When I finished my first novel – The Devil’s in the Detail – in 2012, I was still finding my feet as a writer. I knew nothing about getting published. I queried my manuscript with several local agents and publishers, carefully adhering to the submission guidelines, and I sent my baby out into the world. I awaited the acceptances with bated breath.
The silence was both deafening; the experience was deflating.
As the weeks drifted into months, my book looked destined for digital cobwebs on my laptop until a friend suggested I self-publish. And so, following their advice, I fumbled my way through the process – making more than one mistake – and released my debut novel to a modest – yet surprisingly lovely – reception.
Ten years later, with my second manuscript completed, I returned to this crossroad: traditional or self-publishing? I’d established a writing network, and several friends had agents and book deals. Yet, something about my book – a deeply personal story about fate and redemption on Spain’s Camino de Santiago – didn’t feel marketable to the masses. My tale was niche at best, destined for a smaller audience of pilgrims and hikers. I could see the final destination but wasn’t sure a handful of chapters would convince others. So I once again set off down the self-publishing pathway. What followed was the most rewarding year of my creative life.
I receive many questions about self-publishing – some from emerging writers, others from traditionally-published authors who are curious about the alternative. So five months after publishing Once Upon a Camino, I’ve reflected on the path I’ve trodden, attempting to answer the main questions I’ve received: How does the distribution work? What are the actual costs? What’s the overall process?
What follows isn’t an exhaustive list of do’s and dont’s. There are entire books about how to self-publish by infinitely more successful authors than me. It’s simply how I’ve done it. I’ve shared some of the services and websites I used, but I’d implore you to conduct your research, as services and prices invariably change.
“I read your book last night.”
“So you’re the one.”Sean Maguire, Good Will Hunting, 1997
As a lifelong reader, there’s something special about holding your own book. But the prospect of a garage full of unread copies is enough to stall the most confidant of authors. Thankfully, Print on Demand (or PoD) solves this. Rather than being locked into a print run of 1,000 or more books, PoD works by printing a single book whenever someone orders a copy. Simple.
The most significant player in the PoD market is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Signing up and uploading your book in KDP is intuitive, with loads of YouTube videos available whenever you get stuck. Best of all, it’s free to upload titles, and you should be able to get approximately 70% of your sales as royalties. I say ‘approximate’ as I’ve never fully reconciled the royalties I’ve received from self-publishing. That’s not a reflection on KDP; understanding the intricacies of pricing and royalties has never been my “happy place”.
The other significant player is IngramSpark, which allows your books to be printed and sold from other retailers like Book Depository, Booktopia, Dymocks and many others. I use both services and found IngramSpark a little less intuitive for loading your book and tracking sales – plus, it costs AUD $50 for each upload/revision.
“The files are INSIDE the computer!”Hansel, Zoolander, 2001
I’ll be transparent: I love eBooks. When I’m marooned somewhere without a paperback, it’s nice to have a novel on my phone. It certainly beats doom-scrolling TwitFace. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), eBooks accounted for 12.5% of book sales in 2022.
While KDP and IngramSpark also offer eBook publishing, there are additional services I use.
Draft2Digital allows you to publish on marketplaces such as Apple Books, Rakuten Kobo, Barnes & Noble and more. It’s free for formatting and uploading your book, and they take 10% of your retail price. Google Play Books Partner Centre allows people to download your book from an Android device. Similarly, uploading your book is free, and you can expect 70% royalties. Given it’s limited to Google Play, you’ll likely sell fewer eBooks than through Draft2Digital’s marketplaces. However, Amazon Kindle is still my most popular eBook marketplace. You can upload your ebook through KDP, similar to your paperback, and I’ve seen much more sales through this channel.
To upload your story as an eBook, you’ll need to create an EPUB file. Several software tools can help you do this – but more on that later. Knowing your book can indeed find its way into the hands of readers – whether it’s paper or screen – the next step is making it the best possible product ever. And to do that – you’ll need help.
“Feedback is a gift.”Anonymous manager, mid-2000s
I once had a manager who would say, “feedback is a gift”, before handing back my work dripping with “red pen”. While I worked on my revisions long into the night, it was difficult to share her sentiment, but years later, I suspect she might be right.
The “ease” of self-publishing is a double-edged sword. Launching your book with poor quality would be easy without the competitive selection process of agents and publishers. It’s essential to have a way of getting knowledgeable, impartial feedback on your work.
One way of doing this is through beta readers – a group of trusted people to read your completed book. While beta readers aren’t unique to self-publishing, they’re a critical feedback loop for improving your story. I sent my Camino novel to a handful of my friends and family and asked them to complete a quick survey afterwards. Who was their favourite character? When had they picked each twist? Did they understand the ending? Having some confidants to nudge you towards an improvement gently is a great way to ease into sharing the story you’ve worked so hard on. But creativity should never be safe; you need honest, direct feedback. Some friends won’t tell you you’ve got spinach stuck between your teeth.
Manuscript assessments are a great way to receive a professional perspective on your work. I had one done through Writers Victoria (AUD $1,000 for up to 70K words for members, annual memberships starting at AUD $55), which provided me anonymous feedback on my overall story and characters. This was invaluable – pointing out plot holes and character inconsistencies while also giving me encouragement that my story worked and my writing flowed.
So with all of the feedback received from the manuscript assessment and beta readers, I was ready to return to my book and make changes.
“Write drunk, edit sober.”Ernest Hemingway
I knew frighteningly little about editing. Whereas the traditionally published author is guided through the process by their publisher, the self-published author must go it alone. Thankfully, the term “self-publish” is a complete misnomer. You’re never truly alone; help is always at hand.
The first thing I did was attend some courses. Wait, what? Hadn’t I already finished my book? I thought so; however, some of the feedback I’d received pointed to a need to build out some of my characters and sharpen their motivations. I attended two courses through Writers Victoria (both cost AUD $155 with an annual membership).
One was “Delving Deep on Character” by Annabel Smith, which focussed on characters and their arcs. It left me wondering how well did I truly know my characters? For example, did I know what my protagonist ate for breakfast? (Answer: a toasted croissant and black coffee from the Pret A Manger on Bishopsgate, bought after getting off the tube). By fleshing out each character’s back-stories and goals, I found I needed to make changes in specific scenes, thinking to myself, “Sofia would never say that.”
The second course was run by speculative-fiction writer Eugen Bacon and focussed on the principles of editing. It helped me return to my manuscript scrutinising every word, analyzing whether it could be replaced with a better one or removed altogether. Could I say more with less?
The answer was yes.
When I began the self-editing process, my manuscript was 150k words and ambitiously titled “Camino – FINAL V1.0.docx”. Six months later, I’d shaved off 40k words without sacrificing any of the plot. Indeed, I’d somehow managed to incorporate more character development. The eventual filename was “Camino -FINAL V27.docx”.
So when I couldn’t cut another word, and I’d read my book so many times, I knew which sentence came next; I decided it was finally time.
It was time for the professionals.
“If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.“The A-Team, 1983
I’d never worked with a professional editor, and I was at a loss for where to begin. Thankfully I found the Freelance Editors’ Network, offering a list of Australian-based editors for hire. Many have years of experience working with well-established publishing houses, each with their preferred genre and target markets. Rates vary on the size and complexity of the project, as well as the experience of the editor. However, the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (iPed) provides standard rates to guide you.
There was also the matter of what type of edit did I need? Structural edit, copyedit, line edit or proofread? Or did I need them all? Given my manuscript assessment hadn’t identified any significant structural issues and I was comfortable I’d addressed (or knowingly passed) on the other feedback, I was happy to progress to a copy edit. A copy edit, or line edit, focuses on a book’s overall readability and flow. It fixes grammar, identifies repetition, calls out continuity errors and prepares your manuscript for publishing.
For this, I was lucky to find Lauren Finger, an editor with years of experience working with aspiring and established authors from across the globe. After booking Lauren, I sent her my slimmed-down manuscript along with some key concerns I wanted her to focus on. For example, I wanted her to check my flashbacks worked, both in how I’d introduced and written them. A few weeks later, I received a marked-up version of my manuscript with hundreds of suggested changes and notes. Lauren also prepared a style sheet for the proofreader, containing all the formatting and spelling choices made throughout.
Working with Lauren was phenomenal, she’s brilliant. She picked up inconsistencies, checked Spanish town names on Google Maps and ensured none of my characters suddenly changed eye colour. Not to mention suggesting where one sentence was better than two and helping me overcome my newfound love of the semi-colon; most of the time. It was an incredibly insightful experience where I learned a lot about my writing.
After a month of working through those changes, it was time for proofreading. I’d received some good recommendations and was lucky to have Becca Allen agree to work on my book. The proofreading was much quicker – all done in a few weeks – but I was amazed at how many typos Becca still picked up after so many edits. I’d now officially become blind to them. A professional proofread should pick up most mistakes, but it’s unlikely to find them all. Even a version of the Holy Bible from 1631 had a typo in the Ten Commandments, omitting the word “not” and declaring, “Thou shalt commit adultery”.
“Judging books by their covers is seriously underrated, and any book nerd who claims never to have done it is probably lying.”Amy Elizabeth Smith, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane
Given your self-published book will likely have very little marketing behind it, landing a cover that jumps off the shelf is crucial.
If you’re unsure what you’re after, you can buy a pre-designed cover from several online marketplaces. If designing the cover yourself, there are some Commandments writers should follow:
- DO use a font for your title which is large, clear and readable
- DO use striking and memorable imagery
- DON’T use Microsoft WordArt
- DON’T combine photographs and illustrations
A tip I’d offer is to search your local bookshop or Amazon and inspect the other titles in your genre. You want your book to stand out from the crowd while still belonging.
Books about the Camino are largely memoirs from those who have walked it, and many feature photographs of a solitary pilgrim walking across a mist-shrouded mountain. I knew I wanted mine to incorporate pieces of the Camino – like the clamshell and hiking boots – but I wanted it to be unique. I had high-level visions of what I wanted, but I needed someone to bring them to life.
Thankfully I discovered the Australian Book Designer Association – a register of local artists who design books for a living. This is where I found Holly Dunn, a New Zealand-based artist with a portfolio which immediately resonated with me.
I got in touch with Holly and discussed my project. Once we’d agreed on terms, I provided my book’s synopsis, a list of existing designs I liked and a description of some of the themes I wanted to evoke. From there, Holly took over. I had two different design options in a few weeks before digging deeper into my favourite one.
There are few greater joys in life than finally seeing the final cover artwork of a book you’ve poured so much of yourself into. I’ve experienced it twice, and I presume even for prolific authors like Stephen King, it never gets old.
Another piece of feedback from my beta readers was the need to include a map with my book. People wanted to understand how far my protagonist was through his five-hundred-mile journey across Spain. Holly was able to assist, producing a beautiful map of the Iberian Peninsula for me to include in my book.
So with the artwork finalised and the book locked down, I was finally ready.
“Hold onto your butts.”Ray Arnold, Jurassic Park, 1993
My days spent walking the Camino generally started early, up and out of hostels by six o’clock. After nine hours of walking, I’d usually decide to stop in the next village for the day. That last hour of the day was always the hardest. There always seemed to be one more mountain to climb. Self-publishing is a little bit like that. Even though I’d finished, there were still a few more things to do. Here are some of those last-minute activities you’ll need to tend to.
- Write a blurb that will make whoever reads it desperate to open your book’s cover to discover more. Some people find this comes naturally to them, while others struggle. I’m definitely in the latter camp, wrestling with how much of the story I share versus allowing my readers to uncover the plot themselves. It was the hardest 300 words I had to write. The best advice I received was to use a formula of: introducing your protagonist and their world, revealing the inciting incident and leaving some lingering questions with your reader. I probably had twenty different variations before settling on my final blurb. Hot tip: Your beta-readers are a perfect sounding board on which blurb best works.
- You’ll need to type up your book’s front-matter and back-matter. The front-matter includes your Copywrite page, while your back-matter is predominantly your thank-yous and any additional notes. There are countless websites offering templates for both, and you can also flick through your favourite books to see how those authors have done it.
- When every last word has been typed, edited and proofread, you’ll need to finalise the layout and typesetting of your book. You can hire someone to do this or buy a predefined template. Given my background in computers, I chose to do this myself using Adobe InDesign software (Free 7-day trials, before AUD $29.99 per month). As with all Adobe products, it’s a bit tricky (but not nearly as complicated as Photoshop), but YouTube tutorials like this one from Becca C. Smith helped immensely. You’ll finish with two versions of your final book: a beautifully formatted PDF for your paperback and a folder-structured EPUB file for your eBook. I needed to do some tinkering with the latter using some software called Calibre. This allowed me to format and position my chapter headings, build the table of contents and correctly place my book’s map in the front. This process has its quirks, but there are tons of online resources to help you through it.
- And finally, you’ll need to buy some ISBNs – the long number at the bottom of your book’s barcode. Purchase these from sites like Thorpe-Bowker (AUD $88 for ten ISBNs). Remember, if you’re planning on publishing a paperback and an eBook, you’ll need two – one for each version.
- Again, there is a plethora of online guidance for finalising and uploading your book, including training on all the steps you’ll need to take. To help me, I attended a two-day course through Writers Victoria called “Self Publishing Bootcamp” (AUD $310 with annual membership), taught by New York Times bestselling crime author Ellie Marney which gave some excellent, practical advice on how to navigate the entire self-publishing process. Given Ellie’s success in the traditional and self-publishing world, I highly recommend this course if you get the chance to attend.
And when all of this is done, you’re finally ready. It’s time to sign-up with KDP, IngramSpark, Draft2Digital and others to get your baby out into the world.
“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.”Henry Jones Junior, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984
I won’t propose offering advice on how to promote and advertise your work. Self-promotion is hard work. Michael Winkler summed it up best with this candid tweet about the highs and lows of promoting his self-published novel, Grimmish.
Of course, the superb Grimmish was short-listed for the 2022 Miles Frankin Award six months later – the self-publishing dream!
But some of the things you can do are below:
- Having a book launch is a fantastic way of celebrating your accomplishment with your friends and family. In 2012 I hired out a function room of my local pub, threw some money behind the bar and sold discounted copies of The Devil’s in the Detail to whoever attended. It was a perfect night and a great way of building immediate hype around my book; I sold seventy copies! If you’re stuck for a venue, check in with your local bookstore or library, who may be happy to host. For my Camino novel, a big launch wasn’t possible, but I announced it with a Twitter thread which also drummed up a lot of engagement.
- Now is not the time for modesty; you need to tell people about your book. There are many ways you can do this. An obvious one is social media. I mainly use Twitter and Instagram, and it’s genuinely lovely to be tagged by anyone holding a copy of your book. With 228 followers, I’m not a maestro in this space, but with whatever social media presence you choose, try to make it authentic and not just spam people with marketing.
- What about marketing? A few years ago, while visiting Perth, I wandered onto the Crown Casino gaming floor. In truth, I’m not much of a gambler. The only available table was a $50 Black Jack table, so I sat and placed 100 dollars down. I received two $50 chips in return. The first, I played and busted with 22; the second, the dealer hit blackjack. I’d sat down for sixty seconds and had nothing to show for it. This has been my experience with Facebook and Amazon ads. I’m sure they work for some authors, but never for me.
- In my experience, you are better off reminding your readers to post their reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. Some of these ratings are shared with retailers like Book Depository and like any product, a higher rating offers a sense of assurance to potential readers. A positive, spoiler-free review can do wonders for your sales, so remember this when you’ve read a book you like too!
- If you’d like to see your book on the shelf of your favourite bookshop (who doesn’t?), then you can ask them to sell it on consignment. While I received politely-worded declines from several stores, others like Brunswick Bound and Mary Martin Books agreed. I’m so appreciative of independent bookshops like these promoting emerging authors. There are few greater feelings than returning to a store to drop off more copies after they’ve sold out.
- Another perk of self-publishing is the visibility of sales you’ll get. Rather than relying on your publisher to share the data, you’re able to see each and every sale yourself, including where they occurred and whether it was an eBook or paperback. But a word of caution: clicking refresh on your browser won’t increase the numbers. I usually do a scan of the reports a couple of times a week just to see how things are tracking. Anything more than that is time better spent writing the next book.
So if you do all this, you’ll be rich beyond your wildest dreams, right? Possibly – but it hasn’t happened to me yet. I still work in computers with no foreseeable end in sight. To be frank, I haven’t yet broken even on the expenses I’ve listed above. But I’ve never written for money. As I wrote here, I’ve always done it for the connection to readers. And on that front, Once Upon a Camino has already been an incredible success. I’ve been so fortunate to receive wonderful reviews from some of my writing cohort, as well as strangers from across the globe destined to walk the Camino themselves. And while I may have had even greater success through traditional publishing, I never regret the path I took. For anyone at the crossroads who is curious about the self-publishing route, the journey I’ve outlined above is an enormously rewarding adventure.
Once Upon a Camino is available now at several physical and online retailers. Click here for more details.
Do you have a question about self-publishing? Post it below in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to answer it.