Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guest in Progress: Guide to Self-Publishing by Becky Wolsk

I’m so pleased to present this VERY helpful, VERY smart, and VERY honest guide to the new world of self-publishing, by guest writer Becky Wolsk, who I met in one of my workshops at the Writer’s Center. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge into the brave new world of self-publishing, you’ll find answers to your questions both here and in some helpful follow-up on Becky’s blog: She’s a walking resource! (And she names names and gives numbers, too!)

And I will vouch for Becky’s final products. I have a beautiful copy of FOOD AND WORRY on my shelf, beckoning to be read! (How could I resist a title like that, featuring two of my prime past-times?)

Self-Publishing Advice for Novel Writers, Part 1
By Becky Wolsk

Until September 2010, I felt snarky about self-publishing. My two novels, Food and Worry and Six Words, made me proud enough to assume that perseverance would lead me into the arms of an eager agent. I liked the agent hunt, because it was straightforward, unlike fiction writing and revising. I wrote a confident how-to article about my agent search for this blog in June 2007.

Long story short: I couldn’t find an agent to offer me representation. For my first novel, Food and Worry I queried 200 agents (between May 2005 and the end of 2009). For my second, Six Words, I queried 100 agents between February and September of 2010.

On September 1, I began the book-formatting process, and almost exactly two months later, on November 2, paperback editions of both novels were available for sale on Amazon. By Thanksgiving, the Kindle editions were available too.

I self-published both of my novels at once because I was sick of seeing them languish unshared in my desk drawer. Also, I mistakenly thought I’d just have to upload a Microsoft Word file. Why not upload both novels on the same day?

But self-publishing wasn’t easy an easy process, because I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. Despite my ignorance of desktop publishing, I muddled through on my own. If you’re now in the same boat, I hope this account will help you navigate with less frustration.


Formatting is slower when overlooked typos barge in like blemishes. And did you overuse the adjective “very”? Do your characters too frequently start sentences with “Oh,” or “Well,…”

And now for the most unwelcome news in this article:

Even though you are self-publishing, you still need to get permission for quotes, especially if you are publishing fiction. Leslie mentioned the need to get permission from rights-holders in a workshop that I took with her in 2007. I forgot her admonition, or I repressed it. So I didn’t begin writing permission request letters until I had begun formatting, and I wish I’d done it much sooner. This is a bigger deal if you want to quote song lyrics.

According to my research, “fair use” doesn’t apply to fiction, and even if you use a very short quote, you still need permission. Many writers, especially on the Internet, will tell you differently. Since I’m yet another non-lawyer-writer on the Internet, I can’t provide reliable legal advice, so instead check out attorney Joy R. Butler’s The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle. Joy Butler specializes in entertainment, intellectual property, and business law. This article, “Staying Legal When Using Quotes,” from her blog is particularly helpful.


I researched the self-publishing websites that are flourishing as the self-publishing stigma decays (and as non-techies become more savvy from holiday card customization on services like Shutterfly).

Although I read equally good things about Lulu, Blurb, and Amazon’s CreateSpace, I quickly chose CreateSpace because Amazon is the most recognizable company. I published in paperback first, then Kindle a few weeks later, at a reduced price. (I discuss costs below.)

Because CreateSpace’s barebones service is almost free, the articles they offer in their Help section are too cursory for formatting novices. I’m not criticizing them for this—you get what you pay for, and if you want to pay for their services, they offer packages that make this process easy. I didn’t go that route because the price range was too steep for me: $300 to $5000. Their packages feature copyediting, formatting, and marketing services.
For a really helpful table which compares prices and features of each package, put this URL address into your browser window (direct-linking with that URL for some reason doesn’t work):

CreateSpace compensates for their lackluster Help files by hosting an outstanding community forum. Createspace’s forum contributors are good Samaritans, but it was time-consuming to decide whose advice to follow.

Get an ISBN number free from CreateSpace, or buy one from Bowker. There are advantages to buying your ISBN from Bowker that are beyond the scope of this article, but I decided to buy mine after reading an excellent article by math educator Larry Zafran at

If you are publishing editions in different formats (paperback and Kindle, for example), you will need an ISBN number for each format.

STEP FOUR: FORMATTING THE INTERIOR FILES (An interior file includes all text and images between the bookcovers.)

Interior files (and cover files) must be uploaded to Amazon in PDF form, so if you are a Windows person, or if you don’t know how to create PDFs on a Mac, you’ll need a PDF converter.

Despite the advice of the best forum members, who find Microsoft Word to be mediocre for formatting, I still chose to format the interior file of my manuscript with Microsoft Word for Mac. This process was made easier after I found an outstandingly helpful template from a kind, smart person who goes by the mysterious name of “tinhorn.” He or she works for Dixie Press (they offer formatting services, but I haven’t tried them). If you go with the tinhorn template, and if you’re publishing with CreateSpace, don’t be put off by the fact that tinhorn’s template is designed for Lulu. It works equally well for CreateSpace.

I also benefited from these websites:

Bryce Beattie provides a wealth of good information including screenshots, which are an invaluable visual aid.

The Catherine, Caffeinated blog: Author Catherine Ryan Howard is so generous with her detailed, humorous advice. Start with these two links:

J.R. Dunster

David Griffiths

If you publish on CreateSpace, you might also consider buying Walton Mendelson’s Build Your Book. His ebook and his CreateSpace community forum postings are frequently recommended by CreateSpace self-publishers


For my cover, I purchased 2 stock photos from for less than $100 dollars. I am grateful to Karen McQuestion for recommending stock photos in her wonderful blog posts. She’s a very successful self-published author.

CreateSpace offers a Cover Creator template for people who want to design their own covers as quickly and easily as possible, but I didn’t like any of the templates. Several people on the CreateSpace forums recommended open source software like Gimp and Scribus for file formatting, because those programs are cheaper and so comparable to Photoshop. I admire open source software, and wish I were an open source ninja, but these two programs took too long for me to figure out on my own. I didn’t want to pay for expensive Photoshop, and at the time, I didn’t know that Adobe’s Photoshop Elements is only $100, and simpler to learn than full Photoshop.

For $100, I purchased standard edition book cover software from the aptly named Book Cover Pro. This worked better than the other alternatives I tried.

[You're almost there, authors--to be continued next week…!]

About: Becky Wolsk writes and quilts through her cottage industry of Text Isle Patchwork. By November 1, 2011, she will self-publish The Text Isle Patchwork Cookbook, most likely through CreateSpace. You can visit her online portfolio at Her blog,, focuses on writing, quilting, and cookbooking. It also provides weekly book reviews, mostly of forgotten jewels and other books that deserve more attention. Becky lives in Washington, DC with her husband and daughter.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.