Vanity Case Study: my experience of self-publishing

Self publishing has come a long way in a very short time. In the not too distant past it still bore the stigma of Vanity Publishing, a disparaging label casting aspersions on the motives and character of the author. But now? Now it's Print-On-Demand, the unspoken implication being that there is a demand out there for what you've written. These labels make all the difference to how the process is perceived and how seriously it is taken.

But the major distinction is the way that the modern process works. You no longer have to shell out for hundreds of hard copies of a book that run the risk of ending up under the bed in ten years' time - in fact you no longer have to shell out for anything. All you need to make a book available is the ability to write one and the willingness to spend some time negotiating the twists and turns of an online administration process.

As some of you may know (chiefly because I haven't shut up about it for the past six months) I have recently been through the self-publishing process and now have a book available on Amazon in both Paperback and Kindle format. It was suggested by kay_tofu on Twitter that I blog about the experience, by doing so perhaps in some small way giving guidance to others who are about to embark upon such an undertaking. I also received a query from Asher on Facebook asking me for some tips on how I did it. So in the hope that it will help them and others, here are my thoughts, my first blog on demand...

Perhaps it's an obvious point, but the most important thing is to have your book written and fully edited before you start the publishing process. You might find it useful to get feedback from a friend or three - someone reading your work with a fresh eye might spot errors of various kinds that you were unable to see due to prolonged proximity to the material. Typos can be persistent little buggers.

It's useful whilst you're still writing and editing to build up anticipation for your book if you can. This is tricky and really depends upon the subject matter. I was lucky in that the subject I chose to write about had a built in audience - but even so I had to make them aware of it. I published early drafts of some sections of the book as blog entries which I plugged on Twitter and Facebook. I set up a Facebook page for the book and encouraged people I thought would be interested to "like" (i.e. join) it. This can be hard work but pays off upon publication.

You might also want to consider investing in some added value for your book. Again this really does depend upon what you're writing about, but in my case I contacted commercial photographers who had worked with the subject of my book back in the eighties and enquired as to the costs of licensing photos for reproduction. You might choose to get an eye catching cover designed.

Once you've got the content in its final form, there are a number of Print On Demand services available. The one I went for was Lulu, and as such is the one I will describe here. I won't go in to huge detail as you can get all that on the site, but I will mention the important points.

Obviously the first thing I needed to do was sign up.

Lulu use the same interface for customers buying the books as they do for their authors so even once you have signed up it's not immediately obvious where to start. Clicking on the My Lulu tab brings you to a dashboard towards the top left hand corner of which is the My Projects panel containing a number of links under the heading Start a New Project. Clicking on one of these invokes a 'wizard' each step of which is largely self explanatory. You can save at any point and go back to it later.

Early on make sure you select the option that says:
Make it public and assign an ISBN to your title to sell your book in online bookstores like Amazon as well as the Lulu Marketplace.
Provided that is what you want to do of course! After this you get to choose the format of your book. My recommendation – if the book you're planning on publishing is mainly text – is to go for Pocket format, Perfect-bound and Black and White Printing (with full colour covers). This will allow you to set a reasonably low price - and that's what it will all come down to when it goes on sale.

When it comes to the choice of ISBN, select the option that reads:
Get a free ISBN from
Buying your own ISBN can be expensive so best to use the free service on offer here. You'll be given a downloadable graphic of the barcode for the new, unique ISBN that has been assigned to your book. Save this somewhere safe – you'll need it again when to comes to designing the back cover.

After this you'll need to upload the files comprising your book – and this is the point at which you might want to save your progress and come back to it later. Templates are available and you can upload Word documents although for best results it's worth using a desktop publishing program and exporting a PDF – this way you have far greater control over the end result. There are a number of different programs available but if you're on a budget, Scribus is an open source (i.e. free) package.

What you include on the pages of your book is up to you although follow Lulu's guidelines with regard to margins and bleeds. A left hand copyright page (including your ISBN) at the beginning is also required as are blank pages at the end making the page count up to a multiple of four. Before producing your final PDF have a look at what the inside of some of your favourite paperbacks look like. How are they laid out? How are paragraphs formatted? Is the text justified? Where do the page numbers appear?

Once you've uploaded the PDF content Lulu will give you an estimate of how wide the spine of your book is going to be – and with this information you can produce a wraparound cover using your desktop publishing program which gives you the greatest control over the book jacket. Remember to include the ISBN barcode on the back cover – the Lulu documentation contains precise guidance as to the required size and position.

When all the elements are online you're ready to publish – but before your book goes on sale to the public Lulu require you to order a proof hard copy to check yourself. This will take a few days. During this time you can have a look at the distribution packages available to you. extendedREACH is free and will get your book listed on Amazon – this will be sufficient for most purposes.

Once you've checked your proof copy it's time to go for it and click publish.

This might be the point at which you want to start trying to persuade people to buy your book. That's certainly what I did, although in retrospect I think this might have been a mistake. Few people have heard of Lulu and in general customers are loathe to sign up to another online retailer when they're already in bed with Amazon, especially given Lulu's P&P. Whilst you may get more money from sales via Lulu, sales on Amazon have far more clout. You can however buy copies of your own book from Lulu at "cost" (a few pounds) which will come in handy when it comes to promotion.

So, you might want to wait for your book to appear on Amazon before you start plugging it. This has the potential for being quite frustrating as it can take anything from six to eight weeks. In my case it was around seven. There's no formal notification - but if you're anything like me you'll be searching Amazon on a daily basis so you'll soon notice when it appears. In general it will appear on the US site a few days before the UK site.

You're now ready to begin plugging in earnest. Mention it on Twitter at around 5pm (UK time) with a direct link to the Amazon page. Plug it on Facebook. If you have a blog, consider putting an ad for it somewhere in the template; that way whenever anyone reads your blog they know there's more where that came from. Send review copies to anyone you know online with a blog on which they review books. If you are a member of Goodreads, consider setting up a giveaway promotion - this is where the copies of the book you bought at cost from Lulu come in handy. Recipients of giveaway prizes are encouraged to review their freebies and it's reviews such as these that will drive people to Amazon.

Once on your book's Amazon page, potential buyers will be more likely to invest in a copy if they can see that other people have been there before them and enjoyed it. Encourage your readers to leave positive reviews on Amazon. This is one of the most the difficult parts - no matter what their good intentions it is always far easier for people not to bother. Give them a hand by providing a direct link on your blog or Facebook page to the review form. This will be a URL like:
where nnnnnnnnnn is the ASIN (Amazon product number) of your item, which you can find in the main URL of your book after /product/ :
These days it's well worth selling your book in Kindle format as well. Amazon make this easy for you. Once the hard copy is up on Amazon you may notice a section halfway down the page:

Sell a Digital Version of This Book in the Kindle Store

If you are a publisher or author and hold the digital rights to a book, you can sell a digital version of it in our Kindle Store. Learn more

Clicking the Learn more link will take you to a page which allows you to register with Kindle Direct Publishing. There are full instructions here - it surprisingly easy to make your book available, especially given all the groundwork you put in before publishing via Lulu. All you really need here is a properly formatted Word document (and the site contains all the details you need). Set the price as low as you can.

Once submitted it will probably take around 24 hours for the title to appear - and then of course you can start the promotional cycle all over again.

Keep banging away at it. You've got a book out. It's marvellous. Of course you want people to know.


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