Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 3 of my guide: Finalizing Your Book for Release. This is a topic that is going to cover several smaller elements that are often brushed off in other self-publishing resources. “Once your editing and cover design is done, you’ll need to get the interior formatted, file for copyright, and upload the files for distribution.” Awesome. How does all that work? How do I get my book in the hands of readers and how do I make sure the interior looks appropriate? Do I need a copyright?
I’m going to break down these elements here, discussing tools I’ve found useful in this process, costs to expect, and what elements of each are important. This one got a little long, so use the headings to find the piece you need to know about.
By far the single most important piece of this step is the interior formatting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. As well, the complexity of your formatting will vary depending on what formats you are releasing your book in, so let’s start there. Are you releasing a print book? A hard cover? Just an e-book? You’ve probably thought about this before (at least, I hope you thought about it when considering cover options), but this is the first place where your decisions will be different based on what formats you want to release.
If you’re releasing a print book and an e-book, the formatting for those two formats is pretty different. I did this formatting myself and it’s entirely doable, but there are also a number of other options for getting formatting done. Here’s a few of the options:
- Some distribution options allow you to use their system to auto-format your interior content. I know that Smashwords, does this and I am pretty sure that Amazon has a system for this as well. Check with your distributor to see if this is an option, to take this step off your hands entirely. Many of these are free for using the distribution system.
- Some software exists that will do formatting for you, allowing you some pre-set choices to customize your book without any real effort on your part. The most obvious of these is Vellum, but it’s Mac specific.
- Some more complex software exists that will let you do complete customization of your formatting if you learn the way the tool works. The most popular of these is Adobe InDesign. While this is a tool that can be learned relatively quickly and there are some pretty good tutorials on YouTube, this is the option that risks you being able to really screw up your book if you aren’t careful.
- You can hire a professional formatter to lay out the interior of your book. This is relatively inexpensive, running somewhere between $100 to $300 depending on the vendor. Also, some cover artists will include interior formatting as an add-on to their cover design services. In the instance of formatting as an addon to cover design services, it’s somewhat common to get a discount on the formatting cost for pairing the service with covers.
Personally, I feel like there are too many options to get your own interior formatting done to justify hiring a separate formatter just for interior design. If you’re getting a good deal by pairing it with your cover design then go for it. It can be a bit of a process, so if it’s cheap to take the process out of your hands, go for it. If, however, you are looking for it as a separate service, check out the softwares and auto-formatters before you look at vendors. The best reason to hire a professional formatter is that you need some customized formatting but you can’t learn to do it yourself in the more complex formatting softwares that exist. Mostly, this means you’re picky about what your interior looks like or you have a lot of pictures in your book. If you choose to do this work yourself, it is entirely doable, but the tools available to you will vary by what computer system you use.
If you’re using a Macintosh, you have an awesome tool available to you: Vellum. I tested this one despite using PCs myself and it’s a great tool. You can play around with all the formatting you might want before you pay for the software, resulting in the best trial of a piece of software I’ve ever seen. When you’re ready to create the final files to upload to your distributor, it’s a one-time fee of $250. That cost allows you to format as many books as you want without any additional fees. I love any software that has a one-time cost instead of a subscription system. As well, Vellum is particularly good at simple, well-crafted formatting that makes both print and e-books look great. The two downsides are very situational, but can be pretty frustrating if they affect you. First, you can’t use Vellum on a PC. While you can rent time on a Macintosh server through services like Mac-in-Cloud, that adds to the cost and adds back in the requirement to manage time carefully when doing your own formatting. Second, Vellum doesn’t work great for picture-heavy books, like illustrated chapter books or picture books.
If you’re using a PC there are fewer softwares that will just do this for you. I’ve heard rumors of a few that are in production, but nothing that is solid enough I’m willing to mention it here. I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will update the blog if I find something on par with Vellum for the PC. On PC, the best software is actually Adobe InDesign. While it can have a bit of a steep learning curve, the YouTube tutorials make it easy to get basic formatting done for print books. Translating that print formatting into e-books can be challenging, but again, YouTube has tutorials. My personal favorites for YouTube tutorials are here for print and here for e-book. The most frustrating elements of this software are the subscription model, which means the longer it takes you to learn the software the more it costs, and the risk that the flexibility available will let you screw up your formatting. Always check proofs before finalizing anything with using InDesign.
Copyright and Other Registrations
Do you need to copyright your work? Yes and no. Your work is automatically copyrighted when you wrote it, so technically filing for copyright is redundant. That said, when you file for copyright, it makes a legal record of the work as belonging to you. That can matter if you ever need to defend the ownership of the work. So how likely is that to happen? Honestly, pretty unlikely. Most authors never have to think about defending their work from plagiarism. But it does happen, and if you do a Google search, you’ll find dozens of instances, including a slew of reports related to an early review distribution site where some people were apparently registering, taking the work from the review site, and publishing it on Amazon as their own. The author can contest that and should win, but it’s messy, especially if they hadn’t yet filed for copyright. Personally, I just created the book in the appropriate distribution sites and didn’t release it, so anyone trying to do that would find the book already exists there. My book hasn’t been pirated, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s related to my copyright, my pre-creation of placeholder versions, he security of the particular review site I chose to use, or just because no one knows who I am and so hasn’t bothered to pirate my book. You are probably in the same boat as me. You can take a dozen precautions, you’ll almost certainly never see any issues, and you’ll never be able to know if that’s because you were careful or because no one cared.
All of that said, I do recommend you copyright your work. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if you do get hit by thieves you’ll kick yourself for not having the legal documentation. So, if you want to do so, here’s the process.
First off, you don’t want to copyright your work until after you’ve done 98% of all edits and adjustments you will make. This is because you need the file you copyrighted to match the file you released. If you rewrote five pages of chapter 7 after filing for copyright, then chapter 7 isn’t covered by that copyright filing. The exact threshold is somewhat vague, but in general, copyright as late as possible, but before you send the book out for ARC review readers. And if you don’t know what that means, don’t panic. I’ll discuss ARC reviews when I get to marketing, because they’re really a pre-release marketing tool. Typically proofreading is minor enough that you can do that after filing for copyright without risking issues, but copy editing is too much editing to do after filing.
Once you’re sure the book is ready to file, you go to the web site of the United States Copyright Office (or if you’re outside the US, you find your local office for registering creative works). Once there, you create an account and click the buttons to file for copyright of a literary work (even if you’re writing trashy romance—they aren’t judging the literary quality, they’re categorizing what item you own). The forms are pretty self-explanatory, but you will have to upload a copy of your work, so make sure you have a digital copy. You can also send in a physical copy, but I recommend just sending the PDF from your formatting. This costs $65 (I was quoted $55 about 6 months ago, so I think this recently went up). The catch is that you do have to include the contact information of the owner, which is stored in their database. You may want a separate entity like a single-member LLC to own the work if you’re concerned about personal privacy. Other than that, it’s a very simple process. There exist companies that will do this for you, but they charge an extra fee for doing the work and it’s very simple, so I would tend to do it myself rather than hiring a legal services company to do it. Save the $50 or so.
On a similar note, this is a good place to discuss ISBN numbers. These are a separate thing from copyrights, but the copyright office will ask for one. The ISBN is just a unique number that identifies your book. You need one per type of book you are releasing—i.e., one for print, one for audiobook, and one for e-book, but Kindle e-book and Nook e-book can use the same one. Some people have run into issues using the same ISBN for Nook and Kindle e-books, but it appears to be a mistake in how they were filing through various distributors. You can use the same ISBN. ISBN numbers cost about $100 each, or you can buy a block of ten for $300. Sometimes there are sales on blocks of numbers, but not always, so it might be worth keeping an eye out in earlier stages to find a good deal. ISBN numbers never expire, so buying a block is worth the discount either way if you can afford it. ISBN numbers are another place where you are required to list your personal information as an item of public record. So, again, if you’re concerned about privacy, creating an LLC might be the way to go. There’s a lot more involved in that than just filing, though, so look into it before doing so. Unfortunately, I decided not to, so I don’t have a lot of great advice on that.
Some people will tell you to just use the free ISBN that Amazon will offer you. If you’re only publishing an e-book you can do this and there isn’t a penalty, but it does limit what you can do with that book. You can’t use that Amazon-provided ISBN no Barnes & Noble Press, for example. It belongs to Amazon. If you want everything to be Amazon exclusive (and there are reasons to do so), then this is a perfectly reasonable option. Just know what you’re giving up to do so.
Finally, let’s talk about distribution for your book. Basically, this is just about deciding how readers are going to find your book. There are two major categories for distribution: Print distribution and E-book distribution.
The vast majority of self-published e-book sales are purchased on Amazon. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s something like 90% of all e-book sales. That said, there are other distributors. Barnes and Noble has its own self-publishing platforms and Amazon doesn’t make your book available there (or, probably more likely, Barnes and Noble doesn’t choose to pay Amazon to carry their books). Kobo is a popular platform in Canada and Amazon doesn’t distribute through Kobo. Many libraries can’t list your book as an e-book if it’s only distributed through Amazon. But only Amazon has Kindle Unlimited, which is a service which lets people pay monthly for as many books as they can read. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to get people to give your book a shot, since it costs subscribers nothing to take a peek inside.
One of the other very popular methods of listing e-books is through a distribution conglomerate. Two of the most popular ones are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. These are services where for a small fee (often charged as a percentage of your royalties rather than an up front cost) they will send your book to various other distribution channels. As a result, you can use one location to distribute to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and libraries. Awesome! But, there are some drawbacks there as well, primarily that Amazon won’t let you earn the 70% royalties they advertise when you’re selling through a conglomerate. So, do you use a distribution conglomerate or Amazon or some combination thereof?
When I was first investigating self-publishing, someone told me the best path was to list on Amazon and Barnes and Noble personally, then use a distribution conglomerate for the rest of the platforms. That is no longer the case. I don’t know if the person in question was right at the time—it was several years ago now—but this is not true right now. The reason for this is that Amazon does not allow you to run a discount promotion on your book if you aren’t listing exclusively through them. As a result, if you want to use a conglomerate, you should list there exclusively, because you can run a discount through that service which will apply to Amazon. But if you listed separately on Amazon, then your Amazon book doesn’t get the discount.
But I just said that you don’t earn 70% royalties on books sold on Amazon that are distributed through a conglomerate, didn’t I? This is true, but you are getting 35% royalties and that 35% isn’t reduced for delivery costs. Most people don’t realize that the 70% royalties on Amazon aren’t really 70%. Instead, Amazon charges a distribution cost which it deducts from your 70% royalties. Now, for most e-books that distribution cost is around fifteen to thirty cents, so that my $5.99 e-book makes me $4.10 instead of $4.25. But if your e-book is much cheaper than mine, that distribution cost can be more significant. It’s worth noting at this point that Amazon doesn’t allow 70% royalties on books listed at less than $2.99 (unless it’s a temporary promotion), so if you are listing your book at $0.99 you won’t be paying for distribution.
All of this is going to be a matter of personal preference, but here’s the best, simplest way to think about the options for e-book distribution:
- If you want to be available at multiple different vendors, expect to have significant sales in foreign countries, or expect significant visibility from libraries, use an e-book conglomerate.
- If you plan to rely heavily on Amazon because you expect primarily US based sales, or if you are doing rapid release strategies (I.e., releasing 3-5 books over the course of a single year at regular intervals to build hype) and therefore need to rely heavily on Kindle Unlimited, or you are a genre that traditionally does very well on Kindle Unlimited (most YA and a lot of romance), then go Amazon exclusive.
- Only do a hybrid release where you are manually uploading to Amazon and Barnes and Noble separately from an e-book conglomerate if you do not intend to ever do a price promotion (which would probably be poor marketing techniques, but it depends somewhat on your release plans).
Print distribution is much simpler than e-book distribution. There are only a couple of common vendors that do print on demand options, and the most common ones are Amazon and Ingram Spark. The print quality for these two options is actually pretty similar, although at one point Amazon had a reputation for being a bit lower. That doesn’t seem to be the case now, but the reputation still lingers and has come repercussions.
At a base level, Amazon is much easier to use for creating books that Ingram Spark. The Amazon system is streamlined and user friendly, and it has plenty of info boxes and helpful features to make the process easy. The Ingram Spark system is complex in part because it’s the same system they use for smaller publishing houses which use them, many of which need the more complex system to record all the data they use to identify and categorize their books.
Still, the most significant of the differences between Ingram Spark and Amazon print copies is the ability to get your book placed on some bookstore shelves. Larger chains like Barnes and Noble won’t tend to carry books printed by Amazon regardless of quality. That might be a competitor thing, but they cite quality in most discussions about it. If you have a local indie bookstore you want to place your book in, I’d talk to them in person and see if they have a restriction. It may be harder for them to order books when printed through Amazon since Ingram Spark is a more well-established distributor of print books to physical stores. Another major reason for Amazon being refused by many retailers is that Amazon won’t let you discount your book for other vendors where Ingram Spark does. Most retail locations require you give them a discount of approximately 50% on the list price so they make a profit on selling the book.
Another difference is the cost to you for copies you might want to distribute. Amazon has slightly cheaper author copies than Ingram Spark, and in some cases is quicker at printing and shipping them to you. As an example, my book costs $6.76 to print on Ingram Spark and $6.03 to print on Amazon. That difference actually has a pretty significant effect on profit, especially if you want to give a discount for any reason.
As a quick guide, if you want physical copies to give to friends, sell at conferences, and let people order physical books online, Amazon may be the best option. If, however, you want to have a chance of seeing your books on bookstore shelves, you probably need to use Ingram Spark.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned in this list is publishing companies that offer to create your book and distribute it for you. Many of them often offer marketing services as well. Some examples of these are Bookbaby or Lulu. I’ll briefly address those services here, but I am a poor resource for that, so if you’re interested I recommend finding reviews on those types of services and looking for others who have used them to discuss.
The concept behind companies like Bookbaby or Lulu is that they offer a collection of services (often cover design, editing, formatting, printing, and distribution all in one, as well as marketing in some cases) and charge the author for those services. Typically you can buy the entire package or just a subset of the services offered. The marketing for these services typically says things like “All the benefits of traditional publishing and the control of self-publishing!” Sounds great, right? But the thing to keep in mind is that these companies aren’t similar to publishers. They don’t make money by selling your books, they make money by selling services to you. This point was driven home to me best by a demonstration I saw at a conference. The presenter opened a web site for one of these conglomerates, selected “create book”, told the system that he had a cover already made, had formatted his own files, and needed no services from the company, and the cost to publish an e-book on Amazon was $200 despite them selling him none of their services. Uploading those files to Amazon yourself is free.