A Rookie’s Guide to Self-Publishing a Trade Paperback

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Does this sound like you?

You’ve written a great story (or work of non-fiction). You’ve fine-tuned it, rewritten it, labored over it for ages. You know it’s good. You know it could be a book that really sells.

You know that self-publishing has become a huge industry, and you’re considering publishing the book yourself. You know that you’d be able to retain the rights to your book this way, and earn decent royalties from the sale of your book. But you don’t have a clue about how to self-publish.

So how do you make it happen? How do you turn this fantastic manuscript into a self-published book?

First of all, you need to know your options.

The first option is to hire a full-service self-publishing company. This is what I like to call the hand-holding approach. They’ll “hold your hand” as you tackle the editing, formatting, cover design, distribution, and even marketing of your book, with the help and advice of a staff of professionals, all for a fee. Often, all in one bundled package. Some offer even more services, such as author website design, or short-run promotions for your published book. These companies make it easy on you, saving you most of the worries, setbacks, and nights of lost sleep that you might otherwise endure. In the end, you may find you have more time to do what you are best at, actually writing the books.

Using such a service is a completely reasonable and acceptable approach if the idea of handling the project yourself overwhelms you, or if you have a little extra money to spend and would rather put the entire project in the hands of a practiced professional. There are many such companies available. If this approach sounds like manna from heaven to you, check out these, among many, many others, for more information: outskirtspress.com, authorhouse.com, xlibris.com, createspace.com, lulu.com.

(It should be noted that some of these companies also service the second approach to self-publishing that I will discuss below.)

But, you may be a very brave soul, and a little stubborn, and would prefer to become your own self-publishing project manager. If this sounds more like you, then continue reading.

The second option is what I like to call the DIY approach. You would rather hire your own contractors and handle and oversee each task yourself. You might save a little cash in the process, and you’ll be able to treat the project more like you’re ordering from an a la carte menu. In the end, you’ll be schooled on how the business really works, and you’ll know how to save money publishing your next book. If this sounds like you, you’ll need to know what makes a self-published book look and function like a professional, traditionally-published book, because readers aren’t paying for amateur hour.

There are a few basic steps you’ll need to take. Once you’ve written the manuscript, you will need to:

Commission or purchase your cover art. You’ll need a professional looking cover, no questions asked. So it goes without saying that you either need to hire a professional illustrator or photographer, or you need to purchase professional stock photography. To use the example of hiring a professional illustrator, it will go something like this: you provide a description of what you’re looking for to the artist, then, you give her some time to do her magic. The artist then sends you a black and white, usually pencil-sketched version of her vision for your illustration (all done online and sometimes by phone, you never need meet her in person). You tell her what you like and what you don’t like, she makes adjustments, sends it back to you. Eventually you both arrive at an agreement on the artwork.

Then, she adds color if that is your direction, and she finalizes your work of art. She then sends you a high-resolution version of the artwork in a format useable for your cover art (usually .jpg or .pdf).

If you want to own the rights to the artwork, she will offer it to you at an additional cost most of the time. You can then use that artwork on your future website and marketing materials for your book. Beware: if you don’t own the rights to it, you cannot legally use it anywhere but on your book’s cover, because that is what you commissioned it for.

You might instead want simply to purchase stock photography for the cover. This option is virtually limitless. Check out sites like istockphoto.com, shutterstock.com, gettyimages.com for great photos.

Next, you’ll need to take that artwork and turn it into a book cover. So you must:

Hire a cover designer. You’ll need a professional book cover designer to make that artwork shine. He or she will apply the art of graphic design to your vision, blending your artwork or photography with beautiful typography to highlight the title of your book as well as your author name on your book cover. (Note: some cover designers prefer to choose your stock photography for you, since they already have an eye for this sort of thing, and know what sells. This is often the best way to go, and many designers include the cost of your cover photo in the price they charge you for the design, so don’t spend a dime on a photo until you check with them first!)

It’s important to hire a graphic designer who specializes in book cover design: it’s a very specialized niche and you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you hire someone who does book covers regularly and is up to date on today’s trends. Most of them already know the specifications for the various self-publishing platforms and can ‘fill in the blanks’ for you regarding your questions on trim sizes, paper choice, and the best use of color for print, among so many other wonderful things that graphic designers do.

He or she will also design the all-important back cover and spine for your book. For the back cover, you’ll need to provide your designer with a wonderfully written, “gotcha!” summary. This is where you grab the attention of the online browser and hook her in until she can’t help but click the ‘buy’ button.

Basically the designer takes the pieces you give him or her, and creates a file that will turn your artwork and title into a book cover that looks like a real book cover.

You can hire such talent online at a variety of reasonably priced sites if you haven’t gotten referrals by word-of-mouth or other sources. Shop around and do your research. Some of my favorite sites, with artists available literally from around the globe who work quickly and for very reasonable prices, are Fiverr.com, where you search under the category for which kind of services you’re shopping, and pay in increments of five dollars for their services. Other sites like Elance.com and bibliocrunch.com, allow you to post projects and receive proposals from professionals.

Next, back to the manuscript. You may think your work is brilliant, and it probably is, but even the best writers in the world would never publish a book that hadn’t been edited by a professional editor. So, do this:

Hire a professional editor. Not your sister who majored in English. Not your best pal who “reads a lot”. You need a professional editor. He or she will help you with both content editing, in which your entire story — characters, plot, pacing, and so on — are examined, critiqued and improved. You also need what is called, in the business, line editing (aka. copy editing.) Line/copy editing is where your editor pays close attention to details contained in your grammar, spelling, word usage, and punctuation, just to name a few of the things he’ll be looking to improve. Finally, you can hire your editor to proofread your entire document, (or you can do this step yourself, if you’re so inclined and have a good eye for detail.)

The editing stage is completely critical. Using a professional to help you with all of this will make the difference between a self-published book that screams ‘self-published’ and sits idly on the online bookstore ‘shelf’, and a self-published book that soars with the best of them.

But wait, I mentioned you’d lose a few nights’ sleep going this route, right? So next, you need to ensure that your manuscript is ready for the printer, yes, the printer. That far-off machine in some giant warehouse that you will never see but which will print your amazing books by the thousands, if not millions one day. Here is what you need to do unless you’re a word processing software wiz:

Hire a formatter to get your files ready for Print-On-Demand. Print-On-Demand is the process that self-publishing platforms follow, to take your cover and manuscript files and turn them into a full-cover, printed trade paperback book. Also known as POD, Print-On-Demand means that a copy of your book is printed every time that a customer orders your book. No more large inventories. Large stacks of books sitting around, waiting to be sold, are a thing of the past for self-publishers.

Once you have completed the process of self-publishing your book, its’ files simply sit there, ready and waiting to be printed, whenever someone clicks to purchase it! POD keeps the cost of books down for retailers like Amazon.com and BN.com, and makes it possible for indie authors to self-publish their own books at all! POD has truly revolutionized the marketplace and is a term you will need to be familiar with as you enter the wonderful world of self-publishing.

The process you will follow to get your book ready for POD goes something like this: You upload your manuscript file (a .doc or .pdf, for example) along with your cover file (usually a .pdf or .jpg) to your publishing platform (like Amazon’s Createspace, Lulu, Kobo, or iBook) and presto, the document is ready for print! The POD file is perfectly fine even if it’s typed on an 8.5×11 blank document. Right? Well, almost, but not quite so fast…

Before you upload your files, you’ll need to make sure all of your t’s are crossed and your i’s are dotted, so to speak. Not from a ‘story’ perspective, but from an output perspective. In other words, the manuscript file needs to be ready for output. You could call this what they used to call ‘typesetting,’ before the computer age.

Your amazing story (ie. MS Word document) needs a small slew of tasks and checks done on it before it can be uploaded for POD. These include things like correctly setting the document size and margins, choosing the appropriate font size for the type of book you’re publishing, setting the page numbering, removing funny characters like extra returns and tabs that will throw off the text, formatting a table of contents, and standardizing the way chapter names and numbers appear.

This is where the professional formatter comes in. I know that all of this sounds like agony because most of us don’t know how to do it. But good news: a professional formatter does, and he or she won’t cost you very much.

Without following this key step, you are basically taking your chances when you upload that document to the publishing platform. It could turn out to look totally un-book-like, or be refused by the free publishing platform until you fix it. After all that hard work you already put into it, you want to save yourself this headache. So, take this step and have the manuscript formatted so that it looks and functions like a real book.

Check some of the sites above for formatting services, or simply run a search for completely independent providers.

If you follow these steps, you’ll be on your way to navigating the wonderful world of self-publishing as your own project manager. It should be noted that Amazon’s Createspace.com, among others, handles both full-service and a la carte self-publishing ventures.


  1. This is wonderful advice for authors who want to self-publish–especially your point about professional editing. A lot of self-published work goes self-edited (or even unedited), and there’s a distinct difference in quality between these raw books and books that have been honed and polished.

    You’ve already spent a great deal of time and effort finishing your manuscript. Don’t undue all of your hard work by not making it the best it can possibly be.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing and commented:
    Shana Gorian has some good advice about self-publishing.
    My bit of advise – to find a good editor, try the Editorial Freelance Association – EFA – at the-efa.org. To find a good cover designer, try asking a linkedin group for illustrators or graphic designer. You can also ask other authors who’s books you like. They know what it’s like trying to find someone to trust. You can also contact me. I’ve got contacts in many areas of the process that are very reputable.


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