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Independent Publishing: Blake’s Cheat Sheet

Six months ago, I made the decision to independently publish my new book, Better Than College.

Tomorrow, I launch the book.

So did I make a good decision? Was the indy route ultimately better than going through a traditional publisher?

Here’s the verdict so far: Independent publishing is a blast, an incredible learning experience, and a giant headache, all at the same time. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this path for all aspiring authors, it’s worth their consideration.

Before I forget everything that I did in the last six months—and that’s a lot—I’m sharing it here. Consider this the “cheat sheet” version of the steps I took to publish my non-fiction book. (Many of these tips will apply to fiction publishing, too, but that’s not my area of expertise.) I did everything on this list, but you don’t necessarily have to.

1) First, do your homework.

Why should you independently publish instead of going the traditional route? Give this, this, this, this, and this a read—they sum up the pros and cons rather nicely.

2) Get clear about your publishing goals.

My goal for Better Than College was to create a professional-looking, bookstore-quality paperback and e-book without spending a ton of money.  I wanted a book that would boost my reputation, perhaps earn me a little money, and most importantly, spread my ideas across the world.

That’s a very different goal from simply “publishing.” You can self-publish today by sending your manuscript your Lulu.com and Kindle Direct Publishing. Boom, your book’s for sale within a few hours. But very few people (who don’t already know you) may want to read your book, because it probably won’t look, read, and feel like a traditional book.

Self-publishing shouldn’t mean doing everything by yourself. That includes: editing, cover design, interior design, indexing, e-book converting, printing, order fulfilling, and web design. That’s why I prefer the term independent publishing. An independent publisher outsources the most important and technical aspects of the book to experts who know what they’re doing.

3) Crowdfund your startup costs.

To professionally outsource the technical aspects of a book costs a few thousand dollars. I didn’t have this kind of money lying around, and I assume you don’t either. That’s why you should crowdfund your startup costs, which drops your initial cash investment to pretty much zero. Read my post about crowdfunding to get started. (And check out the numbers from my own campaign, at the bottom.)

More important than providing the money you need to publish your book: your crowdfunding campaign will provide you with the accountability you need to finish it. When you know that a few dozen (or hundred, or thousand) people are waiting to read your book—and have already put money down on it—then you’ve got a highly compelling reason to finish.

4) Before the book: Test the waters, build a base, and find your voice.

Seth Godin puts it best:

The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.

I started blogging at ZTCollege.com in October 2010; those posts gave me the chance to refine my voice, experiment with different arguments, get feedback, and start building a Facebook fan page base. I started writing my manuscript summer 2011; the final product launched June 2012. Not quite the three years that Seth suggests, but close enough. The people who followed my journey during these two years became my biggest cheerleaders, feedback providers, crowdfunders, and (eventually) readers. I’m incredibly, graciously indebted to them.

One thing I wish I’d started earlier: asking people to join my author mailing list. (That’s one of the “permission assets” that Seth’s talking about.)

5) Learn how to work with an editor.

I learned the value of a good editor when working with New Society Publishers on my first book, College Without High School. Like Seth says, an editor isn’t “just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read.”

Don’t confuse editing with proofreading. An editor helps you rewrite your book, making it more appropriate for your target audience; a proofreader catches typos and double-checks grammar and punctuation (among other things). You need both.

While you’re testing the waters, hunt down a professional editor and pay him or her $100 to edit one of your blog posts, essays, or “manifestos.” That alone will prove an incredibly valuable education.

6) Write a proposal, even though you don’t need one.

Here are the essential elements of a book proposal:

  • What’s the book about?
  • What’s so important and special about this book? Why should a publisher want to publish it? (Aren’t there enough books out there already without adding another to the pile?)
  • Why are you the best person to write this book?
  • Who’s the core audience for the book, and why will they care about it?

If you’re independently publishing, then you don’t need to submit a proposal to anyone. But you should write one anyway. Why? Because these questions are incredibly important and will contribute to the writing (and eventual marketing) of your book.

If you’re curious to see if book agents are in fact interested in your manuscript, then you’ll have a proposal ready, which you can easily turn into a query letter.

7) Crowdsource your editing (a.k.a. solicit feedback)

In the beginning, you write your manuscript alone. At the end, you polish it with your professional editor. But what about the middle?

Right around draft two or three, I recommend soliciting feedback from your network of friends, associates, and others who care about what you’re writing. If you’ve started building a base (#4)  already, then you’ll have plenty of these.

Send your manuscript in easily editable (e.g. Microsoft Word) format to a trusted group of feedbackers—I sent mine to 25 and got positive responses from about a dozen. Ask them for large-scale, content-oriented feedback: Are your arguments convincing? Are they in the right order? Should you highlight some more than others? What’s great? What’s terrible? Where are the gaping holes?

Give your feedbackers at least a few weeks, but no more than a month, to get back to you. If some don’t have the time or inclination to help you out, thank them anyway.

8) Drink coffee and read The War of Art.

Self-explanatory.

9) Form your superhero team (a.k.a. find an editor, proofreader, interior designer, cover designer, and indexer).

This is your publishing team; choose it well. Welcome to the world of freelance hiring and management.

I found some of my team members by googling “freelance” plus the appropriate search term, and my personal network provided the others. (I was largely unimpressed by the choices at elance.com, guru.com, and other self-described professional outsourcing sites.) Most of them had professional experience, including gigs at Penguin and HarperCollins. I saved money by working with a few up-and-coming professionals who were willing to gain experience in exchange for a sub-market price.

10) Establish a shell publishing entity.

When you independently publish, you’re starting your own publishing company. But I don’t think of it as a real company with a real office or real start-up costs. It’s essentially a brand label: something that will appear on your book and Amazon page. Establish a “doing business as” entity in your home state, create a basic website, and you’re good to go. Here’s mine.

People argue about the necessity of these shell companies and whether they help or hurt your image as an author. Many think that no one cares who the publisher actually is. But I do look at the publisher when I assess a book, whether in a bookstore or online. If it’s not one of the big six publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Macmillan) or one of their imprints, then my crappy-self-publishing radar goes up. I continue to scan the book. If it looks professional—good exterior and interior design, good publisher’s logo, well-edited—than I’ll still buy it. But if I know that it’s a shell company and it looks unprofessional, then I won’t.

Having your own publishing entity is only a problem if your book looks crappy. People want to read good-looking and well-edited books. Focus on that.

11) To print, distribute, and fulfill your paperback: Get on Createspace

After reading a massive number of articles, discussion threads, company FAQs, and one very helpful book, I decided that, as of 2012, Createspace.com is the best way to print, distribute, and fulfill paperback books.

My nightmare version of printing/distribution/fulfillment is doing everything myself. Sheltering boxes of books in my garage…closely monitoring Amazon inventory levels…going to the post office to fulfill individual orders…(shudder). Anything but that.

Yes, Createspace is print-on-demand—but it’s the best print-on-demand.

No, their cover and paper quality is not top-notch—but it’s better than most, and you’d have a hard time quickly separating one of their books from the more professionally (offset) printed books in a bookstore.

Unless you’d like to order a 1000-quantity-minimum order from an offset printer, ship those books to a distributor, pay that distributor to pick-and-pack individual orders, and pay for all these services up front—print-on-demand makes sense.

Their customer service is excellent. Their royalties are excellent. As an Amazon subsidiary company, and it’s relatively easy to get your book onto Amazon.com. They fulfill orders quickly and reliably. What else can I say? I like Createspace.

12) Accept the fact that your book won’t appear on any bookstore shelves.

If you independently publish, then your book won’t appear in nationwide bookstores. Why? Because it won’t be returnable. Really? Yes. Get over it.

Did you really want to compete with the Big Six for bookstore space, anyways? Maybe a few local booksellers with whom you have personal relationships may cover your title, but that’s about it.

Listen to Seth again. He’s right on the money:

More and more, bookstores are turning into places where books go to die. Without active promotion, and even better, an easy way for the idea to reach people who don’t hang out in bookstores, it’s difficult for a book to catch on.

Finding a niche, building a personal platform, and serving a specific community are more important to an independent author-publisher than getting a big number of random eyeballs to look at your book’s spine. If this advice doesn’t mesh with you, and you think the whole point of publishing is to get into a bookstore, then you should take the traditional route.

13) Understand the order of things.

Let’s say you’ve got a fully edited manuscript: it was written by you, edited/feedbacked by your network, rewritten by you, professionally edited, and then proofread (ideally by someone else). Your crowdfunding campaign is over, so you’re flush with money. What’s next?

Here are the steps that I took, in order, to finish my book. Many steps overlapped, but some clearly required others first.

Solicit blurbs (a.k.a. praise, testimonials, those little quotes you see on the cover & first interior pages). I did this by directly writing the authors who I liked, sending them a PDF copy of the manuscript, and asking nicely for a blurb. I gave them a month to read and respond, and I sent a few gentle reminders along the way. Do not send an unedited manuscript to potential blurb writers!

Get cover design. But remember: you’ll need your blurbs for the finalized cover.

Acquire the technical stuff. ISBN numbers, Library of Congress data, etc. You’ll need this before…

Get interior and e-book design. This is when your manuscript leaves the land of word processing and enters the magical realm of Adobe InDesign (paperback) or weird-HTML-land (e-books). No longer will you be able to edit the book! At the end of this step, you should have a (very pretty) interior PDF file, a .mobi e-book (for Kindle), and an .ePub file (for Nook, iTunes, and others).

Get an index. This only applies to the paperback version. Your indexer will need a finalized interior to create the index. Your interior designer will add the index after it’s done.

Proof the paperback and e-book. Createspace will send you a physical proof for a few bucks plus shipping. Read that thing like a hawk. Proof all versions of the e-book (mobi + ePub) with appropriate devices.

Create the book’s website. Or more appropriately, get someone else to do it. Include basic info, reviews/blurbs, an excerpt, and purchase links.

Print and ship rewards for your crowdfunding backers. Now it’s starting to get exciting.

Release the book and market thyself extensively. I’m currently in the middle of this step, so I don’t feel fully qualified to comment on it. But I’ll tell you about my one big marketing tactic: over the last two years I’ve accumulated a huge list of people’s names who are somehow, anyhow related to my book’s content and arguments. I’m going to write each of them a short, personalized e-mail, offering a free copy of the book. That’s pretty much it.

14) Have fun.

Even if your book’s a commercial flop, you should have a lot of fun writing and publishing it. You should feel proud of the end product. If you accomplish those two things, then you’ve done a great job.


Finally, for those interested in hard numbers, here’s how I spent the $9200 that I raised in my 33-day IndieGoGo book fundraising campaign:

Editing & Proofreading: $550
Cover Design: $650
E-book Cover Art: $147
Interior Design: $500
E-book Conversion: $150
ISBN & LCC numbers: $385
Original Illustrations for Perk Postcard+Bookmark: $300
Perk Postage & Packaging: $700
Perk Stickers, Postcards, and Bookmarks: $221
Book Website Design: $350
Initial Book Order for Perks + Promotion: $1,100
ZTCollege.com Website & Database Design: $300
Tells Peak Press Logo Design: $100
IndieGoGo & PayPal fees (4% + 3%): $644

That’s $6,097 total, which left me with a $3,103 author’s “advance.”

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