How to Self-Publish and Not Go Broke

One of the core principles of communication they taught in my college business classes was: If you present a problem without offering a solution, you’re just whining. I started this blog with the intention of helping new and aspiring writers navigate the world of (self-)publishing, and that is still its primary focus, despite the occasional rant and whine.

With my last post, I presented a problem: Self-publishing costs time and money.

With this one, I would like to present a few workarounds and practical solutions that basically boil down to: It doesn’t mean you have to go broke to do it.

Be forewarned, this will be a very long post that essentially summarizes a large portion of this entire website, but I wouldn’t post it if I didn’t think it was important.

So let’s take it from the top.


The Process of Self-Publishing in 12 (Not So) Easy Steps


  1. Write a book
  2. Get it edited
  3. Copyright it
  4. Write your blurb and tag line
  5. Choose your distribution strategy and timeline
  6. Create your distribution accounts
  7. Format your book
  8. Cover your book
  9. Set your price
  10. Upload the files
  11. Click Publish
  12. Promote like the entire future of your writing career depends on it.

This list will be the basis for what’s about to follow. You’ll notice not all of the items on that list have a monetary cost attached to them. But I did say “time and money,” didn’t I? 🙂 That’s because your time is money. Free time isn’t really free. It’s time you could spend with your loved ones, or chilling out by yourself. Every hour you put into being a writer is work. Even if you don’t want to call it that. It’s work you expect to get paid for in the future through royalties, so it’s a cost that is meant to be recouped.

1. Write a Book

Ask 100 different writers what their creative process looks like and you will get 100 different answers. Some outline. Some don’t. Some carve out 4 hours a day just to write. Others sneak in 15 minute increments whenever they can. Some are disciplined with their routine, others write intuitively when inspiration strikes. It’s all relative. And I know it sounds like total bullshit when people say, “You just have to find what works for you,” but it’s true. By all means, try out the routines of best selling authors. One of them might work for you. But don’t get discouraged if none of them do. Their life is nothing like yours and trying to mimic it is not only harmful to your health but also your writing. You do you. Write the way that feels right to you. Make up your own routine and stick to it. Trust me when I say, it’ll get you to The End a lot faster with a lot less pain and frustration.

2. Get it edited

Note the wording in this one point. It doesn’t say, “Edit it,” (which you should definitely do, too) but, “Get it edited.” As in, hire a professional. I won’t rehash that whole song and dance, you can read my full rant here. This is the solutions post, so here are my proposed solutions: Take advantage of social media to connect with other authors. Ask for recommendations about who they’re working with and check out the editors’ services and pricing. If you don’t know anyone or aren’t comfortable asking, start with Mark Coker’s List of low cost service providers. This is a one-time fee that you absolutely need to include in your budgeting before you start so you know how much you need to save up. It’s the only monetary cost that is 100% unavoidable for a professional final product.

3. Copyright it

While this isn’t an absolute must, I still highly recommend it for legal reasons. For one thing, it offers some protections that can get you paid if someone does steal your work. For another, it makes things easier if/when you decide your book might work as a movie adaptation. Read more about this on my Copyrights page. It costs about $55 to register your work online in the US. If you absolutely cannot afford this, like I said, it’s not a requirement. But if at all possible, it’s a worthwhile investment.

4. Write your blurb and tag line

Many authors consider this to be harder than writing the actual book. But you will definitely need both a back copy blurb and a short tag line for when you start setting up your book with stores and distributors. Get a head start on it by writing the blurb in the early stages of the book. It can always be changed if your book takes an unexpected turn (as mine always do) but at least you’ll have a starting point. Rewriting something that’s there is easier than writing something that isn’t. If that makes sense… Anyway, it’s a lot less stressful to do this ahead of time than to get to that box in the setup process and have a mini panic attack because you hadn’t prepared anything, and now you’re in the middle of setup, and what happens if you take too long? Will it lose all your progress so far? How do you get back to it if you close the browser window? Aaaaaaahhh!!! You get the point.

5. Choose your distribution strategy and timeline

You have options. Consider them all carefully. Do you want to publish eBooks only, or do you want to do print, too? What about audio? Do you want your book in every store, or just one or two? National only, or worldwide? Pre-order, or direct publishing? Each store and distributor will have its own requirements and time frames, so factor that into your plans. I recommend you do this after your book is edited, so you don’t end up setting a release date you can’t keep. Give yourself plenty of time to get your book covered and formatted to the specifications of each store and distributor (there will be differences) and keep in mind that a book doesn’t magically appear in stores as soon as you hit that Publish button. There is a vetting and verification process at each level. It may take several days, or even weeks for the book to show up everywhere it’s supposed to, so be patient and realistic about setting your (and your readers’) expectations.

6. Create your distribution accounts

This is a step lots of people don’t realize they actually need to do. When you self-publish, you are essentially creating a business relationship with stores and distributors. They will need personal and financial information from you at some point. Some may allow you to set up your book but not publish it until you give them your bank account and tax ID info so they can pay you and report your earnings. Others may allow you to publish your book, but won’t pay you until you set up that information in your account. Be sure to read up on tax reporting requirements in your region and with your distributor. Some report to tax authorities automatically, but maybe not in your country. Others may only provide sales reports and leave it to you to add it to your income reports during tax season. This is the less fun part of publishing and it’s a very good idea to take the time to do it properly.

Note: You do not need to register as a separate business entity to self-publish. You can, if you want to, but you will need to pay additional registration and licensing fees, and it’s a whole process. If you write under a pen name, just provide your real name and tax ID info where needed. This info is not made public and is only used for tax purposes.

7. Format you book

Again, note the wording of this point. You do not need to hire a professional formatter to get your book into shape. You can format your eBook yourself using Mark Coker’s Style Guide and some free software like OpenOffice (or MS Word, if you have it), Sigil, and Calibre. To format your print book, you may need to invest a little (or a lot) into a more sophisticated program like Vellum or Adobe InDesign. I say this because word processors sometimes have issues creating documents in non-standard sizes that you may need for your print book. Vellum and InDesign give you full control over layout and sizing down to fractions of a millimeter. They will give you a much better result, if you can master the learning curve.

Yes, you will need to learn how to use them, which will take time. It will also take a few iterations to find a personal style you like. Which is why it’ll be important to weigh your options. Do you have the time to learn all this stuff? Are you tech-savvy enough to figure it out on your own with a few YouTube tutorials? If so, go for it! If not, your time is better spent on writing. Outsource your formatting to a professional. See item 2 above, the same recommendations apply here.

8. Cover your book

This step may or may not be interchangeable with number 7, but I placed it here for a very practical reason. The size of your print cover will depend on the format and count of the pages inside. So you actually need to format the inside of your book first before you can finalize your cover. It’s a lot easier to adapt a print cover into an eBook/audiobook cover than the other way around. Trust me on this one. So what will you need for your cover? 3 things:

  • Licensed stock images
  • Licensed fonts
  • A program/app to put it all together

The licensing part is very important. Just as you don’t want someone to steal your book, artists and photographers don’t want people to use their images, and especially not for commercial purposes. ALWAYS check the licensing details on any image or font you want to use, and ALWAYS get your images from a reputable stock website. See my Resources page for a list of recommendations.  I will also add another one here. Subscribe to the  AppSumo newsletter. They have annual or semi-annual deals that you will find very useful. As an example, right now you can claim a code for 3 years of access to unlimited downloads from StockUnlimited for $49, and 1,000 downloads from YayImages for $59. I personally always wait for the DepositPhoto deal, 100 images for $49. As with anything, look into those websites first and see if they have images that will be useful for what you need before you purchase the deal. And keep in mind that, while you might think you only need one or two images, you may need more to promote your book. Also, any image you put on your blog, website, and social media needs to be licensed, too. So you will probably go through those images faster than you think.

Once you have your images and fonts, you need to put them together. MS Paint and Canva ain’t gonna cut it. To make a professional cover, you need to use professional tools. If you can’t afford InDesign or Photoshop, a free alternative is GIMP. It’s just as sophisticated, with similar functionalities and options, but totally free and open source. It’s also more intuitive and easier to use than Photoshop. But the same time vs. money caveat still applies. If the choice is spending $100+ on stock resources and hours and hours making several versions of a cover, it may be more cost-effective to hire a professional. Also, if you can’t produce a cover on par with the best selling books in your category and genre, you’re better off hiring a professional. First impressions matter a great deal and despite the old saying, people do still judge books by their covers. Give your book the best chance of success by giving it a cover that will make a great impression. 🙂

9. Set your price

Also a thing people don’t usually think about until the very last minute. This is not good. You should always do your research. What is the current sweet spot for eBooks? If you follow Mark Coker’s blog, he usually posts stats and predictions every year. Smashwords publishes millions of eBooks so he has a lot of data to draw from and part of what he shares is the number of sales at various price points. Beyond that, look up eBooks in your genre and category for comparison. Maybe you have a long-term strategy and plan on changing your prices over time. The good news is, you can absolutely do that. Experiment and see what works best. Bad news is, you can’t really do that with print. Because of the manufacturing cost associated with Print-on-Demand (POD), the list price of your books will depend on your trim size, page count, and “wholesale discount.” Always do your research with the printer of your choice so you can get an estimate of cost, and form a pricing strategy. Keep in mind that, by default, your prices will always end up higher than traditionally published books. You can’t help that. It’ll be even more important, then, to publish a book that’s worth the price you’re charging for it. Cover design, formatting and layout, and especially the story itself will be absolutely crucial, because $12+ for a paperback is a big investment when it comes to a new author and a lot of readers in the era of “gimme freebies” will think three or four times before committing that kind of cash. Don’t give them a reason to regret it.

10. Upload your files

Every store and distributor will have its own requirements for formatting, file size, etc. Learn those before you start setting up your book for sale. You will also need additional info like genre, authors/contributors, ISBNs, keywords, categories, blurb, tag line, etc. This will all come up, so have it ready at hand so you aren’t scrambling for the details. If you get an option to preview, do it to make sure everything looks like you intended. Order a printed proof for your paperback and go through it page by page to make sure nothing got screwed up in the translation. Sometimes that happens. Other times, the layout that looked so awesome on screen ends up a hot mess when you have it printed. This is another reason why you want to set your publishing date well in the future, so you have time to fix these kinds of errors.

11. Click Publish

At last, the finish line! You made it!! You’ve gone through the gauntlet and now all you need to do is click one button and your book will be sent out into the ‘verse. Congratulations! You probably need a stiff drink and a hug right about now. Go ahead and grab ’em. I’ll wait. 😉 Now, go through your final checklist. Did you upload the correct files in the correct places with all your stores and distributors? Did you enter the same metadata across all of them? Did you set the price correctly? (This is important. You don’t want to miss a decimal point, like I did that one time and set your book price at $239.90) All right, then! You click that button, superstar. You earned it!

12. Promote like the entire future of your writing career depends on it

Now we get to the hard part… Are you crying? It’s okay! I promise. It’s just an endless cycle of marketing across hundreds of platforms worldwide, 24-7 until you retire or die. No big deal. Okay, but seriously. The last stats I checked said there are 1,000+ new books published every day. Then I saw somewhere that this number has increased by 40% between 2016 and 2018. That is a LOT of books. And what it means, in a nutshell, is that if you don’t tell people about your book, they won’t find it. So you will have to tell them, and keep telling them to make sure they know where to look.

Ideally, this list would have started with 0. Set up your author platform. Which is another thing most authors don’t do. You will need a website, blog, newsletter, and social media accounts in order to properly market yourself and your books.

You can build your own website/blog fairly cheaply with platforms like WordPress, Weebly, or Wix. Use their hosting services until you outgrow their limits, then you can look into building a more sophisticated website that you will host yourself if needed. Invest in your own custom URL. It’s cheap, but it makes a huge difference. Get one with your author name if you can to make it easy for people to find you. You’ll want to make your website pretty, but also functional. You should have a separate page for every book you have written and links to every place where they’re sold. Look at some best selling author websites for inspiration and check out Books2Read to set up universal buy links. Post blogs that relate to your books or your life as an author. Share your reading list, maybe, or behind-the-scenes looks at your writing process. Sneak peeks are always a hit, too.

You can use Mailchimp or MailerLite for your newsletter. Both are free/cheap (depending on how many subscribers you have). Create some personalized themes/templates that you can copy and reuse as needed. You should be sending out regular content that your subscribers will want to read, not just sales pitches when your newest book comes out–but definitely do that too! This is your most devoted audience so treat them well.

We all know the timesuck that is social media. You don’t want to get dragged into those black holes. Yes, it’s important to be active there and promote yourself, but it you shouldn’t be spending all your time on it. You can use tools like HootSuite (free for 3 accounts), Hubspot (limited free features) or eClincher (paid service I got lifetime access to through an AppSumo deal–they really are worth it sometimes!) to organize and schedule your posts ahead of time. This feature is especially helpful for new release promotion, but you should not rely on it 100%. Social media is still about being social so interaction is mandatory, and you can’t really do that with automation. Also, automation won’t allow you to post in groups or on other people’s pages/profiles. Think of them as megaphones. You can blast out important messages, but you still want to go door-to-door to chat with people in a more personal setting.

These are the cheapest ways to reach the largest number of people worldwide. Of course there are other ways that will cost more money, once you’re ready for them financially. But this should be plenty to get you started on the right foot.

As always, drop me a comment if you have any questions or additional suggestions on resources I might have missed. Is there a strategy that works well for you? Please share! I’m always looking for more of those.

I hope this post was helpful. If you’d like to check out how I put my own preaching into practice, visit my author website: AlianneDonnelly.com. Feel free to browse around. You may find books you’d like to read, in which case, you’ll find links to all major outlets on every book’s page and links to my author profiles at those outlets and social media in the website footer. 🙂 I thank you in advance for your support.

Until next time!

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