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Self-Publishing? Looking at the Big Picture

Catherine Ryan Howard

Yesterday, I talked about self-publishing to people for three hours non-stop. (Don’t worry – they’d all elected to be there. I didn’t just collect a few random strangers and subject them to a discourse on the pros and cons of glossy book covers or setting the price of your e-book to free.) 

If you’ve dipped a toe in the self-publishing sea yourself – or perhaps even dived into it, or accidentally tripped and fallen in – you’ll know that three hours is barely enough time to cover, say, making an e-book, let alone the whole self-publishing shebang.  

Which is why I didn’t tell them how to make an e-book. We didn’t talk about formatting at all. Nor did we get into how to sign up for a KDP account, or what size your paperback cover design should be, or what your e-book license notes says that makes it different to the plain old copyright notices you’re used to seeing in traditionally published books. And yet at the end no one accused me of being a charlatan and/or demanded their ticket price back. (Thankfully.) How come?

When I first self-published five years ago, I could only find two places online where help was available. The first was the support pages offered by the self-publishing services themselves, and reading it in the abstract – without having actually done any self-publishing stuff yet – made understanding it impossible. The second were self-publishing “how to” websites where, this being late 2009, almost all the information was geared towards Self-Publishing Days of Yore when you had to buy your own ISBNs, hire your own typesetter and pay for boxes of your own books so the dust under your stairs had somewhere to take a load off. 

Now, that landscape has completely changed. If you decide to (finally!) join the self-publishing party today, you won’t be able to move for helpful websites, blog posts and YouTube videos that will hold your hand every step of the way. They’ll tell you how to sign up for a KDP account, or advise you on your paperback’s cover design, or provide you with examples of e-book license notes. Any technical question you have about self-publishing can be answered in seconds. Just type your question into Google’s search box, e.g. how do I insert page numbers and running heads in Microsoft Word? and hit enter. (Incidentally if you search for that question, you might find your way to a blog post of mine.) 

My point is that if you get to a speak to a self-publisher who’s been there and done that and you have, for some reason, only a limited amount of time to talk to them, you are completely wasting that time by asking them something the internet can answer for you in a second flat. It would be like hiring the services of a renowned interior designer and then asking her to put your Billy bookcase together. (Although if IKEA instructions and an Allen Key are involved, that might be money well spent.)

That’s why when I talk to writers about to begin self-publishing, I focus on the big picture stuff. I outline what will – or should – happen from beginning to end. I urge them to create their own master plan. I try to explain that, whilst their greatest concern at the moment might be how they’re supposed to tell Amazon to sell their e-book for $2.99, they’ll soon find themselves with much bigger problems if they don’t know why they’re charging $2.99, or how charging that amount will affect their ability to offer discounts and promotions, or what it means for the price-tag of Book 2, or how it will speed up or slow down their effort to recoup their editing costs. 

Newbie self-publishers get bogged down in the technical details and I can’t blame them for that, seeing as from the outside, self-publishing seems like an almost purely technical endeavour. But things like Twitter, Amazon KDP and cover design websites like Canva – those are just tools. To succeed at self-publishing, you need a strategy for using those tools. That’s why if someone asks you how you intend to sell your book, “Twitter” isn’t an answer. (Unfortunately – if only it were that easy!) But saying, “Well, I’m thinking of running a re-tweet and follow giveaway on Twitter every Friday in the six weeks leading up to my book launch using the hashtag #mynovelname, where the winners not only get a proof copy of my book but one of the books I mention in my bibliography too …” shows that you’ve got a strategy, and that you might just succeed at this self-publishing malarkey after all. 

Focusing too much on the technical details also leads to another mistake: doing everything now. Other self-publishers have e-books and paperbacks, so you set out to make e-books and paperbacks too. But do you really need both? Do you need both from the start? Or would it be better for you to bring out just one format, or one before the other? 

If I was having my self-publishing time over again, I’d do something like this:

  1. Release an e-book that’s enrolled in the Amazon KDP Select programme which is only for books exclusive to Amazon and has a minimum 90 day enrolment period. A benefit of the programme is that you get to promote your book as free for up to 5 days – I’d do this right at the start in order to entice readers, potentially get reviews and get the book’s sales rank momentum going. 
  2. Re-invest the money I make from these first three month’s sales into having a professional e-book conversion service to make my title available as a ePub (i.e. all the types of e-books that are not Kindle, e.g. iBooks books) on all other major e-book retailers, now that I don’t have to be exclusive to Amazon anymore. (I recommend for this.)
  3. Release a paperback now, three months after the e-book came out – IF my sales in those first three months encourage me to do so. If there’s been no sales at all, I know there’s little financial point in bothering with a paperback. If there’s been some, it might be wise to make a proof copy just for review purposes on CreateSpace (that’s not for sale) and offer it to book bloggers or run a few Goodreads giveaways. 
  4. Repeat as required with each book. 

This is the kind of thing we talked about in my workshop yesterday: big picture stuff. It’s what you should be looking for when you browse through self-publishers’ blogs or flick through self-publishing guides. If you have the opportunity to go to a self-publishing seminar or meet a self-publisher who’s been there and done that, don’t waste your time asking them how to format an e-book. (Chances are they’ll have already blocked that trauma from their mind anyway.) Instead ask them, “If you were self-publishing all over again, what would you do differently?” or “What kind of things should I be thinking about now?”

Don’t get bogged down by the “how to” details. Step by step instructions surround you; you can access them whenever you need to. It’s far more important to figure out how you’re going to self-publish - as in, what you’re going to do and when and why you’re going to do it. Step back from the formatting instructions and cover design dimensions and US tax issues. Lift your head up and look at the big picture. Before you do anything, you need to see it. 

CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD is a writer, self-publisher and caffeine-enthusiast from Cork, Ireland. She started self-publishing in 2010 with the release of her travel memoir, Mousetrapped, and is known for the pragmatic self-publishing advice she shares on her blog, Catherine, Caffeinated. She’s delivered self-publishing seminars and workshops for the likes of Faber Academy, Guardian Master Classes and the Irish Writers’ Centre. She’s currently reading for an English degree at Trinity College Dublin as a somewhat immature mature student. The third edition of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing is out now in paperback and e-book. Find out more about Catherine and her books on