Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing a Book that Doesn’t Suck

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Brandon Clements. Brandon is a pastor at Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or his blog. Check out his novel, Every Bush Is Burning, which is the best self-published book I’ve ever seen.

In this age when you can pick yourself and build a platform in no time, this is the question we are all wondering: Can self-publishing actually be done well? Can you create a compelling book without going through the traditional gatekeepers?

Yes, you can.

Is it easy? No way. But you absolutely can self-publish a beautiful-looking book that people will read — if you do it with the right help.

Self Publishing

Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives (Creative Commons)

Self publishing has never been easier. And if you will resist the urge to cut corners and save a few bucks, you can create an excellent product you can be proud of for the rest of your life. Before we begin, first things first:

Is self-publishing right for you?

There are substantial benefits and hurdles to both traditional and indie publishing. Before you decide which route to go, be sure to weigh your options:

  • If you do it yourself, you’ll have total freedom, but you’ll also have to front the costs. The plus side is you get to keep most of the revenues.
  • If you go with a publisher, you’ll compromise some of that freedom, but you’ll get a lot of professional help. The downside is you share the profits with the publisher.

My decision was fairly easy, because my novel fell in the current “No Man’s Land” of being too “edgy” for Christian publishers and too Christian for mainstream publishers. My only options were to change things about my book that I didn’t want to, or self-publish. So I went to work.

If you decide that indie publishing is right for you, here’s my advice (in six steps):

1. Write the best book you can write

I worked on my book for six years, and I’m glad I didn’t hit the “publish” button sooner.

Just because it’s easier than ever to self-publish doesn’t mean you should do it too soon. In fact, the ease should make you extra cautious to wait until the right time.

Writing a book is like having a baby — once it’s birthed into the world, there’s nothing you can do to take it back.

2. Hire the best freelance editor you can find

I know. You’ll want to skip this step. You’re a better writer than the person I’m talking to. I would faint at your staggering literary genius. I know. I hate to bust the Pulitzer Prize daydream I just sent you into, but come back to reality for a second.

The harsh truth is this: You’re probably not as good of a writer as you think. (I certainly wasn’t.)

Stay with me now — I’m not saying you’re not a great writer. I’m sure you are. I’m saying you could be a much better writer. And that your book will be a much better book with the help of a completely unbiased, knowledgeable, and sometimes vicious, cold-hearted editor to rip your ruinous phrases, ideas, and clichés from you.

So unless you’re the next J.D. Salinger or have a very generous, talented, and experienced friend, please don’t skip this step. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

I found my editor, Andy Meisenheimer, through The Editorial Department. I am genuinely embarrassed to imagine what my book would have been without his help.

Be warned: There are as many predators out there as there are good editors. So do your homework and check references.

3. Hire a good designer

Do you know why self-publishing has gotten such a bad rap? Because people do shoddy work — both in writing and design.

Don’t let your cousin design a cover for you that looks like clip art. Make no mistake: People will judge your book by its cover. Whether you like it or not. If your work doesn’t look professional, no one will take it seriously.

If you need help, follow TheBookDesigner.com. I learned half of what I know about indie publishing from this guy. Dig through his site, and you’ll be well on your way.

4. Decide: Will you go print, digital, or both?

I suggest both. Of course, only doing an eBook is about 20 times easier (and cheaper). If you do go the digital route, you should pay a professional to do the eBook formatting for you. Plus, there are a ton of people and companies online that do it.

Uploading eBooks to major retailers is way easier than you might think. For print, I recommend CreateSpace.

I used to recommend Lightning Source (now Ingram Spark) over CreateSpace, but in the past few years CreateSpace has made large strides. Their print quality is essentially indistinguishable from a traditional publisher now, and they are beyond easy to work with (the same cannot be said of Lightning Source).

CreateSpace also has incredible customer service–you can get them to call you immediately at any time, day or night.

Either is a good choice, and both will get you automatic print-on-demand distribution through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

A third alternative

You might want to look into other subsidy (or hybrid) publishers who do some of the work for you (for a hefty fee), but I would be careful.

There are a few subsidy publishers out there that seem good. I almost went with one before deciding to do it on my own. However, ultimately what swayed me from doing so was their less-than-positive reputation and cost.

Moreover, any promises of getting your book into brick-and-mortar stores are very unlikely with these types of publishers. And why pay them to do something you could do yourself (if you’re willing to learn)?

5. Make it easy to find you and your book

There are millions of books out there and more self-published ones hitting the market every day. How will yours stand out? You’ll need some marketing assets. Here are a few I used for my book:

With so much noise, you’ll want to show people that you’re serious about your writing. Going the extra mile of creating some of these properties online will make you look more professional than the competition.

6. Sit back and enjoy the fruit of your labor

For a day. Maybe a week, if you’re as tired as I was. And then, you’ve got to figure out how to promote the thing. And after that, you start all over with your next book.

Like I said, it requires blood, sweat and tears, but you can do it. And if you do it right, you’ll be pleased at the end. There’s no thrill like holding your own hard-earned work in your hands.

You can start publishing your work today. And maybe that dream of a Pulitzer isn’t as far off as you thought.

Want to learn more about publishing your own book? Check out Tribe Writers.

What self-publishing tips would you add? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Very concise advice here Brandon!  Thanks for the tips and recommendations.  I agree that I think it’s important to take the time and money to make sure that your book doesn’t look cheap.  With the ease of self-publishing, people are cutting corners and it shows.  Yes self-publishing will cost you money, but it is money well spent on a product that you love and want to share with the world.  People can sniff out the cheapness and the cutting of corners.  Your book is too important to cut corners with!

    • Exactly Dave…when you work at something for years you should take the time necessary to do it well!

  • I used Lulu and besides the girly name, the end product was one I was happy with. Bound well, glossy cover, acceptable page texture. Plus they give the author good deals on his own copies. I chose the print on demand option. The whole project cost me nothing. Great post Jeff. 

    • Haha, I hear you on the girly name Clint.

      I’m glad your book turned out well! I actually got some review copies of my book printed through Lulu and they do produce a pretty good book. There are a lot of variables that go into how good it looks, such as how your design looks in gloss vs. matte.

      I honestly didn’t know the difference until I decided to get a test copy printed with all three (Lulu, Createspace, and Lightning Source).

      All look good, but I think you would be surprised if you saw all three of mine beside each other. The LS book looks head and shoulders better than the others. But I’ll admit that for some it may not be worth the extra work to go through LS.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Jeff, thanks for showcasing the author of the best self-pubbed book you’ve ever seen. A personal recommendation and high praise go a long way when trying to wade through all the options out there.

    Brandon, thanks for sharing the tips and services you found to be successful. I’m saving this post for possible future reference. I still have hopes of going the traditional route when the time is right, but this info will be invaluable if I decide to go this way at some point. Thanks!

    • You are very welcome Cheryl! Best of luck with your writing and let me know if you ever need help with this.

    • My pleasure, Cheryl.

  • I finished writing the first draft of my novel a month ago. While I’m hoping for a traditional publishing deal, I’m aware that my novel might fall into the same camp as yours, Brandon: too edgy for Christian publishers and too Christian for the general market. If I decide to self-publish instead, I will definitely follow this advice.

    Side note: so happy to see Andy Meisenheimer’s name pop up! He’s an old friend of mine.

    • Congrats on finishing the draft! That’s a very cool feeling. And yeah I feel you on the no man’s land. I think there will hopefully (no pun intended:) be more options in the future for stories that fall in that camp.

      That’s great that you know Andy! Such a great guy. He was a godsend for my book and taught me much of what I know about writing.

      Thanks for stopping by Leigh!

  • Nice article Brandon

    Quality is key isn’t it. And patience. It would be so easy to just publish but the regret will be there for so long

    Extra time and effort, and stumping up the cash for some pro help. No one likes to spend money ut it’s a must really, isn’t it? And thanks for the Lightning Source link. wasn’t aware of this company but they look good. I think the hype of createspace is too easy to get lost in

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Yep, you’re right Matt. Patience and putting up the necessary investments to make it quality is essential. Thanks for the comment!

  • Most people want to skip out on having the book edited, this is a huge mistake. Spending the money to have the book edited is well worth it.
    I would add that well before the book comes out you start building your platform, you’ll have a built in customer base, start blogging about your topic ASAP.
     If possible you should send your book to some “bigger” blogger and see if they’ll write a short blurb about it in the foreward (right, Jeff)
    One thing that I’m trying for my second book is sending out a short manifesto before the book comes out and making the manifesto free to get some exposure (took that from Jeff’s playbook) I’m trying all of this at talesofwork.com   Great tips Brandon, thanks for this post!

  • Way to go, Pastor Brandon!

    I’ll have to grab a copy of it! I’m in the process (editing now) of self-pubbing a novel, and I whole-heartedly agree with your comments about hiring an editor. It’s necessary yet expensive (for a good one), but something that will pay long-term dividends. 

    I too went the LSI (LightningSource) route, and I put up a handy “cost calculator” on my site that you might want to use to check the print vs. retail costs and prices. It’s pretty straightforward, but leave a comment on the post if you guys have questions!


    • Thanks Nick…let me know what you think if you check it out. That’s great that you’re publishing your book! And yeah, their cost calculator was very helpful for me…great resource. Thanks for your comment.

  • So, dumb question. What exactly did your editor do and not do? I’ve heard of self publishers hiring editors, simply to correct spelling and grammar. You mentioned your editor took it a step further and pointed out cliches and odd phrases. Do some take it a step even beyond that and look at the overarching structure and chapter breakdown? (I guess that may be more of a nonfiction thing.)

    • Loren–yes typically editing and proofreading are very different things. My editor was more focused on developmental editing (plot, structure, character development, writing quality, etc.). That is a specialized skill that is different than proofreading. I had someone else proofread my book for grammar/spelling mistakes.

      Hope that helps!

  • Is there any platform that manage the distribution of phisical books automatically?

    If not, is anybody interested in develop it?

    • Luis, most self-publishing options do print on demand distribution through online channels (such as Amazon or BN.com), and also make it available to order at bookstores (though they will likely not stock it). So yeah, that’s a must I believe. You could theoretically make more for each sale by having your own ordering website & shipping copies yourself, but I think it would greatly hurt your sales. Amazon & BN.com are more trusted and have tons more visitors.

  • I think one new factor in choosing a self-publishing company has to be the distribution options. If you print with CreateSpace, you are automatically put on Amazon.com, but Barnes and Noble (as of this week) will not stock your book in their stores. So if that is a goal of yours, Lightning Source would be a much better option. But if you’re just looking to get the sales generated by Amazon purchases, CreateSpace might be just fine. A friend of mine published on LuLu, and when I went to try to buy her book, knowing the name, author and publisher, I still could not find it online. I eventually had to have her e-mail me the link. For that reason alone, I have never even considered LuLu.

    • Yep, great advice Heather. It’s still difficult to get into bookstores even with LS, however. I would have had to make the price much higher (b/c of the much higher discount they require) and it is still a gamble whether any stores will pick it up (so if they don’t you’re hurting online sales b/c of higher pricing). I decided for now to make the price as low as possible and focus on Amazon sales, but I could always change it later.

      And I totally agree about distribution. That’s crazy that you couldn’t find the book with all that info. If a book is not easily found on Amazon or Google that is unacceptable.

    • Self-publishing-haven.com

      Whoa. I didn’t hear that one.
      That’s a major move.
      Thanks for mentioning that.

    • Heather, are you sure about B&N refusing to carry Createspace titles? I heard the news you are referencing, but thought it was only for the actual Amazon-published lines where they are signing authors. Technically with Createspace you are the publisher (not Amazon), so I’m thinking that shouldn’t be an issue. I could be wrong, just wanted to ask.

  • Very helpful post. Thanks for sharing Brandon. Can’t wait to read the book.

  • MM

    I live in Nashville, and I’ve self-published two non-fiction books (3 if you count a slight revision of one of them, and I just accepted royalties from the publisher because they formatted, cover-designed, and bound and distributed this one), and yes, hiring a small self-publishing company to help with editing, cover design and distribution is great. You just pay them for their services, and you keep all the other profit from sales. I agree, don’t just hit the “Publish” button because you can. I’m reading on all kinds of book blogs that readers are beginning to steer away from Indie authors because of: poor writing, poor punctuation and grammar, and poor cover design. They’re beginning to say that if the book isn’t produced by a traditional publisher, they’re not buying it because they’re tired of being burned from purchasing awful books (and short books too). That’s scary. This kind of attitude will only unravel the beauty of Indie publishing. I agree fully with Jeff and Brandon. 

    •  The knock on indie books can be found with traditional publishing as well. Poorly written books exist. I believe well-written books with stories worth reading still garner the attention of readers. I’m curious about your own experience in self-publishing. Were you happy with the final product and did you reach your readership with it?

      • MM

        Yes, TNeal, I do hear the same about traditionally published books too. I think readers just believe that traditional publishers will at least weed out the  “really bad” books right off the bat, so if you happen to get a lousy one, it’s not the worst…  And correct, too, that a compelling story will win readers regardless of publishing methods. Anyway, that’s why we have a review system, though that’s flawed too. I liked my experience with self-publishing, and I do reach my readership with my books. Because I have now experienced the process of self-publishing, I can find ways to get that done without going through a company, but I think pricing would still be similar. You still need to pay for people to do cover design, formatting, editing, and purchase ISBNs. You can go the extra step and pay someone to shoot your books to Kindle or where ever you want. If you do all this yourself, you better decide you’re tech-saavy and willing to learn the processes. I’m just glad we don’t have to worry about gate-keepers anymore. I like Jeff’s comment:  “stop waiting to be picked.”

        • Yes, I had to learn a lot to print through Lightning Source. There’s a book called POD For Profit that looks bad, but is actually incredibly helpful with all of the details that go into doing it on your own. I tell people that if they want to go through LS they almost have to get that book. There is helpful info on LS’s website, but it is spread out and very difficult to find.

          • MM

            Yes, Brandon, I have POD For Profit and Aiming At Amazon. I’m now reading through POD for Profit, and Shepard is concise in his descriptions regarding Lightening Source and the publishing industry in general. Here is the link to Shepard’s sight, which I know you have, but others may want it:https://www.newselfpublishing.com/  I like his style, and it’s hard to believe that Middle Tennessee has some of the world’s leading publishing and distribution companies in the US, if not the world. 

            • Glad you have those resources MM, they are very helpful. Sounds like you are well prepared. Thanks for joining the discussion!

        •  I’m going through the process with WestBow Publishing right now and it’s definitely a learning experience the first time through it. My wife and I talked this afternoon about the fact that we’re spending more time and money because of what I didn’t know to begin with. Not WestBow’s errors, but my own mistakes. So far, I’ve been pleased with the experience with them but, when I do this again (and, Lord willing, there will be an again), I’ll know when I need to rush and when I need to slow down. I’ll also communicate better with my gifted, talented editor who happens to be my wife (5 for 5 with books up for awards at the 2011 ACFW conference in St. Louis).

    • Yeah, that is an unfortunate trend in the indie publishing world. I wish more indie authors would take quality seriously. Glad you had a great experience with the company you published through. Thanks for your comment.

  • Brandon, excellent information. I spoke with Andy a number of years ago when he was an acquisition editor with Zondervan. I only know him from two encounters but he’s a sharp, memorable guy. I have a friend who went the self-publishing route and the only comment I’ve heard was from his wife. She said his cover was nondescript. I’ve just gone through my freelance editor’s corrections (about 30 minutes ago) and I know she’s made my story better (seems the same mistakes arise over and over; in other words, if I believe something is correct and it isn’t, I’ll never catch it. But a good editor will). Others may ignore your editing advice at their own publishing peril. Like you, I’m going the self-pub route for similar reasons–a story a little too risky for others to take a chance on but one I’m willing to do the work and put down the cash for.

    • Very cool, yes Andy is a sharp guy. Glad you are pursuing an editor with your story and doing things well. I hope your book turns out exactly the way you want it to.

      • I love pursuing my editor. She’s my wife and she’s excellent at what she does. She edited five books up for awards at the 2011 ACFW conference in St. Louis. All five won in their categories. I have a ways to go to write as well as Ellen edits.

        • Oh wow, very cool! Sounds like she is fantastic. And I’m glad to know you love pursuing her:) Happy marriages make me happy.

  • Daron Henson

    Thank you for this excellent article about publishing/self-publishing.  I am looking into getting my first book published and I can use all the information that I can possibly get.  Thank you.

  • Great to read your post here Brandon!  (Jeff, you have excellent taste in guest bloggers!)   Your book has been sitting on my nightstand tempting me all week since our time at Dream Year.  I look forward to starting it this evening. =)

  • Mike Zserdin

    Thanks Brandon! Timely post on a couple fronts for me. Great insight and thanks for the links to resources. I wish you well on your book. I look forward to taking a long look.


    • It’s quite good, Mike.

    • Glad it was helpful, Mike. Thanks and let me know your thoughts if you check out the book. Good luck with your writing!

      • Mike Zserdin

        Will do. I just picked up what said was 1 of the last 2 copies on Amazon. And, thank you.

  • Guest

    For self publication on facebook, visit https://www.itibooks.com

  • Duncan Long

    Wonderful advice. Half the fight in getting accepted as a self publisher is creating a product that LOOKS professional. Without that, most readers say, “No thank you” and move on to another title. You’ve given a nice wrap up and how to make a professional-looking product.

    • Glad it was helpful Duncan! And you are very right about looking professional.

  • I love this blueprint! (Because that’s what it is!) It’s a lot of work, but I bet that in the end it pays off!

  • Great post. I especially like the part where you say that self-publishing is hard work. I tell people in my self-pub workshops that they need to be prepared to work their tails off. Because no one loves their book as much as they do. 

    The field of writing is so much more than just writing these days. I feel like after writing a few self-pub books that have done pretty well (by industry standards, exceptionally well) I should have a complimentary marketing & accounting degree. And my MA in Counseling has come in handy plenty of times as I’ve learned to deal with people. Self-pub isn’t for weanies 🙂

    • You are dead on Brooke. So much hard work. There’s no telling how many hundreds of hours I put into things other than writing.

      Congrats on your books doing well, very glad to hear that!

  • James Wood

    I’m on the tail end of this excellent blue-print. I’m heavily promoting my self-published book, The Marriage Challenge. I decided to go with CreateSpace/Amazon for the audience it offers. I assumed that would preclude me from getting into any physical store, though. I’ll have to look at options for getting the book into stores like Barnes & Nobel. 

    Some other promotion ideas that I’ve been working: Sending out review copies, contacting bloggers for cross-posting and promotion, free ebook on Amazon, and Facebook and blog give-aways. 

    So far I’m still in the red on the book (but it only came out at the first of the year). I’m hoping to get into the black soon, though.

    • Very cool James, glad things are going well for you! Congrats.

  • Ive been thinking of writing and ebook/book for some time now. I’ve had some experiences and had to gain a lot of knowledge to deal with some health problems ive dealt with. Is trafford publishing one of those hybrid publishers you were talking about? I see they have some fees but the cheapest option is about 500 dollars.

     I was thinking of going through them but until I get a better paying job or save up some money thats about only option I have. What are the costs involved or how much would it cost to self publish versus using trafford or even publishing an ebook? Im trying to look for the cheapest option but want to put out something unique, professional but high quality. 

    • Yes Jared, Trafford is one of them. If money is a big barrier, publishing an ebook costs very little, so it might be your best bet. Also, check out Createspace for print. Their printing quality is decent and they are very cheap to use if you can find a way to get your cover designed. 

  • Jared

    Would publishing an ebook on a website be a start or possibly publishing like an ebook on amazon be a good bet as well? 

  • Ron Smith

    Jeff (excuse the verbosity in addressing you directly), I have a draft prepared and secured in my hot little hand; What to do if I am considering self-publishing? Stage 1 ?

  • Tweeny Randall

    Thank you so much for this post. It helped me so much. It took me 8 years, but I have finally completed my manuscript. I want to self publish, but need an editor first. My question is, what should I be looking for in a good editor? How do I know which one to go with? Also, roughly how much does a good editor charge? Thank you. 🙂

    • Tweeny those are all great questions. I’d start with TheEditorialDepartment.com. And ask your writerly friends for any recommendations. Mainly you are looking for someone with experience and a good reputation that you work well with.