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Traditionally considered a last resort by many, new technology and the rise of the online bookseller has made self publishing a credible business model for many new and established authors.

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Vanity and subsidy publishers
Print technologies
eBook retailers

Vanity and subsidy publishers

A vanity or subsidy publisher charges you for the cost of a book’s production then gives you a percentage of any sales revenue. The archetypal vanity publisher of old was little more than a con artist encouraging authors to buy expensive bindings (hardback deluxe faux-leatherette with embossed lettering and gilt trim) then pay for hundreds of copies to be printed on the strength of extravagant marketing promises. A year or two later the promises would turn to excuses (assuming the publisher could still be found) and the author would be offered the chance to buy back their hundreds of copies to save them being pulped (assuming they were ever printed in the first place).

This type of operator has largely been squeezed out of business by online printer/publishers such as Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace. These subsidy publishers offer a range of service packages (print, design, distribution, marketing etc) that can be tailored to the needs of the would-be author. You still have to pay to be published, but the process is far more transparent.

Note that in many cases subsidy publishing does not qualify as self publishing, true self publishing requires you to own your own ISBN (see below).


If you’re thinking about self publishing consider the following.

Do you want printed copies?
Do you want your own ISBN?
Do you want an eBook?

Print technologies

If you want physical copies of your book — and want to use a regular printer rather than a subsidy publisher — you have a choice between two technologies:

Offset printing. Traditional printing where ink is pressed onto paper. This is only cost effective in bulk; typically 1,000 copies is the minimum run for an offset printer. Offset printing is sometimes referred to by its formal name ‘offset lithography’ or simply ‘litho’.

Digital printing. Similar to the printing technology of a home or office printer, digital printing is used for smaller print runs and can be used to print a single copy if necessary. Using digital technology books can be printed as they’re needed, a process often described as Print-on-Demand (POD). Digital printing is the process most often used by subsidy publishers.

The key issue in deciding which option to choose is the number of copies you require. If you’re convinced you can shift books in bulk (and have room to store surplus stock while you’re doing it) then the economy offered by offset printing makes it an obvious choice.

Apart from cost there’s also a difference in quality; that of the offset printer being considered superior to digital. Some digital print companies produce decent books, but not all printers are created equal. The established printer with a long record of traditional book production is likely to produce better digital copies than the relative newbie who has experience only in digital processes. Traditional printing skills such as choosing correct paper weights, grain alignment and binding methods all make a vital contribution to the quality of a digital copy.

When choosing a printer find out how they want to receive electronic files. Many will not accept files generated by a word processor, at the very least they will need a properly formatted PDF (see below).


The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) identifies more than just a book, it also identifies the ‘publisher of record’. If the company that provides your printing services also assigns you an ISBN they become your publisher and can exercise significant control over your work (though how much will depend on the terms of your agreement with them). Read your contract carefully to determine which rights the publisher is asking for (see Writers and the law).

ISBNs can be acquired only from certain accredited agencies: in the UK this is the Nielsen ISBN Agency ( in the USA it’s the US Bowker ISBN Agency ( If you want to be identified as the publisher of your own work you have to buy your ISBN directly from your country agency. This doesn’t mean you have to set up a company, you just have to think up a name for your imprint (‘The Laughing Gerbil Press’) and provide an address.

Be aware that you’ll need a different ISBN for every edition of your book. If you release a book as hardback, paperback and eBook, each version will need its own ISBN. If you release a new edition of any of these books, these will also require a new ISBN.


The alternative to print is the electronic book — the eBook that can be read on a computer, a portable device such as the iPad or an eReader such as the Kindle or Nook.

The main advantages of electronic publishing are the low cost and ease of distribution. Beyond the expense of software and any professional help you might get in editing your work or creating a cover, your overheads are minimal and you’re not tied to physical distribution through bookstores — anyone with an internet connection is a potential customer. On the downside, many people prefer having a book in their hand and, although eBooks are becoming increasingly popular, the majority of the book buying public still go for a paper copy.

eBook formats

There are a number of formats but only three are important:


ePub is a format used by a number of companies including Apple, Sony and Barnes & Noble. It’s an open source format meaning its development is guided by a working group whose members come from a range of organisations and companies.

AZW is the format used on the Amazon Kindle. AZW stands for Amazon Word (or Whispernet, depending on who you listen to) and is based on an open source format called Mobipocket (Mobi for short). AZW is essentially Mobi with added DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to help prevent illegal copying. Amazon also occasionally uses a proprietary eBook format called Topaz.

PDF is Adobe’s Portable Document Format. If you decide to offer your customers print copies of your book they will be generated using a PDF (see below).

Creating eBooks

eBook formats are similar to HTML the language used to create webpages and you can think of an eBook as a simple self-contained website. Once you’ve written the text of your book the next step is to convert it to the eBook format of your choice. Some word processing packages will do this: Scrivener will let you export a document as an ePub or Mobi file and Apple’s Pages can export to ePub. However, most online booksellers have their own conversion software that will take text in a variety of formats. For example, Amazon accepts documents as Word, ePub, Plain Text, Mobi, HTML, Adobe PDF and Rich Text Format. Mobi being the preferred choice.

Conversion tips

The conversion process can be problematic; the secret to a successful translation being to keep the formatting of your document as simple as possible. The more complex the formatting, the easier it is to confuse the conversion software. When formatting your text do the following:

• Avoid unusual fonts. Font choices are limited on eReaders (the Kindle uses a single font) so there’s no point being fancy. Use something simple, such as Times New Roman.

• Avoid a wide range of font sizes. The choice of font sizes is limited on many eReaders. The Kindle supports only seven.

• Don’t use page numbers. eBooks don’t have them. Readers can resize text and this makes numbering systems useless since this will also change the page count.

• Avoid multiple carriage returns (paragraph breaks). Multiple carriage returns are sometimes interpreted as page breaks. Most word processing software give you an option to view paragraph marks, spaces and tab marks (sometimes known as ‘invisibles’) and you can use this feature to help you monitor the hidden formatting of your text.

• Don’t use tabs. They give conversion software indigestion for some reason. If you want to indent text, use the ruler.

• Don’t use headers or footers. They won’t be recognised.

• Avoid bulleted and numbered lists. Converters find it hard to cope with these lists when they’ve been created automatically. If you need them, create them manually (remember not to use tabs).

• Don’t mess with right-hand margins. Converters can cope with formatted left-hand margins (eg text indented using the ruler) but will be confused by, or ignore, the formatting of right-hand margins.

• Don’t convert one eBook format to another. Although it’s possible to convert a PDF to an ePub file and then to a Mobi file and back again, it’s like playing Chinese whispers — errors will accumulate. Have one clean text copy of your work and use that as the starting point for any conversion. Even professional publishers have been known to tie themselves in knots when they convert from format to format.

• Do include a table of contents (TOC). Especially one that incorporates hyperlinks. A contents page is useful in any book, but particularly so in an eBook where there are no page numbers. In this book each chapter is hyperlinked to its heading in the TOC and there’s a link back to the TOC at the end of every chapter.

• Do start each chapter with a page break. Most conversion software will recognise a page break command.

eBook covers

There are no standard dimensions for an eBook cover but Amazon recommends an image at least 800 pixels high and 500 pixels wide (a 1.6 size ratio). Unless you have the skills and software it can be difficult to create a professional-looking eBook cover, but many design companies offer this service and online printer/publishers often supply tools to help you make your own. When designing your cover remember the following:

• Your cover is important. A fleeting look at your cover might be your one and only opportunity to attract a buyer’s interest.

• Your cover will be small. In most cases it will be a little over an inch high on a computer screen. Fine details will be lost and small print will be illegible. Simple strong designs work best.

• It might blend into the screen. A cover with white borders will merge with the screen if it’s displayed on a white background, put an edge round it if you want to avoid this.

• Avoid over-elaborate typefaces. Your choice of typeface will be as important as your cover design. Flouncy copperplate typefaces and highly stylised fonts may well be illegible when viewed on-screen.

• Make sure it’s the right resolution. Your cover must be have a resolution of 72dpi (dots per inch).

• Put the most important information at the top. This means the title of your book. Unless you’re famous, splashing your name in big letters across the top of a cover will do you no favours. If you have an unusual name it might even be mistaken for the title itself.

For more on cover design see Titles.

To see a list of book and ebook cover designers, go to the Links page.

eBook retailers

A wide range of online stores sell eBooks, the following is a selection of the larger ones.


The leader of the pack. eBooks are uploaded through the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service, a straightforward process that does not require an ISBN (though you can still include one if you want). Selling is easy on Amazon as the company has created a sophisticated payment system that shields the self-publisher from many of the complexities of international money transfers and taxation.

Apple’s iBookstore

iBookstore accepts ePub titles and those created with its free iAuthor software. To submit to the iBookstore you need a US tax reference. Non-US self-publishers are sometimes asked to go through the torturous process of obtaining an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and then an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the US Inland Revenue Service (IRS). However, some have been able to obtain an EIN directly, which can be done in a few minutes. For details see the IRS website (,,id=96696,00.HTML).

Alternatively Apple recommends the use of aggregators (see below) to submit eBooks to the iBookstore. Apple-recommended aggregators include Lulu and Ingrams in the USA and Bookwire and Immatériel in Europe.

Barnes & Noble

Using Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! system it’s relatively straightforward for US authors to submit their books to the Nook Book Store. (Like Amazon an ISBN is not required.) Unfortunately PubIt! is denied to authors outside the USA as users must have a US tax reference, bank account and address. An alternative is to submit eBooks through an aggregator.


The submissions process for Kobo is geared to professional publishers, though it should not be a barrier to the technically minded self-publisher. Kobo is developing a more user-friendly self-publishing portal, but in the meantime the company suggests self-publishers use an aggregator.

Reader Store

Sony’s Reader Store will only accept books submitted via the aggregators Smashwords and Author Solutions Inc.

So what’s an aggregator?

Aggregators are distribution companies that will submit your eBook to a range of online stores. Most also offer a conversion service. Some aggregators specialise in eBook distribution; others are subsidy publishers that have added aggregation alongside their traditional print services. As well as distributing your eBook most aggregators will combine your various sales revenues into a single regular payment and deal with tax issues on your behalf. Although there are advantages to using an aggregator make sure you understand how their charges are calculated and look out for add-on costs. Remember, if an aggregator assigns you an ISBN they, not you, are identified as the publisher of record (see above).


PDFs are the lingua franca of the publishing world: virtually all modern printing technology is geared to turning PDF files into ink and paper.

You’ll need a PDF if you’re planning on producing print copies of your book and they can be useful as review copies of eBooks.

When you design your PDF what you see on the screen is what you’ll get on the printed page so you can lay out your text knowing that, barring disasters, your formatting will be rendered faithfully. Most professionals working in book design use Adobe’s InDesign software to create PDFs, but this is expensive. Happily, most word processing packages export to PDF though your design options will be more limited.

Designing your PDF

There are conventions is book design, such as the inclusion of half-title pages and copyright pages, that you need to follow. There are too many to go into here, but a good first port of call for advice is The Book Designer website (

To get you started, remember the following when preparing your PDF:

Consider the page size you want for your printed book and design to those dimensions.

If you use unusual fonts embed these within the PDF so they’re accessible to the printer.

As well as your book’s front cover you also have to design a spine and a back cover.

Images in your PDF must have a resolution of at least 300dpi.

If you intend to sell your print copies through a store you’ll need both an ISBN and a barcode.

To see other titles dealing with the themes in this chapter visit The Writers’ Guide website (

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