Self-Publishing: What To Do Yourself And Why

Writing and self-publishing involve a lot of tasks that you might be able to outsource to someone else. As I talked about in On Not Doing It All Yourself last Sunday, it doesn’t make sense to do all of them yourself if you are able to pay someone to do at least some.

But there are good reasons to take a do-it-yourself approach to some tasks. Figuring out which ones is the key to a less stressful and more productive writing life.

The No-Brainers

Money and time are the threshold questions in terms of whether to outsource. If you have no money to spare, you’ll need to start by doing tasks yourself. Later, if you earn more at your current work or at writing, you can shift to paying professionals for tasks like editing and cover design.

On the flipside, if you have almost no time to write because you work a lot, and you’re earning good money, outsourcing everything you possibly can will make sense.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle on the money/time continuum, though. If that’s true for you, the easiest tasks to outsource are the ones you absolutely don’t know how to do and have no good way of learning quickly or inexpensively.

When I published my first thriller, The Awakening, there were few easy-to-use online resources for creating your own cover, and I lacked any experience at manipulating photos or text. It never crossed my mind to design a cover myself, nor did I want to struggle with formatting a word processing file for Kindle, Nook, or any other ereader.

These days, though, almost any task relating to self-publishing can be done by the author. Sites like make it possible to create social media posts and covers without much graphic design experience. With Vellum, you can convert Word files to ebook files without any coding or programming expertise. So there are fewer tasks that clearly must be outsourced.

So how to choose which to do yourself? Once you get past the easy questions, in my experience, what it’s best to do yourself depends on three things:

(1) What you’re good at

(2) Whether performing the task helps you in other ways

(3) What you enjoy

Your Skills 

My general rule is if the end result will look as good as it will if I outsource it to an expert, and I’m good enough at it that outsourcing won’t save me significant time, I’ll probably do the task myself.

For example, for several years after college I temped as a word processor, moving from company to company and picking up skills as I went. I became very good at figuring out new software and exploring ways to make it do cool things. While the software to convert Microsoft Word to ebook formats is totally different from the word processing programs I used decades ago, I still am comfortable experimenting, and Vellum is easy enough to use, that my final product looks good.

Also, while outsourcing saves time in preparing the ebook files, the quality control/final correction phase is quicker when I do it myself. When I outsource and review the file I get back, I have to copy and past each error and the corresponding corrections into an email or Word file to send to the conversion service, wait a couple days for a new version, and review that. When I do it myself, I see the error, correct it, review it, then move on.

Think about your skills. Are you good at software, copywriting, or graphic design?

If so, choose a project that is low stress—a novella or short story versus a novel—and experiment. You might find it’s worth doing some tasks yourself.

And if not, at least you’ve found one task you definitely want to outsource.

Does Doing This Task Help You In Other Ways?

So far, I’ve never tried designing a cover for a novel (and I don’t plan to for the reasons listed in Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover), but recently I experimented with creating covers on for non-fiction. There are a couple ways that helped me beyond learning how to do a basic cover, a skill I might or might not ever use again.

First, as I designed one cover, I refined my title. My first title for Super Simple Story Structure, was Five Steps to Story Structure. As I laid it out on the cover, though, that initial title looked out of balance.

No doubt a good graphic designer could have made it work. If I’d been in love with the title, I would have chucked my attempts and hired someone. But I wasn’t. So I tried using “5” instead of “Five” and played around with fonts and capitalization.

Finally, I experimented with other titles and settled on Super Simple Story Structure. The row of words starting with S makes the title look good aligned on the left. The alliteration makes the title easier to remember. And the “Super Simple” part does a much better job of conveying the point of the book, which is to make plotting a novel simple and clear.

Second, when I was designing the cover for How The Virgin Mary Influenced The United States Supreme Court, I was still writing the ebook. It started as an academic paper, but I wanted it to be easy to read and interesting to any reader who wanted to know whether the justices’ religious backgrounds played a role in their decision about religious objections to health insurance that covered contraceptives.

Pulling together background photos of the Supreme Court and a statute of the Virgin Mary helped me figure out how to focus the book. I changed an abstract discussion of Catholic doctrine into a conversation about how the Virgin Mary represents the “pure” and “perfect” woman, and how that view of women influences our culture and courts.

Had I not done the cover myself, though, I might never have found a good approach to the book.

What’s Fun For You?

I really like using Vellum to create my final ebook files. The display lets me see the book as the reader sees it and gives me a different perspective on how it appears. (For one thing, it’s caused me to write shorter paragraphs.) It’s also fun for me to play with the different styles for chapter headings and the symbols in between scenes. Finally, it kind of feels like magic to me the way I drop in a Word file and get an ebook file that looks pretty.

In short, it’s fun.

On the other hand, because I get neck and shoulder pain when I type too much, I hate making extensive revisions in Word, and I need to minimize my typing time. So when I’ve got a very solid first draft, I print it, handwrite changes, and send it to a virtual assistant to do the heavy lifting.

You, on the other hand, might like revising using your screen and keyboard and might hate spending time with a formatting program.

Which tasks you find fun matters.

Most of us already do enough work we don’t love at our day-to-day jobs or careers because it comes with the job title. Also, many people who write make more money at their regular jobs. So if writing and the tasks related to it aren’t fun, it’ll be hard to keep devoting time to them.

Finally, and most important, at least to me, is that the point is to live a happy life, not to write novels—or achieve other goals—at any cost.

So rather than push yourself to do writing-related tasks you don’t like, if you’re able, send those to someone else and save the fun things for yourself.

Until Friday—


L.M. Lilly




On Not Doing It All Yourself

Whether you self publish your writing or plan to seek a traditional publishing contract, there are related tasks you can pay someone else to do. Often the people you could hire have more experience and can produce a better result than you, such as when you pay a graphic designer to create a book cover or a professional developmental editor to review your plot.

Yet most of us struggle with the idea of paying for services we can, at least in theory, do ourselves.


Here are three reasons that come to mind:

  • Your time is “free”
  • It’s too hard to train someone
  • You’re not earning enough

Let’s talk about each one.

Why Pay Someone When I Can Do The Task For Free?

The problem with this question is that it contains an assumption: that your time is free. It’s not, even if you are earning zero right now at your writing.

At the very least, if you have another job or profession, your time is worth what you currently earn calculated by the hour. So if your annual salary is $70,000, you earn about $35 an hour if you work 40 hours a week. If someone else can do a writing-related task for less than that, you’re coming out ahead, assuming you have the resources to pay.

Even if you pay someone the exact hourly amount you take home, odds are you’ll come out ahead.

First, an expert can work faster and produce better results. For example, as I wrote about in Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover, I recently designed two covers myself for nonfiction books. My guess is that each one took me at least 10 hours, while I bet a professional could have created them in 1-2 hours. So even if the hourly rate were equal, I overpaid for those covers.

Second, if you are earning at least some money at your writing, whatever you pay someone else generally is tax deductible, but the time you devote is not. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s say I earn $1,000 in royalties on those two books and earn the salary in the example above at my other work. I spent $700 (20 hours X $35) to design the covers, but I can’t deduct that as an expense because my time was “free.” So I’ll still pay taxes on $1,000.

If I had instead paid a cover designer $200, I not only would have freed up 20 hours of my time, my profit would be $800 ($1,000-$200), and that’s what I’m paying tax on, not the whole $1,000. (Obviously, this is a general example. I’m not a tax attorney or accountant, and if you need specific tax advice, you should talk to a professional.)

Third, by spending your time on something that’s not your area of expertise, you incur what businesses call “opportunity costs.” If instead of spending 20 hours on covers I’d spent it finishing the second non-fiction book, that would be out there potentially earning royalties right now. Instead, I’m still making last revisions.

Okay, I better move on soon, because I’ve convinced myself that designing those two covers really wasn’t the best move and I’ve lost 20 hours.

If you find yourself in the same position, though, and you no doubt will at some point, don’t worry too much about it. With any endeavor there will be missteps and money or time you wish you had spent differently. I think of it as “tuition”—money or time that’s required to learn a new area, a concept I borrowed from Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad Poor Dad fame.

It Takes Too Long To Train Someone.

This is the objection that applied most often in my solo law practice because there was a steep learning curve with a lot of the work I needed help with. In the beginning, training a new lawyer or an assistant would have taken more of my time than it saved. But I was being shortsighted. Even if it had taken me four or five or ten times as long to train someone, once they were trained, my time would have been freed to do tasks that only I could do, or that I could do best.

The many hours I spent learning all my clients’ different billing programs, for instance, could have been devoted to legal work that paid me by the hour or to finishing my novels more quickly. In other words, it would have been well worth it over the long haul to spend some time training.

In writing, the case for outsourcing is even stronger. if you self-publish, it’s almost certain you could be paying someone to do something that you aren’t that skilled at. Most writers are not also graphic designers, they don’t know how to convert word processing files to Kindle files, they don’t have web design experience, and they aren’t usually terrific editors of their own work.

Also, when you outsource work, you get the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. The graphic designer may propose a wonderful concept that never crossed your mind because you are so immersed in your story. Recently, my virtual assistant typed in some edits for me that I’d handwritten on a manuscript. She spotted a few awkward sentences I’d read right past because I knew what I meant. When she flagged them, though, I realized she was right.

I’m Not Making Enough At Writing To Justify Paying Someone.

Even if you are earning money at your first profession or job, it can be hard to justify to yourself paying someone to help with your novel if your fiction writing isn’t generating a lot of income.

But no matter how little or how much your fiction earns right now, time and money can always be exchanged for one another. As I talked about in Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full-Time, by paying someone to do anything that you could do yourself, you are literally buying time.

Also, when it comes to financial goals such as paying your bills, saving for retirement, or paying down debt, the overall dollars matter, not where they come from. So if I can pay someone $200 to do a writing-related task and that allows me to spend time doing something that earns me $300, hiring someone makes financial sense regardless whether I earned that $300 through royalties, practicing law, or selling vintage Barbies on eBay.

Another way to think of this is that lots of people spend money on hobbies and leisure activities, most of which don’t have the potential to earn them any money. Supplies and equipment are needed for activities as diverse as building model airplanes, kayaking, and playing golf. Even birdwatching requires purchasing binoculars. In contrast, whether or not your writing earns you money now, it has the potential to do so.

Finally, think about why you’re writing and how long you’re willing to devote to the business side of it. If you want to sell books, it will take time to find your market (whether you intend to do that on your own or through a publisher).

Also, to establish yourself, you will need more than one book. In fact you’ll probably need at least four or five. The faster you can write those books, the better for your career, assuming your quality remains good. So paying someone else to do things so that you can write more in the long run will almost certainly earn you more and help you get your career off the ground.

I hope these points persuaded you at least to consider some tasks you could pay someone else to handle, assuming you have even a small amount of funds to do so. Next week I’ll talk about how to decide which tasks make the most sense to outsource. (There’s no one-size-fits all answer. What’s best for you to do yourself will vary from writer-to-writer.)

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly