All I know about independent publishing

I do sometimes get asked about my independent publishing journey and methods. Here’s where I am currently at. These things change, you need to work them out for yourself, this is definitely not definitive,it might be wrong in places, but it is my experience so far. There are plenty of other places to find advice on independent publishing and I recommend you tap them too. (I particularly like the alliance of independent authors and Nick Stephenson’s material taught me loads and helped me stop wandering in the dark when it came to marketing. Lots of people will sell you services, but I like the way these two sites entice you with lots of genuinely helpful free stuff and are well-liked advocates of indy publishing. Their generosity and integrity make them models themselves of internet marketing, but that’s another story.)

EcosystemAmazonNon-Amazon/Traditional/Everyone else
Printkdp. Once set up on kdp your book is printed on demand and is never out of stock at Amazon.IngramSpark – a print-on-demand company who are well linked with the distribution systems of traditional publishing. So your book should be orderable in bookshops. You set your book on Ingramspark and any bookshop can order it. In principle. So can you.
Electronickdp. This means the Kindle version will be available on Amazon.Draft2digital. This agile startup converts your Word file into the epub form that everyone but Amazon uses (eg the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Barnes and Noble), and distributes your title to those shops for you. They also have nifty features that are great if you are publishing several titles. They will set up a mailing list to let your fans know you have a new book out. They keep front and end matter separate from the book contents, so you change it once and they change it on all your titles.
I am also very fond of Smashwords, the pioneer in the field. They distribute to everyone, but also have their own bookstore which has an enthusiastic following. They are possibly a bit more clunky than Draft2digital but I have a lot of affection for them and most of my older titles are with them. Their founder Mark Coker is one of the pioneers of independent publishing, a generous and thoughtful industry leader and always worth reading.
In early 2022 Smashwords and Draft2Digital announced a merger, which is great, because I won’t have to choose between them anymore. If I were starting out, I’d use Draft2Digital because of the slicker software.
AudioAmazon will lead you to Audible (who Are an Amazon company). Draft2digital and Smashwords both offer routes into audio publishing (including with Audible).
The big picture
Advantages and disadvantages of each route
1. All Amazon’s tools are free. You can upload your doc and get a print-on-demand paperback, a kindle title, and a beautiful Amazon listing, all without paying anything.1. Ingramspark charge around £30 for you to upload your book and (more irksomely) when you upload a slightly changed manuscript. They often have free offers. If you join the Alliance of Independent Authors, you can upload your stuff for free, great for tweaks and new editions.
2. Draft2digital and Smashwords are free.
2. They have huge reach and are everywhere2.Your availability on Ingramspark, in principle, makes your paperback available for order anywhere, in any bookshop.
3. They have hundreds of best-seller lists on their site. These are tied to the metadata that you supply when you upload your book. It is a great idea to surf Amazon’s bestseller lists, find the words or labels that best describe your book, and use those as the metadata. For example my novel Paradise was a bestseller in the ‘Humorous dark comedy’ (sic), ‘metaphysical fiction’ and ‘satire fiction’ lists in the (free part of) the kindle store. This, if nothing else, made me feel good, until Amazon stopped listing it for free, which made me feel less good. 3. Ingramspark can deliver your paperbacks as author copies anywhere, at low cost, in rapid time. This is great if you sell from your own website, for example, or if you speak at conferences – you can have some delivered to the conference venue.
4. Amazon also offer other marketing tools (good) but often these are tied in to making your book exclusively available on Amazon (bad, if you value diverse ecosystems in business as well in nature).3.Draft2digital and Smashwords are both suppliers to the non-Amazon ebook players like Apple and Barnes and Noble. These stores are much more willing to host your title for free. Amazon is more cautious. (Smashwords also has its own store.) Free books, in my experience, ‘sell’ around 100 times better than paid-for books and a free title at the beginning of a series can get people into the whole series.
ConclusionPublish your manuscript on four platforms: Amazon paperback; Amazon kindle; Ingramspark paperback; epub with either Draft2Digital or Smashwords. This is not very hard as the requirements for each are similar.
Advantages and disadvantages of each route
What you will need
1. A well-written, careful edited, consistent, fresh, interesting, non-slanderous manuscript. Sadly, many self-publishers fall at this hurdle. There are some dreadful self-published books out there, partly because it is now so easy. These titles are good for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, but not much else. It’s hard to write a good book. In the olden days, traditional publishers understood that even brilliant authors, particularly novelists, took a few novels to really get going. And they were dealing with the cream.
2. Two ISBNs, one for the paperback, one for the ebook/kindle. You can buy ISBNs in blocks of ten for around £150 from your local country supplier (Nielson in the UK, Bowker in the US). There are many arguments against this, not least the expense and the way they are perhaps falling out of use in the big suppliers. Some people (Amazon, I think) will supply ISBNs for free but these can come with strings attached. I am old fashioned enough to know that if you buy a block of ISBNs you are a publisher, my son, you can use your own ISBNs everywhere and your life will be rich and fulfilled.
3. A page size. Go ahead and measure some books you like, and create a Word template. Then write your book in that template, with the fonts, margins, headers, footers and page size just the way you like them. You only need do this once, for all your books. You can buy in help for this, or you can examine the books on your shelf and decide what you like. I think Amazon supply Word templates also, which I have not tried. You can also google things like what are the best fonts for a book for example. Amazon and Ingramspark cope with a variety of page sizes, so yours will be in there. If it isn’t, use one of their offered sizes.
4. Text for the front matter. Again, it’s a good move to see what current books are doing. I don’t know the law properly enough to advise further. I strongly urge you give your legions of fans a way of contacting you – perhaps a personal website or social media page? Put that in your front matter. It may be that you need to put the street address of the printer in the front. I read it once but I do not know for sure; I think it dates from the days when printing books in England was scurilous and the authorities needed a door to knock on for conveniently burning you at the stake. Supplying a printer’s street address is easy with Ingramspark, hard with Amazon. In any case, keep to the spirit of the ancient law by being contactable and accountable for what you write.
5. A friendly graphic designer. Get them to work up cover art for your title that you like. Bear in mind it has to look good as a thumbnail, as well as full size. They can use that cover art in all four formats of your book. In my humble opinion, don’t just get someone who’s good at drawing. Find someone with the proper kit.
6. Short and long descriptions of your book – the long can include reviews and commendations; information ‘about the author’; metadata, ie the stuff that says where it should be shelved. You can surf Amazon for example to see what kinds of words they use. ‘Cosy whodunnit’, for example.
6. for Ingramspark:
* Save your document as a ‘pdf/a’. This embeds the fonts and without it Ingramspark will reject it. Pdf/a is an option buried deep in Word.
* Ingramspark can also supply a cover template once you know your book dimensions and final page count. Download this template and give it to your graphic designer.
* Then upload your text pdf and your cover pdf to Ingramspark and follow the instructions.
* Order a few copies for yourself. Just one or a handful. You will want to proof check these before you go any further.
*If, after seeing the proof, you want to make changes, do so, before you publish in any other formats. If these changes are just odd things, fine, maybe you can live with them on Ingramspark; if they are major things, you need to upload a new text to Ingramspark and pay another £30. So if you have major things, proof it properly and ask others to do so before you change the document and spend another £30 to upload it.
7. Amazon kdp. Slightly different system, but you should find you can use much of the same stuff you used for IngramSpark, with a few tweaks.
8. Ebook and kindle. This is fairly straighforward with your Word file, your metadata, your descriptions and your cover art. Draft2digital have a couple of neat tricks. They keep front and end matter separate from the text of all your books. So if you change your front and end matter, they change it on all your books. Nice.
Things I pay for
1. Some webspace and domain names (on which you are reading this, by the way)
2. Some ISBNs
3. The services of a graphic designer
4. The upload cost to IngramSpark, or a subscription to the Alliance of Independent Authors, which is a good professional association with lots of resources, and who let you upload to IngramSpark for free.
5. Printing a copy and mailing it to the British Library ( once published. This is a legal requirement in the UK but also a lot of fun. Even if no-one else takes your book seriously, the British Library will keep a copy, add it to their catalogue, and make it available for historians. It may be all that’s left of you in a thousand years. I also think, but I don’t know, that once you’ve done that, the thing you put in your front matter ‘a catalogue record for this book is available from the British library’ will be true or at least in the queue towards being true.