How to Publish a Book

A step-by-step guide for writers who want to see their work in print.

How to Publish a Book

“With its weight and solidity, a book signals to the world that there are ideas worth preserving in a form that carries heft, and takes up space; by its touchability, a book signals the importance of our engagement in an arena external to and larger than ourselves.”

― Steven L. Carter

Many writers dream of publishing a book. Many even write the manuscript. But that ultimate achievement of holding your own published work in your hands takes so much more than writing. You need to plan—the earlier the better—how your book will fit in and stand out alongside others, whether you will self-publish or find an agent, what the costs will be, and which promotion tactics will position you to confidently, authentically put your work out there and connect with eager readers. This roundup of resources will help get you started.

We wrote it with excerpted advice from the many talented writers and publishers who have written guides on Kickstarter’s sister site, The Creative Independent, and from Margot Atwell, who has published her own work as well as dozens of others’ and supported thousands of publishing projects from new and established creators alike as Kickstarter’s Head of Publishing.

From big-picture questions to detailed tips, there’s a lot here. We hope it helps you start and stick with your publishing journey—and be sure to also reference our Creator Resource Page for Publishing, Comics, and Journalism for additional inspiration and guidance.

Decide if you want to self-publish or work with a publisher

The first thing you should do is evaluate whether you want to self-publish or work with a publisher—it really changes how your development path will unfold.

Self-publishing lets you control everything, but also makes you responsible for copyediting, layout design, printing, and distribution. A well-considered Kickstarter campaign can cover the financial side of all this, but it’s still a lot of work.

If you want to work with a publisher, you will likely need to find an agent and write a formal book proposal. For this type of work, having connections and a track record as a writer is key. Naomi Huffman sums up the process in her guide for The Creative Independent:

“Finding an agent is a bit like finding the love of your life online: not impossible, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get it right the first time. Begin by researching the writers whose work feels close to yours. Find out who their agents are, and get in touch (most agency websites provide instructions for how they prefer to be contacted). Be specific in your pitch: Why will your book be successful? Where does it fit in the larger publishing market? Why should an agent want to work with you?”

Understand the different norms for fiction and non-fiction

“For fiction, you have to finish your manuscript and edit it multiple times before submitting to an agent or publisher,” explains Kickstarter’s Head of Publishing Margot Atwell. “For non-fiction, you typically shouldn't finish writing the book before you find an agent or publisher because they might have suggestions and encourage you to go in a different direction. Unless you intend to self-publish, in which case the proposal is nice but not required.”

For fiction, finish writing and develop a query letter

For fiction, you really need to finalize and edit your manuscript before bringing it to agents or publishers. Furaha Asani’s How to Establish a Daily Writing Practice and Jean Hannah Edelstein’s How to Write a Book with a Full-Time Job, published on Kickstarter sister site The Creative Independent, offer several tips for getting to the finish line.

Then, once you’re done, you’ll write a query letter—a quick summary of your book’s hook, genre, word count, and title / subtitle, plus a brief bio introducing yourself. NY Book Editors has developed an in-depth guide to query letters with specific advice like “use a similar tone to your narrative” and “don’t oversell it.”

For non-fiction, develop a book proposal early on

Agents and publishers will require you to write book proposals for non-fiction work, but it’s a good idea if you’re self-publishing, too. It’s a way to test your assumptions and discover approaches that are likely to work well.

“Book proposals are also wonderful developmental tools,” Joanna Ebenstein explains in her TCI guide How to Write a Book Proposal. “The act of writing one will help you clarify your thoughts and find a way to express your book idea clearly and succinctly. It will also help you understand the essence of your project so that you can communicate it with more ease.”

These are a few things Ebenstein recommends for distilling your concept:

  • Talk to friends about the idea. See which phrases you bring up again and again, register which elements seem to resonate best, and observe how your story changes over time in response to their questions and feedback.
  • Write out a description of the book and a rough sketch of the chapters.
  • Estimate about how many words you think the final project will be, whether you plan to include images, if they’ll be in color or black and white, and if you’ll need a budget for acquiring the rights to use them.
  • Consider your audience—do you have a large Twitter following or mailing list? Will they likely be interested in the topic you hope to write about?
  • Ask yourself about the market for this book. You want to be sure that a book just like this doesn’t exist, but that similar ones do. Make a list, note the dates of publication, and write a brief synopsis of each one. Use that to ask yourself how your book might fill a gap in the market.

Elly Blue, co-owner of Microcosm Publishing, has several recommendations on this last point as well. “Go to the bookstore and find books that appeal to a similar audience to yours, that are doing well, and—this part is important—that are published by small, independent publishers. These are the books to emulate. Spend some time with them and take notes. How many pages do they have? What do the covers look like? How much do they cost? Is there any information on the back cover or indicia page about how and where they’re printed? Read the acknowledgments to get a sense of who’s involved. Is the author independently wealthy? Is the press a hobby press, or are they running a viable business?

“You’ll want to find what my partner, Microcosm’s founder, Joe Biel, calls a “muse book”—one that is similar to yours in topic and market and is created by people who have similar access to resources as you do. It shouldn’t be identical; your book has to serve a unique need. But if you can’t find any books comparable to yours, rethink your plan.”

If you’re new to self-publishing, consider starting small

Elly Blue, co-owner of Microcosm Publishing, has run over 40 successful Kickstarter campaigns—and she gets a lot of emails about other people’s book projects.

“There’s a common theme among these projects,” she says, “people are dreaming big. You’ll find first-time creators trying to raise $20,000, $40,000, $60,000, $80,000, and more on Kickstarter to produce gorgeous full-color hardcover books—sometimes with elements like embossing, gold leaf, and custom paper.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love big, beautiful, fancy books. I want to run my fingers over their textured covers and flip through their pages, marvelling at the art inside. And they can make a lot of sense, especially for genres like cookbooks, children’s picture books, and fine art books, where these expensive production choices are the norm,” she says.

But don’t underestimate the power of a simple, cheap first run that you can learn from. “Starting your publishing career with a photocopied zine, chapbook, or pamphlet is a time-honored tradition,” says Blue. “The format comes with many advantages: mistakes are relatively cheap to fix, your initial costs are low, and so is the amount you have to raise. Unless you already have ready access to a moneyed community, a $15 paperback is going to sell better than a hardcover in the long run (and take up way less room in your crawl space). And as a result, starting smaller helps you to build up an audience and a community around your work and the passions behind it.”

If you’re self-publishing, know your costs

Self-publishing authors really need to set a budget from the beginning—and be ready to make adjustments along the way. Kickstarter Head of Publishing Margot Atwell outlines this excellently in her Cost to Create profile; it details how she published her second book, Derby Life: Stories, Advice & Wisdom from the Roller Derby World.

Here’s her annotated budget for creating her book, which she funded in part with a Kickstarter campaign but also included more traditional book sales venues. As you’ll see, there were lots of twists and turns along the way. Planning ahead and preparing to be flexible are important.

Content and preproduction: $4,994

This includes copyediting, proofreading, and typesetting. The price of typesetting ended up being more than she planned for, and going over her planned word count increased her costs as well. “I was able to cut a few areas I had budgeted for, including paying someone to write a foreword, paying beta readers, and paying for the cover.” But she was flexible. “I didn’t end up including a foreword, and my beta readers were extremely generous Kickstarter backers who backed at a level to get involved in the process. I worked with a friend and traded my editorial skills for his design skills for the cover and the Gutpunch Press logo, so I didn’t have to spend any money out of pocket for those elements.”

Printing: $4,336 (1,220 paperback copies)

“There are several ways to print a book, and I got numerous estimates before making my choices,” says Atwell. She suggests other writers going through this process check out IngramsparkLuluBookbaby, and Blurb, as they are fairly user-friendly for novices and allow small as well as larger quantities.

It’s important to do this research early on, and to do the research you should really try to decide definitively whether you’ll include images—you’ll need to vet quality more closely if you choose to, like Atwell did. “The highest-quality option I investigated was offset printing, which typically requires a minimum run of 750 – 1,000 copies but offers significant cost savings when printing more than that number.”

Keep in mind that if you go over your original word count estimate, like Atwell did, these costs will get higher. “Overrunning my final estimate by 50 pages meant that my printing costs were $0.50 higher per copy, not to mention that the longer books are heavier and more expensive to ship,” she says. “This has been especially challenging since I swapped to print-on-demand after my initial print run ran out because the POD costs are higher per unit. I ended up increasing the book’s price by a dollar to account for these higher costs, but it would have been better to invest a bit more time and money up front to fix this issue rather than have a book that’s quite expensive to continue producing and selling over time.”

Logistics and shipping: $1,719

Atwell saved quite a bit of money on storage costs, because her parents offered to let her have her 1,000-pound pallet of books delivered to their house in the suburbs of New York City. Shipping about 200 books to Kickstarter backers cost her $1,112, buying a laser printer for printing notes, labels, and more cost $248, a Shipstation subscription for buying postage and printing labels at home cost $120. She also offered postcards, which were very inexpensive and easy to fulfill, and e-books, which the typesetter produced inexpensively. Take a look at our fulfillment guide for additional ideas.

Marketing and sales: $4,407.68

Printing one large order instead of piecemeal on-demand printing meant Atwell was in the red when her project ended, but overall gave her a better price from the printer and more books to sell after her Kickstarter campaign wrapped up. This was the breakdown of how she sold the rest of the books—with shipping, marketing, and travel costs of $4,407.68

  • Direct sales at roller derby events: $4,039
  • Sales via skate shops and a museum with a roller derby exhibit: $2,149
  • Online sales through her website, Amazon, and more: $8,253

Takeaways from this budget:

  • Research how you’ll print the book before you finalize it, and remember that word count and image selections affect the cost.
  • A higher-volume order will likely be cheaper per unit than printing on demand, but make sure you have a plan for marketing and distributing all the books. It’s definitely possible to print a small run inexpensively and reprint as needed.
  • Consider line items like cover design or beta reading that friends might be able to help out on to save you some money.
  • Remember that most writers are not able to live off their writing alone—Atwell netted $7,184 from her project, which came out to less than $15/hour for the hundreds of hours of work she put in.

Promote the book

Promotion can feel gross, even if you have a publishing team behind you. In an interview on The Creative Independent, Tamara Shopsin shares her hesitation to self-promote: “With my first book, I had a really hard time with the press thing. It felt anti-me. I did it, but it was like dragging my feet, gritting my teeth. It felt wrong. I have a huge amount of guilt that I didn’t do enough for that book. I didn’t ‘bring it.’”

But eventually she came around. “I realized that because publishing is having a very difficult time, if you’re an author, you owe it to your publisher to do this final third leg. First you make the book, then you edit the book, and finally there’s PR for the book: it’s important.

“For my second book, I figured out a way the PR didn’t make me feel weird. I made it my own. I created stupid little trailer videos, I made hand lettered fliers, and my husband Jason agreed to do a surprise slideshow at each event. Everything I did was in hope that the press would feel uniquely me.” She also was able to do a mini-tour, going only to cities where she knew some people—which helped quiet her public speaking anxieties.

In her TCI guide How to Make a Book, Naomi Huffman also emphasizes the importance of being true to yourself with your promotion strategy. “It’s okay if you don’t have 100,000+ followers on Twitter, don’t understand how to employ a hashtag, or start nervous sweating at the very idea of being interviewed. You’re most effective when you’re comfortable and confident while telling other people about your book. Of course, it helps to be open to trying new things, but trust your instincts.”

Author Jeff VanderMeer, whose work Huffman publishes at MCDxFSG, likes to get creative with promotion by featuring fan art. “I playfully create mini-stories with readers on Facebook,” he says. “I sometimes commission little art pieces to use on social media as well. The main thing is to find some sense of play in what you do, so that the process first of all isn’t a drag and then also you might actually learn something from it creatively if you provide a space in which your readers can exercise their own imaginations.”

And as much as creativity and novelty matters, don’t overlook the power of plain-old emails: “Of all the followings you can accrue—on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and platforms yet to be invented—one is more important than the rest by an order of magnitude,” says former Kickstarter creator and author Robin Sloan. “It’s the group of people who have given you their old-fashioned email addresses and agreed that they would, from time to time, like to hear from you. Even if no one quite loves their inbox, everyone has one. Across generations and geography, through digital fads and fascinations, email is the common denominator, the magic key.”

While you’re covering the basics, be sure to set up a solid website. In his TCI guide How to Make a Website for Your Creative Work, Jason Huff recommends planning your website around 1) a clear goal and 2) a well-defined audience. That will serve as the groundwork for all the other great tips he offers on building a clear, easy-to-navigate website that serves your creative practice. He also recommends investigating quick-start platforms with pre-made website templates such as Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix, and others. Some of these have e-commerce options built in to make it easier to sell books from your website.

The same is largely true of how you should approach press pitches. In her TCI guide How to Get Press for Your Creative Work, Kate Bernyk says, “The first question I ask when putting together a communications and media plan is: Who am I trying to talk to, and what do I want them to do?” Again, really understanding who your intended audience is (something you hopefully worked out in your book proposal) is how you’ll connect with an engaged readership and identify the journalists most likely to write about you and your work. “I know it’s really tempting to want to reach as many people as possible,” Bernyk writes, “but there’s just no such thing as the general public.”

However you do it, publishing a book can be one of the most rewarding experiences out there. Books begin as the seed of an idea and through creativity, dedication, and effort, end as a tangible object that is sent into the world to be shared with others, build connections, and create a community around a subject that matters to the writer.

To take the next steps on your publishing journey, check out these resources. You got this!