Personally I prefer to go through a publisher if I can, because they take away a lot of the hassle - but I'd rather have a book self-published than not at all. Others love the whole business - how you will find it will certainly depend on how much time and effort you can put into it.
There are many routes to self-publishing. I'm going to describe using KDP, Amazon's route, which for me is the most likely to result in good sales and is relatively easy to use. What I'm describing here is different from vanity publishing or hybrid publishing. Here, a publishing company does (some of) the work for you and you typically pay them up front, then get a higher percentage of the cover price than with a traditional publisher. I know a few people who have found this a good experience, but there are a number of dubious vanity publishers who take your money and don't do anything much in the way of editing, distribution or publicity - which means they are little more than expensive self-publishers. I don't have personal experience, but my feeling is that this approach is not for me as my number one rule of being published is that I should be paid, rather than pay, for the experience.
If you are going to self-publish, the first essential is to get someone else to edit your book. Paying someone is an option. Alternatively, while I don't think friends and relations give useful feedback on whether or not a book is any good, it's perfectly possible for a friend or relation to do a proof read, looking for typos and errors. What you can't assume is that just because said friend or relation is a writer or in the publishing business they are any good at this. Although I often spot errors in published books, I pick them up very randomly - as soon as I get engrossed I start missing them. You need someone who can painstakingly read the words. Proof reading is the minimum - you may also want to pay someone to do a structural edit, looking at how the book works overall. I've done this for people in the past - I would say that sometimes they found it really hard to take criticism. There's no point paying someone to do this unless you are prepared to listen and potentially change the content or approach.
Once you have a typescript ready to go, getting it published through something like KDP is tedious and can look overwhelming when you start, but take it step by step and it's perfectly doable. You will need to get the text into the appropriate format, design a cover (or have one designed for you) and set up all the associated metadata, from a blurb to pricing structure.
One small piece of advice on layout I got from a pro - you can pretty much use the same manuscript format for both paper book and ebook, but move the page with the copyright details to the end for the ebook. From my own experience, I'd always get a printed proof before publishing and check that over as well as you can. For the metadata (and cover design), look at what's on the Amazon listing of equivalent books from publishers. Get all the information you need together ahead so you can just paste it onto the KDP pages.
For cover design, I wouldn't put anyone off designing their own, but bear in mind that it's not something we're all good at. Look at plenty of equivalent book covers and see what works at a general level. I'm not suggesting copying them, but you should get a feel for what's in fashion for layout, font and use of colour. I see so many self-published books where the covers are very obviously DIY, and that's not a great start. It's worth having a play with one of the AI image products such as DALL-E or Bing Image Creator. They may give you a good starting point for a cover design. Remember if you are doing a paper book (I recommend having both paper and ebook formats) that you will need a back cover as well. KDP gives templates for the layout of covers if you don't use their clunky built-in designer (I prefer to do it separately). Again look at what's on the back covers of similar titles online or in a bookshop.
You will have to choose prices for each market, and have the option of whether or not it's widely distributed in at least the UK and the US (i.e. available wider than on Amazon). I'd keep the pricing relatively low to start with - you can always tweak this - but not so low that it looks not worth it. If you are use to academic markets but are writing for a more general one here, bear in mind that people don't generally pay as much for books in the general market - again, look at how the competition is priced.
Eventually you will have a published title. Now the hard bit starts. Most self-published books sell tens of copies, primarily to friends and relations. This may be all you want - fine. But if you want a wider audience you need to make your book visible. Use social media if it's available to you. Email contacts you think might be interested. Put together a press release - a one page document that sells the book which is a bit like the summary page of your proposal, but with more blurb-like selling material in there. Send this to all local media and any larger media outlets where you have contents.
Look to get reviews from appropriate bloggers. It will be hard - I do review self-published books on www.popularscience.co.uk, but rarely. Like most reviewers, I tend to use a publisher as a first line of defence, so there needs to be something quite special about a self-published book. Given we're talking non-fiction, the self-published books I wouldn't even consider is where someone has come up with their own scientific theories. Most reviewers will have stronger selection criteria for self-published than other books.
That apart, if you want it to be a real success, you need to put a huge amount of effort into marketing. Are there opportunities to sell your book by giving talks or attending events etc? If this is your aim you have to be shameless about self-publicity. But it's also important you do it right. I know some self-published authors who bombard everyone with social media posts that are all basically 'buy my book' - this will put people off. Make sure you aren't repeatedly hitting the same audience with the same message.
Don't let me scare you off. I really enjoy doing my self-published books, even though I know perfectly well they are likely only to have sales numbers in three figures. And some self-published titles go on to do extremely well - but bear in mind that these are very much the exceptions and usually involve a huge amount of self promotion.
I hope this series has been useful. I'll be doing another one in a while on the writing part of a non-fiction book - do use the link below to subscribe to my articles to get a heads-up. In the meanwhile, enjoy your writing experience.
To finish, here's an outline of the topics this series of posts will cover.
- Is my idea a book?
- Other parts of a proposal
- The pitch letter
- Finding a publisher (or agent)
- The contract
- Publicity (and extra earnings)