E-book self-publishing checklist for first-time authors (Part 1)

stacks of wooden tiles and concrete blocks in a field
"Stacks, CBG, 2004" by S Bosko. Used with permission.

After 30 years functioning as a systems analyst—driven to make procedures both efficient and humane—but being paid as a tech writer—explaining procedures clearly—it’s second nature to write down processes I’ve wrestled with.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned the past few months as I scrambled to get ready to self-publish my first books. (My goal here is to do a brief summary: most of these points could be entire posts on their own.) The tasks are listed in the general order I did them (or wished I’d done them!)

Also, before I get into details, let me say up front that, unless you are the type that’s most productive under pressure, give yourself plenty of time to work though all the items on this list. (Especially if you know your battle with Imposter Syndrome will be ongoing). Start early so that you have plenty of time to deal with it when things go wrong, as they sometimes do when you’re treading unfamiliar ground. Then too, if you start to feel overwhelmed you can take a break by tackling other tasks on the list.

1. Pick a pen name.

This might sound silly to list as the first step, but as a number of subsequent steps—such as acquiring a domain name and setting up social media accounts—can follow from this, you might as well get it out of the way. (By the way, here’s an excellent article about some of the legal considerations involved with pen names.)

Note that if you do plan to create a website or use social media to interact with your readers, it might be a good idea to investigate up front if your preferred pen name is free on your platform(s) of choice.

2. Start getting your e-book together.

It now makes sense to me that before you can set up an Amazon author page you have to upload an e-book. Getting a book ready for publication can be a bit of a drawn-out process, especially if you’ll be working with a cover artist and pre-publication readers, so if you start the process early, it can move forward in parallel with the rest of your tasks.

Here are a few questions to get you started.

  • Does the book need editorial work? Beta readers? Sensitivity readers? A subject matter review by experts? A thorough proofreading for spelling, punctuatino, and grammar errors?
  • Where the cover will come from? Will you create it yourself, or contract an artist or book designer to make it for you? If you are going to do the latter, give yourself plenty of time to work out a contract and to review the final product—and do look up and follow Amazon’s guidelines!
  • Who will compile the final e-book? Especially with your first title, allow enough time to troubleshoot formatting issues if you’ll be doing it yourself.

3. Decide whether you want to keep your publishing stuff separate from your day-to-day non-publishing expenses.

If so, and if you’re going to publish on Amazon, or make or receive payments with services like Paypal or Zelle or Ko-fi, you’ll need to set up separate accounts for them — and to do that you’ll need bank account, credit card, and phone numbers that haven’t been used elsewhere. (Note that this step is optional; you absolutely can use your existing accounts even when publishing under a pen name.)

If you do decide to keep everything separate, I’d recommend first setting up a separate email address. Not only will all or most of the new accounts you’re going to set up require an email address, but this way you’ll also have all your publishing-related correspondence in one place. If you want a separate physical mailing address, look into getting a PO box; if you want a separate phone number, see if your provider has any reasonably-priced plans for that, or look into an app such as TextFree.

A related step: Keep track of your expenses. Spreadsheet, jotting in a little notebook, accounting software—whatever works for you. Trust me, you’ll be much less stressed at tax time.

4. Investigate what the legal requirements are for your state, province, or country.

Related to the above, if you do plan to receive payments under your pen name, and/or at an address other then your residence, double check to see if you are required to file any special paperwork. For example, in some states in the US, a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) statement is required. (I’ve also heard this called a DBA (“Doing Business As”) form.)

5. Set up accounts.

And now you’ll see why I’ve ordered the proceeding steps the way I have: to make it a little easier to set up the rest of the infrastructure for publishing.

For reference, here’s a partial list of the accounts I set up:

  • Amazon
  • Kindle Digital Publishing
  • BookBub
  • Goodreads
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram
  • Reddit
  • Ko-fi
  • Paypal
  • Zelle
  • PO box

You might not want or need all of these; or you might want to use things I have not listed, such as Facebook or Patreon. Whatever you decide, this is the time to get it all set up.

6. (Optional) Set up your website.

A website isn’t required, but it does seem to be The Thing to Do. Once you launch your books, some readers might be moved to want to know more about you. Your author page is one way to do that, and if readers want to know when you release new books they can follow you there, but if you’d like to meet reader interest more actively and build a relationship with them by providing additional new content, further refining “your brand” and building excitement for your upcoming releases, you might want to consider creating a website.

The first thing you’ll do is to decide on a URL—the trend seems to be to use [penname].com or [penname]writes.com—and see if it’s available. After you pay a fee to a domain name service, you’ll have exclusive use of that URL (referred to as your domain name) for a year.

Next, think about what sort of website you’d like. I found it useful to study the websites of a few successful authors whose work I enjoy. I analyzed the similarities and differences; made note of the features they had that I liked (and what they had that I don’t feel I need, and least at first; I figured I could start small and add more later). I found the the differences especially interesting: for example, each of the author websites I looked was doing something completely different in terms of their landing page (the page you see when you first visit their website). CL Polk’s is an “About Me” page with a mini-biography; John Scalzi’s landing page emphasizes his blog; Chuck Wendig’s goes to his Books page. Despite the differences in landing pages, nearly every author site I went to had a dedicated Books page and an About Me and/or a Contact page. Everyone had a newsletter signup widget, some with freebies as enticement to sign up.

Once you get an idea of what your website will look like and offer, you’ll need to create the files that make up the website’s pages, host them somewhere so that people can access them, and set up a mailing list.

All this may seem daunting if you’re don’t consider yourself a “techy” person—but I assure you, you don’t have to be, because there is no one right way to do all these things. If you could somehow get all the people who’ve got a website up and running in the past year in a (very) big room, and then grouped them according to how they’d done that, you’d see a spectrum. There’d be the people who knew how to do absolutely everything themselves, from setting up a server to coding all the pages and applications, but you’d also see a large group who had gratefully handed it all over to someone else—a family member, friend, or even a professional—to set up and run, and in the middle people who were, well, somewhere in-between. I was in that middle group: after I got my domain I went with a hosting service (BlueHost, though I later changed to DreamHost) that offered an integration with the blogging platform WordPress. I went with WordPress because, although I know enough HTML to get by, and am fortunate to have a pocket programmer to call on now and then, WordPress has “themes” with templates for various types of web sites. All you have to do is put in your own pictures and words, and boom, you have a website. It’s all very slick; even the free themes are gorgeous right out of the box (although they can be customized, and easily.)

The final step of setting up my website was making sure that, once a week, any new posts would go out to my mailing list without being blocked or marked as spam. It took a bit of nail-biting—editing DNS entries felt terrifyingly over my 63-year-old head—but I did finally get it sorted.

Anyhow, how do you decide what’s best for you? My advice is to first be honest about your level of expertise and your comfort with learning new software (including digging through YouTube and tech blogs). If you’re willing to do it yourself, or eager to learn new things (so many new things!) then have at it, but if you’re not, decide if you can afford to hand some (or even all) of it over to a professional. (You’ll have similar decisions to make when it’s time to create your book covers and format your e-book.) Keep in mind that doing it all yourself isn’t always the least expensive, and handing everything over to someone else isn’t always stress-free.

That’s the end of Part 1! Next time I’ll talk about what you do after setting up your infrastructure—your accounts, your website, and your mailing list. With your cover in hand or on the way, we’ll get back to the familiar: making the final edits to your book, assembling your e-book, and establishing your Amazon author page.

What’s your experience been? Did I miss any steps, or gloss over anything you want to hear more about? Let me know in the comments!