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 a degree of altruism is supposed to be one of the things that marks out apes from at least some other animals, I thought I'd attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt so far.
This page was last updated on 13.11.2022.
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 15,000 to date, if you count all my books on all platforms) and some encouragingly positive reviews. For more detail, click here to see a timeline of my "adventure" in self-publishing.
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. And increasingly, authors who have been published professionally are turning to self-publishing (partly because they are fed up with publishers and partly because of the advantages outlined above). One example is Patricia Le Roy, whose novel "The Judas Tree" I've reviewed on this site. See also this article.
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).
In 2021, I finally got around to producing a paperback version of my novel using Amazon's KDP platform (formerly CreateSpace). This was reasonably straightforward, although not entirely plain sailing (in that respect it's not so different from creating an ebook). Other hard copy options include Lulu and Feedaread. But I still think doing an ebook first is the right way to go and is likely to remain my main source of readers. That's because it's pretty difficult for self-published authors to get distribution of hard copies via bricks-and-mortar bookshops - so for me, the main point of the paperback is that if someone wants to read the novel in hard copy, then they can (but I'm not expecting to shift many copies).
To date, the only active marketing I've done with the paperback is left some copies in local street libraries or bookswaps - but there's obviously a limit to how far you can go with that (both in terms of geographic reach and the sheer expense of buying copies to give away - although author copies from Amazon are not hideously expensive, at just over £3 per book). Beyond that, I'm planning to see if I can persuade some local bookshops to take it and may also look at doing a giveaway of the paperback on LibraryThing to get some more reviews.
How difficult is it to create an ebook?
Some sites – like Wattpad – allow you to simply copy/paste your text into an interface and upload. Others, like Smashwords, allow you to upload a Word file which they will automatically convert into the main ebook formats – 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). See below for a discussion of putting up an ebook on Amazon.
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, you can get others do it for you (for a fee). Alternatively, it may be worth approaching non-profit publishers - 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).
WHAT ABOUT PUBLISHING ON THE WEB?
Another option is to publish your novel as a website, which I have done here. A well designed site can provide a reading experience which (on a mobile phone or tablet) comes close to that of a dedicated e-reader - so in principle, it might sound worthwhile.
The trouble is, as pointed out in this blog post, there aren't many platforms on which you can promote your work - so getting readers to visit your site may prove a challenge (and so far, the novel's website has had very few visits). In view of that, I'd be inclined to go down the ebook route first - and I am not convinced that the web version of my novel was actually worth the time and effort it took to produce. That said, there are examples of books that appear to have been quite successful in web format - like this one. Also, as pointed out towards the end of this blog post, there are some reading apps like Dreame or Radish (which I haven't tried), which you could see as falling into the category of "publishing on the web". See under the heading "What about other publishing platforms?" below for more discussion of these.
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. You might also want to take a look at this blog post from Obooko, in which a number of other authors explain why they made their material available for free. As for the number of downloads you can expect, see my timeline and this post from another self-published author, C Litka.
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. 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 for the ebook versions of my work. With the paperback version of my novel, I've priced it as low as Amazon will let me (which means no royalty - so the price of £5.30/$6.40 is essentially the print cost plus Amazon's margin).
Which E-book platform is best?
For me, the two best performing e-book platforms so far have been Smashwords and Feedbooks - although sometime in late 2018 or early 2019, the latter took the decision to deactivate its self-publishing platform. So that leaves Smashwords as the leading platform in my experience - but see below for some other suggestions.
Smashwords allows you to charge (if you want) and gives you wider distribution to other ebook retailers e.g. Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and Amazon - although I seem to have had relatively few downloads from these (Apple has been the best performer, but we are talking very low numbers - 48 per year on average between 2012 and 2017 - see below for discussion of Scribd). I also opted out of Smashwords' distribution to Amazon so that I could do it myself (my thinking being that it would give me more control over how the book was presented on Amazon etc). See below for further discussion of that.
I've also garnered a number of decent reviews on Smashwords – which are obviously 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). I am hopeful that, unlike Feedbooks, Smashwords is going to last - it has a significant author base and has recently had a revamp of its interface. In February 2022, it was announced that Smashwords was being acquired by Draft2Digital, a competing self-publishing outfit - click here for my thoughts on whether that is a good thing (short answer: probably, but let's see what happens).
What about Amazon?
The experiences of other self-published authors suggest that it is worth being on Amazon - and so in October 2018, after much delay, I finally got around to putting my novel up there. I could have done this via Smashwords but decided to do it myself because you have a bit more control that way. Although Amazon's default position is that you have to charge for your ebooks, in March 2021, I managed to persuade Amazon to price-match the other sites where it's available (although as at December 2021, they had put it back to £0.99 - so don't assume the the price-matching will last forever - in my case, it lasted about 6-8 months). I am not sure I would've been able to do this if I had distributed it to Amazon via Smashwords; this might be another reason to deal directly with Amazon. A further reason might be if you want to use Amazon to produce a paperback version, which I am in the process of doing (will report on that once it's done).
Uploading the novel using Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service was generally pretty straightforward - and I was pleased with how I was able to design the interior of the book using their ebook software (it looks better than the version you can download from Smashwords because you have more control over the layout). The really difficult bit is getting anyone to notice that your book is actually there - see below under "How much promotion will I need to do?" You can also use KDP to create a paperback edition - this is reasonably straightforward too, although I'm a bit sceptical about their claims to be able to do Kindle and paperback from the same files - I suspect that would result in compromises on the formatting, so you are probably better off doing separate files.
What about other publishing 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. As noted above, Smashwords will distribute to quite a few of these on your behalf if you want. This avoids you having to create your own account with all of them and uploading your stuff all over again. However, I have had direct experience of the following:
- Wattpad: This a very popular platform and other self-published authors have done well there (you can only offer your material for free - and you can't offer it as an ebook, you have to offer it via their web reader). 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. On the positive side, unlike Feedbooks, Wattpad is at least a thriving platform for self-published material.
- Scribd: I have been sceptical about this platform in the past - see this post. However, the problem may have been that I had uploaded my stuff at a time when it was a documents only platform - whereas now it markets itself as an ebook subscription service as well ("all you can read for $x per month"). Anyway, some recent stats from Smashwords (which distributes content on its platform to Scribd) suggested that it may be performing a bit better as an ebooks platform - so I have deleted my own uploads on Scribd and opted back into Smashwords distribution to Scribd (which means my stuff should appear in Scribd's "Books" category, rather than as "Documents"). Based on low numbers from distribution via the likes of Apple etc, I am not expecting the download stats to be spectacular. Indeed, so far, Smashwords has not reported any downloads via Scribd at all (as at the time of updating - November 2021 - my books had been available on Scribd for around 7 months). Perhaps it's too early to tell, but so far, it's not looking like things have changed for the better. It also took ages for Scribd to accept my books - I had to hassle them numerous times to sort the problem out.
- 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 (my stuff has been on there since 2014 and as at June 2021 I've had around 850 downloads in total - which is OK, but it compares poorly with Smashwords). The site had a revamp in May 2018 and that investment by the owners suggests that it's reasonable to expect it to survive a bit longer than some platforms have (so far, though, it does not seem to have had much impact on my downloads). They were very nice to deal with (you get a friendly email back from a real person), but 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 Obooko's submission guidelines.
- Google Play: What with it being Google and all, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it would definitely be
worth having your ebook available via Google Play. However, the consensus from others who've tried is that it probably shouldn't be top of your list - this article seems fairly representative of opinion, suggesting that the downloads are pretty poor given Google's size and reach. The main saving grace is that there seems to be some benefit in terms of general visibility on the web in response to search terms etc (because once you're on there, Google then makes more of an effort to index all content relating to you and your work). That said, this post suggests that you may get a decent number of additional downloads if you can make your work available as an audiobook. ButI haven't got around to trying it yet.
- Other platforms e.g. reading apps: in recent years, a number of other platforms similar to Wattpad (see above)have sprung up, such as Dreame or Radish. These don't allow you to publish ebooks as such - instead you have to offer your material via their web-based reading apps (so in that respect, it's much the same approach as Wattpad). I haven't tried them yet and I'm not sure whether you can offer your material for free. It would appear that you also need to watch out for rights grabs.
The other thing to remember is that publishing platforms come and go. For example, since I started my self-publishing adventure in 2011-12, at least 3 sites that I used (Bibliotastic, Bookiejar and Feedbooks) have ceased operating - no doubt many more have gone the same way in that time. So periodically, it's worth reviewing whether you should be on any new platforms, just to make sure that people can still access your stuff.
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 and maybe I have just been a bit lucky in terms of when I published my book on Smashwords - 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". However, one major exception to this advice is Amazon:
Getting visibility on Amazon
If your book is on Amazon, you will almost certainly need to do some active promotion to get people to download it (and hopefully review it). That's because Amazon is such a huge site that, almost inevitably, you are virtually invisible when you start out. In practice, you will probably need a bit of outside help with this and will need to be prepared to part with some cash. Basically you need to make it free on Amazon and then pay to get it featured by some book promotion services (who will email details of it to their subscribers). This may sound a little off-putting, but in my experience it does work (see below) and the amount of time and money involved is relatively modest (there are viable options even if you are on a really tight budget). Click here for more detail, including which promo services I used (you need to be a bit choosy about this or you can end up wasting a lot of time/money).
This approach should get you a reasonable number of downloads. Mine were flatlining at zero for months on end. But by the end of the various promotions (which were scheduled on different days over 2-3 weeks), my novel had been downloaded over 2000 times - so I definitely didn't feel that I had wasted my money. It also seems to increase your general visibility on Amazon because for a couple of months, I continued getting 1-2 further downloads every few days or so. As you'd expect, that tails off after a while to the point where you only get a small number of downloads per month - and by mid-October 2021, which was 4-5 months after the promotions, it had pretty much dried up altogether. But it's better than having a massive spike and then reverting almost immediately to zero downloads.
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 here is a helpful list of those which will accept self-published books. 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. If you're unsure what I mean by "rights grabs", this blog post provides some pretty good examples of what you should be looking to avoid.
For an alternative list of competitions, see this list on Christopher Fielden's website - if you're concerned about scams, the list of closed competitions may give you some pointers on what to look out for.
Should I worry about piracy?
Piracy is 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, 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. There's no surefire way of protecting against it - it's just a risk you run in the internet age. And on the positive side, it means someone has noticed that people are reading your stuff - so annoying as it may be, it can be a sign that you are experiencing a modest degree of success in terms of readership.
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, which (as at October 2020) appeared to have closed down. 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).
In view of the apparent demise of Youwriteon, you might want to take a look at Scribophile. I haven't tried it, but it was recommended to me by a self-published author who commented on my review of Youwriteon. You can find other reviews of it here, here and here - and at the time of updating this section in October 2020, Scribophile still appeared to be a going concern. Other peer review sites which might be worth a look include ABC Tales, Critique Circle, The Pen Factor and Taylz (derived from a list produced by Christopher Fielden - his site has a bit more info about them). But bear in mind that, as illustrated by Youwriteon, peer review sites come and go. Here are two further examples: 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. Just asAuthonomy was closing, another site called Book Country (backed by Penguin Random House) opened up - only to shut up shop after less than 3 years (see this post).
is piracy a risk on peer review sites?
I have seen concerns expressed by some authors about whether they are taking a risk with their intellectual property rights by putting material up on peer review sites. You should definitely check that the site doesn't say something like "by posting your work here, you transfer all copyright in it to us" - but that would be pretty surprising, because it would deter would-be authors from using the site in the first place. Most sites should provide an assurance that you remain the owner of the rights in your work. But more generally, I don't think you need to be too concerned about copyright and peer review sites.
Firstly, if you were looking to pirate someone's work, would you really spend ages rummaging around peer review sites, which are largely populated by as yet unknown, unsuccessful authors? No, you'd probably get your hands on something which already seemed to be doing well - then pirate that (and in most cases all you'd get from a peer review site would be an excerpt from a novel or a short story, not a full length book).
Secondly, what about someone pinching your idea? Well, that is a risk - and ideas are difficult to protect because copyright only protects the expression of ideas, not the idea itself (see this case involving an unsuccessful attempt to argue that Dan Brown plagiarised substantial aspects of "The Da Vinci Code" from an earlier book called "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail"). But stealing your idea is the easy part - the thieving so-and-so would still have to write the rest of the book - so you may be able to reduce the risk by using the peer review site when you are at the editing/proofing stage (i.e. you are quite close to being in a position to publish). And as this advice on Scribophile points out, most members of peer review sites are simply looking to get feedback to improve their own work, rather than plagiarise other people's stuff.
For other steps you can take to provide evidence to support the existence of copyright in your work, see this post - but my general advice would be not to let copyright get in the way of obtaining constructive feedback which could improve your work. And for reasons explained in that post, beware of copyright registration services which sometimes advertise on peer review sites - I'm not convinced they're worth the money.
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). A more recent post from another self-published author, C Litka, also shows significant downloads of audiobooks from Google (using its auto-narration software - see below). Fewer authors put their work out in audiobook format, so it may 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. An interesting recent development is Google's auto-narration software - I know, sounds like an awful idea at first, but these samples made me wonder if it could be worth a try as a lower cost option (and as noted above, it seems to have worked for one author, at least). That said, even though the samples are quite impressive, I'm not sure how well it would work where the story relies heavily on dialogue - would the auto-narration be expressive enough to do it justice? I also wondered if long sentences might sometimes cause it problems - but I haven't been able to dig up any reviews of it, so I guess the jury is out for now.
Ideally, of course, you want to 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, sadly, 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 !