The scary maze of self-publishing - by Liz Carter


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.

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