Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tricks to Low Budget Self-Publishing

Thinking of writing a book and wondering if self-publishing is for you?   For those of you looking for a fun project, whether it's a multi-hundred page cookbook or a 15 page children's book (definitely on my list of things to do!), I'll tell you what I learned through the process.  I made many mistakes along the way.  I did a ton of research and learned a lot.  And I suspect my next book will be better, and will take half as long to write!

If you're looking for a quick project, that's pretty much free and could take you a month or a week,
you can probably just go straight to CreateSpace and get cracking.  If you're writing something in the vein of a 222 page cookbook with photos and illustrations, read on, or at least bookmark this page for the point that you need help trouble shooting!

When I set out to write my first cookbook, I approached it like any art project.  I wanted to make something for practically free, hoping that my ridiculously low budget, stress free approach wouldn't be obvious in the end result.  I wrote the book on Microsoft Word 2007 on a used $60 laptop.  I took all the photos with a $200 camera.  I drew my own illustrations and took photos of them for the book. I didn't hire a designer or an editor.  (But I did take two years to complete the book, so I was darn sure it was exactly what I wanted before printing.)  And here's my experience in amateur book writing intending to look like a real life author, in a nutshell:

Getting started and choosing a publisher:

After doing a little reading on printing options, I went quickly into setting up an account with a print on demand (POD) service.  POD means that when a book is ordered, it's printed.  There is no minimum number of books you must order.  To set up your book with them, you must have a title picked out, so wait until you're ready with that.  You also should pick out a name for your "publishing company."  I made one up, using my blog title.  You should definitely set up your title with the printing companies before you finish typing and finalizing design, because you will need to know the available book sizes and their various requirements such as margins for making your book printable.

After much research, I am printing my book with CreateSpace.  I also established the title with Lightning Source, another print-on-demand service, and I went with the two printers for different reasons.  In my research, I found that CreateSpace is very helpful with quick response times when you send in questions and they have expansive forums to learn from others' mistakes.  It is inexpensive to print with them.  CreateSpace sets you up directly with their own online estore, plus they send the book off to for sale on that site as well.  I had originally wanted a spiral binding, which is handy for a cookbook, but I couldn't find a good POD company with the spiral binding option, so I gave up on that.  Because I really wanted to print my book with a matte cover (not an option with CreateSpace), I also set myself up with Lightning Source.  Working with Lightening Source is a more difficult process, with fees, applications and no helpful forums, and I found it difficult to navigate their system.  But I had read that Lightning Source has a higher printing quality and is best for distributing to bookstores, so that was my plan for them.  However, in the end I didn't use Lightning Source at all.  More on this later...

I'll tell you why I didn't look for a publishing company.  I almost pitched my book to the University of Minnesota Press but in the process I discovered that I could basically lose total creative control if I did.  To them, you submit a double spaced, standard font transcript of your book.  They do the rest and while you can suggest the details you want, including the cover design, they govern that stuff themselves.  I was hell bent on using my own ideas for all of these things so there was just no way.  Plus, they want you to have a strong social networking presence for the purpose of doing your own marketing, which I'm not into.  And publishers usually expect or require you to do book tours, as in sitting in a bookstore hawking your wares, which I also am not into.  My goal is to sell this book to family and friends, friends of friends, and local bookstores.  I can do that on my own with no strings attached.  I won't make a million dollars, but I decided going to a publisher would not likely change that and it isn't for me, at least for this project.

The writing process:

Then I spent a year typing and getting the photos in there.  I wasted time getting excited about fonts and sizing and spacing, only to change my mind and having to redo the whole thing again several times.  Next time, I'll finish the whole book in basic 12 point font, double spaced, then spend one chunk of time on the formatting and details.  But it was fun and it broke things up when I got sick of the lengthy typing process.

I took all my photos, including photos of illustrations I had made for the book, and altered them into high contrast black and white using  I am a huge superfan of PicMonkey for all sorts of creative art projects.  I pay $5 a month for what is basically Photoshop for dummies.  And I don't mean that as an insult.  It's fantastic and fun.

When finished with the rough draft, I printed it off at UPS and went through the whole thing twice with a red pen.  (Note that photocopied photos have no gray scale, so don't judge your photos by a UPS copy.  I panicked for a minute but did my research and was rest assured.)  I fixed stuff up and did a whole 'nother proofread.  By now I'm about a year and a half into the project.  It took a really long time because I was writing a cookbook so I had to test and rewrite and retest recipes.  I imagine other forms of books may not take as long.  Though, other forms of books could probably benefit more from an outside perspective, so if I was to write a novel or something, I'd hire someone to proofread/edit for me.  Probably a well-read friend for $100 or something.  They say it's way easier to get a book into stores if you can say you've had it "professionally edited," and in this case I would call my well-read friend a "freelance editor."

Creating a PDF and printing your first hard copy:

I didn't create my book cover until I knew the book was finished, because the size of the spine depends on the number of pages in the book.  I created the cover in Word, using photo collages I had created on PicMonkey and photos of illustrations.  I got instructions on how to measure and create the cover from CreateSpace and also I used Microsoft Word help forums whenever I got confused.  So now that my cover and book were done, it was time to convert them into PDFs and order my first hard copy!

Here's where my real troubles started.  Once I was darn sure the Word version of my book was what I wanted, I went into CreateSpace and uploaded my Word document using CreateSpace's PDF converter, to get a digital image of the book.  That didn't go well, after many tries.  My photos were too small, margins were off, page numbering was scrambled, etc.  I discovered that Microsoft Word, in trying to do me a favor I guess, downsized all my photos automatically to create a smaller file.  I had to replace all of my photos and change some settings so the photos were larger.  The biggest photo size I could get was 200 dpi, though I know 300 dpi is ideal.  My version of Word was too old for this, but the photos still look fine.  If I were printing in color, this would likely be a problem and I'd spring for the newest version of Word and make darn sure the photos were all at least 300 dpi.   Plan to focus on this issue and do much research if you aren't familiar with the topic.  I will also note that while most of my cookbook's photos are about 200 dpi, some are smaller and a couple are even as small as 80 dpi.  In high contrast black and white, they look very good and are not pixilated whatsoever.  Maybe a teensy bit fuzzy, but many of the photos are artsy and blurred so there's really no way to tell I skimped in the dpi.  Also, at this point in the project I realized I was best off uploading my own PDF into CreateSpace and not using their PDF converter.

I tried using Word to save my book as a PDF and it didn't go well either.  I found that in order to get my book saved as a "flattened" PDF (required) with nice big photos and margins that allow for space in the center where the binding is, I had to get myself a better PDF maker.  I found a free trial version of Nitro Pro 8, which allows for altering of text and design within the program, and it worked liked a charm!  I ordered a "proof" of my book from CreateSpace to see that it was what I expected.  A proof is a hard copy of the book, and with CreateSpace it cost me about $7 including shipping.  I read through the whole book twice again and had to go back and change a couple photos that I thought were too pale and some other typos/wording.  By the time I finished it up, my trial version of Nitro was up.  Here's another hitch I experienced:  I saved the document from a Nitro PDF to a Word document, thinking I could get myself some other free PDF maker, but when I did this, Nitro scrambled some of the page numbering and other details.  And it could not be altered in the Word version.  So I was forced to spring $100 for the real Nitro (which is pretty cheap but some people don't recommend Nitro.  For my part, I like it and it was worth the hundred bucks).  In a few days, I finalized the book with CreateSpace and it was immediately for sale on their site after I set up an estore store with a book description and whatnot.  In less than a week it was on Amazon as well, and I didn't have to do anything at all to set up with Amazon.  CreateSpace did it for me.

CreateSpace versus Lightning Source:

So now I'm onto setting up my book with Lightning source, which I wanted to do so I could get my book printed with a matte cover and into bookstores.  I sent them my cover and book PDFs and ordered a proof, really looking forward to seeing the book with the matte cover and what I heard was higher quality printing.  I could find no digital option for viewing the book with Lightning Source like there is with CreateSpace.  I was under the impression, after receiving an email from them, that I must complete a "title setup" in order to receive the proof I ordered.  Before I had received the proof (which costs $30), I received a bill for $75 for their title setup fee.  Days later, I received the book, and while the cover is fantastic, almost all of the photos within the book look horrible.  There is very little gray scale in their black and white photos so they look more like photocopies than photos.  Horribly awful.

I sent my Lightning Source rep an email requesting info on whether I made a mistake in choosing my print settings (though I never saw any print setting options) and can I somehow improve the look of my photos.  And if not, could I please not pay a $75 set up fee for a book I am not ever going to print?  It took a while to get my answer...and in the meantime they took $75 from my bank account...and I just heard from them the other day.  They will reimburse my money and they made no mention of differing printing options.  So for this project, I'm off Lightning Source. I have since read other accounts of people's black and white photos looking terrible when printed with Lightning Source.

Here's a final technical note on CreatSpace's Expanded Distribution option.  I found out that when bookstores buy your book this way, they come from a different printer, the same company that prints for Lightning Source.  So if you want your book in bookstores, know that it may not look like the proof or copies you've seen from CreateSpace.  Which means I probably can't sell my book at Barnes and Noble, but I can still go around to local bookstores and cafes and see if they'll sell a few copies for me. When I sell books in local bookstores, I will hand them copies that I have purchased from CreateSpace rather than give them the option to order their own through Expanded Distribution.  This printing problem does not apply to the CreatSpace Direct option.  Those are printed by CreateSpace.  Though I have read that I shouldn't expect to sell any books on the CreateSpace Direct avenue.  So, I guess I wasted the $25 is cost me to sign up for the Expanded Distribution through CreatSpace.  I should also note that you may find that your book prints beautifully with Lightning Source and through's just that mine didn't, maybe because my photos aren't using a fancy camera or in color.  Not sure.

So, I am printing with CreateSpace and I love the way the book looks.  Especially for it costing me nothing but maybe $15 in proofs and $100 in a PDF maker...and the $25 I wasted :(   And my precious time, of course, but as a hobby enthusiast, that is no sacrifice.  The CreateSpace royalties are way better than I expected for each book, so after less than a month on sale, I've made my money back and am turning a bit of a profit.

Why I'm glad I did this project:

One of my favorite aspects of writing a book as an art project is the option to fix any little mistake that I don't love.  When I make a sculpture or a painting for a show with a deadline, I always submit the work with some little flaws that irk me...that I would change if I could.  On the book project, I could make changes for as long as I wanted and I had no one pushing me to finish on their schedule.  It was a great feeling!

Since this is the last 2 years of my crafting life in a nutshell, I expect their are some holes and not all questions are answered.  Leave a question in the comment section and I'd be happy to help, if I can!


  1. Oh this is great info- I've been looking into having something printed for some time and it's so confusing! Thanks for sharing! Your book looks wonderful! Congrats!

  2. Great post Hannah! Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. thank's for your information and i like your post

  4. Hannah,
    Watson, on Create space forum , is excellent and would have saved you much pain. He'll individually email you with replies to queries. Your plight is exactly like mine but he prevented me from making the mistakes though I've yet to publish! Sorry for your enjoyable hassle. Great looking book. Well done.
    Joe Hughes.


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