Self-Publishing Checklist: 5 Steps For Getting Started

Self-Publishing Checklist: 5 Steps For Getting Started

This guest post is written by Paul Hobday, a senior copywriter at Lulu, writing weekly blog posts and helping guide content for the company’s marketing. When he’s not deeply entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.

Self-publishing isn’t a piece of cake but a long-lasting process that requires loads of effort. Before we dive right into self-publishing checklist, let’s take a moment and appreciate where you are in your creative journey. If you’re reading this post about getting started with self-publishing, you’ve created something that needs to be published. Which is an accomplishment all its own! So take a second to ruminate on that. Just by needing to learn more, you’ve come a long way.

Okay, enough of that. 

Is Self-Publishing a Good Idea?

When you (the person who created the content) owns every step of the publishing process, you’re self-publishing. We have to appreciate that there are a variety of flavors of self-publishing. You might do it all on your own. You might buy a ‘package’ that includes design and printing. You might hire freelancers to handle certain design elements while doing the rest on your own. But the fact is that you take full responsibility for your book and have full freedom in its marketing and sales.

Before you do anything, sit down and write out your goals. Do you want to get insanely rich from book sales? Cool. Don’t self-publish. Start writing query letters and looking for an agent. Do you have a memory book you want to print for your family? Cool. Use a print-on-demand company to get your copies.

You see, there are so many options and means to publish that you have to let your goals drive your actions. This starter kit is meant for creative types who want to earn some income from book sales. That could be supplemental income or enough to live on. We’re not talking Stephen King rich here, but enough to pay the bills while doing what you love (writing).

Self-Publishing Checklist

Getting started with self-publishing means taking on five distinct roles. There will be overlap too; this is not a formula for publishing success. In fact, if anyone ever says they want to sell you anything that sounds like ‘formula for publishing success,’ you should think twice. Creating a book and selling it to interested readers is a multi-step, ad hoc process that will undoubtedly be unique to every single creator. 

So as you look over this framework and you think about how it may apply to your own process, keep in mind that everything I present is meant to be adapted to your needs. 

Step 1: Book Marketing

For real here; I know the common expectation is to start your book by actually writing the book. And sure, you should probably have some words written by now. Maybe a thorough outline or even a completed first draft. The point is: your marketing needs to begin well before the book is ready to sell.

Indie authors know better than most how challenging it can be to earn sales. The earlier you hype your book and stir interest the better. But that comes with a catch; you have to be actively marketing all the time. If you’re not realistic about your resources and time, you may do more marketing than actual writing, which could lead to missed deadlines.

Build the Timeline

Traditional publishers take months to years preparing a book. As an indie author, you can cut down on that lead time but you have to plan far enough out to get all the work done. Your timeline is one of the most important elements of your publishing journey. Don’t skimp on utilizing it.

Once you decide how to track your schedule and goals, sit down and write the most exhaustive list of tasks you can imagine. Put everything out there. Then transfer those tasks into your calendar. Specific marketing tasks will circle around your intended launch date, beginning months before and continue well past the book’s release. 

Marketing Tasks

The biggest challenge for marketing your book will be using your time wisely. You’ve got a plethora of options, from social media channels to email to in-person events to paid advertising. You’ll want to identify who your readers are and what kinds of advertisements resonate with them. Then focus on that channel. Let’s run down the most common ways to market to readers.

Email – Great if you have a mailing list or you’re working to build one. Emails should be informative, sent on a consistent schedule, and ideally with an enticing subject line.

Social Media – I could (and have) written lengthy articles all about marketing on social media for authors. There are really only two things to say here. First, find the social media platform most used by your readers; and two, get active on that platform. 

Video – Perhaps YouTube belongs under social media, but I think it’s worth separating video marketing from other social media plays. If you’re a nonfiction writer or you’ve got some video editing skills, using live or prerecorded video is one of the best ways to drive interest in you and your products.

Step 2: Writing

Now we’re into the good stuff. You’ve got your timeline started and you’ve researched your audience to understand how to market to them. Now you’re ready to finish that book! 

If you’re like many authors, you started with the writing, so you should be well underway already. Whether you’ve got a draft done and you’re revising or you’re still working on that first build of the story, you have to set deadlines. 

While you’re writing, resist the urge to format or otherwise tinker with your layout. I’m very guilty of this myself, often playing with spacing and fonts when I should be typing. 

This is why I advocate for simple text editors to write your manuscript. I use Google Docs for almost all my writing. If you’re a dedicated fiction writer—and in particular if you’re writing a series—software like StoryShop or Scrivener work to compile your notes and background writing into one tool. 

Writing Tasks

Find the writing software that enables you to write continuously and with minimal distraction. You’re looking for the best writing tool for you. Ideally, you want a tool that makes sharing and editing easy for the next step.

Set daily or weekly goals. Stick to those goals and focus on the writing above all else. Slacking on your writing can quickly snowball into a delayed release. 

Step 3: Book Editing

Here comes the fun part! Kidding. Everyone (save for the grammar-masochists among us) dreads the editing phase. Here is the point where you put your work out to beta-readers, editors, and trusted literary friends. Comments will start pouring in, and you’ll inevitably question why you’re even writing this book.

The editing process is both uniquely challenging and emotionally draining. Let’s try to make this a little easier.

Start with a free editing tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid. Both can edit through a web browser for free (though they have paid versions with more in-depth checks). I personally like ProWritingAid, but the important point is to use an AI to do some easy fixes for you.

Hire an Editor

With software catching most of the obvious errors and your early readers providing feedback, you should have a solid second (or third) draft. It’s time to hire an editor!

If you have spent no money directly on this project to date, now is absolutely the time. In fact, as a self-published author, there are two areas you should always be ready to invest in: editing and cover design (more on that in the next step).

I suggest starting with the Editorial Freelancers Association, on their editorial rates page. This awesome nonprofit has compiled price ranges for every kind of editing into one easy-to-understand table.

Editing Tasks

Let’s break this one down into a bullet list since there is so much to do here:

  • Self-edit
  • Use an AI powered editor
  • Solicit feedback from readers
  • Work with a developmental editor (very optional)
  • Self-edit again
  • Use an AI powered editor again
  • Hire a copy editor
  • Hire a proofreader
  • Get more feedback from readers

I could probably plug in three or four more steps here too. The point is, edit a lot. And be careful to integrate the edits into the manuscript after each round of notes. 

Step 4: Book Cover Design

The last major hurtle! You’ve got marketing campaigns started, the manuscript is written and edited; all that’s left is to turn your words into a book.

The interior design deals with the contents and the cover design (obviously) deals with the cover. For many DIY authors, you can create the interior file on your own, using design software like InDesign, Affinity Publisher, or Scribus (an open source tool).

Creating the Interior File

Here’s my quick list of important things to think about when making that interior file:

  • Page size
  • Margins/Bleed/Gutters
  • Style based formatting
  • Header and footer design

I always tell new indie authors to go out into the real world and look through books in the bookstore. Look at how the front matter is compiled, how the page numbering and Header content appears, and how different fonts and weights are employed.

You can likely create an interior file by emulating what other books do. 

Also, note that you’ll want to prepare an ebook interior and a print book one. Luckily, the most common design software (those I mentioned above) will export to EPUB for you. Just be sure you used style-based formatting and the EPUB export will be (mostly) painless. 

Creating the Cover File

Much like the editing piece earlier; consider hiring a professional. Unless you’re a graphic designer. 

Your cover is one of the most important parts of your marketing plan. It’s the image you’ll have associated with everything—from your website to social media to videos. The cover is vital to creating an impression when readers see you in online stores. 

For that reason, always look for book cover design services who can help create an affordable, high-quality cover. Don’t overthink spending money on your cover either; it’s an investment in your book’s success. 

Step 5: Publishing

We’re finally here. The book is done, marketing campaigns are ramped up and you’ve got a launch on the horizon. The last step is to publish the book.

Look for publishing companies with distribution services so your book is available on all retail channels. What you need is a publishing company that offers retail sales and print-on-demand. That means the cost should be very low to get started. Some companies are entirely free to use! 

Adding an ISBN

As you get ready for publishing, you’ll need to assign an International Standard Book Number (also known as an ISBN) to your book. Each version (so ebook, paperback, hardcover, etc.) will need a unique ISBN. I recommend buying your ISBN from the service in your region that issues ISBNs. 

Publishing Tasks

Find the print-on-demand publisher who best meets your needs. Look for options like retail distribution, free or low cost to upload your book, and e-commerce for direct to consumer sales. Be sure they allow you to use your own ISBN and scrutinize any contract they might require (note that the most reputable self-publishers do not require contracts).

Your Book, Published

There is a lot that goes into creating, perfecting, and publishing a book. Hours of work, investment in services, and loads of marketing just to get your story out there and in front of readers. But I can say from my own experiences with self-publishing and from hundreds of authors I’ve talked to; it’s a rewarding experience. And with each book you publish, the next one gets a little easier!

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this self-publishing checklist! What is the most challenging part for you in the self-publishing process? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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