Self-Publishing Guidance

01 Feb 2021  James  14 mins read.

For those of you working to figure out authoring and publishing of your own book, here is a list of references I have found useful in my own journey. I hope this information will help make your journey a little easier than my own.

Books Related to Self-Publishing I Found Helpful

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, by Guy Kawasaki et al.

  • This is a fantastic place to start learning about self-publishing. Kawasaki’s guidance is generally very actionable.
  • I read the Kindle version cover to cover.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th edition), by Robin Williams

  • Williams provides a good introductory overview to design. Actionable guidance in this book helped me with the following:
    • Understanding and selecting appropriate typeface combinations
    • Understanding and making color scheme decisions
    • Understanding the design principles of proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast. What I learned influenced my diagrams, table design, and a multitude of other factors.
  • I read the Kindle version cover to cover.

The Elements of Typographic Style (4th edition), by Robert Bringhurst

  • From what I have read online, this book is the definitive reference on dead-tree book design. It is to typography what the Gang of Four book is to design patterns. It is also very dense and sometimes overly opinionated. As with Kawasaki’s book, the strong opinions are more helpful than no opinion, even when one disagrees.
  • I read a handful of chapters and otherwise used it as a reference.

Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students (2nd edition), by Ellen Lupton

  • Lots of pretty pictures. Just thumbing through the book was useful.
  • The thumb index idea in my book came from a similar example given in this book.

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (2nd edition), by Garr Reynolds

  • I didn’t reference this book much at all while designing the book. Even so, I think reading it long ago helped prepare me for Robin Williams’s design book.

Real World Color Management (2nd edition), by Bruce Fraser, Chris Murphy, and Fred Bunting

  • My graphics are all vector graphics using a variation on a qualitative color palette from ColorBrewer 2.0. So far, this has kept my color management needs to a minimum. If you have any significant number of photos or otherwise have more complex color demands, you will likely need to become competent at color management. This is apparently the book for color management, even though it is dated.

Example Books

As I started studying the art of book authorship, I found myself constantly looking at various books from a design perspective. As you study book design and start to design your own, it is very helpful to look at a variety of other examples. I mostly just thumbed through books on my own bookshelf and examined the design decisions of professionally published books.

Two books stood out as influencing my own design more than others:

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

A technical book as narrowly focused as mine is extremely unlikely to be profitable from a royalties perspective. The financial incentives to write such a book are almost entirely about marketing in the hopes of generating consulting opportunities. A single week of consulting will easily generate far more revenue than the book is likely to generate in its entire lifespan.

As you can see, the profit incentives of a traditional publisher are unlikely to ever be well aligned with my own. There is a valid argument for leveraging the clout of a publisher’s brand to push my own, although that seems to matter less and less these days. Ultimately, I decided the disadvantages of giving up control to a traditional publisher easily outweighed the advantages in my case.

I still feel the services of industry professionals are very important, especially those of an editor. A critical distinction in self-publishing is that the loyalties of these professionals will be to me rather than to a traditional publisher. References to professionals I have discovered and recommend are included farther down this page.

Online Content

I also consumed a lot of online articles related to book publishing. Here are a few useful collections:

ALLi Author Alliance

ALLi-related self-publishing advice website (lots of great articles and videos)

ALLi offers IngramSpark discounts for members

POD Choices

If you google a bit you will see tons of articles comparing the various print-on-demand (POD) choices. As a practical matter you will likely end up concurrently using Amazon’s KDP and IngramSpark, as they are the dominant players.

I was very careful to ensure my layout and trim size were compatible with both KDP (previously CreateSpace) and IngramSpark requirements. I used CreateSpace for the initial polishing stages, due to their more novice-friendly pricing and setup. As I was closer to publishing, I also started leveraging IngramSpark.

The ALLi discount code for IngramSpark eliminated the cost of uploading new interior and cover content, effectively removing the cost advantage of only using KDP during the initial development stages.

If you prefer to use an author services company, BookBaby seems to be the most popular choice. By using referrals and ALLi’s lists of vetted editors and designers, I believe I arrived at a final product that is better than what BookBaby would have helped me produce. In other words, BookBaby is likely a decent easy choice, although it is very unlikely to be the best choice.

As long as you use the list of editors and designers below, I see very little downside to taking the same path I did. The publishing industry has radically changed. Experienced, seasoned book designers are becoming exceptionally rare, and even fewer of them are working freelance. Finding the right people took several days of very hard active searching. The best of the author services companies and small publishers such as Pragmatic Programmers know who these people are, but they won’t tell.

Amazon KDP

IngramSpark

IngramSpark vs. BookBaby vs. CreateSpace

Shelly Hitz: IngramSpark versus CreateSpace

Self-Publishing Basics: 5 Layout Mistakes That Make You Look Unprofessional—The Book Designer

Other Good Book Printing Options

I spent several days looking at the various book print houses available for very small volume digital book printing. Very few print houses can cost-effectively produce a digitally printed book at volumes less than 250. The key names you need to know are listed below.

Maple Press

  • See Digital Manufacturing Parameters (PDF) for pricing and available design options.
  • No other printer I found comes anywhere close to providing the variety Maple Press can at an effective price for very low volume digital printing.
  • IngramSpark and KDP have print prices in the same ballpark, but without the same variety. This is especially true at larger trim sizes.
  • MaplePress can produce a dust jacket version for my 7.5” x 9.25” trim size book, which is something IngramSpark and KDP can’t currently do.
  • So far, their customer support has been fantastic.

Print Ninja

  • This Asian print house provides cost-effective offset printing with Smyth-sewn bindings for moderately low volumes.
  • The online estimation tool will quickly give you a good idea of what to expect for better offset printing costs.
  • If you constrain yourself to a black-and-white interior, you may find an overseas offset print run is more effective than a short digital run. If you decide on a full-color interior, you will likely want to stay with a domestic digital print run.
  • Although digital printing has become extremely good, offset printing is still the gold standard. For a low-volume trade book such as mine with mostly vector graphics and a few photos, modern digital printing is wonderful. If you are writing a cookbook with lots of high-resolution photos, deciding between digital and offset printing at low volumes will be a much harder decision.
  • If you decide on an offset print run, you should definitely get quotes from a variety of domestic and overseas print houses. I expect they are all fairly competitive at larger volumes. Print Ninja will easily give you a good baseline for comparing alternatives.

Lists of Various Printers and Other Resources

Trim Size

There are lots of considerations to picking a good trim size. One of the most important is picking a common trim size most POD providers can handle. Here are some of my notes on this topic. I recommend you pay the most attention to sizes that both Amazon KDP and IngramSpark support, as they are the leaders in the space.

Great list with discussion

BookBaby trim sizes

More limited list at LuLu (likely the more common standards)

IngramSpark trim size list

Amazon KDP supports the 7.5” x 9.25” color trim size I am using, even though the layout guide document didn’t list it. The moral of the story is to trust the web ordering forms on the POD websites for supported trim sizes more than their layout guides.

Tooling Choices

In the end, I decided to author draft chapters in a basic text editor, quickly transitioning them into InDesign after getting the first draft out of my head. Starting in a basic text editor allowed me to focus purely on the text while drafting a chapter. My figures and tables strongly influence the text and vice versa. Transitioning to InDesign for the second draft onwards helped me better understand and evolve the nuanced interplay between the text and the graphics. I used Omnigraffle for creating graphics, and then imported them into InDesign as PDFs.

The decision to perform the initial interior design myself was extremely expensive in terms of time. As an agile coach, I now spend a significant amount of my time creating written material for training and marketing purposes. I anticipate my improved proficiency in typography and design will be useful to me in these other efforts. These other concerns, as well as the strong interplay between the text and graphics in my book, helped justify the expected and actual learning curve in my case. I still had a design professional QA and refine my work. If the book were almost entirely text, my decisions would likely have been different.

As to Kindle and other ebook formats, I decided it would be best to throw it over the wall for conversion. Author services companies can do this for a few hundred dollars, which is far cheaper than the ramp-up time to become proficient at doing this myself. I eventually located a talented e-book designer, Linh Thoi, who provided excellent results.

I initially strongly considered working out a solution to single source the text content for multiple output formats (physical, Kindle, e-book). After some research, I have learned the tooling is still quite clunky. It probably makes sense for a large publishing house to spend the time and effort to push through the challenges of single sourcing, but for an individual working on a single book it isn’t worth the effort. I expect things will improve over the years. InDesign can directly spin ePub but not Kindle, which is what matters most. Furthermore, it seems people frequently have to hand-tweak conversions, which sort of defeats the point of single sourcing the various output formats.

Tooling Notes

Here are some notes I made to myself when trying to figure out what tool to use for laying out my book.

Goals

  • Simplicity/ease of use
  • Reasonable cost (a few hundred a year is acceptable, thousands is not)
  • Multiple outputs
    • Website pages
    • E-book: Kindle (mobi/KF8), ePub
    • Training binder
    • Dead-tree on-demand print book
  • Mix/match content

Typesetting Tools Investigated

Extended Markdown with Multiple Output Formats

  • Pandoc
  • MultiMarkdown
  • LaTeX
    • Antique but exceptionally powerful
    • Git/SVN/SCM friendly
    • Research papers easily supported
    • Other formats increasingly difficult (potentially a scripting black hole)
  • InDesign
    • De facto standard in publishing community
    • Ideal for dead-tree layout
    • Largely capable of multi-output
    • Slightly pricey but affordable ($20–$50/month)
    • ePub and Kindle capable
    • Key features/limitations worth considering:
      • Alternate layouts
      • Liquid layouts
      • Can export to HTML (one chapter at a time, with custom CSS to control look and feel if the default is not acceptable)
      • Scripting is possible, but likely a black hole best avoided
      • “Publish Online” is a slideshow-type output hosted by Adobe (and requires an active subscription)
  • MS Word
    • Well-supported by the Kindle toolchain
    • Good for training material
    • Poor ability to mix and match chapters
    • Lacks multi-layout capability
    • Must feed into InDesign or similar to produce print-ready hardcover book
    • Has built-in styles (easy, but not always pretty)
    • Familiar (it’s the devil I know)

Preparing a File for Print

It turns out that creating a file for POD within InDesign is a bit tricky, with myraid possible options. Here are a few useful articles I have found.

Creating a PDF for Lightning Source in InDesign

An Ingram page about preparing files

Chapter 6 of POD for Profit

QR Code–Related Content

What size should a QR code be?

More QR code stuff, including how to visually tell error-correction level easily

Online QR code reader that reports data density, although not error level

ZXing Decoder

QR code builder useful for experimenting

Built-in QR code capability within InDesign

References to Professional Book People

  • DeAnna Burghart
    • Freelance Editor
    • Southern California
    • Email: deanna at burghart dot us
    • Skype: deanna.burghart
    • Website: https://deanna.burghart.us
    • LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/deannaburghart/
    • Note: I was referred to DeAnna by a well-known agile coach and author, who was initially referred to her by yet another coach. I have nothing but wonderful things to say in my interactions to date.
  • Deb Tremper
    • Freelance Designer
    • Email: deb@sixpennygraphics.com
    • Website: http://sixpennygraphics.com/
    • Phone: 866.421.8872 ext. 101
    • Fax: 866.630.2919
    • Note: Deb designed my cover and also took care of interior design when I no longer had time to do it myself. It was a pleasure working with her.
  • Linh Thoi
    • Freelance E-book Designer
    • Website: https://lttebooks.com/
    • Note: Linh did my e-book conversion for Kindle/mobi and ePub. She is one of the most experienced e-book designers you are likely to find, and very reasonably priced.
    • Note: The challenge isn’t creating an e-book. The challenge is producing an e-book that works well on a large number of devices and avoids—or at least minimizes—the deficiencies of the various e-book readers. Unless you intend to make a large number of e-books, the learning curve isn’t worth the effort. Just pay Linh and be done with it.
  • Susannah Noel
    • Freelance Editor
    • Website: https://noeleditorial.com/
    • Note: DeAnna recommended her so I fully expect her to be extremely competent.
  • Molly McCowan
    • Freelance Editor
    • Website: https://inkbotediting.com
    • Note: DeAnna recommended her so I fully expect her to be extremely competent.
  • Amy Vaughn
    • Soundview Design Studio
    • Website: http://www.soundviewdesign.com
    • Note: I was referred to both Deb Tremper and Amy Vaughn by Jennifer Riemenschneider, who is a salesperson at Sheridan. Based on how well Deb Tremper worked out, I expect Amy Vaughn is also very professional.
James Carpenter
James Carpenter

James is an expert in helping companies create effective engineering team structures and cultures.