The big fat guide to publishing an eBook
Everyone’s got a book in them: we’ll show you how to get yours out and into bookshops! Here's everything you need to know about self publishing for profit.
When it comes to blockbuster films, you don’t get much bigger than The Martian (that Sci Fi peril-fest starring Matt Damon). But did you know The Martian started life as a humble self-published eBook?
Author Andy Weir began publishing the novel’s chapters on his blog, but then pasted the whole thing into a text document and sold it as an Amazon Kindle book for just 99 cents a copy. Within months The Martian was topping the best-selling charts, and then Hollywood wanted in!
Give or take a bit of Hollywood glam, that’s all publishing an eBook is: take a text document, convert it into an eBook, sell it. Bosh!
We’re not saying making a million happens overnight. In fact, for every DIY success story there are thousands of authors earning zilch. But there’s plenty of middle ground to go round and, with the right prep (hint – you’re reading it!), getting in on the action couldn’t be easier.
Enough with the chit-chat: here’s our step-by-step guide to cutting it as an online author!
Is self publishing for you?
Not sure eBooks are your bag? This is the place to start.
In this section
- What's self publishing?
- Why self publish?
- How much does it cost?
- How much can I earn?
- What can I write about?
- How long does it take to publish a book?
What's self publishing?
'Self publishing' is where you publish and sell your own book instead of relying on a literary agent or publishing company to do it for you. In return for doing all the donkey work, any profit you make is all yours.
If you’re looking for a business you can run from just about anywhere, publishing is a smart choice: once you’ve done the toil you can leave your books to earn passive income for years to come, for no extra effort.
Of course, DIY publishing doesn’t have to be a one-man show: a side-kick or partnership means you'll have someone to share the highs – and hassles – with.
The perks of self publishing – in a nutshell
Self publishing might sound like a bit of a headache, but in reality there are loads of reasons why going DIY can be better than most other options:
- Forget finding, pitching to and getting accepted by a publishing company: if you’ve got an idea for a book you can get it on the shelves yourself in next to no time!
- Getting your book stocked by big-name retailers is a doddle, but be prepared to do most of the grunt work (writing, marketing and selling) yourself.
- You can even publish a print book if you like, but since going digital is cheap as chips, we’ll walk you through the steps for making an eBook.
- Getting a book to market is the perfect make-your-own work experience: it’s perfect CV fodder for loads of careers including publishing, retail, sales, management and marketing.
- Even if you don’t make a million, publishing a book can set you up for passive pocket money for years to come.
- Don’t be put off if you’re not creative or a closet geek: all you need is an idea, a bit of lateral thinking, plenty of motivation, and time. And this page, obvs.
How much does it cost?
Producing an eBook can be ridiculously cheap and, often, completely free: this page covers lots of options for getting your book out there for next to nowt.
Or, if you reckon you can persuade other folk to invest in your book early on, have a look at Publishizer – a book-based crowdfunding site (where strangers fund projects in return for goodies and good karma).
How much can I earn?
Selling your own book can net you anything from pounds a day to tumbleweed! The good news is that you get lots of say in your potential earnings, so it’s worth taking a look at the sums:
- eBooks sell for anywhere between 99p to £8.99 and up, but the store (and your publishing platform) will swallow a chunk of each sale.
- You can sell your book for whatever price you like – and you can alter the price to test different tactics – but the sweet spot depends on your book’s length, reviews and competition.
- If you’ve got cash to invest (or can crowdfund to pay for it), marketing is the best place to put it: no one can buy your book if they can’t find it!
What can I write about?
Publishing a book is pretty easy: it’s writing the damn thing that can give you the sweats. Choose a subject or genre that inspires or interests you and it’ll be easier to see it through to the end.
That said, it’s also worth looking at what sells. Visit your local book shop or check out Amazon, Waterstones, and international sites like Barnes and Noble, and peruse the best-selling lists in your favourite categories. Read the reviews – see what makes those books so special/saleable, and use what you learn to tailor your ideas.
- Your novel, poems or short stories
- Erotic fiction (awkward, but sells like hot, clammy cakes)
- Publish your old essays – check with your uni first! – or write a study guide for your subject
- Illustrate your own children’s book, or publish your comics
- Write a city guide or publish your favourite walking routes
- Find out-of-copyright books, repackage with notes, an intro, or a translation and sell them under your own imprint
- Offer to publish your department’s journal or student magazine (or start your own)
- If you’re fluent in another language, team up with another writer and publish a translated version of their work
- Run a short story competition and publish the best ones. If you charge an entry fee you can put the cash towards marketing the book: it’s a win-win for everyone!
- Write a practical guide about something you know really well: living on a budget, dating, Mongolian throat singing, essential badger maintenance – whatever.
How long does it take to publish a book?
While you don’t have to work to a schedule, having a proper plan of action will make your project way more manageable.
More importantly, knowing when your book will hit the shelves gives you the best chance of maximising sales.
So, how long exactly will it take to write your book? How long do you think it will take? Double it (trust us!) and mark the date on your calendar. Keep looking at the date. Sweat a little.
Then divide your book into chapters, sections, or anything else that makes the structure clear. Divide the number of headings by the number of weeks until your deadline: that’s your weekly writing target. Stick to it.
- Get feedback (allow 2 weeks): Stop tinkering with your book and round up family members to read it instead. Or, go swapsies with someone super talented on an English course for an editorial critique. Not writing fiction? Go lurk in the relevant department.
- Editing (2 weeks +): Use the best feedback to buff your masterpiece to within an inch of its life. Make it shine.
- Proofreading (1 week): Glaring typos and bungled facts could cost you sales, so don’t skimp on this bit! If you can’t stretch to a professional editor, take a look on Fiverr. At the very least, give it to a couple of mates and ask them be brutal. Don’t ask anyone who doesn't know their 'its' from their 'it's' or you're wasting your time.
- It’s then time to format your book: anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days.
- Uploading your work to a publishing platform, adding the price and description: less than an hour.
- Seeing your book appear in online stores: anywhere from a few hours to a couple of weeks.
Predicting when your book will hit the shelves means you can start pestering book reviewers, bloggers, the press and any potential customers well in advance of your launch date. Hype means money!
How to make an eBook
Once you’ve got your words on paper (or ‘puter), how do you turn them into an eBook? All will be revealed!
In this section
- Choosing a publishing platform
- Our pick of the platforms
- Alternatives to using a publishing platform
- Do you need an ISBN?
- Formatting your text
- Making a book cover
- Adding your book's details
- Hitting the ‘Publish’ button
Picking a publishing platform
DIY publishing is seriously trending at the moment, so there are heaps of publishing platforms to choose from.
Most allow you to upload a text (i.e. Word) document which gets chewed up and spat out as an eBook. Some will even submit your book to all the best stores for readers to find and buy, and you can manage everything from one simple dashboard. Easy peasy, right?
So, how do you choose a platform that’s right for you? As with anything, look at a few, and compare their key features:
- How much do they charge for converting or hosting your book? (Heads-up: several don’t charge anything!)
- Do you need your own ISBN number?
- Can you submit your book as a Word document (it’s the quickest way to get published!)
- Which formats will your book be converted to? EPUB (short for 'electronic publication') is the most common / most versatile eBook format, but different stores may have their own requirements
- How long does conversion take?
- Can you download the converted EPUB if you need to (handy for marketing)? Can you transfer it to another publishing platform if you want to later on?
- How long will it take for your book to hit the stores? Which stores?
- How much will you earn on each sale (royalties)? Don’t forget your publishing platform AND the store will both want a cut!
- When will you get paid, how, and in what currency?
Here’s our round-up of publishing platforms – but check them (and others) for yourself. If you want to use Amazon’s KDP, you might also want to use a second platform to reach other book stores.
Beyond that, don't go nuts: the more platforms you have to deal with, the more of your precious time it'll require. There's also no point submitting your book to the same stores more than once: if anything, it could hold up your sales.
Smashwords (free) takes your text document, spits it out in a number of formats AND submits it to online stores including Apple and Barnes and Noble, as well as libraries and Smashwords itself.
While Smashwords distribute books to Amazon, they only do it for authors who’ve already sold $2,000-worth of books – so not for first-time publishers!
Smashwords offers a free ISBN, which can save you some bucks.
Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP)
KDP (free) is Amazon’s publishing platform. It accepts text documents and EPUB files, but converts them into a Kindle book for sale only on Amazon (.com, .co.uk, .jp etc.). KDP gives your book a free ASIN, which works like an ISBN.
The optional KDP Select programme offers higher royalties and advertising tools, but you have to make your title exclusive to Amazon to use it (so you can’t sell your book anywhere else!).
KDP also offers a couple of bits of free software if you want to publish illustrated books (regular eBooks don’t always handle lots of images that well). There’s Kindle Kids’ Book Creator for picture books, and Kindle Comic Creator for graphic novels and your hand-drawn masterpieces.
Apple iBooks Author
iBooks Author (free, Mac only) is a gateway to publishing books in the Apple iBooks Store, and comes with a snazzy bit of free software to help you design your best-seller, including illustrated books.
However, books you save in iBooks format can only be sold through the iBooks Store. To sell anywhere else you’ll need to save your book in a different format but, as far as we can tell, iBooks Author only lets you save an iBook, a PDF, or a rudimentary text file and not an EPUB. Check before you commit!
Blurb (£8.39 for new e-titles) is a print as well as eBook platform, with a slick look and lots of options. You can’t upload text documents to Blurb (other than PDFs), but they offer plugins and free desktop software to design your book and save it as an EPUB.
You can use your own ISBN or a free Blurb barcode, and books can be sold on Blurb, Amazon, Apple and Ingram (a kind of publishing middle man that connects to hundreds of other stores).
IngramSpark ($25 USD for new e-titles) has a lot of clout as a distributor, and a huge reach of stores around the world including Amazon, Apple and Sainsbury’s.
However, it’s not the easiest platform for beginners – and note they won’t convert your book, so you’ll still need to make or get your EPUB elsewhere. You’ll also need your own ISBN.
Alternatives to using a publishing platform
Publishing platforms take the elbow grease out of making an eBook – and definitely help get your title in front of customers – but you don’t have to use one.
Here are some other options you could try:
- Save your finished text document as a PDF (some word processing programs let you save as a PDF from the menu bar).
- Some word processing programs give you the option of saving your file as an EPUB, too – though it can play fast-and-loose with the layout!
- If you’re more tech-minded you can code your own EPUB from scratch – or try Calibre, a free desktop converter that lets you get behind the scenes and knee-deep in code.
- Look for sites that let you sell content in other formats. Booktrack, for instance, lets you add a soundtrack or sound FX to your short stories or novels, and then sell them to readers.
You can then sell PDFs or EPUB files from your own website or blog. EPUBs can also be uploaded directly to some online book stores, as well as Google's Play store, but there’s no denying a publishing platform cuts down on the number of clicks involved!
Do you need an ISBN?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a series of numbers (often used as a barcode on print books) that identify the title, author, publisher, format and price. It’s a bit like an ID card, and if you’ve ever used a book catalogue, you’ve probably relied on its data to find what you’re looking for.
If you want to sell your eBook in online stores, you need an ISBN – but how do you get one?
Buying an ISBN
ISBNs aren’t cheap. Nielsen, the UK’s ISBN agency, sells a single ISBN (for just one book) for £89. Yup: £89!
While you can save masses by buying in blocks of ten (£149), bear in mind that ISBNs are registered to just one publisher or individual – you can’t chip in with mates and then deal ‘em out like smarties, and you can’t sell or transfer them later…
While that sounds like a lot of hassle, getting your own ISBN means you are listed as the publisher on any store that sells your book. Your publisher name (the ‘imprint’) can be 'Your Name' or 'Your Name Books', or something totally made-up, like 'The Awesome Press', or 'Bangin’ Books'.
Just check no one else has already used the name – and avoid anything that sounds remotely like an existing brand to avoid confusion!
Using a free ISBN
Some publishing platforms give you an ISBN for free. Yippee!
Free ISBNs work in exactly the same way as the paid kind, with one exception: the platform is registered as publisher, so their name will appear alongside your author name whenever the book’s listed.
Don’t worry – it doesn’t mean they have any rights over your content or what you do with it. Some platforms even state you’re still publisher in the eyes of the law.
If the publisher name doesn’t bother you, and you want to get your book to market as fast and as cheaply as possible, stick with a free ISBN if it’s on offer!
Formatting your text
Unfortunately, publishing platforms can make a car crash out of poorly formatted documents, so it pays to get it right from the start.
Begin with a clean document template, and only set up the styles you want to use – for instance, 10-point, left-aligned, double-spaced Times New Roman for your main content, or bold, 22-point italic Helvetica for chapter headings. Then, instead of clicking bold, centre or underline wherever you feel like it, use your pre-defined styles.
If you’ve already written your book – and we hear ya, this is gonna hurt – paste it all into your computer’s Notepad program first to strip out any hidden formatting. Then start with a clean document template and add your pre-defined styles as described above.
Whichever platform you plump for, the Smashwords style guide should be your formatting Bible: it explains in lots of nerdy detail how to set your book up for the fewest conversion headaches. Best of all, it’s free!
.doc and .docx files are the most commonly accepted file types, but you don’t have to use Microsoft! Free alternatives like OpenOffice, LibreOffice – and anything else that lets you save your files with the right extension – all work fine.
The same eBook can look quite different on different devices and, unfortunately, you can’t always do anything about that – but using styles and formatting properly will help a lot!
Once you’ve uploaded and converted your book, you’ll have the opportunity to preview the content online, or to download the EPUB and check it on an eReader of your choice. Try to preview your book on more than one eReader or device if you can.
If you spot anything hideous – typos, errors, a note you left for yourself – whip it out and upload a clean version. Most platforms let you do this as many times as you want for free, so make the most of it. Smashwords will even keep ‘rejecting’ your book – and will tell you why – until you’ve nailed the formatting. While that may sting a little, it means you can keep refining your layout until it’s right!
The beauty of digital means you can even update your book’s content after it’s been published – but don’t use that as an excuse to send out typo-filled or poorly written/formatted content: reviewers can be harsh.
Got that sorted? Good stuff: you’re almost ready to publish!
Making a book cover
Forget not judging a book by its cover, because that’s exactly what book buyers do, all the time!
The good news is you don’t need to be Picasso to design a book cover – you just need to follow our common sense guidelines.
- Check with the publishing platform for any preferences for cover size or layout – and follow them to a T! Typically, you'll just need to supply something as a .jpg (image) file.
- Have a look at the covers of best-selling eBooks to see what makes the good ones work – is it colour, image, font or something else?
- Your title needs to be leigible on even the tiniest mobile screen: make it big, bold and easy to read (no squiggly fonts please).
- Your image should be eye-catching, work well with your title font/size, and should be appropriate for your book category. Avoid picking something so garish that it lands you on this list of lousy book covers.
- You don't need pro-quality tools to make a book cover – free image editing software like GIMP is just as good.
- Looking for free images for your cover? Try Unsplash: photos on the site are top quality and free to use as you like.
- If you buy images for your book, check how you're allowed to use them, and whether you need to credit the photographer or illustrator.
- If you’re not confident about having a go yourself, you can probably find someone on Fiverr to whip up a cover for you for… well, around a fiver.
- Share your cover with select mates or family members and ask them to be utterly honest with you before you make your decision.
Once you’ve got a cover you’re happy with, upload it to your publishing platform and move one step closer to your finished book!
Adding your book details
Before you can release your book into the wild, you’ll need to add a few details about you and your content. Here’s the cheat sheet!
Book title: Sounds obvious, but make sure your title is exactly the same as the one in your EPUB and on the front cover!
Author name: Yours (or whoever wrote the book).
Publisher name: This might be optional depending on whether you’re using a free or paid ISBN.
Rights: If you’ve written your own book from scratch this is usually pretty simple – you own all rights, and can choose to sell your book anywhere in the world.
Language: Whichever language your book is written in.
Dodgy content: Some platforms will ask you to declare if you’ve written something that contains graphic sex, violence or drug use (and there’s not much point lying about it!).
Description: This is the bit of blurb that readers see when they browse your book (and consider buying it). Make it really, really good!
Category: You may be able to choose from broad categories like Fiction or Non-Fiction, or drill down to something super specific like Fiction > Science Fiction > Space Operas. Consider picking appropriate but less popular categories for your book for more chance of being spotted among the competition!
Keywords: Keywords give you the chance to be discovered by readers searching for books like yours. They can be words like thriller or romance, or even phrases. Top tip: find a book in the store that you’ll be in competition with and use similar keywords.
Date of publication
Most of the time this is just whatever date you upload or publish your book. Some platforms (including KDP and Smashwords) now let you pick a date months in advance, too – what’s that about?
Commercial publishers announce (and market the bejeezus out of) their books before they're available for sale in the hopes of getting advance sales and reviews, or lots of sales the day the book goes live. Setting an advance publication date means customers can see your book in the store – and buy it – immediately, but they’ll only be able to download and read it on the day it goes live.
Note that you don’t have to use this – and if you do, you’ll need to be incredibly organised to make sure your book goes live in time. But if you get it right, it can help catapult your book higher up the charts on publication day. Think on it!
As with any source of income, once you start earning cash-bucks above a certain amount, you’ll need to slide a few notes over to HMRC. No need to panic: you can understand how tax works in 5 minutes flat if you need help.
Most publishing platforms operate internationally, which means potential customers around the world! Unfortunately, if you earn money in other countries, their governments will want a slice of your hard-earned sales too.
But doesn’t that mean you’ll be paying twice as much tax? Yup. The good news is that the UK has a number of tax treaties in place with various countries: essentially these say “hold up – I’m not paying twice!”.
Whether you can claim the tax treaties depends on your nationality, where you live, and lots of other details which means we can’t go into all the fine print here. But don’t worry: each publishing platform will explain exactly what forms you need to fill in to swerve the tax trap!
Hitting the ‘Publish’ button
Once you’ve uploaded your finished content, added a cover and tweaked your book’s details, you’re ready to go live! Your book won’t be available for sale until you make it live – so don’t forget to hit the ‘Publish’ button!
If you change your mind later on, unpublishing your book is simply a case of making it not-live: that means it reverts to draft status, and will stop appearing in online book stores.
How long it takes for your book to start appearing on virtual book shelves (or, if you unpublish, to disappear) depends on the platform. For some it’s a matter of hours, while others can take weeks. Don’t stress: put your feet up, have a cuppa and stay patient.
How to get sales
Getting your eBook into stores is only one part of the publishing picture. If you want to make money from it, you need to get tactical!
In this section
Make a marketing plan
Commercial publishers tout their upcoming titles as much as a year before launch date. While you don’t need to be quite so eager, it’s always worth nosying into the game plan (and borrowing the best bits!).
Once you know when your book will be live, work back a month or two and pin the date to start your marketing campaign.
- Write a book notice: this is just an A4 piece of paper that lists your main book details: title, author, publisher, price, publication date, and your book’s blurb and cover. Don’t forget to include your contact details!
- If your publishing platform has an advance publishing feature, use it to start getting sales even before your title goes live. Include the URL of your book’s store page on your book notice and any posters, flyers or business cards you use.
- Send your book notice to folk who read (and talk about) your genre of book. Try local or national newspaper journalists, book bloggers and YouTube channels. Or search the mammoth list of independent reviewers over at theindieview.com. Don’t just stick with UK peeps if your book is available globally: think big!
- Get to know your reviewers! Read their other reviews and follow their instructions for submitting books.
- Download a copy of your converted eBook (or, at a pinch, save it as a PDF) to send out if reviewers ask to read your book. While most reviewers won’t expect fully polished books, don’t send out anything which is poorly formatted and full of typos (unless you want that to feature in your review!). Add a disclaimer if you need to: “This edition is a review copy – some content may be subject to change before publication.”
- Set-up a website for your book and, if you don’t already have ‘em, social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter – even Instagram. As well as keeping followers interested in you and your book’s progress, you can use social media to reach out to reviewers.
- If you get any particularly juicy praise from early reviews, add them to your book’s detail page, or incorporate them into the description. Some writers even update their books with a page featuring the best quotes.
Get free publicity
- Tell Save the Student! If you used this guide to get your book out there, we’d love to hear from you: just ping us a line on Facebook or Twitter or on our contact page.
- Published a kids’ book? Contact schools or libraries and offer to do readings. If you’ve written a book about running, riding or wrestling, send your book notice to sports magazines or gyms. Think outside the box!
- Contact book clubs online or in your local area and offer to do a reading, interview or author Q&A.
- Be a book bore: tell your folks and friends about your book (and where to buy it!). Tell strangers on the bus. Print your own flyers or business cards and give ‘em out.
- Get an author profile at Goodreads. It’s free, and you can use it to list your book, host a Q&A, or get advice from other writers.
- Got an interesting story about publishing your book? Write a press release and send it to newspapers, magazines and TV or radio stations. If you live in a small town, just the fact that you’ve written a book could be enough to get some coverage.
- Submit your book for a free review at Booklife.com: they only accept a handful of the hundreds of submissions they get, but nabbing one gives you plenty of credibility (and possibly an inclusion in leading US trade mag Publisher’s Weekly).
- Enter your book or other writing in competitions – but give a swerve to any that ask for massive entry fees. There are plenty of free comps with big prizes and/or kudos on offer: have a look at BookTrust or get Googling.
How NOT to get publicity
Be wary of paying for reviews. Some stores, including Amazon, have been known to remove paid reviews and/or the book in question. Amazon can even block reviews from people you know (we don’t know how they know, we only know it’s freaky!).
In an ideal world, everyone’s gonna love your book as much as you do. In reality, some folk just won’t: that’s life!
As tempting as it might be, don’t reply to customer reviews. If it’s glowing, 5-star praise, just bask in feeling fantastic. If it’s not … well, don’t lose any sleep over it! Negative reviews won’t kill your book – although if you find yourself getting several, see if there’s something you’ve missed.
Did you bungle your formatting, mangle your prose, or have more typos than an overdue essay? Fix ‘em and get it back out there!
Ultimately, you can head off most potentially poor reviews by following the steps in this guide. Start with a clear plan, take time to polish your book to perfection, and get marketing. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that!
You’re still here? It’s over. Go home…
Any questions – drop ‘em below and we’ll do our best to help. See you on the bookshelves!