How to self-publish your next book

August 18, 2017

Most researchers look down on self-publishing, preferring to pitch their manuscripts to prestigious publishers. Self-publishing is however becoming an increasingly popular option, as it has a number of key advantages over the traditional publishing model. In this blog, I am going to document the steps I take, as I take them, to self-publish my next book, The Productive Researcher. Depending on when you stumble across this, you may only have the first few steps, but keep coming back, and hopefully in a month or so, I'll have published the book and you'll have everything you need to replicate the process yourself if you want. 


Why self-publish?

I published my first book with Routledge, and am in the process of writing another book for Sage, but I self-published my second book, and am doing it again for my next book. The first thing you will notice is that I have not given up on the traditional publishing model all together. You get instant credibility if you publish with an established, prestigious publishing house, and for some projects that is important. My first book was about climate change in collaboration with the United Nations and so needed the gravitas of an established imprint (Earthscan) of a well known publisher (Routledge). My second book was on a far less contentious subject about which very little had been written (research impact), and so didn't need the prestige of an established publisher to attract an audience. It probably helped that I already had a bit of a profile, which gave the work enough credibility.


Here's what I loved most about self-publishing The Research Impact Handbook:

  • You can set the cover price yourself, rather than a publisher deciding to put it on the market at an unaffordable price. If you want your book to get into as many hands as possible, making sure it is affordable is important, and you have complete control if you self-publish. I don't think a Kindle book is worth as much as a hard copy, so unlike most traditional publishers that might give a 10% discount, I was able to put it on Kindle for less than a quarter of the price of the physical copy, making it as affordable as possible to those who can't get the hard copy

  • You can change the price. I chose to set my cover price as low as possible to get it into as many hands as possible. However, when book shops approached me to stock it, they explained that they have to be able to mark it up by 30%. I had set the price so low that I wasn't able to give them a 30% discount. I therefore increased the cover price by 30% and drove as many sales as I could at the lower price before I raised it, by explaining to my audience on social media that the "introductory price" was coming to an end soon

  • You can run as many promotional discounts as you want. I regularly put the Kindle book on sale for free, and can put the book on sale price if and when I want. If I want, I can do affiliate marketing, where another business sells books for me online using a 15% discount code, and they get a 15% royalty for every book they sell. I've not done this myself, preferring instead to just give key influencers a 15% discount to their followers, if I want to break into a new market

  • You are in charge of the cover art. I know a lot of colleagues who have been unhappy about the images or designs chosen by publishers for their books. The danger of course is that the design of my cover isn't professional, but getting a freelance professional designer to come up with something is surprisingly affordable these days

  • You can include as many photos and colour pages as you want. The cost of each printed copy increases, but only marginally. I get each copy of The Research Impact Handbook in bulk orders from the printer with 12 colour pages for £3.71 per copy, so I could easily afford more colour if I wanted

  • You receive the majority of the cover price as the author, rather than the publisher. You put in the long hours of writing and made personal sacrifices to write this book, so why should the publisher take most of the profits of your hard work? For most people, the answer to this question is that it is a lot less hassle, and this is a very good reason. Self-publishing is a lot more hassle, but if you sell a lot of copies, then it may be worth it. The Kindle version of The Research Impact Handbook sells for £4.99 and I get a 70% royalty for every copy sold (Amazon takes 30%). The physical copy sells for £17.99, and I get a 60% royalty for every copy sold (Amazon takes 15%)

  • You can see sales in real time. I can watch sales every day, graph them and dig into them, seeing exactly who buys my book. Depending on how well your book sells, this can be pretty motivational

  • You can create as many new editions as you want, and as many changes as you want between editions, if you notice a mistake or need to update something. I get copies of the book in bulk, but when I'm ready for the next order, I can simply give the printer an updated file to print from. Its even easier with the Kindle version


Now for the downside:

  • You need to do a lot more work yourself, including hiring a freelance proof-reader, commissioning design and photos, formatting the book, uploading it to Kindle and selling physical copies. You can take a few short cuts if you're willing to lose much of your royalty. Amazon offer a service where they will turn your Kindle book into a paperback, and ship it for you, but the quality isn't great and they charge a small fortune for the privilege

  • You won't have an editor to help you make difficult decisions, for example about what to include or leave out. Instead, you will need to rely on the good will of colleagues to pre-review the book for you and give you their opinion about what needs to change. If you choose your pre-reviewers carefully to match your intended audience however, their feedback may be better than an editor's

  • You will need to market the book yourself, which will take some time. If you already have a strong following on social media, then the benefits of having a publisher marketing your book using traditional channels are fairly minimal. If you don't already have a following, you will need to come up with a strategy to grow your online influence, ideally linking your book to an ecosystem of other resources that can help market your book, and that your book can help market. The Research Impact Handbook helps market Fast Track Impact trainings, which pay for me to provide lots of free online content (a magazine, podcast and various other resources), which in turn helps market the book. I've marketed The Research Impact Handbook entirely through social media (without paying for advertising), and have sold just under 1000 hard copies via Amazon, a similar number of Kindle copies, and almost 3000 copies direct to Universities or bundled with trainings. I regularly audit my time on social media and am currently average 35 minutes per day including my entire daily news intake and managing social media pathways to impact for a number of projects, so this doesn't have to take over your life

  • Shipping can be simple if you give copies to Amazon and they store it in their warehouse and ship it for you. This is costly however, so my company PA ships copies of my book, so we don't have to hire warehouse space from Amazon


Step 1: Write the book, get (and respond to) pre-review feedback from sample audience and proof-read


18th August 2017: 

  1. Pre-review feedback: I finished the first draft before going on holiday at the start of the month and sent it to 10 colleagues who I thought might broadly represent my target market for the book, and who I thought would give me useful feedback from different perspectives (e.g. early versus late career, UK versus overseas, academic versus professional services staff). I received the feedback earlier this week, and have spent most of this week responding (I added 25 pages of new content in response to their great suggestions).

  2. Proof-reading: Today, I sent it to my proof-reader, a friend from University who had a career in publishing with Harper-Collins and others before setting up as a freelancer.

  3. Building some early anticipation: One of my pre-reviewers, Phil Ward from University of Kent, wrote a blog review of the book, which he published today. I'm going to talk about the book on next week's podcast, which I'll follow up with three weeks of excerpts from the book. I've also put excerpts into the next issue of the Fast Track Impact magazine, but the design process for that means that it might not come out before the book is published - we'll see...

  4. Launch team invitation: I quoted Phil's tweet this afternoon and asked my Twitter network if anyone wants to join my launch team (somewhat rashly saying they'd get a free PDF copy next week, before checking how long my proof-reader would take to read it). The idea of the launch team is to give a number of enthusiastic people (ideally including a few influencers) an early copy of the book, so they have time to read it over the next few weeks, on the condition that they write an honest review of the book on Amazon. A week before I launch the book, I will make the Kindle version available free, and will ask the launch team to download a free copy of the Kindle version, and then write their review (so it comes up as an authentic review of someone who bought the book, so Amazon recognises and counts the review in its stats). My goal is to launch with a minimum of 20 5* reviews, and I'll delay the launch date if necessary. This is in theory high risk, as I may get rubbish reviews, but given the positive feedback I got on the first draft from my sample audience, and the fact that I fixed the issues they pointed out, I'm fairly confident. 

Step 2: Design and pricing


24th August 2017: 

  • Assign ISBN: I bought ten ISBN numbers when I published The Research Impact Handbook, so today I assigned ISBNs to the paperback and e-book versions of The Productive Researcher and informed Nielsen

  • Price the book: I've done a bit of research online and for a book of this length (150 pages), books targeting my audience are selling for between £10-17. I could do a paperback version for £12.99 or a hardback version with hessian embossed cover and nicer paper for £15.99, both with a similar level of royalty (45% for paperback versus 40% for hardback). I think, given the nature of this book, that it would be nice to spend some time making it feel really nice, so it is something people really value, and still bring it in at a reasonable enough price, so for now I'm going to go with the hardback option. I'm self-publishing, so if I want to introduce a paperback version £3 cheaper at any point in the future, I can. If this is too pricey for some, I'll make sure the Kindle version goes on the market at half price

  • Photography and design: I met my photographer today who has been researching different types of forest as part of my brief for the book. She found the perfect one today - a birch wood in Aberdeenshire that will give her the types of abstract macros I want next to the start of each chapter. I'm meeting my designer tomorrow. She'll be getting the brief for the front cover (text and design on hessian hard cover). There will be a green inner page, and a canopy shot on the second inner page opposite the title, which I want her to use as the basis for her cover design. She'll have a colour page for the first page of each chapter, opposite an abstract macro photograph that she can draw colours from. I'm drawing inspiration from the look and feel of the unlikely best-sellerNorwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, and will be bringing my copy of this book to our meeting



Step 3: Launch team and influencers


24th August 2017: 


  • Reach out to influencers: I have identified a number of well respected researchers (H score >200) who are highly influential on Twitter (>20,000 followers) based on a flawed article in Science and systematically searching for Twitter accounts from