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10 Tips for Self-publishing

"Building" a book on your own is easier and more cost-effective than you might think.

Ever think about writing a book? Catherine Zimmerman didn't, at least not at first. But as she gathered information for a class she was teaching at the American Horitcultural Society, the words quickly piled up.

Zimmerman decided to use her material to write a user-friendly book about creating meadows. But after talking to people in the publishing industry, she realized she wanted more control over her work than traditional publishers would allow. "I'm a control freak," she admits. So she took matters into her own hands and published Urban & Suburban Meadows on her own.

A stigma use to surround self-publishing, the assumption being that you'd only do it if no one else wanted to publish your book. But thanks to the Internet, that stigma is lifting and writers are finding easier, more cost-efficient ways to get their work published.

Still, self-publishing isn't for everyone. It involves lots of effort, meticulous planning and often significant financial risk. But if you think it might be for you — whether you're publishing your memoir, a how-to guide or anything in between — here are some tips to start you on your way.

Cultivate a unique idea. Before you even spend time and energy writing, examine the market to see if there is a need for your book. When Zimmerman got interested in meadow-making, she realized something surprising: "I couldn't really find a book about how to do it." Thinking that other people must have also been in search of a guide, she decided to fill that need herself.

School yourself on the publishing process. Even if you're going to self-publish, commercial publishers have valuable insight. Be open to learning and receiving constructive criticism from people in the industry. The more you learn at the outset, the less likely you are to be set off course by unpleasant surprises along the way.

Get your finances in line. Anyone who has self-published will tell you that sticker shock is an unavoidable part of the process. "The cost of shipping is the No. 1 surprise," says Tanya Hall, business development manager at Greenleaf Book Group. Combat this shock by staying organized and keeping a meticulous profit-and-loss spreadsheet. "Think about start-up cost, design, editorial, printing and marketing," Hall advises.

Take the time to write. Even as you're enmeshed in the web of logistics, take the necessary time to step outside of it and write. "If it's scheduling one hour a day when your mind is most clear, turn off the radio and the phone and just focus," Hall says. "You'd be surprised how much you can accomplish."

Call in the professionals. Once your manuscript is finished, seek out at least one or two fresh pairs of eyes. "Everyone needs an editor," Hall assures. "It doesn't mean you're a bad writer." Also think about using a distributor who can help you get your book out into the retail market. And though they can sometimes be pricy, a publicist is a valuable tool in the all-important marketing step.

Recognize the resources you already have. Zimmerman took the pictures in Urban & Suburban Meadows herself, using skills from her previous career as a camerawoman — and saving her the cost of hiring a photographer. She was also able to use the network of contacts she'd acquired in the media industry to help with things such as design and marketing. "One of my biggest philosophies in life is to just ask," Zimmerman says. "It's amazing how willing people are."

Ask questions — and lots of them. Don't be afraid to reach out to people who have self-published before: They will have valuable insight on the process. Blogs, online communities and websites such as Poynter Online all provide helpful support.

Connect with your readers. Often one of the benefits of self-publishing is that you're able to make a more direct connection with your audience. "You're taking out the middleman," Hall says. Zimmerman agrees that one of her favorite parts of the process is the personalized feedback she receives from readers.

Use the Internet. "Having an online presence is a big factor," Hall says, "and it will buy you a lot of credibility if you do it well." A well-designed website or a consistently updated blog will help get your message out. Additionally, accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are also great for this, and — best of all — they're completely free.

Anticipate challenges around every corner. "Get used to little surprises," Zimmerman advises, and expect them to continue cropping up even after your book has been published. Her hard work paid off: Urban & Suburban Meadows is a resounding success. It has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The American Gardener. Zimmerman is now prepping it for a second printing. Though she incurred hefty printing and shipping costs up front, she's happy to have seen the process through. "It's not for everyone," Zimmerman says. "But it's a journey. I'm still enjoying the adventure."

Lindsay Zoladz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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