How to Publish an Indie Book, Part 1 of 6: Intro & How to Write, Proofread, and Copyright a Book

Joshua Fields Millburn
Posted on July 15, 2013

A Preamble-ish Opening Statement

Damn I hate introductions. Like, a lot. Most intros are vapid and ephemeral and can usually be ignored. The word prolegomenous comes to mind. But this here little lead-in seems, if not apropos, at least somewhat necessary considering the weight of what we hope to communicate with this series: viz., we want to present to you a detailed, step-by-step, how-to guide for publishing an Indie Book that is indistinguishable in every way—quality, content, editing, book cover, formatting, printing, distribution, promotion—from Books published by the industry’s Big Six Publishers. Nevertheless, feel free to dismiss this opening section, to move on to the meatier parts below.

Still here? Oh, well, so then here’s an introduction of sorts…

Over the course of six essays and six podcasts, Colin Wright and I will show you, based on our own experience as successful Independent Authors, how to publish an Indie Book (hence the title). This series includes six parts:

Each essay also contains a short podcast in which Colin and I expound on the contents of the essay, using our own personal experience and opinions as a beacon to guide the conversation.

We welcome your feedback and questions in the comments below, which we’ll use to append our teachings herein.

Bear with us. This whole thing is a little strange to us—Colin and me—because we don’t typically write “how-to” essays; instead we tend to address the “why-to,” which is, for the most part, far more important (i.e., without the why, the how is fairly trivial). However, we believe that the “how-to” in this case is direly important; it’s a big hurdle for many would-be-published Authors, and so we want to help.

Thus, two things’ll likely occur throughout this six-leg run. First, you’ll probably find handfuls of “why-to” (purpose-driven) ruminations peppered throughout the entire cycle (especially within this pilot essay). This seems unavoidable; Colin and I both like to ruminate. Second, we won’t show you the path to publishing your Book; we’ll uncover a path—our path—which you’re welcome to follow. Basically, we’ll show you our recipe, including which ingredients have and haven’t worked for us, and then you’re welcome (even encouraged) to add your own ingredients to suite your taste.

Furthermore, concurrent to this six-piece “How to Publish an Indie Book” Guide, Ryan Nicodemus has put together a host of Studio Services and additional resources that’re available through Asymmetrical (from Proofreading and Editing, to Book Formatting and Web Design). Ultimately, we know that you can successfully publish your Book entirely on your own—we have the empirical first-hand experience to prove it—but if you want help in certain areas, then Ryan and the Asymmetrical team are here to help.

End banal intro. Fade into meaty parts.

Adding Value

Colin, Ryan, and I started Asymmetrical for a laundry list of reasons, but all those reasons point back to one underlying goal: Adding Value. If Asymmetrical has a single objective, that’s it. We know that if we add enough value to enough people through Asymmetrical, then we’ll be able to raise the tide of Independent Publishing, not just our own work, but Indie Publishing as a whole. That way everyone benefits; a rising tide lifts all boats.

Adding Value is the reason we started the Asym Community, in which we encourage Authors and other creative types to exchange value with each other, sharing tips and best practices and resources just like, well, a community—a community that grows together.

Adding Value is the reason we work with a small group of Authors from our Community, experimenting with their work so we can share our discoveries with the world. These Authors don’t allow us to function as a Traditional Publisher (that was never our intent). Rather, our Authors are the (cute, cuddly, fuzzy) lab rats from whom we learn more about the Independent Publishing Process, learnings that we’re able to pass on to you via the Community and the Asym Blog.

Adding Value is also the reason we are working with more than 40 outstanding interns—our talented Asymmetrical People—who are themselves working hard to help us help you.

And Adding Value should be every Author’s objective when writing a Book, as well.

In fact, Adding Value is the reason we’ve put together this Guide. We want to prove to you that you needn’t worship at the altar of the old guard, that you needn’t “submit” to anyone. You can successfully publish on your own, soup to nuts, controlling every morsel of the Process.

The present day is the most exciting time in history to be an Author. No longer are you beholden to the gatekeepers; no longer must you compromise your art. For the first time in publishing history, you are in control. We know this first hand. The three of us aren’t some hacks who just write about writing. Nope. Rather, when we weren’t happy with the publishing landscape, we took matters into our own hands; we refused to wait for someone else’s permission to publish our work.

And guess what: we’ve been successful. Between the three of us, we’ve published twenty-two Books (nonfiction, fiction, and memoirs), several of which have been bestsellers; we’ve toured internationally; and we’ve established audiences larger than most Traditionally Published Authors.

But that’s because we’re not just Authors, and neither are you.

Authors as Businesspeople

You see, there was a time when an Author was just an author. At that time, their focus was on writing the best Book they could possibly write. Someone else would edit, lay out, design, market, sell, and publish the Book, which was a deal that most Authors were fine with, at least partially because it was the only option available.

The big downside to that arrangement is that someone else also owned their work. Authors would sell the rights to their Book to a publisher, and that publishing company would pay them a small advance (i.e., a loan) and then a small percentage of revenue generated by sales (after the advance was paid back).

It was a decent living for the fortunate few who made it past the several rounds of gatekeepers between them and bookstore shelves, and for some it’s still a good option.

Today there are other options, though, and we feel strongly that even Authors in Traditional Publishing arrangements should see their writing as assets and treat them as such. They should be in control of their own promotional efforts and social media content. They should be aware of what is worth what, and which methods of delivery are available on a given project.

Of course, for Authors who are independently publishing their work, this goes double. In order to really succeed—apart from the outside chance of being “discovered” and showered with money—it’s best to view yourself as an entrepreneur, not just an Author. An Authorpreneur. A creative businessperson.

This perspective allows a creative person to look at each business challenge as an opportunity to enhance their work and get it out to more people. Businessy tasks—like updating social media and converting published work into multiple formats—become one more part of the Creative Process, which they are, if you’re doing them right.

The business of publishing, as well as the published work itself, must be high quality if the reading public is going to be exposed and open to investing their time and money in Indie Work. If you’re doing it right, the experience of purchasing and consuming your work should be as good as the work itself.

What Exactly Is “Indie” Publishing?

For the longest time, Indie Publishing had a bad reputation.

It was most often associated with so-called Vanity Publishing, which essentially meant that you wrote a Book and then paid to have it published yourself. The derogatory nature of the moniker stemmed from the idea that if a Book hadn’t gone through the gauntlet of Traditional Publishing, it probably wasn’t worth very much.

And in most cases, the Books did seem quite sub-par, even if they were well-written. The paper quality was off. The design was laughable. Details we’ve come to expect from published work—like ISBN numbers, copyright pages, and bastard title pages—weren’t evident, and their lack made us question what the Author was trying to achieve by converting their hard-earned money into pseudo-published work.

Independent Publishing today is quite a different creature.

Today there are small presses operating on models similar to those of larger publishing companies (though generally with more favorable contracts for the Authors) putting out work that rivals or beats that of the Big Six.

There are Independent Authors doing the same, and with the same level of quality and success. In the last year, even Authors who make advances in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are leaving their publishers to operate solo. They learn the ropes of the industry themselves, or (more commonly) hire Independent Editors, Designers, Marketers, Publicists, Website Designers, and anyone else they need to make their Book a success on bookshelves.

In short, we live in a time where Traditional Publishing finally has a legitimate rival, and that rival is each and every Author with a computer and WiFi signal.

I don’t say this to hate on Traditional Publishing—they have long done good work, and still do—but the gang and I’re giddily excited about the potential that things like eBooks, on-demand publishing, and the interconnectivity of social media have brought to the forefront. This is a time of great uncertainty, but uncertain times are when new normals are born.

Also birthed from uncertain times are great Books. And writing a Book is the important first step in the long Publishing Process. So let’s chat about writing one, shall we?

How to Write a Book

So, you’re writing a Book, eh? Or maybe you’ve already written one and it’s collecting dust or rejection letters or both. Or maybe you just know deep down that you have a Book inside you that’s waiting to pour itself onto the blank page.

The Hardest Part

Well my dearest Author, I have good/bad news for you: writing a Book is by far the most difficult step in the Publishing Process. Hence, that’s great news if you’ve already written a Book you’re happy with (if that’s the case you might want to move on to Part 2), but it’s bad news if you’re yet to start.

Moreover, writing a Book is one thing. Writing an interesting Book that adds value to people’s lives is thorny and intricate and considerably more complicated. But don’t fret, Author; I brought with me a proverbial flashlight to help illuminate the way (does anyone have an extra set of C batteries?).

First, we should start with a relevant question: What the Hell Is a Book? (Read that short essay and then we’ll continue.)

As you can see, a Book isn’t even easy to define anymore, let alone write. But  I’d like to posit to you that a Book’s undefinability is a good thing; it gives you, the Writer, more flexibility, which might make it a bit easier to finish.


There are at least two types of Authors: the kind who flourish under pressure (e.g., Colin) and the kind whose nervous system is so weak that even the thought of potential pressure nearly incapacitates them (e.g., me). That is to say, there are Writers who need deadlines/goals/objectives and Writers who do not.

The Colins of the world (and the Ryans, too, for that matter) are propelled forward by deadlines. Seriously, I’ve witnessed Colin write a draft of an entire Book, cover to cover, in a day. I shit you not. (In contrast, it takes me several days just to write a single blog post.) These Writers often produce their best work when they’re under the gun.

However, the Me’s of the world (as well as my fellow neurotics), will, at best, wince at the mere mention of a deadline; or worst, we’ll get nauseated and need to find something soft to sit on. These Writers are more creative when the Process is drawn out, boundless, abstract. Our writing often appears concise and deliberate in its final iteration, even gorgeous at times, but there’s usually buckets of words left on the cuttingroom floor during the Editing Process (N.B. we discuss the Editing Process in detail in Part 2). In short, give me a deadline, and you most certainly won’t get my best work.

Suffice it to say, you yourself must (to use an overused idiom) take a long look in the mirror and figure out which kind of Writer you are. Be honest—it’s for your benefit. If you’re not sure, or if you’re somewhere in the middle, then set-up some Draconian rules by which to gauge your Process. Give yourself strick deadlines. If they help, great! Keep them.

What I’ve discovered from my writing students is that 98/100 times, deadlines help Authors write the Book they want to write, especially for newer Writers who don’t already write several hours a day.

A Writer’s Support System

Equally as important as deadlines is a Writer’s support system, especially when it comes to finishing your Book. Actually, your Support System and your deadline often work in conjunction to hurl your Book over its finish line.

Support from peers, family, friends, etc. is paramount, so much so in fact that I require every student in my writing class to acquire an Accountability Partner during the first day of class. I do this because I know how much it helped me when I first started writing. Namely, my Accountability Partner kept me, ahem, accountable. Hence, each day my students must take 90 seconds to send a QAR, a Quick Accountability Report (which, by the way, is just a fancy term for email) to their AP. The QAR contains three simple lines:

  • How much did I write today?
  • What did I write about?
  • How do I feel about the writing? Was it a good day or a bad day? Why?

Feel free to do likewise, as well as to modify the QAR to your specific needs/objectives. If you have trouble locating an AP among your friends and family, see if someone in our Community is willing to help.

Your Support System extends way beyond your AP, though. Your Support System really contains anyone who is supportive of you and your work as a Writer. That means anyone, truly anyone: loved ones, co-workers, people who are close to you, acquaintances, and yes, even total strangers. Your SS helps fuel your excitement for writing.

Yes, I know you’re passionate about writing your Book, but passion doesn’t necessarily equal excitement. It’s important, then, to find excitement via external stimulation (hey, get your mind out of the gutter). To do so, I want you to talk about your Book with everyone who’s willing to listen. Tell them what it’s about; tell them why you’re writing it; express to them how passionate your are.

This sounds silly, I know. But the more you talk about it, the more excited you’ll be, and thus the more you’ll take action.

Together, your AP and the entirety of your SS will catapult you from undone to done quicker than you think.

Prioritizing Your Time

The single biggest excuse I hear for why people don’t write as much as they should—why they never finish their Book—is “I don’t have enough time.” How lame. Let’s go take another peek at that metaphorical mirror again.

It’s time for you to be honest with yourself. Either you’re accomplishing what you want to accomplish or you’re not. You’re either writing that Book or you’re not. There is no in-between. If it’s the latter, then you must admit to yourself that you are the only person preventing you from pursuing your passion project. Denial is a heartless bitch; so, if it’s true, then the first step is admitting that you haven’t even scratched the surface.

As for the time excuse, none of us were born equal. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different socioeconomic situations. We were not all born on a level playing field. Time is the one exception. The only thing we all have in common is time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. So, get up at 3:30 A.M. if you have to. Find 30 minutes before you leave for work. Work through your lunch break. Find an hour after work. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find the time. You have the same amount of time as everyone else who has ever written a Book.

It’s time, then, to start killing your distractions, to finally make writing your Book a real priority, instead of it residing on your wish list.

Take a look at your day-to-day life. Through the hustle and bustle of your daily grind, what banal, tedious, mundane tasks eat up most of your time? Checking email? Monkeying around on Facebook? Watching television? Filling out reports?

Whatever your answer, these activities are your true priorities.

Yet we often claim that our priorities are grandly important activities like spending time with family or exercising or carving out enough alone time to work on that Book we’ve been putting off. But unless you’re actually putting these pursuits first, unless you make these undertakings part of your everyday routine, they are not your actual priorities.

Your priorities are what you do each day, the small tasks that move forward the second and minute hands on the clock. These circadian endeavors are your musts. Everything else is simply a shouldI should do this. I should do that. I should, I should, I should. Too often, we should all over ourselves. You must instead make change a mustI must write my Book! I must make time every day! I must kill my distractions! Those musts sound far more empowering than your shoulds, don’t they?

To Outline or Not To Outline

There are two camps in the outline debate: 1) Yes, you should start with an outline, 2) No, don’t worry ’bout it.

I don’t have a membership card to either camp. Ultimately, I think the Outlining Process is highly individual and is based more on personal preference than any set of guiding principles.

For me, I always start without an outline, producing volumes and volumes of text that will be radically reduced later (my 280-page novel, As a Decade Fades, for example, was originally 950 pages before I attenuated it). Then, when the Book begins to take shape, often after a violent, almost incoherent first draft, I go back and outline the Book, looking for structural elements that work well together. The resulting outline ends up being invaluable during the Re-writing and Editorial Processes.

Folks like Colin, on the other hand, must always have an outline in hand before they begin. They must produce a map of the journey before embarking on it.

I know other Writers, still, who refuse the map altogether, opting instead to just drive in a direction and see where that takes them.

No one way is right or wrong; it simply depends on the person. Again, like deadlines, my best advice is to start with an outline, see if you need it, and then act accordingly.

Proofreading: Ask for Help

The Writing Process itself is highly personal for almost every Writer, so personal that sometimes it seems intrusive to even talk about it. But for your benefit, I will.

I myself spend at least three hours a day—sometimes twelve—in a room, splashing words (handwritten and typed) onto blank pages. It’s a lonely, but satisfying, exercise. What’s worse is that we Writers spend so much time with our words, our thoughts, our stories, that we can’t usually find the forest through the pines in our own work. After a while, our writing, no matter how good it might be, looks like a jumbled mess to our too-familiar eyes.

The solution is simple: find a clean pair of eyes.

I have a few alpha-readers who read my stuff before anyone else—less than a handful of people from whom, when I have something rough draftish I can share, I solicit honest feedback. I trust these folks’ opinions immensely.

Proofreading can seem overwhelming, and typos are a yucky burden, I know. So eradicating as many typos as possible from your manuscript before you go through the editing process is important. You can find folks on your own or via the Asym Community. And you can even take it a step farther and do what I do: hire a professional Proofreader (who is different from an Editor, which we discuss in Part 2). That is, once I’ve incorporated my alpha-readers’ feedback into my Manuscript, I find it wise to also find a Professional Proofreader to seek out and destroy as many errors as possible before I move on to the Editing Process.

Copyright Info

While copyright in the United States automatically attaches upon the creation of an original work of authorship, registration with the Copyright Office puts a copyright holder in a better position if litigation arises over the copyright. A copyright holder desiring to register his or her copyright should do the following:

  1. Obtain and complete appropriate form.
  2. Prepare clear rendition of material being submitted for copyright
  3. Send both documents to U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.

Registration of copyright refers to the act of registering the work with the United States Copyright Office, which is an office of the Library of Congress. As the United States has joined the Berne Convention, registration is no longer necessary to provide copyright protection. However, registration is still necessary to obtain statutory damages in case of infringement.

Copyright Act § 407 provides that the owner of copyright in a published or unpublished work may, at any time during the copyright, register the work with the Copyright Office. The purpose of the registration provisions is to create as comprehensive a record of U.S. copyright claims as is possible. To register, the registrant must complete an application form and send it, along with the filing fee and copies of the work, to the Copyright Office.

The Copyright Office reviews applications for obvious errors or lack of copyrightable subject matter, and then issues a certificate of registration.

Registration as a prerequisite to claim of moral rights violation: it’s not necessary for any Author to register prior to bringing suit for violation of the rights of attribution or integrity in a work of visual art, pursuant to Copyright Act § 106A.

(above source: Library of Congress)

But so basically, once you write something, it’s already copyrighted. You can “officially” copyright it if you want, but it’s not totally necessary unless you need to file a lawsuit.

Value of the Book: The Payoff

Ultimately, a Book is finished when it fulfills two criteria:

1. Is your Book interesting? Of course, no matter how interesting it might be, not everyone is going to be interested in your Book, but if you were the Reader (not the Author, but the actual person who has to buy and spend his or her time plowing through page after page), would you find it interesting, compelling, urgent? Is it fun and/or funny? Do you want to keep reading? Sometimes it helps to put the Book away for a month and then re-approach it as a Reader. Be honest and give yourself critical feedback. Further reading: Considering Your Readership

2. Is there a payoff? This is the most important aspect of a finished Book. Will your Readers—who by the way have to put massive amounts of time and attention into reading your damn Book—will they receive a sufficient enough payoff for the time and money they’ve spent? I mean, really—will they really receive a payoff? Is reading your Book the best use of their time? If so, why? What is the payoff? Countless Books are littered with bad writing, with little or no value, and thus no payoff. This sort of bad writing is usually written by timid, careless Writers who don’t consider the Reader. I have one bit of advice for these Writers: cut the shit. Stop wasting people’s precious time. Instead, work tirelessly to hone your skills, to craft a Book that is meaningful and urgent and interesting. Work your ass off to write a Book that matters, a Book with a payoff. It’s worth it in the end.

Podcast: How to Write a Book

Now, before you move on, you ought to listen to Colin and me maunder a bit during our podcast on this topic:

Move on to other segments in the series:

Subscribe to our free Newsletter so you don’t miss any parts of this series.

(Photo by Megan Jae Riggs)