Self-Publishing: Top Ten Ways To Get It Right

by Marian L. Thomas

Marian L. Thomas is an award-winning writer of women's fiction, and author of The Caged Butterfly.

The following article is re-published with permission from Mrs. Thomas from her workshop notes during the 2020 Writing Day Workshop, held March 7, 2020 at the Le Meridien Atlanta Perimeter Hotel. Much of the information here pertains to novels, but is also applicable to picture books. My own thoughts, comments, and notes from the workshop follow each of Ms. Thomas' 10 Rules. – Sherry A. Mitcham

Rule 1 - Don't look Self Published

  • Invest in a book cover design artist.
  • Stay away from sans serif type fonts (Helvetica or Arial) and select serif type fonts such as Garamond or Baskerville.
  • Ensure the cover, interior, and word count of your book match your genre.

You know them when you see them ... the books on the shelves that just don't look quite so professional. The books from the self-published authors who didn't have the budget or the wherewithal to invest in a professionally designed book. Especially the cover. I tell picture book authors that they are producing a product that they are trying to sell. So to get consumers to buy the product, the product has to look and feel like top quality. Your story may be great and important, but if you don't package it professionally, it won't matter, because no one will notice it or move in for a closer look. Picture books need to be top quality on every page. But even regular novels, fiction or non-fiction need to look professional inside and out.

Mrs. Thomas mentioned specific fonts. I would also add for the inside of the book to pay attention to font sizes, spacing and leading. How wide are the margins at the top, bottom, inside and outside of the pages? Do the pages have headers or footers? What about the size and placement of page numbers?

For your cover, do hire a professional graphic artist. I have another article, How To Find An Illustrator, where I discuss specific skills your graphic designer or illustrator needs to have. Not all artists understand graphic design. Not all designers understand the printing process or publishing requirements. And book cover design is in a category all its own, requiring unique skills that not just any graphics person possesses. Here's a basic checklist to go by when hiring a designer to layout your book:

- Do they know what digital and offset printers need and how to set up electronic files for printing?

- Do they know what elements and specs a publisher requires on specific pages and the cover of a book? Things like barcodes, copy for the book's spine, copyright and legal information?

- Does your cover artist know how to select and arrange appropriate fonts, images, colors and graphics that will reflect your book's genre and subject matter? Does the final cover design entice a reader to pick up that book to read it?

- For someone laying out the interior of your book, especially novels, do they understand the appropriate measurements for page margins, headers, footers, page numbers and do they select appropriate and readable fonts with good sizing and spacing?

- Do they (do YOU?) know the appropriate, industry standard word count for your particular book's genre? Click here for a list of genres with the normally accepted word counts. And remember these are just general guidelines.

And do hire someone to edit your book. Especially on novels. Even if the package is all pretty and professional, it still needs to be enjoyable to read and easy to follow. Beyond basic grammar and punctuation, make sure the narrative flows well. The reader needs to get lost in your story and not be struggling to follow what you're trying to communicate.

Rules 2 and 3 – Know the difference between a book distributor and a book wholesaler

Okay, this one seemed pretty simple at first glance. But the more I researched, the muddier it got. It will require a bit of research when you are considering your own situation and the needs of your book and marketing plan. But here are the bare basics from the website of the Independent Book Publishers Association:

- A book wholesaler works for the bookstores. A wholesaler buys the book from the publisher, and sells it to other wholesalers and bookstores.

- A book distributor works for the publishers. A distributor pitches and sells to the wholesaler on your behalf. Distributors are paid for their services by taking a percantage of your selling price.

Rule 4 – Use the correct trim size for your genre

  • The most common trim size for standard trade fiction and nonfiction books is 5.5" x 8.5".

So here is an instance where Mrs. Thomas is referring to paperback novels. Your book needs to look like others in it's genre in order to look professionally published. Picture books are a bit unique and can come in a variety of sizes. You might want to do an oddball size thinking it will stand out from the others, but be very careful doing this or you'll just end up with a book that looks unprofessional and doesn't fit into its category. So take a trip to the bookstore and look for books that are similar to yours based on the age range of your target audience, the subject matter, and whether the book is going to be soft or hard cover. Take a ruler or measuring tape and get the physical dimensions of those books. (Even better ... support other authors by purchasing a few! I personally get lots of inspiration from my own shelf full of favorites!) If you are using a self-publishing company like Xulon Press or Westbow, or an online service like Blurb or Amazon, get their list of sizes and choose the size based on the measurements you got. If you are going totally solo and dealing directly with your printer, you will need to give them your sizes in order for them to quote your costs. It's best to stick to a common, standard size unless you have very good and indisputable reasons for doing something totally out of the ordinary.

Rule 5 - Develop a book marketing plan

  • Develop your book marketing plan at least one year before the release of your book.

Yep. That's no typo ... she did say a year. And marketing is a whole new and probably very lengthy article. For now, just know that publishing a book is not a quick process. If you've got a funny or inspiring family story and you'd like to assemble it into a few copies to give to family at Christmas, there are places online where you can get that done. But if you want a "sitting on bookstore shelves where anybody can come in and pick up a copy" book, it will take lots of work and lots of time. After all that writing is done, the illustrations, design and layout, editing, printing, etc. will take months and months and months. So while all that is going on, get busy with figuring out how you're going to get this wonderful product into the hands of eager readers. Ideally you should start before you ever begin the process of getting the book produced, because how you intend to market will directly affect who you will want to hire to help you get the job done. Will you be using a book wholesaler or a distributor? Will you get some assistance by going through one of the self-publishing agencies or will you handle it all yourself? So much to think about ... and it's best to have a good plan laid out before you set the process in motion.

Rule 6 - Don't pay to get your LCCN!

  • Getting you Library of Congress Control Number is free. You can obtain it here.

This is why you need to do your own thorough research ... I've been illustrating for over 10 years, and knew about the ISBN, but not the LCCN! Actually, I thought the ISBN WAS the LCCN! Apparently, you need this number from the Library of Congress in order for your book to be catalogued properly so that it can be purchased by libraries. And I think you have to send an actual book when you apply, and that won't be returned. I'm still learning about this myself, but here's an article by author Michael Sahno and the experience he had with obtaining LCCNs for his books.

Rule 7 - Don't price yourself out of the book game

  • Readers aren't familiar with your work, so don't think you can price your book the same as a Harry Potter book.

Again, Mrs. Thomas is mostly talking about 300+ page paperbacks, with a full color cover, but all one color, black, on the interior pages. If you are producing a full color, full bleed, standard size, 32-page picture book, it will be very, very expensive. The trick is to get your unit cost down. If the standard selling price for a hardback picture book is $24, but your printing cost is $20 or more per book, that's no good. To get the unit cost down, you'll need to print longer runs: hundreds or thousands instead of just a hundred or less. Then you'll have the problem of warehousing them until they are sold. Of course in this new digital age, there is print on demand where you can just print each book as it sells, but beware! I know an author that went online to get something similar, and the books turned out beautiful, but they cost $30 each! So, even if the books can be sold for $30, there will be zero profit! And it's very unlikely that they could be sold at a higher price. Yikes! This is why you need a marketing plan to figure out how you can sell your books. And when approaching self-publishing companies, printers, and illustrators, consider carefully what your costs will be and have a plan in place so that you can re-coup. The self-publishing agency you choose will be taking their bit out of your price, too. I suspect it's more cost effective to take on the whole project and contract the art and printing and do all the leg work regarding legalities and marketing yourself. But some people won't be able to pull that off, hence all these self-publishers out there providing these services. Just know that you will probably not recoup all of your upfront costs for quite a while. And it's going to be quite a balancing act to sell for a good price and still see a profit. But it's also not impossible! Get online and do some research to find out how others have done it.

Rule 8 - Copyright your work

Again, another whole article. The best I can tell you here is to just go to the site to get your questions answered. For years I've heard all sorts of craziness, like mailing your work to yourself so it would get postmarked and dated, thus proving it was yours. I've heard tales of manuscripts getting pilfered, and ideas stolen. So going to the site and getting it done properly is the best way to solve the problem. The work doesn't have to published to be copyrighted, so you don't have to wait until you've got a finished book.

Rule 9 - Know that ISBN is not a foreign word

  • If you will publish more than one book, purchase ISBN's in blocks of ten, if possible. Bowker Identifier Services is the place to start.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a globally recognized standard that helps readers, booksellers and libraries find your book and find out about your book. You will need an ISBN not only for every title, but also for every format of that title. For instance, if you publish a book as a hardback, a softcover and as an ebook, you will need 3 ISBN's. Each distinct ISBN will tell the reader or buyer exactly which version they are getting. This number will also help them identify the title, the author and what the book is about. AND – this was a real eye-opener for me – it will identiy the publisher. That means that when you go through one of these self-publishing agencies and they supply that ISBN, they are the publisher and they own all the rights to that book. Which is not a problem if you've entered into a contract/partnership with them for the long haul. But if you break up with them, that book is not yours. It belongs to them. You won't be able to just take your book and get it printed somewhere else, because you don't own it. Just like when a traditional publisher pays you for your manuscript and turns it into a book. Your name is on it ... you'll be paid for it ... but it's their book and they own all the rights. But different strokes for different folks ... some authors aren't going to want the responsibility of producing a book. And some authors might like to be in total control. Just know that if you are self-publishing, you have options and you can purchase your own ISBNs. Especially with picture books that are expensive to produce, taking the plunge and doing it all totally on your own might help your bottom line in the end. But which ever way you go, do your research first and make an informed decision. If you do purchase your own ISBN, a self-publishing agency might not want to work with you or put their logo on property they don't own and can't control. Just be aware ... do your research and make the best decision for yourself and your book.

Rule 10 - Format your book like a PRO

  • Hire an interior book designer to format your book for digital and print. Here is a site that I recommend:

I didn't provide that link, because when I went there I found a site called and it was all about web hosting and creating a website, not formatting ebooks or graphic files for producing a printed book. It was a very professional-looking site, so check it out if you wish, you might have better luck than I had ...

I've only worked on books to be printed and haven't learned to make ebooks, though it's probably just a matter of time. I personally prefer the feel of a real book, but I have to admit that the portability of these readers is nice. And not having to physically shelve all those books is nice, too. Ebooks are here to stay, so based on my limited experience, I'll tell you what I'd look for if I hired someone to make an ebook for me:

- First, I'd want them to choose a very clear and easy-to-read font. That lit-up screen is hard to read if the font is too small, or if the spacing is too tight.

- I'd probably need some advice as to what formats would be best to offer. I didn't realize until I was researching the Kobo, that not all ebooks can be read on all devices. Amazon ebooks are only for the Kindles and can't be read on a Kobo. But the Kobo has access to libraries. Barnes and Noble's Nook has it's pluses and minuses, too. If you create ebooks, you'll need several formats or else limit yourself to just selling from one vendor.

- I haven't seen an ebook vesion of a picture book, but that smaller screen will require special layout considerations for graphics-heavy books. Find a graphics person who understands that and has a good eye for layout.

Mrs. Thomas' workshop was so interesting and informative, as were all the workshops at the 2020 Writing Day Workshop. Definitely seek out opportunities like this to inspire and educate yourself. No matter if you're a newbie or a seasoned professional, never stop learning more about this wonderful thing we do! Happy publishing! – Sherry A. Mitcham