by Dennis Meredith

(This article was distilled from a series posted on ResearchExplainer.com.)

Self-publishing is becoming an ever more viable option for authors, given the erosion of commercial publishing, convenient print-on-demand technology, and the increasing power of Amazon and other online bookstores.

Since I’ve become a self-published author—my first novel being The Rainbow Virus—I’ve come up with a set of rules I’ve found to be most helpful:

1. Ask yourself why. Your motives for self-publishing will guide how much time, effort, and money you invest. Are you only publishing a book for family and friends? Will your book be integral to your professional “brand,” or will it be a sideline or hobby? Will it be a single book, or the first in a line of books that aim to build your reputation?

 2. Choose your investment level strategically. Once you’ve decided on the “why” of your self-publishing, you can figure out the “how.” Here is the spectrum of options to choose from:

  • Ebook only, do-it-yourself cover and layout. You might choose this alternative for test-marketing a book, or for books meant only for family and friends. The most popular ebook platforms are Amazon’s Kindle and Smashwords. Using their built-in design tools, you can produce your own ebook for no cost, and market it through those sites. While this alternative costs no money, you incur a considerable time-cost to do it right; so be willing to learn the layout and cover design tools. Even so, the result will almost certainly not be as high quality as having a professional do the work. I know that if I’d tried to format my novel as an ebook, I never could have produced the graphical elements, such as the chapter headers, that distinguish my ebook as professional-quality.
  • Ebook only, professional cover and layout. By spending in the hundreds of dollars, you can have a professional do the cover and layout. Choose this alternative if you want to enhance your brand, and you expect some professional benefit from your ebook. For example, it’s entirely possible to make money from an ebook, with no print counterpart.
  • Print and ebook, do-it-yourself cover, layout. Even though ebooks are on the rise, a print book is still considered the hallmark of a “real” book. Choose this alternative if you want your book to have more legitimacy in readers’ eyes. You can produce a print book cheaply through CreateSpace or Lightning Source. However even if you spend considerable time to master their design tools, your print book will invariably not present the same quality as a professionally produced book.  This article by Michele lays out the advantages of professional design, and this article on the standards for book typography illustrates the complexity of producing a truly professional-looking layout.
  • Print and ebook, professional cover, layout and proofing. For several thousand dollars, you can commission a professional cover and interior layout and design, as well as ebook formatting. Such an investment makes sense if you believe there is a significant market for your nonfiction book. Or in the case of novels, if you plan to produce a line of books. It also makes sense if the book will be a significant part of your professional brand.

3. Do your homework. Prepare yourself to publish by thoroughly exploring the many books, web sites and discussion groups covering self-publishing.  It is time extremely well-spent and will both save you money and ensure that your self-published book is produced and marketed as well as it can be. Fortunately, publisher Jacqueline Simonds had compiled an excellent list of resources in her New Self-Publisher’s FAQ.

Of these many resources, here are some that I’ve found particularly helpful:

 4. Do a marketing plan early. Before you even write your book, develop a marketing plan that defines your audiences and how to reach them. This plan will help guide the content of your book, and of course will be essential for strategic marketing.

 5. Don’t expect to make money. There’s a saying in publishing: “You don’t make money from a book; you make money because of a book.” You are unlikely to make significant direct income from your nonfiction book, but it can build your reputation, yield writing assignments, and enable you to make money teaching workshops and giving talks on your subject. Even novels can offer the opportunity for income, for example, by giving paid talks on the topic of the novel.

6. Avoid POD publishers. Most so-called “print on demand publishers”—for example, Arbor Books, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and PublishAmerica—make their money charging (often overcharging) authors, rather than selling books. Before you consider one of these companies, read The Fine Print of Self Publishing by Mark Levine.

 7. Proufread, proofrede, proofreed! Strive to make your copy as perfect as possible. This means quality copyediting and obsessive proofreading over and over and over until you are totally sick of looking at your book. Then proof it again. Even the most trivial errors damage the credibility of your book, especially a self-published book. And for novels, errors pull readers right out of the story you’re trying to tell. Even a professional proofreader will miss errors—not only typos, but also conceptual and structural errors. Here’s a really good blog post on the process by which author K.M. Weiland self-edits her books, from draft to publication.

 8. Use Bowker. Register your book with Bowker—the publishing industry’s central provider for bibliographic information and ISBNs. Bowker’s self-publishing web site will guide you through the process.

9. Do free marketing first. Free or inexpensive marketing steps work best—including a web site, social media, news releases, and offering the book on reader sites like GoodReads and LibraryThing. Conversely spending money on ads and publicity campaigns is not usually as cost-effective.

10. Aim at Amazon. Amazon.com is so important to marketing, that it deserves its own spot in the top ten rules. Take maximum advantage of this free marketing platform. Write a compelling description of your book. Here’s an article on how to do that. List your book under all the possible categories and keywords, so search results on those terms will include it. Good Amazon reviews are critical, so ask anybody who says they like your book to post a review. Get your book reviewed by Amazon’s top reviewers and other major reviewers. Here’s an article on how to solicit reviews. Activate the Look Inside feature by uploading a pdf of your book. Create an author page, with a photo, and keep it updated.