The following post is an introductory guide to the major self-publishing options available to authors today, and how to choose the right service and approach for you.
Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” version if you’re looking for my service recommendations. I will edit this list immediately if and when my recommendations change.
CreateSpace: for print distribution to Amazon (zero upfront cost)
IngramSpark: for print distribution to non-Amazon universe ($49)
Amazon KDP: for ebook distribution to Amazon (zero upfront cost)
Draft2Digital: for ebook distribution to everyone else (zero upfront cost)
These services provide little or no assistance. That means you have to do all the work of preparing and uploading your files for publishing and distribution. If you’re looking for a fair service provider (or a one-stop shop) to help with print and ebook formatting, design, and distribution, try BookBaby.
First, A Little History
For most of publishing’s history, if an author wanted to self-publish, they had to invest thousands of dollars with a so-called “vanity” press (or otherwise study up on how to be an independent publishing entrepreneur, a la Dan Poynter or Marilyn Ross).
That all changed in the late 1990s, with the advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology, which allows books to be printed one at a time. As a result, many POD publishing services arose that focused on providing low-cost self-publishing packages. They could be low cost because—without print runs, inventory, and warehousing—the only expense left was in creating the product itself: the book. Outfits like iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse (which have merged and been consolidated under AuthorSolutions) offered a range of packages to help authors get their books in print, though most books never sat on a bookstore shelf and sold a few dozen copies at best.
What’s Changed Since 2007
Just as traditional publishing has transformed due to the rise of e-books, today’s self-publishing market has transformed as well. E-books comprise 30-35% of all US book sales. Furthermore, 60% or more of all US book sales (both print and digital) happen through an online retailer, primarily Amazon. You can make your book available for sale in the most important markets yourself, without a third party helping you.
That means the full-service POD publishers that used to make a killing are now largely irrelevant to most self-publishing success, and make little or no sense if you’re focused on publishing and marketing your e-book. However, because of self-publishing’s history, you may still think they offer something you need. For most authors, they do not.
Today, you can get access to the same level of online retail distribution as a traditional publisher, through services such as Amazon KDP, Pronoun, Draft2Digital, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark. One could say that distribution through these channels is free. You don’t “pay” until your books start to sell. Every time a copy of your book is sold, the retailer takes a cut, and if you use a distributor, they’ll take a cut, too.
First, I’ll address how the e-book side of self-publishing works. Then we’ll return to the question of print.
Before You Digitally Publish
Even though e-books are skyrocketing in adoption, ask these questions before you begin:
Do your readers prefer print or digital?
If you don’t know what your readers prefer, is it common for authors in your genre to release e-books only? If digital-only publishers exist in your genre, that’s a good sign.
Is your book highly illustrated? Does it require color? If so, you may find there are significant challenges to creating and distributing your e-book across multiple platforms.
Do you know how to reach your readers online? People who buy e-books will probably find out about your work online.
An author who is primed to succeed at self-publishing has an entrepreneurial spirit and is comfortable being online. Ideally, you should already have an online presence and an established website. You also need to be in it for the long haul; sales snowball over time, rather than occurring within the first months of release.
How E-Publishing Services Work
The first and most important thing to understand about e-publishing retailers and distributors is that they are not publishers. That means they take no responsibility for the quality of your work, but neither do they take any rights to your work. Here are the characteristics of major services:
Free to play. You rarely pay an upfront fee. When you do pay upfront, usually in the case of a distributor (such as BookBaby), you earn 100% net. If you don’t pay an upfront fee, then expect a percentage of your sales to be kept. However, there is even one ebook distributor that charges nothing upfront and still pays 100% net: Pronoun.
At-will and nonexclusive. With all e-book retailers, you can upload your work at any time and make it available for sale; you can also take it down at any time. You can upload new versions; change the price, cover and description; and you can sell your work through multiple services or through your own site.
Little technical expertise required. Major services offer automated tools for converting your files, uploading files, and listing your work for sale, as well as free guides and tutorials to help ensure your files are formatted appropriately.
Again, it’s important to emphasize: By using these services, you do not forfeit any of your rights to the work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your e-book has gone on sale, you are free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you’ve used.
I should also acknowledge here that some of these retailers/distributors may have services they try to sell you—for editing, design, and marketing. When possible, I recommend authors retain their own freelancers rather than hiring through a middleman. You want to know exactly who’s doing work on your book and have them be accountable to you, not the middleman service.
Two Key Categories of E-Publishing Services
Most e-publishing services fall into one of these two categories:
Single-channel distribution. These services—which are retailers—distribute and sell your work through only one channel or device. Examples: Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press. Single-channel distributors do not offer any assistance in preparing your e-book files, although they may accept a wide range of file types for upload.
Multiple-channel distribution. These services primarily act as middlemen and push your work out to multiple retailers and distributors. This helps reduce the amount of work an author must do; instead of dealing with many different single channel services, you deal with only one service. The most well-known distributors are Draft2Digital, Pronoun, BookBaby and Smashwords.
Multiple-channel options are multiplying, and each works on a slightly different model. Some act as full-service publishing operations, requiring no effort from you, the author. However, in exchange for the services of a multi-channel distributor, you typically have to pay an upfront fee and/or give up a percentage of your sales.
One popular approach for independent authors is to start by distributing through Amazon KDP, and to then add multi-channel distributor Smashwords, which has no upfront fee and distributes to all major devices and retailers except Amazon.
A note about ISBNs: While an ISBN is not required for basic e-book distribution through most retailers, some distributors and services require one. Therefore, to maximize distribution, you’ll need an ISBN for your e-book. Some self-publishing services will provide you with an ISBN as part of the fee for their services, or you can obtain your own ISBN. (If you’re US-based, you can buy through MyIdentifiers.com. Unfortunately, US authors pay a lot more than authors in other countries for their ISBNs.)
Converting and Formatting Your Work
Nearly every service asks you to upload a completed book file that is appropriately formatted. Services vary widely in the types of files they accept. Because standards are still developing in the e-book world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services.
Here are the most commonly used formats for e-books:
EPUB. This is considered a global standard format for e-books and works seamlessly on most devices. While you cannot directly create an EPUB file from a Word document, you can save your Word document as a text (.txt) file, then convert and format it using special software.
MOBI. This is the format that’s ideal for Amazon Kindle, although you can also upload an EPUB file.
PDF. PDFs can be difficult to convert to standard e-book formats, and do not display well on grayscale reading devices.
Many e-publishing services accept a Word document and automatically convert it to the appropriate format, but you still must go through an “unformatting” process for best results. All major services offer step-by-step guidelines for formatting your Word documents before you upload them for conversion.
Important to note: There is a difference between formatting and converting your book files. Conversion refers to an automated process of converting files from one format into another, without editing or styling. It’s often easy to convert files, but the resulting file may look unprofessional—or even appear unreadable—if not formatted appropriately.
Useful tools for formatting and converting e-books include:
Calibre: Free software that converts and helps you format e-book files from more than a dozen different file types.
Sigil: Free WYSIWYG editing and formatting software for e-books in the EPUB format; you can start with plain text files saved from Word.
I’ve listed more tools here.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the idea of converting and formatting your own e-book files, then you may want to use a distributor or service that’s customer-service oriented in this regard, such as Draft2Digital or BookBaby. If your ebook has special layout requirements, heavy illustration, or multimedia components, you should probably hire an independent company to help you (eBookPartnership is one option).
But if your book is mostly straight text—such as novels and narrative works—then you might be able to handle the conversion and formatting process without much difficulty if you’re starting with a Word document or text file.
Designing an E-Book Cover
There are a number of special considerations for e-book covers, not least of which is how little control you have over how the cover displays. People may see your cover in black and white, grayscale, color, high-resolution, low-resolution, thumbnail size, or full size. It needs to be readable at all sizes and look good on low-quality or mobile devices. For these reasons (and many more), it’s best to hire a professional to create an e-book cover for you. One designer I frequently recommend is Damon Za.
Maximizing Your Sales
With print books, your success is typically driven by the quality of your book, your visibility or reach to your readership, and your cover. With digital books, the same factors are in play, plus the following:
If you check the e-book bestseller lists, you’ll see that independent novelists charge very little for their work, usually between 99 cents and $2.99. Some argue this devalues the work, while others say that it’s appropriate for an e-book from an unknown author. Whatever your perspective, just understand that, if you’re an unknown author, your competition will probably be priced at $2.99 or less to encourage readers to take a chance. Typically, the more well known or trusted you are, the more you can charge. Note: Nonfiction authors should price according to the competition and what the market can bear. Sometimes prices are just as high for digital editions as print editions in nonfiction categories.
As of this writing, Amazon Kindle accounted for at least 60–70% of e-book sales in the United States. Your Amazon page (especially as displayed on a Kindle) may be the first and only page a reader looks at when deciding whether to purchase your book. Reviews become critical in assuring readers of quality, plus the Kindle bestseller list is watched closely by just about everyone in the business and can be a key driver of visibility and sales.
Price + Amazon. Amazon is well known for paying 70% of list to authors who price their e-books between $2.99 and $9.99. The percentage plummets to 35% for any price outside this range, which is why you find authors periodically switching their price between 99 cents and $2.99. They maximize volume and visibility at the low-price point (and attempt to get on bestseller lists), then switch to $2.99 to maximize profits.
This is but a scratch on the surface of the many strategies and tactics used to sell and market self-published work. Read these guides for in-depth coverage.
Should I Set Up a Formal Imprint or Publishing Company?
Much depends on your long-term plans or goals. You don’t have to set up a formal business (e.g., in the United States, you can use your Social Security number for tax purposes), but serious self-publishers will typically set up an LLC at minimum.
For the basic information on how to establish your own imprint or publishing company, read Joel Friedlander’s post, How to Create, Register, and List Your New Publishing Company. It also discusses the ISBN issue.
What About Agents Who Offer E-Publishing Services?
Increasingly, agents are starting to help existing clients as well as new ones digitally publish their work. Help might consist of fee-based services, royalty-based services, and hybrid models.
Such practices are controversial because agents’ traditional role is to serve as an advocate for their clients’ interests and negotiate the best possible deals. When agents start publishing their clients’ work and taking their 15% cut of sales, a conflict of interest develops.
In their defense, agents are changing their roles in response to industry change, as well as client demand. Regardless of how you proceed, look for flexibility in any agreements you sign. Given the pace of change in the market, it’s not a good idea to enter into an exclusive, long-term contract that locks you into a low royalty rate or into a distribution deal that may fall behind in best practices.
How to Produce a Print Edition
There are two primary ways to make print editions available for sale:
Print on demand (POD)
Traditional offset printing
As described earlier, print-on-demand technology allows for books to be printed one at a time. This is by far the most popular way to produce print copies of your book. If you’ve investigated services like AuthorHouse, iUniverse, or any of the many subsidiaries of Author Solutions, then you were looking at services that primarily offer POD publishing packages. Traditional publishers also use POD to keep older titles in stock without committing to warehousing and inventory costs.
Pros of print-on-demand
Little or no upfront costs (if you avoid full-service packages)
Your book can be available for sale as a print edition in all the usual online retail outlets (Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, etc), as well as distributed through Ingram, the largest U.S. book wholesaler.
Most readers cannot tell the difference between a POD book and an offset printed book.
Cons of print-on-demand
The unit cost is much higher, which may lead to a higher retail price.
You may have very few print copies on hand—or it will be expensive to keep ordering print copies to have around!
Most books printed by U.S. traditional publishers are produced through offset printing. To use a traditional printer, you usually need to commit to 1,000 copies minimum.
Pros of offset printing
Lower unit cost
Higher quality production values, especially for full-color books
You’ll have plenty of print copies around.
Cons of offset printing
Considerable upfront investment; $2,000 is the likely minimum, which includes the printing and shipping costs.
Increased risk—what if the books don’t sell or you want to put out a new edition before the old one is sold out?
You’ll have plenty of print copies around—which means you have books to warehouse and fulfill unless you hire a third party to handle it for you, which then incurs additional costs.
Important: While it can be fairly straightforward and inexpensive to get a print book in your hands via print-on-demand services, virtually no one can get your book physically ordered or stocked in bookstores. Services may claim to distribute your book to stores or make your book available to stores. But this is very different from actually selling your book into bookstores. Bookstores almost never accept or stock titles from any self-publishing service or POD company, although they can special order for customers when asked, assuming the book appears in their system.
Also, think through the paradox: Print-on-demand services or technology should be used for books that are printed only when there’s demand. Your book is not going to be nationally distributed and sitting on store shelves unless or until a real order is placed.
Should I Invest in a Print Run?
The 3 key factors are:
How and where you plan to sell the book. If you frequently speak and have opportunities to sell your books at events, then it makes sense to invest in a print run. Also consider if you’ll want significant quantities to distribute or sell to business partners or organizations, stock in local/regional retail outlets or businesses, give to clients, etc. I do not recommend investing in a print run because you think bookstores or retail outlets will stock your book. If such an opportunity should arise, then you can always invest in a print run after you have a sales order or firm commitment.
Where you’re driving sales. If you’re driving your customers/readers primarily to online retailers, you can fulfill print orders with less hassle and investment by using POD. Ultimately, you do have to use POD regardless if you want to be distributed by the largest U.S. wholesaler, Ingram. (More info below.)
What your budget is like. Not everyone is comfortable investing in a print run.
You also need to anticipate your appetite for handling the warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping of 1,000+ books, unless a third party is handling it for you, which will reduce your profit. When the truck pulls up to your house with several pallets piled high with 30-pound boxes, it will be a significant reality check if you haven’t thought through your decision.
The majority of independent authors report selling about 100 e-books for every print book. Much depends on the genre, but in the U.S. e-books represent 30-35% of all books sold. So also keep this in mind as you decide how many print copies you need.
If you choose print-on-demand, then I recommend the following:
Use Ingram Spark to produce a POD edition for all markets except Amazon. By doing so, your book will be listed and available for order through the largest and most preferred U.S. wholesaler, Ingram.
Using CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) to produce a POD edition for Amazon sales. For many authors, the majority of sales will be through Amazon.
I recommend using both Ingram Spark and CreateSpace to maximize your profits and ensure that no one is discouraged from ordering or stocking the print edition of your book. As you might imagine, independent bookstores aren’t crazy about ordering books provided by CreateSpace/Amazon, their key competitor. However, if you use Ingram Spark to fulfill orders through Amazon, you will reduce your profits because Amazon offers more favorable terms when selling books generated through CreateSpace. So it’s much more advantageous financially to use CreateSpace—but limit the scope of that agreement to just Amazon orders.
As soon as your printer-ready files are uploaded, POD books are generally available for order at Amazon within 48 hours. With Ingram Spark, it generally takes 2 weeks for the book to be available through all their channels.
Wait, How Do I Get Printer-Ready Files?
As with e-book retailers/distributors, Ingram Spark and CreateSpace may offer you fee-based services related to editing, design, and marketing. These package services may work OK for your needs, but try to hire your own freelancers if you need someone to produce printer-ready files.
Alternatively, you can take a look at Joel Friedlander’s book template system, which offers a way for total beginners to prepare a printer-ready PDF file. There’s also PressBooks.
I Still Have Questions
I would expect so! This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more on this topic at the following posts:
How to Publish an E-Book: Resources for Authors
The Basics of Self-Publishing by David Gaughran
10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service
4 Key Book Publishing Paths
Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine offers in-depth reviews of just about every publishing service out there. Read his review before using any service. You can also hire him for a consultation if you need expert guidance.