The Independent Author: Adventures in Self-Publishing
So, you have your concept and you’re diligently working on your manuscript. Or you have ideas that you would love to see printed and bound. Do you want to try to shop it around to literary agents or would you like to be in full control and self-publish? More and more people are choosing to self-publish and it’s amazing to be in a time where we can do that. I, very recently, took that plunge and self-published my first cookbook and a couple of journals. It was a huge undertaking but also a wonderful learning experience. Once you get one under your belt, you’re basically a pro and all other publishings will feel like a piece of cake.
Because I believe that when you learn something, you should teach it, I wanted to give you a nice overview of the most popular self-publishing companies, my creative process, who I went with and why, and some marketing tips.
My research led me to four publishers. KDP (formerly Createspace, owned by Amazon), Lulu, IngramSpark, and BookBaby. KDP and Lulu offer POD (Print-on-Demand) services for no upfront costs, while IngramSpark and Bookbaby do charge different rates depending on what type of distribution you’re looking for.
Note: What is Print-on-demand? Someone places an order for your book, it is then printed, and shipped. This is a huge resource for independent authors because you’re not paying thousands of dollars to print and warehouse copies upfront.
KDP offers ebooks and paperback only. Either black ink/cream paper, black ink/white paper, or premium color ink/white paper. Book covers can be printed with either a glossy or matte finish. They have a nice selection of trim sizes, but only certain ones can be used for extended distribution. Extended distribution includes all amazon territories and a handful of other online retailers, such as, Barnes & Noble. Their offer free POD (print-on-demand) which is great for authors who don’t have the funds. They offer free ISBN, which they will place themselves on your cover. You can update your manuscript for free as many times as you want/need. KDP offers 60% royalties on paperbacks and 70% royalties on ebooks. Once you’ve digitally approved your manuscript, you will then order a proof copy to make sure it prints to your liking. Afterward, you can publish. Amazon will then do it’s own approval to see if it meets their standard. If not, they will email you with anything that needs to be fixed. Author copies, where you only pay the printing cost, are available after publication.
Lulu offers quite a few trim sizes, but they also offer more binding options, including hardcovers. Like KDP, they offer free POD and free ISBN (or you have the option of using a purchased one.) If you choose to use their free ISBN, you’ll have to download it and place it on the back cover yourself. You can also take advantage of expanded distribution through Lulu and I’ve found that their royalties are slightly higher than KDP. They also require a proof copy to be approved, but they won’t do a second round of approval. Author copies are also available where you will just pay the printing cost. (Updating manuscripts and changing settings, I found to be a little clunky and there were couple times that I needed their customer services to overwrite things on their end so I can make changes without needing to make an entirely new project. Yet, the entire process is very similar to KDP.)
IngramSpark & BookBaby
I’m going to group these two publisher together because once I realized they charged for their POD, I didn’t dive much deeper. It does sound like IngramSpark is unparalleled in quality – from what I’ve read in other author’s adventures in self-publishing. High quality materials, state of the art printing, and they distribute to more retailers (and include libraries and schools). If you have the funds and you want to dive into either of these companies, this is what you’re looking at: IngramSpark charge $49 per title for setting up the project and $25 for each revision. You’ll also need to purchase your own ISBN. BookBaby also requires you to purchase your own ISBN and charges $399 for Global Print on Demand or $99 for essentially only being available in your dedicated storefront on the Bookbaby site. You’ll need to either purchase an ISBN from Bookbaby or purchase one privately.
My Process of Designing
Each publisher has specific instructions for formatting. To use my cookbook as an example: I chose to publish at executive sizing which is 7×10. All of my images are full bleed, meaning, they go to the edge of the page. For them to print correctly, the manuscript I submitted needed to be 7.125×10.25. You’ll be able to download PDF guides that illustrate the proper paper sizing, gutter and margin measurements, and text safe areas. They can be a little confusing, but all publishers have excellent customer service representatives that can help you figure it out. Or, if you have the budget, you can reach out to a designer.
I hadn’t used Adobe Illustrator since college, so I wound up doing my entire layout in Canva, including my covers. I wasn’t able to use the publisher guides, so it took some trial and error to get the formatting correct, but it wasn’t too painful. The only downside was Canva only allows for 100 pages in each project, so I had to split into two different projects. Not the end of the world, but a little cumbersome at times. When I was ready to look at it as one document and upload to the publisher, I would download each project as a print-ready PDF, combine them in Preview or Adobe Acrobat, and then save it as a new file.
That is the perfect example of using the tools you have and figuring out how to make it work. I should also mention, that for the cookbook, I did all of the photography on an iPhone 8 Plus and edited the images in Snapseed. When printing images, they must meet a certain PPI (pixel per inch). A quick google search informed me that my iPhone camera produced images of 401 PPI and could be printed well up to 8×10. Could I have re-learned how to use a DSRL? Sure, but why make the process more stressful. Use what you have and research the best ways of using those tools. Ie. taking food images in natural light, like indoors near a window, or outside in partially shaded areas.
So, now I have my manuscripts. Which publisher would work best?
The first publishing that I actually did was Passed Down: Friends & Family Recipe Journal. This was done through KDP and at that point, I hadn’t really dove into researching the other popular publishers. Paperback, matte cover, 200 black and cream pages. It turned out great. I felt like the KDP process was simple and the royalty was good. (You’ll set the price of your books, and subsequently your royalties. Some publishers give suggestions, but you should also research prices of similar books in your niche.) Next up, the cookbook. Ideally, I wanted to do a hardcover, but KDP didn’t offer that. I looked at some paperback publishings that were done in premium color and thought they looked great, so that’s what I went with.
Of course, along the way, I stumbled across all the other publishers and noticed that Lulu was a very similar process to KDP and had a hardcover option. Hmmm… shift gears. I reformat (tiny tweaks) and upload to Lulu so that I can see a proof copy in hardcover. (I’m going to caution you now, color printing is already expensive and a hardcover adds more to the cost.) I chose their hardcover option with standard color ink and standard white paper. This helped keep the estimated cost of the book down. A couple days later, I receive the book and… it looks like absolute garbage. The pictures were pixelated and the color was dull. I went back into the Lulu project to see what the cost would be if I bumped up to premium color and premium paper. It was way too expensive. Like, no one was going to buy a cookbook, from a first time author, for $50.
As an aside, this is something you need to be conscious of so you can inform your audience if it ever comes up… POD products are generally more expensive. We don’t have bulk deals with printers. Typically, independent art(s) are more expensive and most people know this and will understand, but if something seems outrageous to you — like a $50 book, figure out another way to go about it while still bringing quality to your audience.
So, the cookbook went back to KDP. I received my paperback proof copy a few days later, and while there were some formatting issues that needed to be fixed, it actually printed rather beautifully. I was happy with it and I was able to price it fairly. While I was making adjustments and getting the cookbook into it’s final stages, I went back to Lulu to publish hardcover journals.
The hardcover on the cookbook was gorgeous, so I knew that Lulu was a great place for hardcovers, but only if I was doing black and white ink. I uploaded my three journal manuscripts and ordered proof copies. When I received them back, I was SO happy. They were perfect. I approved them for expanded distribution that day. They were available through Lulu automatically and then would be approved individually by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
How to Market Your Book
You may or may not already have a small social audience. If you have a large, engaged one already, good for you! It definitely helps. This is probably the biggest hurdle as an independent author. How do I market and do PR for my self-published book?
Having a blog, I already had a modest email list and social following. To build some excitement and momentum, I created a landing page signup form through MailChimp where I teased the book. Via social media (twitter, instagram, and facebook) I posted it with a short blurb about signing up so that everyone got a notification once the book was live. Additionally, you can also boost posts like this. Boosting a post on Instagram or Facebook is basically a paid ad that will reach followers similar to the ones you already have or you can create a new target audience.
Pick a publish date and create a countdown. My cookbook was technically available on Amazon on a Monday. That week I focused on taking images of the book and with the book. I teased it. And on Friday, the email went out. Pictures went up. Social posts were posted. I was off to the races.
In the post on my personal facebook page, I included a personal note about it being a labor of love (which it absolutely was) and how amazing it felt to have it done and in my hand. My call to action for my warm market (friends, family, coworkers) was: If you purchase the book, please photograph whatever you make and tag @nikkinurtures. Secondly, if they weren’t going to purchase (your creations won’t be for everyone) to please share the post as it was a free way to help support.
If you are friendly with similar social accounts, you can cross promote each other’s creations. Buy a couple of author’s copies and send them to your social besties to promote. Send one for them and one for them to give away. You can come up with the ad copy for the giveaway together. Interview each other. I think accounts that hype eachother up, when done authentically, really draws attention. It’s all about connection! Once you have some momentum, try reaching out to larger influencer accounts to help you promote, podcasts in your niche, and local TV stations.
You will have to fill out tax papers for all companies. KDP will do a transfer to the bank account of your choosing, either savings or checking. Lulu sends royalties to Paypal. You set a payment threshold as well. As an example, you can set it to transfer money to you as soon as it hits $100 or you can increase the threshold. That’s entirely up to you.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
There are many avenues to get your name and your book out there, but it does take hard work, research, and tenacity. Luckily, many have shared their journey in self-publishing on their personal websites so you can typically find all the answers you need by reading a couple of these blogs!
And… Let’s be real, you won’t sell 10,000 copies overnight. You’ll have period where you sell a bunch and then seemingly go dry. You will ebb and flow, but be consistent in your sharing and believe in yourself. I know that sounds corny, but don’t lose hope so quick. For me, the biggest successes were finishing the damn thing and getting it published. Any number of sales should light you up with gratitude after.
It’s a wonderful time to be a creator because we have way more control and more platforms to do things ourselves. Just look at the YouTube generation! We don’t have to wait for someone else to like what we’re doing and give us the greenlight any more. Make the movie. Start the podcast. PUBLISH THE BOOK. If I can do it, so can you.