This guide to self publishing a book is based on my own experience as a Canadian author. The general process applies everywhere, but I have included steps for those of us living outside the USA. (If you’re American, sorry eh, just skip those parts.) My hope is that this checklist will save other writers time, stress, and needless trial and error.
Table of Contents
- TINs, contracts, and other legal matters
- Set up a print-on-demand account
- Cover design
- Apply for Cataloguing In Publication (CIP)
- Format your book
- Set up your paperback
- Set up your ebook
- Prepare for launch with reviews and marketing
- Launch day
- Post-publication paperwork
This guide focuses on electronic and in paperback formats, but there are other ways to publish. For a discussion on self publishing vs. traditional publishing, check out my blog post on the topic.
This will be your main sales channel. KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) will get your book onto Kindle, while Smashwords handles all other channels. If you want, you can manually submit your ebook to Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, etc., but for a small royalty percentage, Smashwords saves a lot of hassle and distributes to more bookstores than you knew existed.
You’ll use a print-on-demand (POD) service for this. Decide whether you want to use CreateSpace, Lulu, IngramSpark, or otherwise.
Caution: Do not choose a self-publishing service that asks for payment up front. They should take a percentage of your royalties, not an up-front investment. For this reason, I do not recommend iUniverse.
CreateSpace vs. IngramSpark
I’ve tried both. Although IngramSpark appears to promise wider distribution, I do not recommend them. They have abysmal customer service. Whenever I tried to contact them, I was lucky to get a reply—and if I did, it came about a month later and was unhelpful. To top it off, a friend tried to buy the book in one of their distribution channels and the book was unavailable. CreateSpace, on the other hand, has great customer service and is easy to use. They’re owned by Amazon and use Ingram as a distributor, so as far as I know, you get the same distribution channels.
My other reason for trying IngramSpark was the potential for hardcover copies. However, for an indie publisher, hardcovers are not economical. You’d need to charge way too much and won’t get a decent return. (Also, IngramSpark’s hardcover quality isn’t great.)
To sum up: I recommend CreateSpace as your paperback supplier. Your book will be available on Amazon and distributed via Ingram.
After publishing via KDP and CreateSpace, the natural progression is to use ACX for audiobooks. (Yeah, Amazon is pretty fantastic for making self publishing accessible.) Here you can set up an audition for your book, then choose to do royalty sharing or pay the narrator upfront.
Don’t release your book until you’ve edited, revised, and checked that thing over like a TSA agent with a rubber glove. Here’s my recommended editing process.
1. Initial drafts
Write at least three drafts before letting anyone see it. The first draft always sucks. The second one should have all the holes fixed, characters strengthened, descriptions honed, etc. The third draft should focus on sentence flow and style.
2. Structural editing
Send your manuscript to beta readers. These are avid readers and writers who will take diligent notes as they read and give you honest, helpful feedback on your story. If you can handle waiting, send your book to these people one or two at a time and apply their feedback progressively. The more editing you do before you pass it off to a professional editor, the more money you’ll save.
After each reader has finished your story, meet in person and drill her with questions about your plot, characters, setting, etc.
Types of beta readers to include:
- Writer friends. My Crit Bitches always have excellent feedback and they write in various genres, which is helpful.
- Your most bookwormish friend who is not a writer.
- People who know about your setting and any relevant topics. I always have my dad read an early copy, because he comes back with strange things like “you mentioned lobsters here but there are no lobsters in this part of the ocean.” For Ice Massacre, I also had my uncle read it because he knows about sailing. Depending on your setting, you might benefit from finding someone who knows your topic.
- Someone who has formal education in writing. My first reader for everything is always Stephanie, who has a diploma in screenwriting and really knows her stuff.
Consider hiring a substantial editor. Optional, but I do recommend it. They are trained professionals and will make your book better than you ever dreamed.
At this point, I strongly encourage you to read my Advice on Accepting Feedback from Editors and Beta Readers.
2.1 Write the back-cover synopsis
The feedback stage will take at least a couple of months, so during this time I like to write the back-cover synopsis. Make several different versions and get lots of feedback on this.
3. Another draft based on feedback
Revise heavily. After spending time away from your manuscript, you’ll also find issues on your own that need fixing.
4. Style and grammar editing
Now that the story is perfect, it’s time to look at the manuscript from a grammatical point of view.
I recommend you read Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln, and, of course, the infamous Elements of Style. I also highly recommend SmartEdit to point out all your adverbs, cliches, repeated words, repeated phrases, etc.
This part is tedious, but I am always shocked at how many extraneous words can be removed. In Ice Crypt, I removed hundreds of words at this step… after I thought I had already removed the extraneous words.
5. Hire a copyeditor
Do not skip this step.
Editors.ca is the official directory of Canadian freelance editors. Contact a few with whom you think you might get along nicely, and ask them to do a sample edit of the first 5 pages. Pick the editor who finds the most mistakes in your sample while letting your voice shine through.
You’ll want them to do both a stylistic edit and a copyedit. While they’re at it, send them your back-cover synopsis.
Let’s talk about cost. Some writers claim they get their books copyedited for a few hundred dollars. I think they’re either lying, or their editor must not be very good. You’ll find that most professional editors quote somewhere around $2000 for a 100,000-word novel.
Don’t cheap out on the editing phase. A properly edited book is an important investment in your writing career.
6. Final draft and proofread
For proofreading, I recommend using your computer’s read-aloud tool. You’d be surprised at how effective this is at catching awkward sentences and typos.
Ok, your manuscript is done and perfected. Let’s move onto publication.
As an author with a small-business type of career, you need a lawyer. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be expensive. I use LegalShield, a business I found out about through my mom (thanks mom!). Basically, it’s $23 CAD per month and gives you access to a lawyer for anything at any time — even matters not related to publishing.
Things you’ll need your lawyer to help you with:
- Contracts. There will be many. Before you sign anything (editors, cover designers, etc.), always have a lawyer look over the contract.
- Register yourself as a publishing company. This helps for tax reasons, legal reasons, and, well, it’s fun to say you’re the president of a small publishing press.
- Apply for a U.S. tax identification number (TIN). You need this since you’re selling books in the states. To get one, send a W7 form to the IRS, along with a letter and a notarized copy of your passport. (2017 update: it seems you can now do all of this using your foreign ID, i.e. your Canadian Social Insurance Number, instead of a TIN, so yay. You can probably skip the TIN thing.)
- Ensure you aren’t infringing on trademarks in your novel. If you reference any brands or other intellectual property, you should ask the company’s permission with a formal letter. Your lawyer can help advise.
- As a writer in general, it’s important to have legal protection in case anyone accuses you of libel, trademark infringement, etc. My lawyer advised me on how to set myself up as a sole proprietorship.
A note on protecting your copyrights: In Canada, anything you write is automatically copyrighted. However, you should still apply for official copyright protection after you publish. More on this in step 12.
Make a CreateSpace account and fill out your information so you can receive royalty payments. If you have a U.S. TIN, use that; otherwise you can put in your SIN as your foreign ID. Then submit a W8-BEN form to CreateSpace (CreateSpace will guide you through it). If you don’t do this, the IRS will withhold taxes and you won’t get your full royalty payments.
Get your cover professionally done. I recommend 99designs. It’s not cheap—it was $500 when I used it—but you get hundreds of submissions. After you’ve chosen one, you can then work with the designer until you’re completely happy with it.
When describing your vision to the designer(s), send them the right CreateSpace dimensions and template. The designer should deliver you a press-quality PDF for the paperback, and a high-quality JPEG for the ebook.
Tip: Can’t choose between a few cover designs? Run a poll on Facebook / Twitter and get everyone’s opinion on the design. This piques people’s interest in your book!
Now that you’re a publishing house, you get your own ISBN prefix! Go to ISBN Canada and create an account. They’ll assign you a prefix. Then go to “Manage Logbook” and make new ISBNs for your forthcoming title.
For a single book, you need 3 unique ISBNs for the paperback, ePub/PDF, and Kindle versions. If you’re optimistic you can also reserve an ISBN for the forthcoming audiobook, like I did.
In the future when you publish a new book, log into ISBN Canada, click “Assign New ISBN”, and create new ISBNs for the paperback and ebook formats.
2018 update: Hey, good news! Self-pubbers don’t need to do this anymore!
Time to format your Kindle ebook, ePub ebook, and paperback. You can do the formatting yourself, or pay someone a small fee via a service like Fiverr.
Your interior should include:
- Title page
- Copyright page
- Acknowledgements / dedication
- About the author
- Optional content: Praise/Reviews, Table of Contents, etc.
Format your paperback
Use CreateSpace’s guidelines and templates.
Use existing books as a reference. Notice the way headers and footers are done. How I like it: chapter title followed by page number on the right page header; page number followed by the book title on the left page header; no header on the first page of each chapter.
Consider putting clipart in chapter or section breaks. (Just ensure these are public domain, like OpenClipart.)
Format your ebooks
- Save your book in Microsoft Word .doc format and ensure all your chapter headings use styles (i.e. “Heading 1”).
- You can upload a .doc to KDP Select (for Kindle) and Smashwords (for all other platforms) and they’ll convert to the required ebook formats for you. However, in my experience it’s better to convert yourself and then upload the .mobi to KDP and the .epub to Smashwords. Calibre is my favourite ebook conversion tool. It adds the metadata and table of contents for you and makes it easy to edit ePubs directly.
- Open the output file on an actual Kindle / Kobo, and check it in desktop simulators like iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle Previewer. Check the table of contents, headings, and formatting all the way through, including italics and page breaks.
Back to CreateSpace. Follow their steps to create your title and upload your cover and interior. Enable the Expanded Distribution Channel so your book is available to bookstores and online retailers.
You’ll notice CreateSpace gives you the option to have them assign you an ISBN. This is a nice offer, but you want your name / publishing house on the imprint, not Amazon CreateSpace. So use your own ISBN, not theirs.
Here you’ll also pick a price. I use this calculator and pick the lowest possible price I can go without losing money. (Yes. At this point in your career it’s about exposure, not making money.)
Review your proof copy — definitely get a copy mailed to you and look through the physical thing — and when you’re happy, set your publication date and click Approve Proof.
Sign up for KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and fill out your tax information like you did with CreateSpace. Follow the steps to upload your MOBI file, cover image, etc. Choose accurate, specific categories that will help your ranking.
It’s up to you whether you want to do KDP Select. KDP Select means you commit to publishing your ebook exclusively on Kindle for 90 days at a time. The main perk is that you get access to free / countdown promos, which helps with getting yourself to #1 bestseller status, if you do things right (check out Martin Crosbie’s guide). You also earn higher royalties, and your title will be available in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, from which you can also earn money.
What I do is make a new release KDP Select for the first 3 months, and then I opt out of KDP Select and just do regular KDP. Then I add it to Smashwords for distribution to the rest of the ebook platforms.
Now set your publication date and make your ebook available for preorder.
If you aren’t doing KDP Select, make a Smashwords account. Again, follow their steps to set up your tax and payment information. Then upload your .doc and make your title available to all the other ebook distributors. Check their guidelines to ensure your ePub meets requirements for maximum distribution via their Premium Catalog.
Note: Don’t forget to set the proper ISBN on your ebooks! You should have one for your paperback, one for Kindle, and another for all the Smashwords channels.
Assuming you set your publication date and finalized everything in CreateSpace, KDP, and Smashwords, your book will automatically be released on the day you selected.
Get your book reviewed
Get reviews up on Amazon and Goodreads before the launch, if you can. Offer all your friends and social media followers a free advance ebook in exchange for an honest review. Seriously, give away ebooks! It really is about exposure. Their review is worth far more than the $4 you’ll make from them buying a copy.
Also seek out reviews from:
- Indie-friendly reviewers and book bloggers.
- Local authors (you can use these as promotional blurbs).
- Foreword Reviews. They review a select number for free, but if you don’t make the cut, you could pay $500 for their Clarion service. This is the only reviewer I would pay for. Other than that, you shouldn’t pay for reviews or blurbs. I do not recommend Kirkus Indie. Twice I’ve paid for their very expensive review service and got nothing but a poorly written plot summary with no indication of whether they liked or disliked the book.
Optional marketing things that are probably a good idea
- Plan a launch party.
- Make promo art, 3D book cover, other graphics. Use Fiverr and/or freelancers for this. Canva is a great tool.
- Add your book to Goodreads and LibraryThing.
- Do Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways.
- Make a press kit.
- Make a fact sheet. This comes in handy at random times.
- Put an excerpt (your first chapter, probably) on Wattpad and Tablo to give people a taste. Use this in your promotions.
- Set up a blog tour. I’ve had good experiences with Xpresso.
- Submit to the ebook cover design awards.
- Donate paperbacks to libraries, schools, clubs.
- Do guest blogs.
- Get business cards with your book on them.
- Use bit.ly for memorable shortlinks. (e.g. I use bit.ly/mermaidbook all over the place)
- Contact local school districts. Offer free copies. Offer a teacher’s guide. Offer to come in and speak to students about writing and/or your area of specialty.
- Do interviews on blogs and wherever else you can.
A note on bookstores and media outlets
Unfortunately, getting into bookstores is hard. Since you used CreateSpace, your book is available via Ingram, which is great. However, bookstores won’t actually order your book without good reason. You’ll have to contact each store individually, drop off a review copy, and keep dogging them until they either supply it or come back with ‘sorry, we only do big publishing houses’. It’s a crapshoot. Honestly, your main sales channel is going to be Amazon — and that’s ok. Most book sales come from Amazon these days.
Local independent bookstores do tend to be great for supporting local authors. They’ll offer to carry your book on consignment (you’ll make about 25 cents a copy, but hey, at least it’s there!) My book is in three local bookstores, and I love them dearly for it.
Big bookstores and media outlets, though… they don’t give a damn about supporting budding local authors. I spent a lot of time sending press releases, personal letters, review copies, and more personal letters to TV stations, newspapers, and bookstores, and they didn’t even grace me with a reply. It took me 3 years of nagging to get 10 copies of my book into the Chapters near my house.
That said, don’t get discouraged. There are loads of ways to build a following online. Focus your efforts there, for now. There are also loads of people in your life (and strangers over the interwebs) who will genuinely love and support you as an indie author. These are the people who matter!
Launch day! Yay! Update your website and social media channels so everything points to your new release, where to buy it, and where to find it on Goodreads. Make announcements to your social media friends, email list, family, coworkers, etc. Throw books around like confetti.
A few things you must do once your book is published:
- Register in U.S. copyright office and send them in a copy. Other countries have copyright offices, too, but the U.S. one offers global coverage and my lawyer recommended I do it through them. Especially since my book is published via American suppliers. So I recommend you do that, too.
- Legal deposit. Library and Archives Canada requires you to mail them two copies of your book plus a form, plus submit your ebook version online.
- Register as a publisher on BowkerLINK and add your title so it shows up in Books In Print.
- Update your ISBN logbook with the book’s publication date/status.
Those are the steps! Man I wish I had this when I published my first one.
Congratulations on publishing your book! Now go market that thing.