How to self-publish: a guide and a few cautionary tales

You’ve written a book, or you want to write a book. You have two choices for publishing that book:

  1. You can query a publisher and hope they’ll accept your manuscript.
  2. You can self-publish.

This is the first post in a series. In this post, I give a high-level overview of your choices for getting your book into print (either through a publishing house or through self-publishing). The succeeding posts provide a guide to self-publishing.

Why I’m qualified to write this series:

  1. I’m a self-published author (and a technical writer with hundreds of technical books under my belt). I’ve also ghost-written a book, but of course can’t name it.
  2. I work as a Development Editor (basically, a book project manager) at a major computer book publisher.
  3. I’m a professional editor, interior book designer, typesetter, and indexer.

Option 1: get a publisher

Option 1 sounds great, doesn’t it? You submit your query letter and the publisher accepts it. You sign the contract. Boom! Done. All you have to do is write the book and send it off to the publisher, right?

Well, not quite. Read that contract carefully. Depending on the publisher, you may have rounds of editing with the publisher, or you may lose complete control over your manuscript once they have it. You almost certainly will have no control over the cover, and your book’s success (as measured in sales) is in your hands. The publisher expects you, not them, to market your book so that bookstores will carry it and people will buy it. Your royalties are based on sales, so if it doesn’t sell, you won’t make money on your book.

So why publish through a publisher? What do they have to offer in exchange for keeping the majority of the profits on your book? They take care of the costs of

  • editing
  • interior design
  • typesetting
  • cover design
  • printing and distributing

If your book needs indexing, typically you’ll need to do that yourself (but please don’t, unless you’re a professional indexer), or you’ll pay a professional indexer. If you’re lucky, the publisher will pay to have your book indexed, but that’s rare.

If you want to go this route, research the publishers you want to approach. Find out what they prefer (a proposal in the form of a query letter plus a sample of the book is typical). Then submit your proposal in the format and manner they require.

As with every part of this series on publishing and self-publishing, you’ll find a ton of books on the subject.

Cautionary note

This is super important: a legitimate publisher will never ask you to pay for any of the tasks I listed previously (editing, typesetting, and so on). If a company claims to be a publisher, but they want you to pay for any part of the publishing process, they are not a publisher. They are instead offering services to self-publishers. They are disguising themselves as traditional publishers because some people think there’s something wrong with self-publishing.

Option 2: self-publish

Option 2 requires a lot more work and investment from you. In a nutshell, to self-publish a book, you’ll need to

  1. Write a book.
  2. Get that book reviewed before you publish it.
  3. Get your book professionally edited.
  4. Hire a professional to create the cover.
  5. Hire a professional to design and typeset the interior. (And, if needed, to index your book.)
  6. Start marketing your book.
  7. Decide how you’re going to print and distribute your book.

(As I write each post, I’ll link to it in the list above. Note that most of these posts are long, but each is full of practical information, the kind I had to spend years in the industry learning, all distilled for you in one place.)

Note: Many people have written many books on each of these steps. So I only touch on the essentials in the succeeding posts. There’s no way around it: you’re going to need to research the topic in more depth. In the following posts, I

  • cover each step at a high level
  • give you a lot of practical information
  • offer you a few cautionary tales
  • refer you to good-quality books and resources

Best of luck! And hey, if you are self-publishing (or if a publishing house is publishing your book), feel free to link to your book in a comment to this post or any of the succeeding posts.

Pro tip: successful comments are short, crisp, and to the point.

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