woman reading a book she created through self-publishing in the tub

Paths to Self-Publishing in the United States

15 min read

In this day and age, every novel is not a professionally published book represented by literary agents. Self-publishing has become an important avenue for writers to share their work with the world without relying on traditional publishing houses. In this article, we’ll look into the various paths to self-publishing in the United States—exploring their benefits, challenges, platform choices, legal and financial considerations, marketing strategies, brand building opportunities, success stories, and more. We’ll explore whether the quality of self-published books is comparable to traditionally published books, too. Whether you’re a seasoned author or an aspiring writer, understanding the dynamics of self-publishing can open new doors along your literary journey.

Introduction to Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is a method through which authors take charge of the entire publishing process themselves—from writing and editing to designing the cover and marketing strategy of the book. Unlike traditional publishing, where authors work with publishing houses that handle these tasks, self-publishing allows authors to maintain full creative control and ownership of their work.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Taking the Self-Publishing Route

The concept of self-publishing dates back centuries, but its modern form has evolved significantly with technological advancements. In the past, self-publishing often involved authors printing and distributing their books independently, which was a costly and labor-intensive process.

The digital revolution, particularly the rise of the internet and e-commerce platforms, revolutionized self-publishing. 

Platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Smashwords, and others democratized the publishing industry, making it accessible to anyone with a manuscript and a vision.

Today, self-publishing has become a viable and lucrative option for authors of all genres. It offers creative freedom, faster time to market, global distribution, and the ability to build direct relationships with readers through online platforms and social media.

Benefits of Self-Publishing

One of the primary benefits of self-publishing is the unparalleled creative complete control it offers authors. Unlike traditional publishing, where publishing houses often make decisions about content, cover design, and marketing, self-published authors have the final say in every aspect of their book. 

This control allows authors to stay true to their vision and maintain the integrity of their work. Plus, you don’t need a creative writing MFA to get your novel published.

Self-publishing can also lead to higher royalties for authors. In traditional publishing, authors typically receive a percentage of book sales as royalties, which is often lower than what self-published authors can earn. With self-publishing, authors retain a larger share of the profits per sale, making it a financially rewarding option, especially for successful titles.

Challenges of Self-Publishing

One of the biggest challenges self-published authors face is marketing their books effectively. Unlike traditional publishers that have established marketing channels and resources, self-published authors must navigate the complex world of book promotion on their own. This includes building an author platform, engaging with readers on social media, running promotional campaigns, and securing book reviews.

Distribution is another hurdle for self-published authors. While online platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Smashwords provide global reach, getting physical copies of books into brick-and-mortar stores can be challenging. Self-published authors often rely on print-on-demand services or local distribution agreements to make their books available in retail outlets.

Self-publishing also comes with upfront costs that authors must bear. These costs can include editing, cover design, formatting, ISBN registration, marketing expenses, and distribution fees. While digital publishing has reduced some of these costs compared to traditional printing, authors still need to invest in professional services to ensure a high-quality final product.

Here We Go: Let’s Self-Publish Your Latest Novel or Non-Fiction Book

Step 1: Preparing Your Manuscript

Before anything else, ensure that your manuscript is complete. This means more than just finishing the writing—you need to carefully edit and proofread your work. Define your book’s purpose, target audience, and key messages before starting. Establish a writing schedule that suits your productivity style, whether it’s daily word counts or dedicated writing sessions. Develop a detailed outline or structure for your book to guide your writing process and maintain coherence.

Don’t get bogged down by perfection in the first draft. Focus on getting your ideas down, knowing that you’ll revise and refine them during the editing phase. Once the first draft is finished, it’s highly recommended to hire a professional editor or writing coach to help with structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading to catch issues that you might overlook. You might also consider sharing your work with beta readers or writing groups to gain valuable feedback and perspectives.

How to Find an Editor

Look for editors with experience in your genre or niche. Read reviews and testimonials from authors they’ve worked with. Request sample edits of your own book to assess their editing style, communication, and compatibility with your manuscript.

Clearly communicate your editing needs, deadlines, and budget to potential editors. Discuss pricing, payment schedules, revisions, and contractual agreements before hiring an editor. Maintain open communication throughout the editing process, addressing any concerns or questions promptly.

Step 2: Design and Format Your Book

Proper formatting is crucial for self-publishing. This includes deciding on the dimensions of your book, typesetting the interior, and formatting it according to the specifications of the platform you’re using (like Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Press, etc.). Each platform has its guidelines, and it’s important to follow these to avoid publishing errors. You can use specialized software like Scrivener, Adobe InDesign, or simpler tools like Microsoft Word, but be sure to adhere to the required formats for ebooks and print books.

Next, design the cover. The book cover is often the first thing a potential reader will see, so it should be professionally designed to make a strong impression. If you’re not a designer yourself, consider hiring a professional cover designer before you publish a book. The cover design should reflect the content of your book and appeal to your target audience, and it must also meet the size and quality requirements of your publishing platform.

To find designers for your cover, consider resources such as freelance platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, where you can browse portfolios, read reviews, and hire experienced designers who specialize in book covers. Additionally, design agencies and independent graphic artists can offer tailored solutions to create a captivating cover that stands out in the competitive market.

Step 3: Obtain Your Own ISBN and Copyright

You’ll need to obtain an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), which is a unique identifier for your book and necessary for distribution and sales tracking, before your publication date. You can purchase ISBNs through agencies like Bowker (in the US) or use free ISBNs provided by some self-publishing platforms, though these can limit your control over the book’s distribution. Also, consider registering your copyright to protect your intellectual property.

Securing copyright for your publication or book is essential to protect your intellectual property rights. In the United States, copyright is automatically granted to authors upon the creation of their work. However, registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office provides additional legal protections and allows you to pursue legal action against infringement. The registration process involves submitting your manuscript, paying a fee, and receiving a copyright certificate.

In self-publishing, authors retain full ownership of their intellectual property, including copyrights, trademarks, and other rights. It’s crucial to understand these rights and how they apply to your work, especially when licensing rights to third parties, using copyrighted materials, or entering into distribution agreements with platforms.

Step 4: Choose a Self-Publishing Platform

Research and select a self-publishing platform. Popular options include Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which allows for both ebook and print on demand, and other platforms like IngramSpark, Lulu, or Draft2Digital, which offer broader distribution channels. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses, depending on your distribution goals and audience. Let’s take a closer look at each option.

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is one of the most popular self-publishing platforms, offering an accessible and efficient way for authors to publish both eBooks and paperbacks. KDP allows authors to reach a vast audience since Amazon is the largest book retailer globally. The platform provides a straightforward process for uploading your manuscript and covers, with the added advantage of setting your own prices and updating your manuscript at any time. KDP also offers a high royalty rate, up to 70% on eBooks sold in certain territories, and a direct link to the expansive Amazon marketplace, enhancing visibility and sales potential.

KDP’s greatest strength lies in its exclusive marketing programs for books published on the platform, such as Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which can help increase an author’s earnings and exposure. However, authors opting for the KDP Select program must agree to exclusive distribution for their eBooks on Amazon for at least 90 days. This can be a drawback for those wishing to distribute their work on other digital platforms. KDP also provides tools like Kindle Create and KDP Print for formatting, although some authors might prefer more control over the publishing process and choose to use external software for design and formatting before uploading their work.


Lulu is a self-publishing and print-on-demand platform that has been particularly popular with independent authors and creators because of its flexibility in printing options and distribution. Lulu allows authors to publish books in various formats including hardcover, paperback, and eBooks. Authors can set their own prices and retain creative control over their work. Lulu is known for its high-quality print options and ability to provide authors with direct access to a wide range of distribution channels including their own Lulu Bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.

One of Lulu’s standout features is its global reach, offering authors the ability to sell their books in over 150 countries. The platform also offers an intuitive interface for book creation, and a suite of tools for both formatting and cover design. However, while Lulu offers competitive royalties, the cost of printing can be higher than some other platforms, which may affect the pricing strategy and the author’s profit margin. Lulu’s non-exclusive agreement allows authors to publish elsewhere, which is advantageous for those looking to maximize their book’s availability across multiple platforms.


IngramSpark is a print-on-demand and digital publishing platform that stands out due to its strong distribution network. It offers access to one of the largest book distribution channels in the world, including connections to major retailers and libraries. This makes it an attractive choice for authors who want to reach both online and brick-and-mortar bookstores. IngramSpark supports a wide range of print formats and even offers hardcover options, which is not available on all platforms. The platform is also known for its high print quality and robust shipping logistics.

However, IngramSpark charges setup fees for printing and distribution, as well as fees for revisions, which can be a deterrent for some authors. Despite these costs, the broad distribution potential and the professional quality of the final product can make these fees worthwhile. IngramSpark is often recommended for more experienced publishers or those who are planning to produce professional-quality books and who need extensive distribution, particularly in the academic or professional sectors where hardcover books are more commonly required.


Draft2Digital is a user-friendly digital publishing platform that excels in simplifying the eBook publication process. Authors can upload a manuscript, and Draft2Digital automatically converts it into various eBook formats suitable for different distributors such as Apple Books, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. This platform is particularly appealing for those new to self-publishing due to its ease of use, lack of upfront costs, and automatic layout and formatting tools. Authors can also utilize Draft2Digital’s universal book link service, Books2Read, which provides a single link that fans can use to purchase the book from their preferred retailer.

Despite its simplicity and convenience, Draft2Digital offers a slightly lower royalty rate compared to some direct publishing options because it acts as a middleman. However, for authors who value wide distribution without the need to individually format and submit their work to multiple platforms, Draft2Digital provides a compelling service. The platform also offers additional marketing tools such as automated end-matter pages for listing other published works and author websites, which can help in building a reader base.

Barnes & Noble Press

Barnes & Noble Press is the self-publishing arm of the renowned U.S. bookstore chain, allowing authors to publish both eBooks and print-on-demand books. This platform gives authors access to millions of Barnes & Noble readers through its online store and potentially its physical bookstores. It offers competitive royalty rates, similar to Amazon’s KDP, and the process for uploading and setting up books is straightforward and user-friendly. Authors can also take advantage of promotional opportunities provided by Barnes & Noble, such as periodic contests and featured listings.

A notable advantage of Barnes & Noble Press is its integration with the Barnes & Noble retail ecosystem, which can significantly boost an author’s visibility. Authors can leverage the Barnes & Noble name to attract readers who prefer shopping with established retailers. However, the platform’s reach in terms of global distribution is somewhat limited compared to Amazon and IngramSpark. Despite this, Barnes & Noble Press remains a solid choice for authors primarily targeting readers in the United States, offering a straightforward path to both digital and physical bookshelves.

Other Options for Self-Publishing 

In addition to Amazon KDP and Barnes & Noble Press, there are several other major self-publishing platforms authors can consider, each with its unique features and benefits. For example, Smashwords is known for its wide distribution network to major eBook retailers and libraries, offering authors comprehensive distribution options.

Apple’s self-publishing platform provides access to millions of Apple Books readers globally, with tools for creating and promoting eBooks. Lastly, Kobo’s platform enables authors to publish eBooks and reach readers on Kobo devices and apps, with promotional opportunities and royalty options.

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Self-Publishing with Niche and Specialized Platforms

Some self-publishing platforms or agents specialize in catering to specific genres, offering tailored services and marketing opportunities for authors. These genre-specific platforms are particularly beneficial for authors looking to target niche audiences and maximize their book’s visibility within their genre. 

For example, platforms like Romance Writers of America (RWA) and Romance.io are dedicated to romance authors, providing genre-specific promotional tools, reader engagement initiatives, and networking opportunities within the romance writing community. Secondly, SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) offers resources and support for science fiction and fantasy authors, including promotional avenues, awards recognition, and industry insights specific to these genres.

Platforms like Wattpad (for international audiences) and bilingual publishing platforms cater to diverse cultural and linguistic communities, allowing authors to reach readers who prefer content in specific languages or cultural themes.

Step 5: Set Prices and Make Royalty Calculations

Consider factors such as production costs, market demand, competitor pricing, and reader expectations when setting prices for your book. Pricing strategies like value-based pricing, competitive pricing, and promotional pricing can help optimize sales and profitability. You do not want to lose all the money. 

Each self-publishing platform has its royalty structure and calculation methods. Generally, royalties are calculated based on factors like book format, sales channel, list price, and distribution costs. Understanding these calculations helps authors estimate their earnings and make informed decisions about pricing and distribution strategies.

Tax Implications

Self-published books and their authors in the United States have tax obligations related to income earned from book sales, royalties, and other sources. These obligations include reporting income on tax returns, paying self-employment taxes, and complying with IRS regulations for small businesses and independent contractors. Authors may also need to consider state-specific tax laws and deductions related to business expenses, royalties, and book production costs. If you are a self-published author or planning on self-publishing a book, keep these in mind. 

Step 6: Create a Marketing and Distribution Plan

Self-published authors have a variety of marketing strategies at their disposal to promote their books effectively. Encouraging book reviews is crucial; authors should urge readers to leave feedback on platforms like Amazon and Goodreads, which helps build credibility and attract new readers. Social media marketing is another powerful tool, with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok offering ways to engage with readers, share updates, and run targeted ads. Email marketing is also essential; by building a list of subscribers who are interested in your genre, you can maintain contact through newsletters, exclusive content, and special offers.

Content marketing can further boost your visibility by creating related content—such as blog posts, videos, and podcasts—that draws interest to your book’s themes and characters. Collaborations with influencers, bloggers, and other authors can also amplify your reach, with activities like guest posts, virtual events, and joint marketing efforts. Additionally, tapping into promotional tools provided by self-publishing platforms, such as Kindle Countdown Deals or limited-time discounts, can significantly enhance your book’s visibility. Participating in local events like book signings and literary festivals is another effective way to connect with readers and build a community around your work.

Don’t Forget About Social Media (BookTok is Real, Y’all!)

@madelinestraveling It’s like stepping into a fairytale 💖 #fyp #foryou #fürdich #library #traveltips #traveltok #booktok #books #fairytale #traveling ♬ liv deja vu – oliverbedumb

The roles of social media, author websites, and effective book launch strategies are foundational to successful book marketing. Social media allows direct interaction with your audience, making it easier to announce new releases, run promotions, and build a loyal following. An author website acts as a central hub where fans can learn more about you and your work, access exclusive content, and sign up for direct updates. A strategic book launch is crucial for gaining initial momentum; this should include pre-launch teasers, media outreach, virtual or in-person launch parties, and targeted advertising. These efforts help generate early buzz, drive pre-orders, and secure crucial early reviews, laying the groundwork for ongoing sales success.

Step 7: Build Your Author Brand

Building a strong author brand starts with establishing a robust online presence, and a professional author website is central to this effort. To begin, choose a domain name that reflects your author name or book titles, which helps in easy recognition and branding. The design and layout of your website should be clean and professional, offering easy navigation and ensuring it is mobile-responsive to accommodate all device types. 

Include a compelling author bio and a professional photo on your website’s “About” page to introduce yourself effectively to readers. Each of your books should have a dedicated page featuring cover images, blurbs, purchase links, and reader reviews to attract and engage visitors. Adding a blog section can provide a dynamic element to your website, allowing you to share updates, writing insights, and content related to your books and interests. Don’t forget to incorporate an email signup form to gather visitor emails for newsletters and promotions, and include social media buttons to enhance connectivity and content sharing.

Consider Blogging to Keep Readers Engaged

To further engage readers and strengthen your author brand, maintain a consistent blogging schedule with posts that are relevant to your genre and writing process. Diversify your blog content by including articles, how-to guides, author interviews, book excerpts, and multimedia content such as videos and podcasts. Engaging directly with your audience is crucial; encourage interaction by responding to comments, hosting Q&A sessions, and running contests or giveaways. 

Also, solicit feedback on upcoming projects to foster a community feeling. Optimize your blog posts for search engines using relevant keywords, meta descriptions, and tags to improve visibility and attract more organic traffic. Additionally, consider cross-promotion strategies by collaborating with other authors, bloggers, and influencers through guest posts and blog tours, which can significantly expand your reach and audience.

Step 8: Participate in Events and Book Fairs

Participating in events and book fairs is another powerful avenue for authors to enhance their visibility, engage with readers, friends and network with industry professionals. These events provide authors with platforms to showcase their books, interact directly with readers, and build their author brand, increasing their recognition within the literary community. 

Attending events also opens doors to collaborations, partnerships, and promotional opportunities that can amplify an author’s reach and audience. Engaging with readers at book signings, author readings, and panel discussions creates memorable experiences, fosters reader loyalty, and encourages book sales. Furthermore, events often attract media coverage, interviews, and reviews, providing authors with valuable publicity and exposure to a wider audience. 

Inspirational Self-Publishing Successes

From Amanda Hocking to Mark Dawson, below are a few real-life success stories of authors who have achieved remarkable success through self-publishing. Bear in mind that for every story like these, there are countless authors who struggle to find an audience even with excellent work. It’s a challenging but potentially rewarding route.

Also, success is relative. What one author considers “notable sales figures” might be vastly different from another. Don’t forget: the landscape of self-publishing is constantly evolving. What worked as a marketing strategy a few years ago might be less effective today.

Amanda Hocking

Amanda Hocking is a New York Times bestselling author who initially struggled to find a traditional publisher. Undeterred, she decided to self-publish her young adult paranormal novels on platforms like Amazon Kindle. Her series, including titles like “Switched” and “Torn,” gained immense popularity among readers, leading to millions of book sales and a major publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is known for his science fiction series “Wool,” which he self-published as a novella on Amazon Kindle. The series gained a massive following and critical acclaim, attracting traditional publishers’ attention. Howey eventually signed a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster while retaining digital rights, showcasing the power and success potential of self-publishing.

Mark Dawson

Mark Dawson is a thriller author who leveraged self-publishing to build a successful writing career. He used targeted advertising, particularly on platforms like Facebook, to reach his target audience and promote his books effectively. Dawson’s series featuring protagonist John Milton has garnered a dedicated fan base and significant sales, demonstrating the impact of strategic marketing in self-publishing.

Final Thoughts on Taking the Self-Publishing Route

Creating a successfully self-published book entails a blend of quality content, effective marketing, reader engagement, continuous learning, resilience, and professionalism. Authors should prioritize delivering high-quality manuscripts, investing in professional editing and cover design, and crafting robust marketing strategies to reach their target audience. 

Engaging with readers through social media, newsletters, and events fosters a loyal fan base and promotes book sales. Continuous learning and staying updated on industry trends are crucial for staying competitive and relevant in the ever-evolving publishing landscape. Resilience is key to overcoming challenges and setbacks that may arise along the journey. Lastly, maintaining professionalism in all aspects of self-publishing enhances credibility and trust among readers and industry peers. 

As aspiring self-publishers, remember that perseverance, dedication, and belief in your work are fundamental to achieving success. Keep writing, learning, and growing, and never lose sight of your passion and goals as an author.

By Anila Hasnain.