From the time she finished editing the final draft of her Umbilicus manuscript in March 2015, to the rationale behind her decision to self-publish in May 2016, and how she built her author brand over the next 18 months, this compilation of original blog posts by Paula covers it all. The page is structured chronologically to give you an idea of how the process unfolded, and how lengthy and involved some stages of the journey were. Although it is by no means an exhaustive ‘how to’ guide, as each project is unique, you’re sure to find a few nuggets of info to incorporate into your own action plan. Please feel free to share this page with anyone you know who may find it useful. #PayItForward



Democratisation of the Publishing Industry

24th March 2015

What do William Blake, Lord Byron, e e cummings, TS Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, DH Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, Edgar Allen Poe, George Bernard Shaw, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf, have in common? They all, among many other literary greats, self-published at some point in their careers.

So then, why the lingering stigma attached to self-publishing? Unfortunately because ‘indie authors’ are automatically lumped into the same category as ‘vanity authors’, even though self-publishing and vanity publishing are as distinct from one another as traditional publishing and self-publishing. While indie filmmakers and garage bands are lauded for their grit and tenacity in producing self-funded movies and music, the stigma of self-funded publishing continues to be a millstone around many an indie author’s neck.

But it’s high time for the stigmatisation and marginalisation to end. Just like 21-year-old Australian-born model Stefania Ferrario (below) – currently the face of Dita Von Teese’s lingerie label – is campaigning for the fashion industry to #droptheplus size label for curvier models, so too, is a new wave of indie authors arguing for equal respect and recognition alongside their mainstream counterparts.

Books and their authors, just like models, should come in all shapes and sizes – some catering to the highly commercialised mass market, others to smaller, or more discerning niche markets. Neither should be perceived as superior or inferior to the other, but rather variations on the same core product. A model is a model is a model, whether ‘straight-size’ or ‘plus-size’. A book is a book is a book, whether a paperback, hardcover, or ebook. And an author is an author is an author, whether traditionally published or self-published.

a) stefania ferrario

That said, any self-respecting indie author who expects to be taken seriously needs to make sure that everything about their book is on a par quality-wise with the books produced by traditional publishers. From the editing and proofreading, to the interior layout and cover design, it is inexcusable to cut any corners. Not only do you risk undermining your brand and weakening your value as an author in the eyes of your readers, but also in the eyes of your fellow authors, and traditional publishers, all of which simply perpetuates the stigma of an inferior product.

So then, how do local indie authors go about producing high quality, commercially viable books that can sit comfortably alongside their traditionally published counterparts, on both virtual and real-life bookshelves? By outsourcing the professional services of credible industry players, like Staging Post and MYeBook, both based in Johannesburg. Tapping into the ever-increasing demand for cutting edge self-publishing services – in paperback, hardcover, or ebook format – these guys offer a one-stop-shop for indie authors who are serious about the quality of the work they put out for public consumption and scrutiny. Individual services can be cherry-picked by the author according to their needs and budget, to best prepare, polish, publish, and promote their books – in national bricks-and-mortar bookstores, as well as across the plethora of international online stores.

March 2015 has been a boon to the local independent publishing industry, with not one, but two major events taking place over consecutive weekends. Last Saturday I attended South Africa’s first Indie Book Fair at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown, organised by Porcupine Press and their brand new indie imprint, African Narratives, primarily to listen to Sarah Taylor deliver her keynote speech on Broadening Horizons: The expanding opportunities and freedom of self-publishing. (Taylor is the marketing manager of UK-based Matador, the self-publishing imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd, and editor of The Self Publishing Magazine.) And this coming Saturday I will be attending the first South African Indie Revolution book festival at Modjadji House in Floracliffe. Exciting times!

Rolling with the Punches

28th January 2016

I’m totally stoked for Trevor Noah and his $3 million book deal. The dude is a legend, and I cannot WAIT to get my paws on a copy of his memoir when it comes out. “These are true stories – sometimes dark, occasionally bizarre, frequently tender, and always hilarious. Whether subsisting on caterpillars during months of extreme poverty or making comically hapless attempts at teenage romance, from the time he was thrown in jail to the time he was thrown from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters…” C’mon, if that doesn’t hook you, nothing will!


But I also feel bloody stupid. For thinking the likes of Pan Macmillan South Africa might actually be interested in publishing a memoir by a virtual unknown in 2016, when this is the kind of stuff they had going on behind the scenes. After receiving my latest rejection letter, from none other than PanMac SA (which happened to arrive at the exact same time they must’ve been drawing up this Noah contract), I realised I never stood a chance.

I have now exhausted all narrative non-fiction avenues on home turf (the two remaining traditional publishers on my radar are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts until mid-2016 and 2017 respectively), and I have come to accept the probability that no traditional publisher outside of our borders is going to be interested in a memoir by a paleface plebeian from the tip of the Dark Continent.

After a good, long think about the feedback and constructive criticism I have received from industry professionals over the past several months, about market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a contemporary story like mine, I eventually made the executive decision to change the names of all the characters in my book, repackage the story as an autobiographical novel, and target it at the Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction reader instead.

I also thought long and hard about the cutthroat nature of traditional publishing in general, and the agony of spending the next year, or two years, or five years even, [re]submitting my manuscript to the fiction imprints of local publishers, plus UK and US literary agents, with absolutely no guarantee of ever securing a publishing contract (hey, if my track record on the narrative non-fiction side is anything to go by, what’s to say my attempt at the fiction side will be any better?) So I decided to take the bull by the horns, stop the querying process with immediate effect, and am currently hard at work building my author website, creating a marketing plan and publicity campaign, and formatting my manuscript for self-publication in both print and ebook formats, by mid-2016.

Dungeons and Daiquiris

19th February 2016

For many authors, the process of getting one’s book into the hands of readers is a bit like venturing into the S&M playpen at a BDSM party. In the middle of the room you have the seasoned sadists (traditional publishers) brandishing their favoured instrument of torture (coveted publishing contracts), beating willing masochists (aspiring authors) into submission (with the grueling querying process). And on the periphery you have the switches (authors like myself) who are only there for a limited taste of pain and humiliation (rejection letters), knowing full well they can stop the game at any time and retreat for cocktails at the (self-publishing) rooftop bar upstairs.


I would hazard a guess that most indie authors sipping cocktails at the rooftop bar have ventured into the dungeon at least once in their lives. Especially at the start of their careers, when the thrill of potentially securing a contract with a big name traditional publisher supposedly meant utter validation of one’s worth as a writer, coupled with the convenience of appointed industry professionals taking care of all the technical design, production, and marketing stuff, with no need for you, the author, to worry about any capital outlay.

That’s all fair and well until the first rejection letter lands in your Inbox, and it stings like a motherfucker. Then another, and another. The pile of rejections will eventually hit double digits, but by now you’ve hopefully grown a pretty thick skin. At this point, you can decide to stay down in the dungeon and subject yourself to an indeterminate number of future lashings, or extricate yourself and make your way to the rooftop bar with some semblance of dignity intact.

There are two ways to get there. The first is via a hi-tech glass elevator on the outside of the building, but you will need to tip the doorman quite handsomely for the privilege of such a swift, smooth ride. The second is round the back, via the fire escape, and although it costs virtually nothing, it does require a certain level of techie prowess and stamina to ascend each and every flight of stairs. Thank God for Google, and all those switches who have gone before us, kind enough to leave a few flickering strip lights on in the stairwells to guide the way.

After last month’s decision to leave the dungeon, and having no money to tip the doorman, I drew up a checklist of all the individual steps I need to climb up the fire escape in order to reach the rooftop bar. Besides the strawberry daiquiri (and champers!) with my name on it, I’ve heard the views are incredible up there.


In no particular order, my work schedule over the next several months consists of the following:

WordPress – Build my author website with blog functionality. Map my WordPress website to as my primary domain. Pay WordPress their $13 (annual) hosting fee, via PayPal (I had an existing PayPal account, from when I set up my first Indiegogo campaign in 2015). [UPDATE: If I need to crowdfund again, I will give Thundafund a go. It’s the leading crowdfunding platform for South Africa. It wasn’t around when I used Indiegogo.]

ISBNs – Apply to the National Library of South Africa for 4 x International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs); each edition of the book (print, Mobi, ePub, PDF) needs its own ISBN. Generate the barcode for the paperback edition to be incorporated into the back cover design.

Cover design – Design a hi-res (300 dpi) cover using the 6′ x 9′ template provided by CreateSpace. Save the cover file as a print-ready PDF.

Payoneer – Apply for a Payoneer account into which both Amazon and CreateSpace can deposit my royalties. Funds from this Payoneer account can then be electronically transferred into my local bank account.

Goodreads – Manually add Umbilicus as a new book on the Goodreads database. Create my author profile on the Goodreads Author Program.

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) – Create an Amazon KDP account. Complete the online Tax Interview. Note: South African authors no longer need to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Because SA has a tax treaty with the US, we can simply enter our existing SA tax number in the online form, and automatically qualify for 0% withholding on royalties. Provide Payoneer account details for royalty payments to be made electronically. Create an author + book profile. Format my MS Word manuscript to conform to the technical specs required for an ebook, upload to KDP for automatic conversion to a Mobi file, and make the Kindle edition of my book available for pre-order on Amazon (worldwide), at a list price of $6.99 (excluding VAT), or the equivalent thereof across all other currencies. Wait for file review and, once approved, give KDP the green light to release the Kindle edition for sale on 31 May 2016 at midnight local time in each marketplace. Only then will sample content become available for download.

CreateSpace – Create a CreateSpace account. Complete the online Tax Interview. Provide Payoneer account details for royalty payments to be made electronically. Create an author + book profile. Format my MS Word manuscript to conform to the technical specs required for a 6′ x 9′ print-on-demand (POD) paperback, then upload the interior and cover files (both in print-ready PDF format) to CreateSpace. Wait for file review and, once approved, request a proof copy to be shipped to my birth mom in Texas (she will WhatsApp me the photos to see that everything looks exactly as it should). Once approved, give CreateSpace the green light to release the POD paperback edition for sale on 31 May 2016 at midnight local time in each Amazon marketplace, plus the CreateSpace eStore, at a list price of $12.99 (excluding VAT), or the equivalent thereof across all other currencies.

Megabooks – Create a Megabooks account. Convert my MS Word manuscript to an ePub file using Calibre software. Send both the ePub and POD paperback files to Mega Digital via WeTransfer. Wait for file review and, once approved, request a proof copy of the paperback to be couriered from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Once approved, give Megabooks the green light to release the POD paperback and ePub editions for sale on 31 May 2016, at a list price of R190 and R100 respectively (including VAT, excluding the R59 door-to-door courier fee for the paperback). Note: When ordering online, SA customers can pay Megabooks via credit card or EFT. [UPDATE: Mega Digital and Megabooks closed down at the end of August 2016.]

Launch party – Register as a vendor with Skoobs, Theatre of Books. Order my first print run of paperbacks from Mega Digital – using the funds I managed to raise from my Indiegogo campaign – for sale at the Johannesburg launch on 2 August 2016, and delivery to the five places of legal deposit (see below). I did a barter deal with my mate Marianne Brits-Strodl, who will photograph the event for me. And my better half will live stream a video of the event on my Facebook page (a first for a book launch in South Africa), for those who can’t be at the event in person. [UPDATE: Following the closure of Mega Digital and Megabooks at the end of August 2016, I used Pinetown Printers for my second print run in December 2016.] 

Legal Deposit Act 54 of 1997 – In compliance with Section 2 of the Legal Deposit Act, I will have to supply the National Library of South Africa with 5 copies of Umbilicus (1 copy couriered to 5 places of legal deposit – Pretoria, Cape Town x 2, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg).

National distribution – I need to make sufficient profit from online sales of my ebook and POD paperback to be able to afford the upfront printing costs required to fill consignment orders. Only then can I approach independent bookstores directly and/or hire the services of a distributor to handle business with the large chains.

Age of the Authorpreneur

23rd November 2017

An authorpreneur is an author – traditionally or self-published – who adapts the savvy ways of an entrepreneur in order to build a business and grow multiple revenue streams around their book. In this guest post, Dave has asked me to share with you guys how I’ve managed to build a business around my debut novel Umbilicus, which I self-published in 2016. 


Clicks vs Bricks

Worldwide, we are seeing a trend towards an omnichannel retail approach, or a combination of physical stores and ecommerce.

Amazon opened its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle in November 2015. Two years later, the company has a total of 13 Amazon Books stores, with plans to expand to more locations. Last month, 11-year-old YuppieChef opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in Cape Town, also with plans for national expansion.

Savvy authorpreneurs will be sitting up and taking notice of this next evolution of retail, and making sure the print edition of their book is as easily available to customers in-store, as the ebook edition is available to them online.


My distribution channels for Umbilicus included, or still include: online + bricks-and-mortar retailers, ‘back of room’ sales at the many events at which I have been invited to speak, a handful of very kind individuals on the ground to whom I’ve entrusted small batches at a time for location specific distribution (UK + Ireland, Australia + New Zealand, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria), and plenty of shameless handselling to friends, family, and colleagues.

Each distribution channel yields a different profit margin, anywhere from R20 – R150 per unit sold. Why the huge discrepancy? Well, below I am going to weigh up the pros and cons of two important physical distribution channels – namely Exclusive Books (lowest profit margin) and back of room sales (highest profit margin) – as this is where I feel there is still a lot of untapped potential for fellow South African indie authors to build a business around their books.

Exclusive Books

Whether local indie authors like to admit it or not, they would all like to see their books on the shelves of EB. It is still considered the holy grail of bricks-and-mortar bookstores in SA, and lends tremendous weight to an author’s credibility, in the eyes of the public and the publishing fraternity.

Sadly, the profit margin on EB sales for authors is laughable. Earlier this month, well-known wordsmith Paige Nick revealed that the average traditionally published South African author makes around 12% of the wholesale price of each book sold. And the wholesale price is usually 40 – 55% less than the retail price. So if a book retails for R287, the author makes R8 – R12 per book.

Because indie authors have fewer middle men (publishers, distributors, warehouses, publicists), all needing their slice of the pie, our profit margins are a bit higher, at around 20% of the wholesale price of each book sold. With projected sales of just 600 copies for the average novel written in English by a South African author – whether traditionally or self-published – it’s a seriously bleak picture.

So why bother writing fiction for the local market? And why bother with EB? Well, in terms of writing, because there is a chance – no matter how small – that your novel, yes your novel, might just capture the public’s imagination and catapult you to international fame and fortune! And in terms of distribution through EB, well, besides the credibility factor, and the invaluable exposure it provides for your work nationally, it’s still profit. Profit you may not have realised otherwise. Also, every unit sold contributes to the all-important total sales figure which brings you one step closer to prestigious ‘bestseller’ status. A coveted badge of honour which can obviously be leveraged for marketing purposes, as well as in pitches to agents and publishers down the line. For South African fiction authors writing in English, 2,000 sold copies of your novel officially qualifies you to label yourself a ‘bestselling author’, and your book a ‘bestseller’. So, irrespective of how much (little!) profit you make from EB sales, you need to see it as part of the bigger picture, a long-term strategy in building your career as a successful author. 


The Holy Grail

Okay, so now you understand the importance of getting your self-published book into EB, how do you actually go about joining the ‘big league’? Well, unlike independent bookstores which indie authors can approach directly (a pretty Herculean task if you want national coverage, let’s be honest), to get physical copies of your book onto the shelves of EB, you have to go through a distributor on their vendor list. These are strictly limited to the following seven companies: Bacchus Books, Blue Weaver, Faradawn, PSD, Phambili, Xavier Nagel, and Feather Communications.

The book buying at EB is done by individual store managers, not centrally. And store managers can only be approached by one of the afore-mentioned registered distributors. A store manager makes buying decisions in much the same way a traditional publisher does. The book’s design, the author, and local interest in the subject matter are each factors that will persuade a store manager to order and stock a particular title. This is why it is so important for an indie author to NOT try and cut any corners in the production process. Your book will need to be able to sit comfortably alongside its traditionally published counterparts on the EB shelves, without sticking out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, I (still) see a lot of self-published books whose editing / layout / choice of paper makes me cringe. And this is probably why you don’t see too many indie authors represented on the shelves of EB. If your product is not up to par, good luck with convincing an EB registered distributor to risk their reputation in repping your book, never mind persuading an EB store manager to order and stock your book in their store.

As an indie author working with a distributor, you will need to supply your distributor with stock of your book, as well as an Advance Info (AI) sheet, which is basically an A4 page showing the book’s cover, title, and author bio, plus the blurb, a couple of testimonials, some technical details – like ISBN, number of pages, and recommended retail price – as well as the distributor’s name, so store managers can easily place orders. Below is the AI sheet I created for Umbilicus.

Advance Info - Umbilicus - Paula Gruben - Bacchus Books (April 2018)

Most retailers, including EB, work on a sale or return (consignment) basis. After three to four months, whatever stock hasn’t been sold is returned, to make way for new stock. This timeframe goes for all titles, whether traditionally or self-published. Remember, bookstores only have a finite amount of shelf space, and there are new titles coming in all the time. Your title will, however, remain on EB’s database, and customers will be able to order imported print-on-demand copies of your print edition, provided it’s available on Amazon.

In September 2017 I received the sales report from my distributor. Although I didn’t make a ton of money from my EB sales, 84% of the stock I supplied was sold within the timeframe of their sale or return policy, which proved that my efforts were not a waste of time. There is certainly a viable market for stories like mine, contrary to what a certain publisher, who shall remain nameless, said when I embarked on the querying / submission process with traditional publishers back in early 2015, prior to deciding on the self-publishing route.

Back of Room

Where intrepid indie authors can make a handsome profit is by selling directly to audience members at events. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my author talks, but I tailor the content and message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience.

Firstly though, in order to capitalise on this potentially lucrative ‘author speaker’ platform, you have to be willing / able to speak about yourself and your book in front of a live audience. For some authors, the fear of public speaking will make this seem like a near-impossible task. I say, have a stiff drink, and just do it!

Most events at which you will be invited to speak won’t offer a speaker’s fee. In fact, it will probably cost you time and money to prepare for, and travel to/from the event. But turning down any opportunity to talk about your book in front of a live, captive audience simply because the gig is unpaid, is short-sighted. Any chance you can get to raise your public profile should be grabbed with both hands. The free publicity and exposure will be invaluable as you expand your reach and build your brand.

That said, you need to remember there’s no such thing as a ‘free’ talk. You have to make sure there’s a value exchange. Like Bronwyn Hesketh advises on page 143 of her 2017 self-published book Speaker Savvy: “Ask the organiser for a list of the delegates attending so that you can market to them afterwards; agree that you will be allowed to sell your books after your talk (and that there is time in the programme allocated to this, in the form of a break, immediately following your talk, or as soon as possible thereafter); or that you get an HD copy of the video they are making of the event. Something that is of value to you. Then it’s a win-win, not a freebie.”

With back of room, I average sales of 5 – 10% to a live audience, regardless of audience size, eg. 5 – 10 paperbacks to an audience of 100, 15 – 30 paperbacks to an audience of 300. So bigger audiences are definitely better! And even if you sell less than a dozen copies per event, you never know who is in the audience, and what future business prospects this serendipitous encounter might yield.

For example, in November last year I was invited to present my Triad Talk to 300 delegates at the ‘Adoption 2016 and Beyond’ Conference. Shortly thereafter I was invited by a social worker and adoption specialist, who had been in the audience, to do a similar talk for around a dozen prospective adoptive parents at her private practice in January 2017. And a few months after that I was invited by the GM of a Children’s Home, who had also been in that original conference audience, to be the guest speaker at a fundraiser with 150 guests in September 2017. I used each of these events to network like a mofo, and yes, I even managed to sell a few signed copies of my book!


Looking Ahead

My ultimate goal for Umbilicus is to see it included on the list of recommended reading for the new Comprehensive Sexuality Education syllabus of the Life Orientation curriculum. Because besides adoption, the book covers many other issues pertinent to adolescents, like crisis pregnancy, abortion, teen suicide, self-esteem, and identity, and I firmly believe there isn’t a single high school student, or teacher, in SA who can’t learn something from my story. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me I’d have achieved this goal by now. But there’s no way of knowing. I did meet with and pitch my ideas to the powers that be from the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Social Development in February 2017. Although I haven’t had a ‘yes’, I also haven’t had a ‘no’, which means that I haven’t given up on this dream just yet.

Many authors nowadays are both traditionally and self-published. They are known as hybrid authors. As for Incomer, the sequel to Umbilicus, I have decided to give traditional publishing another bash. But this time I’ll be casting my net wider, in the hopes of finding a UK-based literary agent. I feel like I have paid my dues, and will hopefully be taken more seriously than the first time I dipped my toe in the water, as a complete ‘unknown’. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll self-publish again. Nothing will stop me from getting my stories out into the world.