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 13.3.2018.
It's hard to think of a better endorsement than a commercial publisher saying that they have such faith in the quality of your work that they're willing to stake their own money on it. So it's understandable why many authors aim for conventional publication. But here are 3 reasons why you might want to consider self-publishing instead:
- most publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, so your chances of getting taken on are not good (click here for more depressing stats on publishing generally);
- even if you do manage it, most publishers don't do much in the way of promotion and quickly lose interest in books which do not prove successful within a fairly short timescale (see this post); and
- 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. I have had a reasonable number of downloads (over 10,000 to date) and some encouragingly positive reviews. E-books have 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. 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.
e-book or hard copy?
I've published ebooks on a variety of e-book platforms (see below). 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 (your ebook may get some reviews which can be used to market the hard copy version more effectively). Haven't tried hard copy yet but options include Createspace (Amazon), Lulu and Feedaread. 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 it to create an ebook?
Some sites – like Feedbooks – 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 upload a Word file – but Smashwords is quite pernickety about formatting, so you need to follow their style guide quite closely (don'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 such as Calibre - 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 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 (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 33 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. 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. 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.
Which E-book platform is best?
For me, the two best performing e-book platforms so far have been Smashwords and Feedbooks - although the latter is only an option if you’re prepared to make your material available for free (and see my comments below).
Smashwords allows you to charge (if you want) and gives you wider distribution to other ebook retailers e.g. Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble (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 (and with some books - for reasons which are hard to explain - it seems to have taken years; see the last 5 paragraphs of this post).
It's probably fair to say that Feedbooks is no longer as good an option as it used to be for self-published authors. When I first started using it, my books typically got more downloads from Feedbooks than from Smashwords - at least to begin with (more recently, I would say Smashwords has the edge - by quite a margin in some cases). However, since late 2013, Feedbooks has lost the ability to maintain an accurate total of the downloads that your book has received - so if you want to know how you are doing, you need to keep your own running total based on the daily downloads shown on the analytics page. More significantly, self-published titles used to appear on a separate tab alongside "Public Domain" (out of copyright) titles, but that tab has now disappeared (reducing the visibility of self-published material, although you can still browse "Free Original Books" from the menu down the left hand side). I can also only find my work by searching against the full title, not the author name.
So sadly, Feedbooks increasingly has the feel of a site which may not be much longer for this world. That would be a great pity because it used to be a very good platform for writers prepared to make their work available for free.
What about Amazon?
The experiences of other self-published authors suggest that it is definitely worth being on Amazon - I just haven't got around to it yet (partly because there is no option to offer my books for free). When I do get around to it, my intention is to set the price as low as Amazon will allow me to go. Smashwords offers some distribution to Amazon - but it is limited to their most successful titles (and I have opted out of that - not that I am successful enough to qualify anyway). To publish on Amazon, you will need to use their Kindle Direct service. I will provide some more detail here once I've actually done it.
What about other ebook platforms?
If you're making your work available for free, as in my case, there's a good argument for being on as many platforms as you can be bothered with - especially as it's hard to predict what will do well. I have attempted to summarise my experience of them below:
- Wattpad: this a very popular platform and other self-published authors have done well there (you can only offer your material for free). My stuff, on the other hand, has not done so well, prompting grumpy old man-style blog postings like this one (I sense that I am not in Wattpad's core demographic....). I probably need to give it another try, possibly by releasing a story chapter-by-chapter rather than all in one go. And possibly by rewriting it to include more teenage vampires or whatever is the current vogue in YA fiction.
- Obooko: this is another site where the only option is to make your material available for free. It's not been brilliant in terms of downloads, as the organisation of the site tends to put more recent additions at a disadvantage. On the other hand, they were very nice to deal with (you get a friendly email back from a real person). They require you to provide your own ebook files (I've explained how to do that here - it's not as bad as it sounds). Click here for more details.
The other thing to remember is that ebook platforms come and go. For example, since I started my self-publishing adventure in 2011-12, at least 2 sites (Bibliotastic and Bookiejar) have ceased operating - and as noted above, Feedbooks may also be on the way out.
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 (if rather time-consuming) - 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?
There is a lot of stuff on the web about how you need to devote every spare waking minute to promoting your book on social media etc. I haven't done that but I think it depends what kind of fiction you are writing. I also suspect that social media only really works if you have a very clear idea of your target audience (and lots of time on your hands). The audience for my genre - literary fiction - is extremely diffuse, which is why I think the best investment is in making my work as widely available 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".
Writing competitions: worth entering?
So far, this isn't something I've done myself. 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 don't accept self-published material - but 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 - 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 not unreasonable 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, then probably best to steer clear.
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. And while we're on the subject of protecting your intellectual property, it's worth noting that copyright arises automatically when you create your masterwork - so tempting as it may be to respond to adverts offering you additional protection through registration of your work, there's no real benefit to doing so (at least not in the UK anyway - it may be a different story in the US). For a more general discussion of copyright protection, see "Copyright - is it a bad thing?"
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. (But beware of the copyright registration service advertised on Youwrite on - I'm not convinced it's worth the money).
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. Bear in mind that peer review sites come and go e.g. Authonomy.com, one of the largest peer review sites (backed by Harper Collins), closed down in September 2015, having lasted about 7 years - 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 (although the site he refers to, podiobooks, has been taken over by another company and no longer offers quite the same service). 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 put in some time in order to get a professional sounding result - and I haven't found a decent site which will host your audiobook for free and allow you to offer it to listeners free of charge (most demand either a hosting fee or expect you to charge, so that they can take a percentage). For a detailed description of how to create an audiobook via Amazon's Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), click here. 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).
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 - see also this post (skim down to the discussion at the end about how getting reviews can take quite a while). Although I suspect that positive reviews have helped, none of them has ever produced an immediate and dramatic increase in downloads.
If you get negative reviews, don't despair. Bear in mind that you can't please all the people, all of the time - and there is some evidence that, as a general rule, readers are more inclined to give vent to feelings of negativity (whereas someone who enjoyed your book won't necessarily feel quite the same urge to say so in a review ). And of course, where the negative feedback is constructive, it can also help you improve your writing.
If no one seems to be downloading your book, it can sometimes make a difference if you give it a different cover or look at refreshing the "blurb." And apparently, the shorter the title, the better your chances of success - see slides 97-98 of this presentation - although it doesn't look to me as if the correlation is particularly strong. Anyway, that's a piece of advice I have chosen to ignore; my novel is called "In the future this will not be necessary" but it hasn't stopped people downloading it. I suppose that just goes to show that you shouldn't feel you always have to follow the conventional wisdom on these matters. The key thing is to be patient and not to give up too soon. Good luck !
Self-publishing: other useful sites
- The StinkyInk Guide to Publishing Your Book - a useful and concise "how to" guide
- 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