Publishing the first of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy online turned EL James into a multi-millionaire and led to a Hollywood movie deal. If you are busy writing the next bestseller, read our guide to the key steps to self-publishing.
“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay,” said Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and literary critic.
But if you have a half-finished novel in your bottom drawer, you may want to use your leisure time to make sure that it gets finished. After all, there is help available from a proliferation of creative writing courses to help you reach the right standard. And you can ask friends and family to read it with a critical eye too.
Once you’re happy that your book is worth releasing to the world, the next stage is to explore ways to publish your work.
There is the traditional route of sending a manuscript to a host of publishing houses – or literary agents – and hoping one takes a fancy to your work. But increasingly in the modern world you don’t need the backing of the likes of Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins.
Instead, you can publish an e-book – a digital version of your story – which can be read on a tablet, digital device or smartphone. The Publishers Association says the ebook market was worth £538 million in the UK in 2016 (the latest figures available).
One popular option is to use Amazon’s self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing. Your work will be published as an ebook, with an on-demand print version, and available through Amazon’s Kindle stores within 48 hours.
You can set the price points for your book and you can reach a global audience, as the Kindle store is available in more than 100 countries. Authors can enjoy up to 70% royalties on sales, while there are plenty of options when it comes to what type of book you can produce. Comics and graphic novels can be published through the Kindle Comic Creator, while there is also the Kids’ Book Creator and Kindle Singles for short stories, typically of between 5,000 and 30,000 words.
But Kindle isn’t the only option if you want to publish your work as an e-book: there are other publishers you can use, including iBooks Author (Apple.com/uk/ibooksauthor/), Kobo (Kobo.com), and Smashwords (Smashwords.com).
But before picking a publisher, do your homework on what sort of distribution your work will enjoy and the amount of royalties you will be entitled to – while you can set the price of your book and publishing is free, commission rates do vary greatly.
Apple’s iBooks Author is available free from the App Store and includes templates to create books for iPhones, iPads, and Macs. You can then sign up and sell your books or offer them for free on the iBooks Store, using iTunes Connect.
Kobo will pay 70% of the suggested retail price that the author sets for their e-book, with a minimum price of £1.99 in the UK – you will need to include VAT in your ebook price.
With Smashwords, authors can earn 60% of the list price from major ebook retailers and up to 80% list at the Smashwords Store. Your ebook is published for free and you will receive commission on sales, receiving monthly payments for any income over US$75.
Start your own publisher
Alternatively, you could go the whole hog and start your own independent press. That’s what Karen Millie-James did when she set up King of the Road Publishing in 2016. She says that the world of publishing is “generally closed, unless you are very fortunate” and so decided to put her background in business consultancy to use.
She says: “I was ready to release my novel to the public and didn’t want to wait, so it was not a difficult decision to decide to publish my first novel myself.”
There are lots of things to consider if you want to take this approach, from registering a company to developing a website and opening a separate bank account.
Karen says: “A separate bank account will make it much easier for your accountant to prepare your annual accounts. Any monies you place into this account personally will be treated as loans to your company and when you start to receive monies from the sale of your book, you can repay yourself and it won’t be treated as taxable income. Be ready for initial outlays and financially plan for a buffer as there will always be another bill to pay as your own publisher.”
Go with the crowd
You pitch your book project, and if the commissioning editors like the sound of it they will work out what it would cost to produce and open it up for funding on the site. It’s then down to you to spread the word and try to drum up the funding you need to turn your book dream into a reality.
Thanks to Unbound’s tie-up with Penguin Random House, all books produced through the site are sold into the trade market and will appear in bookshops. A notable Unbound success was Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which was the first crowdfunded book to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Successful independent publishing
Author David Leadbetter argues that from the outset it’s important to view your book-writing project as a business, pointing out that there is far more to becoming a successful self-published author than simply writing an interesting book. For example, you need to set aside time for spreading the word about your work.
He says: “You need to have a marketing plan too, and you may need to look at creating a brand, centered on your main character or series. You need to tell readers you exist.”
Social media can be very useful here. David used Twitter to build a following for his writing. “Learning how to use social media as a marketing tool was a big challenge,” he says. “I’d interact with other authors on Twitter, we would talk to each other and then they would retweet when I had an announcement. It helped to improve my visibility. You’ve got to market yourself, as there is no team behind you.”
Bringing in fresh eyes to help with the editing is essential too, to help cut out any typographical and grammatical errors.
Louise says: “Try to remain as objective about your work as possible. Do become attached to it, but get those professional editors and proof-readers looking at it. You need to go through all the stages that any good novel would do, to get it into the best shape.”
David agrees, pointing out that it is crucial to find “an editor that you can trust”.
A good to start when searching for a proof-reader is the Society for Editors and Proof-readers (SFEP). You can search its database of more than 700 professionals, or simply advertise your job and wait for them to come to you.
Alternatively, you can source Proof-readers by posting on social media or by using sites where people offer their services on a freelance basis, such as PeoplePerHour. However, if you do choose this route it’s crucial that you do your homework on their experience and previous quality of work as they will not be subject to the same standards as those who are members of professional proofreading bodies.
The SFEP suggests members charge around £23.35 an hour for proofreading, £27.15 per hour for editing and £31.30 per hour for substantial rewriting and editing. These rates are not set in stone though, so you may be able to negotiate a cheaper rate.
Getting the right cover is important too, as it is the first thing potential readers will see. This is something that a publishing house will sort out on your behalf, but if you are self-publishing it’s up to you.
Karen visited book stores to see what made certain covers stand out, from colours used to the design.
She adds: “It is worth spending money going to the right designer and there are many to be found on the internet. Ask around via social media platforms for recommendations as it doesn’t have to cost the earth. Then whittle down to two or three suggestions and put it out on Facebook. I did that with my first novel – red or white writing on the title – and not only did I get a huge amount of feedback, but it was fun and generated interest for the book itself.”
It really is down to you to decide just how much of the workload you want to take on when self-publishing.
As Louise concludes: “Outsource where you can, but with this model you can do as much as you like. The sky is the limit.”
“Self-publishing success is in your own hands”
David Leadbeater (left) is an example of a successful self-published writer.
David had been writing for years, but decided to try his hand writing a book specifically to be published for the Kindle. He spent a year and a half writing in the evenings after finishing his day job at a builder’s merchant, in which time he published four books.
“I had a look in the bank account and saw there was enough money in there to keep me going for two years if I quit work. It was basically now or never if I was going to make a good go of it,” he says.
Last year, his archaeological thriller, The Relic Hunters, won the first £20,000 Amazon Kindle Storyteller Award and he has sold around 750,000 copies of his 23 books.
The added control on offer from publishing independently was a big selling point to David.
“I realised that with Kindle Direct Publishing I would have full control of every aspect of the book, from the cover to publishing, and once the book was uploaded it would be easy to amend it if any errors had crept in,” he says.
“Doing it this way, your future success is in your own hands. But with a traditional publisher it’s up to a lot of people coming together to make it a success.
“You get instant feedback from readers”
Louise Ross (pictured above), author of the DCI Ryan mystery series, under pen name LJ Ross, took up writing while on maternity leave from her job as a lawyer. She published her first book through Kindle Direct Publishing in 2015 and has written five more titles in her series, selling more than 750,000 books in the process. She is now a full-time writer.
“I did what most people do, sending off manuscripts to a bunch of publishers. I got a decent response, but it was my husband who mentioned Amazon’s platform. The way I saw it was that you get to keep the economic and creative control side of things,” she explained.
“In my case, my work was a thread of romance with crime, which goes against the grain. Going down the traditional route it might have been difficult to market that, but with the indie route there are no limitations on what you want to write about.”
When the time came to publicise her work, Louise followed the example set by 50 Shades of Grey author EL James, starting a blog and releasing a couple of chapters ahead of full publication.
“I found that people were interested to see what happened next,” she says. “I had a small readership there and that was enough to get the ball rolling. You get instant feedback from readers; that’s another positive, not relying on advice filtered through from the publishers, you’re getting it directly. It means you can improve and take on the useful critique straight away.”