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Four ways to make life easier if you self-publish

Anna Lewis is the co-founder of CompletelyNovel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_cn.

Self-publishing is easier than ever. But how can you do it well – and make your book look as good as a traditionally published one?

Self-publishing your book is now easier than ever. Self-publishing your book well, however, can still be a real challenge. You will often hear mutterings in the publishing spheres that, “You can always spot a self-published book just by looking at it”. And in all fairness, it’s not too surprising, especially if you have chosen to do as much as possible yourself. I’m going to hazard a guess that it is unlikely that as an author, you have also trained and worked as a designer, typesetter, editor, proof-reader and marketer in between writing your book!
It’s undoubtedly going to be hard to get the same effect as a publisher who has spent thousands on a book’s production. However, there are some basic things that you can do that will make your life much easier and help your book blend in with the best.
1. Learn to use Microsoft Word
This probably sounds rather patronising, but Microsoft products have the problem of being a lot like icebergs to the majority of their users – there is a huge amount of depth to them in terms of the functionality available but most users only see and use the surface. There are some really useful tools built in that writers and self-publishers can take advantage of, particularly if you don’t fancy investing in and learning the professional packages such as InDesign and Quark.
Firstly, make a copy of your manuscript (or a chapter) and then give yourself at least a couple of hours to just play around with it. Get familiar with the following things:

  • Inserting page breaks – handy to make sure that your chapters always begin on a fresh page.
  • Creating paragraph styles – a great way to ensure consistency throughout the book (here is a helpful guide from Snowbooks).
  • Document map – really useful for jumping between chapters (find out more about the benefits on Write for your life)
  • Adjusting margins and page sizes – you will probably need to do this if you need to upload your manuscript to a self-publishing website. Adding in page breaks prior to this will save a lot of time (and pressing of the enter key).
  • Changing the line spacing – adding some extra space between lines can make the text much more readable
  • Adding headers, footers and page numbers
  • Using tracked changes  – for when you send to other people who would like to edit.

2. Study the page, not the words.
If you’ve already nailed all of those tools in Word, that’s great. The next stage is to apply this to typesetting your manuscript. Look at the pages in books that you own that are in a similar genre/category to the one you have written. Scrutinise the typeface, line-spacing, layout, chapter headings etc. and choose the style that you like best, and then try and emulate that.  Sometimes it will say in the front of the book the typeface used which can be pretty handy. The important thing is not to get distracted by what the words say – focus on what the page looks like.
NB – always save copies of your book at various stages of formatting. You will probably find that for some eBook formats you need to strip out lots of the formatting that you have done for the print version (because they don’t translate well). It’s often easier to do that with an earlier, simpler version.
More advice on typesetting and formatting your book.
3. Become an expert in ‘packaging’
Book covers, even for online books, are very important. Again, if you are going to do the design yourself  you really need to go into a bookshop (or even just browse online) to get a good idea of how books that are in a similar genre to yours are represented. Choose some favourites and go away and base your cover on a similar style. Look at the text on the back cover – how big is the text? What does it say? This is what you are aiming for.
Don’t fall into the same traps as one year’s The Apprentice contestants did when they designed packaging for a children’s breakfast cereal (you might remember the episode better if I use the word ‘Pantsman’?) One team decided to create something very different to anything currently on the market and chose a bright green colour scheme. The judges rightly said that the box looked like it would be much more at home on a gardening shelf with the weedkiller! So, the lesson is don’t be too creative. Remember, the book cover is, essentially, the packaging, so it needs to convey the contents of the book to the reader. Looking very different rarely works in your favour when it comes to packaging a product that already has consumer expectations attached to it.
In addition, you’ll probably need an image or two for your book – be careful of relying on your own photos which may be a bit on the dark side. Fotolia is a handy website for low cost professional images.
4. Be flexible
If you go into publishing with a very particular end product in mind, you can make life difficult and expensive for yourself. Keep an open mind in terms of the size, format and methods you use to publish your book. Being flexible will mean that you can take advantage of the lower budget options, or you can get a premium product at a more reasonable price.
If you limit yourself to having a rare size, unusual binding method and a special type of cover, you could end up having to do a much larger print-run to be able to justify the cost.
So, if you are self-publishing, particularly on a tight budget, then it is worth taking some time out to consider these four things. It’s amazing the difference it can make.

[Image ©iStockphoto.com/MiquelMunill]

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Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis is the co-founder of CompletelyNovel.com, a publishing platform which enables writers to publish their work online and in paperback, and link into a community of readers. The website was launched in 2009 and has seen a number of writers use their success on CompletelyNovel to obtain publishing deals or successfully self-publish their work. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_cn.

17 thoughts on “Four ways to make life easier if you self-publish

  • Pingback: Favorite Tweets for Writers June 21 – June 27, 2010 | Daily Dish Recipes

  • For those you writing non-fiction, you will also need a professional indexer to assist you. (Authors are usually just too close to their material to be able to write a decent index for their books. Freelance professionals have a more objective eye. If you go with a publisher, they’ll either hire a professional for you or use one of their own in-house staff.)
    The American Society for Indexing has an excellent Indexer Locator you can use to find an indexer for your subject area: http://www.asindexing.org

  • Just found that Amazon have a tool call KindleGen for generating HTML formatted books for Kindle – get it free here – http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000234621
    There’s also a Kindle Previewer
    and I can confirm that Storyist generates compliant ePub2 files that can be read on an iPad
    If using these tools is a little out of your depth, do get in touch if you need any help with all of this as it’s a service I’ve now delivered to quite a few authors and publishers on top of my app dev service

  • Great tips I agree, especially on the use of Word. Recently helped a friend self-publish and there’s certainly more to it than meets the eye!

  • Hi there – just realised how many comments on this post. Thanks for the feedback – here are a few replies!
    @Mari Miniatt – yes, agree that Open Office is really useful and big bonus that it is free. I focussed on MS Word just because most people will probably already be familiar with that programme (it’s the most common one used at the workplace) and have it on their computer already.
    @Tom Evans – great tip. We would love for more people to be familiar with basic html as it gives you lots more options on what you can do with your book.
    @Nick Ovenden – this is very true, it’s going to be a lot easier to get something that looks good if you pay a professional. If you can afford it, then I think there could also be some benefits to doing the kind of research that I mentioned above anyway – you know your book better than anyone else does, so it’s worth being able to say to a designer which other books you see it sitting with to steer the design in the right direction.
    @Publisher 56 – thanks, glad you found it useful and best of luck!
    @Bob Brookover – thanks very much!
    @Starlett Fisher – thanks for the kind words. It’s great that you found some professionals who did a good job for your book. Increasing your knowledge of MS Word etc. could help reduce your costs for publishing future books so you can spend more money on marketing etc. Most important is that you enjoy the experience of self-publishing!
    @Belinda – yep, there are plenty of options that you can consider when it comes to self-publishing and is worth investigating as many as possible. Smashwords offer eBooks, my company, CompletelyNovel offers a combination of print-on-demand books and eBooks within a publishing community, and there are other services like Lulu and CreateSpace which offer POD services too.
    @Sé Guevara – yep, very good point, again if you can afford it it is a good investment. I would recommend BubbleCow to anyone looking for great value. One of our CompletelyNovel authors wrote an article on copy editors here – http://www.completelynovel.com/publishing-news/script-evaluation-services-are-they-worth-it
    @Margaret Peirson – very important point about learning about literary agents as this can be really useful. A great blog to check out is Nathan Bransford who is an agent at Curtis Brown. He offers amazing feedback and inside info.
    @Roy Michael Blakely – literary agents are looking for good, marketable work, and so if you can do a really good job of self-publishing then it could help raise your profile and get spotted. It’s a way of proving that your book has a market which I believe will keep growing as the publishing space becomes increasingly competitive.

  • I encourage my writers to seek traditional small press publishers first, then try the larger publishing companies. But if they don’t succeed with that, then I suggest studying the self-publishing companies and make sure that company is for them.. There are some good ones, but for every good one, there are tons of bad ones that will take your money, and could care less about you or your book.
    I also strongly suggest editing your book, before sending your manuscript to any publisher, self or traditional. Many self publishing companies just put your book together, errors and all. I know some authors who received their book, and it had so many grammatical errors, that they had to re-edit their book after it was already published. Usually traditional publishing companies have their own editors, but that’s usually if they want some revisions on your manuscript.
    If you have a few sales under your belt in the traditional method of publishing, then it’s time to look for a literary agent.. they will handle all the legal work that comes with the territory. Publishing companies will sometimes suggest this, if they are interested in your manuscript.
    I would also suggest learning about literary agents, and what they expect from their authors as well, there are many books on this etc.
    I hope this helps in some way.

  • Sé Guevara

    One crucial bit of advice: hire a copy editor to look over your manuscript before you publish.

  • You should also consider submitting your book to Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/), because it will distribute your book in multiple formats: Kindle, Sony eReader, PDF, etc. You can set your price, set up coupons, etc. It’s a pretty great deal. I’m currently experimenting with Smashwords myself, and I like it so far.

  • Starlett Fisher

    I am loving this article. I am a self publishing, first time author, and yes, I had a rough start. I found that leaving most to the professionals, costed but, I was left with a better finish. I am new to ms word and most of the other things I see mentioned here. Thanks! “A SPARKLE IN DARKNESS” is coming soon.!!!!!

  • Best article I’ve seen on the subject, especially about learning Word. I used a small publisher who took me through InDesign and today uploaded to Amazon for the Kindle. He will upload to Apple next week. However, the best advice he gave was, “Bookstores do not sell books, authors do.” Contemplate that! I went on a very brief booktour and sold 314 books in 6 days. Remember – authors sell books.

  • Publisher56

    I just want to say that all this information has been most valuable to me. My book is at the publishers as I read these different comments. I’m not all that computer literate, but every word, software, term, product and so on mentioned, I am very familiar with. I am looking forward to the end results of my 1st self-published book, titled, His Gift to Me: Poetic Humanities. Thanks!

  • Great writers are not necessarily great book designers. Fact. Leave the cover design to a professional (it doesn’t have to cost the earth) and your book will be judged far more seriously. And it will sell!

  • Open Office will do the same as Word for a better price (free). Once you learn how to set up the styles. It makes book formatting a lot easier.

  • Hi Justin,
    Pleased that you found this useful and I hope this saves you time with your next projects. If you’d like to try an alternative to CreateSpace, then check out CompletelyNovel – I’d be really interested to hear how the experience compares.

  • Very good points I wish I’d run across before self-publishing my first two chapbooks through Createspace.com I see the finished product now and have a laundry list of little tweaks I probably could have avoided with this article. I have several up-and-coming projects I will be publishing so I’ll keep this article “favorited” as I progress. Thanks!

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