Diamonds in the sandbox: self-publishing for beginners

Aug 31, 2017


Let’s say you’re sure your  book is well written, absorbing and fun to read. So why self-publish? Why not just look for a traditional publisher?

Intellectual snobbery

Traditionally published books have a certain cachet because they’ve gone through a rigorous editorial process. (Not that that’s always evident.)

Experienced professional writers can prefer to self-publish because they’re delighted to learn that if they put in extra work and pay some money, their income stream grows and the returns are more transparent, and paid more frequently than before. Many also like to have more control over their work. And I do know of at least one best-selling self-published thriller writer who claims to have turned down contracts offered by trade publishers because he’s making more money than ever before.

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.

Turning Word files into books

Think of the process every typescript goes through on its way to becoming a physical book. How many  thousands of words are there? Will they make a thin illustrated volume, or a brick, dense with text? Will your book be leather-bound in a slip-case, clothbound in a dust-jacket, 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. (These expert add-ons are way beyond the capability of most self-publishers.)

There are steps that precede even all this, and you – the author – are in charge of most of them.

Just checking

First, you need to make 100% sure that the typescript 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 typescript 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 typescript less gripping 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.)

Submission to publishers

Your book is well written and interesting. You know that submission can be dispiriting and slow. Some books are sent to scores of regular publishers before they’re accepted and others never find a home – not because they’re bad, but for loads of other reasons, often to do with previous returns from similar books. But you blitz all the likely publishers, and hope to get responses in the next six weeks or months; and if you are lucky enough to find a traditional publisher, you then wait probably six to eighteen months before the book appears. You may feel you’ve lost control over the content or look of it, or you may be delighted with the result; either way you 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 like Clays’ 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 best known self-publishers are Amazon’s own self-pub arm CREATESPACE, and – in Britain – INGRAMSPARK. Createspace can be 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 – particularly important if your book is to be illustrated. But shop around and you will find plenty of options other than these two big companies.

You’ve amended and tweaked, you’ve chosen your self-publishing company, you’ve read all the advice on the internet  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 the copyright symbol © and the ISBN of the book. Include both in your text. The © is on your keyboard and identifies you as the originator of the work, as in ©Hannah Renier 2019.  The International Book Standard number is necessary so that shops and Amazon can find your book. (Please note that both an ISBN and a © are equally important to e-books.) You can buy an ISBN from Nielsen online, or your self-publishing company may do that for you and insert it in the right place.

Selling copies

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, or even selling from your website. 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 to get books out to high street shops.

Self-publishers will become familiar with all this palaver and much more, 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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