Yes, You Can and Should Self-publish (Here’s Everything You Need to Know)

Recently, I released a paperback version of my first book, which had been available previously only as an eBook. The process took longer than expected, but I learned a lot.

Yes, You Can and Should Self-publish (Here's Everything You Need to Know)
Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc

It might seem funny posting this right after doing a podcast on how to land a traditional book contract, but the two actually go hand in hand.

Here’s the deal: I think everyone should publish a book. That’s a bold statement, I know, but the lessons you learn through the process are invaluable. And since you might be waiting a long time before signing a book deal, why not just get on with doing it yourself?

Even though I’ve published two trade books and am working on my third, when I went through the self-publishing process, it taught me three lessons that I thought might be helpful for any aspiring author.

Lesson 1: You need a team

Successful self-publishing is something you can do on your own, but you’d be better off working with a team of professionals. This is one area where traditional publishers tend to have the upperhand on indie authors: they have more people working on a single project.

But is it possible to publish a book that rivals the quality, both in terms of content and production, of a traditional book? Absolutely. You’ll just need to have the right people onboard. The essential roles of a publishing team are:

  1. Editor. This is the person in charge of getting the manuscript into shape, getting proofreaders to catch all the typos, and make sure the book makes a coherent argument or tells a story that makes sense.
  2. Designer. This is the person who designs not only your book cover but your interior, as well (deciding what fonts and art work go into making for an enjoyable reading experience). This can be two people but it doesn’t have to be.
  3. Publisher. This is the person who helps you get your book published and into the appropriate distribution channels (e.g. Amazon). You can pay a company to do this, but I think it makes more sense to just hire this person outright. You will save money in the long run and get more personal attention.

Building my team

Of course, you can do as much of the above as you want, but it’s better to hire a team of specialists. But here’s the catch: it doesn’t have to cost money.

When I first self-published an eBook, I got the design, editing, and publishing services done for free. It’s not that hard to get good work done at an affordable, if you know what motivates people and are willing to swap favors. However, if you can afford to hire people, do it. That’s what I did with this new edition of my book, and it was well worth it.

Here's how we divided responsibilities:

  • All my editing was done by Christine Niles, who did an amazing job helping me reshape the argument, update the content, and make everything flow better than the original edition did.
  • The interior and cover design were done by Andrew Sale, who does most of my graphic design work (including my logo).
  • Brandon Clements served as my publisher, helping me decide how to print and lay out the book, as well as how much we should charge for it. Any time I had an issue with the printing, he got on the phone with Amazon and took care of it.

These people made my job as author so much easier. It was still my book, but they helped me create a much better finished product. I could have saved money by not hiring them, but I'm so glad I didn't. Investing in a good team will yield a better product that you can be proud of and that the reader will notice.

Lesson 2: You need good distribution

Do you want to work with a local printer? Do you want your book available in bookstores? These are the questions you have to consider when self-publishing.

I recently met someone who had self-published a book and intentionally not put it on Amazon. I do not recommend this. You’re leaving money on the table if you do that. Even if you make more money selling directly to your readers through your website, you’re going to reach fewer people.

Listen to me, dear author: Amazon is your friend. It’s not just an “everything store” — it’s a distribution channel, a discovery engine. Many people don’t realize that Amazon is the world's largest retail search engine.

Unlike Google or Yahoo, when people are searching Amazon, they're doing it with their credit cards out, ready to buy. If you have something to sell, like a book, you want to be where those people are.

What I did for distribution

I decided to publish exclusively on Amazon for several reasons:

  1. The quality of CreateSpace is nearly as good as any print-on-demand publisher I’ve seen (this used to not be the case).
  2. They offer bulk order discounts (which I will take advantage of for speaking gigs and gifts). They aren’t the only ones who offer this, but it was a nice perk.
  3. They give you incentives that you don’t get elsewhere (including access to the Matchbook program and KDP select, which I will be taking advantage of).
  4. My Amazon book sales (for this title) outnumber all other retailers 10:1.

I did consider working with LightningSource (now, IngramSpark) but decided against it. Having done this in the past for other people and seeing some of my friends go this route, I knew sometimes books from other printers could be backordered on Amazon (saying things like “ships in a few weeks”). I didn’t want my readers to have to deal with that.

Even though Ingram has slightly better quality books (in my opinion), I knew most people would get the book on Amazon. Publishing it there made it easy to keep my print book on the same page as my eBook, and the same should be true for the audiobook when it’s available.

By the way, I’m not an Amazon fan boy or anything. I still love going into a brick-and-mortar bookstore. It just made sense for this title. And I think it’s a good place to start for many indie authors.

Lesson 3: You need a powerful launch

You can do all of the above work but if you don’t launch well, it won’t matter. I can’t tell you how many emails I get every week from well-meaning authors who have put their book on Amazon but haven’t seen anything happen. And this is where they fail.

You can’t just “put” your book on Amazon. You have to launch it! Think about what that word means for a second: a launch is a powerful, explosive event that sends objects into space. It takes time and money and lots of resources.

If you want people to discover your work, you’re going to have to put your book out there. You’re going to have to work hard to get it into the right hands so that people talk about it. You’ll need a strategy.

When I first launched You Are a Writer two years ago, I individually emailed over 100 people, sending them a free copy of the book, asking them to consider sharing it with their audiences.

I also emailed my list, which after a year had grown to several thousand people, telling them that I was offering the book at an early discount if they bought it the first week. That drove an initial spike in sales, which led to the book becoming a #1 bestseller in several categories (this is not that hard to do — selling a few hundred copies in a week can sometimes get you to this point).

After that, I took any interview I could, guest posted on every major site I had access to, and kept talking about the book on my blog (even doing a 15-day series on it). The result was for three months straight, the book sold more copies than the previous month. In six months, I had replaced my wife’s income. By the end of the year, I would replace my own. And that was just the beginning.

My launch plan (and what I'm doing differently this time)

Other than an email to my list, an earlybird discount, and a few social media mentions, that’s all you’re really going to hear about this book. I want to save most of that energy for the release of my next book, which comes out in March.

So why did I do this?

I did it because people had been asking me for a paperback version of the book for two years, because I thought it would be fun to go through the process and share about it on the blog. Of course, I still want the book to sell. My goal, though, is to have a long-term asset available for years to come, which was why I released it now.

Some lessons on launches:

  1. Urgency matters. Offer a limited-time deal for early adopters (this could be a discount or a bonus package for the first week or so).
  2. Advocacy matters. Email anyone you know who would want the book or be willing to talk about it. (Building an email list ahead of time is important, but if you haven’t done this, then just email your friends and family.)
  3. Buzz matters. Drive some initial traffic to Amazon so that it starts referring your book to new readers.
  4. Generosity matters. Do intentional giveaways to get the book out there.
  5. Reviews matter. Ask for reviews (these have been proven to positively affect your sales rank on Amazon).
  6. Awareness matters. Keep talking about the book (as old as it feels to you, it still feels new to everyone else).

Closing thoughts

So that’s what I’ve learned about self-publishing, much of which was gleaned from working with traditional publishers. Personally, I like both self-publishing and traditional publishing for different reasons. If you have the chance, I recommend trying both to see what works for you.

Sometimes, it makes sense to publish a book yourself if you already have a built-in audience who wants what you have (as was the case with this book).

Other times, you have a message that, with the right help, could allow you to reach a much larger crowd. Which, I hope is the case for my next book (and why I'm working with a traditional publisher on it). The point is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to publishing.

What you can’t deny is the opportunity available to anyone who wants to publish a book. If you’ve said those words to yourself — “some day, I’d like to publish a book” — then you no longer have an excuse. Your some day is today.

That’s why I wrote this post, to show you that anyone can do this. The tools are available, the information is available. So what’s really stopping you?

For a step-by-step process, read this post: The Complete Guide to Self-publishing a Book That Doesn’t Suck. And be sure to check out my book, You Are a Writer: So Start Acting Like One, which is now available in paperback and on sale this week.

What’s holding you back from publishing a book? Is there any question I didn’t answer? Share in the comments.