How to write and self-publish a book

We self-published our book, The Usual Error, and today we’re going to tell you how you can write and self-publish your own book, too.

Here’s the thing. We’re just regular people. We’re not rock stars, we don’t have Ph.D.s or lots of other letters after our names. We’re not rich. We’re not famous. We’re not perfect writers; we make spelling and grammar mistakes. We had day jobs and not a lot of free time. And we still wrote a book.

If we can do it, that means you can do it too.

Here’s how!

  1. Write the first draft
  2. Edit it yourself
  3. Have others edit it
  4. Copyright page
  5. Book design and cover design
  6. Printing, fulfillment, and retail
  7. Marketing
  8. Rest on your laurels!

1. Write the first draft

There is a Step Zero: figure out what you want to write about, but I’m assuming that if you’re reading this with intent, you’ve already done your Step Zero. Another part of Step Zero is deciding to self-publish instead of traditional publishing. Here’s why we think self-publishing is better than traditional publishing, but of course it’s your decision.

Since we had multiple authors (first three, later two) we wrote the first draft of our book on PBwiki. This had the added advantage of being in HTML, which made it much easier later on to create the e-book and the Kindle version.

But if you don’t care about ebooks, Kindle versions, or multiple-author collaboration, then you can just use whatever word processing software you wish. Microsoft Word is good, because it imports well into Adobe InDesign, which is what we used for our book design.

The trick here is finding time for it, staying focused, and making progress. Keep up your motivation, make writing a habit and part of your daily routine. Remember your goal and let that feed your passion.

We started writing our first draft during NaNoWriMo, in flagrant violation of the rules. (: Still, it helped us stay focused and make it part of our routine, since many of our friends were also making writing a priority. The NaNoWriMo mantra of “December is for editing” also helped us, because it allowed us to write as many words as possible without worrying about every word being perfect. For the first draft, just get words onto paper. Everything else comes later.

Not counting the breaks where we didn’t work on the book for a while, we finished the first draft in two or three months, mostly by taking an hour to write each evening and sticking to that schedule. This got us to a 43,000-word first draft. If you write only 500 words a day, and you’re just one person, you can get to 43,000 words in three months, too!

2. Edit it yourself

After you’re done with your first draft, hooray! Go out and celebrate! Now comes the editing.

Here’s how Kyeli and I did our self-editing. For the second draft, we went over every single chapter of the rough draft and edited it for grammar, flow, tone, and understandability. Since we had multiple authors, sometimes the tone changed, and that was disconcerting. We also came up with a style guide that we stuck to.

  • Singular “they” is okay.
  • “I” is okay in stories and examples, but not okay in the main text.
  • Title case for stories and examples, sentence case for chapter titles
  • Punctuation inside the quotes.

and so on and so forth. It’s good to have a guide, like for instance the Chicago Manual of Style, but as long as you’re self-consistent, you’re probably okay. Later, your editors and beta-readers will tell you if your grammar choices are distracting. That’s all that’s important. Since you’re self-publishing, you’re not trying to please The Man. You’re trying to please your readers, who are real people just like you. As long as your style and grammar choices aren’t distracting, it’s all good.

The second draft took us about five weeks, and we made some major revisions. After we finished, we stopped using PBwiki since we weren’t editing in parallel anymore; we were working together. We created one big HTML file via copy-and-paste and an emacs macro to replace wiki markup with HTML tags, and from then on we used the HTML file as our master copy.

For the third draft, we printed out our second draft, set aside a big chunk of time, spent the day at Austin Java, and read the entire book to each other out loud. Any time something didn’t sound perfect to either of us, we’d get out a red pen and mark it. We completely rewrote one chapter that didn’t make sense in its initial form (Chapter 21), and that we did on the laptop, but the rest we did with paper and red pen, and merged our changes into the HTML file later. We did this for two long days, for a total of about 24 hours.

We must have done a good editing job on the second and third draft, because at this point we were ready to send our book out to external editors. It’s a good idea to keep self-editing over and over until you either don’t have any more changes to make or you find yourself stuck in a rut. So when you’re ready…

3. Have others edit it

Next, we asked our friends to help us edit the book.

We turned our third draft into a PDF using PDF995 and printed out a bunch of copies at Kinko’s. (I’m sorry, “FedEx Office”.) We mailed them to some of our friends who had volunteered to edit the book. We gave them a three-week turnaround time to give us their edits.

After we received all our friends’ edited copies, we went back to Austin Java, pushed a couple of tables together, and laid out all the editors’ copies side by side. We went through all the suggestions for page 1, then all the suggestions for page 2, and so on. That way, if two editors suggested the same change, we’d give it extra weight, and if two editors disagreed on something, we could take that into account right then instead of forgetting about it by the time we got to the other person’s comments.

This process took about eight solid days, and it improved the book a ton. Some of the suggestions we got were worth repeating:

  • Search for every occurrence of “really” and omit it if possible
  • Search for every occurrence of “very” and omit it if possible
  • Search for every occurrence of “totally” and omit it if possible
  • Search for every occurrence of “awesome” and reword it if possible
  • Search for every occurrence of the em dash — that’s this bit of punctuation right here — and rework it if possible

After we implemented these suggestions, our book was really very totally awesome. (:

We had planned on hiring a professional editor, but we got such good edits from our friends that we decided it wasn’t necessary. So our fourth draft became our final draft.

4. Copyright page

There’s one very important page in your book that will take some work to finish: the copyright page. As an example, you can take a look at the copyleft page for The Usual Error here.

First, file the paperwork to become a publishing business: a DBA for a sole proprietorship or partnership, or other paperwork to become an LLC. You don’t want to be an S-corp or a C-corp. You’ll need to call around to see which government office has these forms, then do a search to make sure nobody else has the same name. When picking the name for your publishing business, think big. If you later want to publish more books, you’ll want the name to be appropriate for those books too.

Now that you have a publishing company, you’ll need an ISBN. Every published book has a unique ISBN, and they cost money. At the time of this writing, they were $275 for a block of 10; you can buy them from If you’re self-publishing, this is the only option that I know of.

Next, you’ll need get a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) for your book. Fill out the application here and they’ll get back to you, probably much more quickly than they say they will. (They got back to us later the same day.)

Now that you have all the numbers you want, you can finish your copyright page. We chose to release our book under the Creative Commons by-nc-sa license, which lets others share it, remix it, and tweak it, as long as they don’t make money from it, and as long as their tweaked versions are also distributed under the same license. We did this because our primary goal with this book is to spread useful information about communication, and we didn’t want copyright to be a block to that. Whatever copyright system and license you decide is best for you book, be sure to state it here on the copyright page.

5. Book design and cover design

Now that last pesky page is complete, and you’re done with your final draft! YAY! Treat yourself to something nice! All that’s left now is outsourcing, paperwork, and technical stuff.

I had considered learning how to do the book design and cover design myself, but it would have taken a while and I would have needed to buy and learn some new software like Adobe InDesign, so we outsourced the cover art to our illustrator Marty Whitmore and the book and cover design to Megan Elizabeth Morris, who is a fabulous web designer as well as an excellent designer of all sorts.

Unless you know how to use a professional design program (MS Word does not count; it’s a word processor, not a design program) and you know about bleed, DPI, PPI, CMYK, and embedding fonts in PDFs, then I suggest you outsource this, too. If you wrote your book in HTML, at this point you’ll probably need to convert it to a Word document if your book designer uses Adobe InDesign, because it imports Word documents more easily. But hang onto your HTML version if you’ve got it, because it will prove useful if you later decide to release an e-book or a Kindle version.

Your book designer will make sure your pages are the exact right size for your book, make sure the fonts and margins look great, and take care of a lot of technical things that I don’t even understand but I know are very important. Take a look at this before and after. Notice how the before looks like a random web page or Word document, and the after looks like an actual page from an actual book? That’s the importance of book design.

Oh! That reminds me: this is the time for you to decide the dimensions of your book. Pick up a few books from your bookshelf and measure them. Based on the type and genre of your book, you probably want to pick the same dimensions as a similar book. For The Usual Error, we wanted people to be able to carry it around easily, so we chose 8″ x 5″. Also, this is the time to choose hardcover or paperback. We went with paperback because we felt it was more friendly.

6. Printing, fulfillment, and retail

When your book designer is done designing your book, you get to fill out some more paperwork! (:

Now it’s time to think about how your book will be printed and how people will buy it. “Fulfillment” just means “how orders get from the person who wants to buy it to the person who has it”, as well as other details like who keeps it in stock, where, and how much. We chose a printer who does print-on-demand so we wouldn’t have to deal with fulfillment ourselves.

We chose the print-on-demand (POD) company Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI) for our printer and focused on Amazon as the main way people will purchase it. Lulu is just a middleman between you and LSI. If you choose not to outsource your book design, Lulu might provide some useful value to you, but otherwise you might as well deal with LSI directly and cut out the middleman. Another nice thing about LSI is that once LSI has your book and it’s set up correctly, it will automatically appear on Amazon.

So, sign up with LSI (Lightning Source, Inc.). Your Primary book category is probably “Trade Publisher“. Upload your finished product: the cvr.pdf and text.pdf, the finished product that your book designer and cover designer produced. Set your retail (list) price and your wholesale discount. I suggest 25%; setting your discount higher means less money for you and doesn’t yield any benefit at all. Nobody will be able to order your book for retail price, because LSI doesn’t sell directly to customers. The only people allowed to buy from LSI are wholesalers: bookstores, distributors, and resellers like Amazon. They will buy your book at the wholesale price, which is the retail price discounted by the percentage you chose.

  Wholesale price = Retail price * (100% - wholesale discount)

So if you set your retail price to $15.00 and your discount to 20%, you can compute your wholesale price like so:

  Wholesale price = $15.00 * (100% - 20%)

  Wholesale price = $15.00 * 80%

  Wholesale price = $12.00

Your cut of the profit is the wholesale price less LSI’s printing costs. If their printing costs were $4 per book, your profits would be

  Your profit = Wholesale price - Printing costs

  Your profit = $12.00 - $4.00

  Your profit = $8.00

For our book, we selected the following options:

  • US POD Direct Distribution
  • US POD Wholesale Distribution
  • UK/Europe POD Wholesale Distribution
  • No sales tax exemption

Direct distribution means you can order copies for yourself. Wholesale distribution means that other companies (like Amazon) can order it. (Technically there are other companies in the loop, like Ingram, but you don’t need to worry about that at this point.)

Also, use cream paper, not white. It’s easier on the eyes and makes your book look more professional.

7. Marketing

Now we come to the really fun part: marketing! For The Usual Error, we already had a bunch of interested people, because we’ve been presenting communication workshops for years, we have a blog about communication, and we have a bunch of friends who respect us.

Squeezing an entire how-to about marketing into this already-huge article isn’t feasible, but if you’re self-publishing, you’re probably self-marketing too. Here’s a super-short list of pointers:

  • Start a blog. We agree with Seth Godin that this is the #1 best thing you can do to market your business — or your book.
  • Do everything Naomi says.
  • Make an event out of launching your book. It’s exciting and fun, and can generate oodles of sales and buzz. Dave Navarro, a launch coach, can help you out with this.

Regardless of how you do your marketing, be sure to sign up with Amazon Associates and you’ll make an extra 5% or more from everyone who buys your book through your affiliate link.

8. Rest on your laurels!

You’re now a published author! Congratulations! Leave a comment and say hi, and we’ll show you the secret handshake. (:

Here’s a list of web pages, books, and people who helped me learn all this crazy stuff. You may find them useful, too.

Last but not least, remember to enjoy the journey! Writing a book is fun, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did! (:

Feel clear and confident about your direction in life!


Do you wish you could follow your heart, but it seems impossible? I can help you find the clarity and courage you need.

In other words, I can help you find your path.