Everything You Need to Know About How to Digitally Self Publish

Final Update: I’m now publishing with a traditional publisher, so I haven’t updated this page in quite a while. Some of this information will still be relevant, but some will also be obsolete, so make sure you cross reference with other (better maintained) sources. Good luck!

Update (9/27/2011): Added the section on copyrights.

Update (5/15/2011): Changed DTP (Digital Text Platform) to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) in accordance with Amazon’s rebranding.

Update (10/1/2010): Added details about PubIt, and added the royalty chart.

If you’re thinking of publishing to the Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks store, or to the Barnes & Noble Nook, this article will provide you with everything you need to know to get started. It is the result of many hours of research and experimentation, and probably represents the most comprehensive guide on digital self-publishing currently available. Keep in mind that this is necessarily a living document; I’ve been shocked at how much the industry has changed just since early 2010, and I expect it to continue to change at an equally rapid pace for the foreseeable future. As it does, I will update this resource to reflect everything I continue to learn.


Digital publishing has been around in one form or another for many years (starting with early eBook readers from Sony and devices like Palm PDAs), but it wasn’t until Amazon introduced the Kindle — and then Apple followed up with iBooks and Barnes & Noble with the Nook — that eBook readers really went mainstream.

I’ve been digitally self-publishing fiction on these new platforms for about as long as it has been possible. I’m a huge believer in digital publishing, but the truth is that it’s not nearly as easy as it should be. The industry is changing extremely quickly as are the tools, devices, and the best practices. The newness of the industry, and the pace at which it continues to evolve, means that mastering digital self-publishing is still pretty challenging. I’ve spent a huge amount of time learning the ins and outs both through research and trial and error, so I decided to put together this comprehensive resource to try to make digital self-publishing more accessible to as many other writers as possible.

First Thing’s First: What is Digital Self Publishing?

I think of digital self-publishing as the ability for writers to reach millions of readers through various devices and digital delivery mechanisms without having to get approval from anyone else. Specifically (and for the purposes of this document), it is the ability to publish anything you want through the Amazon Kindle, Apple’s iBooks store, the Barnes and Noble Nook, and various other reading devices including EPUB readers and even browsers.

The primary problem that traditional print publishing is designed to solve is distribution. Printing and distributing books is expensive, and profit margins are slim. This fact influences just about every aspect of traditional publishing: finding an agent, selling to a publisher, the book’s artwork, the book’s length, the binding, your marketing budget, time to market, etc. But with digital self-publishing, the problem that more or less defines the traditional publishing industry goes away since it is essentially free and instantaneous to infinitely copy and distribute books of just about any length. The question that writers need to start asking themselves is this: what happens to an industry that is predicated on a problem that is rapidly disappearing?

Digital publishing — and specifically digital independent or self-publishing — represents incredible new possibilities for anyone willing to embrace it. There is no doubt in my mind that digital publishing is where the publishing industry is going to see the huge majority of its future growth.

Why Digitally Self Publish?

Digital self-publishing is to books what blogs have been to traditional news media. In other words, I believe that digital self-publishing is one of the next huge media revolutions. Just as blogging and other forms of social media have given everyone who wants one a voice and a public forum, independent digital publishing can give every writer an audience. For the first time, it makes the long tail of publishing possible. Digital self-publishing means that you no longer have to ask permission to publish anything you want, and you no longer have to give up either control or revenue. In fact, the cost of digital publishing is so low that you don’t even have to make a good business case for publishing almost anything at all which means that the success or failure of a work can be entirely up to actual market forces rather than an attempt to anticipate what those forces are going to be.

I should point out that I don’t think traditional publishing is evil or entirely outmoded just as I don’t think traditional news and media outlets will or should entirely go away. Therefore, rather than criticizing traditional publishing, I’d like to focus on the things about digital self-publishing that I like:

  1. Time to market. You can get your work out to an audience in a matter days rather than months or years. I have been blogging and self-publishing in one form or another since 1997, and I’m accustomed to sharing my work with the world essentially instantly. The idea of waiting at least a year from the moment I complete a work to the time I can share it just doesn’t makes sense to me.
  2. You retain control. For better or for worse (and believe me, it cuts both ways), digital self-publishing lets you retain 100% control over what you show to the world. Of course, with power comes responsibility. But if you’re willing to take on that responsibility, having full control over your work is very rewarding.
  3. There’s more room for experimentation. Traditional publishing is a numbers game. Just like movie producers, agents and publishers simply have to make the best and smartest bets available to them which usually means going with what they know works. This keeps media consumers well stocked with the kinds of movies, television shows, novels, and stories they know they like, but it isn’t a very good method for fostering new and experimental work. (Consider the endless stream of cop and hospital dramas, movie sequels, and predictable formulaic plots). Traditional media is mostly about trying to replicate success while independent digital media can be more about taking chances and doing something new.
  4. You keep more of the money. I’ve said many times that if you really want to make money, writing fiction is probably one of the worst ways to spend your time. We can all name plenty of exceptions, but for the most part, the huge majority of fiction authors (or non-fiction authors, for that matter) make very little money in exchange for huge amounts of time and effort. That said, digital self-publishing offers extremely attractive royalties. The industry standard for digital self-publishing is currently between 65/35 and 70/30 (in favor of the author), and the money gets deposited right into your bank account in a timely and efficient manner. This kind of financial arrangement is absolutely unheard of in traditional publishing.

Why Not Digitally Self Publish?

Although I believe very strongly that digital self-publishing is a hugely important revolution, I also believe it’s not for everyone. Digital self-publishing is currently about much more than just writing. Below are the main challenges that you have to be willing to address if you want be a successful digital author and publisher:

  • Editing. Although I think the tolerance for things like typos in today’s fast-paced digital world is slightly higher, editing is about much more than the occasional misspelling. Whether you do it yourself, hire a professional, get friends or family to help out, or crowd-source the effort, your work will probably need to be well edited for it to be successful.
  • Art work. Just because you’re publishing digitally doesn’t mean there isn’t an important visual element to your work. Just as we still think of digital books as having pages, they will probably continue to have “covers” for the foreseeable future. Your book is going to need something visually striking to capture people’s attention.
  • Marketing and promotion. Once your work is available for purchase, it’s up to you to get people to buy it. There’s a saying I often hear in the context of digital media: the biggest problem facing most artists isn’t piracy — it’s obscurity.
  • Time and motivation. There’s a good reason why people tend to specialize; most of us simply don’t have the time or the inclination to become experts in multiple fields. Writers usually want to write. Editors want to edit. Artists want to design and create, and marketers want to help sell. Digital self-publishing currently means wearing a lot of different hats yourself. Time that you spend editing or self-promoting or working on a cover design is time you aren’t writing. Of course, all of these things can be handed off to other parties as they usually are in the traditional publishing world, but one way or another, by taking full responsibility for your work, you are taking full responsibility for every aspect of your success. Personally, this is something I really enjoy, however it is time-consuming, and certainly not for everyone.

Copyrighting Your Work

Before we go any further, a quick word on copyrights. When I first started down the digital self-publishing path, I was determined to be as open and transparent as possible. I released a free version of everything I wrote under a Creative Commons license, I charged as little as I could in order to be as inclusive as possible, and I taught as many people as would listen about digital self-publishing (hence this article). Being in a revolutionary mood, I therefore made the decision not to register my work with the copyright office since, according to copyright law, all works are automatically copyrighted as soon as they are produced. Additionally, with all the digital publishing outlets I use, I figured it would be easy to prove not only that I was the owner of a specific work, but also the precise date on which the work was published. With the law and plenty of evidence on my side, why spend the extra time and money participating in such an old and stodgy government institution?

All of these things are still true and correct to the best of my knowledge, however I have since learned two important pieces of additional information:

  1. The rest of the world still believes very strongly in registered copyrights. The first time I started talking to a producer about one of my stories, he asked me if I held the copyright. Of course I did, I told him, and proceeded to explain that I did not need to register with the copyright office and pay a tax in order to own my work. He wasn’t impressed, and I discovered that most people don’t care all that much about my hippie publishing experiments. Before someone puts time and/or money behind a project, they want to make certain nobody else can claim ownership of it, and part of that reassurance is registration with the United States Copyright Office.
  2. Registering your work with the copyright office is fast, cheap, and easy, so there’s really no good reason not to do it. The entire process can be done online, it’s relatively intuitive (for a government process), and as of 9/27/2011 (the day I’m adding this section), it only costs $35.

So my advice is to register all your work with the copyright office. Technically, you don’t have to do it, and technically, you own the copyright for everything you produce automatically the very moment you produce it, but as we all know, the world does not run on good will and gentlemen’s agreements. At this point, I have registered all my work, and I have nice pretty certificates that I can hand to lawyers or bring into court should the need ever arise. In my opinion, $35 is a small price to pay for any amount of additional legal coverage.

Introducing the Digital Self Publishing Players

This document covers the big three in digital self-publishing (in addition to self-publishing entirely independently):

  1. Amazon
  2. Apple
  3. Barnes & Noble

All of these companies have three important things in common:

  1. Good market share in terms of digital book readers.
  2. Very good royalty options (between 65/35 and 70/30, in favor of the author).
  3. Self-service portals for authors to manage their work. (Note that PubIt, Barnes & Noble’s self-service portal, isn’t live yet, but it will be any day now.)

This document does not cover the Reader Store available on Sony devices, or any of the eBook readers promoted by Borders. To my knowledge, there is no self-service mechanism for publishing to these platforms, and until there is, they are probably not practical targets for digital self-publishers. Digital self-publishing is, after all, largely about giving control to authors and reducing the number of layers between writers and audiences. In my opinion, providing content producers with a simple and powerful self-service portal is key to making digital self-publishing effective and efficient.

Below is a summary of each of the platforms this document covers:

1. Amazon

Amazon didn’t invent eBook readers, but I think it’s fair to say that they are the ones responsible for their mainstream success. The introduction of the Kindle in 2007 — and more specifically, the Kindle Store — is what finally made eBooks stick.

The Kindle platform exists in two distinct forms:

  1. Kindle devices
  2. Kindle applications

Kindle devices are the actual Kindle eBook readers created, manufactured, and sold by Amazon. They are based on E Ink technology, come in different sizes, and have direct access to the Kindle Store for downloading new content (either over WiFi or 3G, depending on the version).

Kindle applications, on the other hand, allow you to read books purchased through the Kindle Store on other devices. Kindle applications are currently available on several different platforms:

All Kindle applications are capable of synchronizing things like notes, bookmarks, and last page read across Kindle devices. Authors self-publish to the Kindle platform through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

2. Apple

Apple got into the eBook market with the introduction of iBooks and immediately began building market share. iBooks is only available for Apple devices (the iPad, iPod touch, and the iPhone) which, together, represent a massive share of the digital reader market. iBooks has a built-in bookstore, and like the Kindle platform, iBooks synchronizes your bookmarks, notes, last page read, and other data across devices. Authors self-publish to iBooks through iTunes Connect and iTunes Publisher (available through iTunes Connect).

3. Barnes & Noble

Like the Kindle platform, Barnes & Noble offers both hardware E Ink-based eBook readers (the Nook), and Nook applications for several different platforms:

Like the Kindle and iBooks platforms, Nook applications synchronize your data across devices. Authors self-publish to the Nook platform through PubIt.

Understanding Royalties

All digital self-publishing platforms offer very attractive royalties when compared to traditional publishing, however each platform also has a slightly different policy. The table below is a breakdown of how each of the big digital publishing players approaches royalties:

Publishing Platform Royalty Policy
Amazon Books below $2.99: 35%

Books from $2.99 – $9.99: 70%1

Books over $9.99: 35%

Apple 70% for all books
Barnes & Noble Books below $2.99: 40%

Books from $2.99 – $9.99: 65%

Books over $9.99: 40%

1 Amazon’s 70% option is now available to authors in both the US and the UK.

Which Platform(s) Should You Target?

Which platforms you decide to target is up to you, but in my opinion, there’s really no reason not to target them all. All of these platforms support the EPUB file format (even though Amazon doesn’t document this fact), so supporting all the major platforms is really just matter of creating three different accounts and uploading your book three separate times. In my opinion, there’s so little work involved in selling on each platform that in most cases, it’s worth supporting them all.

That said, there are some additional challenges involved in publishing to Apple’s iBooks:

  1. You have to own a Mac. iTunes Producer (the application used to upload content to the iBooks store) is only available for Mac.
  2. Apple requires all books to have ISBN numbers which means there’s some additional expense and work involved in publishing to iBooks.
  3. For some reason, there is no way to link directly to your book which makes promoting your work through a blog or social networks very difficult. Update: It’s now possible to link directly to your publications on iBooks.

More detail on the first two points is provided below.

Becoming a Publisher

If you’re serious about digital independent or self-publishing, you might want to consider doing two things:

  1. Starting a company.
  2. Becoming an “actual” publisher.

Starting a Company

Starting an LLC or an S corporation is cheap and easy, and it allows you to operate as a corporate entity rather than as an individual. That means using a tax ID rather than a social security number, and being able to open a small business bank account. I like the idea of separating my writing income from my other finances, and having my own small business makes the process much easier. Note that this is certainly not required for digital self-publishing, so it might be overkill for those who are just experimenting with the medium. But if self-publishing is something you think you’re going to be committed to long-term, starting a company might be the way to go.

Becoming a Publisher

All you have to do to become a publisher is purchase a block of ISBNs, or International Standard Book Numbers. Apple requires all books to have ISBNs while Amazon and Barnes & Noble support optionally assigning ISBNs to self-published works. For the sake of consistency, I assign an ISBN to everything I publish — even short stories.

If you decide you want to go the route of purchasing ISBNs, I recommend reading the article How to Obtain an ISBN Number (there’s no sense in me repeating all of Mr. Rosenthal’s advice here). Remember that the only platform that requires ISBN numbers is Apple’s iBooks, so if you want to limit your distribution to Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, you can skip this step and save yourself some time, money, and effort.

Standardize on EPUB

Let me save you a huge amount of time and frustration right from the beginning: use the EPUB format for your digital books. All the most important digital book platforms support EPUB which means you can work with a single format and distribute it everywhere. The EPUB format certainly has plenty of detractors, however I actually think it actually works very well for text-centric books. Books and periodicals which are image-heavy or rely on a very specific layout do not convert well to EPUB, but if your book is primarily a set of parts, chapters, and sections, EPUB works great.

The first few pieces I published on the Kindle platform were formatted in HTML with a few Amazon-specific tags (the Kindle actually supports the Mobipocket format natively, so it is more correct to say “mobipocket” tags). The results were certainly passable, but I could never get the exact results I wanted. For instance, I found stylesheet support to be iffy, and no matter how many examples I dug up online and how closely I followed Amazon’s documentation, I could never get my books to behave exactly how I wanted in all circumstances. Additionally, Amazon’s platform does not lend itself well to trial and error, so every time I experimented with something new, I risked releasing a broken version out into the marketplace and very likely losing readers. Meanwhile, I found Apple’s platform very easy to work with because it supports EPUB natively. EPUB is a well-defined standard with a fair amount of documentation and tooling support which makes it much more approachable.

When I found out that Amazon actually does support EPUB (though it’s not documented), my workflow completely changed. I now have a system set up where I author directly in HTML, then “compile” my work into EPUB when it’s time to publish (EPUB is essentially an archive of XHTML files). The format works across all digital publishing platforms, and it even gets you additional functionality on the Kindle that their recommended HTML format does not get you (a more advanced progress bar which marks chapter breaks, embedded cover art, etc.). And, as I mentioned earlier, I can generate one EPUB file that I can use with Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. It’s hard to overstate the convenience of working with a single file format.

Describing the EPUB file format and how to create EPUB files is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll try to point you in the right direction:

Rolling Your Own EPUB Solution

In addition to being a science fiction writer, I’m also a software developer, so I decided to build my own solution for generating EPUB files. I write everything in HTML, then run a set of scripts which “builds” my EPUB file as well as a Mobipocket file that I can use for testing on my Kindle (you can upload EPUB files to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, but you can’t copy EPUB files directly to your Kindle; the Kindle supports Mobipocket files natively). This process allows me to treat my writing like source code: I check it into a source control system for versioning, and I can run various kinds of scripts on it to do things like extract the differences between revisions, show me word counts, quickly and easily search for occurrences of words across multiple documents, etc. For me, treating my writing like source code is very natural and an extremely powerful way to work, however I know that it’s not going to work for very many other writers out there.

Using EPUB Tools

Most people are going to want to use third-party tools to generate EPUB files. Unfortunately, I don’t have extensive experience with EPUB tooling, so I can’t give you much advice on which ones to use, but I’ll tell you what I do know:

  • Pages (part of Apple’s iWork suite) will now generate EPUB files (here are instructions on how to do it). Liza Daly of Three Press Consulting test-drove Pages, and says the support is not quite all there yet, but it’s probably good enough to get you through for now. If you’re a Mac user, I would definitely recommend exploring this approach.
  • Adobe’s InDesign exports to EPUB. This will probably only make sense for people who are already into digital publishing. If you’re not, you will likely find InDesign to be both overkill, and somewhat non-intuitive since it’s not a word processor replacement. That said, if you’re planning a print version of you work in addition to a digital version, getting to know InDesign is probably well worth your time and money since you can use it to create both. (Disclaimer: I work for Adobe, but my job has nothing to do with InDesign. I am a huge believer in the right tool for the job, and would never advocate one product or tool over another if didn’t make sense.)

I wish I could provide you with more details on how to generate EPUB files, but I just don’t have much experience with third-party tools. I would encourage you to experiment with the different options available out there and go with whichever one is most intuitive to you. Just make sure to validate your EPUB files either with an online tool, or a tool you can download and run yourself before attempting to upload them. Apple’s platform is (rightfully) very picky about the integrity of EPUB files, so it’s best to test them independently before uploading them for publication.

Publishing to the Kindle Store

To self-publish to the Kindle platform, you use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. I would encourage you explore the KDP site thoroughly since it doesn’t make sense for me to reproduce their documentation here. That said, here are some tips that you probably won’t find in Amazon’s documentation:

  • Use EPUB. I know I’ve already covered this, but I want to reiterate that Amazon’s EPUB support is not documented. They do claim to support uploading Mobipocket files directly, but I haven’t gotten it to work correctly (I’ve tried several times, and always found that the conversion process causes corruption). If you have an EPUB file that validates, it should work fine with KDP. I’ve tested it personally on several occasions with no problems at all.
  • Use KindleGen to test your books. KindleGen is a free tool that Amazon provides for converting EPUB files into Mobipocket files. Once you have an EPUB file that you’re happy with, I would strongly recommend using KindleGen to convert it into a Mobipocket file, and then testing it on your Kindle. (Just plug your Kindle into your computer via USB, and drag the Mobipocket file into your Kindle’s Documents directory.)
  • Use the Kindle Previewer to test your Mobipocket file. If you don’t have a Kindle, or if you want to see what your book will look like on different Kindle devices and applications, test it out with the free Kindle Previewer tool. Don’t upload it to KDP until it looks perfect in Kindle Previewer.
  • Create an author page. Once your book has been published, don’t forget to create your own author page. (Here’s mine.)
  • Consider a print version. Although I think digital publishing is where the publishing industry is going to grow, I also believe there is still value in physical books (if nothing else, they give you something to sign and to give away to promote your work). If you decide to create a print version, consider using a service like Lulu which can distribute your paperback on Amazon right alongside your digital version. (I don’t know yet whether this will be possible with Barnes & Noble; I’ll update this document when I find out.) I have had several readers purchase the paperback edition of Containment after reading the digital version just to have a physical keepsake.

Publishing Through Apple’s iBooks Store

To publish to Apple’s iBooks store, start by logging into iTunes Connect. Although you’re going to want to follow Apple’s instructions, here are a few tips:

  • Buy or borrow a Mac. Odd as it may sound, you actually need a Mac in order to publish to the iBooks store. While Amazon’s tools are mostly web-based, Apple’s publishing tool is a desktop application called iTunes Publisher, and for obvious reasons, it’s not available for Windows or Linux.
  • Buy ISBN numbers. Apple requires ISBNs for everything published through iTunes Connect.
  • Validate your EPUB file. Apple is very picky about the EPUB file format, so make sure to validate your EPUB file before uploading it.
  • Test your EPUB files with iBooks. You can easily test your EPUB files with iBooks just by dragging your EPUB file into iTunes and syncing it with your iPad, iPod touch, or iPhone. iBooks is a free application, and probably the nicest and best EPUB reader I’ve used.
  • Link your books together. If you publish multiple books, make sure to link them in iTunes Publisher by their ISBNs. That will enable readers to more easily find your other works.

Publishing on the Barnes & Noble Nook

Barnes & Nobel’s self-service portal is called PubIt, and fortunately, it is almost identical to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. In fact, you can repurpose all of your KDP assets and information when publishing via PubIt. The only difference I can spot between the two systems is that PubIt lets you enter editorial reviews at the time of uploading your book — a feature I suspect will be widely abused.

PubIt supports the following file types:

  • EPUB
  • Microsoft Word
  • Rich Text Format (RTF)
  • HTML
  • Text files

The only format I’ve used with PubIt is EPUB, and again, I strongly suggest you use EPUB, as well. Even though I haven’t tried using the other formats, I can guarantee that you won’t get the level of control and accuracy with any of them that you get with EPUB. EPUB is the Nook’s native file format which means anything else will need to be converted to EPUB which, in turn, means bugs and unsupported features. Take it from a software developer: it won’t work perfectly.

You can test your EPUB files either with the tools mentioned previously, or with the free Nook for PC application. You can publish either as an individual (with your social security number), or as a corporation (using your EIN), and ISBNs are optional.

Digital Self Publishing Without a Third Party Platform

Publishing through one or all of the big three digital publishing platforms is hugely advantageous to writers. Just as iOS devices (iPhones, iPods, and iPads) have created a very attractive market for applications, the Kindle, the iBooks store, and the Barnes & Noble Nook have created sizable markets for digital books. Additionally, using a third-party platform means you don’t have to worry about distribution, or about handling financial transactions yourself.

That said, even though I use all the relevant third-party platforms, I also distribute all my work myself by releasing everything I write for free in EPUB and HTML formats under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Although I’ve been told many times that I’m crazy for giving my work away — and for selling it for so cheap, for that matter — I have a different perspective. For me, writing is first about creating something new and sharing it with the world, and second about making money. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to make money from writing. Quite the contrary, in fact. I believe that by becoming a significant and important cultural contributor, opportunities will arise to make money. This is an important decision that writers and other content producers need to consider carefully. I don’t believe there is any one approach that works for everyone — and frankly, I have no idea if this will even work out for me long term — so it’s important to find an approach that you think will meet your specific goals, and that you’re comfortable with.

Tips on Print Publishing

As I’ve already mentioned, I believe that digital publishing represents the real future growth of the publishing industry, however I also don’t think that print books are going away — at least not in the immediate future. Additionally, I actually see several unique advantages to print books:

  • They are keepsakes. It’s hard to sign a digital book, and digital books are not something that can really be collected and treasured. I still think it’s nice to make print editions of books available to those who want a physical keepsake.
  • They’re relatively cheap. It’s true that a print book is generally more expensive than a digital download, but compared to an eBook reader, they’re very cheap. That means print books can go places where your expensive digital eBook readers might not be able to like the pool, beach, bathtub, on a boat, etc. It’s much easier and more practical to stuff a mass-market paperback in your back pocket than a fragile device you paid hundreds of dollars for.
  • People share them. I love the idea of someone reading my books, then passing them along to someone else. I know many writers and publishers think that the practice of sharing books negatively impacts sales, but I believe that the more fans you have out there, the better you will do in the long run.
  • You can give them away. I love giving away copies of my books. I keep a box in my basement, and I give them away whenever I can. People email me all the time asking for signed copies, and I’m usually happy to send them out. Again, the more fans you have out there, the better you will do as an author.
  • Physical books can be visually striking. Although there are a lot of advantages to moving to a digital format for almost all kinds of books, one thing that can get lost is the visual beauty of a book cover. Although I still put a lot of time into the “covers” of my digital books, they’re not quite as striking as the physical versions. Again, I think it’s nice to have both available to readers.

Although really delving into self-publishing physical books is way beyond the scope of this document (I found it much more difficult to get perfect than the process of digital self-publishing), I might as well throw out a few tips:

  • Consider a service like Lulu that can distribute to online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Amazon will link your physical book with your digital download, and I assume that B&N will do the same.
  • Don’t skimp on your cover. Although I design all my own covers, I went to a friend who is a professional designer for help with the cover of the print version of Containment, and I think it’s much better than what I could have done alone. As I said before, one of the advantages of a physical book is the beauty of it, so if you don’t have a striking cover, you’re really missing out on a key opportunity.
  • Edit edit edit. There’s nothing more disappointing than getting a proof in the mail, opening it up, and seeing an egregious typo on the first page. Not only does it set you back in terms of time, but it also costs you a lot of money. Make sure your book is fully edited before you start generating physical copies.
  • Buy an ISBN number. For the most part, ISBNs are optional in digital publishing (except for Apple’s platform), but in the print world, they’re required.
  • Generate a barcode. I used this service for generating a free barcode, and it worked perfectly. For maximum flexibility in the future, include the price in the barcode, and on the book itself. Nothing says you have to sell your book for that much (you can always discount it), but having the price and barcode on the back gives you more distribution options in the future. (Most bookstores require them.)
  • Enable Google Book Search. For some reason, Google Book Search doesn’t index EPUB files yet (though I expect this to change very soon), but you can upload a PDF to Google and enable in-book search.
  • Enable Amazon “Search Inside the Book.” Again, this is only available to print books, for some odd reason (they probably just haven’t implemented it for digital books yet), so make sure to take advantage of it.


The world of digital self-publishing is still very much in its infancy. In the time I’ve been experimenting with it (since the beginning of 2010), it has already changed a great deal, and it will continue to evolve at a very rapid pace. We have finally reached the tipping point where digital book readers are here to stay, the viability of digital publishing has been proven, and the tools are available to empower any independent author determined enough to learn them.

I actually don’t think the world has figured out what a tremendous revolution digital self-publishing is yet, and just how disruptive it will prove to be. Digital self-publishing is to traditional publishing what blogging is to traditional news media. And just as the line between blogs and “real” media is essentially gone, so will go the distinction between independent and “published” writers.

13 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About How to Digitally Self Publish

  1. Christian, I wanted to take the time and come back and thank you properly. The information you’ve put together here is comprehensive and very well thought out.
    I’d been contemplating self-publishing since February of this year when I added a DBA for my publishing company to my existing business license and purchased a block of ISBN numbers, but feared I would be making mistakes based on various peer opinions and my newness to the industry.
    It was reassuring to read your piece and see I have taken the proper steps. Not only did I gain confidence that I am doing the right thing for my book, I also benefitted from your technical expertise and experience to know where the pitfalls may lay when I format.
    Thanks so much for the time and effort you put into preparing this article. I wish you much success in your own career, and I agree with your friends – don’t give your work away all the time. Make it super cheap and you’ll still be rewarded for your efforts. ;-)


  2. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this. Good information and tips.
    I haven’t had any trouble publishing DTP using WORD. I have to clean up the html to make it consistent, but it takes almost no time to do if the .doc was clean to begin with.
    I would like to do the ePUB route, just to “learn” it and its abilities over the way I’m now publishing. So my question: Where do I get this software? I went into Mobi site, but there’s nothing there that I could see. (I did download the Mobipocket reader)
    I’d appreciate being pointed in the right direction :-).
    Thanks for all this.


  3. Christian,
    I’m a friend of your wife’s — and I’ve been trying to find an agent to no avail. These are very difficult and trying times to be a first-time novelist, methinks. Anyway, this guide is incredibly helpful — thanks so much for putting this together. Digital publishing, here I come :-)


  4. Christian,
    We’ve exchanged a few words on the Amazon boards.
    I have found your website to be incredibly useful, especially this page. I too am an author, although right now I mostly edit other authors’ work for digital publishing. I used to just use word or writer to generate HTMLs, but since your suggestion and as a computer guy myself, I have been authoring directly in HTML. Just submitting the HTMLs to Amazon looks really good in the Kindle, however, I am interested in knowing more about how you ‘compile’ into ePub, as I would like to be able to have the advanced progress bar in my books. I have experimented with a program called Calibre, but I definitely cannot get the results I want. Would you be willing to share some tips on this?
    Thank you,


  5. Christian, I have looked at this several times and I have a question. I’m a photographer and I am working on an ebook. It is fairly image intensive, if I use the ePub format can I still use images etc?


  6. @Justin: Yes, you can include images. Think of an ePub file as a collection of HTML documents which means anything you can do in HTML (not counting JavaScript), you can do in an ePub archive. Obviously, you need to be aware of the fact that Kindle devices don’t display images well, but the Kindle app on phones and tablets handles images nicely.
    I’ll update my doc and include this information.


  7. Remarkable overview – very useful, thanks!
    I think the big stumbling block in self-publishing is actually not the production of the book – particularly ebooks are easy – but the marketing of it! That’s where problems start!
    This said, even traditional publishers expect you to do much of your own marketing…so one might as well self-publish and remain in control!


  8. Just an FYI – I started my own publishing company and did not need to form an LLC or an S corporation. I operate as an individual (sole proprietor). I applied for a free tax ID (EIN) from the IRS online so I do not need to use my social security number. I was able to open a small business bank account as well. So if you are going solo, it does not even need to involve forming an LLC or corporation. You can do it, literally, in under an hour.


  9. I have an audiobook produced that will be distributed to the usual companies. I would also like to have it distributed by a company that syncs the audio and the text. Do you know any companies that do that yet? Thank you, Mike


  10. It’s worth noting that in the United States you can under certain conditions register an “unpublished collection” for just =one= fee. Authoritative (and very well-written) information on all aspects of copyright registration in the United States is available at http://www.copyright.gov. You no longer have to guess about what the law is and how it is correctly applied.


  11. Thanks Chris. I wanted to know if the same applies for self made 3d animation movies. I have researched distributing costs and procedures and I really don’t have the time or money for either. Any useful information will be greatly appreciated.


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