Having just spent 3 very enjoyable days at LBF17, including taking in many of the excellent sessions being run in the ‘full-to-the-brim’ Author HQ, one thing did strike me. The various talks, hosted by some of the biggest names in Indy publishing, were well presented, interesting and hinted at what was required of the self-publishing author, however due to obvious time constraints in the sessions, there wasn’t much in the way of ‘nitty-gritty’ practical advice, warnings of pitfalls or “how to” guides…
Which made me think, if the advice you’re being given is “make sure that your book is the same standard as the big publishing houses”, which it rightly is, then how do you do that?
I’ve put together here, the 5 most invaluable pieces of information I believe you can have when starting out in self-publishing. This information is available online but to find it may take some digging, so hopefully this post will save you a few hours of research.
Tip 1 The Holy Trinity – Formatting, Editing & Cover Design
Tip 1 and fact 1 – Anyone who thinks that they can create their entire book from start to finish without some form of professional help is not going to meet the standards of a big publishing house!
There are numerous (and free) tools online to help you, from formatted templates to cover creators but bottom line, these are not good enough.
- Formatting – In a nutshell, this is the layout for your book, be it novel or non-fiction. You need to decide at the outset on your print size. There are various rules of thumb depending on what you’re writing and Ingram Spark have an impressive list here. Once you’ve decided on the size you can then create your final print file based on this. You’ll need to consider print margins and gutters, etc. There is no rule that says it has to be created with top design software and it’s acceptable to create your book in Word for instance, BUT be warned that even the best layouts can shift when converting to PDF and you do need to ensure you convert to the ‘correct’ PDF version. There may also be other issues to consider included embedded fonts that you’ll discover when uploading your file to online distributors such as CreateSpace & Ingram. The advice here is that if you’re not completely confident with all aspects of formatting, then pay someone who is. It’s more than worth it to avoid the hours yelling at your computer when things aren’t looking the way you want them to!
- Cover Design – Now I am in no way suggesting that you have to spend hundreds of pounds on an illustrator to match the likes of HarperCollins or Penguin Random House, but if you want to compete in the marketplace then you have to at the very least get yourself in the running. There are a lot of good designers out there who will create your cover for a few hundred pounds (maybe less) and whilst, when you’re starting out this sounds a lot, when it comes to the bottom line, the cover is what is going to sell your book. It is worth the investment. Have a concise brief for the designer and expect to receive two or three designs to choose from and don’t be afraid to tell them if they’ve got it completely wrong. Although listen to their advice. What you think is a winner may not be close to the ‘expected’ genre style. One other tip – don’t use the graphic designer who can only think in terms of branding, you want creativity here.
- Editing – I’m sure that as a writer you have a fabulous grasp on grammar and punctuation, but even the best eyes become blind having looked at a document several times over. Trust me on this, you begin to read what you beleive you’ve typed and not what is actually there. If you don’t believe me, reread that last sentence. This is another area where hiring a professional will make the difference between an amateur and a professional finished product. That’s not to say the big houses don’t get it wrong too, you’ve only got to look at Harry Potter to know how much the first issues are worth due to the errors, but glaring mistakes will lose you your audience. Proof readers usually charge around £25 per hour but you can also get a fixed price for the whole document. This is more than worth the outlay. It ensures that your reader isn’t stumbling over grammatical errors and being brought out of the story by poor punctuation! A final point on this last of the holy trinity, do not confuse proofing with structural editing or copyediting. An editor may suggest changes to whole paragraphs and even entire sub-sections if they feel something isn’t working. I’ve known some editors suggest alternative endings and this is where being self-published, you have the freedom to make your own decisions!
I cannot emphasis enough the importance of submitting a polished final manuscript to your printer or distributer. If you can tell the difference between your book and a top publishing house, then you can guarantee that a bookshop will too.
Tip 2 ISBN – International Standard Book Number
13 numbers. That’s what makes up your ISBN, but what exactly do they mean?
The ISBN Agency have this easy to understand graphic that explains how the number is used
In brief this number tells shops and distributers who the book is published by and when. It also tells a bookseller how many ISBNs were purchased at the one time. There are a couple of ways you can obtain an ISBN but again if you wish to be taken seriously I recommend you purchase yours from Nielsens in the UK or via Thorpe and Bowker in most overseas territories. (And don’t buy just one, a block of 10 works out much, much cheaper and gives you a little more consistency for future books). Alternatively you can use those provided for free by CreateSpace and Ingram although they come with limitations. For instance a CreateSpace ISBN can only be used with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and therefore may limit your distribution options. Also, if we’re being completely honest, it will be viewed as an ‘Amazon’ production and may struggle to be picked up by high street retailers. Here’s a link to Nielsen’s FAQ which is massively useful.
Another little quirk of ISBNs is how and when you need a new one. You cannot use the same ISBN for books in different formats, so if you wish to publish a paperback and an e-book then you will need a minimum of two ISBNs. That said, if you change the size of your paperback later, you will need another ISBN, but if you only revamp the cover then the original will suffice. Like I say, check out the Nielsen FAQ post.
Tip 3 – Distribution
How you get your book out there is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. It may also be that the platform you choose initially may not be right for you and you’ll change as time progresses.
There is no doubt that Amazon’s CreateSpace has been a huge boon for self-publishers. It’s free and relatively simple to use. With KDP and CreateSpace now merging this is going to make the process even easier, but what of the alternatives and is there anything prohibitive about CreateSpace?
Amazon is a monster and a law unto itself, and should you decide to dispense with Amazon’s print on demand completely you’ll find that your book appears to be “unavailable” in big letters but “available to purchase from other sellers” in tiny writing. Of course Amazon are in the game to make money and distribution is one of the ways they do this.
Other than CreateSpace the other major force in the Publish-on-Demand market is Ingram Spark. They, unlike CreateSpace, charge a fixed fee to upload your book but you can recover this expense with author copies and enjoy great discounts with an ALLi membership. Ingram’s main advantage however, is they offer a wider reaching distribution model and flexibility in pricing discounts. Through partnerships with the major networks, your book can be ordered by booksellers worldwide. It can take longer for changes to come into effect once you’ve updated on this platform but the advantages far outweigh that. Another ‘bottom line’ – if you want your book to retail through traditional bookstores, then Ingram has to be considered as a principle distribution platform.
For e-books, Ingram will also provide a distribution model, but their updates and changes are much, much slower than other ‘aggregators’, like Draft2Digital or Smashwords. This flexibility will be important if you consider offering an ‘on-sale’ price or free giveaways for e-books as part of your marketing campaigns. I can hear you ask why not just upload your e-book directly to the store fronts such as iBooks or Kobo? Anyone who has attempted to upload to iBooks will tell you that using a multiplatform submission tool will save your hours of looking blankly at your screen whilst sobbing gently, “Why Apple, just why?”
A couple of final words, on the subject of discounts and returns. Bear in mind that bookshops will want a discount from you to stock your book, so consider the printing costs and how much you can afford to give. Most bookshops will look for a minimum 40% discount and all would prefer 55%. You are the entrepreneurial author, so you decide what you can afford. With regard to returns, be very, very cautious. Offering returns is industry standard but if a bookshop orders ten of your books and returns seven, you will be liable for the printing costs, so do your risk calculations carefully. Turning returns ‘on’ in Ingram for example may take months to turn ‘off’ again, so be cautious.
Tip 4 How Many Print Copies Do You Need
One of the things that catches out a lots of self-publishers, is not knowing that, if printed in the UK, you have a legal obligation to provide one copy of your book to the British Library and five copies to the Legal Depository. If using CreateSpace you will also need two copies for the Library of Congress and if you are an internationally based author your home-country national library will want one or two as well.
These books must be the very best print version that you can provide. There is no way around this and you usually have a month from your release date in which to send the copies.
On top of this you should consider a copy for your own local library and giveaways for promotion.
If you’re short on budget then you can possibly get away with 10 copies but an initial run of 100 would be cheaper (and on Ingram will see your set-up fees refunded) and will stand you in good stead for future promotional events. I’m advised that for book signings whatever number you have in your head you should divide by 2 and then still be prepared to bring some home!
Tip 5 – Printing
All of the above dealt primarily with the wonders and freedoms that Publish-on-Demand have brought to you, the Indy Author. However, you can still elect to use on-shore or off-shore traditional printing companies to have copies of your book produced.
The choices of printer now far exceeds what it did even 5 years ago. You can get 10 books printed at a high standard for around £1.90 – £2.20 per copy. This was previously unheard of. Many self-published authors will tell you tales of the hundreds of books they had to have as a minimum print-run and therefore the hundreds of copies they still have in their attics and garages, thankfully this is no longer the case.
But be warned. For every good print company there are horror stories of others.
The best advice I can give is to find a printer that prints in your home country, at least for your first print. That way you have more control, you know deadlines are more likely to be hit and you’re not subject to the whims of potential dock and airport strikes or of overseas time zones, that complicate communications.
Some foreign print services are now excellent and comparatively cheaper. However you need to be mindful of delivery timescales. If you need a bound proof and I would ALWAYS suggest you have one before signing off on any print run, then this is going to take a number of weeks to arrive. Add to that the additional time for amendments and then the production of the full print run. Many companies will be reluctant to offer bound proofs due to cost implications and if they say they won’t, then my advice is to walk away from them. Perhaps run.
Always check with the printer that you choose, where the books are physically printed. Some printers are agents and outsource the work offshore without making this clear and you will be back to having potential time complications.
Above all, and perhaps an unofficial 6th tip, is to take your time. Take your time to learn. Take your time to seek out other authors and other indy publishers. Take your time to soak up the information out there. You control the schedule, you do not have publisher induced deadlines or requirements. Take your time to produce the best book you can. Take the time to produce the best book you want and take the time to enjoy the journey. This writing lark is your passion. Make it a joyful one.