• Mark Robinson

What to Know About Self-Publishing


As part of my family’s holiday traditions, each year I like to make up a story (usually something with more humor than story). I decided to change things up last year and write a holiday novella called “The Lighthouse Christmas”.

The story turned out far better than I expected, which ultimately led me on a path to publish it.

I spoke with a friend that published a novel a few years ago who shared, “Writing a book is the easy part. The hard part is getting it to market.”

This turned out to be an accurate statement. I started down the path of publishing the book in February. After a surprisingly long road, it was published on November 4th of this year. Along the way, I found myself struggling with a lot of questions ranging from how to publish it, to whether or not to include images. What I learned is that each decision you make on the path to publishing the book ultimately impacts the economics of the book.

After I published the book, I decided that a good way to close out the experience would be to share what I had learned about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” world of self-publishing.

To Self-Publish or Not, that is the Question

Once you have written a manuscript, you are immediately confronted with how to publish the story. There are two approaches to consider. Do you submit to a publishing house or do you self-publish? In my case, self-publishing was a “feature” on writing my novella. I wanted to have the experience of creating a cover, working on editing the manuscript, copyrighting, etc. I chose to self-publish knowing that the process was going take much longer and be more involved. What else was there to do with my free time in a pandemic?

Regardless of whether you choose to self-publish, let me mention what is involved in working with a publishing company. If you work with a publishing company, the process includes creating the manuscript, copyrighting it using www.copyright.gov, and then following the submission process laid out by the publishing houses.

Submitting a copyright is fairly simple, as the process is electronic. On Copyright.gov, you fill out an electronic form, upload your document and pay $60 USD. At that point, you wait for the copyright to be processed which generally takes 2-3 weeks (4-6 weeks in a pandemic). Like magic, the mail will unceremoniously deliver a copyright certificate to you and the process will be complete. I laminated mine.

Submitting to the publishing houses is not as simple. Each one has its own submission process which you have to follow. Before you take this step, you will first need to know:

· if they are currently accepting manuscripts

· if your work fits their content guidelines

· if they accept manuscripts from authors or only through agents

· format guidelines they expect you to follow

· their submission policies

You will also want to research who will be reviewing your manuscript, and include a personalized cover letter. It is important to connect with the person who will be looking at your work to let them know that you understand their needs and how your work addresses them.

The Value of Good Editing

After deciding to self-publish, I wanted a professional editor to review my work. Once you have printed your book, it is there for good. Given my propensity for spelling errors, I opted to have someone take a careful look at the manuscript.

I went to a site called www.upwork.com which is a site that allows you to hire contractors for projects. After putting together a description of the work, I received 32 bids for the project. I chose to work with a young writer named Athena G. She was smart, professional and most important, she was organized. Within a few short weeks, she had cleaned up the manuscript in a way that I felt would better appeal to my audience. Not only would I recommend Athena for writing projects, I would recommend Upwork as a means to finding the right people. The platform has a very sophisticated program management component that makes it easy to understand how much progress has been made.

The Challenges of Illustrations

Once the manuscript was complete, I could then focus my attention on the visuals of the book. One of the decisions confronting any author is whether or not to include images in the body of the book. As “The Lighthouse Christmas” was historical fiction, I thought that it was important to include images for context.

However, with that said, after having gone through the process, I would recommend that apart from the front and back cover of a book, most authors avoid using images. Images add cost to every part of the project. Unless you are creating the images yourself, you have to pay an illustrator or license the images from whatever sources you use. In addition, using images means that you will be faced with higher printing costs.

In my case, I decided to use several images from historical archives. A few of mine were from the United States National Archive. These images are free as long as you accredit them as the source. I also included some images courtesy of the Portland Head Lighthouse Museum, which was the subject of my story. The rest I either created myself (very time consuming) or licensed from Shutterstock or the Main Historical Society. I also commissioned two images to be created by an artist.

The two pieces that I commissioned were the book cover design and an image that I thought was needed to better present the story. For this step, I went back to Upwork and hired Sarah Alu. Sarah is a freelance artist who specializes in watercolors and illustrations. I had reviewed her portfolio and was immediately drawn to her watercolor work. It helped that she already created several book covers. After interviewing her, I thought that she was a natural fit for the book. She worked on and off for several weeks to complete the work. We had several check-ins each week, so I always had a sense of where things were going.

Once the images were completed, I began to explore the possibility that I had not thought this through all the way. As I mentioned earlier, images add significantly to the cost of a book. The licenses and hiring of artists are one thing. The total cost for all of it was ~$750. However, this is only the beginning. The images then need to be applied to the manuscript. Most people hire someone to do this. I chose to do this myself which added several days to the experience of preparing the book. Then you have to understand the printing costs.

Do I Purchase a Manual or Automatic Self-Publishing Vehicle?

To understand the costs of printing, you need to decide if you are going to publish the book manually or using a self-publishing agency. Publishing manually means that you have to format the book yourself and organize the files needed to get it to a printer or a digital distribution system like Amazon’s Kindle platform.

A self-publishing agency is a group that takes your money and then organizes everything for you. They generally charge about $2500 to publish a book and most importantly, they handle the printing. The printing costs are the hardest part to understand, as they are most impacted by the type of book (soft-cover or hard-cover) and whether the printing is in Black and White vs color.

I first looked at self-publishing agencies and being the numbers nerd that I am, I started by trying to understand the printing costs. After all, the black & white vs color issue is what will most impact the profitability of the book when I print millions of copies of my novella. Right? Well maybe not millions. However, when I ran the numbers, I found out that printing my book in color with all those beautiful images would cost almost $6 per copy. When you add to that the 60% royalty that is received by retailers such as Amazon, you will immediately regret adding images to your book. Small books with images lose money if you price them reasonably (i.e. the $12.99 price point that I wanted to hit).

By the end of my analysis, I realized that self-publishing agencies are great if you want something turnkey and do not care about unit price…but not so great if you want the book to make money on its own.

I gave up on the idea of using a self-publishing agency. Then something occurred to me. What if I could find a book printing operation that could not only handle the printing but also the file formatting?

This led me to my next search- the printing company of my dreams that would make my life easy and allow me to list my book on Amazon.

I looked at over a dozen printing companies and settled on www.48hrbooks.com. My reason for doing so ultimately came down to three things. The first is that for color printing, I could not find a better price. The unit cost on color printing the book was around $4 per unit with low volume. This was the lowest I found anywhere. The second was that they have a department that can handle the physical book and eBook formatting for a few hundred dollars. Again, this is the lowest price I found for this anywhere. The third and perhaps the most important reason was that their print quality is outstanding.

And, true to their name, once the book was formatted, I had copies of the book at my house within two days.

Once I had the printing resolved, it was time to address the eBook version. Thankfully, because I had chosen to use 48 Hour Books, I had a .mobi file that I could use.

Do you journey into Amazon?

One decision you will end up making if you are producing a digital book is whether to focus exclusively on Amazon or not. Amazon owns approximately 80% of the digital book market. They also own the largest viewing platform for digital books – Kindle.

There are other platforms out there which admittedly lack the reach of Amazon. However, there is one principal reason for staying exclusively on Amazon. Amazon has a program called Kindle Unlimited. The program enables its subscribers to read unlimited numbers of eBooks from a selection of titles that are available exclusively on Amazon. From this program, authors receive a per page royalty when their book is read by a subscriber. This program significantly lowers the barrier to acquiring users.

The other reason for going with Amazon is they also have their own printing service. As with other printers, the color printing is cost prohibitive. However, their black & white printing costs are among the lowest in the industry. If you are releasing a black and white book, this will likely be your best option.

As such, I chose to make my literary journey down the Amazon.

I hope this helps any would be authors out there. This article is really a summary of my experience thus far and admittedly there is far more to learn, such as how to acquire an ISBN number, how to promote the sales of the book, etc. which I will likely cover at a later date.

Stay safe

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