A quick guide to self-publishing: start small and cheap

I was asked recently for advice on self-publishing a science fiction novel written by a teen author. He’s been quoted R9000 (about $1000) by an ebook-only self-publishing company, but was also keen to produce a paperback edition.

Now, paying R9000 for book production may or may not be worthwhile, as long as it doesn’t involve any kind of exclusive licence or copyright assignment, and the provider does more than just convert a Word file to EPUB format. But really that’s not the point. For a novel, he should be getting the book into the market himself, and saving that R9000 for later.

Every book is a unique project, so there is no simple template of what to do. In fact, publishing a book is like starting a business, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty. So the best thing for a new business is always to start off as small and as cheaply as possible, and to gather feedback from customers from the start. You must find out as quickly as possible what your customers want, and whether they’ll pay for your product.

The best guide to first-time publishing is really The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – it’s written for entrepreneurs, but the lessons are all the same for self-publishing authors. Its most important lesson is that you should spend as little time and money as possible before getting the product (your book) in front of customers and getting their feedback. The clearest feedback will be in actual sales, but verbal feedback can be just as valuable.

So, even though there’s no template for how to publish a first book, I would say these are some fundamentals:

  1. Create a single neat, edited file in something like Word, OpenOffice or Google Docs. (If you want to create an ebook file, you shouldn’t pay more than about R2500, or $250, for the conversion. You may want to pay for professional editing, too.)
  2. Distribute it as an ebook on Amazon Kindle using Kindle Direct Publishing. (There are loads of other places to sell ebooks, but don’t invest time on them till you have good sales on Amazon, which has about 80% market share in ebook retail.)
  3. Market it by telling your friends about it and hoping word of mouth spreads. Just use email, social networks, and meeting people at any events related to the book’s genre.
  4. If sales pick up, and you think there’s demand for it, use the proceeds to pay for more expensive versions like a paperback, where you have to pay for design and print distribution too.
  5. When you do produce a paperback, never print a large print run. Always use print-on-demand services like CreateSpace or LightningSource.

(If you think there’s a market in South Africa, consider putting it on Paperight, too, to reach a large, low-income market. Paperight is my distribution company, a network of independent copy shops that print out books on-demand for walk-in customers. It’s simple and free to sell books through the Paperight network.)

For some technical guidance on ebooks, check out the Electric Book Works Knowledge Base, which contains lots of guidance I’ve written on technical and admin matters. You could skip to the section on self-publishing ebooks.


Why I put ebooks on paper for South Africans

On Publishing Perspectives today, I explain why – in an age of digitisation – it’s more important than ever to keep books on paper.

The irony of the digital revolution is this: as it democratizes publishing, it widens the gap between those with Internet access and those without. For instance, take Wikipedia: this is perhaps the most useful collection of human knowledge ever created. And it’s wonderfully democratic. But where a few years ago you could read a relatively up-to-date paper encyclopedia in your local library, today you can’t — because of Wikipedia. Up-to-date encyclopedic knowledge now exists only online, and if you don’t have Internet access, too bad. The gap between the Internet-haves and the Internet-have-nots is getting wider.

That gap in turn will translate into an education gap, an economic gap, and a healthcare gap.

Wikipedia is a microcosm of the book industry. Hundreds of thousands of books are produced every year, by more and more people, at lower and lower costs, and increasingly unavailable to anyone without Internet access to buy or read them.

I founded Paperight specifically to address that problem …

I hope you’ll head over there and read the rest of the post.

Disruptive innovations in emerging markets: Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader

At the superb publishing-technology conference Tools of Change for Publishing last week, Michael Smith of Worldreader and I presented a session called ‘Disruptive Innovations in Emerging Markets: Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader’. Here are my notes, and you can see Michael’s slides on Slideshare.


I come from Cape Town, South Africa, and my background’s in educational publishing and ebook production. South Africa is like two different countries: about 2 million wealthy people who support the publishing industry (excluding schools publishing, where the state is the largest client by far), and about 48 million people who could never afford an ereader, don’t have credit cards to buy things online, or can’t afford to physically travel to a bookstore. So to make it possible for most people to read books, we need to totally rethink how we sell books. And that’s going to take some disruptive innovations. Continue reading

At TEDxAIMS: “Tech spreads slowly”

Arthur Attwell at TEDxAIMSYesterday’s TEDxAIMS was incredible. AIMS is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, an institution that provides full one-year, live-in scholarships to post-grad sciences students from around Africa, and leads the inspiring Next Einstein Initiative. I spoke about my experiences trying to build fancy-tech products in South Africa, and my belief that for as long as we think “technology spreads quickly”, we’ll be working on the wrong problems.

Update 19 Feb 2013: I’ve now added the video. The text of the talk is below.

Continue reading