Self-publishing is no mean feat. After the herculean task of writing your book, it may seem easy to go at it yourself.
Maybe you’ve already explored the option of traditional publishing, and it isn’t for you. Perhaps you’re burnt out from the hunt for an agent. Either way, if you’re reading this, self-publishing may well be the gleaming light across the dock enticing you with promising book sales and a sense of achievement. Going it alone is admirable, but there’s also lots of things you must be aware of first. Cutting corners may lead to you being blinded by less than virtuous offers. Integrity in book publishing is not a lost art – you just have to know where to look.
This article will show you the best self-publishing sites, platforms, and companies around to help you (help yourself) and get your book into readers’ hands – the non-traditional way…
What Do Self-Publishing Companies Do?
Self-publishing companies are in essence service providers. You bring the completed project and all its frills, they supply the technology/logistics needed to publish it.
But there are different levels of service you can opt for. At the most basic (and essential), you can sign up with a pure retailer – notably Amazon. Amazon obviously has the power to reach all the readers in the world (and it’s extraordinary to think that all that power can be at your disposal – for free.) But if you self-publish with Amazon, the whole business of cover-design, blurb-writing, pricing decisions, marketing and so on are for you and you alone. Amazon is not going to get involved.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have companies that will do all of that for you … but at a cost. That cost is measured in dollars, certainly, but also, those companies don’t care about book sales the way you do. If they sell you a cover design that you’re happy with, then they’ve made their money. Job done. They don’t actually care whether that book cover generates sales for you or not.
In other words, the more you get others to do, the more you are putting your book into the hands of people who care less than you. For that reason, it’s worth taking a look at the range of options out there …
Types of Self-Publishing Companies
Rest easy, for self-publishing companies will not own the rights to your book – you will. They will typically take a share of the royalties, however.
When deciding who to go with to publish your book, it’s important to consider the differences between the three main types of publishing service companies and the roles they each fulfil.
Think of retailers as online bookstores. They give your book a spot on the digital shelf, so to speak. If they’re a big enough name, you’ll publish your book through a branded ebook publishing platform. You’ll share the royalties, just like you would if you went with an aggregator.
Examples include: Amazon KDP, iBooks Author, Barnes & Nobles Press, Kobo Writing Life
Aggregators distribute your book to multiple retailers simultaneously. They often charge you for this convenience. They take their share of the royalties only after your book has made its sales.
Examples include: KDP Print, PublishDrive, Smashwords, Draft2Digital
Full-services companies are the whole package. They offer editing, formatting, interior and cover design, blurb, and distribution all rolled into one. Just because you’re going the self-publishing route, doesn’t mean you have do all the publishing heavy-work yourself. However it’s worth noting that this option is best suited to those looking to sell only a few copies of their book—and not with significant commercial success in mind.
Examples include: BookBaby, Outskirts Press, Matador, White Magic Studios
Vanity Publishers and Hybrid Publishers
We should probably also include a note about vanity publishers. These guys are the snakes and serpents of publishing. They essentially pretend to be a real publishing company contemplating the commercial publication of your book. Inevitably, however, you’ll be told that the “editorial board” or something other fictional entity decided they couldn’t quite afford the risk of going it alone. So you’ll be invited to spend some quite large sum of money on “partnership publishing”, or something like that. If it smells bad, it is bad. Just say no – with emphasis. If you feel like adding a cuss-word or two when you say so, then we won’t be offended
Hybrid publishers are a somewhat cleaner version of the same thing. They’ll ask for money to get you published, but be more candid about likely outcomes. If you encounter honesty and openness, the publisher may well be trustworthy. If you encounter heavy selling and a lack of candour, then avoid, avoid, avoid.
Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing
Some authors will instinctively know which publishing route to take for their book. For others, it may be a tougher decision. Traditional publishing often follows a linear pathway from submission, to finding an agent, to having that agent pitch to publishers on your behalf, to the publisher buying the rights to your work and distributing it as widely as possible across various territories and mediums.
When trad published, your work has a whole host of people behind it who all have a vested interest in its success. You, on the other hand, are now an empty-nester taking a more hands-off approach to the future of your book. Will you be involved much in the rest of the process? Well: up to a point. You’ll never have the same level of control – and you’ll never get the same level of royalties. A self-pubbed ebook will give the author royalties of 70%. The same number for an ebook sold via a trad publisher through an agent will typically be under 15%. It’s that stunning difference which has powered the whole self-pub revolution.
And while good book sales are simply too multifactorial to summarise neatly, the fact is that self-published authors typically make more money than trad-published ones. There are more million-dollar a year indie authors, than there are million-dollar a year trad authors. The same is true if you knock one zero off that number, or two zeroes. Yes, you can make money as a trad author, but if money is your only metric, you should think seriously about self-pub.
But the money doesn’t come by itself. It’s not enough to write books, you have to market them. You have to write books that people want to read. You have to think hard about the genres that do best as self-pub books. And the money won’t flow without a little investment upfront. And you won’t make money until you have a little stable of books to offer, not just the one. And of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll see your book in a physical bookstore.
So yes, there are challenges – and ones that you need to take seriously. But if you want total creative control and the best chance of making money, self-pub is just too good an option not to take seriously.
Top Self-Publishing Companies
If you are going to go the self-publishing route, then take a look at our compilation of the 12 best self-publishing companies and what they have to offer:
1. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
Amazon’s KDP is the kingpin of self-publishing companies, where most e-book sales take place (about 85% of the total). To use this service, you must first create a Kindle account and fill in your tax information. Uploading an ebook-ready manuscript is quick and easy after that point.
You have to do it all yourself, but the user-friendly interface invites every author to give it a go. It’s not the only piece of the puzzle, though. Amazon can step in with their KDP Select program which helps you market your book with deals, though it will own your book’s exclusive rights for whatever period of time you choose to use this additional service.
Furthermore, Amazon also offers one of the top print-on-demand (POD) services – KDP Print. To get your book turned into a paperback and distributed, all you have to do is upload a formatted PDF and cover design – made even easier if you already sell ebooks on KDP. This service is technically an aggregator and will get your book (as a paperback or ebook) to other bookstores and retailers if you opt in to ‘Expanded Distribution’ via your KDP dashboard.
Know this: One of the biggest decisions you’ll be making is whether to publish ‘wide’ (via every retailer) or ‘narrow’ (via Amazon only.) It sounds obvious that you should want every retailer on your side, except that exclusivity with Amazon confers some powerful benefits. As a rough guide, we’d suggest that you publish narrow to start with, then reconsider your strategy once you have two or three books out there.
2. Apple Books (iBooks Author/Pages)
iBooks Author is the second-best free-to-upload self-publishing outfit – but it’s a distant, distant second best. No sane person would consider working exclusively with Apple. It’s only a question of who you sell with in addition to Amazon – if anyone at all.
Also, do note that Mac users have a monopoly on this service, however, as you have to be a Mac user to publish there and take advantage of the 70% royalties rate. If you are already assimilated into Apple’s eco-system, you can upload your manuscript from Pages, which as of mid-2020 replaces the iBooks software. If not, you first need to use an aggregator to publish (in industry-standard ePub format) to the Apple Store.
iBooks Author pairs nicely with Vellum, a free-to-download formatting software made for Mac with purchasable packages for exporting your ebook. It has great features and you can even publish in paperback with Vellum Press.
3. Kobo Writing Life
Another retailer on this list – Canadian Rakuten Kobo’s self-publishing division ‘Writing Life’ – accounts for 25% of Canadian ebook sales, as well as having a significant international presence. You might have also heard of their e-reading device. The simple, step-by-step publishing process is attractive, as well as the inbuilt sales analytics tool on their platform. With its maximum royalty rate and global outreach, Kobo’s self-publishing program is very popular.
But again, don’t publish via Kobo only. Either publish with Amazon exclusively, or with Amazon, Apple, Kobo and everyone else. For most (all?) newer authors, it’ll make most sense to attack those smaller retailers via an aggregator.
4. Barnes & Noble Press
Free to upload, 70% royalties, an easy-to-use interface.
But B&N is fourth on this list for a reason. Add it as part of a ‘wide’ sales strategy. Don’t think about it, even for a moment, as an exclusive partner.
Draft2Digital is a service which takes care of your book formatting for you. Getting your book published with them is easy: set up a free account, upload your manuscript, choose from a wide range of vendors, set your own list price, manage your book sales and track your metrics. They take care of the rest and provide ongoing support.
If you want to publish ‘wide’, then we recommend:
- Setting up a direct account with Amazon KDP. You always want direct control of your Amazon account. It’s too important to entrust to anyone else.
- Handling your wide sales via Draft2Digital. D2D is the best of the aggregators and is a nice easy way to enter all the retailers other than Amazon
Customer service at D2D is great and the tools are slick and constantly being improved. Recommended.
Smashwords was one of the first aggregators to come about, and it distributes to just about everywhere BUT Amazon. Its cut is 15% and that doesn’t include formatting – you’ve got to do that yourself! With a little effort, it’s a wonderful resource and can teach the average independent book author all they need to know about branding, marketing, and publishing. Smashwords has seen a lot of competition lately – namely Draft2Digital who does distribute via Amazon AND formats your book for you. Smashwords has traditionally been strong in the romance area, but even there, we don’t think it’s the best option for you today.
PublishDrive boasts connections with over 4500 publishers and over 400 stores – with excellent international distribution. The interface is used to check in on all your royalties and sales, which will be slashed by 10% if you don’t pay to subscribe to their service and keep all of your royalties. Luckily PublishDrive has 24/7 customer support to help you keep all those plates spinning. A good alternative to D2D.
8. Ingram Spark
Ingram Spark is the only meaningful competitor to KDP Print worth mentioning. This company reaches a great amount of readers with its global print services independent of Amazon. They can sell your book through 40,000+ retailers and libraries—in stores and online. For this reason, IngramSpark provides one of the top print-on-demand (POD) services, though does not sell direct and is instead technically an aggregator for print.
Using BookBaby for self-publishing authors means purchasing one of their Self-Publishing packages. These vary depending on how much help you need with design, marketing, print, and distribution – although they are very good at helping writers get seen on Amazon. You can rest assured that the professional care taken to perfect your pages for print comes at no extra cost other than that which you pay upfront. Royalties suffer slightly however at 50% if you choose to sell directly to readers via BookBaby’s Bookshop. BookBaby boasts a global distribution network of its own as well as offering an Amazon Priority Service to further expand your reach with KPD Select.
10. Outskirts Press
Outskirts Press‘ full-service package offers much of the same, with the caveat of having fewer distributors for your book as well as more limited expert services to get your work to standard before distribution. There’s just as much support, but less tailoring involved with your package.
Unlike the other full-service companies on this list, Troubador’s Matador caters more to the UK’s indie authors. They distribute through the traditional channels as well as POD. They are choosier about their clientele, only taking on 75% of those who would like to publish with them. Your book undergoes more scrutiny than with others on this list—this is not an everyman option. If you are one of the lucky few, you will benefit from their reputation in the publishing industry alone AND a whole host of publishing, marketing, and distribution services depending on your needs.
12. White Magic Studios
Matador’s affordable UK counterpart White Magic Studios gives you 100% of the royalties and ownership of your book. They don’t quite have the same gravitas as others on this list but they’re still a safe bet for an all-in-one package if you know what you’re looking for in terms of service and distribution.
The Self-Publishing Option That Works for You
The ultimate, best-of-all-time, undeniable front-runner, crème de la crème of self-publishing companies happens to be the one that works best for you and your book. Do your research (work your way through this list, for example), go with your gut, and see how you get on.
Self-publishing has worked for others, so it can work for you! All you need is the makings of a good book, stellar knowledge, and a can-do attitude.
Other Self-Publishing Support Services
Most of the self-pub companies in the list above will provide a broad range of services as part of their offering. But it’s worth understanding the various different services that go into a full publishing package as you may, for example, want to handle a particular discipline by yourself, perhaps because it’s more cost-effective or because you want control or simply you aren’t happy with the quality on offer from your chosen publisher. So:
Copyediting and editing
These services really ought to be supplied by any serious publisher, but the quality you get will be variable. There are two (or three) separate disciplines here and you need both. First, editing (or structural editing or manuscript assessment) aims to identify weaknesses in your manuscript and offers advice on how to improve them. These issues will range from the small (eg: “this sentence reads clumsily”) to the structural (“The middle third of your book feels baggy and repetitive. You might want to address this by …”). All professional authors receive this kind of advice from their traditional publishers and their books get better as a result. You can buy this kind of editing direct from Jericho Writers: we’re very good at it!.
Secondly, you need copyediting, which is the tedious but important business of avoiding typos, spelling errors, punctuation mistakes and the like. Again, no matter how often you read your text, those errors will creep through, so an impartial and professional pair of eyes is necessary. Jericho Writers also offers copyediting help. A large traditional publisher would also employ a proofreader to sweep the text one last time before printing, to pick up any last little issues. You do need this help if you want your text to be perfect, or near-perfect, but is probably too expensive for most self-publishers.
Again, your publisher should supply this service, but you can easily source covers yourself. The cheapest way to do this is to simply search “pre made book covers”. That search term will bring up a range of sites that offer professionally designed covers being sold at a huge discount. (You’ll think, huh? Why would pro designers sell their designs at knock-off prices? The answer is that a pro designer will usually show a client 2-3 options before settling on a particular design to get perfected. The discarded covers are then sold on these sites. There’s nothing wrong with them; just they didn’t match the original client’s needs or wants.)
If you want to go one step up from a premade cover then simply google “Book cover designer” and flip through the various choices on offer. A quality cover will cost you about $350-500 (or more). Individual designers have their own charging scale and their own way of working. We’d advise you to find a designer whose designs work well in your genre. So a brilliant designer for urban fantasy, say, might really struggle when it comes to upmarket literary fiction and vice versa. Choose someone who has real sympathy with your material and who knows the genre conventions. Do also read our tips on commissioning a great cover design.
Honestly? There are essentially no good, for-hire marketing services. Either your publishing company supplies those services or you take charge yourself. There really isn’t an alternative … and we do tend to recommend that you take charge yourself. Most self-pub companies do a good, or reasonable, job on editing, copyediting, interior design, cover design, and distribution to the major online retailers. But distribution is very different from marketing. And really: this is your book. Getting the word out there is your task. We recommend building a mailing list, using book promo sites, and perhaps some careful Amazon advertising as your first steps. But this is a difficult area – and you can’t market a mediocre book, so your first step – always – is to make sure your product is excellent.
If you start to earn money from books, you’re going to start to need to prepare accounts – not only so that you know how you’re doing and what is or isn’t working, but also in order to file accurate and timely tax returns. Bear in mind you will be earning income from multiple different locations worldwide, and the tax treatment of these different income streams may well vary. You will also have the ability to set your expenses off against income, but the rules here vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
It’s easy to think that any major accountancy firm will handle these tasks well – but do take care. Jericho Writers used to use Blick Rothenberg for its accounts. Blick Rothenberg is a major London accountant with (we thought) a reputation for professionalism and integrity. In practice, as you can tell from our “Blick Rothenberg – the truth” video, we found that reputation to be wholly undeserved. Not only did the Blick Rothenberg team (including a highly experienced partner) miss a vast hole in our revenues, they also lacked the integrity to put the issue right when we called attention to their failings. Indeed, they actually had the gall to tell us they had done nothing wrong when (a) we told them we lacked confidence in the accounts being generated by our bookkeeper (b) we asked them for proper scrutiny and (c) the hole in revenues was, in some months, greater than 20% of revenues. Because Blick Rothenberg has also refused to take our dispute to arbitration, we’re in the awful position of having (in our view) a completely valid claim for damages but not having the financial wherewithal to have that claim endorsed by a court or arbitrator.
Now, OK, you’re quite likely to have a less bad accountant working for you, but we’d urge you to check (A) the professional competence of the firm and partner you hire and (B) ensure you have a dispute resolution mechanism as part of your contract that will actually be a viable route to take should the need arise. We failed to ensure we had the dispute resolution mechanism in our contract with Blick Rothenberg, and the result is that we experienced a six-figure loss for which the firm is simply refusing to compensate us. In short: beware. Sharks swim in every sea and in accountancy as much as anywhere.
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