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.


12 thoughts on “A quick guide to self-publishing: start small and cheap

    • The most important thing at an early stage is to keep your financial risk low. So if you can figure out how to publish online first, then definitely start there. Check out Smashwords, Createspace, and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. Remember that most of your time, energy and money will and should go into marketing, not book production. Good luck.

  1. Hi there, I’m a songwriter and was advised to start a publishing company (as an independent artist), what is the best platform for this?

  2. Hi Arthur.
    I dabbled in writing some years ago and have a full file of short stories, parted into two books, maybe part the stories for three books and have been considering publishing but can’t find the right self-publishing place for me. And also, I am an amateur at writing. I have my short stories on PC as well. I am pretty sure I need a lot of help/advice.
    It is also erotic.
    I have heard that that specific genre sells pretty well but am skeptical.

  3. Hi Arthur,

    This block is mind-opening. I am a self-published author with 2 already books on the market. How do i convert them to e-books and continue publishing electronically, I already have ready manuscripts and would like to make publishing a business. My website has been inactive, how do i get it alive.



  4. hi i published my first book, got it registered at the national library of SA and also went as far as helping my fellow student… how to i register as an publishing company, aiming to help fellow students, as well

    • You don’t need to register as a publishing company to publish and sell books. If you’re doing it on your own, then by law you are already a Sole Proprietor and can do business. If the time comes that you are selling enough books that you want to change your legal status to something like a company or registered NGO, then that’s a business decision unrelated to whether you’re publishing books or doing any other kind of business. You should speak to a professional accountant at that point.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.