Author Andy Weir began publishing the novel’s chapters on his blog, but then pasted the whole thing into a text document and sold it as an Amazon Kindle book for just 99 cents a copy. Within months The Martian was topping the best-selling charts, and then Hollywood wanted in!
Give or take a bit of Hollywood glam, that’s all publishing an eBook is: take a text document, convert it into an eBook, sell it. Bosh!
This guide isn’t just for novelists: self-publishing works for comics, essays, how-to guides and everything in between!
What is self-publishing?
‘Self-publishing’ is where you publish and sell your own book instead of relying on a literary agent or publishing company to do it for you. In return for doing all the donkey work, any profit you make is all yours.
If you’re looking for a business you can run from just about anywhere, publishing is a smart choice: once you’ve done the toil you can leave your books to earn passive income for years to come, for no extra effort.
Of course, DIY publishing doesn’t have to be a one-man show: a side-kick or partnership means you’ll have someone to share the highs – and hassles – with.
The benefits of self-publishing
Self-publishing might sound like a bit of a headache, but in reality there are loads of reasons why going DIY can be better than most other options. In a nutshell:
How much does it cost to self-publish?
Producing an eBook can be ridiculously cheap and, often, completely free: this page covers lots of options for getting your book out there for next to nowt.
Or, if you reckon you can persuade other folk to invest in your book early on, have a look at Publishizer – a book-based crowdfunding site (where strangers fund projects in return for goodies and good karma).
How much can I earn from ebooks?
Selling your own book can net you anything from pounds a day to tumbleweed! The good news is that you get lots of say in your potential earnings, so it’s worth taking a look at the sums:
What can I write about?
Publishing a book is pretty easy: it’s writing the damn thing that can give you the sweats. Choose a subject or genre that inspires or interests you and it’ll be easier to see it through to the end.
That said, it’s also worth looking at what sells. Visit your local book shop or check out Amazon, Waterstones, and international sites like Barnes and Noble, and peruse the best-selling lists in your favourite categories. Read the reviews – see what makes those books so special/saleable, and use what you learn to tailor your ideas.
eBook topic ideas:
How long does it take to publish a book?
While you don’t have to work to a schedule, having a proper plan of action will make your project way more manageable.
More importantly, knowing when your book will hit the shelves gives you the best chance of maximising sales.
So, how long exactly will it take to write your book? How long do you think it will take? Double it (trust us!) and mark the date on your calendar. Keep looking at the date. Sweat a little.
Then divide your book into chapters, sections, or anything else that makes the structure clear. Divide the number of headings by the number of weeks until your deadline: that’s your weekly writing target. Stick to it.
Predicting when your book will hit the shelves means you can start pestering book reviewers, bloggers, the press and any potential customers well in advance of your launch date. Hype means money!
How to make an eBook
Once you’ve got your words on paper (or ‘puter), how do you turn them into an eBook? All will be revealed!
In this section
Picking a publishing platform
DIY publishing is seriously trending at the moment, so there are heaps of publishing platforms to choose from.
Most allow you to upload a text (i.e. Word) document which gets chewed up and spat out as an eBook. Some will even submit your book to all the best stores for readers to find and buy, and you can manage everything from one simple dashboard. Easy peasy, right?
So, how do you choose a platform that’s right for you? As with anything, look at a few, and compare their key features:
Best eBook publishing platforms
Here’s our round-up of publishing platforms – but check them (and others) for yourself. If you want to use Amazon’s KDP, you might also want to use a second platform to reach other book stores.
Beyond that, don’t go nuts: the more platforms you have to deal with, the more of your precious time it’ll require. There’s also no point submitting your book to the same stores more than once: if anything, it could hold up your sales.
Smashwords (free) takes your text document, spits it out in a number of formats AND submits it to online stores including Apple and Barnes and Noble, as well as libraries and Smashwords itself.
While Smashwords distribute books to Amazon, they only do it for authors who’ve already sold $2,000-worth of books – so not for first-time publishers!
Smashwords offers a free ISBN, which can save you some bucks.
Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP)
KDP (free) is Amazon’s publishing platform. It accepts text documents and EPUB files, but converts them into a Kindle book for sale only on Amazon (.com, .co.uk, .jp etc.). KDP gives your book a free ASIN, which works like an ISBN.
The optional KDP Select programme offers higher royalties and advertising tools, but you have to make your title exclusive to Amazon to use it (so you can’t sell your book anywhere else!).
KDP also offers a couple of bits of free software if you want to publish illustrated books (regular eBooks don’t always handle lots of images that well). There’s Kindle Kids’ Book Creator for picture books, and Kindle Comic Creator for graphic novels and your hand-drawn masterpieces.
Apple iBooks Author
iBooks Author (free, Mac only) is a gateway to publishing books in the Apple iBooks Store, and comes with a snazzy bit of free software to help you design your best-seller, including illustrated books.
However, books you save in iBooks format can only be sold through the iBooks Store. To sell anywhere else you’ll need to save your book in a different format but, as far as we can tell, iBooks Author only lets you save an iBook, a PDF, or a rudimentary text file and not an EPUB. Check before you commit!
Blurb (£8.39 for new e-titles) is a print as well as eBook platform, with a slick look and lots of options. You can’t upload text documents to Blurb (other than PDFs), but they offer plugins and free desktop software to design your book and save it as an EPUB.
You can use your own ISBN or a free Blurb barcode, and books can be sold on Blurb, Amazon, Apple and Ingram (a kind of publishing middle man that connects to hundreds of other stores).
IngramSpark ($25 USD for new e-titles) has a lot of clout as a distributor, and a huge reach of stores around the world including Amazon, Apple and Sainsbury’s.
However, it’s not the easiest platform for beginners – and note they won’t convert your book, so you’ll still need to make or get your EPUB elsewhere. You’ll also need your own ISBN.
Alternatives to using a publishing platform
Publishing platforms take the elbow grease out of making an eBook – and definitely help get your title in front of customers – but you don’t have to use one.
Here are some other options you could try:
You can then sell PDFs or EPUB files from your own website or blog. EPUBs can also be uploaded directly to some online book stores, as well as Google’s Play store, but there’s no denying a publishing platform cuts down on the number of clicks involved!
Do you need an ISBN?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a series of numbers (often used as a barcode on print books) that identify the title, author, publisher, format and price. It’s a bit like an ID card, and if you’ve ever used a book catalogue, you’ve probably relied on its data to find what you’re looking for.
If you want to sell your eBook in online stores, you need an ISBN – but how do you get one?
Buying an ISBN
ISBNs aren’t cheap. Nielsen, the UK’s ISBN agency, sells a single ISBN (for just one book) for £89. Yup: £89!
While you can save masses by buying in blocks of ten (£149), bear in mind that ISBNs are registered to just one publisher or individual – you can’t chip in with mates and then deal ‘em out like smarties, and you can’t sell or transfer them later…
While that sounds like a lot of hassle, getting your own ISBN means you are listed as the publisher on any store that sells your book. Your publisher name (the ‘imprint’) can be ‘Your Name‘ or ‘Your Name Books’, or something totally made-up, like ‘The Awesome Press’, or ‘Bangin’ Books’.
Just check no one else has already used the name – and avoid anything that sounds remotely like an existing brand to avoid confusion!
Using a free ISBN
Some publishing platforms give you an ISBN for free. Yippee!
Free ISBNs work in exactly the same way as the paid kind, with one exception: the platform is registered as the publisher, so their name will appear alongside your author name whenever the book’s listed.
Don’t worry – it doesn’t mean they have any rights over your content or what you do with it. Some platforms even state you’re still publisher in the eyes of the law.
If the publisher name doesn’t bother you, and you want to get your book to market as fast and as cheaply as possible, stick with a free ISBN if it’s on offer!
Formatting your text
Unfortunately, publishing platforms can make a car crash out of poorly formatted documents, so it pays to get it right from the start.
Begin with a clean document template, and only set up the styles you want to use – for instance, 10-point, left-aligned, double-spaced Times New Roman for your main content, or bold, 22-point italic Helvetica for chapter headings. Then, instead of clicking bold, centre or underline wherever you feel like it, use your pre-defined styles.
If you’ve already written your book – and we hear ya, this is gonna hurt – paste it all into your computer’s Notepad program first to strip out any hidden formatting. Then start with a clean document template and add your pre-defined styles as described above.
Whichever platform you plump for, the Smashwords style guide should be your formatting Bible: it explains in lots of nerdy detail how to set your book up for the fewest conversion headaches. Best of all, it’s free!
.doc and .docx files are the most commonly accepted file types, but you don’t have to use Microsoft! Free alternatives like OpenOffice, LibreOffice – and anything else that lets you save your files with the right extension – all work fine.
The same eBook can look quite different on different devices and, unfortunately, you can’t always do anything about that – but using styles and formatting properly will help a lot!
Once you’ve uploaded and converted your book, you’ll have the opportunity to preview the content online, or to download the EPUB and check it on an eReader of your choice. Try to preview your book on more than one eReader or device if you can.
If you spot anything hideous – typos, errors, a note you left for yourself – whip it out and upload a clean version. Most platforms let you do this as many times as you want for free, so make the most of it. Smashwords will even keep ‘rejecting’ your book – and will tell you why – until you’ve nailed the formatting. While that may sting a little, it means you can keep refining your layout until it’s right!
The beauty of digital means you can even update your book’s content after it’s been published – but don’t use that as an excuse to send out typo-filled or poorly written/formatted content: reviewers can be harsh.
Got that sorted? Good stuff: you’re almost ready to publish!
Making a book cover
Forget not judging a book by its cover, because that’s exactly what book buyers do, all the time!
The good news is you don’t need to be Picasso to design a book cover – you just need to follow our common sense guidelines.
Once you’ve got a cover you’re happy with, upload it to your publishing platform and move one step closer to your finished book!
Adding your book details
Before you can release your book into the wild, you’ll need to add a few details about you and your content. Here’s the cheat sheet!
Book title: Sounds obvious, but make sure your title is exactly the same as the one in your EPUB and on the front cover!
Author name: Yours (or whoever wrote the book).
Publisher name: This might be optional depending on whether you’re using a free or paid ISBN.
Rights: If you’ve written your own book from scratch this is usually pretty simple – you own all rights, and can choose to sell your book anywhere in the world.
Language: Whichever language your book is written in.
Dodgy content: Some platforms will ask you to declare if you’ve written something that contains graphic sex, violence or drug use (and there’s not much point lying about it!).
Description: This is the bit of blurb that readers see when they browse your book (and consider buying it). Make it really, really good!
Category: You may be able to choose from broad categories like Fiction or Non-Fiction, or drill down to something super specific like Fiction > Science Fiction > Space Operas. Consider picking appropriate but less popular categories for your book for more chance of being spotted among the competition!
Keywords: Keywords give you the chance to be discovered by readers searching for books like yours. They can be words like thriller or romance, or even phrases. Top tip: find a book in the store that you’ll be in competition with and use similar keywords.
Date of publication
Most of the time this is just whatever date you upload or publish your book. Some platforms (including KDP and Smashwords) now let you pick a date months in advance, too – what’s that about?
Commercial publishers announce (and market the bejeezus out of) their books before they’re available for sale in the hopes of getting advance sales and reviews, or lots of sales the day the book goes live. Setting an advance publication date means customers can see your book in the store – and buy it – immediately, but they’ll only be able to download and read it on the day it goes live.
Note that you don’t have to use this – and if you do, you’ll need to be incredibly organised to make sure your book goes live in time. But if you get it right, it can help catapult your book higher up the charts on publication day. Think on it!
As with any source of income, once you start earning cash-bucks above a certain amount, you’ll need to slide a few notes over to HMRC. No need to panic: you can understand how tax works in 5 minutes flat if you need help.
Most publishing platforms operate internationally, which means potential customers around the world! Unfortunately, if you earn money in other countries, their governments will want a slice of your hard-earned sales too.
But doesn’t that mean you’ll be paying twice as much tax? Yup. The good news is that the UK has a number of tax treaties in place with various countries: essentially these say “hold up – I’m not paying twice!”.
Whether you can claim the tax treaties depends on your nationality, where you live, and lots of other details which means we can’t go into all the fine print here. But don’t worry: each publishing platform will explain exactly what forms you need to fill in to swerve the tax trap!
Hitting the ‘Publish’ button
Once you’ve uploaded your finished content, added a cover and tweaked your book’s details, you’re ready to go live! Your book won’t be available for sale until you make it live – so don’t forget to hit the ‘Publish’ button!
If you change your mind later on, unpublishing your book is simply a case of making it not-live: that means it reverts to draft status, and will stop appearing in online book stores.
How long it takes for your book to start appearing on virtual book shelves (or, if you unpublish, to disappear) depends on the platform. For some it’s a matter of hours, while others can take weeks. Don’t stress: put your feet up, have a cuppa and stay patient.
How to get ebook sales
Getting your eBook into stores is only one part of the publishing picture. If you want to make money from it, you need to get tactical!
In this section
Make a marketing plan
Commercial publishers tout their upcoming titles as much as a year before launch date. While you don’t need to be quite so eager, it’s always worth nosying into the game plan (and borrowing the best bits!).
Once you know when your book will be live, work back a month or two and pin the date to start your marketing campaign.
Get free publicity
How NOT to get publicity
Be wary of paying for reviews. Some stores, including Amazon, have been known to remove paid reviews and/or the book in question. Amazon can even block reviews from people you know (we don’t know how they know, we only know it’s freaky!).
In an ideal world, everyone’s gonna love your book as much as you do. In reality, some folk just won’t: that’s life!
As tempting as it might be, don’t reply to customer reviews. If it’s glowing, 5-star praise, just bask in feeling fantastic. If it’s not … well, don’t lose any sleep over it! Negative reviews won’t kill your book – although if you find yourself getting several, see if there’s something you’ve missed.
Did you bungle your formatting, mangle your prose, or have more typos than an overdue essay? Fix ‘em and get it back out there!
Ultimately, you can head off most potentially poor reviews by following the steps in this guide. Start with a clear plan, take time to polish your book to perfection, and get marketing. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that!
You could think about converting your eBook to a YouTube video for additional ad revenue!