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On Self-Publishing: How to Start

Last week I started a series on self-publishing with a little bit of advice on where to start. It was primarily a list of links to the major digital distributors.

I also promised to follow up with a post on how to start. The inspiration for that one came from an email my sister sent me. I’ve decided to include her questions with my answers, so you can see how other writers are feeling as they approach this strange new world.

Where to Start

So, how should I start if I decide to self-publish?  I’ve read absolutely everything you’ve posted on the topic, followed all your links and read other blogs and articles you referenced, even convinced Graham to read most of it.  It was convincing!  Compelling, even!  So, where do I start?

I dedicated last week’s whole post to answering this question, because where you start is…complicated. Here’s a severely truncated version:

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is where all our money comes from. You’ll have to find a way to get your book into a format KDP will accept.

We use a custom software tool for that, so I’ve never bothered learning all the other options available. But the good news is that the custom software tool should be available to the general public in August, and for limited invitation-only trial in June.

So if you do decide to self-publish, and you can make yourself wait until the summer, I’d strongly recommend (built on BookMaker technology) for all your digital publishing needs.

Hiring an Editor

I found an editor who seems reputable, qualified and somewhat affordable.  How do I know what to ask for?  How do I know what I need?

This one’s a tricky question, because it could either mean what services to ask for or what price to ask for.

Price is usually in the 3-7 cents per word range. Quality will cost more, but if it were me, I would try to shop around and find quality for 5 cents. If it’s a friend or family, you can get it considerably cheaper, but if you’re wanting to pay anything like fair market value, I’d offer at least 3 cents per word.

That’s $1,500 for a NaNoWriMo 50,000-word novel. A penny per word would still run you $500 for a short novel (and $1,100 for something like Taming Fire).

So what do you get for all that money? That’s the other half of the answer: editing services. There’s a whole range of editing services, but most new writers would be best served by the two extremes: structure editing and copyediting.

Structure editing (sometimes called story editing, concept editing, or developmental editing) reviews the structure of acts/scenes/plot points and analyzes how well they fit together to create a cohesive and satisfying narrative arc. That’s what I’m best at. It’s big-picture stuff.

A good editor will tell you exactly what’s wrong with the structure. A great editor will point out specific ways to fix it.

Copyediting is the low-level stuff, crawling through every single sentence and finding and fixing typos. A good writer should eventually be able to master structure, and to some extent it should come naturally to a good reader, but an independent copyeditor will always be necessary.

ISBNs and Bar Codes

Do I need to buy an ISBN number when I self-publish?  Is that not included somehow?  The info on that is confusing.  Once you buy it, then how does it get attached to your book?  Barcodes, too?  Wait.  They’re separate?  Help!

You do not need to buy an ISBN for your book. We bought a whole bunch for the Consortium, and haven’t bothered to use them for the last ten titles we published.

It depends a little bit on which vendor you’re trying to publish with. If you go direct to iTunes (which is stupidly difficult to do), they’ll require you to supply an ISBN for your ebook (which is stupidly prohibitive of them).

If you go with another printing company for your paperbacks, you may or may not need to provide ISBNs or bar codes, but we use CreateSpace and they provide a free ISBN that gives us access to more distribution outlets. That’s why we’re not even using the ISBNs we have.

So, yeah, you can get into a situation where you’d have to buy an ISBN or a bar code, but for the most part, no.

Cover Art

What’s the trick to cover art?  Do you get to adjust the image when you upload it to make sure it fits correctly?  Do you have to add all the other details, too, like the obnoxious items in that last question?  If so, does that need to be attached to the image before upload or is it added on later somehow?

For cover art, each vendor has its own requirements. I searched through all the different vendors we used (Kindle Direct Publishing, PubIt!, and Smashwords at the time), and discovered that a 600×800-pixel JPEG satisfied all of them (and happened to exactly fit the resolution of the Kindle available at the time). So that’s what we use for all our ebooks.

Paperbacks are more complicated. They need to be much higher resolution, they may or may not get cut in exactly the same place every time so they need a special marginal area called a “bleed,” and the exact width necessary changes based on the number of pages in your book (as the spine gets wider, the image has to, too).

Luckily, CreateSpace provides templates that factor in all that, so we just tell them what size paperback we’re printing and how many pages, download the template, and then design our cover image (in Photoshop) on top of that template. When we’re done, we save it to PDF and upload it back to CreateSpace, and it just works.

And one aspect of the template is a big black stamp in the corner of the back cover where CreateSpace puts your ISBN bar code. Whether you buy the ISBN from them or supply your own, they generate the bar code and overlay it on top of your cover (that’s why the template makes you leave that corner blank).

So that part, at least, is easy.

Other Questions

Heather had another question in there that I’ve decided to save for a whole post of its own, but what about you?

Do you have any questions about self-publishing? Ask me in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.

2 Responses to “On Self-Publishing: How to Start”

  1. Dragonfan says:

    I have been reading your blog for a while, and am considering self-publishing myself.

    The one question I have is this: Is it necessary to have a paperback edition of your book available? I know a lot of people prefer a paperback (myself included)–but how much do you actually make on paperbacks in comparison to ebooks?

    Also, do you use a distribution service? (And how does that effect sales?) Or are your paperbacks Amazon-only?

    Sorry, that was more than one question.

    Thanks for the informational blog! I really enjoy it.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks for your comment! I love feeling helpful.

      Honestly, as a business decision, I wouldn’t recommend paperbacks. They’re the miserable relics of an era that made artists into the slaves of manufacturers.

      That said…man, I still gotta have ’em. And all my other writers feel the same way. It just doesn’t feel real until there’s a paperback.

      We use CreateSpace to print and distribute our books. They make the books available through the major distributors (I think Ingram is the main one), so you could walk into a bookstore, request a copy of any of my books, and the friendly clerk would have no trouble ordering it.

      In nearly two years, we’ve probably made about twenty bucks off those sorts of orders. We’ve probably made a couple hundred dollars on paperback sales overall, but not enough to turn a profit on our manufacturing costs.

      And we’ve come to terms with that. We buy the paperbacks as mementos and promotional giveaways. But we make all our money off digital sales.

      Do with that what you will. And don’t be surprised when this comment shows up as its own blog post in a week or two. Sometimes I’m sneaky like that.