self-publishing • writing/editing • formatting/design
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Are self-published books successful?
The short answer is that some are, and some aren't! This is also true of books that have been traditionally published. Only the top few percent of traditionally published authors earn enough from book sales to earn a full-time living. Self-publishing is similarly a pyramid-shaped market: a few authors will be at the top, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars/pounds, while many will be at a lower tier. If you can sell 1000 copies of a book, you should consider that a success in most markets.
There are certainly plenty of headline cases where a self-published author has sold even millions of books – a famous example is E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey series, although as soon as these went viral they were picked up by a traditional publisher! There are also many very successful self-publishing authors who do not feature in the limelight – some are authors writing in popular niche genres of fiction; others write bestselling how-to guides or business leadership books, for example.
Things that will help the success of your self-published books include:
- being produced (i.e. edited and designed) to a professional standard
- being part of a portfolio of titles: the more you publish, the more you are likely to have success (this is the entire business model of most traditional publishers too)
- treating your writing/publishing as a business: define your costs, take it seriously, track your results, rinse and repeat.
Also, what does success mean to you? It might mean zillions of sales… but it could mean one of these too:
- establishing your authority or thought leadership as an expert in your field
- fulfilling a lifelong dream
- having a marketing tool to generate leads for your business
- recording the story of an interesting life (your own or someone else's)
- bringing joy, entertainment or education to others.
How do you define success?
Is self-publishing worth it?
Every book is different, just like every author, and the best solution for you will not be the same as it is for someone else and their book! You may want to consider some of the points below.
Disadvantages of self-publishing
- You are taking all of the risk and are responsible for the whole publishing process: you will have to wear many hats.
- If you choose to outsource parts of the process, it can become expensive.
- It is generally very difficult to get self-published books on the shelves of bookstores and other physical shops.
- You will need to become familiar with publishing software and platforms, which may be challenging if you are not comfortable with technology.
Advantages of self-publishing
- You have greater earning potential: you will earn a higher percentage of the cover price than if you use a traditional publisher. (Typically a self-publisher can make 25% or more of the cover price, although every type of book is different; whereas with a traditional publisher you will typically make 10% of the cover price or less.)
- You have complete creative control: you can either take on editing and design yourself or you can subcontract to service providers, and ultimately it's your say.
- You can bring a book to market much faster than with traditional publishers: you could get from draft to publication in a matter of weeks rather than months (or even years!).
So is self-publishing worth it? We'd say yes. It can be very hard to sell books, and perhaps a traditional publisher would find it easier to sell them than you would, but if a book is hard for you to sell, it is more likely to be harder for them to sell too. Conversely, most publishers expect authors to help with marketing anyway, and if you have access to a large audience or network of contacts… you could make the most of that for yourself.
All publishing involves risk – but the rewards can be much higher if you decide to take on that risk yourself.
Is self-publishing expensive?
There is no single answer to this question as it will depend on the route you take for self-publishing. But here are some points on the pricing scale:
- Free: if you do all of the writing, editing, formatting, design and marketing yourself, you can self-publish a book for free. Amazon's KDP self-publishing platform is free to use. Its main rival, IngramSpark, has small charges for setting up a book (usually around $50) but these can often be avoided using readily available discount codes.
- A few hundred dollars/pounds: if you only outsource parts of the process you are not comfortable with taking on, or you have friends with the right skills who can help, you could produce your book for under $1000/£1000.
- A few thousand dollars/pounds: you can usually find a complete service from draft to publication at this price, where all aspects of professional book production are done for you, although marketing help would often cost extra.
- Several thousand dollars/pounds: the most expensive services will take on everything that a traditional publisher would (including printing stock, marketing your book and possibly offering a sales outlet), but funded by you.
Tens of thousands of dollars/pounds: if you are not confident with the initial writing of a book based on your own ideas, you can hire a ghostwriter to do it for you, and this would typically be part of the most expensive options.
It all comes down to your own confidence as well as your budget, and of course how professional you want you book to be.
How do I self-publish a book?
The advantage of self-publishing over traditional publishing is that you have complete creative control – you should be able to make more money per copy sold (typically around 25% of the cover price, but this can be less or a great deal more depending on the genre and the market) – but you are responsible for making sure the book meets professional standards. This may mean paying editors, formatters and designers to produce the book from your initial draft, as well as hiring a cover designer, and perhaps even a book publicist or marketer. Or you may decide you have the skills to do all of this for yourself.
Either way, as an indie author you'll need to take one or both of these routes to self-publish your book:
- Arrange a printer to print copies for you and then sell copies directly to your audience and/or persuade booksellers or other retailers to stock and sell your book on your behalf. Typically retailers will want around 40% of the cover price for this (i.e. you sell them the books at a 40% discount) but it can go as high as 60% or even before in certain circumstances.
- Use a self-publishing platform – this will provide 'print on demand', so no stock needs to be held: each copy is only printed when a reader/customer has placed an order for it.
There are numerous self-publishing platforms, although the two most widely used ones are:
Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing): you upload your final files to the KDP platform and they then appear on sale at Amazon's various international web stores. Amazon take a 40% retail cut for this, and what you receive is the 60% minus the unit cost for printing the book.
IngramSpark: Ingram does not offer its own direct-to-reader shop but instead supplies other retailers, so your book will probably appear at most online bookstores such as Barnes & Noble in the US and Waterstones, WHSmith and Blackwells in the UK (although it is not guaranteed at any one outlet). With Ingram, you have more choice over the retail discount, and it can be as low as 30% in the US and 35% in the UK, for example; in theory setting it higher makes it more attractive to retailers. Again the print cost is deducted from your part of the revenue.
If you publish through Ingram, your book will also be available at Amazon, although the speed of delivery to customers is usually quicker there if you go direct to Amazon. Ingram's online platform is a little more complicated than Amazon's; and Amazon KDP in fact offers an 'expanded distribution' option (for a fixed retail discount of 60%). Many independently published authors choose to use both Amazon KDP and IngramSpark to cover all options.
Note that the above is qualified by 'usually', 'typically' and 'probably' – there are subtleties and variations which mean different options suit different authors and books. (If you use our services we will provide tailor-made advice.)
How do I publish a book?
Publishing a book involves several stages, although some of these are optional – every book is different and has different needs. These are the stages it might go through once you have got a first draft written:
- development/structural editing – this is where a specialist editor looks at how your book works, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, and suggests improvements (see our guide to the types of editing)
- copy editing – this is the picky stuff, where the editor ensures your grammar is correct, you have used words and phrases consistently and your style and content are accurate (again, see our guide)
- formatting/typesetting – this means laying out the finished text (and any illustrations) into the finished form of the book which will be published/printed; alongside this you will need a cover design
- proofreading – ideally your formatted book is then read by a fresh set of eyes; a proofreader will pick up any remaining typos or errors that have crept in from formatting
- indexing – if your non-fiction book needs an index, this is the point where that would be compiled, i.e. when both the text and its formatting have otherwise been completed
- publishing – now the book is ready to publish!
Traditional publishing is where all of the above is done for you and the publisher takes a risk on the sales, arranging printing, distribution and marketing the book for you, in return for which you will receive an upfront advance and/or royalties on each sale of the book. Typically you might receive 10% of the cover price, but it can be less after the publisher's costs are taken into account (less still if you have a literary agent representing you). Hybrid publishers will offer the same services but you would make a financial contribution to the publisher's costs.
If you decide to self-publish, you can choose to take on any or all of the above stages yourself – or you can hire out parts of the process. Typically you would then either arrange for copies to be printed and be responsible for selling them either directly or by persuading retailers to sell them on your behalf – or you can use one of the online self-publishing platforms available.
For more on this, see the related question here, 'How do I self-publish a book?'.
How should I tell my life story?
An author who prefers to remain anonymous has asked this: "I am 74 years young and would like to write about my life… Should I simply tell the story or write the book with fictional characters. Which would be more interesting and pull the readers in? I don't know how to start."
I think there are two parts to the answer: experience, and audience. For the first, what is your experience of writing? Even if you have none, it would be easier to approach this as a memoir than as fiction – at the very least, you could simply tell the chronological story of your life. This will be a more interesting narrative if you can find points of drama in it, the highs and lows that all of us have in life; every story, real or otherwise, is stronger for the conflict or jeopardy it takes the reader through. If you have little or no experience, it might be harder to tell this as fiction in a compelling way without coming across as stilted or as simply a memoir with the names changed. Perhaps your only strong reasons for fictionalising it would be to settle old scores and avoid being libellous (but why would you want to be driven by such a negative impetus? and it doesn't sound like that's the case here anyway) – or because you have experience of telling really engaging stories. But if nobody knows who you are, a fictional account will find it harder to get traction in the marketplace.
If even the idea of writing a lively narrative of your life daunts you, there are options: to pursue it yourself, you will need to break down the challenge into smaller steps. As mentioned above, this could be through simple chronology; alternatively, you could look at the 'big themes' of your life journey and take those for your framework, breaking each one down into sub-themes (or moments in your life which exemplify those themes). You could also consider a ghostwriter, although a full ghosting service could be very expensive. Another option for this sort of work would be to contact one of the many life story companies – there are firms which will send out someone to interview you and then write your story up into a book and produce it; or there are freelancers who do this sort of interview-based work too (I can recommend people if required).
To return to the audience angle: you should always consider who you are writing for. Is it just for your own benefit, so your voice has a form of expression or you can lay ghosts to rest, or challenge yourself? There's no reason not to go for it if so, and see where it takes you. But if you want others to read it, who will they be? What's in it for them? If it's just for people who know you, a life story service as mentioned above would work well, or you could write it, get it edited and typeset and have a small number of copies printed. If you think the world at large should hear your story, focus on thinking about them and not you: why would they want to read it? Who is your target reader? Try to imagine them and what they would find interesting. There will probably be a niche out there just for you – but be realistic about wild expectations of fame and fortune! If you want to 'pull the readers in', you need to think about them and what would urge them to turn page after page.
What is the best way to go about acquiring the publishing rights for self-published books?
Jack Kaufman writes: What is the best way to go about acquiring the publishing rights/copyright for self-published books? Does a marketplace for this type of transaction exist?
First, a caveat: I've not generally been involved with the buying and selling of publication rights of this kind. However, here are a few gleanings. In the world of traditional publishing, a lot of rights deals are done between publishers at the big book fairs – as I type this, the largest – the Frankfurt Buchmesse – is taking place. Here in the UK, the London Book Fair is a similar event – and in fact there are many self-publishing authors there, partly thanks to the involvement of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). That means there are a lot of self-published authors floating around there too, and there would certainly be opportunities to meet them and discuss possible rights opportunities. ALLi accepts advertising at events and in publications, and that too might offer a route to this audience.
I have seen one or two attempts in the past to create a marketplace of the kind you describe, but I'm not aware of any at present and I don't think they got sufficient exposure/traction. The closest thing I can think of now is Publishizer, where authors can post a proposal and seek pre-orders, and potential publishers can see how much interest there is and then pitch for the rights. This is probably your best bet at present (2022).
But in theory anywhere where self-publishers talk, meet or seek support for their books could work – for example, how about looking at Kickstarter? Many people try to launch books there (as I type this there are more than 400 live publishing projects there). The number of pledges immediately provides some evidence for interest in the idea (with the caveat of course that crowdfunders will have turned to people they know first). Perhaps some of these people would welcome an approach from someone looking to acquire publishing rights!
One final thought: occasionally there are self-publishing accounts with Amazon KDP or elsewhere that appear for sale at website brokers such as Flippa or Empire Flippers – this would be a way to acquire an entire portfolio (but as always, caveat emptor…).
What sort of paper should my book have?
I’m often asked by authors whether they should choose the white or cream paper option at print on demand services such as Amazon KDP and IngramSpark:
The short answer is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s up to you! (I’m assuming here that your book does not need colour inside, in which case a different grade of white paper is used, and cream is not an option.) But there are some conventions.
Typically, cream (also called crème) paper is used for fiction and for narrative non-fiction such as memoirs. White is far more common for other sorts of non-fiction, such as how-to and business books. But the choice is always yours – cream perhaps offers a subtle, more literary note. The cream on offer from these providers is generally less strong in tone than traditional offset litho cream paper stock anyway: for print on demand (POD), it offers just a nuance. Note IngramSpark also offers ‘groundwood’ (US and UK only), a creamier paper similar to that used in mass-market paperbacks; it is more opaque but lighter in weight. They recommend it for ‘trade books, reader guides, and academic trade titles’.
There is perhaps a small practical aspect, too. Cream paper is a little bit thicker, which would then mean your book is slightly thicker (and the spine is therefore different, so it’s important to share your paper choice with your cover designer) – which you might want in order to make a smallish book have more heft. Naturally, heavier books cost more to ship, at least in bulk.
A 200-page paperback would result in the following spine variations by paper:
KDP, white (90 gsm)1 – 11.44 mm
KDP, cream (90 gsm) – 12.70 mm
IngramSpark, cream (74 gsm) – 11.63 mm
IngramSpark, white (74 gsm) – 10.77 mm
IngramSpark, groundwood (56.2 gsm in the US, 65 gsm in the UK)
(‘gsm’ refers to grams per square metre; standard office photocopier paper is typically 80 or 90 gsm)
Of course, the advantage with POD is that you can try both and see which you prefer (you can change the settings for a book, but at Ingram this may incur a revision charge).
If paper is more important to your project – for example, to create a book that’s more an object of beauty in itself than POD options can really offer – you will need to go to traditional printers.
How do I get my book into bookstores?
This is a question we all wish there were a simpler answer to, but…
The short answer is that it is very difficult to get a self-published book into general bookshops – but not necessarily impossible. Think about the economics of it: all bookstores have a finite amount of shelf space and the smaller the shop, the less there is. Their job is to sell books – so the more likely that a book is a safe bet for selling, the more likely they are to order some copies and put them on the shelves. They will nonetheless strive for some diversity – having a variety of interesting stock is important, and many book buyers will respond to the serendipity of happening across something they haven’t heard of before. And booksellers play an important curatorial role, keeping up with the popular titles but also finding hidden gems.
But all of that is easier to do when trusted, well-known publishers are supplying the books (via a distributor – more on that shortly). Their titles are more likely to be reviewed in the press, so customers are more likely to come in and expect to pluck these books straight from the shelf. And these publishers may well be subsidising the shelf space: here in the UK, at least, it is well known that chain bookstores have often charged publishers for the privilege of titles appearing in shop windows or special offers (although there has been some backlash against that). In the past, centralised buying has made it even harder for smaller presses and independent publishers to get shelf space, although again there has been more of a return to individual branches having some influence over what they stock. Anyway, as with everything: it’s an attention economy, and proven popular channels always end up getting preferential treatment.
Now, if you self-publish a book with IngramSpark, say, you are doing so with a company owned by what I believe is still the biggest book distributor in the world (Ingram). And your book will be listed in their online catalogue system, ipage, which is what many booksellers will have access to for ordering stock. Well, in the US it’s the default, but in the UK the front-runner is Gardners, and it’s more complicated. In recent years, if a bookstore places an order for an IngramSpark-produced book in the UK, typically they will have ordered it through Gardners, who then in turn place a ‘special order’ to Ingram. Everyone involved wants a piece of the pie, all of which puts pressure on the author’s percentage of any sales – and the number of parties involved has typically meant that order times have been slow, sometimes even weeks. (I’ll talk about retail discounts and those margins another time.) Recently, Ingram announced direct distribution in the UK, but the impact of this has yet to be felt – only this week they announced that ipage orders would reflect direct UK distribution from February 2023.
Anyway, these systems do at least mean that a customer walking into a bookstore can generally order your self-published book through the shop, but it may take a while to come. What is much less likely is the shop deciding to order several copies and putting them on the shelves.
Where does Amazon fit into all this? As usual, it’s a world unto itself – if you publish with the standard KDP offering, your book will only be available via Amazon. However, in the US and UK, Amazon also offers ‘expanded distribution’ – this reportedly piggybacks on Ingram’s infrastructure and means your book can be ordered elsewhere, although you have to sacrifice a higher percentage of revenue for the privilege (60% instead of 40%).
But back to the original question. Here are some possible ways to have bookstores actually stock your book rather than just order it when a customer requests it:
advance planning: giving bookstores advance info (six months or more, preferably) about your book at least gives them the opportunity to consider it
amazing marketing: there’s no substitute for publicity – if you can get endorsements for your book from well-known names, or get significant media attention (again, ideally in advance of publication), you stand much more of a chance of shops being interested
offering ‘sale or return’ (rather than ‘firm sale’): i.e. you take the risk on unsold copies, rather than the bookstore having to. IngramSpark supports this option but it means you will have to accept copies (including damaged ones) being sent back to you – at your expense – and most people find it isn’t worth it (another option is just having them destroyed, but you still pay for their shipping). Your mileage may vary.
offering generous retail discounts: in theory offering a 55% retail discount (again, IngramSpark supports this) makes the prospect of stocking your book more attractive to the retailer (because they might still get the minimum 40% they’d hope for, with the intermediary wholesalers/distributors hoovering up the other 15%). Personally, I think this only works if you have already established some interest in your book – see ‘amazing marketing’ above!
having a niche book of local/themed interest: if your book is about a particular place, of course there’s more chance that shops in that area would stock a few copies. And do think beyond standard bookshops: galleries, museums, country houses, exhibition spaces all tend to sell some books in their shops, and if your title is of direct relevance, it’s worth approaching them (you’d definitely need to find out who the book buyer is).
And bookshops of course aren’t the only places where you can sell books – Amazon obviously dominates the market anyway, and if you have access to an audience of your own, e.g. via an email newsletter or website that you know people read/visit, you can sell directly to them. (And you could try cross-promotions with other authors in your space.)
There’s always going to be a certain cachet in seeing your book on the shelves of a shop – but I’m afraid you will need to work very hard to get it there!
Are Amazon ads worth it?
I was contacted by an author who told me: I have self-published a handful of books over the years with KDP and Kobo (fiction and non-fiction). I make sales every month but nothing has really done well. Can you explain a little about Amazon Ads and do you think they are worth gambling money on?
I’ll start this answer with a caveat that I often give: I’m not a marketing expert – I help people get from first draft to publication. But of course I talk to authors all the time, and have direct experience of using Amazon Ads. A second caveat would inevitably be to say that self-publishing is a long, hard game and there are rarely easy wins!
There are some notable advantages and benefits of Amazon ads:
you can target the ads to very specific customer interests/searches
they don’t cost much to try
you only pay when someone buys the book, not when they click the ad (as at some other online advertising platforms)
you get very useful data on each ad’s performance.
That first point is very important: the more targeted your advertising keywords are, the more likely it is that customers will see your book ad, and hopefully buy it. This also applies to the keywords and categories you use when setting up a book with KDP, of course – but there is one interesting difference. Amazon doesn’t let you use other authors’ names or book titles in your standard keywords – but it does with the advertising program. So if you think your book would appeal to a specific author’s audience, you can try setting up ads targeted to anyone who searches for that author’s name or books (of course, if they are a major name the cost will be higher and your chances of success lower due to other people trying the same thing!) – of course, you’d also want to use subject or genre-related keywords too.
Everything about targeting your ads comes down to what book buyers are likely to put into the search field at the top of the site. This can sometimes be surprisingly specific (and specificity is the crux of all this, really). There are (expensive) tools out there which can help with this research – but I will write something more detailed about this sort of research in a future newsletter. The simple, free thing to try first is just start typing in a potential keyword in the search box, and Amazon’s autocomplete will show you up to 10 similar things that real customers type in.
Effective use of Amazon ads is a numbers game. There are different ways to approach this but I prefer looking at ACOS – the ‘advertising cost of sales’ figure provided by Amazon in the ad platform’s reporting tools. This is expressed as a percentage, calculated by dividing what you are spending by the revenue generated from ad-generated sales. But what people often gloss over is that that revenue is not what you actually earn! The retailing percentage and your printing costs (or ebook delivery costs) come out of that revenue. My general rule of thumb for my own publishing projects is to aim for an ACOS for a paperback book of lower than 25%. This would generally mean I am at least breaking even on my ad spend or – ideally! – making a profit on it.
If you can find keywords that get a low ACOS, all you need to do is focus on those, turn off those with a high ACOS and in theory you are printing money. But you may be printing money super slowly as really specific keywords won’t be typed in by buyers very often. I know ads can work because I have had success thanks to this platform – but that is in a very specific non-fiction genre where there is clear demand. If you are looking at promoting fiction, the impression I get is that it is much harder to make ads work unless you have a really niche genre (do of course study other books in your genre and see whether other authors within it are using Amazon Ads). ‘General interest’ will not work!
Yes, it’s a gamble as your question suggests – but the advantage is that a lot of data is provided to help you refine your decisions, and it doesn’t cost much to test the water and see where you might get some traction. So I definitely think it’s worth trying – but proceed with caution and just try a small budget to start with and see what you learn from it.
Do I need an ISBN?
I often get asked this by authors, or about whether they’re needed for ebooks, and about where to get them. Here’s a snappy overview.
The short answer is that if you are producing a print book and you want the option of it being available in multiple marketplaces, yes, you need an ISBN (which stands for International Standard Book Number).
ISBNs are really just a specialist form of retail product code, and since 2007 have in fact adhered to the EAN-13 standard – that brings them into line with our retail identifiers. The point of all this is to associate a specific code with a specific product (here, a book) so retailers know precisely which one is being referred to (and of course buyers can choose to ask for them, although author and title would be more typical!).
If you are producing your book purely for private circulation, you don’t need an ISBN – but if you have any plans to go to market, then you do. It’s possible to get them for free – Amazon KDP, for example, offers them, and my understanding is that in the US only, IngramSpark does likewise (I’m in the UK so have not tried this directly). But I’d advise against it – unless you are 100% certain you only want to use that platform. It’s much better to buy your own ISBNs – then you are free to set your book up at both of those platforms, or indeed elsewhere. In the UK, you buy them here from Nielsen, and in the US here from Bowker (Bowker also handle Australian ISBNs). Yes, they’re a bit pricey for what is basically just a few digits, but you can register them to your own ‘imprint’ (i.e. whatever you want your official publisher of record to be listed as), and you have control over their use. (In my business, I do offer ISBNs to clients if they wish, and have created a dedicated imprint for this purpose, but I always give them the full picture – it’s better to have your own if money isn’t a problem.)
ISBNs have a particular structure, the details of which aren’t particularly important here, although in the English-speaking world usually six of the digits (but it can be 5 or 7) represent the publisher/imprint; and the last digit is always a ‘checksum’ to ensure the previous ones are as they should be.
What about ebooks?