Self-Publishing: A Primer

Carnival of the Indies logoThis blog post was featured in Carnival of the Indies, issue 25.

My wife asked if I could provide a primer for a couple of friends that are interested in writing and self-publishing. I’ll be focusing on ebooks, although most of it will also apply to paper books, and since I live in the UK, some of this is UK-specific, though most of it is applicable to anyone.


Ebook readers by skuds, via Flickr

Ebooks are read on a variety of devices. Ereaders with e-ink screens, laptops and tablets with LCD screens, even phones. This means that your ebook could be read on a 4″ phone screen, a 28″ computer screen, or anything in between. The text will adjust to suit the screen size, in the same way that the text on this web page will adjust if you change the size of your browser window. Most ereaders and ereader software allow users to change various aspects of how the text looks (font size, line spacing, etc). This means that unlike paper books, the author cannot fully control how the text will look. Some authors dislike this, but my advice is to simply accept it, and concentrate on the content, not the minutiae of the presentation. Some degree of control is possible – headings can have larger, bold text, for example, but don’t expect that every reader will see the text exactly the same way that you do.

Ebooks are generally Mobi or ePub format. Amazon Kindles and Kindle apps use Mobi, virtually every other ereader device or app uses ePub. If you don’t already have an ereader, and you’re considering writing ebooks, I recommend that you buy one (or install an ereader app on your phone or computer) and read some ebooks. If you haven’t read at least a few ebooks, you won’t know what it is that you’re selling.

Writing an Ebook

The main difficulty in writing an ebook is writing the actual content. Most publishing outlets will accept Word files, so if you’re used to Word, use that. Fiction generally doesn’t require much formatting, but if you’re writing something where formatting is important, you may wish to look into the specialised writing software that is available.

Once it is written, it’ll need to be edited and proof-read. Ideally, you should pay for a professional editor, although software (paid and free) is also available. I gave some proof-reading tips in a previous post, and Virginia Ripple has posted links to the editing software that she uses.

You will also need a book cover. You can make your own, but note that people do judge books by their covers. Make sure it looks good, and be careful not to use copyrighted images without permission. If you can’t do it yourself, you can hire someone to create a cover for you for a fee.


Once the book is written, the next step is to publish it so that people can buy it and read it. On a basic level, this involves uploading your book file and a cover image, then setting a description and price. For each copy that sells, you will get a percentage of the sale price. The percentage varies a great deal. The sites I deal with give me between 35% and 85% of list price, last month my average royalty was 62%.

Amazon is the biggest ebook retailer, and you can use Kindle Direct Publishing to publish an ebook on the Amazon website. Kobo allow UK authors to publish through their Kobo Writing Life website. Kobo supply ebooks to WHSmith, so adding your book to Kobo also gets you into WHSmith. Make sure you know what you’re signing up to – Kindle Direct Publishing, for instance, has an option called “KDP Select”, which offers various benefits, but which requires that you don’t publish your book anywhere else.

To get into the Apple iBookstore or Barnes & Noble, you’ll need to use a distribution service such as Smashwords or Lulu. Both sites sell ebooks direct via their website, but their main value is that they distribute to other sites that may not be available otherwise. I use Smashwords, and have been reasonably happy with them, though it pays to read their style guide very carefully.

Paper Books

It’s also possible to self-publish paper books, using a technology known as print on demand (POD). You upload a PDF file formatted to the POD publisher’s specifications, then when someone orders a copy, they print a copy and send it to them. The formatting is more complicated than with paper books, but there are companies who can format your book for you, in return for a fee. Once it’s ready, CreateSpace and Lulu are common choices for selling the print book, and both have options to make your book available at other stores.


Finally, you need to market your book, so that people buy it. This isn’t easy, and don’t expect a rash of sales, especially not at first. A recent survey found that 50% of self-published authors make less than $500 per annum, and less than 10% earn a living from writing.

The best advice I can give about marketing is to be patient, and don’t bombard people with “buy my book” messages. Some of the blogs listed in the links section below will also be useful.


If you’re making money from your ebooks, then you should declare your income and pay tax on it. UK tax isn’t difficult – register as a sole trader with HM Revenue & Customs and they’ll send you a tax return to fill in every year. US tax is more complex, as most US companies will deduct 30% tax from your royalties before they pay you. See my earlier blog post for details of how to register with the IRS to avoid paying US tax.


There is a lot of useful information about self-publishing available on the web, and there are lots of ebooks about the subject. Bear in mind that things change, so pay attention to the date that the article or ebook was written, and be very wary of older articles or ebooks. The following is a list of blogs that should be useful. I suggest using an RSS aggregator like Google Reader to read them.

Author EMS: Business Resources for Authors
The Business Rusch
A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing
Catherine, Caffeinated
David Gaughran
The Blurb Doctor: Help and advice on writing better blurbs
The Book Designer
The Passive Voice

About Russell Phillips

I write books and articles about military technology and history. My articles have been published in Television Magazine, Miniature Wargames, Wargames Illustrated and the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers Journal. I have been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia.
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3 Responses to Self-Publishing: A Primer

  1. Thanks for the shout-out. I agree that professional editing is ideal, but sometimes in this business, especially for those just starting out, it’s hard to come up with the money. Using editing software can really help. The great thing is that there are a lot of good free tools available. Even if someone plans to use a professional, it’s a good idea to run the work through some software first to reduce the number of things an editor is likely to find. Reducing the number of edits can reduce the final price of that professional edit.

    Great little primer you have in the post. :)

  2. Pingback: Writing Blog Treasures 11~3 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

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