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Guide to Self-Publishing

Illustration of old printing press
“I asked for Comic Sans…”

What does self-publishing entail and what options are available? Traditionally considered a last resort by some, new technology and the rise of online booksellers has made self publishing a credible business model for many new and established authors.

In this blog we’ll look at:

  • What are vanity and subsidy publishers?

  • How do I print my own books?

  • Do I need an ISBN to self-publish?

  • How do I self-publish an ebook?

  • ebook formats

  • How to create an ebook

  • ebook conversion tips

  • Tips for designing an ebook cover

  • Where can I sell my ebook - ebook retailers

  • What’s an ebook aggregator?

  • Using PDFs in self-publishing

What are vanity and subsidy publishers?

A vanity or subsidy publisher charges you for the cost of a book’s production then gives you a percentage of any sales revenue they manage to generate. The archetypal vanity publisher of old was little more than a con artist encouraging authors to buy expensive bindings (hardback, deluxe faux-leatherette with embossed lettering and gilt trim) then pay for hundreds of copies to be printed on the strength of extravagant marketing promises. A year or two later the promises would turn to excuses (assuming the publisher could still be found) and the author would be offered the chance to buy back their hundreds of copies to save them being pulped (assuming they were ever printed in the first place).

This type of operator has largely been squeezed out of business by online printer/publishers such as Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace. These subsidy publishers offer a range of service packages (print, design, distribution, marketing etc.) that can be tailored to the needs of the would-be author. You still have to pay to be published, but the process is far more transparent.

Note that in many cases subsidy publishing does not qualify as self publishing. True self publishing requires you to own your own ISBN (see below).

How do I print my own books?

If you want physical copies of your book, and want to use a regular printer rather than a subsidy publisher, you have a choice between two technologies, Offset and Digital:

  • Offset printing. Traditional printing where ink is pressed onto paper. This is only cost effective in bulk. Typically 1,000 copies is the minimum run for an offset printer. Offset printing is sometimes referred to by its formal name of ‘offset lithography’ or simply ‘litho’.

  • Digital printing. Similar to the printing technology used by a home or office printer, digital printing is cost-effective for smaller print runs and can be used to print a single copy if necessary. Using digital technology, books can be printed as they’re needed, a process often described as Print-on-Demand (POD). Digital printing is the process most often used by subsidy publishers.

The key issue in deciding which option to choose is the number of copies you require. If you’re convinced you can shift books in bulk (and have room to store surplus stock while you’re doing it) then the economy offered by offset printing makes it an obvious choice.

Apart from the issue of cost there’s also a difference in quality between the two processes, offset printing being considered superior to digital. Some digital print companies produce decent books, but not all printers are created equal. An established printer with a long record of traditional book production is likely to produce better digital copies than the relative newbie who has experience only in digital processes. Traditional printing skills such as choosing correct paper weights, grain alignment and binding methods all make a vital contribution to the quality of a digital print.

When choosing a printer find out how they want to receive electronic files. Many will not accept files generated by a word processor. At the very least they will all need a properly formatted PDF (see below).

Do I need an ISBN to self-publish?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) identifies more than just a book, it also identifies the ‘publisher of record’. If the company that provides your printing services also assigns you an ISBN they become the publisher of record and can exercise a significant amount of control over your work (though how much will depend on the terms of your agreement with them). Read your contract carefully to determine which rights the publisher is asking for (see Writers and the law).

ISBNs can be acquired only from certain accredited agencies: in the UK this is the Nielsen ISBN Agency, in the USA it’s the Bowker ISBN Agency. If you want to be identified as the publisher of your own work you have to buy your ISBN directly from your country agency. This doesn’t mean you have to set up a company, you just have to think up a name for your imprint (‘The Big Read Press’ or whatever) and provide an address.

Be aware that you’ll need a different ISBN for every edition of your book. If you release a book as hardback, paperback and eBook, each version will need its own ISBN. If you release a new edition of any of these books, these will also require a new ISBN.

How do I self-publish an ebook?

The alternative to print is the electronic book, an ebook that can be read on a computer, your phone, a portable device such as an iPad, or an eReader such as the Kindle or Nook.

The main advantages of electronic publishing are the low cost and ease of distribution. Beyond the expense of software and any professional help you might get in editing your work or creating a cover, your overheads are minimal and you’re not tied to physical distribution through bookstores — anyone with an internet connection is your potential customer.


On the downside, many people prefer having a book in their hand and, although ebooks (and audiobooks) are becoming increasingly popular, the majority of the book buying public still go for a paper copy.

ebook formats

There are a number of formats, but only three are important:

  • ePub

  • AZW

  • PDF

ePub is a format used by a number of companies including Apple, Sony and Barnes & Noble. It’s an open source format meaning its development is guided by a working group whose members come from a range of organisations and companies.

AZW is the format used on the Amazon Kindle. AZW stands for Amazon Word (or Whispernet, depending on who you listen to) and is based on an open source format called Mobipocket (Mobi for short). AZW is essentially Mobi with added DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to help prevent illegal copying. Amazon also occasionally uses a proprietary eBook format called Topaz.

PDF is Adobe’s Portable Document Format. If you decide to offer your customers print copies of your ebook book they will be generated using a PDF (see below).

How to create an ebook?

ebook formats are similar to HTML, the language used to create webpages, and you can think of an ebook as a simple self-contained website. Once you’ve written the text of your book the next step is to convert it to the ebook format of your choice.


Some word processing packages will do this: Scrivener will let you export a document as an ePub or Mobi file and Apple’s Pages can export to ePub. However, most online booksellers have their own conversion software that will take text in a variety of formats. For example, Amazon accepts documents as Word, ePub, Plain Text, Mobi, HTML, Adobe PDF and Rich Text Format. Mobi being the preferred choice.

Unfortunately converting a word processing file (such as MS Word) to an ebook is often fraught with complications. However, you can make your life easier by following some of the tips below.

ebook conversion tips

The conversion process can be problematic, the secret to a successful (or, at least, mostly successful) transition being to keep the formatting of your document as simple as possible. The more complex the formatting, the easier it is to confuse the conversion software.


When formatting your text do the following:

  • Avoid unusual fonts. Font choices are limited on eReaders (the Kindle uses a single font) so there’s no point being fancy. Use something simple and common, such as Times New Roman.

  • Avoid a wide range of font sizes. The choice of font sizes is limited on many eReaders. The Kindle supports only seven.

  • Don’t use page numbers, ebooks don’t have them. Readers can resize text and this makes numbering systems useless since resizing will also alter the overall page count.

  • Avoid multiple carriage returns (i.e. paragraph breaks). Multiple carriage returns are sometimes interpreted as page breaks by translation software. Most word processing apps will give you the option of viewing paragraph marks, spaces and tab marks (sometimes known as ‘invisibles’) and you can use this feature to help you monitor the hidden formatting of your text. If you don’t need this formatting, strip it out.

  • Don’t use tabs to indent text. They give conversion software severe indigestion for some reason. If you need to indent text, use the ruler.

  • Don’t use headers or footers. They won’t be recognised.

  • Avoid bulleted and numbered lists. Converters find it hard to cope with these lists when they’ve been created automatically. If you need them, create them manually (remember not to use tabs!).

  • Don’t mess with right-hand margins. Converters can cope with formatted left-hand margins (e.g. text indented using the ruler) but will be confused by, or simply ignore, the formatting of right-hand margins.

  • Don’t convert one ebook format to another. Although it’s possible to convert a PDF to an ePub file and then to a Mobi file and back again, it’s like playing Chinese whispers — errors will accumulate. Have one clean text copy of your work and use that as the starting point for any conversion. Even professional publishers have been known to tie themselves in knots when they convert from one ebook format to another.

On the other hand...

  • Do include a table of contents (TOC). Especially one that incorporates hyperlinks. A contents page is useful in any book, but particularly so in an ebook where there are no page numbers.

  • Do start each chapter with a page break. Most conversion software will recognise a page break command.

Tips for designing an ebook cover

There are no standard dimensions for an ebook cover but Amazon recommends an image at least 800 pixels high and 500 pixels wide (a 1.6 size ratio). Unless you have the skills and software it can be difficult to create a professional-looking ebook cover, but many design companies specialise in this service and online printers/publishers often supply tools to help you make your own.


When designing your cover remember the following:

  • Your cover is important. More so than for a printed book sitting on a shelf. Someone scrolling through an online list of books is likely to overlook your work if it doesn't stand out. That fleeting look at your cover might be your one and only opportunity to attract that buyer’s interest.

  • Your cover will be small. In most cases it will be a little over an inch high on a computer screen. Fine details will be lost and small print will be illegible. The best ebook covers have simple, strong designs.

  • White edges will blend. A cover with white borders will merge with the screen if it’s displayed on a white background (this being the default background for most online stores). Put an edge round your cover if you want to avoid this.

  • Avoid over-elaborate typefaces. Your choice of typeface will be as important as your cover design. Flouncy copperplate typefaces and highly stylised fonts may well be illegible when viewed on-screen even if the cover is relatively large.

  • Make sure it’s the right resolution. Your cover must be have a resolution of 72dpi (dots per inch).

  • Put the most important information at the top. The most important thing about your book is its title. It sounds an obvious point to make, but unless you’re famous, splashing your name in big letters across the top of a cover will do you no favours. If you have an unusual name it might even be mistaken for the title itself.

For more on cover design see How to write a title.

Where can I sell my eBook?

There's nothing to stop you selling your ebooks from your own website or you can use one of many ecommerce sites such as Sellify or Blurb that specialise in selling an artist's endeavors whether that be books, music or paintings. However the first stop for most authors will be one of the Big Four ebook retailers: Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.


The leader of the pack with a huge share of the global ebook market and the dominant force in the USA and UK. Books are uploaded through the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service, a straightforward process that does not require an ISBN (though you can still include one if you want). Selling is easy on Amazon as the company has created a sophisticated payment system that shields the self-publisher from many of the complexities of international money transfers and taxation.

Apple Books

Apple Books (formerly the iBookstore) accepts ebooks formatted in ePub, those created with ‘Pages’, the Apple word processing app, or Microsoft Word. Apple’s previous self-publishing software ‘iAuthor’ is no longer distributed or supported, though current owners can still use it if they want. To self-publish on Apple Books you will need a US tax reference called an EIN (Employer Identification Number). Non-US self-publishers have to phone the IRS to obtain one. This post explains the details.

Alternatively, Apple recommends the use of an aggregator (see below) to submit ebooks to Apple Books. A list of Apple-recommended aggregators can be found here.

Barnes & Noble

The old Barnes & Noble’s ‘PubIt!’ system has been replaced by Barnes & Noble Press (sometimes referred to as the ‘Nook Press’) a relatively straightforward way for authors around the world to submit their books to the Barnes and Noble online store for both print and ebook distribution. Non-US authors do not need an EIN (see Apple Books).


Rakuten Kobo is a Canadian company with sales accounting for around 25% of the Canadian ebook market. Kobo has a user-friendly self-publishing portal called Kobo Writing Life (KBL).

What's an ebook aggregator?

Aggregators are distribution companies that will submit your ebook to a range of online stores. Most also offer a conversion service. Some aggregators specialise in ebook distribution, others are subsidy publishers that have added aggregation alongside their traditional print services. As well as distributing your ebook most aggregators will combine your various sales revenues into a single regular payment and deal with tax issues on your behalf. Although there are advantages to using an aggregator make sure you understand how their charges are calculated and look out for add-on costs.


Remember, if an aggregator assigns you an ISBN they, not you, are identified as the publisher of record. Depending on your deal with them this might be more important than it appears (see above).

Using PDFs in self-publishing

PDFs are the lingua franca of the publishing world: virtually all modern printing technology is geared towards turning PDF files into ink and paper so it’s important that you have a clean, well formatted PDF to submit if required. You’ll need a PDF if you’re planning on producing print copies of your book and they can be useful as review copies of ebooks.

When you design your PDF what you see on the screen is what you’ll get on the printed page, so you can lay out your text knowing that, barring disasters, your formatting will be rendered faithfully. Most professionals working in book design use Adobe’s InDesign software to create PDFs, but this is expensive. Happily, most word processing apps export to PDF though your design options will be more limited.

Designing PDFs

There are conventions is book design, such as the inclusion of half-title pages and copyright pages, that you need to follow. There are too many to go into here, but a good first port of call for advice is The Book Designer website.

To get you started, remember the following when preparing your PDF:

  • Consider the page size you want for your printed book and design to those dimensions.

  • If you use unusual fonts embed these within the PDF so they’re accessible to the printer.

  • As well as your book’s front cover you also have to design a spine and a back cover.

  • Images in your PDF must have a resolution of at least 300dpi.

  • If you intend to sell your print copies through a store you’ll need both an ISBN and a barcode.

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