How Self-publishing Works

An open book in front of a bookshelf filled with books.
Self-publishing is an alluring concept to most writers. Евгения Матвеец / Getty Images

To a writer, self-publishing is an incredibly powerful and alluring concept. On the simplest level, it's an intriguing solution to an age old problem: How do you get your words to a wide audience (ideally, while earning some money along the way)? On a more artistic level, it is a unique extension of the creative process. Beyond putting words on the page, the self-publisher actually controls every aspect of authoring -- he or she creates the physical book and actively brings it to an audience. It's a uniquely harmonious and satisfying melding of art and business.



­It's not easy, of course, but these days self-publishing isn't as difficult as you might think. Today, you can produce a substantial run of a quality book for as little as $5,000.

In this article, we'll walk through what you would do as a self-publisher, and we'll get some words of advice from an author who's actually been there. Walter Roark has published three books -- "Keeping the Baby Alive Till Your Wife Gets Home," "Keeping Your Grandkids Alive Till Their Ungrateful Parents Arrive," and "Keeping Your Toddler on Track Till Mommy Gets Back" -- and has had success with all of them.


The Big Picture

Photo courtesy Clearing Skies Press Author Walter Roark with his kids Meghan and Shannon

What does self-publishing really mean?

On the most basic level, it means that in addition to writing, you take care of all the things that a publishing house (Random House, Bantam, Wiley, etc.) would. That doesn't mean you literally do everything personally -- you don't see too many writers running a printing press, for example. It means you bring in all the necessary help to create a book, and you finance the entire project (either with your own money, or with borrowed money).


In other words, self-publishing means you run and finance a small business dedicated to producing and selling a single product: your book (or books, once you get going). In most cases, the business's goal is to make a profit over time -- to create a product that sells well enough to cover the expense of creating it, and then some.

This business venture breaks down into three broad stages:

  1. Actually writing, editing and illustrating the book
  2. Prepping the book for printing, and getting it printed
  3. Selling the book

Each one of these stages involves many individual steps and decisions, as we'll see.


Anatomy of a Publisher

Before we get into the business of creating a book, let's look at the details of becoming a publisher. As a self-publisher, you are operating a small business. Depending on where you live, starting a small business means jumping through a few easy hoops. In most U.S. states, you need to:

  • Decide on a name. Ideally, you want a publishing name that nobody else is using, just to prevent confusion. You can check books and publications like the Literary Market Place and Books in Print to see if anybody is using your name. The name should include the word "publishing," the word "press," or the word "books," to make it clear to potential clients what you do. In most cases, you want something that has some wiggle room -- if your first book is on machine guns, don't call your business "Machine Gun Press," because you may want to write about something different in your next book.
  • Get a business license. This varies depending on where you live. Check with your local chamber of commerce to find out how.
  • Design a logo, or hire an illustrator to design one.

Additionally, you'll need basic business operation stuff, such as:


  • A bank account dedicated to your business. You don't want to mix your business accounts in with your personal budget, so separate them right from the get go.
  • Letterhead, business card, etc.
  • A Web site. You'll need to get hosting space and reserve an appropriate domain name. This article explains the basics.
  • A post office box, so you can receive mail.

As a business owner, you'll most likely be qualified for various tax deductions. For example, if you write in a home office, part of your housing payment is a work expense, as is your computer equipment, book storage space, etc. To get the full rundown of what you can and can't deduct, you'll need to talk to a professional tax preparer.

Be sure to take a look at the Lots More Information page, where you'll find even more information on starting a business.


Beginning the Book

In most cases, the first step in self-publishing is developing an idea for your book. You can self-publish almost anything you want, but if you want to make a profit, it helps to consider your book not just as a piece of art but also as a sellable product. What audience is interested in the subject and how do you get their attention?

Everybody has an opinion on what sells, and we won't get into that too much here -- it's part of the individual creative process that self publishers go through. The important point is that as a self-publisher, you have to consider sales just as a large publisher would. Step 1 is arriving at an approach to the book that will make it valuable to an audience. Among other things, that means seeing what similar books are out there, and seeing how they've sold (checking Amazon rankings is a good place to start).


Money isn't everything, of course. Few books are going to be blockbusters, and many self-publishers aren't that concerned with making money at all. But even setting profit aside, it is essential that you have a business plan based on what you reasonably believe you can sell. To put it another way, there's no point in printing 10,000 books if books like yours typically take three years to sell 1,000 copies.

In addition to the subject matter and approach, a self-publisher needs to think about the book as an actual, physical product. Will it be a trade paperback or a hardback book? How many pages will it have? What will it cost? All these questions are interrelated, as we'll see in the next section.


What Sort of Book?

Roark went through several possible cover treatments on his first book before settling on one that felt right.
Photo courtesy Clearing Skies Press

You certainly don't need to know exactly how many pages your book is going to be before you even get started writing. But if you have a target, and you know what type of book you're creating, you can plan your budget accordingly.

The broad decision first: Do you want a hardback book or a trade paperback book? Hardback books are significantly more expensive to print, and because of the higher cover price, may sell less than a paperback book. But, for some books -- a mammoth textbook, say -- they're really the only way to go.


After you've made this decision, you can decide how many pages you'll want. Think about the scope of what you have to say and look at the page count in books with similar content. But also think about what you want the book to feel like. Simply pick out a book that is about the same size and format of what you have in mind.

When you find a good model to shoot for, count the number of words per page. Multiply that by the number of pages. Then subtract words for any "odd pages" -- the first and last pages of each chapter (these aren't usually filled), any blank numbered pages and any pages at the beginning and end of the book. This will give you a rough word count for the book. If you calculate how many words are on a page in your word processing program (or paper if you use a typewriter or if you write longhand), you can give yourself a target page count.

Why does this matter? For one thing, you need to think about the psychology of a book-buyer. If you're looking to create a gift book paperback, you don't want a massive 500-page volume, because it may feel too much like a reference encyclopedia. Its intended audience has more of a casual interest, so it should have a lighter feel. But if you're putting together a how-to guide, a 100-page book isn't going to seem like a good deal to your potential customer. They'll pick the thicker book on the shelf next to yours, because it seems more substantial.

Price also plays a role here. More pages costs more, and certain multiples of pages are cheaper than others. Printing presses print a set number of pages in one pass -- typically 32 pages, front and back. This means it's substantially cheaper to print a 320 page book than a 321 page book. This isn't something you have to figure out right away, but it should be a factor when you are laying out the finished book.


Creating Content

Once you nail down what kind of book you want to end up with, you can get busy writing. The obvious way to go about this is to shut the door to the world, write whatever you want and worry about editing down the line. Show your friends and family when you want to, but otherwise, do it however you like. You don't have a publisher to worry about, so you can really write however you want to.

To many self-publishers, this doesn't work very well -- it's too unstructured, and they get lost without somebody to bounce ideas off of. One solution is to hire a freelance developmental editor. A developmental editor serves the same basic function as the editor you would work with at a publishing house -- you can show them drafts and outlines, and they can make edits to improve the book. The difference of course is that what you say is the last word, rather than the other way around. Ideally, the main thing they bring is expertise in book publishing -- a developmental editor should be somebody who knows how to build a good book.


To find a developmental editor, check the Literary Marketplace

The price of a developmental editor goes in your total budget for the book. Depending on how you work, it may save you enough of your own time to make it a worthwhile expense.

You may also want to bring in additional professional help. In the next section, we'll look at the other people you might need on your payroll.


Call in the Reinforcements

To add something extra to his book, Walter Roark brought in an illustrator to create some cartoons.
Photo courtesy Clearing Skies Press

In addition to a developmental editor, you may need to hire more help during the content-creation process. You may need:

  • An illustrator or cartoonist to provide pictures for the book or for the cover.
  • A photo researcher to track down illustrative photos and get permission to use them.
  • A copy editor to review your finished copy, generally improve the writing and catch any mistakes.

Copy-editing is an important concern. You can rely on your own editing, with some help from friends and families, but if you want to end up with solid, relatively error-free text, you'll probably need to bring in an editor with some experience. You would be surprised how hard it really is to catch all the mistakes in a 1,500 word article, let alone an entire book.


For the most part, the creation period is all about writing, editing and adding illustrations. But as you're working on your book content, you also need to do a few things to prepare to make your work a real book. In the next section, we'll look at these simple steps.


What a Real Book Needs

The basic components of a book are obvious -- you have pages of text and graphics, bound between two covers. But for your work to be a viable book that can sit on bookstore and library shelves, it needs a few additional things. Before printing, you need to:

  • Get an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). This is sort of like a book's Social Security number -- every book in print has a unique one, and bookstores, book wholesalers and the like use this number to identify particular titles. To get an ISBN, you fill out some forms from the R. R. Bowker Company, pay the fee (a couple hundred bucks), and the company issues you 10 ISBNs. If you have a hardback, paperback and audio version, all three will need separate ISBNs. Check out for more information.
  • Get a Library of Congress catalog number : You need this to get your book into libraries, which is a big market. Check out this site to learn more.
  • Get a European Article Number (EAN) scanning symbol. This is simply a special UPC bar code scanning symbol used just for books. This page lists vendors who will create EAN symbols for your book.
  • Set a price. You'll need to print this on your book, so you definitely need it before printing. But beyond that, you'll need it sooner rather than later, so you can manage your budget. Conventional wisdom says your book should cost at least five times the cost of each book in your initial production run. To find the right price, just look at similar books. In most cases, going for a lower price than the competition won't help sales, so pick an average price.

Other things to consider:


  • You may want to solicit blurbs (endorsements) for the back cover of your book.
  • You'll need to write front and back material for your book -- the preface, table of contents, the copyright page, and acknowledgments that you find at the beginning or the end of a book. Look through published books similar to yours to get an idea of what this should include.
  • You may want to write an author bio for the back cover.

Once you have your content ready to go, it's time to get all that content into book form. In the next section, we'll look at this process.


Priming for Printing

Up until this point, your "book" hasn't really been a book at all -- it has been a manuscript. The next step is to convert this manuscript into a printable form -- the baseline for what will actually become a physical book.

This is far easier today than it has ever been before. With a decent PC and the right desktop publishing software, you can create a printer-ready book in digital form. With this software, you can adjust margins and font size to get at your desired page count.


You can't simply send the printer a formatted Microsoft Word Document, because that type of word processing program isn't designed with the necessary print drivers to use a printing press. Instead, you need to format your book with one of two programs: Quark Xpress or Adobe Pagemaker. The software itself isn't cheap, and there's a steep learning curve, but a computer literate person can make a go at it with relative ease.

You also can't use one of the fonts that comes with your word processing program. For print-ready material, you need a Postscript font, coupled with Postscript print drivers.

To incorporate illustrations, you'll need a high quality computer scanner and a quality graphics program, like Adobe Photoshop, to get it ready for print.

With your desktop publishing program, you actually put together every single page of the book. Then you save all of this to a CD -- the desktop publishing file, the file for the font you used, and all the graphic files. This is your book, in digital form, ready for the printers.


To the Printers

When your books come off the press, the printer will box them up and ship them to you.
Photo courtesy Clearing Skies

Once you have your book in digital form, you need to find a printer. This means a little bit of shopping around. Do some research and find a few book manufacturers you might work with. Many printers normally handle only fliers -- make sure you're looking at book manufacturers, who have experience putting books together.

Ask for a quote -- a price for printing, that the manufacturer will honor for 30-90 days -- and request samples of similar work they've handled. Compare and contrast, and figure out who is offering the best results at the best price.


To ask for a quote, you'll need to decide how many books you actually want to print. Much of the cost of printing is in setting up the print run, so you'll get a lower price per book if you print more books at once. However, if you grossly over-estimate how many books you can sell, you'll end up shelling out a lot of money you can't make back in a reasonable amount of time. This is one of the most important business decisions you'll make, because it will directly affect your immediate profits.

Before the printer prints your book, they should print proofs -- essentially, printed test runs. When the proofs are ready, it's your job to check every page to make sure there are no mistakes. Anything that was not in your original file is a printer's error -- the printer must flip the bill to fix it. Any mistake that was in your original file is an author's adjustment (AA), which means you have to pay for it (though the printer may allow you a certain number of freebie fixes). After you've reviewed the proofs, you pass them on to the printer and they make the corrections.

At this point, or even earlier, the printer can print galleys (bound advance versions of the book). You can use these galleys to begin marketing the book.

Finally, the printer will actually create the entire run of your book, and ship the copies to your house, your storage facility, or wherever else you want them delivered (directly to a book wholesaler you have sold to, for example). It's time for the final step: actually marketing and selling the book.


Initial Marketing

Walter Roark created these simple counter displays to help sell his books in USA Baby stores.
Photo courtesy Clearing Skies

Before your book's publish date, you'll need to bring the work to some prominent reviewers' attention. There are a few major marketing steps that are nearly essential:

  • Fill out an Advance Book Information (ABI) form at before your book goes to press. Submit the form, and Bowker will include you in their directory "Forthcoming Books in Print." When your publish date hits, your book will be automatically included in "Books in Print," a directory that reaches just about every major book buyer, and many reviewers.
  • Send advance information and copies of your book to Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal. These publications also reach a huge audience of book buyers. If you send advance information about your book, you may get a mention. If you send your book or a galley in advance of the publish date, you may even get a review.
  • Pick other suitable publications and send them books for review. It's important to send books out in advance, because many magazines aren't interested in reviewing books after they've been published.

Marketing will continue as long as you're selling books. Marketing breaks down into two different areas: promoting your book to re-sellers (bookstores, for example) and promoting your books to your actual audience, so they'll order your books and seek them out in stores. There are dozens and dozens of tricks and strategies for marketing in both veins. You can find tons of ideas in the books and links on the Lots More Information page at the end of this article.


When you finally reach your publish date, you have one basic job: Get people to buy your book. For individual book-buyers, this is pretty simple. They pay the cover price, you record the transaction and you ship or give them the book. But individual book-buyers are the smallest piece of your customer base. Your major customers are:

  • Independent bookstores
  • Wholesalers, who fill orders from many bookstores. They only buy what they need or expect they will need.
  • Distributors, who buy books to actively resell them to bookstores.
  • Exclusive (master) distributors, who will handle everything involved in the selling of your book, in exchange for the exclusive right to distribute
  • Online booksellers

Two new factors enter the mix with these customers -- discounts and returns. To ensure a profit, booksellers always buy books well below the cover price, and most reserve the option to return books they cannot sell. If the books are undamaged, you must refund the buyer's money.

You'll need a terms and conditions sheet that outlines, in detail, how you'll operate your business -- what kind of discounts you offer, how you handle returns, how you handle billing, etc. Your terms and conditions are up to you, but you'll have to treat particular types of buyers a certain way in order to do business. For example:

  • Individual bookstores generally get 40 percent off the list price.
  • General wholesalers and distributors get 50 - 55 percent off the list price.
  • Exclusive (master) distributors get 62 to 67 percent off the list price.

In the United States, there are a handful of huge fish in the pond, and tons of little fish. The big fish are:

Selling is an ongoing process that can last for years (without taking up a ton of time). When you run through your first shipment, and there's still demand, you go to the printer for your next shipment. If your book really catches on, you may be able to land a good deal with a larger publisher who can push your sales to a higher level. Over the years, many successful authors have used this road to get on a publisher's radar.

The sweet spot of writing is generally at the beginning of the process -- when you're sitting at a keyboard putting your ideas into words. In contrast, the sweet spot to publishing generally comes after all the work is done -- when you've recouped your initial costs, and every book sold is money in your pocket. This is a self-publisher's ultimate reward.

For much more information about self-publishing, check out the links in the next section.

Lots More Information