How to Self-Publish a Novel: Preparing Your Manuscript

How to Self-Publish a Novel: Preparing Your Manuscript

Welcome to Part One of my blog series, How to Self-Publish a Novel. I previously worked as the in-house editor for a boutique literary agency’s assisted self-publishing program. During my time there, I worked with hybrid authors on their independent projects from start to finish. In this series I’ll outline, step-by-step, how to self-publish your manuscript.

If you’re venturing into the self-publishing world, you probably have a lot of questions: How can you make your book successful? How much will it cost? What do you need to do first?

These questions are all valid and great to ask. But before we jump into it, let’s define a few key terms that you may encounter during your self-publishing journey and in this article.

Self-Publishing Glossary

  • Hybrid author: An author who publishes through both traditional and independent channels.
  • Cover copy: The description of your novel that is intended to entice readers to select your book. This typically appears on the inside flap of a hardcover book, on the back cover of a paperback, and on the product page for each online retailer.
  • Metadata: The keywords, categories (BISAC codes), cover copy, and any other information about your book that is intended to help readers find it.
  • Mobi: The eBook file type used by Amazon Kindle.
  • ePub: The eBook file type used by other online retailers (Barnes & Noble Press, Apple Books, etc.). 
  • POD: POD stands for Print on Demand, which means books are printed as they are ordered. There is no inventory.
  • Cover flat: The full layout of a POD cover, including the front cover, back cover, and spine.

In this first installment of How to Self-Publish a Novel, we’ll discuss the following steps you should take to prep your manuscript:

  1. Hiring an Editor
  2. Determining the Metadata
  3. Purchasing an ISBN
  4. Registering a Copyright
  5. Creating a Cover
  6. Formatting the Book

Are you ready to knock out your self-publishing obstacles and get your questions answered? Let’s get started!

1. Hiring an Editor

From the moment you complete the first draft of your manuscript, you should:

  1. Take a step back for at least a couple of weeks. You completed a novel. You earned a break! Plus, you need that break in order to come back to your story with a fresh mind.
  2. Self-edit. You’ll definitely want to read through your manuscript more than once to ensure it’s telling the story you want to tell and doesn’t have any glaring errors.
  3. Send it off to critique partners and/or beta readers. Confide in your writer friends and get feedback on grammar, plot, continuity, and other issues. Not sure where to find such friends? Check out a few CP Match services, such as this one for children’s writers.

After all of that? It’s time to hire a professional editor. A professional developmental editor will help you expand on your manuscript, as well as give you notes on voice, scene structure, sequence of events, and more.

Once you’ve completed a developmental edit, you’ll want to pursue a copyedit. A copyedit cleans up the copy, ensures you maintain consistent spelling choices, fact-checks, and makes other stylistic and grammatical corrections. Then, the final stage of your professional edit involves proofreading for any lingering (but minor) errors in the story.

Hiring an editor is so incredibly important. If there are glaring plot issues or typos in your story, you’ll lose your readers quickly. Don’t let that happen to you. Hire a professional.

2. Determining the Metadata

As defined in the glossary earlier, metadata is the information meant to help readers find your book. These are the keywords they’re typing into the search field on Amazon, or the categories they’re narrowing their search down to in the sidebar.

While coming up with metadata may seem straightforward, there are still a few caveats to consider:

  • Don’t overlap words. Take the famous book title, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. If you were the one publishing this title, you would not want to choose keywords such as “lion,” “witch,” or “wardrobe.” Why is this? These words are already going to be included as metadata because they’re part of your title. This also means you can choose a plethora of other keywords instead (depending on how many your online retailer allows). The same concept applies to your cover copy. Avoid choosing keywords that already appear in your cover copy, as those words will already be indexed. Take advantage of as many descriptive words as you can!
  • Don’t be general. When selecting categories (BISAC codes), avoid choosing the “General” subcategory. For example, if you’re writing Juvenile Fiction, choose a subcategory that caters to the genre you’ve written, such as Juvenile > Fantasy & Magic, rather than Juvenile > General. Be as specific as possible so more readers will find your book.
  • Put thought into your cover copy. Research other books online and look at novels similar to your own (also known as comparative titles). Read the descriptions on their product pages. Note how long they are. Note what types of words or phrases are used. Keep that in mind when you write your own. Certain keywords in your cover copy will help users find your book.

Your metadata is meant to help readers discover your book. Be sure to have all of this information ready when you go to upload your manuscript to online retailers.

3. Purchasing an ISBN

ISBNs make your book easier to find for readers, and serve as the global standard for identifying titles.

While some online retailers may offer you a free ISBN, this comes with a catch: you’ll most likely only be allowed to use that ISBN with their service. If you’re planning to publish across multiple platforms, this won’t benefit you in the long-run. In addition to that, you’ll need to have different ISBNs for different formats of your book. For example, you’ll need one ISBN for your hardcover and one for your eBook edition.

So, how can you get an ISBN for your book?

This is where some investment comes into play. Bowker’s Identifier Service is the only official ISBN agency in the United States. You can purchase one ISBN for $125, or multiple for a discount. Depending on how many books you want to self-publish in the future (and how many formatted versions of each you’ll create) buying in bulk may be the way to go.

4. Registering a Copyright

Another step you’ll want to take before uploading your book is extremely important: registering your copyright. By visiting, you can follow the steps to register and protect your literary work. This is your intellectual property; a copyright will help prevent others from stealing it.

Note: Your copyright will take several months to process, but it will be effective from the day the copyright office receives all necessary components of your application. In other words, this will be the day you submit (and pay for) the online application. Make sure you have an electronic copy of your manuscript to upload to the website along with your copyright application.

5. Creating a Cover

While the idea of creating your own cover may be appealing, you might want to consider hiring a professional cover designer—unless you have substantial design experience yourself!

This can be pricey, though there are a few alternatives you can try first. Check out premade book cover galleries before you make the investment in a custom design. However, make sure the cover you choose from a premade gallery is professional in appearance and portrays your story in the way you want. 

If you’re not having much luck going down that avenue, consider hiring a cover designer through Reedsy, a freelancer marketplace made with self-publishing authors in mind.

Depending on if you’re planning to publish both an eBook and print version of your novel, you’ll want an eBook cover and a print cover flat. However, you’ll need the final page count of your interior layout (see the following section!) before the spine width on your cover flat can be finalized.

Lastly, be sure to select an industry-standard trim size. This is typically 5×8, 6×9, etc. From there, you’ll have the dimensions you need for formatting your interior, as well. 

6. Formatting the Book

Though some online retailers, including Amazon, accept .docx files, using that type of file can negatively impact the formatting of your book once it’s automatically converted into an eBook. For that reason, I highly recommend hiring a professional eBook and POD formatter once you’ve finalized your manuscript and had it professionally edited.

Depending on the services you purchase, you can end up with:

  • An ePub file
  • A Mobi file
  • A print-ready PDF

You’ll need to have your front cover image finalized and available if you’d like it included in the eBook file(s), which is recommended. You’ll also need your ISBNs and copyright information. Once you have these versions of your book ready, you can easily upload them to each respective online retailer. 

From completing your manuscript to signing off on your final proof, self-publishing requires an investment of both time and money, but the payoff can be incredible. While sales are never a guarantee (even for traditional publishers!), if you put the effort and research into producing the most professional product possible, you’ll appeal to more readers and create something you should be proud of!

Stay tuned next month for the second installment in this blog series: How to Self-Publish a Novel: Uploading to Online Retailers.