Diamonds in the sandbox: self-publishing for beginners

Aug 31, 2017

  • Since anyone can self-publish just about anything, there is some excruciating stuff out there. If you’re not going to clutter the field with rubbish, make sure your self-published book is well written, well designed and above all, absorbing and fun to read.
  • Self-publishing is no longer despised. There is a good chance that if you choose carefully, you’ll find self-published work that’s as good as most books taken up by trade publishers. Experienced professional writers often self-publish because they’re delighted to learn that if they put in extra work and pay some money, their income stream can grow and speed up.
  • But first-time authors sometimes start out with only a vague idea of what’s involved in publishing of any kind, so if you are one of them – read on.
  • Think of the process every manuscript goes through on its way to becoming a physical book. How big is this manuscript? Will it make a thin illustrated volume, or a brick, dense with text? Will it be leather-bound in a slip-case, clothbound in a dustjacket, or a paperback? What kind of typeface will look right? What kind of paper? Somebody’s got to design the book and the cover, print it, bind it, market it – and its author – to the world, send it to reviewers and sell it into shops and make sure it’s available online. Traditionally, publishers did most of this, while publishers and agents negotiated contracts, foreign rights, translations, rights in other media, and so on. They still do.
  • There are steps that precede even all this, and you – the author – are in charge of most of them.
  • First, you need to make 100% sure that the manuscript reads as you want it to and that you have copyright in all media. Assuming that you and the ghostwriter started out with a watertight contract which set out how you (or both of you in set proportions) have copyright in the result, you’re good to go.
  • Then there’s editing. The manuscript is fine – isn’t it? There’s always a chance that both you and your writer have missed typos or repetitions. Or that there’s a structural problem which makes the whole manuscript less of a page-turner than it should be. At the very least, a final read-through by a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders is a good idea. (Yes, I am also capable of editing – but if I’ve written your book I shouldn’t be the one who edits it.)
  • Your book is well written and interesting. You can blitz all the likely publishers you know with submissions, and hope to get responses in the next six weeks or months; and if you are lucky enough to find a traditional publisher, you’ll then wait probably six to eighteen months before the book appears. Of course you’ll have far too little control over the content or look of it, and won’t expect to get much more than 12% in royalties. By then you’ll be thinking you should have tried to find an agent in the first place, but… for an unknown writer who doesn’t plan more books, that’s even harder than finding a publisher.
  • You can sit passively by, or you can take action: self-publish. I unhesitatingly declare that the whole self-publishing process, from manuscript onwards to bookshelf, is best done by experts if you can afford them. A good summary of what to expect – and where to find help – can be found at Clays Publishing.
  • If a personal service is too expensive, you’re going to have to get somebody to provide a saleable physical book as cheaply as possible, and organise your own marketing. The big self-publishers are Amazon’s own self-pub arm CREATESPACE, and – in Britain – INGRAMSPARK. Createspace can be very cheap and perfectly adequate if you’re prepared to spend time working out how to use it and finding a suitable illustrator from whom to commission a good cover. Ingramspark is not expensive, also offers hardback publication and has I believe the latest digital colour printing technology.
  • You’ve amended and tweaked, and you have several hundred camera-ready pages that must morph into a physical book. Look carefully at the ‘front matter’- first pages – of any book, and you’ll see that you need to get yourself an ISBN number (so that shops and Amazon can find it) and be sure to include your copyright symbol, as in ©Hannah Renier 2017. Please note that both an ISBN and a © are equally important to e-books.
  • So let’s say you’ve done all the above and your book is physically available. What next? Marketing and publicity are the usual downfall of self-publishers. Advertising your book doesn’t just mean getting an interview on local radio. It means learning how Amazon prioritises the books in its list. It means being on social media, actively, a lot. And giving talks, networking, going to literary festivals – Jeez, there’s no end to it – and I haven’t even mentioned distribution. Createspace and Ingram do it, and if you want more hands-on involvement, most smaller self-publishing companies have their own online bookshops and some also use book distributors such as Gardners ( But self-publishers do have to think about this, and it goes way beyond book-signing and giving talks at literary festivals.
  • It’s all too much. You are on your own in a dark wood. Not so! Others have pursued this lonely path, Murgatroyd.  Join Alli – the Alliance of Independent Authors – where you will find help and advice.

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