Advances in technology, easy accessibility to book printing and the rising popularity of ebooks have made it possible for many writers to self-publish their work.  When I wrote a guide to dating in North Florida, I chose the self-publishing route myself.  Although I would not consider myself an expert by any means, I am sharing my experiences and observations in hopes of helping others who are considering taking the self-publishing path.

Before deciding on a form of publishing, however, you must have a manuscript.  I spent about a year working on mine.  It helps to set aside a consistent time for writing every day and stick to it.  The “stick to it” part is difficult for me, so I also joined a group of women who met once a week to discuss their progress on various projects.  Knowing that they expected me to show up with new material every week motivated me to keep going.  I found the group through a personal friend, but you can find similar groups on www.MeetUp.com.  Upon completion, I asked a couple of trusted, literate friends to read the whole thing and mark it up at will.  

Initially, I sought a traditional publisher using Writer’s Market, an annual compilation of publishers, agents, and other literary outlets.  Every year, on the last day of August, they release a new hardback edition.  I use the web-based version, however.  At www.writersmarket.com, you can search all those entries, filtering by options including “accepts unagented material,” “accepts simultaneous submissions,” and (in my dreams) “pays an advance.”  If you have a particular publisher in mind, check their website for submission guidelines.

I searched for a publisher that would consider my little book about a little part of Florida, and thus my results were…little.  My book only applies to people who live in Jacksonville, Saint Augustine and Amelia Island.  The other issue was one of categorization: what is my book? A travel book?  A self-help guide?  A marriage manual?  I did identify three publishers I thought might be possibilities, however, and carefully followed their submission guidelines (which can also be found in Writer’s Market) and sent query letters.  I received a rejection letter from one, no response from the second, but a third expressed interest.  They requested further information and the complete manuscript.  

When making initial submissions to publishers, you generally should not submit your entire manuscript.  Read the guidelines for submission found on the publisher’s website or on writersmarket.com.  Some prefer to receive a sample chapter, some ask for more, but as a rule, you should not randomly mail out your entire manuscript.  It will end up in the recycling bin.  You must come up with a professional, interest-grabbing query letter.  There are many resources online with examples and instructions on how to write a good query letter.  If your query doesn’t grab their attention, your manuscript has no chance of doing so.

The third publisher had many requests, including my vision for a potential cover and my ideas for how I might market my book.  They informed me of their royalty amounts and time frame for publishing.  After a few further communications, however, it did not work out with that publisher.  I began examining other options.  After all, if I was expected to do all the design and the marketing, why should I only receive a small percentage of the sales? Also, with the regional nature of my book, getting on the shelves at major bookstores wasn’t really an option anyway.  This is where having a publisher really helps: getting your book on shelves in bookstores.  In this modern day of technology, however, bookstores appear to be losing their appeal (with the exception of being excellent places to drink coffee and get wifi).

There are many self-publishing outlets available today, providing some great options for new writers.  I chose print-on-demand services from Lulu.com.  With print-on-demand (POD), you don’t have to order a huge box of books that may or may not sell some day (I could picture myself handing them out at a family reunion some day, “Here, Aunt Terry, have a copy of my book.”  Instead, a POD service will print your book as ordered, one copy at a time.  On Lulu, authors have their own webpage where customers can buy their book.  You may order a supply to have on hand if you choose — as many as you want to buy — but it’s not required.  Lulu also offers a global distribution option which makes your book available on Amazon.com, the Barnes & Noble website and others.  Authors receive a greater portion of the sale price of their book when selling directly from Lulu rather than on Amazon, but Amazon appeals to a much greater audience.  Lulu pays book revenue monthly, including revenue from Amazon sales and other outlets, and deposits payment into a Paypal account belonging to the author.

In addition to Lulu, other recommended self-publishing options are CreateSpace and Lightning Source.  CreateSpace is the self-publishing branch of Amazon.  One local bookstore I learned would not accept books published through CreateSpace because of the affiliation with Amazon.  Lightning Source is Ingram Book Company’s print-on-demand vendor, and they have many positive reviews from authors online.  However, as a newbie without access to professional advice or Adobe InDesign software, I found their formatting requirements to be too complicated.  Also check out Dog Ear and Fast Pencil.

Another decision you will face when examining publishing options is your ISBN.  ISBN stands for International standard book number.  Pick a book off your shelf and turn it over. You will probably see the ISBN printed above the barcode.  It is a 10 or 13-digit number used to identify your book.  Unless you are planning to primarily sell your book out of your trunk, you must have an ISBN to sell your book pretty much anywhere else.  Lulu offers a “free ISBN” option, but, in my opinion, nothing is really free in this world.  As a bold, independent, barrier-breaking writer, you will probably want your own.  The only official source where you can purchase an ISBN in North America is Bowker Identifier Services.  You can purchase one ISBN or a block of 10 (or however many you want).  You only need one per book, but here’s the catch: if you want to publish a hardcover, softcover and ebook version of your book, you need a different ISBN for each.  The cost of buying 10 is the same price as buying just 2, so you might want to go ahead and get the block.  I also used Bowker to create a barcode for my book, but there are other options for that out there.  I just went for “one-stop shopping.”  

In order to qualify for global distribution, your book must be properly formatted.  Before publishing my book, I had no idea how much time it would take to format a book.  This step is the one where I realized how much work those publishers who wanted 95 percent of my royalties would have done in my stead.  It’s tedious and discouraging.  With writing, you get the excitement of seeing new ideas filling previously blank pages.  With editing and formatting, you get the excitement of seeing your words in the correct font, size and indentation.  Whee.  Lulu offers this service for an additional fee, but as you’ve probably discerned by this point, I’m too cheap for that.  Hey: I’m a starving writer.  Instead, I purchased a template.  Lulu offers templates as well, but I found some creative, eye-catching templates at Book Design Templates.  They offer ready-made templates for fiction, nonfiction and children’s books.  The blog where I found this resource also offers lots of great advice for self-publishing: The Book Designer. You will have to convert your manuscript into  PDF.  I used Microsoft Word for this process, but if you have access to Adobe InDesign software, I highly recommend using it.  I found my manuscript would suddenly aquire new blank pages when I converted to PDF, which was frustrating and potentially costly, as POD services charge per page for printing.

The cover of your book is key to achieving a professional look.  Poorly designed book covers are a dead giveaway for many self-published works.  If you can get a professional to design it, you will be ahead of the game.  Most of the POD services offer cover design for an additional fee.  Consider spending a little more for this service; it will go a long way toward making your book look like a best seller.

Once your book is finally printed, and you can actually hold it in your grateful hands, you will need to market yourself.  Unless people know about your book, only Aunt Terry will read it.  I did some research online for “how to write a press release.”  Again, there are services out there that will do this for you, but you’re a writer, buckoo: you can do this yourself.  If you want your press release to get national attention, however, you might consider using a service like PRWeb.  I sent mine directly to local news stations (check their websites for submission guidelines and contact emails).  I received invitations from two local news stations and a local interest show.  Appearing on TV dramatically increased the sales of my book.  You have to get out there and market yourself if you plan to self-publish: there’s no way around it.  Prepare your “elevator speech” so you can explain your book in an interesting way when people inevitably ask you, “So, what is your book about?”

Even with the benefit of modern technology, it’s still a wonderful feeling to see your book on the shelf.  I found that some local bookstores were open to giving local authors a chance.  Again, review their webpages for guidelines.  Many will accept books on a consignment basis: they will take a few copies, and if they sell, you get a percentage.  Some even offer options for book signings as well.  Don’t forget to invite Aunt Terry.

On the shelf

Shelley Marsh is the author of “Fifty First Coast Dates,” an entertaining guide to spicing up your next date night in Jacksonville, Saint Augustine and Amelia Island.  Available locally at The BookMark in Neptune Beach or online at Amazon.com and Lulu.com.