Should You Self-Publish?

Which book had possibly the biggest impact on publishing in the last decade?

The answer I have in mind might surprise you. It’s not a novel that was lauded by literary critics. It’s not a book that addressed the most pressing issues of our time.

It’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Even if you’re not a fan of the book, there’s no denying that Fifty Shades was a gamechanger for the publishing industry. Author E.L. James self-published the first installment of the trilogy as an e-book. It went on to sell over 125 million copies worldwide and James was offered $5 million for the movie rights.

Who could have guessed that the book that started off as Twilight fan fiction would legitimize the self-publishing route? After Fifty Shades of Grey became a sleeper hit, publishers and Hollywood producers started looking for other self-published books that might find the same level of success. Case in point: The Martian by Andy Weir started off as a self-published Kindle e-book priced at 99 cents. Weir went on to secure a six-figure book deal with Crown Publishing plus a deal with Fox for a film adaptation starring Matt Damon.

These stand-out successes caused many publishers to take their self-published competition a little more seriously. Plus, it gave many authors a glimmer of hope for finding a way to share their story even without the help of an agent or a publisher. Many a writer has dreamed of the kind of rags-to-riches story that E.L. James and Andy Weir were able to live out in real life.

Self-publishing can be a great option for motivated writers, but it’s not the best fit for everyone. Take a closer look at what self-publishing involves so you can decide whether it’s right for your book.

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Self-Publishing Pros

Self-publishing comes with plenty of perks, but the biggest might be the ability to get your story out there as soon as you’re done writing it.

Writing a book takes considerable time and effort, so it can be frustrating to wait months or even years trying to find a publisher to take on your project. By choosing the self-publishing route, you can skip the steps of finding an agent, submitting a book proposal, and going back and forth with the publisher about edits, contracts, payments, and other details. Instead, you’ll go straight to getting your book out there in the world.

If you want total control over the release of your book, self-publishing may be the way to go. Besides deciding when to publish your book, you also get to control what the cover looks like and what the price of the book will be. All of these things would be heavily influenced by the publisher if you follow the traditional route for releasing your book.

For some writers, self-publishing can really pay off when it comes to profits. The royalty rates are very high in the self-publishing market; many authors get around 70 percent of every sale in royalties. Compare that with traditional publishing, where you’re more likely to make about 10 percent. Self-publishing royalties typically pay out once per month while traditional publishing royalties are only paid twice per year, so you’ll also have a steadier stream of income if your book sells well.

Self-Publishing Woes

Despite the many benefits of self-publishing, it comes with a few drawbacks as well. Though the road to getting your book out there is much easier when you go with the DIY option, a traditional publisher has the upper hand when it comes to actually generating sales.

Managing publicity for a self-published book is much tougher without publishing professionals with years of experience and hundreds of noteworthy contacts at their disposal. It’s unlikely you’ll see your book on the shelves at a bookstore, reviewed in a magazine, or named on a best-seller list without the help of a traditional publisher. Books distributed by “the big five” (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) have large teams that work together to help promote your book. If you self-publish, it might be tough to get your foot in the door with book buyers, literary critics, and other people who could spread the word about your work.

Besides publicity, you’ll have to DIY a number of other important steps when you self-publish. While traditional publishers have in-house teams for editing, formatting, and cover design, self-publishers have to take care of those things on their own or pay extra to outsource each task.

How Self-Publishing Works

Have you decided that self-publishing is the right choice for you? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start figuring out exactly how to make your book available for sale without the help of a publisher. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help walk you through the process:

1. Make Sure Your Book is Ready for the Spotlight

Your story is complete, but before you put it out there for the world to see, it’s time to put the finishing touches on your manuscript. Experienced writers with a keen eye may choose to self-edit their own work. However, most authors benefit greatly from hiring professional editors to look over their work (more on that in the next section). 

2. Give It a Stylish Look

Designing a book cover is harder than it sounds. You need something that grabs potential readers’ attention while also conveying something about your story. After you come up with a design, be sure to get feedback from friends and family. If you’re not confident in your own design abilities, pay a pro to design a book cover for you.

3. Choose E-book, POD, or Both

It’s easier (and cheaper) to publish your book electronically. The price for e-books is also more affordable, which may entice more readers to give it a shot. Another bonus with e-books is that it appears just as professional as a book from a traditional publisher when formatted on an e-reader. If you want a tangible book, you’ll need to use a service which offers Print on Demand (POD). It costs more, but it allows your book to be sold in stores. The following are some of the top websites that facilitate self-publishing for e-books and/or POD:

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4. Market Your Book

Publicity for self-published books takes a lot of effort, but fortunately, there are many authors who have come before you and can offer excellent tips on marketing strategy. From setting up an author mailing list to online advertising to price promotions, there are a number of tactics you can use to attract attention and increase sales. There are lots of great resources online for how to promote a self-published book, including this guide from the Content Marketing Institute.

5. Track the Stats

It’s a good idea to keep track of your book’s success along the way. In addition to keeping tabs on the total number of sales, you can watch for trends that indicate whether certain marketing tactics were successful. For example, you can track whether there’s a significant uptick in sales when you run an online ad or write a guest blog post.

Who Can Help

Even though it’s called self-publishing, you don’t have to be the only one involved.

As mentioned above, many authors benefit from having their book professionally edited. Let’s face it: your book isn’t going to be taken very seriously if it features incorrect grammar, misspellings, and other writing errors. Depending on where you are in the writing process, you may want to consider one or more of the following editing services:

  • Manuscript Critique: A look at your book’s overall strengths and weaknesses, structure, characters, genre, and marketability.

  • Developmental Editing: A big-picture edit with helpful feedback and suggestions.

  • Line Editing: Fixes for awkward or unclear writing, wordiness, redundancies, weak dialogue, and more.

  • Copyediting: Corrections for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and inconsistencies.

  • Proofreading: A final edit just before publishing with checks for errors and formatting.

Besides editing, you might also want to find professionals to help with your book’s appearance. You can hire a designer who specializes in jacket designs and interior layouts to make sure your book looks polished from cover to cover. Besides helping to style your book effectively, these professionals can help you figure out the proper formatting since both print and e-books generally require specific dimensions.

Marketing your e-book is another self-publishing challenge that doesn’t necessarily have to be accomplished alone. If you’re totally new to book marketing, it might be a good idea to get a little help along the way. Try looking for a marketing service that is specifically geared towards self-published authors; they’ll know what it takes to make your work stand out among the countless books that are self-published every year.

Of course, the extent to which you’ll want to outsource some of these tasks will depend on how much money you’re willing to spend on your book. After all, many authors choose self-publishing not just because it’s fast but also because it’s inexpensive. It’s true that self-publishing can be very cheap or even free, but if you’re hoping to put out a professional-looking book, promote your work, and generate income, you’ll need to seriously consider investing in pro editing, design, and marketing services for your book.

Ready to share your book with the world? We’re here to give you a hand regardless of whether you want to publish the traditional way or step into the modern world of self-publishing.


about the author

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Ashley Henshaw is an editor at The Artful Editor and a contributing writer for a number of online publications, including The Huffington PostUSA Today, and AOL City's Best. She has a BA in English from Loyola University Chicago and previously worked for a publishing house. She is an avid fiction reader and loves to edit fiction and nonfiction alike, especially titles dealing with travel and culture. If she could, she'd spend every spare minute on the beaches of Lake Michigan, but Chicago's weather has proven uncooperative.