Essential Tips for Self-Publishing Your First Book

As many of my readers know, last November I self-published my first book about two years of travel, (which you can find more information about HERE). I spent three years writing my book while researching everything I could about publishing and self-publishing. Even though Google searches can be helpful, a lot of the information I received was from various webinars or classes at Writer’s Ink, a nonprofit in San Diego. A lot of print on demand websites claim to offer everything you need for self-publishing, but there is often information left out that is extremely important for authors to know. My goal for this entry is to get all of these essential tips that took me years to learn out in the open in one straightforward space, so others don’t have to spend as long as I did searching for answers or learning things the hard way. These tips will be helpful for novels, photography books, children's books, larger zines, ebooks, and anything in between.



Self-Publishing VS Traditional Publishing

People are writing their own fiction books or sharing stories about adventures they've taken more than ever, creating a bit of oversaturation in the market for authors. Traditional publishers don't have the time to sift through hundreds of thousands of new author's first novels so they, to some extent, deny them all. To get in with a publisher you need to prove your book will sell. This can be done by showing you have sold hundreds to thousands of copies of a previous book, or that you have a large following who are willing to eat up any new content you produce. An example of this could be a celebrity, a well known online influencer, a successful blogger, or someone who experienced some sort of newsworthy situation in the media deserving a book. A writer's agent might not take you on as a client if you cannot prove you will have high sales as well.


If you have a large following and are thinking about contacting publishers or an agent, go for it! There are a lot of ways they can help promote your book and get it out there which would be hard for someone to accomplish without the same amount of resources. There are definitely pros and cons to working with a publishing company, but I will be skipping over that topic since this entry is about self-publishing. Self-publishing via print on demand is also a good way to go, and if your book does well it could always get picked up by a publisher or large distributor in the future.


Promotion

One of the biggest cons of self-publishing is that you (and your wallet) will have to do all of your own promotion. You on your own need to convince the public your book is worth buying, which is harder than it sounds. Without having a following or others to help promote your writing, you might need to set aside more money for advertising to break into online algorithms, and by really getting out there to do in-person readings. You have to sell yourself and network constantly, which is hard if that is not in your personality (like me). Buying a booth at writer's festivals or local maker's markets can also get upward of hundreds of dollars but can be a good way to gain exposure. Your local library also might have programs to highlight local authors which can be helpful (and free). It is never too early or too late to start working on building up an audience for your book. If you don't already have public social media accounts specifically for your writing as well as a blog or website, you might want to consider starting them. Even though your writing is your art, to sell it or get it out there it also needs to be your business. How big you want to grow this business and how much time, money, and effort you want to put into it is up to you.



Channels for Self-Publishing

Print on demand is a service many websites offer where you can upload your finished and formatted book files and print as little or as many as you want. Your readers can buy directly from the website and the book will be made and shipped to them at the price you choose (minus cost). You usually get a bulk discount, and you can order draft copies to view and edit before your final copy is put out into the world. Some of these sites also connect your book to other selling sources (I self-published through Blurb and at the click of a button it sent my book off to IngramSpark and Amazon). There are also "hybrid publishing" companies that go above that by providing you with an editor, a cover designer, and more. These all-in-one self-publishing packages often come at a hefty price, but you get what you pay for which in this case is professionalism and less hassle. Another method for printing your book is to go off on your own and find your own printing company to produce a bulk order. To do this you would have to put a lot of money down, since you will be purchasing all of your books to sell on your own, in-person and online. I have met a few authors who have gone this route, and all of them had their books printed in China. They fly back and forth to get their books, which, including the flight and baggage fees, is said to be cheaper than what the shipping would cost.


My Experience Using Blurb for Print on Demand

Google "print on demand" and you will get plenty of options, including Amazon and Blurb. I chose Blurb because not only do they connect your book to Amazon but IngramSpark as well. They also have their own book formatting software so you don't have to buy Adobe InDesign or an alternative, but I didn't know that until after I had already formatted with InDesign (which is very complicated if you've never used it before). I did most of my formatting myself, with the help of an InDesign template I paid for from Bookdesigntemplates.com.


A pro that became a con about Blurb is that you can sell directly from their website. IngramSpark is only for booksellers, Amazon is not everybody's cup of tea, so having another option for direct sales would be great, right? Well, Blurb only lets you sell directly through them if you 1. don't use chose to have them send your book to IngramSpark and Amazon (AKA you kind of have to do one or the other), or 2. you produce a duplicate version of your book with a completely separate ISBN number and have that one for sale on Blurb. This is not ideal because all of your book's ratings, search criteria, sales numbers, etc will be under your ISBN. To have other sales happening of a different book version with a different ISBN sounds unnecessarily complicated, in my opinion. If anyone else has other thoughts on this, please drop it in the comments! Overall I found Blurb easy to use and straightforward, with a decent support staff, but their FAQ was incredibly outdated with links that went nowhere. It was basically unusable, so all of my questions had to come from real people over email. Anything from adding your own ISBN, to selling through both IngramSpark/Amazon and Blurb simultaneously was info I searched and searched for on the FAQ pages but only found information that wasn't current anymore. I don't regret using Blurb for my first self-published book, but I wish they would do some streamlining and revamping of their website. My final criticism of not so much Blurb, but print on demand in general is the high production costs, but that is something I will come back to.


Don't Take The Free ISBN

Think of your ISBN (International Standard Book Number) as your book's social security number, except it's public. This number is necessary for booksellers or libraries to track and find your book. Amazon, Blurb, and most other print on demand services proudly advertise the fact that they offer FREE ISBNs when you use their services. Unless the book you are writing is more of a personal project and not something you really care to sell, do not take this free ISBN. Why? Because that company now has its name on your book. Now it's not you who is the publisher, but Amazon or Blurb, or whoever else. You might be thinking, okay, well why does that matter? One reason it matters is that it looks a little unprofessional. The other reason is much more important.


Let's say you print your book through Amazon and use their free ISBN. You launch your book, have a big party, and now it's time to get it in stores! Guess who is not going to carry your book because Amazon is listed in your ISBN... Amazon's competitors. Who are Amazon's competitors? All independent bookstores and all major booksellers (like Barns & Noble). It might be worth it to you to pay the $125 - $295 to own your ISBN, which you BUY HERE through Bowker Identifier Services.


Now let me touch quickly on this $125 - $295. $125 is for one ISBN and $295 is for 10 of them. Your book needs one ISBN, right? Not so fast... One ISBN gets you one chance at one version of your book, ever (or else you will need to pay another $125+ in the future). Let's say you have a hardcover, softcover, and ebook. That is three ISBNs you will need. Let's say in a few years you want to come out with some sort of deluxe second edition with a new forward, that is another ISBN. I decided to do a softcover and an ebook, so I needed two ISBNs which would cost me $250. For me, it was worth it to pay the additional $45 for 10, just in case.



It Might Get Expensive

It's up to you how far you want to go with investing in your book. Whether you want a strictly DIY feel or more of a professional look is up to you. But if you want your book to make it, it's going to have to be as professional as possible. Let's go over the expenses I've mentioned so far: ISBN's, online advertising, renting a booth or table to sell at an event, InDesign, and a formatting template. You might also need editing, formatting, ebook formatting, physical promotional items (such as flyers, business cards, bookmarks, postcards, banners), having it copyrighted, cover design, artwork, a class or two, a promo video, a book launch party, a book tour, paid reviews, and buying a whole lot of books to give away for free. I would rather have my book become successful through word of mouth than to make a huge profit. And if this works, I would eventually be making more money in the future and continuing to launch a possible career as an author anyway. I give out free books as online giveaways, free download promotions, white elephant gifts at Christmas, as trade for other artist's work, in exchange for a shout-out by someone who has a large online following, or I just stick 'em in free libraries around town. Free books make people happy and it works as cheap advertising at the same time. Best case scenario you also get a good review!


Depending on how long your book is, paying an editor will possibly be your biggest expense. I cut costs by paying a friend with his master's degree in literature to edit my book via Google Drive files in his spare time. Paying a friend could be tricky when it comes to something like this, but if you trust them to be professional, punctual, and reliable then go for it! And try to pay them a decent rate. Even after having my friend edit, I printed out a few book drafts and handed them out to trusted friends who could quickly give it a once over to get anything we had missed, in exchange for a finished book and a few beers. They also helped to submit reviews online before the official book launch.


I know this might sound overwhelming and not so DIY for "self" publishing, but don't worry! All of the information you need is online. It will cost you money, but it could hopefully be the beginning of a great project or even a major life change. Save your receipts and write them off on your taxes if you can, get a credit card with free interest for a year and pay it off as your book sales roll in. Be confident, get it out there, then have a big ass party! Work with a local business to throw yourself a book launch and reading. I did mine at a local brewery which cost me nothing while supporting a small business. Your book launch party can revolve around just you and your book, or invite other artists or authors to be featured as well.


Hire a Professional to Do Things You Can’t

They say you should never create your own book cover, and that even if you do a great job a publisher would scrap it to choose their own. I both agree with this, and completely did not listen. Go to your closest Barns & Noble and peruse the local author's section. You will notice most people did their own covers and a lot of them, honestly, look like garbage. They are pixelated or blurry, have weird effects on the fonts like shadows (which was very hip and cool during the dial-up Internet days), distorted or poorly Photoshopped imagery... they look absolutely nothing like the rest of the books in the Barns & Noble. And because they don't look professional people are going to assume it wasn't written well either.


Why did I do my own cover then? Of course I was worried I would end up with a cover that looks how I described above, but I have a bit of an advantage being a lifelong artist and having graduated art college. I wouldn't call myself a professional at designing book covers by any means, but I at least had some idea of what I was doing. I did a linocut/block print of an image I felt very passionately about using for the cover, then over the three years I wrote my book, I would from time to time revisit the cover, spine, and back cover to develop a new and better draft in Photoshop until I was happy with what I had. From there I asked a lot of people for their opinion on my cover and continued to tweak it more. Once I was finished I felt it fit me and my story so perfectly, that there was no way anyone could convince me otherwise. The style of my art fits the style of my words, as well as my story. If people don't like the outside of my book they probably won't like the inside either, and that's okay.


Even though I'm an artist, I took an InDesign focused class in college, and I stick with DIY as much as possible, there were still things I just could not do on my own. And if I did it would take me days, if not weeks or months, of frustration just to end up with a sloppy outcome. This is where just paying a professional is the way to go. There are a lot of online services for book editing and cover design if you search for it, but for what I needed I used UpWork.com. On UpWork you can hire a remote freelance professional to do pretty much anything. I used them to format my ebook, help tweak my template in InDesign after a week of struggling to figure it out myself, and for having a graphic designer critique my cover. Paying $10 - $200 for tasks that gave me peace of mind, more time to spend on the things that need it, all while supporting other artists was one of the best things I could have done. Plus you are paying the freelancer their desired rate while also paying less than it would cost to hire a company to do the same work.


Pricing Your Book

Enough about spending money, how about making it? Well I hope I don't discourage you too badly, but this is not always easy either with print on demand. Just know that if your book has a lot of pages and/or needs to be in color your cost is going to be high, which means you might have to price your book high, especially if you want it sold in stores. I wanted my book to be cheap and available. My goal before knowing anything about printing costs was to price it at $10. Today, after everything is said and done, I have to sell my book online and in stores for $20 to make less than $2 profit per book, and I sell it in person for $15 with a profit of around $7 per book.


Here's why: Bookstores will take up to 50% of the profit from selling your book. You then need to price your book assuming that all will take 50%, to cover your butt. I sell my book for $20, the bookstore will take $10, that leaves me with $10 but it cost me around $8 to print the book. That means if I sell for any less than $19 and some change, I will owe if my book is sold. Books in my genera are rarely over $20, so I price it at that amount to be a competitive author within my genera, and because I would rather it be affordable and available to people with less money than to price it any higher.


Since my book is priced high in brick and mortar shops, I can sell it cheaper online, right? This relates back to why you don't want that free Amazon ISBN. If Amazon sells my book for $15, my neighborhood independent bookstore is not going to sell my book for $20. Again you would be favoring the competitor of all other booksellers, big and small (who is constantly putting them out of business - remember Borders? RIP). Amazon can also drop you from their site if you are selling your book cheaper in other places. I said I sell my book in person for $15, but that is not something I advertise. That's my business.


Keep these costs in mind while pricing your book, but also search the web for books similar to your book and see how the prices range for that genera and format. Click to see what the website recommends as similar or related books, and keep those in mind too. Between the price range of books in your genera and the markups and cost you need to cover, you should be able to find a price that works best.


Pre-Sales and Crowdfunding

Pre-sales are honestly just a way to advertise and amp people up for your upcoming book launch. You can get your family and friends excited to celebrate and support you, and you can start to constantly, digitally, yell in your followers' faces HEY I WROTE A BOOK! Don't let your book launch be a last-minute surprise, make sure everyone knows it's coming. There are many ways to offer pre-sales, you can sell them on your website or you can crowdfund. I'm not talking about doing a GoFundMe (please don't), you would want to use a website that lets your followers pay now to get something back in the future. This could be through Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, IFundWomen, or wherever else you'd like. Start this early, and be sure to take advantage of their webinars to learn about how to get support for your product and how to launch specific things within a specific time period (like a promo video). You can even bounce around to all of these sites and download their handbooks for tips. Even if your book isn't going to be ready for a year, the tips in crowdfunding handbooks and webinars can help you with general promotion of your social media sites now.


A Trick to Boost Your Ebook in Online Algorithms

Okay here is your last tip! Breaking into online algorithms is hard. You need to be persistent, have a basic understanding of SEO for your website (some sites, like Wix, will walk you through this), and continue to produce new and relevant content. For your blog, website, or social media platforms to pop up on a Google search, you need the algorithm to notice your new and relevant content across the board. If your website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc all have the same name and reference each other, Google knows this and will promote your content in the search the more it is updated, clicked, and interacted with. Make sure you are also using relevant keywords and hashtags. Another way to boost your book is, well, Amazon! Sometimes you have to just play the game.


Amazon works a lot like Google. It might take some searching the first time you try to find your book in the Amazon search engine, but for every search, click, download, buy, and review it receives, the more it is boosted within the site and on Google. If you do well enough you will even get boosted into the list of top online authors. If you do not succeed at all of the above, not only might you get lost in some Amazon search back pages, but Amazon will alert buyers that they are not carrying many of your books.

If you have an ebook, there is a not-so-secret way to boost your book up the Amazon algorithm, and start strong for your book launch. It is pretty in-depth, so I am going to leave you with this downloadable PDF of instructions I was given in the past, or you can Google "Amazon Kindle five day free promotion." This cheap or free (up to you) ebook promotion creates an online buzz around your book, leaving you with clicks, downloads, and reviews (if you hound friends and family to write them!). You can announce the free download to just friends and family if you want, or to everyone. It will be public to everyone, but if you aren't telling people it's happening, they won't know. A week before you do the ebook promotion, search for free ebook websites, there are hundreds of them. You give them the information about your book and what dates it will be free, and they will announce it to their tens of thousands of followers and subscribers. Sometimes this is free, sometimes it costs money.


Thanks so much for reading! I hope this was helpful. Feel free to share with the aspiring authors you know, or to drop me a comment with any questions. Good luck!

© 2020 Bridget MH

Travel Writing & Photography

San Diego, California