Six Steps to Self-Publishing

(P.S. Jayne got caught up in doing security at an event in San Diego, so she can’t post today. She’ll be back soon to tell us what’s up with that. Meanwhile…if you missed the below, it’s fascinating, and tune in the rest of this week for further adventures at Books in Boothbay, MCW at the Wiscasset Library, and other adventures of the Maine summer)

(As many of us are wrestling with the question of self-publishing these days, we’ve invited our guest this morning, Libby Fischer Hellman, Chicago writer and former president of Sisters in Crime, to describe her experiences with the process. This post is reprinted from Libby’s own blog. )

I was at Printers Row this past weekend, the annual Book Festival sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, and I was struck by how many people wanted me to tell them about self-publishing. They were mostly traditionally published authors, some of whom have large followings, but they’re dissatisfied with either the pace of traditional publishing, dislike the lack of control, or want to try something that their current publishers don’t.

Those of you who already self-publish probably know these steps, but you may be interested in my process; it’s a little different, and, yes, it costs more money. In fact, I disagree with those who tout that self-publishing is basically free. I believe that if you want to be taken seriously, you need to invest. No short cuts.

Let me put it this way: I was hoping to go to Vienna, Prague and Budapest later this year. Um. That’s not going to happen now. I’m investing in my book instead.

I’m going to describe what I’m doing so far with Havana Lost. As some of you know, it’s coming out in September. And here’s the thing. Except for the actual production of the book, the process isn’t that different from the way traditional publishers approach the task.  Btw, it’s now June, and all of the steps below I’ve done, except for the last one. If you’re self-publishing, and you want to pursue print as well as ebook opportunities, give yourself 3-4 months to accomplish all these tasks.

Step One – Editing

There are two types of editing, and you’ll need both.

  • Developmental Editing: Whether you pay a good developmental editor to read your book for continuity, character development, authenticity, and plotting, or whether you’re lucky enough to have discriminating readers or author friends who’ll do the job, you absolutely need another pair of eyes on your manuscript. In traditional publishing, you get it automatically (or at least you used to). But when you self-publish you need to factor it into your plans. And it might cost a bunch of money. I used to work with a developmental editor who charged about $1500. I now rely on authors and friends, but they have to be honest, and they have to be thorough. Believe me, it’s not always pleasant, but it’s critical.
  • Copy editing: This covers all the other stuff; grammar, punctuation, style, consistency and accuracy. If you are like most authors, by the time you approach the end of a book you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. You will need fresh, expert eyes to add those essential finishing touches, smoothing any rough edges and turning something that is good into something awesome. Don’t sabotage your work by a shoddy presentation. As an editor once said to me, “a good writer deserves a good editor.”

Step Two – The Cover

Expect to pay at least $200 for a cover… and as much as $700. I’m not a fan of pre-designed covers or templates. I prefer a cover that says something worth knowing about my books. Marketers recommend that, too; your cover has a vital role to play in catching readers’ imaginations and compelling them to find out what’s inside. Not to mention creating or sustaining your brand.

So be choosy. If you’re paying, don’t settle for a design you don’t like. Tell the designer to try again. Pay attention to fonts, the arrangement of words versus images, the clarity of the images, and the overall design. Good design is pleasing on the eye, poor design isn’t. It jerks your eyes around, making it difficult to read, or includes illogically placed text that makes the reader work harder than they should.

If you’re doing a print version, which I recommend, the designer will need to do the back cover and spine as well. Here’s what my designers came up with for Havana Lost.


Step Three – Preparing materials

  • Your publishing imprint – I recommend coming up a Publishing Imprint, the trade name under which your book will be published, especially if you create a print version (which I’ll talk about in more depth next week). You’ll need it if you want to establish an account with Lightning Source for print copies, and if you are planning to use Ingram Spark (which seems like an efficient, quick way to print books). My imprint is The Red Herrings Press.
  • This is NOT to hide the fact that you’re self-published. In fact in my query letters to reviewers, I make sure to tell them I self-publish; an imprint is simply something that ISBNs – You’ll need at least 3 different ISBNs per book. One for your ebook, one for print, and one for audio, if you plan to produce one (I am producing an audiobook through ACX.)  Yes, ISBNs are outrageously expensive. But they’re worth it, particularly if you plan to use more than one platform to sell your book. You can split 10 with a friend or even buy ISBNs  in bulk for a lower cost. Head over to, the official US and UK ISBN provider.
  • Jacket copy/Book Description – You need to to craft a couple of paragraphs that describe the novel. Keep it short and punchy. Get some help from other authors or writers whom you know and respect. Research other authors’ books in your genre and see how they do it. The same as your book cover, the aim is to seduce readers to such an extent that they can’t resist finding out more.

Here’s mine:

On the eve of the Cuban Revolution, headstrong 18-year-old Francesca Pacelli flees from her ruthless Mafia-boss father in Havana to the arms of her lover, a rebel fighting with Fidel Castro. Her father, desperate to send her to safety in the US, resorts to torture and blackmail as he searches the island for her.

So begins the first part of a spellbinding saga that spans three generations of the same family. Decades later, the family is lured back to Cuba by the promise of untold riches. But pursuing those riches brings danger as well as opportunity, and ultimately, Francesca’s family must confront the lethal consequences of their choices. From the troubled streets of Havana to the mean streets of Chicago, HAVANA LOST reveals the true cost of chasing power instead of love.

HAVANA LOST is award-winning author Libby Fischer Hellmann’s tenth novel and third thriller that explores how strife and revolution affect the human spirit. HAVANA LOST is a testament to Hellmann’s gift for authentic historical detail as well as her talent for writing compulsively readable thrillers. 

How will you use it? Your jacket copy will inform the query letter, the sell sheet and all the platforms through which you distribute your work. It will become ubiquitous, so make sure it’s powerful.

  • The sell sheet – This is a single sheet of paper with full details about your book. It should go out to all your reviewers and possible distributors, and it’s handy to have as an at-a-glance reminder. Here’s my Sell Sheet for Havanna Lost
  • The query letter – This is a simple query letter for bloggers and reviewers, politely asking them if they’d like an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) to review. The better you make your book sound, the more people are likely to be interested. It is another small but critical marketing job that can make a difference in how influential people perceive your book and how many of them get around to reading and reviewing it.
  • Interior design for print books – If you are creating a print version, as I recommend, someone needs to design the inside of the book. You can do it yourself, but I choose not to. It’s above my pay grade.

Step Four – Print and Distribute ARCs

  • Bound galleys – Just like traditional publishing, you need some bound galleys to send to reviewers and bloggers. I used CreateSpace, which is fast, efficient, and doesn’t cost a lot. I ordered 35 copies— the rest of my ARCS are pdfs.
  • Assembling a list – Assembling a list means capturing the contact details of professional reviewers, bloggers, and other potential influencers. If people/organizations have reviewed you favorably in the past, approach them first. There are lists all over the Internet, and at KindleBoards to help you find reviewers. It helps if you have an email list because you can canvas your contacts, asking if they’ll review your book in exchange for an ARC.
  • Paying for reviews – If getting the book into bookstores and libraries is important to you, consider paying for a review from PW, Kirkus and/or Foreword Magazine. They still have enormous influence and they are important enough to receive a bound galley.
  • Simplified covers – If your permanent cover isn’t ready yet, you can use a simplified one for the ARC.

Step Five – Formatting and uploading

  • Self-formatting – Plenty of writers format their ebooks themselves. I don’t. I’ve found people who will do it for me very reasonably. However you do it, You’ll need an epub, mobi and .pdf file, each with a cover embedded.
  • Forward and end materials – You will need acknowledgements, a dedication, a list of your other books, snippets of reviews, etc, and a call to action at the back; something like “If you liked this book, would you consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads?  Thank you so much.”
  • Multi-platform upload – Upload your book to every available platform, unless you intend to go exclusively with one vendor. This is probably the simplest step of all. Essentially it’s just pushing buttons and filling out forms

Step Six – Promotion and Marketing

Marketing is the black hole of time and money. You can spend as much or little as you like, but one thing is certain; you need to do some promotion Here are a couple of essential basics.

Solicit blurbs from other authors in advance – You’ll use them on the front and back cover, in descriptions on Amazon and Kobo, within your website pages.

Promotion Budget – I suggest you prepare to spend at least $1000 on various promotional activities, mostly advertisements on blogs with a broad reach, eg. Book Bub, ENT, and Pixel of Ink. Ads on Facebook can also work well when you get them right.

Invest time – Time is just as important as money. Figure out how much social media you can get done without going crazy; Twitter, your Facebook fan page, Google Plus, Linked In, etc. This is, of course, above and beyond what you do on your website. But that’s another story. And blog post.

I’ll probably do another marketing post later, because it’s a huge subject all by itself. And, of course, marketing is much more of a journey than a destination.

The green stuff

Before I leave you, I want to give you an idea of my costs. Clearly, not everyone wants or needs to go this route, but here’s my ballpark:

  • $500    Cover
  • $200    Print ARCs
  • $600    Reviews (PW, Kirkus)
  • $450    Interior Design/Ebook Formatting/Print production
  • $500    Copy edit
  • $150     ISBNs
  • $100     Mailings

Total investment $2,500. Give or take.


Libby Fischer Hellmann writes the Ellie Foreman mysteries, the Georgia Davis thrillers, and several stand-alone thrillers. Her Ellie books are a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “24”, but the Georgia Davis PI thrillers are more hard-boiled. Her stand-alones include a “trilogy” of thrillers set during the revolutions of Iran, Cuba, and the turbulent late Sixties in Chicago.


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12 Responses to Six Steps to Self-Publishing

  1. MCWriTers says:

    So grateful that Libby was willing to share this with us. Daunting, though.


  2. Libby, thanks so much for all this advice and your experience. Very valuable as I prepare to do print copies of my indie trilogy.

  3. Rhonda Lane says:

    Wow. This is great! Thank you, Libby, for this smart checklist.

  4. Libby, thanks for such a thorough explanation. I wonder if most of the self-published folks are doing anywhere near this amount of work?

  5. I just Tweeted this concise, no-nonsense essay. Thanks, Libby.

  6. Lisa Fernow says:

    This is terrific advice. One thing I’d add, on covers – think through what it will look like as a thumbnail, since so many books today are sold online. Many covers that look terrific in person just don’t pop online. Best of luck to everyone!

  7. Great checklist, Libby. Love the idea of a one-page Sell Sheet. I’ll create one today; seems I’m always looking for my ISBNs. I bought 10 for $250 because the price for only one is $125 and they are not transferable. (I guess that means no sharing a block.)

    Even as an experienced graphic designer, I had to learn what made an effective book cover before I designed it. I, too, used CreateSpace for my paranormal thriller, Premonition of Terror. Their DIY grid templates (different from design templates that Libby mentioned) figure out the correct spine width based on number of pages; I worried about that, but it was the easiest process. They check and adjust files before publication, anyway, so no worries.

    My e-book was formatted and distributed globally by BookBaby to eleven e-book retailers. (My site gets visitors from around the world, so I wanted that reach.) BookBaby charges an upfront fee (from $99-250). While they manage those accounts, I focus on my site, blog and social media. Big downside: It takes months to get sales figures from the various booksellers, but distribution channels can be changed at any time, so I might upload directly to big guys, at least to Amazon.

    Libby, Love your Havana Lost cover. It’s perfect. Thanks for a checklist that’s concise and useful — I’m using it now …

  8. Ellis Shuman says:

    You seem to have forgotten the first, and most important step = you need to write the book before you can edit it!

  9. Nice explanation!!!

  10. Kristin says:

    Great info–thanks so much!

  11. Libby. Your covers are great. Do you mind sharing the designer? Thanks.

  12. Thanks for all the comments… as to my covers, I’ve used several graphic designers:

    The Ellie Books, Toxicity, and Set the Night on FIre were done by Miguel Ortuno of PRChicago

    A BItter Veil was done by my publisher and me

    Havana Lost was done by Jereon Ter Berge.

    If you need more into on either, email me through my website.

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