Top tips for self-publishing your first ebook

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It’s been a few weeks since the launch of Second Chance and what a few weeks they have been. From the highs of publishing and selling my first copies through to the lows of those sales sinking fast, back to the highs of great reviews and feedback and the lows of less positive feedback (which, thankfully, have been rare so far). What it has been overall is a learning experience, so before I forget anything I thought I’d share my top tips with you so that you will benefit from learning from both the good and the bad decisions I made.

This is not a step by step guid on how to publish via KDP. If that is something you are looking for I would recommend a great guide for Scrivener users here and another guide for Word users here.

Exclaimer – I wrote my novel in Scrivener and published via KDP. Any advice I give is based on my experience of using these processes only. I will update post once I start using other platforms (e.g. Smashwords)

1 Don’t rush the process

My first mistake. As I have written previously here, my first attempt at getting published was through the traditional agent / publisher route. However, once I’d made my mind up that I self-publishing was a better fit for me, I wanted to publish my book as soon as possible. This was both a good thing (I was motivated) and a mistake (I didn’t think through each step of the process as thoroughly as I should have).

2 Write in Scrivener

There are many reasons that I would recommend Scrivener from a writer’s point of view (its ease of use, the ability to write in scenes and then easily swap scenes around without cutting and pasting, it’s ability to save constantly so you lose nothing etc. etc.) but one of its biggest features is that it can create your ebook file for you very easily, with all the menus and links built in. I am aware that Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) can create an ebook file from Microsoft Word but I have heard it takes a bit of playing around with before you get it right. With Scrivener I had no problems at all.

3 Hire an editor

There are three reasons people want to go down the traditional publishing route. The first is to get an advance, the second is to gain access to lots of distribution but as important is the third – access to good editing. Editors come in all shapes and forms but there are three basic types: a creative editor – who helps shape your novel’s structure, a copy editor – who helps correct grammar and shape your prose, and a line editor – who goes through each line looking for typos. If this is your first book it is very unlikely you will be able to afford to hire a creative editor, but if you do have a bit of money I would recommend you hire either a copy or line editor. One of the biggest complaints about self-published ebooks is the number of errors in each book. Yes, you can find errors in traditionally published books but they are so much fewer than in a self-published book.

The best books are ones you don’t even realise you are reading, instead you see everything in your imagination as you read the prose. Each error takes the reader out of this state, lessening the enjoyment of your work no matter how brilliant the story. This is why being error free is so important and why hiring an editor is good use of your money.

4 Proof read thoroughly

Now, if this is your first book there is every chance that you can’t afford to hire an editor to help polish your work. Even if you do hire an editor the responsibility of providing an error free ebook is down to you. I am lucky enough to know a copy editor who agreed to edit my manuscript. He did a fantastic job, finding many errors and helping correct some dodgy prose. My mistake was believing that a quick read through after editing was enough. Thankfully I gave my ebook to my wife to read and she found a number of additional typos (either missed by my editor or added as I made my corrections) which I was able to correct before publishing.

5 Buy a decent cover

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but readers do, especially when browsing the Amazon website. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your writing is, if your cover is lousy then it is unlikely anybody will buy your book. If you don’t believe me, look what top-selling author Ed James has to say here. The good news is that you don’t have to pay £1000s to get a good quality cover. I bought mine from James at Humble Nations, who offers lots of pre-made covers at very reasonable prices. He also converts provides a service to convert his ebook covers to be used for createspace printed books if you plan to go the paper route later on (and no, I’m not getting paid to promote his service or receiving a discount). Other good quality covers can be found here, here and here (though I can’t comment on service or satisfaction).

6 Proof read thoroughly

You remember the story I told you earlier? Well it gets worse. After I published my ebook a couple of good friends who had bought my book mentioned there were a number of typos. I was mortified. I had tried my best to catch them all but some had slipped through. I kindly asked them to let me know where they were and they both sent through a list of errors. A long list. There were 88 in all. I’d proofread, my editor had proofread, my wife (who is particularly good at spotting typos had proofread and there were still 88 errors. My advice is that before you publish, send your manuscript to any friends you know who are good at spotting errors – other writers are also usually a good bet – and ask them to see if they can find any errors. The more readers you use, the more likely the errors will be spotted, because as you will see later correcting the errors is not that easy.

7 Think about which platforms you wish to use

There are lots of different routes to publishing an ebook. By far the biggest single outlet is Amazon. When you publish an ebook through KDP it automatically becomes available through all of Amazon’s stores globally. However, there are other routes to market and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Smashwords though am yet to use them. Smashwords allows you to publish your ebook through some of the other major ebook retailers (Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo to name but a few) but not Amazon. I decided to go solely with Amazon because in my home market, the UK, it almost has a monopoly, but I will aim to publish via Smashwords in the near future.

8 Use Categories and keywords wisely

The hardest part of self-publishing is not getting published but getting read. There are millions of ebooks with hundreds of thousands of new books getting added each year. Getting noticed in this avalanche of titles is incredibly difficult. This is where categories and keywords come in. A category is the type of book you have written. Fiction / Non-Fiction being the first big category, followed by subcategories (Thriller, Romance, Science Fiction etc.) Keywords are what Amazon use to help connect your book with a reader’s search. More importantly, categories and keywords are what Amazon use to create their Top100 charts and careful use of categories enables you to appear in these charts.

To appear in the Top100 Fiction charts you have to sell a lot of books, almost impossible for a novice write. The same for Fiction/Science Fiction sub-category. But there are fuser subcategories available. On the first day of sale, Second Chance went into the Top 30 Fiction/Science Fiction/Dystopian charts and Top 10 Fiction/Science Fiction/Genetic Engineering, and stayed in the charts until relatively recently – all on relatively modest sales.

9 Pricing

I priced my book at £3 for UK customers, the upper-middle of the price range of my competitors as I believed my book to be a quality product. Most of the feedback I received from people who bought the book was: is that all? Yet I’m sure I have lost sales because some people think £3 is too high a price to pay for an unknown book. There is no right or wrong answer on pricing. My view is that if you have pride in your product you should price it accordingly. One extra tip to note, UK & EU prices are subject to tax, so the price you put in the system will end up higher on the Amazon site (my KDP price is set at £2.91 to get the £3.00 retail price).

10 Send to reviewers prior to launch

Another way to get noticed is to have somebody review your book. There is a risk involved – you have no control over what they write – but if you have confidence in your book this is a great way to pick up new readers. There are many review sites out there that are happy to review self-published books, usually targeted at specific genres. However, I learnt to my cost that they often want to review books prior to launch to enable them to be the first with the buzz about the latest books, so if you want to go down this route, plan ahead.

11 Push hard on launch day

As mentioned before, your best chance of getting noticed is through the Top 100 charts system, so on launch day make sure everybody you know is aware that they can buy your book. Blog about it, Facebook, email, Twitter – get as many people you know to buy your book because then it becomes visible to others, and with visibility comes sales. This initial promotional push, allied with good choices of categories and keywords, can send you high into these specialist charts with relatively modest sales.

12 Reviews are your friend

It is a rare reader that will buy an ebook off Amazon from an unknown writer based on a nice cover and your promotional blurb. The one thing that will change this prospective customer into a customer is a raft of positive reviews. This is where your friends come in. Ask/beg/plead for your friends to give a review. Never ask for a good review, just an honest one, because if word gets out that you are gaming the system, it can be disastrous. If you are clever, give your friends preview copies and then ask them to review on the day of launch (something I didn’t do.) That way you can marry a high chart place with positive reviews to attract new purchasers.

13 Update if you find you’ve missed typos

It is always better to catch typos before you publish (see points 3, 4 & 6). However there is a good chance that you will miss something, especially if you are on a tight budget. The good news is that you can always upload a new, improved version of the ebook. Amazon will make new versions available on request and if the changes are big enough email those customers who have already purchased the ebook (and automatically update those who have chosen the auto-update setting on their Kindle). In  my case it only took a week from updating the book to Amazon sending the update out, which is great, but bear in mind that you may have already lost a potential long-term reader by this point.

14 Never miss a chance to promote your book

Did I mention Second Chance, the 5-star rated thriller set in the near future is available to buy from your local Amazon store? You can buy it as an ebook or as a paperback from Amazon.com (paperback / ebook) and Amazon.co.uk (paperback / ebook).

15 Don’t give up your day job

As mentioned here, at launch Second Chance debuted as high no.21 in the Amazon.co.uk Science Fiction/Dystopian charts and no.9 in the Science Fiction/Genetic Engineering chart. I was ecstatic. To generate these fantastic results I had sold 35 copies in two days. After those heady first few days my sales gradually slowed. Now they come like drips from a slightly leaky tap. One. At. A. Time. Yet each time I sell one extra copy I break back into the Science Fiction/Genetic Engineering charts, giving me visibility once more.

I’m hoping that once people have finished my book, those that enjoyed the story will start telling their friends about it. Word of mouth buzz is essential if you want to turn that drip into a torrent. I will also be attempting to get more reviews to bolster prospective readers. What is clear is that selling books through self-publishing is a long game. If you are lucky, and if your product is good enough, your sales will eventually pick up. For most people this is not the case. I’ve not put a payment down on that Aston Martin quite yet.

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26 thoughts on “Top tips for self-publishing your first ebook

  1. Thanks for the reblog.

    I’ve found readers are reasonably forgiving of typos but it doesn’t stop me being mortified as well… Best advice is to read through the book aloud. Somehow your brain processes the words better and it helps with loads of other things. Takes a huge time commitment unless you’re doing it full-time.

    — Ed

    • Hi Ed, you’re more than welcome and that’s great advice. My mistake was to do that in earlier drafts but not after the final edits (where I corrected errors but added further errors during the correction process). Lesson learned!
      I’ve been following your blog for a while and it’s great to follow your progress from starting out to building a career for yourself from your writing whilst doing my best to suppress my professional jealousy 😉
      I’m currently reading Ghost in the Machine and really enjoying it.

  2. What excellent advice, elegantly put (I won’t mention the few typos because, frankly, we all put them deliberately to check if we’reread thoroughly). Hope to follow up all your links soon.

  3. These are great tips. What struck me is spending money on a good cover — you don’t want it to “look” self-published. So important. I’m a big fan of Scrivener, too. Love that software. Can’t believe I ever wrote anything in Word.

  4. Hi Dylan – this is superb advice, and thanks for sharing it. I confess I was a little perturbed to spot several of those 88 typos you have now identified, being around 60% of the way through Second Chance (and still very much engaged with the story). As someone who knows you only through blogging, I wasn’t at all sure how to – or even whether to – approach the subject of typos with you. I’m glad you have closer friends whom you trust to help you, as that was my route to finding a good few dozen of my own – my dear, tolerant Beta readers! Second Chance deserves to find a wide audience and I hope that you will continue to enjoy a position in those Amazon charts, along with healthy positive reviews. Mine will follow once I find out whodunnit! I wish I could read faster, but I’m struggling to find the time at present for much beyond audiobooks (I don’t suppose you are planning an audio version, are you…? 🙂 ), so please be patient with me. I’m still bursting with admiration at your achievement and also, your progress into real, actual paper…

    • Hi Jools, I’m so glad you are still enjoying the book and don’t worry that you haven’t finished it yet, I completely understand. As for the typos, I felt terrible. The good news is that Amazon have made the new version available to everybody so if you update your ebook this should hopefully put paid to them (at least, I hope so).
      It seems I have a complete blindness for this type of thing when it comes to my own writing. And you are right, it is always good to have help from others. I already have a couple of new steps in place for when I publish the second book.
      Sadly, I’m not planning an audio version (well, not unless sales pick up A LOT). Maybe one day…

  5. This is great advice Dylan, thanks so much for sharing it. As you know, I’m nowhere near to this stage but when I am I certainly know who I’ll be asking, but I’m going to save this post for future reference 🙂

  6. This is fantastic, advice, thank you! I kind of stumbled into self-publishing accidentally – I’m a film/tv writer by trade, but wrote a fictional blog last year on a whim which I turned into an e-book on the request of a couple of blog readers. So now I’m retroactively figuring out what I should have done before I published, and learning lessons for the next one! Thanks again.

    • Hi Claire, you are more than welcome. Wow, what a great job you have. I am incredibly jealous (in a good way – or at least, in a “I live thousands of miles away so there’s no need to up security” kind of way ;-))
      If you are looking to make a career via Indy publishing, I can’t recommend the book ‘Write. Publish. Repeat’ enough. It gives loads of recommendations minus the usual snake oil promises of instant success. I wish I had read it before I’d written my first novel.
      I wish you the best of luck with your next book!

  7. I publish books for authors that don’t like the formatting process or simply don’t know how to format their books ready for publishing. I am surprised sometimes how many errors I find in the copy of the books, so it is clear that many authors don’t get their books edited or proof read. Like you I think these steps are essential, anyone publishing a book as an indie author needs to understand that they are entering a world of fierce competition and problems of this nature will soon turn off a paying public and may even attract negative reviews.

    I publish on both Amazon and Smashwords and my market is also primarily in the UK, but I have found that reasonable sales can be made through Smashwords. They provide a comprehensive guide to formatting books using Word, the process can be quite complex, which is probably why some people are turned off doing it, but the reason is mostly when writers adopt bad habits instead of using the correct formatting tools for the job. Once you are into the swing of it however, you can produce books that are properly formatted as you write. You just need to learn a few simple rules and set up the defaults correctly in your Word program (all explained in Smashwords free guide).

    This is essential if you want to get a premium listing and you need a premium listing if you want your books placed with the major distributors like Apple, Kobo etc. Smashwords operate an auto-vetting program that looks for formatting errors and won’t assign premium status until the book passes with no errors.

    Something else to be aware of, when publishing elsewhere, is that if you do, you can no longer be a part of the KDP select program. The consequences of this being that you will not be able to participate in countdown deals or free offers through Amazon. So yes Amazon is the biggest and the best, but there are other options providing you accept that some marketing tools will be taken out of your arsenal.

    Overall here I think you have provided some excellent advice to anyone looking to publish their books independently. I particularly like your last comment ‘don’t give up the day job’. Very good advice as cracking the book selling world takes a huge amount of effort and the failure rate is quite high. Doesn’t mean it’s impossible but it does need to be approached with realism.

    • Hi Brian! Thanks for stopping by. You’ve made some really good points, especially about the other publishing routes available. I didn’t cover them because I have no experience of them, not because I believe the Amazon route to be the only one to choose (although because it holds 90% market share of the UK ebook market, less but still dominant in the US, it’s a good place to start). I plan to publish via Smashwords once my KDP Select term is up, so I’ll be able to update everyone on my experience then.
      I think it’s great that there are people like yourself who are offering writers the chance to publish their work. As you say, not everybody has either the knowledge or inclination to do it themselves. My recommendation for any writer thinking of going down this route is to research thoroughly, as there are a number of vanity publishers (some affiliated to large publishing houses) who are offering services at hugely inflated prices to take advantage of people chasing their dreams.

  8. Pingback: So you have finished your first draft… | Suffolk Scribblings

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