I’ve been asked recently how to get started with indie publishing. That’s… a slightly tricky question since, like so many questions, the answer is roughly “It depends”. That’s not me being coy! It really does depend on who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what your budget it and what you want to accomplish. There’s more but that’s a good start!
Nevertheless there are a few basic things that you’ll need to take into account if you want to pursue self-publishing. First and most importantly: you need to research your options. You need to know what you want to do and what will work for you.
For example: Do you want to publish to Amazon exclusively? Do you want to publish via Draft2Digital, Pronoun or Smashwords? Do you want to offer only ebooks or only print? Or do you want to offer both? What about audiobooks? If you want to publish print books, do you go with CreateSpace, IngramSpark or some other publisher entirely? Do you hire someone to do the work for you or do you want to invest the time yourself? Do you want to set up a small imprint for your own books? If so, can you design the logo yourself or do you want to hire someone to do it for you? What are the benefits and drawbacks of any and all of these choices? Etc, etc.
That’s… a lot of question to throw at you, sorry. They’re important, but you don’t have to tackle them all in one go! For me, personally, the biggest issue was anxiety, so for me the main thing that I needed to do was a quick way to get my work out there and then sort the rest later. It’s not a strategy I recommend unless you need it, but it’s a strategy. Anyway, let’s break it down a bit by looking at what you need before you get to that “hit publish” button.
- You need to decide where you want to publish.
To me, that’s step 1. Just figure out what marketplaces you want your book to be available in and why. Some authors have a lot of success going Kindle-only (and using the promotools you get for it). Others don’t. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here, I’m afraid.
The first part of this question is simple: what formats do you want the book to be available in?
Your (basic) choices are print, ebook and audiobook. In my experience, most indie publishers tend to stick to two very similar patterns:
- ebook first, print second, audio last if at all
- ebook & print simultaneously, audio last if at all
This is because ebooks are very quick and easy to reproduce no matter your level of tech-savvy. Distributors like Smashwords, D2D and Pronoun will take your doc files and format them into epubs for you, no HTML required. Just a working knowledge of Word. Writing software like Scrivener or Jutoh can also format the text for you.
This low threshold is also why so many people had and continue to hold onto negative stereotypes about indie publishing. Anyone can do it at little to no costs to them and it’s quick. And yes there’s a reason the stereotype exists. If you’re serious about indie publishing, be prepared to spend time and money to make your books better than most traditionally published works out there because the slightest mistake will cost you dearly.
Sorry. I’m not trying to scare you. You get a lot of freedom by going indie. Just be aware that it’s not for everyone and you need to be brutally honest with yourself.
Anyway, once you’ve decided how to publish, you can start to research where you want to publish. In general, a wider market pool is better because the more people have access to your book, the more chance that it’ll catch someone’s interest. However, because there are so many books available, the actual difference you’ll notice as author may be miniscule. That said, if you choose to publish (or promote!) to a limited market, anyone who’s interested in your work from outside that market will notice that you’re not selling to them. And chances are they won’t be happy about it. So weigh your options and decide what’s best for you.
And once you know how you want to publish your book and where you want to publish it, you can start looking at other stuff!
- You need to decide what you want to outsource to other people.
Or: you need to come up with a budget and decide what is and is not realistic for your publication.
In general this is what you need to publish a book:
- a finished and formatted book layout
- an edited and proofread text
- a cover
Yep. That’s pretty much it. Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? It’s more work than it looks. Two questions to get you started here:
- What am I able to do myself?
- What don’t I want to do myself?
Let’s split that first question up into different skills and look at an example. I’ll use myself as an example, because if you have any experience with my work you’ll be able to say whether you agree or disagree with my assessment of my abilities. And that’ll help you figure out the answers when you’re asking them of yourself! ^_^
- Can I do structural edits on my own work?
A: Yes, if given ample time to create distance between me and the manuscript. (Meaning: I need to put it away for a couple months before I can spot more than the most glaring issues.)
- Can I proofread my own work?
A: Yes. I’m a decent-to-good proofreader of my own works. Without hiring an editor, I will make a minimal amount of errors comparable to those found in both the best of indie published books and traditionally published books.
- Can I do my own sensitivity reads/be my own expert?
A: Uh… Not really. Part of the reason these are important is because I, as a single person, can’t catch everything. Whether that’s factual expertise or lived experiences. Even when it’s my experience, that doesn’t mean everyone else shares it. Hiring a sensitivity read or an expert helps you reduce the chances that you’ve got something horridly wrong or hurtful and didn’t notice, regardless of how much you do or do not know.
- Can I design my own book cover?
A: It depends on what kind of cover I need. I can’t draw to save my life, but I’m decent-to-good at combining images into a gorgeous and appealing design, depending on your tastes, and can produce professional-looking covers. I’m also able to create both ebook and print book versions.
- Can I design my own interior text layout for an ebook?
A: Yes. I can design both print and ebook layouts myself. The biggest issue, for me, is that my font library is comparatively small and I don’t have that many options for stylistic elements such as scene dividers.
- Can I design my own interior text layout for a print book?
A: Yes. See previous question for details. Also, this assumes that I don’t want to do something super-fancy like Illuminae by Amie Kaufmann and Jay Kristoff. I can do a book layout like that, but I definitely don’t have the fonts and graphics to pull it off and it would take me a much longer time because it’s not something I do regularly.
- Can I record my own audiobooks?
A: Hell no! I do enjoy recording audio files and I have the equipment, but I have no confidence in my reading abilities. I don’t have the skills to edit the audio and I certainly don’t have the emotional and mental strength to listen back to recordings to see what I need to fix and/or how to merge files together effectively.
I can (and do!) offer them because I think that, even with those caveats, it’s just fun to have the option of listening to an author read their own works and I hope someone will enjoy them as much as I do, but I’m nowhere near a level where I could produce a professional quality audiobook.
And there you go! As you can see, I have a pretty high opinion of my own abilities and, as such, there’s a lot involved in this process of printing books that I can save money on if I’m willing to invest in the time. As they say: time is money and that’s true here too.
Let’s assume that I can choose to make my own cover (for, say, $15 all in all) or I can hire a designer to make it for me (for, say, 200$). That’s a lot of money I’m saving, right?
Well, it’s not wholly wrong. You see, what I’m saving in up-front financial costs, I’m paying in time. The time it took me to design that cover is time I could have used to, say, work on another novel or to set up a blog tour for the release. The initial budget is lower, but the total amount of time I spend on getting the book available is much higher. And I don’t get paid anything for those labour costs until the book is out there and has earned back the up-front financial investment I did make.
So. Assuming that my publishing budget allows it, I may actually prefer to invest more money upfront so I can use that time I’ve saved more effectively on something else.
On the other hand, as you can see from my answers, my ability to do a structural edit of my own work isn’t great. So, rather than try to tackle that myself, I may prefer to budget for a developmental editor to help me out more quickly. That’s a huge investment upfront, but it’s worth it to have a solid story that’s as good as I could possibly make it.
Likewise, if I wanted to make the books available as audiobooks, I’d need to hire a professional reader because otherwise the quality of the book would just be completely unacceptable.
Answering these questions honestly will give you an idea of what you want or need to budget for to create the best possible book you can. These aren’t the only questions you need to ask, but they’ll get you started and you’ll figure out which questions matter to you as you work through them.
- You need to figure out what marketing you want to do.
Marketing is crucial. It is, in my experience, the single-most difficult thing for an indie author (or any author) to get right! It’s highly individual and marketing is both a field and a skill set and you need to be savvy with both in order to create a good strategy for your book and yourself.
And no publishing the book and hoping the sales will come in is not a strategy. Well. Not an effective one. If you don’t have a marketing strategy, make one and make sure you know why that’s the strategy you’re going with. Not all strategies revolve around “sell as many copies as possible”, after all.
I mean, yes, ideally, that’s the overall end goal, but that’s not necessarily the goal of that specific campaign. This is also the part where I’m most unable to really help you because I’m terrible at marketing my own books and, let’s be honest, I’m still learning how marketing works in practice. There’s a reason why universities and colleges offer marketing courses and degrees. It’s not easy! It’s a lot of specialist knowledge and know-how that you need to work with.
If you can’t do marketing yourself, you may want to consider hiring someone to help you out or tackle it for you.
For me, personally, the two most important investments, if you need them, are a good structural editor and a good marketing campaign. They’re also two of the priciest aspects to outsource if you need to, but they’re important because they’re what gets readers to talk about your books positively. They’re what gets your name noticed above the thousands of other books available to them.
Readers will forgive a lot if the story is entertaining, but first they’ve got to know the book exists and be entertained.
And there you have it! My 3-step guide to getting started with publishing your works outside the traditional publishing model. To recap:
- Decide what to publish, how to publish it and where to publish it.
- Figure out what you need/want to outsource and what, given your budget, you CAN outsource.
- Marketing marketing marketing!
That’ll get you started. But! Oh, yes, there’s a but to this all. People are different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. Heck, what works for one book won’t necessarily work for the next one! You’ll have to keep answering these same questions and making these same choices with every book you publish.
And if you think what I’ve said sounds like a load of rubbish because it’s a totally different process for you? That happens. Take what you think works for you from what I’ve said and discard the rest. I’m me and you’re you and there’s no guarantee that what works for me will work for you. Same with any and all kinds of writing advice: If you already know something won’t work, don’t feel obliged to do it just because that’s what an author said you had to do. You don’t have to. Authors just talk about what worked (or didn’t work) for them and try to glean some universal advice from those experiences.
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