Whether you’re completely new to the publishing process or an old pro, it can be helpful to have a to-do list to guide your self-publishing project to completion, to ensure you don’t miss any important steps, and also to help you plan well enough to hit your target pub date.
Below I detail the distinct stages of the editorial, production, and sales/distribution process. My goal is to help you understand some of the assumptions I’ve made about the publishing process (which follows a traditional model), as well as where you can save time and expense.
The Editorial and Production Process
This process can be broken down into roughly three stages:
My checklist begins at the point where you have a reasonably final manuscript that does not require higher level editing or significant revision. While much depends on what level of editing your manuscript has already undergone, for most authors, I recommend seeking a formal copyedit: you send the manuscript to a professional freelance copyeditor, who will focus on style, grammar, and consistency issues—and might possibly do light fact-checking if needed (very useful for nonfiction).
A typical copyedit for an 80,000-word manuscript takes two weeks, but good copyeditors usually need to be booked a month (or more) in advance. Authors should give themselves at least a week, if not two, to review and make changes after the copyedit is returned.
Depending on your project, you’ll have several stages of book design.
Front cover design. While the manuscript is being copyedited, you can begin on the cover design. Some authors are able to put together their own cover designs using tools such as Canva, but since your cover is often the number-one marketing tool for your book, hiring a professional designer is wise.
Before you hire a cover designer, I recommend doing some research and studying bestselling books similar to your own in genre, theme, or audience. Find at least two or three covers that you like, and write fifty to a hundred words explaining why these covers look good to you. This serves as the start of a creative brief you can give to your freelance designer, to help them create an appropriate cover for your book.
If you haven’t already, you should also finalize the title, subtitle, and book description that will be used at all retailers and on the back cover (for a print edition). It’s ideal if you have two or three versions of the book description: a very short one (25–50 words), a short one (50–100 words), and a longer one (250 words).
Obviously, it’s possible to produce a front cover for your book long before the editing is complete; all you need is a final title/subtitle, a final decision on your book’s trim size, and confidence in what the cover should look like.
Back cover design. Most ebooks only have a front cover design and no back cover design. If you’re producing a paperback or print-on-demand edition, then you’ll also need a back cover and spine. (Hardcovers will require yet another cover design to account for the flaps and increased spine width.)
Traditional publishers typically produce the front cover design first, and they don’t complete the back cover and spine until much closer to the pub date. It’s not possible to design the spine until the exact page count is known, and the page count may be in flux until the book’s interior is designed and laid out. The cover’s measurements are also affected by the printer you’re using, as well as the type of cover and interior paper.
However, if your page count is firm and unchanging, and you know which printers or POD services you’re using, you can have the entire cover designed as part of one process.
Important note: Many authors like to include advance praise or blurbs on the cover. If this is your intention, then you’ll need to start gathering these blurbs before the cover design process begins. Otherwise, you’ll need to instruct the designer to use dummy text in place of the actual blurb, and swap it out later.
Print interior design. If you’re planning a print edition and you have the time and money to invest, you may also want to hire a designer for the interior of your book. This may or may not be the same person who designs the cover—it depends on the freelancer and their skill set. Here are some considerations when deciding if interior design is worth the investment:
- Books that are predominantly body text and nothing more (such as novels and memoirs), often do fine with very basic or template designs. Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates are an inexpensive way to produce a good-looking print interior using Microsoft Word or InDesign. His templates can also be used to generate your ebook files. Using a template system will dramatically cut down on the amount of time needed for book production—usually by one month.
- Books that have a lot of elements or styles (usually nonfiction) may require a custom interior design. Especially if you have illustrations, graphics, or any color elements, you’ll want a designer who knows how to properly set up the file and ensure decent reproduction values.
- When producing both a print and ebook edition, always keep in mind how you’ll ensure that both editions have the same final text if you’re using InDesign to produce the print edition. InDesign can export EPUB files, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward or simple process. A professional interior designer who knows how to export EPUB files from InDesign can be indispensable, or you can hire an independent ebook formatting professional to do it for you.
Usually, before the interior design process begins, the author comes up with a list of all the design elements that occur in the book. It looks something like this:
Chapter title and chapter opener
If you’re not sure how to come up with a list like this, your designer should be able to help or anticipate your needs for you. It’s best if they show you a sample of the design—or lay out a single chapter—before continuing with the entire book, so you can ask for revisions or adjustments to the design. Once the full book is laid out, the designer will send you the entire file to review for any final changes or tweaks. Once you’re confident none of the text will shift between pages, then you can send the file to an indexer (if you want an index prepared for the print edition).
Ebook design (EPUB file preparation). There’s not really an ebook design process—at least not for typical, reflowable ebook files (EPUB files). If your title has lots of special illustrations or visuals—or needs to have a fixed page layout—then you’ll want to hire a professional to prepare your ebook files for you. You’ll likely go through a process similar to the print interior design process—be sure to budget extra time in your schedule for this.
However, many authors do not hire out this work—and sometimes it seems there are as many ways to prepare an ebook file as there are authors. Some manage by using only Microsoft Word and the auto-conversion process applied by Amazon, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and others. Some use software such as Calibre, Sigil, or Jutoh to prepare the files. This resource list offers a range of tools to consider.
If you’ve never before prepared an ebook file for publication, give yourself plenty of time to do so—at least one week. If this isn’t a process you want to handle yourself, some ebook cover designers will handle preparation of your ebook files.
As you reach the end of the design process, you’ll have to decide how thorough your proofing process will be. Some authors proof their files themselves, and others send them out for a formal proofread. If you think your files are very clean, and very few errors have been introduced during the production process, then you might skip hiring someone. However, if you skipped the copyedit, and you’re the only person who has ever looked at the files aside from the designer, then it’s a smart idea to pay for a proofer before publishing.
Important note: As Dana Delamar points out in the comments section, some authors are better off with an earlier proofing process—one that starts before ebook design and file prep. A critical question to ask: Will you be editing your final files directly—or will you have the access and capability to do so—or is someone else responsible for the final touches on the files? For example, if a freelancer is preparing and delivering final ebook files you won’t (or can’t) open or modify in any way, it becomes essential that you provide clean files to reduce costs or delays.
The Sales and Distribution Process
This process can be broken down into roughly two stages:
- Preparing your metadata
- Uploading your files and going on sale
1. Preparing Your Metadata
Before you head off to Ingram or Amazon to publish, it’s best to do all your research and legwork in advance as to how you will describe the book, how it will be categorized, what pricing you will use, and so on. That way, when you reach the publishing interface, you’ll have all the data at your fingertips and you won’t have to stop, think, go searching for missing information, or feel pressured into making a decision.
2. Uploading Your Files
This is perhaps the easiest and quickest part of the entire publishing process: making your book available for sale. In most cases, it won’t even take you an hour to get your book into the system and under review. With Amazon in particular, your book is often available and on sale in twenty-four hours. If you’re not ready to go on sale, then you can set the book as a preorder and input whatever pub date you want. (Amazon allows preorders up to ninety days in advance; Smashwords and others allow for one year.)
You should have the following files ready to upload for your print-on-demand edition:
- Full cover layout file (PDF): if you’re using both Amazon KDP and IngramSpark, you will need a different cover layout file for each, since they each will provide different measurements for you to use
- Full interior layout file (PDF)
You should have the following files ready to upload for your ebook edition:
- Front cover image: JPG, PNG, or other image format
- Ebook file: EPUB will result in the best quality, but most retailers/distributors allow you to upload a Word document, among other common file formats
What’s Not Covered in This Checklist?
My checklist covers all the steps involved in creating your book and making it available for sale. However, it does not touch on any marketing concerns, such as sending out advance review copies, using social media prior to release or afterward, collecting endorsements, promoting a preorder, etc.
The interactive version of my checklist allows you to set any pub date you want, which will then automatically generate suggested deadlines for each step of the process. If you’d like to produce official-looking advance review copies (ARCs), then simply change the date to when you’d like to have ARCs. Alternatively, you can send out early, unproofed digital copies of your book to people who you’d like blurbs or publicity consideration from while you begin the production process.
- Click here to download the PDF checklist for printing on letter-size paper.
- Click here to access the interactive checklist and download/save it for your own files.
For More: My Most Popular Posts on Self-Publishing
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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
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. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
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.