Self-Publishing 101: What Does It Really Take?

Last week I talked about the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and this week I want to talk about what indie publishing really entails. From first draft to marketing after you’ve published, self-publishing (and traditional publishing) takes a lot of time and effort, and I want to shine a light on some of the concrete steps that have to be taken in self-publishing.

If You’re Not Publishing for a Career…

This whole post series is primarily targeted at writers who intend to make a career out of self-publishing, but some things on this list should be done regardless of your intentions with self-publishing (which I’ll discuss more in-depth in my post on non-negotiables in a few weeks). And even if you’re just publishing for fun or as a one-time thing right now, it can be helpful to know what the extra mile looks like. Most of my current published works didn’t go through all of these steps, because short stories aren’t my focus so I haven’t paid for them as much as I would for a novel. For serious novels, I intend to follow this model. (But that doesn’t mean it’s the only model.)

Step 1: Write the First Draft

Obviously, this is a necessary first step. The great thing about self-publishing, though, is that this step can take as much or as little time as it needs. If you’re a slower writer and it takes you a year to write a first draft, that’s all right. There’s no rush on self-publishing (unless maybe you get a really great fanbase and they want books faster, but even so, whether or not you let them push you is up to you; that can be a good challenge or it can be a damper on the creative process, and which it is depends on the individual writer).

I recommend keeping a running list of things to edit as you go, both so you have a starting point when you start the next draft and so you can temporarily silence your inner editor and keep moving forward with the drafting process. But that’s just a personal tip.

Step 2: Edit on the Macro Level

This is something you’ll want to do on your own. Set aside the first draft for a while (until you think you can look at it objectively; in some rare cases you might not even have to wait, but under most circumstances I’d recommend setting it aside so you can look at the story with fresh eyes), and then come back to it and start going through it looking for big things to edit. Plot holes, character arc problems, adding or rearranging scenes… Start with the big stuff, because the small stuff will change with it and you don’t want to do all the detail work just to mess it up. You don’t paint the walls before you do the remodeling. If you made a list of edits during your first draft, see if you mentioned any macro-edits (remodeling edits) then that you’ve forgotten. And, obviously, look for anything you didn’t see while in the midst of writing.

This draft can take a while, as you troubleshoot and are likely to end up rewriting (or adding) whole sections of your novel. You might find it helpful to have a brainstorming buddy as you go, to help you work through the worst trouble spots.

Step 3: Hire a Developmental Editor

Once you’ve caught as many of the structural issues in your novel as you can on your own, it’s time to hire a professional. I’d recommend actually shelling out money for this step (though you can find affordable editors, so it doesn’t have to be a ton of money), but if you’re fortunate enough to have a trained editor in your family or friend group you might be able to get this done for free. Just be aware that you often get what you pay for. Another option, either in addition to or instead of a professional editor, is to get a group of trusted beta-readers to look over your book.

The benefit of hiring an editor is that they’re both trained in story structure (often) as well as simply an outside perspective. It’s easy to overlook issues in our own work because we see them as they should be rather than necessarily as they should be, or we see them as writers rather than readers, while an editor has no personal connection to your story and doesn’t have those handicaps in finding the problems in your book.

At the end of the day, though, remember that this is your novel and you don’t have to take all of the suggestions your editor gives you. It’s often a good idea to take most of them, but if you think one of their suggestions really doesn’t fit with your story, you don’t have to take it. And you have particular freedom with that when you choose to indie-publish.

Step 4: Build a Marketing Timeline

At this point, you’re pretty committed to seeing your book published. Awesome! You’ve survived the Valley of Book Hate that you almost certainly fell into during at least one set of developmental edits and you’re back on track to rekindling your excitement (or maybe you already have) and you can start looking toward marketing it to other people. Here(ish) you’ll be able to build a semi-accurate timeline of your publishing and marketing plans. This can be a complicated process, because there’s a lot to do to publish and market your book. Here are some of the things you’ll need to schedule in:

  • Buying/making a book cover
  • Formatting your book’s interior for both print and ebook (or hiring someone else to do it)
  • Building/commissioning graphics for marketing purposes (quote graphics, blurb graphics, cover graphics…)
  • The actual release date
  • The last of the edits
  • Finding ARC readers
  • Ordering ARCs (if you’re doing physical versions)
  • Ordering a proof copy to double-check formatting
  • Sending out ARCs
  • Launch parties (usually hosted on social media; and don’t forget the prep for those)

(I’ll go more in-depth on the specifics of some of these things later in the post.)

Step 5: Edit on the Sentence Level

After you’ve fully addressed your remodeling (which is likely to take several drafts), you can paint the walls. Line edits are making sure all that your sentences fit the story and are worded to their utmost potential. Adding description (which could go in the structural draft or this one, depending on how much you need to add) and adapting it to fit the tone and character voice of the novel, tweaking dialogue to best match your characters’ voices, working in motifs through your word choice (if you have a musically-themed story, for instance, using a lot of sound-related words could be really effective to bring the writing together), etc. All of the sentence-level issues are tackled in this draft.

Step 6: Copy-Edit

Once you’ve polished your sentences as much as you can in word choice, comb over your novel for grammatical errors. Spelling errors, incorrect formatting, incorrect punctuation, etc. All of that gets fixed in this draft.

You’ll definitely want to get a second set of eyes for this step, after you’ve gone over it on your own, because even the best of us can miss little errors like these (especially when we’ve been looking at the same words for ages and we know how they’re supposed to read) and having an experienced second set of eyes–whether a professional copy-editor or your friend who’s practically human autocorrect–can be a huge help in making the content of your book as professional as it can be.

Step 7: Get Formatting Done

Depending on how fancy you want your formatting to be, you might be able to teach yourself to do the formatting of your book. Or you might know someone who can do it well for free or cheap. Or you might have to hire someone to format your book for you. It depends on what you want your book to look like, what connections you have, and how easily you pick up skills. So far, I’ve had one book formatted by my dad and the other I formatted myself (and I actually had a lot of fun with it, even though I’ve found formatting to be one of the most frustrating steps, lol). But formatting is a tricky business, so you might find it a better fit to get someone else to help. *shrugs* It totally depends on your skills and priorities.

Step 8: Acquire a Cover

In general, I’d recommend against putting a cover together yourself. This often results in less-than-professional-looking covers, and despite what people may say, readers do judge books by their covers. If you have experience in design, go for it, but otherwise it’s probably a better bet to pay for a professional cover. Even then, though, you’ll want to be careful you get a cover that matches your genre, the tone of your book, etc. If you get a romance cover for your fantasy novel, chances are you’re going to hit entirely the wrong audience and you’ll get a bunch of bad reviews because your book was improperly advertised by its cover. Or it’ll simply be skipped over altogether because it’ll show up in fantasy circles but readers will assume it’s incorrectly categorized or that you didn’t make an effort to get a proper cover for it. Basically… a cover is serious business.

Now, full disclosure, I’ve designed (or co-designed with my mom) all of my covers up to this point. But 1) I’m aware they’re lower-caliber than if I’d paid for a cover to be made, and 2) I chose that route because I know both my mom and I have a good enough eye to make a passable cover (okay, SSCv.1 is a little questionable, but everything about that book is a little questionable as far as quality, so…) and I know short stories aren’t my primary focus so I don’t need them to be as eye-grabbing. When I publish my novels, I fully intend to buy professional covers/art.

Step 9: Set Up Your Book

How exactly setup works will depend on what platform you’re using to publish your book, but you’ll need to upload your cover, your book file, and put in keywords, categories, and your book’s blurb. This is a pretty intuitive process in Kindle Direct Publishing, which is what I’ve used for all of my books (including several I only printed once), but I can’t speak to the process in other platforms.

Step 10: Find ARC Readers

ARC (Advance Reader Copies) readers are people who agree to review your book in exchange for a free copy (most often an ebook copy, since that’s cheaper, but you could do print if you really wanted to) in advance. Generally they’ll review the book in the days surrounding your launch.

How do you find ARC readers? If you already have a newsletter or a blog, start by asking your readers there. Beyond that, family and friends who read and review your genre and people in your writing groups can be good people to ask.

Generally, the easiest way to keep track of ARC readers is to set up a form and collect contact info, what dates work best for people to post their reviews, etc. through that.

Step 11: Order a Proof

Once your book is set up, you’ll be able to order a print proof of your book to make sure the formatting is all as it should be in physical form, comb over one more time for typos or grammatical errors, that kind of thing. Make sure there aren’t any issues with the cover, the interior formatting, etc. Once you’ve checked it over, either tweak your files or approve it as is appropriate. Ideally, you should probably order a new proof every time you make changes, just to make sure nothing has shifted weird, but it may be sufficient to only order one proof and trust nothing’s going to moved.

You’ll also want to check over your ebook proof to make sure everything is displaying properly there. I found out after publishing Lost Girl that it was shoving words together, even though the document looked fine on my computer, and I had to upload it in a different format. It may be tempting to skip this step, but don’t.

Step 12: Send ARCs

This can be before you’ve fully approved the proofs, since ARC readers generally go in with the understanding that they’ll be getting a not-quite-perfect copy (especially if you set that expectation). You want the book to be near-perfect, but your ARC readers will forgive a few uncaught typos or formatting glitches.

If you’re sending e-ARCs, you’ll send PDFs via email. If you’re sending print ARCs, you’ll need to order those and arrange for packaging and postage and then make sure they get sent out.

Step 13: Head Into Your Marketing Plan

What exactly this will entail depends on what platforms you’re focusing your attention on, but this generally involves sharing graphics on social media and can also include a blog tour and/or online launch parties (which require their own set of plans). Social media posts can include countdowns, quote graphics, behind-the-scenes info, character cards, or whatever else you want to come up with. If you can come up with things that relate specifically to your book’s content/themes/etc., bonus points. The goal is just to get your book on people’s radars in a positive way and influence them to buy it when it comes out.

(If you’re interested, I can do an additional post about marketing suggestions and the things I tried for my own books.)

Step 14: Launch Your Book!

Hit the publish button on your chosen publishing platform and watch your book enter the world. Congratulations! You’re a published author! Shout it from the rooftops and don’t be afraid to be proud of your work! You’ve done a lot to reach this point. You’ve earned some celebration!

Step 15: Continue Marketing

Marketing doesn’t stop once your book is published. People won’t stumble across it on their own–at least not a lot of people–unfortunately. You have to continue building hype, continue putting it in front of them, continue making it sound like something they need to read. Just try not to be obnoxious in the process. ;) (In case anyone was wondering… this is the step I struggle with the most, lol.)


Self-publishing is obviously a lot of work, but it’s fairly manageable when you break it down. It’s still stressful, it’s still difficult, but it is manageable (especially if you have help, support, and encouragement), and it’s totally worth it.

What scares you most about publishing? What do you most look forward to? Is there anything else you want to know about the publishing process? Drop your thoughts in the comments!

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