Why Self-publish?

Join me now as I give you my Amazon Kindle Self-publishing Crash Course.

When it introduced the Kindle in November 2007, Amazon democratized the publishing industry. Not only did they create a compact device that held hundreds of digital books, but they also opened their platform to just about anyone who wants to publish. The process of uploading a book is simple. So much so even technophobes can do it without fear.

The reasons people publish their own work vary. Maybe they’ve had an idea for a novel for years and they’d like to get it out of their system. Maybe they’re experts in their fields and a nonfiction book would help buy them “street cred”. The simple truth is it doesn’t matter what your reasons are. Amazon has made it so easy you can do it almost on a whim.

There may be a few holdouts among you who are saying, “Sure, but I want to go the traditional route and see my book at Barnes & Noble”. That’s understandable. For most of us, it’s the model we grew up with. But traditional publishing has many more barriers to entry than self-publishing. Most publishing houses won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, so the author needs an agent. That service — as valuable as it is — comes at a cost. The author will pay his agent ten percent of the take. And having an agent is not a guarantee of success. Though the manuscript might be good, publishers can turn it down for many reasons. The subject may not jibe with their brand, the manuscript may be too similar to another title they’ve already scheduled, or they may decide the manuscript’s commercial possibilities are too narrow to risk the cost of printing, storage, and marketing. With traditional publishing, many factors come into play that are not there for the independent author.

With self-publishing, there are no gatekeepers and no middlemen. An agent isn’t necessary, so there’s no forfeit of ten percent. Also, a traditional publishing house with its army of editors and marketers, won’t get a say. With self-publishing, having a niche market for the finished product can be a virtue rather than a liability. Since there’s practically no overhead in the publishing process, authors can spend their resources reaching a small but dedicated audience traditional publishers would never court. In the age of the Internet, media is trending more niche than it ever has, and content creators are finding steady income streams from neglected demographics.

If you have a book idea (or even a finished manuscript), it’s time to think seriously about self-publishing.

Before You Publish

This isn’t a how-to-write article — particularly since there’s no one way to do it. Writing a novel differs from writing nonfiction. Even within those two categories, there are numerous approaches dictated by the tastes of the writer and the subject. If you’re struggling, look for books on method. Just know no two people do it the same way. Writing a book isn’t a magic trick. It’s about keeping a clear head, staying organized, and doing the work.

Once the writing’s done, you’re not finished. Though the process of uploading a book to Kindle is fast and easy, don’t jump ahead and skip important steps. Once you’ve typed “The End”, it’s time to think about editing. After you finish the book, let it sit for a while. A few days, maybe a week. After that cooling-off period, you can look at it with fresh eyes. But don’t let a reread be your only step. Use your software to help. Most word processors have spelling and grammar checkers. Let your tools find the problems for you. Don’t ignore the colorful underlines your software puts in. You may disagree with some conclusions, just acknowledge them. But even that’s not enough. After those two passes, you can bring dedicated editing software into the mix. Hemingway and ProWritingAid are editors that catch more mistakes than your writing software. Not only will they flag misspellings and simple grammar errors, but they’ll also find things like passive voice, run-on sentences, and overly complicated words. One of the best things about both is they give you a score or a grade level for your work. You want to aim low with these scores. If you’ve communicated a complex idea in a way that a second grader can understand, you’re ahead of the game.

But you’re still not done. You did all of that due diligence to pave the way for Phase Two: professional editing. Professional editors will require less time with a cleaner manuscript and thus what you’ll end up paying them will be less. Don’t send a professional editor a messy manuscript. Where do you find a professional editor? A Google search should produce numerous results, but you’re not looking for just any editor. Tailor your choice to the book you’ve written — and don’t just focus on whether your book is fiction or nonfiction. Drill down further to your specific genre or niche. Find an editor who has worked with books similar to yours. A book edit can cost anywhere between $500 and $1000 dollars, so make sure you have as much going in your favor as possible. Two other resources for finding editors are Reedsy and KBoards. Reedsy is a service and KBoards is a message board for Kindle authors. I’ve never used Reedsy myself, but I’ve heard good things. I’ve also heard booking an editor with the service can be more expensive than finding one on the open market. This brings us to KBoards. KBoards is a meeting place for people who self-publish. It’s an invaluable resource, particularly if you’re planning to self-publish long-term. If you need an editor, jump on, tell your fellow authors what kind of book you’ve written, and ask for recommendations. You’ll most likely come away with more leads than you need.

Let’s backtrack just a moment and talk about word processors. Many book authors still use Microsoft Word. It’s the industry leader, however, it may not be best for the kind of writing we’re talking about. Given that Word is the Swiss Army Knife of writing software, it’s bloated and some writers find it intimidating (not to mention infuriating). For book authors, the two best choices are Scrivener and Ulysses. Both were designed with long-form writing in mind, are intuitive, and have just the features a book author is likely to need. I can vouch for both and either is a good option. I will say I recently switched from Scrivener to Ulysses for one simple reason: Scrivener saves a file for each individual project, and Ulysses shows all of your projects in one place. I am old and I was losing track of my Scrivener files. A single umbrella over everything was appealing.

Once you’ve written and edited your book, you output a file to upload to Amazon. The file you generate will vary by the tools you have. Amazon’s publishing platform accepts multiple file types, but most of the options aren’t recommended. While you can upload a Word file, I wouldn’t. Barring the use of a formatting program (which I’ll come to in a moment), I recommend generating an ePub file for upload. However, use a formatting program. For this task, I can’t recommend Vellum highly enough.

Vellum allows you to fiddle with every aspect of your book’s look and then spit out the file for upload. Using this program, you’ll create eBooks which, in most cases, look better than the ones put out by traditional publishers. Vellum takes Word files, so create a docX with your word processor. Once the book is inside Vellum, format until you’ve got it looking exactly the way you want it, then export a MOBI file. MOBI is Amazon’s preferred format for eBooks.

There’s one last thing you should consider in the run-up to publication, and that’s your book cover. Nothing will sink your book faster than a lousy cover, so pay it the respect it deserves. If you’re a professional designer with access to Photoshop, then make your own. If not, find someone to do it for you. You want someone with experience designing book covers. There’s a certain psychology to building a cover that sells and you want someone grounded in that arena. Here again, a simple web search for eBook Cover Designers should produce many options, but Kboards is your best bet. The strategy is the same here as it was with editors. Go onto the site, tell them what kind of book you’ve written, and ask for recommendations. Whichever route you take, you’ll get a wide range of choices with a wide range of rates. You can expect to pay about the same for a cover as you paid for editing.

We’re almost ready to get into the nuts and bolts of publishing, but let’s address the big monkey in the room. What if you don’t have the cash to outlay for editing and a decent cover? Will Amazon reject your book? No, absolutely not. Amazon doesn’t care if typos riddle your book or your kid did your cover. The people who will care are your readers. Do whatever you can within your means to make sure your finished product is as good as it can be. I’ve published nine books to date and, since my name isn’t “Rockefeller”, I’ve been on a budget every time. I’ve had to scrimp on certain things. Just know, if you plan to write more than one book, funnel some of your revenue back into the business. Do whatever you can to package the second book better than the first.

Now. On to the nitty gritty…

Publication

Amazon calls its self-publishing platform Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. You’ll need an existing Amazon account to use it, but most of you probably already have one. They’re frictionless to create so make one if you haven’t already. At the KDP website, you’ll sign in with the same account you use to make purchases on the main site. They may ask for some information related specifically to self-publishing. For instance, how you’d like to be paid as well as your tax info. With that out of the way, you’ll be taken to the KDP dashboard. The dash has four main sections: “Bookshelf”, “Reports”, “Community”, and “KDP Select”. Let’s tackle each section individually.

“Reports” is where you’ll go to see how your books are selling. Pull-down menus give a more granular look at your data. You can confine yourself to specific titles, specific time periods, etc. You can also look at your payments from Amazon. Getting into all the bells and whistles here is beyond the scope of this article. The best thing you can do with any page like this is to click on each of the buttons and tabs and get a basic understanding of what they do. There’s a more streamlined alternative to the “Reports” page which I’ll touch on near the end of this article.

“Community” should look familiar to you if you visited KBoards as I suggested above. This tab is Amazon’s own message board related to KDP, and it’s another great resource if you have questions about publishing your book to the Kindle.

“KDP Select” takes you to a page describing (surprise!) KDP Select. Select is a program Amazon offers for authors willing to go exclusive to the Kindle platform. I’ll get into the pluses and minuses of this (as well as other publishing options) in the wrap-up.

I saved “Bookshelf” for last since it’s where the bulk of your journey with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing takes place. This is where you’ll publish your book, and this is where the information about your published work is displayed once you have it.

Let’s publish something.

Right under the section menu, you should see a box that says “Create a New Title”. Inside of there, you’ll see two buttons with plus signs. One says “Kindle eBook”, and the other says “Paperback”. Don’t worry about paperbacks for now. You’ll need a Kindle eBook before you can make a paperback, so let’s focus on the eBook.

After you click the “Kindle eBook” button you’ll go to a new page with three sections. The sections are “Kindle eBook Details”, “Kindle eBook Content”, and “Kindle eBook Pricing”. Each section requires a fair amount of information, and it’s best to tackle them in order. Some subsections on each page may seem obvious, but let’s look at them one by one, anyway.

The first thing we come to under “Kindle eBook Details” is “Language”. I’m guessing that, since this article is in English, most of you wrote your books in English. That being the case, leave this set at the default (although, if you click the button, you’ll see you have several options).

Our next option may seem obvious too, but there are nuances to consider. Under “Book Title”, are options for both your title and subtitle. Look at these two entry fields as a marketing opportunity. With fiction and nonfiction alike, the subtitle can help Amazon’s search engines get a better understanding of your book and thus show it to people likely to buy. I have a series of novels featuring characters from Greek myths. Under “Book Title”, I entered the specific title for each volume. For all three, I entered the same subtitle: “A Mythological Comedy Action Adventure”. I have one nonfiction book on classic cartoons. I entered its title and for the subtitle, I entered the phrase “Thoughts on Golden Age Animation”. In both cases, the subtitle makes it clear — both to readers and to Amazon — what my books are about. The title is mandatory, but the subtitle is optional. Consider carefully before leaving the subtitle blank.

Next comes “Series”. This one’s optional. Is your book part of a series? Then enter that information. If it isn’t leave it blank. I should point out there’s an upside to having books in a series. Amazon notes the relationship between the entries and will create a box on each book’s sales page displaying the other volumes. That way your customers can link to the other books and, hopefully, purchase them on the spot.

“Edition Number”. I usually leave this blank. Those of you considering writing periodic updates to your nonfiction books might want to track the edition numbers so your readers will see there’s been a revision.

“Author”. That’s you. Unless you’re writing under a pseudonym, in which case enter the pen name.

“Contributors”. Was your book a solo venture, or did you have help significant enough to merit inclusion? One of the most obvious choices here would be “Illustrator” if, for instance, you’ve done a children’s book. Click on the button that says “Author” to see all of your choices. If you did the book all by your lonesome, you can ignore this section.

“Description”. This one’s a doozy. This is the copy that appears on the book’s sales page. It’s a make or break in terms of your book’s future. By all that’s holy, don’t scrimp on your description. If you toss up a lackluster description, you’ll give people no reason at all to purchase your book. The rules for generating a good description (or “blurb” as they’re often called) are different for fiction and nonfiction. I recommend you read How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good by Bryan Cohen. Yes, this step is that important.

“Publishing Rights”. Your choices are “I own the copyright and I hold the publishing rights” and “This is a public domain work”. The vast majority of you will select the first option.

“Keywords”. This one’s huge too. I’ve made allusions to Amazon being a search engine, and it is. Google is a general-purpose search engine. Amazon works on the same principle but it’s meant to find products. It shows its customers items based on what they typed into the search bar. The seven keywords you enter here help the search engine find your book and show it to the right people. These words are not front-facing — only you and Amazon will ever see them — but they’re integral to your success. Choosing the right keywords is a nuanced job with different schools of thought attached. Do some research. I will say, however, the term “keywords” is a misnomer. “Key-phrases” would be better. You’re not restricted to entering a single word in each of the seven fields and, in fact, you’re wasting an opportunity if you do. Enter phrases instead. For instance, for a fantasy novel, you might enter something like “magical witch demon-fighter journey”. You get credit for all of those words and you don’t have to repeat any of them in the subsequent fields. With a different phrase in each field, you’ll cover a lot of ground influencing search results.

“Categories”. Look at these carefully and choose the ones most appropriate to your book. You get two categories and the options you’re given will be fairly broad. Don’t panic though. You can change these post-publication. Browse your niche and see where books similar to yours place. If you find solid contenders, you can email the KDP support team (via the “Help” link at the top of every dashboard page) and ask them to put your book into specific categories. They’ll need your book’s ASIN (a number it’s given following publication) and the whole category string (which looks something like this: “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Humor & Satire > Dark Comedy”). You’ll find the support team very accommodating and professional.

“Age Range and Grade Range”. I’ve never touched this section. Your mileage may vary.

Finally, at the bottom of the “Kindle eBook Details” page, we find “Pre-order”. Is your book ready to go, or are you putting it up for pre-order pending a later publication date? Choose appropriately. Unless you have an established audience you can make aware of preorders, I’d avoid them and wait until your book is ready.

Congratulations, you’re finished with page one. Hit “Save and Continue”.

At the top of the “Kindle eBook Content” page, we find “Manuscript”. There are two things we must address in this section, “Digital Rights Management” and “Upload eBook Manuscript”. DRM is easy: choose “no”. Digital Rights Management is a “lock” put onto the eBook file that’s supposed to discourage piracy. It’s easy for motivated individuals to break, and all it does is irritate people. Since it doesn’t do what it’s intended to do, I say skip it.

With “Upload eBook Manuscript”, the rubber really hits the road. In terms of file format, you can upload doc, docX, HTML, MOBI, ePUB, RTF, Plain Text, and KPF. For reasons we’ve already discussed, I suggest MOBI. Just click the button and direct the dialogue box to the file you saved on your computer.

Again, under “Kindle eBook Cover”, you get two choices: “Use Cover Creator to make your book cover” and “Upload a cover you already have”. I’ve never used Cover Creator, but I can’t imagine it would generate anything worthwhile. If you worked with a designer (or you were arty enough to generate your own), click the button and direct the dialogue box to the file. Note that Amazon only takes images in JPG and TIFF formats. (Ignore the cover in the illustration. That’s one of mine.)

“Kindle eBook Preview”. Once you’ve uploaded both your manuscript and your cover (and you’ve waited for Amazon to process your files) you’ll see what the book will look like on a Kindle. Take advantage of this to make sure you have made no mistakes. Don’t put your book into the world with easy-to-fix errors. Readers will notice and their reviews will ding you for them.

“Kindle eBook ISBN”. ISBN stands for “international standard book number”. You don’t need one for an eBook, so don’t bother. You’ll notice there’s also a space here for “Publisher”. You can put your own name, a real publishing company in the unlikely event you have one, or an entirely fictitious publishing company if you don’t. I choose option three because it’s fun.

That’s it for page two. Hit “Save and Continue”.

Here we are on the third and final page, “Kindle eBook Pricing”. The first section is “KDP Select Enrollment”. If you enroll your book in Select, you’re agreeing to keep it exclusive to Amazon in exchange for certain benefits. First is having your book enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. KU is like Netflix for books. Users pay a monthly fee and can read anything that’s available on the service. Authors get paid a small amount (about half a penny) for each page read. This is another income stream besides sales. Half a penny per page may not sound like much, but it adds up. Should you enroll? Hard to say. Some books do better in KU than others. The only way to find out would be to try it. Thankfully, enrollment isn’t permanent. If you enroll, you’re doing so in three-month increments. If you make money over the first ninety days, let it ride. If not, withdraw.

The other benefit you get for enrolling in Select is promotional. During each ninety-day span, you can either set up a “Kindle Countdown Deal” or a free promotion. A Countdown deal allows you to drop the price for a set number of days. A free promotion allows you to do the same thing but at no cost to the “buyer”. Both build readership. Use the free promotion if your aim is to get more eyes on your book. Use the Countdown Deal if you want to get more eyes on your book, but you want to make a little scratch while you’re at it. Coupled with advertising, Countdown Deals and free promotions can be powerful tools.

“Territories”. Here you get to choose whether you have worldwide rights or if your rights are specific to certain territories. I can’t imagine a scenario where you wouldn’t have worldwide rights, but if you don’t, you know what to do.

“Royalty and Pricing”. Another biggie. Here’s the thing you need to understand: For any price below $2.99 or above $9.99, you get a 35% royalty. For any price between $2.99 and $9.99, you get a 70% royalty. Do you feel Amazon is trying to steer you in a certain direction? You should listen to Amazon because they know their customers better than anyone and they know what those customers are willing to pay. Mostly, I’d say no eBook should be above $9.99. Let’s be honest here: we don’t have the same overhead as a traditional publisher with printing, warehousing, transporting, etc. We’re selling electrons so we shouldn’t try to mimic the pricing of those selling paper. There are reasons for publishing below $2.99, however. If you’ve got a series, you might charge .99 for the first volume to get people through the door. You should determine your pricing by looking at other books in your niche. Price competitively without undervaluing what you have. Keep in mind those royalty rates, too.

“Matchbook”. Ignore this one for now. As the fine print says, Matchbook allows people who purchased your paperback to get the eBook at a reduced rate. Chances are you have no paperbacks yet, just know you can come back and edit most of these settings later.

“Book Lending”. This allows people who’ve purchased your eBook to lend it to their friends and family just like a physical object. In my experience, this isn’t a common occurrence, so I leave it checked.

“Terms and Conditions”. If you’re like most of us, you’ll ignore this section. If you’ve got a fetish for legalese, then have a look. Other than that, we’re about done here.

Look down there at the bottom of the page. See that button that says “Publish Your Kindle Book”? Push it.

Bam! You’re a published author.

It’ll take Amazon a while to get your book’s sales page together, but you’re done for now. They’ll send you an email when the book is live, and you can celebrate with the adult beverage of your choice. (Provided you’re an adult. Don’t drink and publish, kids!)

“What now?” you may ask. My answer, if you’re planning to stop with just the one book, is “nothing”. Track your sales, promote your book in whatever way you can, and rest on your laurels. A few suggestions, though, if you’ve caught the bug… 1) Write another book and do all the above steps again. Lather, rinse, repeat. 2) If you decide you want to create a paperback out of your eBook, look at the eBook’s listing in the “Bookshelf” of the KDP dashboard and press the button for “Create Paperback”. The procedure is like creating an eBook just be aware the cover for a paperback differs from the cover for an eBook. Where the eBook cover is just the front, the paperback cover considers the spine and the rear. Discuss this with your designer if you know you will make a paperback (and prepare to pay more), or look up how to make a paperback cover on Google if you want to roll your own. Amazon offers paperbacks in different dimensions and the cover will also consider how many pages your book has, so factor those things in too. Vellum, the eBook generator we talked about above has an option for paperback generation. It considers print size and will show you how many pages the finished book will have. Very handy.

The Aftermath

After you publish your book, your activities will fall into a few follow-up tasks.

First, you’ll want to check your revenue periodically. As mentioned above, the KDP dashboard has a section for reports. I find it useful but not intuitive. Book Report is a free browser add-on that presents your sales data in a much more straightforward and attractive fashion. Rankings with the book cover displayed, colorful pie charts, etc. It’s very pleasant to use. Also, there’s no reason not to try it since Book Report doesn’t charge until you’re making more than a thousand dollars a month.

Second: Promotion. There are a lot of self-published books on Amazon and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. You can mitigate that with judicious advertising. The ins and outs of the various platforms are outside this article’s scope but look at Facebook Ads, Amazon’s own Ad platform, and BookBub. Facebook and Amazon are both cost per click and BookBub is a newsletter with a huge email list. Amazon is probably the safest one to dive into, but I’ve had mixed results. Facebook ads are more effective, but the interface is complicated and, unless you know what you’re doing, you could spend a lot of money quickly. BookBub can be huge for moving many books quickly since they tell specifically targeted people about your book. With one of their mailings, you’ll be in front of a huge audience who, since they signed up voluntarily, are eager to see what’s on offer. While the mailings are enormously effective, know getting a slot with BookBub doesn’t come cheap.

Last, you’ll want to think about “going wide” — that is having your books available on platforms other than just Amazon (such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo). For most authors, most of their income comes from Amazon even if they are wide. That being said, why leave money on the table if you don’t have to? As with anything else, there are trade-offs. If you’re wide, you can’t be exclusive to Amazon. If you’re not exclusive to Amazon, you can’t be in Kindle Unlimited or use the Countdown Deals or free promotions. Try being exclusive for a while and see if the benefits outweigh the potential income you’d make being available in other stores. If you go wide, I suggest using an aggregation service where you upload one file and the aggregator submits your book to all the stores at once. The two biggest aggregators are Draft 2 Digital and Smashwords. I’ve used Draft 2 Digital and can vouch that it’s a good service. Even if you go wide, don’t publish your Kindle books through the aggregators. Go to the source for those since Amazon is the big dog, and you want the control the KDP dashboard affords. If you go wide and it doesn’t work out, you can always unpublish your books from the other platforms and return to Amazon exclusivity. That’ll be easier if you publish your Amazon titles directly through Amazon.

And that is your Amazon Kindle self-publishing crash course. If you followed the above steps, I think you’ll agree it’s easy to get a book up for sale. Obviously, we’ve only scratched the surface here. If the bug bit you, I suggest you check out Nicholas Erik’s marketing guide. It’s comprehensive and jam-packed with nuggets of self-publishing gold.

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash