uninitiated, peer review sites allow you to get feedback from other aspiring writers (slightly disappointingly perhaps, they do not generally allow you to get reviews from members of the English aristocracy). The only one that I have direct experience of is Youwriteon. I used it partly to convince myself that I had something good enough to self-publish - and partly to get some reviews which 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 and this post for my take on whether it's OK to quote from reviews that you get via peer review sites. You could also take a look at Figment, Foboko, Book Country or Scribophile - I haven't tried any of these, but Scribophile was recommended to me by a self-published author who commented on my review of Youwriteon. Authonomy.com, one of the largest peer review sites (backed by Harper Collins), announced that it was to close in September 2015 - see this post.
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 can get a Hollywood actor to read it, so in anticipation of my first audiobook, I'm working hard to perfect my impression of Colin Firth (I'm sure you will agree that the physical resemblance between us is remarkable - see the photo of me with my laptop at the top of the page).
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 (e.g. revamping your front cover etc). 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, However, be warned that they appear to have a massive backlog; the last book I submitted was in September 2012 and it didn't get featured until October 2013 (and as at December 2015, I am still waiting for a third book to be featured, despite submitting it in 2013).
2. I'm also on Goodreads, although so far it has had very little impact on downloads. In the past, it was probably worth being on there because the reviews were picked up on certain other sites, like the Sony bookstore - but I think that has stopped now that Amazon has acquired Goodreads) and I gather that Sony has closed its ebook store. So don't get your hopes up too much - and as ever, be prepared for the reviews to be a bit hit and miss (see this post).
3. Think about distributing your work 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. See also this post (skim down to the discussion at the end) about how getting reviews can require considerable patience. 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 significantly over time - which has only really occurred in the case of 2 of my books, but that would never have happened if I had simply given up in disgust after a couple of months. So perseverance is important.
For more detail on all of the above, see my blog.
Self-publishing: other useful sites
- The StinkyInk Guide to Publishing Your Book - a useful and concise "how to" guide
- Youwriteon - peer review site - useful for getting feedback before you publish
- Dreamstime - relatively inexpensive source of photographs for cover images
- Self-Published Authors Lounge
- The Guardian: Self-Publishing section
- Dave Gaughran's self-publishing primer
- Pigeon Weather Productions - interesting and useful blog by indie author Tom Lichtenberg
- Frank Burton's list of non-profit publishers
- Figment.com - another peer review site
- Foboko.com - and another
- Scribophile.com - and another - recommended by an author who commented on this post.