Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.
Are You Wondering How to Publish Your Book?
I regularly receive calls or messages from folks in my networks that go something like this:
“My friend [or family member] has just finished her book. What should she do next to get a book deal from a publisher or self-publish?”
Such a loaded question!
For those of you who are hoping to help your budding author friends or family members, please share this article with them. If you’re the author (or "just asking for a friend"), I hope you’ll find this helpful and enlightening.
Normally, I suggest that authors figure out their purpose and audience for their books before writing them. But I'm guessing the darn thing is already written. So let's go from there.
Your Book Must Be in an Electronic File
I have been stunned at the number of new authors who do not have their book manuscripts in electronic format. What I mean is that they don't have a manuscript in a Microsoft Word document, or a document created with one of the programs similar to Word such as Google Docs, OpenOffice, or even a raw text file (.txt). I even had one author who sent me JPEG picture files of her book pages. I also received an inquiry about reviewing a binder of book material that was almost a thousand pages, none of which was available electronically. Grrrrr!
"But I don't like using computers for creative work." Then you're not going to like this either. As an author at this time in history, you will be expected to use word processing technology such as Word. Your editors and book layout designers will require your manuscript be submitted in Word, or a file type that is similar to it.
And your publishing partners, particularly editors, will not want to sift through your pile of random musings in order to create a book. If that's what you're expecting these people to do, you can also expect that they will probably want charge you handsomely for the service (conservatively, in the thousands) and may also expect some co-author rights and royalties.
So get used to it, get yourself some word processing training online or offline if you need it, and get your %$#&* together.
Know What You Really Want
I’m guessing you want some money and recognition for writing your book. Go ahead, say you do. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be whining about your book to your family and friends, and looking to these non-publishing industry folks for advice or referrals for your book. You’d just be happy dumping your thoughts onto your computer or in a journal.
Now that you’ve come to grips with that, you have to switch gears from being a writer to being a *gasp* salesperson. Not comfortable with that? Quit right now. I mean it. Just write for fun or a hobby. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache and headache and cash.
Not ready to quit yet? Okay, then you need to make a choice between pursuing a traditional publishing deal or self-publishing. Neither is easy. But here’s what you can expect.
Path 1: Traditional Publishing
I usually hear “I want to get a book deal” from new authors who are completely clueless about how the traditional publishing industry works. Traditional publishing means that you get a book deal contract with a publishing company, large or small, who will handle the editing, printing, distribution, and a bit of marketing. Note that I said a "bit" of marketing.
Here’s the deal about book deals. Big or even smaller independent (indie) publishing houses probably don’t need or want your book. They are flooded with manuscripts and pitches from lots and lots of authors and agents. The big trade publishers may not even look at a manuscript from an author that isn’t represented by an agent.
What’s an Agent?
Agents are salespeople who represent authors to publishers in the hopes of getting the author a book deal contract, and a nice commission for themselves. Agents’ commissions come out of whatever payments you get from the publisher. Getting an agent requires you to sell the agent on selling you. Agents want authors and manuscripts that are an easy sale to a publisher. That means in addition to having a stellar manuscript, you should have a significant fan base eager to buy your book when it publishes.
How do you get an agent? Well, first you have to find one. They may not advertise themselves that much. I think you can understand why. They’d have every hopeful author knocking on their virtual door for consideration. (In a bit, I’ll offer a resource that might be helpful for locating one.)
Sure, some indies may consider first-time authors without an agent. But just because they’re smaller publishers doesn’t mean they want small-time authors. Like their big trade publisher competitors, they have limited budgets and resources to devote to any book project, and want easy book sales. So you better show them how you’re going to make them enough money to invest in your book and make a profit. That means you need to be able to tell them how many people are potential buyers, how you might already have those potential buyers lined up (as your fan base), how your book is similar to other successful books in your genre or market, and, paradoxically, how your book is unique compared to competing books.
Another word about working with agents and publishers. You should probably have your own attorney review book deal contracts and agent representation contracts prior to signing. Don’t be so eager to get a deal that you sign away your financial and publishing future. As well, publishing agents are for publishing and getting you a book deal. Then they're on to the next author and manuscript. They won't be managing your author career, public relations (PR), or book marketing.
It gets even more frustrating when you realize that it could take years to get a book deal or agent, if you get one at all. Very few authors actually do. And unless it’s an evergreen topic or genre, it could be outdated material by the time it actually gets traditionally published.
What Do Traditional Publishers Do?
Many uninformed or misinformed authors believe that a traditional publisher will take care of “everything” once a book deal is done and the manuscripts are submitted. That’s not the case.
True, the publisher will probably handle the majority of the editing, proofreading, and production of the print or eBook. But that doesn’t mean it’s hands-off for you. Chances are you might be asked to do some rewriting to meet their requirements. One author I know got very exasperated at this stage with the manuscript reworking she had to do. Also, you might not like the edits a publisher may insist upon.
Even more emotionally distressing for authors is that they may have zero input or control over the book’s cover design. Authors have a vision in their heads of how it should look. But a publisher will choose a design that will pump up sales, not an author’s ego.
Speaking of sales, the biggest myth that new authors who get book deals believe is that the publisher will handle all the sales and marketing. Well, they might do some at the book launch. But unless specifically included in the contract, expect no continued marketing or sales help for your book beyond the launch, and maybe not even much then. It’s all on you. (This is why self-publishing is appealing to many authors these days.)
Did you notice that I didn’t say a publisher would make sure your book will be on the shelves in a bookstore? Even if you do get a publisher book deal, the chances of your book being physically for sale in bookstores are slim.
And if you think that you're going to make a lot of money from your book deals with traditional publishers, here are the sobering statistics. The Author Guild 2017 survey (46% were traditionally published, 27% self-publish only, and 26% do both) found that the median annual author income for books only, excluding other writing income, for full-time traditionally published authors was $12,400. That is not even minimum wage! And all authors—whether traditionally or self-published, or both—earned $0.
Recommended Guide: Writer’s Market
Before you go down the traditional publishing path, get yourself a copy of the current edition of the Writer’s Market. It’s an annual directory published by Writer’s Digest Books that lists publications, publishers, and other writing opportunities. There are specialty editions of this directory for poetry, novels and short stories, agents, children’s books, songwriters, etc. Get all of them that apply to your work and educate yourself on the industry and your market before you ever step onto this path.
I’ve also found the articles in the Writer’s Market to be very helpful in understanding the traditional publishing world. Read them, too, in addition to the listings.
Path 2: Self-Publishing
At this point, you might be thinking it’s just easier to go with self-publishing. In many respects, that’s true. But not totally.
Before you go any further, you’ll need to do some editing and proofreading of your book, even if you edit it yourself. Hiring editors and beta readers could be a significant investment, depending on the condition of your manuscript.
You should consult an attorney to prepare necessary disclaimers to protect you and your work, especially if your book offers advice or is a memoir. An attorney that specializes in intellectual property can also be consulted to clarify any questions you might have about copyright protection and dealing with self-publishing companies.
How to Format and Publish Your Self-Published Book
Once all the text of your book is final, then you’re ready to begin the formatting and publishing process. From a technical standpoint, self-publishing is easier and faster than it’s ever been in history. In fact, now you can self-publish for almost free on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) if you're willing to go the DIY (do it yourself) route. Other self-publishing companies such as IngramSpark, Lulu, and BookBaby could also be considered, but they may have fees for various services.
For authors using KDP, the Kindle Create eBook formatting tool now offers the capability to create the print edition and the Kindle eBook edition with the same file. This is an incredible development. But it’s still in beta mode and has some problems as of this post date, though I suggest you give it a test drive.
If you want it to look better than what you can get with the Kindle Create tool, you'll have to do the formatting manually in Microsoft Word, or a program that can save your manuscript in a .doc or .docx file format. See KDP's support documentation for specific file requirements, margins, etc.
For other non-KDP self-publishing platforms (IngramSpark, Lulu, Bookbaby, etc.), see the company's website for manuscript and book cover requirements.
If your book is a more complex paperback or hardcover print job, you may have to invest in graphic design and formatting help which can easily run into hundreds or thousands of dollars, and a lot of time. Suggest doing simpler text-only print books in the beginning to avoid making expensive mistakes while you learn the self-publishing process.
Then after your manuscript is formatted, you could get your print book or eBook published and listed for sale on Amazon in just days using KDP. If you’re using another self-publishing company, see the company’s website for details on uploading, service times, etc. Whatever company you use, just make sure to proof your uploaded manuscript, as well as a physical printed proof for your print edition.
How to Market and Sell Your Self-Published Book
But the effort and investment in writing, editing, and formatting the book pales when compared to the marketing you’ll need to do. Just having your book listed on Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll make sales.
Don’t be confused by any non-KDP self-publishing company claims to help you with “promotion” of your book. Promotion often means the company will post a link to your book on their social media profiles at launch. Maybe they’ll offer a boilerplate press release that you will send to media outlets. Higher priced self-publishing packages may include distributing your press release to the media. But unless noted otherwise, they will not do paid “advertising” for your book.
One thing you should do right now is start building your author platform, also known as your fan base. These fans will become your initial sales prospects for your books. So many authors wait until they have their book done before they begin to recruit fans. Then they wonder why no one wants to buy their books. You’ll need to build and maintain this fan base for as long as you plan to make sales of your book. You might even have to do some advertising on Amazon (Amazon Marketing Services) ads that appear on Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, etc. to make sales beyond your fan base.
And here’s the worst part. In both my 2016 and 2018 Thorne Self-Publishing Surveys of self-published authors, around 73% of respondents who had at least one book published projected to make less than $1,000 a year in book sales and royalties. Statistically, there’s a good chance you won’t make much money in sales and royalties from your book. You might not recoup the money you spent formatting and publishing your book right away, if ever.
Good to Go?
I’m guessing you might be a bit discouraged after reading this. If you realized it's not for you, that's okay. I just want you to look at your writing and publishing investment through a realistic lens.
If you’re someone who thinks that all of this doesn’t apply to you because you’re going to be the next breakout author star, I hope you’ll reconnect with me when you reach that level of success. I’d love to hear how you did it.
Good luck with your book adventure, wherever it takes you!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 18, 2020:
Peggy, these days, I think authors might be better off buying lottery tickets than self publishing a book! Even though I think for many I've become known as "publishing dream killer," I'd rather be the voice of reason than the charlatans who say "You just gotta believe and you'll be successful."
Thank you for supporting my stance. Wishing you health and happiness!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 16, 2020:
With all the competition out there these days, it would seem that having a book go viral is like picking a winning piece of straw out of a haystack. Your posts are a reality check for those who think that this is an easy thing to do.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 29, 2019:
You're welcome, Robert! Glad you found it helpful. Have a great weekend!
Robert Sacchi on November 28, 2019:
Thank you for the reality check and useful instructions.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 10, 2019:
Hello Ammara! Thanks for reading.
Ammara from Pakistan on November 03, 2019:
Informative article. Thanks for sharing!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 27, 2019:
Hi Pamela! You nailed it when you said that publishing a book is harder than writing one. This surprises many authors for sure.
It sounds like you're able to assess the viability of your work. But don't be too over-judgmental of your writing! We all tend to think are work is "mediocre" or not up to the unrealistic standards we've set for ourselves. If you want to see how your work really stacks up, hire some beta readers or an editor to critique your work. Then you can decide if going through the process of publishing might be worth your while.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! Have a beautiful week!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 26, 2019:
I love your no-nonsense aproach to getting a book published. I have written 2 books and I knew they were mediocre at best, so no publishing. It sounds like getting your book published may be more difficult than writing your book. I think this is excelelnt information for those that have not published yet. Very good article, Heidi.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2019:
Linda, sometimes I can be accused of brutal honesty. But, hey, better to know, right? :) Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. Have a beautiful weekend!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2019:
Liz, it really all depends on the purpose for writing the book in the first place. It sounds like your family members have their expectations and goals set properly. More than I can say for many authors! :)
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us! Have a lovely weekend!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2019:
Bill, I can't imagine life without Word (or something similar to it). And my "now what" answer is the same as yours. We clearly have a problem. :)
Happy Weekend to you, too! Thank you for stopping by!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2019:
I love your honesty, Heidi. It's important that writers know the facts that you've shared.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 24, 2019:
I have read your article with interest. I am relievrd to say that although the two writers/family members I am currently working with are in their 80s, their books are in Word. Both are going down the self publishing route. One has been encouraged to write by others to produce an account of their experiences. The other is writing mainly for the benefit of younger family members. Neither expect great sales of their books, but if the interest is there they might have more coies6 made available.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 24, 2019:
I would be lost without Word. I can't count the number of times it has saved my ass.
Love your no-nonsense answers and advice.
In answer to the title's question...what do I do? I start writing another book, of course! That's what writers do, isn't it?
Have a brilliant weekend, Heidi!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 24, 2019:
Flourish, yep, I've got a "scared straight" approach to publishing. Sadly for me, that doesn't make me the most popular publishing resource in the world. But, hey, at least I can say, "I told you so."
You cannot imagine my visceral reaction when the prospective author said she'd bring the thousand-page binder for me to look at.
Thanks for joining the conversation, as always! Have a great weekend!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 24, 2019:
Mel, I've also been searching for the alchemy that can turn words into money. Unfortunately, I haven't found it yet. Oh well...
Hard work? Yes. Persistence? Yes. Luck? Yes. Contrary to all the gurus out there who say there is, there is no path to making it in publishing that can easily be duplicated. If there was, all of us on HP would be floating around on inflatable swans in our mansion's pools.
Thanks for chiming in and have a great weekend!
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 23, 2019:
This was some much needed straight talk for authors. I love the image of people writing in longhand and taking jpegs of their work. Oh no!
Mel Carriere from San Diego California on August 23, 2019:
This is a great reality check. You mean to tell me, there are no magic words or animal sacrifices that can be made to ensure the success of a book? Unfortunately, it looks like hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck are the only things that will launch an author to fame and fortune. Fantastic primer on the tough road ahead.