What I’ve Learned About Self-Publishing


I’ve been asked a number of times if I’ve tried to get my books published with a traditional publisher before I self-published them. When I say, “no,” they seem surprised.

Don’t get me wrong. I might sign with a publisher given the right circumstances, but for my first two books, I thought the niche was too small to even try. They weren’t general books on using technology in the Church, they were books on using very specific technologies in the church. I looked around and didn’t see any books written on such a specific issue with the possible exception of The Blogging Church.

I really didn’t want to try time and again to get a publisher to approve my book, especially since it was such a narrow subject, so I decided that self-publishing would be the best way to go.

Having done it, here are a few things I’ve learned.

1. There are still expenses related to self-publishing; it’s not totally free.

Depending on your ability and who you know, it may cost as little as a few dollars to self-publish, a few thousand, or anything in between.

With my first book, I tried to edit it myself. I read through it a few times and each time I thought I caught all the errors. When I finally gave up and sent it to my editor, I was convinced there wouldn’t be any more. Was I wrong! I had apparently only caught 10% of my mistakes. Now, I know to get more eyes on it sooner rather than later.

If you don’t at least dabble in graphic design, the cover is another place that will cost you money. I’ve seen a lot of covers on Amazon that look like they were designed in MS Paint on Windows 95. A cover is the face you put on a book, so I try to make mine look like someone who knew what they were doing did it. I got a compliment from a book site when I submitted Tweeting Church to be included on one of their lists. They told me the cover looked like it was “professionally designed.” Since I’ve never designed book covers for money, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

You’ll also need to have the inside formatted. This is one of the things I didn’t think about before I self-published my first book. There are some great book designs out there that can range from basic to beautiful. To me, the biggest challenge here is making sure that the book style remains consistant. The body font needs to always be the same size with the same margins. That’s harder than you’d think.

Finally, you might think eBook publishing is easy, but while there are plenty of articles on how to do it, it’s difficult to get the format just right, especially the table of contents. All formats are a little different. Epub is an open standard that iBooks and Nook are based on, but not Kindle. Kindle uses Mobi. That means that what may work in one doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Any or all of these areas can be free if you do it yourself (or have a friend do it), or they can cost hundreds of dollars each. The choice is yours.

2. If you write it, they may or may not come.

This is where traditionally published authors have an edge. If your publisher does publicity for your book, you’re farther along the trail than if you have to do it yourself. From what I hear, being traditionally published doesn’t guarantee your publisher will publicize your book. Most authors assume that they need to do their own publicity and whatever is done by the publisher is just a bonus.

Despite what some online gurus might tell you, publishing an eBook on Kindle isn’t a guarantee of success. I’d thought that my work would be done when I hit the “publish button,” but it wasn’t. I have over 5,000 Twitter followers, 500 FaceBook friends, a few hundred on a mailing list, and have accounts on various other social media outlets. My success is only now headed toward modest from nonexistent.

I’m starting to get a little traction. I’ve got some fans that are moving from interested to committed. I just need about 1,000 of those and I might actually get somewhere.

3. While there are other platforms, most eBook sales come from Amazon.

There was all sorts of angst and gnashing of teeth when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select (aka KDP select) program was announced and required ninety days of exclusivity. That died down when authors realized how many of their sales came from other outlets.

The enemy of most self-published authors is obscurity. Committing to Amazon for three months and getting five days to give their books away for free during each three month period helps with that problem. The cost is up to 10% of total sales on other platforms at the reward of an increase of 400% or more in sales on Amazon. KDP select gives authors a way to get their names out there. I’ve given away thousands of books and every time I do, I sell more books. It’s a win/win.

4. There are tons of companies who do self-publishing, but a lot of them do so in packages that may or may not be helpful.

I won’t list the offenders. I’ll just tell you a story. My church was having a conference and I had a table with my books set up. As I was there, I started talking to Amy, a woman who’d just written a book. In passing, she said, “I’ve finally almost got enough money saved up to publish it.”

As I talked with her, I realized that she thought her only option was to go with a full-service self-publishing company. She thought she really didn’t need most of what the package she was looking at offered, but she thought it was her only choice. When I told her about KDP for Kindle and CreateSpace for paperback, she was very grateful. “Paul, you just saved me a lot of money,” she said.

I could have recommended Smashwords for other eBook formats and LuLu as an alternative to CreateSpace, but if all you need is to have them print out your book and put it on Amazon or to put it on the Kindle store, you don’t need a more expensive service. If you want a one-stop shop for design, editing, and publicity, then these full-service publishers are the way to go.

5. Self-publishing isn’t the path to riches, but it might help your success.

I don’t make tens of thousands of dollars a month from my books, but I do make tens of dollars. Since most of the work of creating the individual books is done, this is all profit for me. I make 70% of the price of a Kindle book and 80-85% of the price of a paperback. That means I have a lot of flexibility that some other authors don’t have. If I want to sell my paperbacks for $5 each, I can. If I want to give away my eBooks to anyone who will take one, I can. If I want to boost the price to some crazy level, I’m the only one who suffers when it doesn’t sell.

This pricing flexibility is very helpful in situations where I need to pay to set up a table to sell my books. If I sell them at a book fair, at the cover price I make about 4-8x what a traditionally published author next to me makes. That means I only have to sell 12-25% as many books to make as much.

6. The turnaround time for a book can be almost as short or as long as I want.

I’ve never written a book faster than a month, but there are ways to write even faster, especially if it’s a shorter book. It’s not inconceivable that you could have an idea for a novella, write it in a week or two, get it edited in a week or two, and have a finished product ready for sale in two to four weeks. If your spouse is a professional editor and loves to do it, I could imagine it being even faster. This would be atypical, but it’s MUCH faster than traditional publishing.

If I want to take my time and write a book slowly over years and years, I can. There are no deadlines except the ones I put on myself. This is actually a mixed bag. My first book was done in forty days because I didn’t have anyone telling me to finish it. My second was the same. The one I’m about to release came in on time, at least according to the time I wanted to spend.

7. There are some downsides to being self-published.

I mentioned doing all the work and advertising or hiring people to do it. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned an advance. That’s because you don’t get one. If you can finance it on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, you might be able to sell some advanced copies and finance it that way. That’s less certain, but it might be worth a try.

The only way first-time authors will have someone to guide them through the whole process from idea to bestseller is if they hire someone like a book coach or if it’s part of a larger package through their self-publishing company. While I’ve spent a couple of years learning all this stuff, if I could have hired someone to help with the process, it would have been much easier.

All in all, I’m happy with the process, but it’s not without its risks. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but for some authors, it’s exactly the right thing to do.

Would you ever self-publish a book? Do you think it’s better or worse than traditional publishing?

[Image via JoelMontes]


Paul Clifford

Author of Podcasting Church (http://amzn.to/podcastchurch), Tweeting Church (http://amzn.to/tweetchurch), and The Serving Church (http://amzn.to/theservechurch). Paul blogs regularly at his technology in ministry blog: http://TrinityDigitalMedia.com and live-streams tech and creativity 5-days a week at http://ChurchTechCast.com

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  1. says

    Thanks for the post Paul. I’m looking at turning some of my blog posts into mini ‘How To’ books and this post is a great resource to look back at when the time finally comes to start compiling them.

  2. says

    I published a Christian magazine for several years. We had a web presence but our primary focus was print. Now I am making the transition and there is a great deal to learn. Your post answered questions I didn’t know to ask! Thanks for the help.


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