Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
In 2018, I self-published a short novel called Moral Compass. I wrote briefly about the experience here and here. (These posts have not been altered to reflect the revised edition.) In preparation for self-publishing my latest novel, Paradise West, I revisited a couple of things about Moral Compass that disappointed me. I finally decided to issue a second edition. In releasing Paradise West and the second edition of Moral Compass, I learned a little about the current state of self-publishing. My experience is certainly not comprehensive or equally applicable to everyone, but I believe it’s worth sharing. So I’ll be describing my experience over a series of blog posts, beginning now with a few early steps in the publishing process. I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who has a completed, thoroughly edited manuscript and is ready to begin the publishing process.
It’s worth noting that I don’t intend this post to be an endorsement of any of the companies mentioned. These are the products and services that I’ve used; your needs may be better addressed by other services.
In the United States, Bowker is the sole organization for obtaining and registering International Standard Book Number (ISBN) identifiers. An ISBN is a universal identifier that simplifies cataloging books across multiple organizations and it appears in the barcode on printed books. You generally don’t need an ISBN for ebooks, and sometimes don’t need an ISBN for printed books (for example, if you publish exclusively with Amazon KDP). If you use an ISBN (and I recommend it, but that’s my subjective opinion), a unique ISBN is required for the same work in different formats: for example, if you publish your novel in both print and ebook editions, you will require one ISBN for each. Many publishing platforms offer complimentary ISBNs, including Draft2Digital and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), both services that I’ll discuss in later posts. The debate over buying your own ISBNs from Bowker or using the free ISBNs is neverending. Free ISBNs sometimes come with limitations regarding where you may or may not use them, so read the fine print carefully before accepting them. Once an ISBN is attached to your work, you cannot change it – you would need to republish your work as a different edition before attaching a different ISBN to it.
My preference was to purchase my own ISBNs from Bowker: that way, I’m identified as the publisher and I can use the identifiers on any platform. You will first need to create a user account, a simple and free process. At the time I’m writing this, a single ISBN is $125, while a set of 10 is $295. ISBNs don’t expire, so once purchased, an ISBN can used at any time in the future. If you plan to publish a work in both ebook and print editions, you need two ISBNs. Since I was on the verge of publishing two novels, with a third in the works, I would need six ISBNs for digital and print editions, so the package of 10 ISBNs was just right for me. The ISBN purchase is easy to complete online, and you will receive your ISBNs via e-mail. If you lose that e-mail, you can always confirm your ISBNs via your Bowker account.
Purchasing your own ISBNs also requires you to identify an imprint, which is simply the publisher. In most cases, this is you, unless you have registered your own business name or are working under some other special circumstances. Nothing here is intended to serve as legal or financial advice, so do your own research as to what’s best for you.
Many companies, including Bowker, offer barcodes for purchase. A barcode includes the ISBN and is displayed on the back cover of print books. Don’t pay for a barcode! These are automatically generated by most publishing platforms. Even if you are working with a local printer to publish your book, there are free barcode generator services on the Web. More about barcodes in later posts; for now, just don’t waste your money buying them.
In addition to an ISBN, you’ll want to identify appropriate BISAC Subject Headings for your book. BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) Headings come from a long list of universal subject categories maintained by the BISG (Book Industry Standards Group). These subject headings are used throughout the book industry and make it easier for both retailers and readers to find your book. You should browse this list carefully and identify at least the top five BISAC headings appropriate for your book. While BISAC headings aren’t identical to Amazon’s storefront categories, there are a lot of similarities, so doing your BISAC homework before publishing is good preparation, even if you only plan to publish with Amazon. The BISAC list is free to access and download.
There are many options out there for designing or purchasing book covers, but I’ll discuss my own experience with artists on Fiverr. Fiverr is a gig site for visual artists offering a wide range of services in addition to book cover design. The artists on Fiverr vary widely in both experience level and prices.
As mentioned earlier, there were some things I didn’t like about the first edition of my first novel, Moral Compass. A big problem was the cover: I designed it myself. It wasn’t bad for an amateur but I was never satisfied with it. That dissatisfaction sent me to Fiverr.
I’ve hired Fiverr artists to design the covers for both Moral Compass and Paradise West (the Paradise West design ended up not working out, but that was not the artist’s fault). The process is straightforward. Review the many artists’ portfolios offering book cover services on Fiverr. Find one whose portfolio and pricing fits your objective and budget. In my case, I prepared mockups of my cover concept to help the artists get started. (This isn’t necessary, an experienced artist will be able to work with you to devise a cover concept you’re happy with.) Once you agree with the artist on a price and timeframe, you’ll be required to submit payment via credit card, debit card, or PayPal. Payment will not be released, however, until you have received and approved the project. When the artist submits the initial work, there will probably be some back-and-forth between you and the artist; most artists include a set number of revisions in their quoted price.
Before contacting a Fiverr artist, do your own homework first. It’s easiest if you have the book completely finished and formatted for publishing first – this way you will know your book’s final page count. If you’re publishing a printed book, you can use the page count to generate a cover template to provide the artist. (Remember, the spine width is determined by the page count.) For example, Ingramspark and Amazon KDP both offer free cover template generators that are easy to use. Also look carefully at what specific deliverables the artist promises – including file formats – before committing.
Also, have some ideas about what you want in a book cover. Specify if you’re publishing an ebook – which only requires a front cover – or a print book, which requires front and back covers and spine. Generating a book cover requires you to think about how you want to market your book, particularly in the case of a print edition, which requires a back cover that will probably contain a book summary, promotional text, and maybe an author bio. (Leave room on the back cover for a barcode!)
Finally, while both of my experiences with Fiverr artists have been good ones, there are con artists everywhere, including Fiverr. Before you commit to working with an artist, review their portfolio, carefully read reviews from past clients, and see if the artist has a public presence with their own web site or social media accounts. Also, be prepared for some artists to pick and choose the easiest projects: my initial cover concept for Paradise West frightened some artists, and I had to contact six before I found one willing to take on the challenge. Once your project is finished and you’re satisfied, you will be invited to write your own review of the artist’s work and to give the artist a tip (generally 5% – 20% of the project fee), so factor that into your budget.
If you want to issue a print edition of your book, you will most likely need to submit your cover as a PDF file. Ingramspark and Amazon KDP both require this. Ingramspark, in particular, requires a particular kind of print-friendly PDF format: PDF/X-1a:2001 or PDF/X-3:2002. The unique qualities of this format are less important than the fact that you need it. (I have read accounts of writers who submitted a generic PDF file and had no regrets. However, I didn’t want to risk problems later.)
If you are an Adobe subscriber you will have no trouble generating the required PDF versions. For those of us without subscription-level budgets (or who oppose the subscription pricing model), there are other options. In my case, I used Corel’s PaintShop Pro (a photo-editing software with many of the features of Photoshop) to create a cover file by overlaying files from Fiverr artists onto templates provided by Ingramspark and Amazon KDP. Then I used open-source Scribus desktop publishing software and followed this tutorial.
If that sounds high maintenance, there are other solutions, including Canva, Vellum (Mac only), and a new Windows-friendly software called Atticus.
Again, my goal is not to promote any individual company or service, but to indicate the types of services available and to encourage anyone who wants to self-publish but is still uncertain: ebook publishing is simple and accessible to everyone, regardless of your budget. Also keep in mind that self-publishing services and pricing change frequently, so review each company’s offerings and price schemes before proceeding.
My next self-publishing post will look at Draft2Digital’s ebook distribution service.