‘Self-publishing is big. And it’s getting bigger!’
By Fay Rowland
Author of bestselling intergenerational devotionals and drama scripts, indie-published.
It’s the fastest-growing segment of the book market, capturing over 40% of sales in 2018. For a growing number of authors, it’s the best way to actually make money.
What is Self-Publishing?
Until recently, the only alternative to enduring a thousand rejections to earn insignificant royalties, was printing your book privately, with 500 copies languishing in the garage and a hefty bill.
Modern Print-on-Demand services allow other routes, depending on how much you are willing (or able) to do yourself. Two broad categories, Indie and Hybrid, span the gap between traditional (publisher funds production, author makes pennies per book) and so-called ‘vanity’ publishing (author funds everything, publisher makes a profit).
Hybrid publishing is the mid-ground, with publishers sharing financial risk with authors. The publisher checks manuscripts for saleability (unlike ‘vanity’ presses) and provides editorial services, distribution and sales. The author often commits to buying a certain number of copies. Royalty payments are higher than with traditional, but lower than indie publishing.
Indie (independent) publishing is relatively new, with platforms including Amazon’s KDP, Apple Books, Ingram Spark, Lulu, Smashwords and Kobo. The author provides editing, design and artwork; the publisher publicises and sells the finished books, paying royalties of up to 70%.
According to the Alliance of Independent Authors, “indie authors earn more”, so if you want an income, this might be a good choice. But if writing is more hobby than career, self-publishing offers a route to a shiny new book which is not littered with rejection slips.
It costs from zero to £1,000+, depending on what you can do yourself. You can even have ISBNs (if you want bookshops to sell them; E-books do not need ISBNs).
Self-publishing can be an enjoyable hobby, or a great way to build a profitable career. What will your next step be? Check out the useful websites below.
Poet and editor
(This article appeared on 16 October 2022 as a post on ACW’s More Than Writers blog.)
Confused by self publishing options? You’re not the only one.
How many of you have written a book but left it sitting somewhere in a file buried deep in your computer, or even in a dusty drawer somewhere? Hands up! (I’m joining you on that one.)
Sometimes there are good reasons for not pursuing publishing. Sometimes we’ve written it for fun, for joy, just to scratch our own itch . Sometimes we’ve written for practice and we know we’ve improved a whole load since so dusting it off probably isn’t the best idea.
But what about when we really want to get it out there? For so many people the world of self publishing is confusing and even overwhelming. As I work freelance in this area, I see people who feel they cannot get their head around the possibilities and the technology – and that’s absolutely fine. We’re not all built to embrace tech, and sometimes we just need a little help.
So I thought today I’d list some of the main self publishing options that are out there. When you Google self publishing, the list is too massive to comprehend and the first thing to note is that the hits at the top of the list will be for ‘hybrid’ publishers who pay to be found – they’re the ones who offer you the moon and take thousands of pounds for the privilege, doing what you could do yourself (or sometimes with the help of a freelance editor, formatter and designer who will not charge those silly amounts.)
The main places to go for self publishing are, in no particular order: KDP, Ingram Spark, Lulu, Draft2Digital, and Smashwords.
KDP is Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s publishing arm. It’s by far the most well-used company for self publishing. In my opinion it is generally very good indeed. KDP gives comprehensive guidance for you about formatting your manuscript and getting your cover design right, and takes you through the upload process. It’s a learning curve, but a fairly gentle one and one worth trying out if you have a book bursting to get out. Around 80% of books on the online market are sold through Amazon, so it’s well worth going with them. They will give you a free ISBN if you don’t want to buy your own (which can get expensive – but having your own means you can publish under your own imprint which does look professional, and you can also publish the same book elsewhere with the same ISBN – more on that shortly).
KDP give good royalties – 60% after printing costs. You can generally make decent profits on each book sold (£1-2 on average, depending on your cover price.) You can upload both paperbacks and ebooks, and now you can also upload hardbacks in some trim sizes. KDP has specialist software called Kindle Create which makes it fairly easy for you to create your ebook from your manuscript – again with a learning curve. You can then enrol your ebook in Kindle Select which means Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read it for free – and you get paid per page read, which is a huge advantage to getting sales. The only thing to note there is that you can’t enrol in Kindle Select unless you go exclusively with KDP for your ebook.
All in all, KDP doesn’t have many drawbacks, unless you prefer to avoid the big Zon…
In which case you might like to try Ingram Spark (you would actually optimise your selling to use both KDP and Ingram Spark, and just untick the Amazon box on Ingram’s dashboard – if you publish only through Ingram, your books will not be sold on Prime and can take a while to ship, unlike with KDP).
Ingram is a professional publisher with great distribution networks. Use good keywords and your book will land in all the online stores like Waterstones and Barnes and Noble. You can get Christian books into Eden, too. (KDP has an expanded distribution option which is supposed to do this but doesn’t work very well in comparison and is less good value.)
Ingram has a big learning curve. And I mean big. Their submission guidelines are complicated and frustrating (CMYK colour profiles in 240% web coated SWOP, anyone?) – many people who publish with Ingram use professional formatters and designers. But it is possible to do it yourself if you’re willing to put the hours in to learn the thing. The other thing about Ingram is that they charge an upload fee of £50 (£25 for ebook only). Sometimes you can get a voucher code for this. But the thing is that if your upload goes wrong – if you’ve got the specifications wrong, the margins or the bleed or the colour profiles, you have to pay again per upload (£25). This can be off-putting, but it’s worth pushing through because of Ingram’s reach to online stores. Ingram can also get books into bricks-and-mortar stores, but it’s much more complicated and you’d need to have a relationship with the store or be selling well online, and then you’d need to set up a sale-or-return process which can be tricky. For online only though, Ingram is safe and books look good (fairly similar to KDP in quality – just slightly better, in my opinion). Royalties are good, too – slightly less than KDP. It’s also helpful to publish through Ingram so you have a place to send buyers who don’t want to use Amazon (although you could always sell books from your own website, too.)
Then there’s Lulu. Lulu makes the upload process fairly easy and painless, and, like Ingram, gets your book into online stores, as well as their own Lulu store. They have some great choices for book binding and cover weight options – more than Ingram or KDP, so you can get a really great-looking book through Lulu if you’re willing to pay. The drawback is though that because they are a ‘middle man’ company – ie not main distributors like KDP and Ingram, but a company that basically uses Ingram distribution processes – they do take a little more in royalties in order to keep their business model going, which is fair enough. But it means that you will not make as much profit and also that in general you would have to price your books higher, so less customer-friendly.
if you’re only interested in the e-book market, then Draft2Digital is a good way to go. It’s a bit like Ingram in that it gets your book into various online stores, but there is no set up fee, and they have a great tool to help format an epub for upload – it can be tricky to prepare an ebook in something like Microsoft Word, so having some specialist software like D2D’s tool or Kindle Create can take a lot of pressure off you and get the job done to a fairly professional standard. Again, there’s a learning curve involved, but nothing like Ingram’s. It’s worth mentioning though that in my experience the vast, vast majority of ebook sales are made through Amazon, but again it can be good to have somewhere to point people to who don’t like buying from Amazon but want an ebook. D2D are also starting a paperback arm, but I don’t have information on that as yet – anyone have any experience of this?
Similar to D2D is Smashwords for ebooks, with the free upload and the wide distribution to online stores. Smashwords has more of a learning curve, with its own style guide and very exacting specifications for ebook creation. Got footnotes in your book? You’re going to have hours of fun getting those bad boys sorted for Smashwords to accept your submission. It’s possible, though, with time and energy (or a formatter to do it for you!) I don’t see many differences to D2D, but some of you may have other experiences – please do share them here!
Then of course there are the hybrids, some of which are reasonable, and some of which are sharks. It’s really worth reading this report from the Society of Authors to navigate this whole area. The big difference is with Christian hybrid publishers (Malcolm Down, Instant Apostle, Authentic etc) who ask for an investment (the purchase of a certain number of books) but still work to bring your book to the Christian market, and because of that only take on books they wish to add to their lists. The hybrid publishers the report above is talking about take any book and promise the world but deliver little – it’s a thorny area and another dead end in that massive maze.
So there it is – a bit of a whistle-stop tour, I’m afraid, but I wanted to give an overview for those of you who are considering self-publishing, and to encourage you that you can do it, that there are options, that most of them are not a financial drain at all – print-on-demand is an excellent system which means no massive initial outlay. Of course, the publishing part is only one part of it – then comes the marketing, which is a whole new ball game, and not for this post.
You have words in you. You don’t have to keep them in that drawer. You can get them out there, with some effort, yes, with some learning, maybe with some help from professionals, but there are possibilities for you and they are exciting ones. I pray today that God will speak to your heart about these possibilities, and that you will be encouraged and uplifted by them, too.
Do ask any questions in the comments, or add any information I’ve left out (there’s tons of it, of course) – or any experiences you have. Thank you!
Liz Carter is an author, poet and editor from Shropshire. She loves to write about the difficult and painful times in life, and how we can find gold in the mess. Her books Catching Contentment and Treasure in Dark Places are available in online bookstores. Her new non-fiction book with The Good Book Company, Valuable, is coming in Spring 2023. She is poet-in-residence of her local town and works freelance to proofread, format and design books.
You can find Liz at www.greatadventure.carterclan.me.uk
Author of Historical Fiction and Walking Guides for the West Midlands
Available from Heather’s books (she writes as Fenella Flack and Fen Flack) are on the ACW bookshop at https://christianwriters.co.uk/historical-fiction
To compete in the market with traditionally published books, we need to make our self-published books look as though they have been through the same process. The cover is vital, so, for novels, I have used a graphic designer who has a reservoir of illustrators and she suggests an appropriate one. Getting the illustration right can be a painful process and the subject of much prayer, but once the illustration is in the hands of the graphic designer, it becomes something beautiful. In addition, the cover should have a bar code (free from terryburton.co.uk/barcodewriter/generator) and perhaps a logo, as well as the usual blurb, review comment and price. When writing a series, “branding” is important – the books need to look as though they belong together.
The inside should also look good. Too many self-published books use a small size of print. I use Times New Roman 12, with decent but not excessive margins. Any maps also have to look professional; I use a free program called Inkscape. I also always use a professional proofreader.
For the walking books I didn’t use a graphic designer. My own photos are on the front and the back and my printer can do the finishing touches with title, author etc. They are spiral-bound for ease of use when out walking and the books are small enough to go in an anorak pocket.
Think about the size. What size are other novels or books in the same genre? How will it fit on a shelf? How thick is it? “Ironside” has 284 pp and posts as a large letter. The sequel “Edward the Exile” has 382 pp and is too fat to be a large letter and has to go as a parcel. I found that out too late.
To help with marketing I have a website which is www.flackbooks.weebly.com. Weebly do a free website if their name is left in the title.
Karen Rosario Ingerslev
Author of Children's Fiction and Young Adult Fiction
Karen’s books are available from the ACW bookshop at https://christianwriters.co.uk/children-and-ya/
Along my journey, I had a few publishing opportunities for my first book, ‘In Search of Livi Starling.’ However, God strongly told me to turn those opportunities down. I’ll admit I found it hard because I really wanted the prestige and validation that comes from being a ‘proper’ writer.
One day, I was at a conference and was praying about my books. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get them ‘out there’ if God kept closing doors and I wasn’t sure I wanted to write the entire Livi Starling series for nothing. I told the Lord I would go to the back of the room and I asked him to send someone to give me a word about writing if he’d really called me to do it. At the back of the room there was a wall filled with prayers. The first thing I saw when I reached it were the words: ‘You are not a writer because those who have the power to publish you choose to publish your words. You are a writer because those who have the ears to hear are touched by your words.’ I have no idea who wrote it as it was very out of place amongst all the prayers of petition and thanksgiving. But it certainly gave me the confidence I needed to trust that God was with me.
Several years later, God told me to set up my own publishing company and publish my books myself. I was disappointed. I struggled to let go of the desire to be published ‘properly’ or to be affirmed by a ‘proper’ publisher. Self-publishing carries a lot of stigma and I was reluctant to go down that route. But then I had a timely email from a friend. She said she’d been praying about my books and had been reminded of the time Israel wanted a king so they could be like the other nations instead of trusting God. She said if God had authorised me to write then I didn’t need any higher validation. So that gave me the push to get on with it.
I have published two sets of books under my own imprint, Pure & Fire (the Livi Starling series for young adults and the Celery Brown series for 9-12s). I mainly use Ingram Spark so my books are available online through all the main retailers including Amazon, Eden and Waterstones. In the UK, my books are distributed to Christian bookstores and conferences through CLC Kingsway Trust (formerly CLC Wholesale). eBooks are available through Amazon.
I don’t believe that self-publishing has to be a ‘Plan B’ or a lesser way to get your books out. I do, however, believe you have to be prepared to work hard to produce a good quality book and overcome some of the obstacles associated with self-publishing. More than anything, people really do judge a book by its cover so getting a properly produced cover is a must!
Author of Books on Ministry and Fantasy, and Biographer. Self-Publishes from Scratch.
David’s books are available from the ACW bookshop at https://christianwriters.co.uk/fantasy/ and https://christianwriters.co.uk/doctrine-and-theology/
In 1989 my father decided to write his memoirs – would I help produce them? Assembling the text and photos was easy. He wanted thirty copies. I discovered a local bookbinder, who told me what to do, and produced lovely hardback books with marbled cover paper at £30 a copy. Then my mother asked whether her uncle’s book for children King Blacksack and His Sword might be brought back into print. I decided to try my hand at book binding to save money. My thirty paperback copies, done with the aid of a print shop, were adequate. The cutting, gluing and sewing were fun.
By this time I had my own book to produce, about how I had tried to lead a church with integrity, rather than simply copying what everybody else did. After failing to find a publisher, I had 2200 copies of The Priorities of Jesus printed by Page brothers of Norwich. The cover was simple – black letters on red card.
One reader I respected said I wrote well, so I tried my hand at a novel The Piano Teacher and had 600 copies printed by Page brothers. I didn’t approach publishers – too depressing! I designed my own cover, which was a big mistake. I also chose size 12 print to make it easy to read, but that swelled the number of pages and made the book feel like a brick. Mailing it to people cost more than it might have done. (Think about weight and thickness. Keep it short!)
Recently, I wrote another novel, The Garden of the Galaxy, asking the question, how are we going to have a galaxy-wide society if communication is really limited to the speed of light? Are we sure we have understood relativity correctly? The central character was the big gun. It had a barrel one hundred million miles long, for firing off microscopic spaceships. This time I had 1000 copies printed, made no attempt to sell them, but sent them out as Christmas presents instead. The cover was done by a great niece and is pleasing. Size and weight were sensible. The long-suffering staff at Page brothers were still the same. Fun.
I have spent the equivalent of several foreign holidays on my hobby over time, but my attitude is that all hobbies cost money, and I have only written what I believed was important. If others don’t agree, that’s their problem!
Will the books last? Creating our family history in a hard back book bound by me was a good move, I reckon, as it is less likely to be thrown out during spring cleaning. Family history only interests older people, and it is good if it is preserved for the younger generation growing up, because they may appreciate it one day. Making it something they feel they must keep seemed sound.