A cheat sheet for self-publishing authors

Self-publishing has quickly built momentum allowing writers to bypass the gatekeepers of the publishing industry and retain maximum control over the manuscript every step of the way. However, the idea that self-publishing a book is a quick and easy process in today’s digital era may be a fallacy. When you drill into it, it becomes clear that it may be an arduous, lengthy and complicated endeavour (not to mention pricey!). Many processes that comprise self-publishing a book: from finding a beta reader through editing, formatting, typesetting and indexing to getting an ISBN and a barcode, proofreading, marketing and depositing a legal copy.

Even if you are not planning to take every step, as a self-publishing author, you should be familiar with the process and its elements, particularly if you are a first-timer. More importantly, many of these decisions require planning in advance.

Here is a cheat sheet of the main elements of the self-publishing workflow that writers should consider ahead of time. I discuss each key process that comprises the self-publishing cycle, along with some practical information and pointers to helpful resources. They include:

  • finding beta readers,
  • engaging services of an editor,
  • getting an ISBN,
  • commissioning book design,
  • getting a barcode,
  • enlisting services of a typesetter,
  • booking an indexer,
  • find a proofreader,
  • deciding on the book format,
  • depositing a legal copy,
  • devising a marketing and sales strategy.

Last but not least, I asked Simon Everett, poet and editor-in-chief at Muscaliet Press, with whom I had the pleasure of working, for his advice for self-publishing writers.

Finding beta readers

One of the questions I ask my clients during the first meeting is, ‘Who else has read the manuscript?’ In essence, the more external input there has been, the higher chance the text requires less editorial intervention. For instance, if the text has been critiqued by friends/family/writing buddies, it will be much closer to a publishable state than if nobody has commented on it and there have been no rewrites.

The key takeaways:

 Make sure others have read your work before engaging an editor.

 Consider and/or incorporate the readers’ critique into your manuscript.


Whatever level of editorial intervention your manuscript needs, editing is essential to making your work publishing-ready. Many authors I have worked with initially did not understand the difference between types of editing, such as developmental editing or copyediting. In short, developmental editing looks at your manuscript’s ‘big picture’ and may involve the editor creating a report requiring substantial rewrites. Copyediting ensures consistency, clarity, conciseness and correctness.

Read my summary of different editorial services for more clarity or this post about what questions you should ask when engaging the services of an editor.

The key takeaway:

 Book an editor with a clear understanding of what services you require.

Getting International Standard Book Number (ISBN)

If a book is to be published and taken seriously, it must have an ISBN, which identifies one title in one format. For example, a hardback version of the same book will have a different ISBN than its ebook edition.

Each country has its own ISBN issuer. In the UK, it is the Nielsen ISBN Store, and in the US — Bowker. Print-on-demand (POD) companies like Amazon KDP and IngramSpark offer their own free versions of ISBNs. Be aware, though, Amazon’s own Standard Identification Number can be only used to sell a book on Amazon and cannot be used to sell through any other retailer.

Going back to Nielsen and Bowker, the trick to saving money is buying in bulk. While a single ISBN costs $125 at Bowker, a package of ten costs $295 ($29.5 per one). Accordingly, Nielsen ISBN Store sells individual ISBNs for £89, but in a pack of ten (total £164), the price goes down to £16.40 for one. It is worth mentioning that ISBNs do not have an expiration date. So, even if you are not planning to publish multiple books in the immediate future, consider bulk buying anyway.

The key takeaway:

 Purchase ISBN(s).

Obtaining visuals and cover

Moreover, if you intend to include graphics in your book, consider their quality/format (for example, CMYK for print and RGB for ebook) and copyright permissions. An editor can flag potential points that will require copyright permissions or acknowledgement of the source of graphics or quotes. This is especially relevant to manuscripts that rely heavily on outside references.

If you intend to commission illustrations, I check the Association of Illustrators, which offers contract advice and a directory of members to choose from for commissioning internal illustrations and/or cover images. Amazon KDP also offers a cover template. However, self-publishing authors I worked with often mention issues associated with these templates: mismatch between the ISBN and the metadata, incorrect bleeds or spine width.

The key takeaways:

 Obtain graphics and cover design.

 Acknowledge the copyrights.

Getting a barcode

Like ISBN, a barcode (which you can obtain for free) is necessary if your book is to be sold. KDP and IngramSpark provide them for free with some of the templates. But a quick Google search will reveal a plethora of other services generating barcodes for free.

The key takeaway:

 Obtain a barcode.


Next, you must decide what form your manuscript will take: print (paperback or hardcover), ebook or audiobook, or a combination of these, at the very early stage of the self-publishing journey. Here you should consider your target readership, publishing route of choice, the genre and length of your book and even the sales statistics for relevant format(s) and genre. This decision will, among others, affect your marketing strategy and typesetting (layout editing), which I will touch upon later.

The key takeaway:

 Decide on the book format reflecting on the genre, length and target reader of your book as well as the sales success of the format.


At this point, you have chosen the book format, the text is finished, you have addressed the graphics and obtained ISBN and barcode, so it is time for the layout. If you are determined to do it yourself, Vellum or Adobe InDesign have the functionality to produce a PDF for printing. Lulu, Blurb and other PODs also offer typesetting tools. However, you will be locked into printing and publishing with them. Ultimately, typesetting is a subtle and meticulous art that calls for a professional’s work. Why not look at the directory of layout editors maintained by the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading?

The key takeaway:

 Book a typesetter.


Including an index is essential for non-fiction and professional (business) books. Without them, they can be frustrating to use for the reader. You can create an index using Word or InDesign. Still, just as with typesetting, I encourage you to consider engaging the services of a professional indexer. You can start with this summary of what indexing entails and the Society of Indexers’ website.

The key takeaway:

 Book an indexer.


Some elements may get lost or misplaced in the process, so more and more self-publishing authors decide to have proofreading done after the book has been laid out. After a good copyedit, this should be a straightforward step toward finalising the manuscript.

The key takeaway:

 Book a proofreader.

Choosing production and distribution

Depending on your chosen format, this part can involve ebook formatting, production of audiobook or book printing, or a combination of these routes.


For an ebook, the first step would be generating an EPUB file (which can be done by the typesetter). From there, the format depends on the chosen distributor’s requirements. There are also different ways to sell the book, including listing it on your own website.


Audible seems to be a key player if you want to produce an audiobook, but the market is growing exponentially. Furthermore, you’ll also need to consider hiring a professional narrator or doing the reading yourself.

Paper edition

Finally, for a paper edition — there are two options. The first option is to use POD services such as Lulu, KDP or Ingram Spark. Their charges vary but still, come out cheaper than traditional print companies. However, if you include even a single colour page, the entire book will be costed at the price of colour printing. On the other hand, traditional printers offer more flexibility with the format, design and colour. It is always helpful to compare quotes from a few printers.

Simon, editor-in-chief of Muscaliet Press, stressed that authors wanting to self-publish should consider small initial print runs. Unless you are confident you will sell more copies, a run of no more than one hundred books is a good start depending on your audience and contacts. Furthermore, Simon pointed out that the POD services appear to be a more effective solution than ordering a set run to meet the further potential demand. However, if your mind is set on a specific run size, there are also considerations of stock storage (multiple boxes or at least one box), which might not be ideal depending on the author’s circumstances.

The key takeaways:

 Ebook: generate an EPUB file and follow the formatting guidelines of the chosen distributor.

 Audiobook: record the book audio or find a professional voice.

 Paper edition: choose between POD and traditional printing companies.

 Consider the number of copies.

Depositing a legal copy

In the UK, authors are legally obligated to deposit one copy of their publication in the British Library or any other four designated libraries. The Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries explains that book depositing ‘help[s] to ensure that the nation’s published output, and thereby its intellectual record and future published heritage.’ The US Copyright Office requires ‘two copies of the best edition of every copyrightable work published in the United States’ to be received within three months of the book’s publication.

The key takeaway:

 Deposit a legal copy(s) of your book.


Finally, nothing else left to do but let the world know about your book. Easier said than done, but without publicity, your work might not find its way to the reader. I am no expert marketeer, but as a freelance editor, I found the Twitter editors’ and writers’ communities embracing and receptive. Based on this experience, I recommend joining the weekly #WritersLift and #FollowFriday. There are obviously countless other channels and methods to ensure public visibility. In any case, I wish you good luck!

The key takeaway:

 Develop a strategy to promote your book.


The above is only a high-level cheat sheet for self-publishing authors. I hope it will provide you with a starting point if you find yourself considering self-publishing. Follow me on MastodonTwitter and LinkedIn for more editing tips for writers, sign up to my newsletter or contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount!).

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.