Six Steps to Self-Publishing Your First Novel

“It looks so professional,” the woman said, looking from the cover of my first novel to my face and back again. I sat behind the desk at a book signing in my wonderful hometown of Arnold, Nebraska. “There’s a bar code and everything! How did you do that?” “Well…” I started, before realizing that there wasn’t any way I could launch into the specifics of self-publishing a novel without getting unnecessarily windy.

I’ve had this question time and again. For anyone who hasn’t self-published a novel in the past, the concept of going from an empty word processing document to a finished, professional novel physically resting in your hands is daunting. In reality, it’s not all that tough! Here’s what the process looks like:

1. Brainstorm. As you know by now, I’m a big Stephen King fan. In his novel On Writing, King explains that writing is like an archaeologist uncovering bones in the ground. The writer should just write, without extensive planning.

I’ve always been a planner, but in my first novel I didn’t—I simply sat down and wrote. And it worked well, until I came to the editing phase of my process and realized much of my plot didn’t make sense. I had to rewrite like mad. I cut full scenes, added additional ones, and overall cleaned up my own huge mess.

Before writing my second novel I decided to do some planning in order to have a smaller mess to clean up when finished with my first draft. I wrote out some character descriptions for new additions to the sequel. I also visited Some of the plot generation tools on that website are extraordinarily useful. And it worked! The second novel took much longer to write, but brainstorming ahead of time meant that editing was much quicker and easier.

Sorry, Mr. King. I disagree with you on this one. :)

2. Write. Whether you wrote an entire outline for your novel or just organized a few bullet points, you’ve arrived at the best part—writing! Set some time aside for yourself and your writing. It’s tough when you’re working a full time job. Maybe you have children. Perhaps you have social obligations. But, you can always find SOME time each week for your writing.

Some authors claim that to write well, you have to write every single day. I tend to disagree. I simply don’t have time to write each day! But I’ve found that if I give myself a word count goal each week, I can find time to get it done.

Think about it for a moment. If an average novel is 90,000 words, you could write a novel in just 9 weeks if you wrote 10,000 words a week (as I did for my first novel). Or, if you gave yourself the much-more-achievable goal of 5,000 words a week, that’s just 4 ½ months! As long as I can write a novel in less time than a woman takes to grow a baby in her belly, I’m good. :)

3. Edit. I hate and love editing at the same time. It’s far less creative than writing. The storyline is mostly set. Going back over adjectives to ensure they are correct, removing passive voice, and fixing dialogue tags is boring as hell.

But I also love it, because by this point you’re seeing some real progress. You’ve met characters. You’ve set up cool scenes. You’ve taken yourself to amazing landscapes or beautiful buildings. They’ve said neat stuff, and shown their bravery/idiocy/love. Once you start editing, you get to revisit what you’ve done. It’s always fun to see progress.

I highly recommend hiring an editor who will read and edit for you after you’ve done a few initial passes of your work. No matter how amazing you are at writing, fresh eyeballs will catch more mistakes. Friends can read first drafts as well, but they won’t be able to match the skillset of a professional editor.

My first novel I had seven drafts. My second one, I had only three. Again, that brainstorming is coming in handy!

4. Cover art. You need some kind of cover art, even if it’s just the title on a black background. But let’s be honest—you have some talented friends, don’t you? There’s at least one person in your life who has a knack for graphics and design.

Even if you don’t have talented friends, it is possible to look at bestselling novels and find out what looks best for the genre and style of your novel. That being said, I’m hiring someone to take a stab at the art for the second book. I’m not visually creative, and I don’t want to do it. :)

5. Get an ISBN & bar code. You probably remember ISBN numbers from when you bought college textbooks. I remember typing that number into various book search engines before recoiling in horror at the prices. is the place to go to get these! If you’re doing both a printed book and an ebook, you’ll need a 10-pack, as you can’t share an ISBN across different formats. As of today, that’s about $295. You can also get a 10-pack and a barcode for your printed book for $320.

6. Format your file. I highly recommend buying Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur or APE by Guy Kawasaki. Though it’s not a perfect book, it does a great job of explaining file conversion for each platform. This is something I didn’t even consider when first writing a book. But if you don’t convert your book properly, the second someone opens it they will notice poor formatting, which will distract them from reading the beautiful words you’ve written.

For printed books, you’ll be able to order a test volume to make sure the font you’ve selected looks nice and the cover art ended up the color you anticipated.

Good luck, and happy writing! SP