Self-Publishing: DIY or Hire Help?

Chalkboard blackboard - black and squareAre you discouraged by industry experts who insist that self-published authors have to hire pros to prepare a self-published book? I read a lot of material directed at indie authors. Much of the content is written as guidance for new and wannabe writers, and how best to go about the process. Whatever the self-publishing-related subject, most of this advice is, “Hire someone to do it for you.”

In some cases, I disagree.

The hiring decision is about time, money, and inclination.
New authors are often working a day job and writing in spare moments, meaning they probably have money to spend but no extra time. However, if you’re working part-time while writing a book, you may have more daylight at your disposal and less cash to throw at a new venture.

I don’t want to write all the time. I like breaks in my writing process. I like to learn new things. So I dabble in other parts of the ebook creation process. So if you’re like me and you have an interest in learning to create covers or format ebook files, explore your interest. If you have the time, temperament, and inclination to do some of the work yourself – aside from writing the book – I say do it.

If you don’t like the results or your trusted advisers nix your efforts as sub-par, you can always hire out the work. So I will add a disclaimer to this post: Before you launch your ebook, find people you trust to tell you the truth and ask their opinion about your work.

Here are common recommendations often made by industry pros. Decide what’s right for you, even if it goes against popular opinion.

1) Authors should NOT do their own ebook formatting
In my opinion, there’s a host of reasons to do your own ebook formatting, and cost is not #1. It’s about control. Changes are quick and easy to make when you format yourself. You can add an excerpt of a your new release to a previous title. You can go back into any file and add a call to action for readers to leave a review at the end. Even the best proofreaders can miss a correction or two – simple to repair when you do your own formatting.

I’ve toyed with formatting using Smashwords’ nuclear method and it does take time, but that’s the direction I’m headed. Is it frustrating at first? Oh yeah. Is it beyond the ability of the average person? Heck no. But like any new skill, it’s not difficult once you learn the process. The question is, do you want to take the time?

Author David Gaughran advocates a DYI ebook formatting method you can explore.  And FYI, Scrivener will export your mss to all ebook files, and users say it’s seamless. Here’s another good article about ebook formatting.

2) Authors should hire an assistant – or a publicist, or a website optimizer, or a
Sure, once you have a library of titles for sale and some money coming in. If your pockets are deep right out of the gate, go for it. Hire them all.

But I think it puts people off when seasoned authors tell newbies “it’s all too overwhelming to do yourself.” Is it overwhelming? Absolutely. Is it impossible to set up your own website, learn about the book promotion process, and tackle these things yourself? No, it’s not impossible. It might take longer to get where you want to go, but if your coin purse is light and you’re determined, you can do much of the work yourself.

In the meantime, tons of books and classes and blogs give really good direction to DIYers. And, as you achieve success (can you say “royalties?), you can always hire out more and more.

3) Authors should NOT create their own book covers
I’ve had some “extra” time this year, so I used it to learn Photoshop basics, then had a go at creating my own branded book covers. Truth? I tore my hair out until my friend Belinda Pollard taught me the simple way to remove white backgrounds from jpg images. (Mwah! Thank you!)

Self-pubbers with self-created covers have won accolades from The Book Designer’s cover awards. So don’t be put off if you have an interest. Read up on the elements of  good cover design and give it a go. Your goal is to “brand” your covers, which means create a look you can use with a few element changes on every book.

PAINT150x_OpFYI, one of the most crazy-making parts is finding the right images. Searching image sites can literally take hours. On the other hand, you can stumble across something and put together a design in no time, which happened for me with my third book, Paint Me Gone.

If you do create your own covers, understand copyright law with regard to the images you use in them. Check out Joanna Penn’s great post about creating covers in MS Word. Here’s another about cover design: 8 cover design secrets publishers use to manipulate readers into buying books.

4) Authors should ALWAYS use KDP Select
I only recently enrolled books in KDP Select, and, of course, the downside is that Select membership disallows the ability to sell books on other platforms. And sales on other platforms may offset the $$ non-Select authors can’t earn from Amazon’s lending programs. So you decide. And while you’re at it, you might want to re-read my post about ebook pricing.

5) Authors must be active on all social media platforms
Ha! Whoever advises this is definitely an overachiever, has deep pockets and pays someone to post for them, or operates on little sleep. Yes, you need a strong social media presence, you have to be visible, and you have to work at it.

But you don’t need to interact on every platform; you simply need to choose your favorite 2 – 3 social media sites and build a following there. Over time, set up profiles on all of them and try them out, then focus on the sites you enjoy. Keep in mind the #1 reason to be on social media is to drive traffic to your blog. So while you should share blog posts on many platforms, you don’t actually need to spend time on them all. I focus almost exclusively on Twitter and my blog.

Bottom line, if you choose to take on a self-publishing-related task yourself, your product has to be professional quality. And not just to you; your trusted group of advisers need to sign off on your work, as well. How do you learn a new skill? Read about it. Watch YouTube videos. Take a class. Learn via trial and error. Seek outside advice on your works-in-progress from competent beta readers or structural and content editors.

SO, if you’re low on funds, invest what you have in professional editing and proofreading and try doing some of the other tasks yourself.

I’ll close with a quote from Author & Blogger David Gaughran: “A mystique has attached itself to the publishing process. Newbies are told that publishing is hard, that it requires skills limited to the most rabidly entrepreneurial types – despite the hordes of writers from all sorts of backgrounds that are self-publishing. And they are told it’s expensive – despite the huge numbers of self-publishers that have released professional looking books on a limited budget.” Read the entire article here: Publishing is Easy.

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37 Responses to Self-Publishing: DIY or Hire Help?

  1. Bill Stout November 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    My wife is the author and I guess you can call me the publisher. I have formatted the book for CreateSpace, Kindle, and epub for Nook, Apple, and Kobo. I have also created the cover for all of them. The cover we have is probably not the best and I have a new design in the works. That’s the great thing about doing it all your self. You can re-publish at any time and you can change the cover if you decide that’s what you want to do. We have basically invested nothing to get the book out the door, but we have spent some money giving some paperback books away. We have also published an audio book through ACX. We did this with a royalty split with the narrator, so that has not cost us any money out of pocket, but does reduce our royalty income on the audio books by half.

    • Molly Greene November 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

      Great news, Bill! I agree, although the learning curve can be rough, it’s a plus to be able to change things easily – which you can if you do it yourself. I say if funds are tight, put your $$ into editing and proofing help. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. John Chapman November 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    I co-author books with my wife. I do the formatting, the cover, the publicity. Together we do the editing. We do the lot. It’s time consuming and we have now been working on this for six years. I know I’ve made mistakes but because I do it myself it’s easy to correct them.

    Biggest mistake was to spend three years going round agents. We should have self-published back in 2007.

    Next biggest mistake was not joining Kindle Select when it started. We had just two months of it before everything changed in mid April 2012. Those two months were phenomenal though – we sold in one month eight times as many books as we had in the previous two years!

    Third mistake was not taking the time to learn the importance of the keywords and book description KDP asks for. Once I figured this out changing just one keyword and tweaking the description and title doubled our sales.

    Eleven books later, we are still learning. Here’s some things I discovered recently –
    • On you can get some excellent book covers made for just $5
    • Explore the search area of Amazon – type a keyword followed by ‘a’ Note what Amazon suggests and then try ‘b’ and so on. The collection of words you get will be those people are looking for at Amazon.

    • Molly Greene November 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

      John, that’s so exciting to hear! Thanks for all the pointers and for sharing your experience. So are you still in KDP Select now, or have you opted to sell on other sites?

      • John Chapman November 4, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

        We left Kindle Select a couple of months after they changed the ranking system. I kept one book in it to see what happened but it went nowhere so after another six months we withdrew that also.
        We write a book series ‘A Vested Interest’. It’s in our interest to give the first book in the series away free. The first book was published to Smashwords and distributed to B&N, iTunes etc. Amazon price matched it which makes it free full time. So far we’ve given away over 28,000 free – and it’s a big book! The return is that for every five books given away we’ll get someone who goes on to buy the other seven in the series. We’re about to release two prequel books and a ninth AVI book.
        For us – Free works. That may not be true for everyone though.

        • Molly Greene November 4, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

          Fascinating to hear your experiences, John. I hear other authors say nothing comes of Smashwords, do you think it’s worth it? And have you diversified into audiobooks, etc.? Would love to hear your thoughts on multiple income streams.

          • John Chapman November 4, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

            Our income through Smashwords is relatively minor. We have about $500 there waiting for us to collect it as soon as I can get round to phoning the US IRS to sort out the paperwork. (We live in the UK). Still – it’s like having money in the bank so Smashwords is worth it. One day I’ll find the time to promote our books there properly. The more you put into promotion – the more you get out. There are people who make thousands at Smashwords. I suspect that those who don’t make money at Smashwords are not putting much effort into promoting books there.
            Audiobooks? Not yet. All our books are large. The shortest is 94,000 words. I dread to think of the cost of converting them or the time it would take to do this myself

          • Molly Greene November 5, 2013 at 9:08 am #

            Thanks, John. Re: Smashwords, when you find out the “secrets” of the platform will you tell us how in a guest post? and Re: audiobooks, I understand you can make deals now w/narrators that they’ll be paid a portion of book sales. I’ll look into it!

  3. Belinda Pollard November 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    Hear, hear! I think there’s lots of things you can learn to do yourself, and if you enjoy it and you have time, why ever not?

    Molly, you are turning into a Cover Design Maniac. 😉 I love that Paint Me Gone cover!

    I format ebooks in Scrivener, and it works a treat. Yes, I’m from a pro publishing background, but there wasn’t a “formatting ebooks” course back when I did my degrees. (er, there were no ebooks back then!!) So I taught myself to do it. Google a few things and give it a go, that’s what I say. Make sure you test it on your own devices at home, and then you’ll know if it’s functioning correctly.

    • Molly Greene November 4, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

      Sometimes I think as creative people, our interests have no bounds. And sometimes I think learning all these things will keep my brain young. Most of the time, though, I just want to do it myself because I’m impatient and have an insatiable need for control. There, I’ve said it.

  4. Lambert Nagle November 4, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    The competition is too fierce now, with thousands of new books published every week, so that books that look amateurish stand out from the crowd. That’s why I hire in editing services – both structural editing as we well as line and copy editing. My co-writer designed the cover of our first novel but for the second we have hired a professional cover designer – after admiring his work on a book cover he did for a fellow author. We found formatting our own work time consuming and challenging, particularly for ePub. We have bought Scrivener in the hope that this will make exporting to the various formats a little easier.

    • Molly Greene November 5, 2013 at 9:06 am #

      Agreed, the competition is fierce, good editing and proofing is a must, and all work done by DIYers has to look professional.

  5. Elizabeth Ducie November 5, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    Molly, I wish I’d known this post was coming out before I did mine yesterday on the best guides to DIY epublishing; I could have given you (another) plug. Some great pointers in here, thanks very much. I’ve recently started using Scrivener, but haven’t got round to the ebook formatting yet. That’s for next time.

    I do it all myself, apart from the cover design which sometimes I sub out and sometimes I do myself. After reading this, I’m definitely going to have another go myself.

    • Molly Greene November 5, 2013 at 9:11 am #

      Thanks, Elizabeth! Not everybody is cut out to “do it all,” and I understand the reason people cringe when they think about it. But for people like us, learning other aspects of the process provides a break – and for me, sometimes it’s comic relief. Thanks so much for your comment and your support!

  6. Tony D November 5, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    Nice article. I’ve been looking at hiring someone off Elance to help me with eliciting blog reviews as I find it incredibly boring. But at the moment I don’t have the extra cash to invest in a serious publicity campaign, so I’m starting grassroots with my niche market (the mens seduction industry) and branching out to more mainstream literary bloggers. The thing is, I have no clue where to start.

    I just want to write dammit.

  7. Ellis Shuman November 6, 2013 at 2:14 am #

    Hi Molly,

    You mentioned it in the article, but I think it should be highlighted and stand out as one of the most important aspects of the self-publishing process = authors MUST hire a professional editor. You need another pair of eyes to look at your manuscript. This is essential. You must not click the “upload” button anywhere until your manuscript has been reviewed and edited professionally.

    Just my two cents…


    • Molly Greene November 6, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

      Thanks, Ellis. Yes, agreed, if money is tight, put it toward editing and proofing!

  8. Nathan Meunier November 6, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Knowing what to farm out and what to do yourself is pretty key, and it’s up to you to decide what level of DIY you want to take. I found some tasks were to important to fiddle with myself, while others were useful to have direct control over.

    For my recent non-fiction how to guide on video game journalism, I hired a colleague (a pro freelancer and editor at Mac|Life magazine) to edit the book. That made a big difference. I thought the near final draft I had together was really solid, and it was, but the back and forth, suggestions, and helpful feedback that you can only get from a good editor improved the final version a ton!

    I hired a cool artist who does pop-culture paintings to do the cover for this book and my follow-up. That’s definitely worth shelling out a little for, as I found that, while I have a good eye for layout – I just don’t have the art skills to lay down a fancy foundation. I did, however, do all of the layout for front and back covers myself. That was worth having control.

    But ebook and print formatting? URGH. That was the worst. Worth learning, but damn it was such a hassle.

    Anyhow, great piece as always! CheerS

    • Molly Greene November 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      Hey Nathan! I couldn’t have said it better. Know thyself!! And find a good editor!! As for ebook formatting, it’s kind of a mindless task all around, but I think formatting for non-fiction works is harder because of the “block” paragraphs. Interesting comment about layout for back covers – I haven’t tackled that yet! Cheers to you, and thanks so much for your comment.

  9. Laura Matson Hahn November 7, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Good pointers as I am at the beginning of the promotion part. One share I do have is working with an artist. I found someone who’s work I liked – the “feel” of it – we connected via facebook 2 years ago and still have not met. But working virtually, and giving her lots of time and creative space, she created not only my cover (my beautiful cover) but also an oil painting to boot. I’m crafting a blog on this topic because it was such a gratifying and satisfying experience. At the end, we came to a fair price for an unpublished novelist and a new-bookcover designer, with a promise of better compensation if and when …. I love everything about working with a professional artist for my cover.

    • Molly Greene November 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Laura! One of the best things about social media is all the wonderful people we meet on the platforms. I have friends all over the country that I only *know* online, and I’m better for having met them. Congrats on your book!

  10. Lee Drugan November 8, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    A book cover is extremely important, readers do judge a book by its cover! I wouldn’t tell an author that they shouldn’t create their own, but I’d advise them to do so with care. I do agree that it’s worth a shot, and if you don’t like the outcome, then you can hire a designer!

    • Molly Greene November 8, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      So true, Lee. There are also well-priced templates self-pubbers can purchase for a nominal fee.

  11. Lisa November 10, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    Great post, thank you! I am finishing my first book and have spent months researching and reading about publishing (I dare say I have too much information at this point).
    My plan is to use createspace and self publish ~ doing my best with cover/title/layout. I like the flexibility of changing the cover or adding more material or fixing a mistake.
    After I self-publish, is it unrealistic to then send proposals to publishers? The book is in the self-help, parenting genre.
    Any advice, greatly appreciated!

    • Molly Greene November 10, 2013 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks, Lisa. The mindset used to be that publishers wouldn’t consider self-published books, but nowadays people talk about self-published titles as “the new slush pile.” Although this is outside my area of expertise, I believe you can continue to query publishers – but I’d prefer you did more research on your own. It may depend on the publisher. Don’t take my word for it. Best to you on your book!

  12. Ernie Zelinski November 11, 2013 at 2:48 am #

    Great article:

    I like the way you challenge the so-called wisdom from the self-proclaimed “book experts.”

    As for myself, I will even challenge the idea that you need a great looking book cover. I can give an example of a self-published retirement book (not my own but one that competes with mine) that has a horrible cover and outsells many of the retirement books published by the major publishers. A book with great content will create word-of-mouth advertising and will overcome the fact that it has a horrible cover.

    I started self-publishing in 1989. My motto has always been, “Do it badly – but at least do it.” This motto has served me well. The following quotation applies:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    Another principle that has helped me sell over 800,000 copies of my books worldwide is to challenge the “book experts” every chance I get.

    This I can tell you: I have had a lot more success than a lot of the “book experts” out there who are selling programs on writing, publishing, and marketing to unsuspecting wannabe best-selling authors. And a lot of these “book experts” claiming to be best-selling authors have had books that have sold fewer than 500 copies through normal channels. (I have access to the industry reporting system that shows how many copies of an author’s book has sold through normal channels.)

    Regarding the pricing of ebooks at 99 cents or giving away ebooks for free, I refuse to do either. In fact, I refuse to price my ebooks for less than $5.97 unless it is a book of quotations.

    I avoid Social Media for promoting books simply because there are many much more effective ways to promote a book. I have developed several ways that the “book experts” won’t tell you simply because they are not creative enough to think of them.

    These quotations are particularly true when it comes to being successful at self-publishing.

    “Book writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Anyone who decides to write a book must expect to invest a lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success. Books do not write themselves and they do not sell themselves. Authors write and promote their books.”
    — Dan Poynter

    “The vast majority of self-published books sell less than ten copies a year online and through traditional retail channels, and that probably disappoints a lot of self-publishers. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s hard enough for traditionally published books to register meaningful sales, and they have huge built-in advantages.”
    — Jeff Herman, Literary Agent

    “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”
    — Mark Twain

    “Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
    — Michael Korda

    “No amount of money or marketing can overcome a book that doesn’t deliver. So your first challenge is to write a book that your networks assure you is as good as you want it to be. The content of your books will determine how you sell them to publishers and promote them to book buyers. Content precedes commerce.”
    — Rick Frishman

    “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”
    — Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver

    In short, to be a success at self-publishing, one must write a great book and know how to market it to the right readers so that it creates word-of-mouth advertising for many years to come.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Molly Greene November 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

      Thanks, Ernie! Thanks so much for your comprehensive comment!

  13. Rutchie November 22, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    DIY or hire a professional is a case by case basis, however not all can do it by their own. I’ve known a lot of authors who are not computer-savvy. I learned some points from this article 🙂

  14. Ron McMillan December 15, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    There is so much good advice in this article. Despite being twice-previously published by a traditional, print publisher – a very good one – I found myself with a LOT to learn before I was ready to hit the ‘upload’ button at KDP.

    I read everything I could find on the subject of self-publishing, and doing so convinced me that the majority of people who go ahead and self-publish don’t even do that kind of research. By far the most commonly stated advice relates to the need for professional editing. I would say that in excess of 99% of self-published books uploaded to KDP have never been exposed to professional editing – something that is obvious, sometimes not just in the ‘Look Inside’ extract, but jumps off the page in the ‘blurb’ on the Amazon page BEFORE you even get ‘inside’ the book. I brought a professional editor in on my self-published book, and boy was I glad I did.

    The second most common piece of advice is about the cover. Covers are vital. I was a professional photographer for fifteen years, working for some of the best magazines in the world, but I didn’t even CONSIDER designing my own cover. I gave the job to an excellent graphic designer – and I think the resultant cover of Bangkok Cowboy speaks for itself. The majority of self-published book covers look like they were done by the guy who never designed anything in his life. Going down that route is self-defeating to the point of suicidal.

    The one area where I disagree with some of the experts is formatting. I read up on it, and succeeded in doing a decent job on my own. It took a lot of reading and involved a steep learning curve, but, in fact, it was fairly easy. Formatting, unlike editing and writing and cover design, is a detail-driven mechanical process, and requires little or nothing in the way of artistic talent. If it did, I’d never have managed to produce a near-perfect Kindle book at my first try. [Yes, there are some errors, but only a tiny number of them – not enough to make it look amateurish – and some of those would not be noticed by anyone other than a publishing professional. In contrast, one of my previous books, formatted by professionals for my traditional publisher, is a mish-mash of errors that, before I learned how to do it myself, didn’t even look to bad to me.]

    With apologies for running on too long, I just want to say that I appreciate the work done here by Molly, and respect the informed wisdom of David Gaughran.

    Ron McMillan
    Chiang Mai, Thailand
    (written in the small hours of the morning after a very long day – which is my lame excuse for the inevitable typos)

    • Molly Greene December 15, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ron. I agree about formatting, and I understand why a lot of authors do NOT want to navigate the learning curve – although in my opinion, it gets easier and faster with every book. And as for book covers, I will simply say this: I’ve seen a lot of professionally-done covers that look amateurish to me. Paying hundreds of dollars for a cover doesn’t guarantee it’ll be fabulous. Bottom line, it’s good content that readers will share via word of mouth.

  15. Bakari Chavanu April 26, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    I’m writing and producing my first book using iBooks Author, and what’s helpful are the wide variety of templates for the application. Most of us writers are not graphic designers, but book templates and covers can be very useful self-publishing, especially if you want to keep your budget low.

    I also agree about freebies. Unless you already have a significant income, I don’t a writer should be giving away his or her work. Freebies should only be a strategies to see books.

    • Molly Greene April 27, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

      Thanks, Bakari. I agree, book cover templates can be a great way to go! Best to you on your upcoming book release.

  16. Leni Leanne Phillips June 14, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Great post, straightforward and realistic without being discouraging. There’s so much information out there, there are so many choices and so many decisions to make. It can get overwhelming and, as you wrote, there are trade-offs and it’s important to allocate your time well. Thanks for summing it all up so nicely. It gave me a lot to think about.

    • Molly Greene June 14, 2014 at 8:46 am #

      Thank you so much, Leni. There is a huge amount of info and so much to learn that’s it difficult to know where to start and which way to go from there. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know I helped! Best of luck to you in your self-publishing journey.

  17. Jim Crocker- aka Adam James December 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    This was a great post on a well-designed WordPress site. I’love keep looking for more good stuff from you.

    Jim in MT