Start Here: How to Self-Publish Your Book

How to self-publish your book

This is an introductory guide to how to self-publish (both print and ebook), and how to choose the right services or approach based on your needs and budget.

  1. A Quick History of Self-Publishing
  2. The Most Common Ways to Self-Publish Today
  3. Self-Publishing: The DIY Approach I Recommend
  4. How Ebook Self-Publishing Services Work
  5. Creating Ebook Files
  6. How to Self-Publish a Print Book
  7. Investing in a Print Run: Yes or No?
  8. Print-on-Demand Recommendations
  9. Maximizing Your Book Sales
  10. More Resources

If you don’t want to read the entire post, I talk you through the highlights in this video.

1. A Quick History of Self-Publishing

For most of publishing’s history, if an author wanted to self-publish, they had to invest thousands of dollars with a so-called “vanity” press, or otherwise learn how to become an independent, small publisher.

That all changed in the late 1990s, with the advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology, which allows books to be printed one at a time. As a result, many POD publishing services arose that provided authors with low-cost self-publishing packages. They could be low cost because—without print runs, inventory, and warehousing—the only expense left was in creating and designing the product itself: the book. Outfits like iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse (which have merged and been consolidated under AuthorSolutions) offered a range of packages to help authors get their books in print, though most books never sat on a bookstore shelf and sold a few dozen copies at best.

What’s Changed Since 2007

Just as traditional publishing has transformed due to the rise of ebooks, today’s self-publishing market has transformed as well. Most self-published authors earn the bulk of their money from ebook sales. Furthermore, 85% or more of all US ebook sales happen through a single online retailer, Amazon. Anyone can make their ebook and print book available for sale in the most important market—Amazon—without paying a cent upfront.

That means the full-service POD publishers that used to make a killing are now largely irrelevant to most self-publishing success, even though you’ll find them advertising against Google search results for “self-publishing.” Don’t be immediately lured in; first understand your options, explained below.

2. The Most Common Ways to Self-Publish Today

There are several ways to self-publish in today’s market.

  • Self-publish completely on your own, hiring only the freelance assistance you need, and work directly with retailers and distributors to sell your book.
  • Self-publish by hiring a service company to basically act as your publisher.
  • Work with a “hybrid” publisher.

This post will expand on how to self-publish completely on your own. Before I explore that process in detail, here’s an explanation of the other choices you have.

Self-publish by hiring a service company

This is what I call the “write a check and make the headache go away” method of self-publishing. If you have more money than time, and have no interest in being a full-time career author, this may best serve your needs.

Service packages and publishing arrangements tremendously vary, but the best services charge an upfront fee, take absolutely no rights to your work, and pass on 100% net sales to the author. They make money on charging authors for the services provided (editorial, design, marketing, and so on), not on copies sold. Such books will almost never be stocked in physical retail bookstores, although in some rare cases, it may happen. Most assisted publishing services have different packages or tiers of service, while others offer customized quotes based on the particular needs of your project.

The benefit is that you get a published book without having to figure out the details of the publishing industry or finding freelance professionals you can trust. The best and most expensive services (which can easily exceed $20,000) offer a quality experience that is comparable to working with a traditional publisher. You should avoid companies that take advantage of author inexperience and use high-pressure sales tactics, such as AuthorSolutions imprints (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, WestBow, Archway).

Examples of good assisted services include Matador, Mill City Press, DogEar, Radius Book Group, Book in a Box, and Girl Friday Productions. To check the reputation of a service, visit Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine.

Publish through a “hybrid” company

Some self-publishing (or assisted publishing) services have started calling themselves “hybrid publishers” because it sounds more fashionable and savvy, but such companies may be nothing more than a fancy self-publishing service. Fees dramatically vary and quality dramatically varies. You have to do your research carefully. I discuss hybrid publishing in more detail here. As with self-publishing service companies, you will fund book publication in exchange for expertise and assistance of the publisher; cost is often in the thousands of dollars. You may receive better royalties than a traditional publishing contract, but you’ll earn less than if self-publishing on your own. Each hybrid publisher has its own distinctive costs and business model; always secure a clear contract with all fees explained.

Agents who offer self-publishing services

Increasingly, agents are starting to help existing clients as well as new ones digitally publish their work. Help might consist of fee-based services, royalty-based services, and hybrid models.

Such practices are controversial because agents’ traditional role is to serve as an advocate for their clients’ interests and negotiate the best possible deals. When agents start publishing their clients’ work and taking their 15% cut of sales, a conflict of interest develops.

In their defense, agents are changing their roles in response to industry change, as well as client demand. Regardless of how you proceed, look for flexibility in any agreements you sign. Given the pace of change in the market, it’s not a good idea to enter into an exclusive, long-term contract that locks you into a low royalty rate or into a distribution deal that may fall behind in best practices.

3. Self-Publishing: The DIY Approach I Recommend

Today, anyone can get access to the same level of online retail distribution as a traditional publisher, for both print and ebook editions, through services such as Amazon KDPDraft2Digital, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark. I will explain how and when to use these services throughout this post.

You don’t “pay” these services until your books start to sell. Every time a copy of your book is sold, the retailer takes a cut, and if you use a distributor, they’ll take a cut, too.

You, the author, manage the publishing process and hire the right people or services to edit, design, publish, and distribute your book. Every step of the way, you decide which distributors or retailers you prefer to deal with. You retain complete and total control of all artistic and business decisions; you keep all profits and rights.

Self-publishing on your own means making decisions about your book’s editorial, design, and production quality. I offer a checklist for the book publication process here.

What follows is an explanation of how to self-publish once you have a final, polished manuscript and/or printer-ready files. 

Some of the services I reference, particularly CreateSpace, offer fee-based services related to editing, design, and marketing. These package services may work OK for your needs, but I think it’s better to hire your own freelancers and always know who you’re working with. Also, you can take a look at Joel Friedlander’s book template system, which offers a way for total beginners to prepare ebook and print book files that are ready to be distributed and sold.

Setting Up a Formal Publishing Company

You don’t have to set up a formal business (e.g., in the United States, you can use your Social Security number for tax purposes), but serious self-publishers will typically set up an LLC at minimum.

For the basic information on how to establish your own imprint or publishing company, read Joel Friedlander’s post, How to Create, Register, and List Your New Publishing Company.

4. How Ebook Self-Publishing Services Work

The first and most important thing to understand about ebook retailers and distributors is that they are not publishers. That means they take no responsibility for the quality of your work, but neither do they take any rights to your work. Here are the characteristics of major services:

  • Free to play. You rarely pay an upfront fee. When you do pay upfront, usually in the case of a distributor (such as BookBaby), you earn 100% net. If you don’t pay an upfront fee, then expect a percentage of your sales to be kept.
  • At-will and nonexclusive. You can upload your work at any time and make it available for sale; you can also take it down at any time. You can upload new versions; change the price, cover and description; and you can sell your work through multiple services or through your own site.
  • Little technical expertise required. Major services offer automated tools for converting your files, uploading files, and listing your work for sale, as well as free guides and tutorials to help ensure your files are formatted appropriately.

Again, it’s important to emphasize: By using these services, you do not forfeit any of your rights to the work. If a traditional publisher or agent were to approach you after your ebook has gone on sale, you are free to sell rights without any obligation to the services you’ve used.

Most e-publishing services fall into one of these categories:

  • Ebook retailers. Nearly all ebook retailers offer to distribute and sell self-published ebooks through their storefront or device, then take a cut of sales. The biggest and most important of these is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Ebook retailers do not offer any assistance in preparing your ebook files, although they may accept a wide range of file types for upload.
  • Ebook distributors. These services primarily act as middlemen and push your work out to multiple retailers and distributors. This helps reduce the amount of work an author must do; instead of dealing with many different single channel services, you deal with only one service. The most popular ebook distributors in the United States are Draft2Digital and Smashwords.
  • Book builders and distributors. These are tools that allow you to create and distribute your work all from one interface. These are most common for children’s books and highly illustrated books, such as Kindle Kids’ Book Creator. 

One popular approach for independent authors is to sell and distribute directly through Amazon KDP, then use a distributor like Draft2Digital to reach everyone else. Because none of these services demand exclusivity, that’s possible.

A note about ISBNs: While an ISBN is not required for basic ebook distribution through most retailers, some distributors and services require one. Therefore, to maximize distribution, you’ll need an ISBN for your ebook. Some self-publishing services will provide you with an ISBN, or you can obtain your own ISBN. (If you’re US-based, you can buy through

What ebook retailers pay

ebook royalty rates by retailer
5. Creating Ebook Files

Nearly every service asks you to upload a final ebook file that is appropriately formatted. Services vary widely in the types of files they accept. Because standards are still developing in the ebook world, you may find yourself converting and formatting your book multiple times to satisfy the requirements of different services.

Here are the most commonly used formats for ebooks:

  • EPUB. This is considered a global standard format for ebooks and works seamlessly on most devices. While you cannot export an EPUB file from a Word document, you can save your Word document as a text (.txt) file, then convert and format it using special software.
  • MOBI. This is the format that’s ideal for Amazon Kindle, although you can also upload an EPUB file.
  • PDF. PDFs can be difficult to convert to standard ebook formats. It’s not a recommended starting point for ebook conversion.

Most major ebook retailers and distributors accept a Word document and automatically convert it to the appropriate format, but you still must go through an “unformatting” process for best results. All major services offer step-by-step guidelines for formatting your Word documents before you upload them for conversion.

Important to note: There is a difference between formatting and converting your book files. Conversion refers to an automated process of converting files from one format into another, without editing or styling. It’s often easy to convert files, but the resulting file may look unprofessional—or even appear unreadable—if not formatted appropriately.

Useful tools for formatting and converting ebooks include:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the idea of converting and formatting your own ebook files, then you may want to use a distributor or service that’s customer-service oriented in this regard, such as Draft2Digital. If your ebook has special layout requirements, heavy illustration, or multimedia components, you should probably hire an independent company to help you (eBookPartnership is one option).

But if your book is mostly straight text—such as novels and narrative works—then you might be able to handle the conversion and formatting process without much difficulty if you’re starting with a Word document or text file.

Designing an Ebook Cover

There are a number of special considerations for ebook cover design. People may see your cover in black and white, grayscale, color, high-resolution, low-resolution, thumbnail size, or full size. It needs to be readable at all sizes and look good on low-quality or mobile devices. For these reasons (and many more), it’s best to hire a professional to create an ebook cover for you. One designer I frequently recommend is Damon Za.

When Ebooks Can Be Problematic

Even though ebooks are the best-selling format for self-publishing authors (especially fiction), ask these questions before you begin:

  • Is your book highly illustrated? Does it require color? If so, you may find there are significant challenges to creating and distributing your ebook across multiple platforms.
  • Is your book for children? Ebook adoption in the children’s market is in the single digits, unlike the adult market. Ebook-only work will struggle to gain traction.

6. How to Self-Publish a Print Book

There are two primary ways to publish and make a print edition available for sale:

  • Print on demand (POD)
  • Traditional offset printing 

Print-on-demand technology allows for books to be printed one at a time. This is by far the most popular way to produce print copies of your book because it reduces financial risk.

Pros of print-on-demand

  • Little or no upfront cost, aside from producing printer-ready files
  • Your book can be available for sale as a print edition in all the usual online retail outlets (Amazon,, etc), as well as distributed through Ingram, the largest U.S. book wholesaler.
  • Most people cannot tell the difference between a POD book and an offset printed book—at least for black-and-white books.

Cons of print-on-demand

  • The unit cost is much higher, which may lead to a higher retail price.
  • You may have very few print copies on hand—or it will be expensive to keep ordering print copies to have around.

Most books printed by U.S. traditional publishers are produced through offset printing. To use a traditional printer, you usually need to commit to 1,000 copies minimum.

Pros of offset printing

  • Lower unit cost
  • Higher quality production values, especially for full-color books
  • You’ll have plenty of print copies around

Cons of offset printing

  • Considerable upfront investment; $2,000 is the likely minimum, which includes the printing and shipping costs.
  • Increased risk—what if the books don’t sell or you want to put out a new edition before the old one is sold out?
  • You’ll have plenty of print copies around—which means you have books to warehouse and fulfill unless you hire a third party to handle it for you, which then incurs additional costs. 

While it can be fairly straightforward and inexpensive to get a print book in your hands via print-on-demand services, virtually no one can get your book physically ordered or stocked in bookstores. Self-publishing services may claim to distribute your book to stores or make your book available to stores. But this is very different from actually selling your book into bookstores. Bookstores almost never accept or stock titles from any self-publishing service or POD company, although they can special order for customers when asked, assuming the book appears in their system.

Also, think through the paradox: Print-on-demand services or technology should be used for books that are printed only when there’s demand. Your book is not going to be nationally distributed and sitting on store shelves unless or until a real order is placed.

7. Investing in a Print Run: Yes or No?

The 3 key factors are:

  1. How and where you plan to sell the book. If you frequently speak and have opportunities to sell your books at events, then it makes sense to invest in a print run. Also consider if you’ll want significant quantities to distribute or sell to business partners or organizations, stock in local/regional retail outlets or businesses, give to clients, etc. I do not recommend investing in a print run because you think bookstores or retail outlets will stock your book. If such an opportunity should arise, then you can always invest in a print run after you have a sales order or firm commitment.
  2. Where you’re driving sales. If you’re driving your customers/readers primarily to online retailers, you can fulfill print orders with less hassle and investment by using POD. Ultimately, you do have to use POD regardless if you want to be distributed by the largest U.S. wholesaler, Ingram. (More info below.)
  3. What your budget is like. Not everyone is comfortable investing in a print run.

You also need to anticipate your appetite for handling the warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping of 1,000+ books, unless a third party is handling it for you, which will reduce your profit. When the truck pulls up to your house with several pallets piled high with 30-pound boxes, it will be a significant reality check if you haven’t thought through your decision.

8. Print-on-Demand Recommendations

If you choose print-on-demand for your print edition, then I recommend the following:

  • Use Ingram Spark to produce a POD edition for all markets except Amazon. By doing so, your book will be listed and available for order through the largest and most preferred U.S. wholesaler, Ingram.
  • Using CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) to produce a POD edition for Amazon sales. For many authors, the majority of sales will be through Amazon.

I recommend using both Ingram Spark and CreateSpace to maximize your profits and ensure that no one is discouraged from ordering or stocking the print edition of your book. As you might imagine, independent bookstores aren’t crazy about ordering books provided by CreateSpace/Amazon, their key competitor. However, if you use Ingram Spark to fulfill orders through Amazon, you will reduce your profits because Amazon offers more favorable terms when selling books generated through CreateSpace. So it’s much more advantageous financially to use CreateSpace—but limit the scope of that agreement to just Amazon orders.

As soon as your printer-ready files are uploaded, POD books are generally available for order at Amazon within 48 hours. With Ingram Spark, it generally takes 2 weeks for the book to be available through all their channels.

Example of Print-on-Demand Earnings

This is for a $14.99 standard 6×9 paperback, about 240 pages.

Createspace vs IngramSpark author earnings

9. Maximizing Your Book Sales

With print books, your success is typically driven by the quality of your book, your visibility or reach to your readership, and your cover. With ebooks, the same factors are in play, plus the following:

  • If you check the ebook bestseller lists, you’ll see that independent novelists charge very little for their work, often somewhere between 99 cents and $2.99. Some argue this devalues the work, while others say that it’s appropriate for an ebook from an unknown author. Whatever your perspective, just understand that, if you’re an unknown author, your competition will probably be priced at $2.99 or less to encourage readers to take a chance. Typically, the more well known or trusted you are, the more you can charge. Note: Nonfiction authors should price according to the competition and what the market can bear. Sometimes prices are just as high for digital editions as print editions in nonfiction categories.
  • Your Amazon page may be the first and only page a reader looks at when deciding whether to purchase your book. Optimization of this page—the marketing description, the book cover, your author bio, the reviews, and more—is critical for driving sales.
  • Giveaways are an important part of ebook marketing and sales strategy for indie authors. I comment more on that here.

This is but a scratch on the surface of the world of ebook marketing. Author Nicholas Erik maintains an excellent beginner’s guide.

10. More Resources

You can read more about self-publishing at the following posts:

I Want to Pay Someone to Self-Publish My Book

Here are high-quality, full-service publishing providers that I trust.

Posted in E-Books, Getting Published and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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238 Comments on "Start Here: How to Self-Publish Your Book"

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[…] to Google, I found Jane Friedman and her “How to Self-Publish Your Book” webpage. This was an invaluable resource. I highly recommend it as a starting point for […]


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Bryan B.

Hi Jane – This is very helpful, but I’m seeing CreateSpace resulting in substantially lower profits for my book even through Amazon (as compared to IngramSpark), which seems to be because my book is full-color (which CreateSpace charges 7 cents a page to print). Is this correct, or am I doing something wrong? Thanks in advance.


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Just stumbled across this post, and love it! I’m wondering if you have an opinion on how many books someone should have ready before self-publishing. Are multiple books necessary so that each can feed traffic/buys to the others, or is it okay to start out with one?


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James P. McGill
Hello Jane, I’m an author with two novels of a science fiction trilogy, and five other books, currently offered as e-books on Amazon. I have recently completed the third and final book of the trilogy and would like to have it printed up as a high quality boxed set. I am not presently concerned with sales. My main objective right now is to get maybe twenty or thirty boxed sets that I can gift to family and friends. There may come time when I’ll want to seriously look into sales strategies for the trilogy and my other e-books, but that… Read more »

Awesome information. Thanks so much for compiling it!

Diana Jimison

Hi. I self published and misunderstood. I thought books woyld be able to be sold in the bookstores. Ive caklld trying to market and set up events to do signings but everyone has said it has to be available to their warwhouse. Im so disappointed, i dont know what to do? Is there a simple solution?


I have a question. A couple of years ago my brother and I wrote a book together, just a simple teen mystery book, and I want to just make one nice copy of the book as a gift for him. Is there an easy, hopefully inexpensive, way to get just one or two copies of a book printed? Can you offer any suggestions?
Thanks so much!

Hi Jane! I’m so glad I stumbled on your site. I’m currently reading your Publishing 101. I’m taking the Virtual Author’s Assistant certification by the late Jan B. King and finding it quite frustrating… I’m a novice in the book world and still I can see the course is fairly out-of-date. Any edits/updates are rarely made at all the necessary reference points; which tells me the course is not professionally edited. I feel that topics are not sufficiently covered and yet there is a lot of repetition. I’m also a hugely organized person and find it to be very disorganized.… Read more »

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Ed Wingham
Jane… I have self-published eleven books, typically novella length, 150 to 200 pages, or approx. 30,000 or more; all are fiction. They span a significant gamut from general human interest to historical fiction covering international intrigue to the current horrors in Chicago. I have used for all my POD needs. I haven’t adequately marketed the books and the sales certainly reflect that. I gather that once an indie self-publishes, finding an agent is difficult. Like everyone, I suppose, I firmly believe that my works are unique and worthwhile. Is it possible to forward a few of the books (or… Read more »

Hi, Jane, I have a product all ready to go. It is an instruction book, 50 pages of full colour, and I wish to self publish it as an e-book. In your excellent comment, you say that one can now make a book available in important markets without a third party. Does this mean without Amazon KDP, etc., etc.?
Could I simply expose it on social media, have my computer set up to take orders, payments, and the forwarding of the product, all automatically?
Many thanks, Rob

Martin London
Hi, Jane: Boy, this is complicated: I have completed a 370 page memoir, and want to POD hardback and softback, as well as sell on Kindle and other epublishers. Hardback will be done on IngramSpark. Should I do softback there too, and register separately with KDP, or do the softback on Createspace which, I understand, will register me with Kindle, correct? Are there differences in cost or quality between IS and CS? Finally, does it make any sense (or is it even possible) to have the softbacks done by both companies and compare the economic and quality results? IS set… Read more »

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Jane, I have written a book that I want to give away to use as a marketing tool. What method do you recommend?


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David Hench

Anybody have any leads on where to pursue a printer for a mini book, about 3″ by 4″ size? Thanks.


Thank you! This is a great list of useful information. I’d like to make one point regarding print books and postage costs. Using only Createspace is fine if you’re USA based, but postage costs outside the USA are ridiculous. Using Ingram is vital for those elsewhere as they have printers around the world which reduces the cost dramatically. I’m in Australia, and if I used Createspace for print, the postage would double the cost of buying in books – no exaggeration. Its another great reason to use both providers.

Lee Reed

Thank you for this information! Are there any special considerations for picture books, e.g., services that are best when pictures involved?


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Hi, Jane. This is very useful for writers short on budget, looking for a break as published authors.
To add further, mobile reading has gone up rapidly over the last 4 years and there are some new and upcoming ‘mobile only’ publishing platforms like Juggernaut to help the writers.
As rightly said, self-publishing is becoming very popular and I’d say that if this was the situation back in the early 90’s, authors like J.K Rowling wouldn’t have had their works rejected 12 times.

Charles DeBlieux III

Jane – Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I have written four books so far, and they are getting better each time. The question I have and, why I’ve turned to you, is how do I get started without getting raped? I feel you have started my quest for getting this stuff finally into book form and you will hear from me.




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Mary Beth

First of all, many thanks for this page, Jane. I have referred to it many times, and it has been immensely helpful.

Re “Use Ingram Spark to produce a POD edition for all markets except Amazon”: How do you instruct Ingram Spark not to sell your book on Amazon? I have a book uploaded to Ingram Spark, and I didn’t see any options in the distribution choices that would allow me to do that. Do I simply approve my book on CreateSpace first? Thank you.

Cal R Barnes

Incredible video and website Jane! This has been an invaluable resource in my self-publishing journey. Going full indie, baby. Thank you. Keep up the great work.


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Suzey Dobeck
Jane, thanks so much for this article. As someone who is about to self-publish and has spent weeks trying to navigate which companies to use for what and all of the pros and cons, I can’t imagine how much harder it would be without your amazing advice! I do have a question I hope you can answer: I’m taking your advice listed in #8 above – Using Ingram Spark to produce a POD edition for all markets except Amazon. – Using CreateSpace to produce a POD edition for Amazon sales. But I’ve read many conflicting views on whether to use… Read more »
Rennie Petersen

Thanks for all this great information.

One thing I’m wondering about, and am a bit surprised that you don’t mention, is the situation for ebooks concerning piracy and DRM (digital rights management). As a fledgling wanna-be author who’s wondering if my coming book will ever sell a single copy, maybe I should be happy if someone puts it on a torrent website – then at least it might get a few readers. Still, I’m curious about that side of the ebook business, especially since the Wikipedia article about the ePub format implies that it has major problems concerning DRM.

Gregory Round

The biggest problem I found in self publishing was file conversion, especially for pdf/x-1a. Then I found this site they do it for next to nothing. Distributors such as IngramSpark require the PDF/x-1a format. Unless you own adobe pro (can cost hundreds of dollars) I recommend the above site. My book is The Draper Diaries on Amazon.