biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: How to Self-Publish

by Stephanie


As veteran of the editorial and PR world, author and business owner Melissa Davis decided she was going to self-publish her first book, This Is Oakland: A Guide to the City’s Most Interesting Places. With the help of talented photographer, Kristen Loken, Melissa conceptualized, executed and published the This is Oakland city guide, and today she’s sharing the details of how she got it done. If you’ve ever thought of striking out on your own and publishing your book exactly the way YOU’D like it to be published, this post is the perfect place to get stated. –Stephanie

Photo by Meg Messina

Read the full post after the jump…

Want to self publish? Kristen Loken and I just finished publishing a book called This is Oakland: A Guide to the City’s Most Interesting Places, which is a photo-heavy city guide for Oakland, CA. (Kristen is the book’s photographer, I’m the author and we are business partners in this venture!)

Having just finished the process, I can tell you that it’s incredibly time consuming but so worth it in the end. Choosing to self-publish means that you can create the book that you want, in the way that you want. I was able to choose the people I worked with and work within a timeline of my choosing. It also meant having to raise a large amount of money, starting a new business, working many hours and overseeing the entire project.

We have encountered some prejudice against self-published books, but I’m happy to say that just about everyone who has held the book in their hands has told us that they never would have known it wasn’t published by one of the big publishers, which may be the best compliment ever!

These are my main guidelines for self-publishing. I realize that these are fairly broad. If you have any questions please just comment below and I’ll try to jump in and reply.

Do your research: make sure no one else has written a book too similar to yours…and make sure there’s a market for it. I was really passionate about promoting the city of Oakland and what’s happening here. For years Oakland has gotten a bad rap, but in the past ten years, the city has really started to change and people who are looking at up-and-coming businesses are looking to Oakland. Creating a book was something I could do to help promote the city, given my background as a magazine editor and publicist. (And no other city guides about Oakland, CA existed!)

Self-publishing a book is a huge process – make sure you are absolutely dedicated to the idea. If you are not incredibly passionate about the project, don’t waste your time and money.

Self-publishing is basically starting a small business. You need to think about whether or not you can do this alone, who you’ll need to hire to help you, how you will fund it (it’s not cheap!), etc. We had to create an official partnership for the business and open a bank account for the partnership, as we’ll need to pay taxes on the sales of the book – and on the money raised through the Kickstarter campaign.

I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t embark on this book project unless Kristen was interested and available. (Luckily, she was, on both counts!) My go-to graphic designer Liz Siverts had experience designing books and is an Oakland native, so when I approached her about designing the book she was also an enthusiastic “YES!” You will also need to hire a copy editor and fact-checker. It’s important to me when choosing people I work with that they have the skills necessary (of course!), but I also want to work with people I enjoy spending time with. It’s a cliché, but life’s truly too short.

Once you have your creative team in place, consider a project management platform like Basecamp.com to help coordinate and centralize your communications. We didn’t, and in retrospect it may have been a good idea! An online platform for your team makes sure everyone has access to the latest versions of files and never gets left out of an important email thread by mistake. There are so many tiny details that go into self-publishing…and anything that can help you stay on top of the details is a plus.

Because Oakland is so happening right now, Kristen and I felt a real sense of urgency to get this book out as soon as possible. (We were also worried about someone else beating us to the punch!) The book took about a year and four months from conception to having the books in our hands, but of course that’s, in a way, only the beginning! As our books come out this month, we are still juggling book events, wholesale and retail sales and continuing press outreach. We will continue to promote this book while there are books in print!

This is also another benefit to self-publishing – you can do the book on YOUR timeline. It took about three months from the time we got the final document to the printer to the books being printed and shipped off. (If you will be printing overseas, add about 3-4 weeks to receive the books once they are printed.) Make sure you choose the option to see proofs – the proofing process was invaluable to us. You don’t want to spend all of this time and money on creating these books to just have a messed up book on your hands.

I created an outline for which places in Oakland I wanted to include in the book, which I must admit morphed as we went along. The editing of who went into the book was the toughest part, but in the end, my criteria had to be: Would I whole-heartedly recommend this place to a good friend visiting the city?

I decided to break the places up by neighborhoods and chose the top seven ‘hoods in Oakland with the most happening spots. I then started contacting businesses by area to tell them about the project and set up shoots. We shot predominantly on weekends and each shoot took about an hour, so we often shot eight places a day! (Kristen shot over 25,000 photos throughout the process!) I didn’t really delve into the writing until the end, and kind of cranked that all out at once. (Each of the 89 features were approximately 200 words in length.)

This may have been one of the most daunting parts of the process for me… I ended up asking around – it’s amazing how helpful social media can be in this process! Think about who you might know that may have self-published or know someone who did. I also did research online, and when there was overlap (a great referral I found online was also referred by a friend of my brother), I contacted that printer. I liked the fact that the printer had offices in all major cities, and one just 15 minutes away in downtown San Francisco. I contacted some other printers (some domestic, and some international), and the one we went with gave us the best quote and just felt right. It was a real person on the other end of the phone/email and I didn’t feel awkward asking questions. (And I had a lot of them!) They sent samples of books they printed, which was very helpful in seeing their quality and communicating what kind of binding, paper and cover we wanted. I’d suggest waiting until you have a designer on board to even reach out to printers for quotes, as there are a lot of questions you’ll need to answer, and not knowing the technical side, I couldn’t have answered them myself.

We chose to raise money for the project through Kickstarter. If you use crowd-funding, we’d suggest keeping the following things in mind:

  • Think carefully about how much money you need to raise – consider the fact that you’ll be paying taxes out of this money, paying fees to Amazon and Kickstarter, and things like shipping of rewards.
  • Consider the time frame. We chose a 30-day time frame, but wish we would have decided to use Kickstarter to raise money earlier than we did, as we ended up needing to raise money over the holidays (it started around Thanksgiving and ended right after Christmas). Also, make sure you have something to show – wait until you have parts of the book (especially the cover!) to show off on your Kickstarter page.
  • Create a compelling video and great Kickstarter page.
  • Offer interesting, enticing rewards!

After you’ve finished the writing, have a copy editor look it over for any grammatical errors, misspellings or issues with flow. We actually had two copy editors look it over – just to be sure! Hire a fact-checker, too. You can’t make changes to your book after it’s in print, and you don’t want to have to live with mistakes. We also spent a lot of time going over the photos and layout and making sure everything looked just right. I’d suggest going over everything about ten more times than you think you’ll need to. We found things with almost every read-through or look-over.

Once you send your files off to the printer, the job is not finished! Now you’ll need to market and sell your book. You may want to plan a launch party, take part in book signings, and promote your book to the media (or find a publicist with the right connections!). Selling a self-published book can be daunting…there are some booksellers not even interested in hearing what you have to say. If that’s the case, we found that it helps to send an advance copy to wow them with your book. (Advance copies are the books you have the printer send you before the bulk is shipped. We chose to have 25 advance copies overnighted to us – they are pricier, due to shipping, but worth it for promoting the book before they hit shelves.)

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  • Loved hearing that Melissa and Kristin worked with two copy editors. One of the potential downsides of self-publishing is that you don’t have a team of professionals helping you with your book like you would if you were working with a publishing house–unless you assemble that team yourself, as Melissa advises. The errors a copy editor catches can really hurt your message if they’re left in your book and will make it even less likely for a bookseller to take an interest, even if your idea is great. Having a well-edited book really amps up the professionalism of your finished project. As a copy editor, I may be a little biased… but I loved seeing a self-published author promoting the importance of a good editor.

  • I too thought the article ended too soon. I was interested in the self promotion and marketing aspects of the project.

    • Hi Guys,

      Thanks so much for your feedback, we’ll touch base with the author and make sure we get those aspects of the process covered in a follow up post :)


  • This info is great. I just self-published a children’s chapter book series because, like these talented ladies, I was committed to my idea with all my heart and wanted total control over my final product. What’s surprised me the most is that self-publishing a book really is like running a small business. It’s not just about the writing – the production, marketing, and selling is just as important and time consuming. But I’m so glad that I took the path that I did. I used Amazon Createspace and have had a great experience with them, the biggest benefit being that they’re print on demand so there’s no large upfront printing costs. Thanks for this great post!

  • Hi everyone! Julie, I’m so sorry I didn’t go too much into promoting the book. isn’t that ironic as I’m a publicist?? ;) I’m happy to share in a follow up- thanks Grace!

    Thrilled to share what we could and to be on Design Sponge!! Thank you!!

  • Thank you for sharing your self publishing process–clearly it was a professional project from the start and the cover design communicates your content perfectly. I just took a look at the Kickstarter page for this project, and it’s obvious that from the start you had an amazing support group for the book. I don’t think I have ever seen so many contributions from a community and it’s just a jump from that to see that your book idea was ‘sold’ from the beginning to a wide range of local followers. I would think that rounding up those supporters was is a promotion of sorts and a great way to create a demand for the book before it was published (genius!).

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