How to Self-Publish: A Checklist

Blog | Book Promotion/Platforms | Editor's Nightstand: Resources Not to Miss | Self-Publishing vs. Traditional (and How-to)

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by Chris Bigelow

So, you’ve completed a manuscript that you feel is worthy of publication. Now it’s time to share it with the world! If you’ve decided to go the self-publishing route, below is a checklist that will help you think through the process and what’s involved. If you’re traditionally publishing, this list also applies to your experience, but your publisher will be taking care of the majority of steps. (If you’re undecided, the article below, and our previous one here, might give you the perspective you need.)

Keep in mind that self-publishing—if  you are worried about seeing any financial return on your time and monetary investment—is the same as starting a small business. Having realistic expectations about the work required, the multiple hats you’ll don, and the learning curve you may face will help you stay on target with your goals and not become disheartened. The information below will map out those steps so you can get a realistic sense of what you’ll need to do and how long it might take; the list below also includes several tools to help you succeed—so you can more confidently dive in.

  • Reader reviews: Once you’ve completed your manuscript, get some good readers to review it. (Not your mom—unless your mom is a professional book editor and not prone to coddling you. Think of readers who have experience with your genre and can intelligently point out major problems; writers who have successfully published in your genre are another good option). Not only can they help you improve your book as needed, but they can provide cover blurbs, future Amazon reviews, etc. At this point, you may also want to hire a professional developmental editor to help you really hone the content and maximize its marketability.
  • Professional page layout and copyediting: When your words are ready to be placed into actual book format, you should use good typesetting software (preferably InDesign) or hire someone who knows how. After all, you want your book to look professional, not homemade. Also, you will definitely need to arrange for quality copyediting and proofreading! Mistakes will annoy your readers and reduce your credibility. If you put out a book with errors or rookie mistakes, people will point that out in online reviews.
  • Cover design: While your interior layout is underway, you’ll also want to arrange for the best, most professional-looking, marketable cover possible. Unless you happen to be a skilled graphic designer, plan on hiring a designer for your cover. Readers can instantly sense an amateur cover, and you’ll lose sales. Next to getting professional content feedback to ensure the marketability of your book, your cover is the number-one priority in terms of funds and focus.
  • Arrange printing and distribution: Today’s print-on-demand (POD) industry is fantastic—the books look totally legit, and yet they can be printed literally one at a time. We recommend CreateSpace or IngramSpark because they also make your book available on Amazon and elsewhere (for a comparison between these two POD companies, see here, for example). To use print-on-demand, you’ll need to provide these companies with files of your book’s interior and cover in the correct format, which can  be tricky if you’re new to publishing. You’ll also need to set up your ISBN and establish yourself as a business, which might include registering your business name with the state, getting a federal tax ID number and state sales tax account, and getting a business license (several of these links are examples from my home state of Utah; if you live elsewhere, you can find equivalent links). You’ll also need to manage your print-on-demand account(s). Also, be aware that any income you receive from publishing will likely need to be reported to the IRS as self-employment income. (To learn more about how much income requires paying taxes, see this article from the Tax Crisis Institute.)

You can master this learning curve on your own, as many authors have, but for very reasonable costs, there are also a good number of experienced professionals out there who can do all of it for you or show you how—saving you time, stress, and helping you avoid potentially costly errors. (See our self-publishing  services page for an example of everything a professional can help with.)

  • eBook and audiobook: You should absolutely do an eBook edition of your book for all major formats, including Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBook, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and others (some people do their Kindle version first in order to take advantage of Kindle promotions, which don’t allow you to have the book in other formats during the promotion). Again, you can go online and learn how to do the eBook formatting and file submissions on your own, or you can hire someone to do this for you (this service is also reasonably priced with most vendors). As far as audiobooks, these can be a little pricey to produce, but if you’ve got the budget, it can be quite satisfying and potentially expand your audience to make a professional audiobook available on Amazon, iTunes, and
  • Advance publicity: While you’re getting your book ready, you’ll want to think about how much platform development and advance publicity you want to do. If you want to do real national marketing for your book, the timeline can be tricky—the process kicks into gear after  your book is mostly prepared for release (edited, designed, cover ready) but at least four months before  your book actually comes out. This allows time for you to mail out advance copies for reviews, contact the media for potential coverage, etc. If you feel your book has a large potential audience and you want to execute a professionally effective campaign, you may want to hire a book publicist.
  • Ongoing promotion: Once your book is actually released, promoting it is one of the hardest aspects of publishing. More books than ever are being published, and people have more entertainment options than ever, so the challenge is to stand out. But it can be done! Many authors are being successful with a little effort and realistic expectations. Plan for a learning curve and to invest some time in the process (or to invest in professional help). You’ll need to be patient, and focus on a few key things:
    • Writing more books—and some shorter freebies—to draw in an audience and have something to offer them after their first exposure to your work (and for a fiction series, you should idealistically have the entire series written and ready to be published simultaneously)
    • Learning about keyword optimization and pricing strategies
    • Learning about email lists/book promotion sites
    • Learning options for effectively marketing your genre/topic  and slowly building on those foundations over time (see the FYI examples below)

FYI: nonfiction and fiction campaigns have some crossover marketing strategies (see our Book Promotion category in our Archives), but tend to be very different—with nonfiction relying on a platform that’s hopefully already in place! However, working with freelance publishing and marketing professionals can help no matter where you are in the process. Some of these groups offer ways to get exposure online, directly with readers and in online stores; others offer strategies related to distribution with non-bookstore groups (airports, hospitals, etc.); and for nonfiction, there are direct sales to corporations and other groups, as well as building your platform through public speaking (PR groups and digital strategists can be helpful here for your social media outreach, networking, brand strategizing, and content generation). And book publicists can be helpful as well, but probably more so for nonfiction. It will take some time to explore all of your options. (For a marketing consult and tips for finding the right strategies for your book, go here.)

As with the self-publishing process in general, having realistic expectations about the promotion process is key to not getting too discouraged. Remember that it likely took you months to years to write a good book—effective promotion is no different. Unless you have oodles of free time and marketing training (or you hire experienced professionals to do it all for you) it will take a fair bit of time to build a platform—think months and years and/or over a hundred hours in DIY research. There are many strategies for getting online and offline exposure (again, see our Book Promotion category in our archives), and as time permits you can learn a little about all of them and decide what’s most effective for your audience. A little experimentation as well as training will yield the best results.

Do This Now

  1. Settle in for some research: Many books, websites, and blogs exist that can give you all kinds of insight on how to publish and market effectively, so allow yourself time to really do some good research. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that for every step in the publishing process, paid experts of many kinds are available to assist you. Your decisions about which publishing tasks to hire out and which to do yourself will depend on how much time and income you have to devote to each part of your new business; so even if, like many authors, you end up with a small publishing team to help you fill in the gaps, remember that you’re the CEO—the decision-maker—so any education you gain about the process won’t go to waste. As with any new venture, just don’t lose sight of your personal and writing priorities as you pick your way through this new business landscape.

For an excellent chance to start your DIY research, check out this indie-pub conference: Indie Recon—Live

  1. Keep a handy reference chart nearby: Covering this topic in an article alone is pretty impossible, so we’re finishing up a short (non-overwhelming) ebook on the topic, including a handy-dandy, printable chart showing the Steps to Publishing (whether traditional or self-publishing), suggested timelines for each step, and how to ensure your book has the best chance of success. If you’re signed up for our newsletter, you’ll be notified immediately when this fabulously free  download is available.
  1. Keep your goals in mind and perspective intact: Self-publishing is challenging, but it can also be quite rewarding. An important question to ask yourself is, “What is my definition of self-publishing success?” With most self-published books selling under 300 copies (presumably by authors with little marketing know-how and possibly less-than-professional books) you want to decide why  you are publishing and draw lines for how much time/money you will invest in trying to sell the book. If you think you’ll need more than a couple hundred sales in order to feel successful, make sure that your book is truly marketable and that you execute publishing and promotion extraordinarily well. If you just want to write, focus on that and add in a little marketing know-how as you go along. Wherever your publishing adventures take you, we wish you all the best and are here to help if you have any questions!

What’s your experience with self-publishing—any tips from the trenches? Questions?

If you found this article helpful, give us a hand and share!

Chris BigelowChristopher Bigelow runs a small, traditional indie press and also provides publishing services to independent authors. He is the author of seven books and has served as an editor of several periodicals, including the  Ensign, Irreantum, and  The Sugar Beet. He earned a BFA in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and an MA in creative writing from Brigham Young University.

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  1. Sam

    Great article! I love how the steps are laid out with resources included-SO helpful!

  2. Sabine

    Great guide on a much talked about topic in the publishing world. Thanks!

  3. Jennifer Getts

    I agree, great article and easy to follow, laid out steps! I have a friend who is looking in to self publishing, so this article will come in handy. I also came across a book by Helen Sedwick called “Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook” that has a lot of great information as well; I found that her website, is a helpful resource as well. Thanks for the article, passing it along!

    • angela

      Thanks for the extra resource!

  4. Shari

    I love this! I’ve been giving a lot of thought to self-publishing if the traditional route doesn’t end up working out. Bookmarked this for future reference!

  5. Bruce

    Good advice all around, even if you are not considering self-pub and want to go with a traditional publisher. One of the major takeaways for me is that the article reinforces that writing and publishing takes professionalism. You don’t just just write a book and publish it five minutes later.


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