Self-publishing is an option pursued by poets and writers who feel that traditional publishing—for whatever reason—isn’t for them. Though the option does allow for greater independence and creative freedom, it also requires self-discipline, professional diligence, and a realistic understanding of the literary landscape.

Before deciding to self-publish, writers should understand the colorful and complicated history of self-publishing. The past two decades in particular have brought massive changes to traditional and self-publishing, largely because advances in technology have transformed the way consumers shop for, purchase, and read books—and e-books.

Traditional publishing once owned nearly every facet of the bookmaking and book marketing business models, from agents vetting manuscripts to sales strategists determining which books land coveted spaces in the glowing windows of major bookstores. Thanks to the digital revolution, however, today’s writers—regardless of their publishing history, sales potential, or skill level—can write, publish, and market books on their own.

While many readers and writers celebrate the limitless possibilities that self-publishing can offer some writers, others view self-publishing as a chaotic, lawless realm overrun with unskilled, unprofessional writers. A convincing case can be made from either perspective. While there are many success stories of self-published authors, there are also many stories of disappointment and regret.

Regardless of a writer’s particular reasons for going the independent route, the process of self-publishing necessitates the following steps, in one form or another.

Vet Your Manuscript

Writing is a solitary venture, and such isolation can lead to flawed assessments of one’s own writing—overestimating one’s literary genius, for example, or underestimating one’s potential readers. Seek input from candid, knowledgeable readers and editors. Write, edit, and rewrite until the manuscript achieves its full potential. Consider hiring a freelance editor who will perform a developmental edit, a line edit, or both. Hiring a trustworthy proofreader can also be a worthwhile investment. Books that contain grammatical errors, typos, or poor plot and character development will not resonate with readers. Investing time to consider these factors can prevent disappointment down the line.

Set a Budget

Professional editors, graphic designers, and independent publicists vary in price, so authors must thoroughly research consultants and check references. Self-published writers must exercise due diligence every step of the journey, particularly when money is involved. Know how much money constitutes a realistic budget and abide by it. Writing is art. Self-publishing is an entrepreneurial business endeavor that requires fiscal accountability and sober economic planning.

Create the Product

Though the writing process may be completed, the business of self-publishing requires authors to develop an actual product—which means choosing font styles, formatting layouts, and creating a cover design—among other optional features such as blurbs, an author photo, and a bio. Many writers choose self-publishing because it allows them to create a personal product that reflects their literary and artistic sensibilities. Others, however, choose to outsource these facets of the process. Some self-publishing companies offer these services as part of their package.

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Establish Goals

Whether the objective is to give copies of a poetry chapbook to loved ones, sell 250,000 copies of a self-published novel to a global readership, or attract the attention of a commercial publisher, managing expectations is critical. Research the reality of your particular literary category and set goals accordingly. Every self-published author should have a clear goal, regardless of scope.

Choose a Platform

The self-publishing options available to writers are many and varied and will certainly continue to proliferate. These days, anyone can sell a book in print or as an e-book on Amazon, but there are a number of self-publishing alternatives that can make that possible. There are two basic categories: self-publishing services and print-on-demand (POD) services.

Self-publishing companies are companies that charge authors a fee to publish their books. Print-on-demand companies are companies that—again, for a fee—store electronic copies of books and print and bind them, in specific quantities, only when orders are received.

Both types of companies differ from traditional publishers in that the writer, not a company, is the publisher of the book. The writer invests in his or her own work, absorbing all losses, enjoying all benefits, and retaining the ownership and distribution rights of the book. The writer is responsible for marketing and distribution. Typically, distributors, bookstores, and libraries won’t carry self-published books. Furthermore, some book reviewers won’t review them. Slowly this is changing (visit our Book Review Outlets database) and self-publishing has been receiving more attention in the national media.

With the rise of e-books, there are more types of self-publishing and e-publishing services available, including full-service publishing providers that handle all areas of production and publication for a fee, and hybrid publishers that offer a mix of some traditional publishing services, such as distribution and editing, for a price.

Some authors may also choose to go the do-it-yourself route and do all the work and make all the decisions themselves, including formatting an e-book file, handling all the marketing, hiring freelancers for cover art and editing, and determining which distributors or retailers are a good fit.

A word of caution: Most self-publishing and print-on-demand companies don’t edit or copyedit the material they’re given, and if the writer doesn’t take the responsibility of getting the book copyedited, the result can be a shoddy product. There are also predatory companies that may try to exploit new authors by offering high-priced marketing and promotion packages or retaining all rights to the work. It’s recommended that writers get references from other writers who’ve worked with the company in question.

Devise a Marketing Strategy

Cross-reference your platform decisions and budget to devise a marketing strategy that meets your literary goals. Marketing, like writing, requires time, energy, and imagination. Define your audience and create a marketing game plan that will most effectively reach prospective readers. Invest time to research before investing your money. Then choose a strategy that best suits your life and goals for your writing.

For more information, read Book Promotion & Publicity.

Enjoy the Ride

Don’t forget what led you to words, books, and writing. The literary life is a privilege and books—no matter how, why, or where they are published—should be revered and enjoyed. Especially your own.

Other Resources

You can read the experiences of self-published authors, with feedback from editors and publicists, in Poets & Writers Magazine’s column on self-publishing, The Savvy Self-Publisher. You can watch interviews, guides, and panel discussions on self-publishing in the Poets & Writers Theater.

To learn more about the publication process, independent presses, commercial presses, and self-publishing, take a look at The Poets & Writers Guide to the Book Deal. In addition, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer (Avid Reader Press, 2020) by Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon includes a chapter dedicated to self-publishing.

Jane Friedman offers an introductory guide on how to self-publish on her website. The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing is a handy resource for navigating the publishing process. The Independent Publishing Magazine reviews paid-publishing services, e-publishers and independent publishers, printers, and author solutions services. The Alliance of Independent Authors provides industry ratings on the best and worst self-publishing services on their website. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Writer Beware offers advice and cautionary tales on self-publishing.

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  • Overview
  • Vet Your Manuscript
  • Set a Budget
  • Create the Project
  • Establish Goals
  • Choose a Platform
  • Devise a Marketing Strategy
  • Enjoy the Ride