What do you need to make a start in self-publishing? Not a lot, and you don't even need to pay anything until you sell some books. What follows is a very short description of what I personally use or have some experience with. Later posts will go into more detail.
1. A word processor of some kind.
The word processor is just the program you use to do all the typing of your book. This could be as simple as notepad, which is already installed with windows, right up to very expensive and complicated programs that handle a lot more aspects of formatting and project management. Personally, I use Microsoft Word as the native format this program saves to (.docx or .doc) seems to be the most widely supported format across the sites I upload to.
I expect Microsoft Word, part of the Microsoft Office range of products, is the most common program used for self-publishing and one that most people will be familiar with. Sadly, it's not free!
A free alternative to the Microsoft Office suite of products. I used this for a while outside of self-publishing and found it to be an excellent alternative for personal use. The only down side I found was that almost everybody else I could possibly want to send any of my open-office-generated files to was only using or familiar with Microsoft Office products. This meant I had to save my files in Microsoft versions, which Open Office can do, but this often meant the formatting (or formulae in the case of spreadsheets) didn't convert properly and resulted in ugly or non-functional files. This same problem seems to hold true for self-publishing and uploading to the retail stores or distributors. I have heard of people happily using Open Office though, so your milage may vary. Simple straightforward formatting of your books may get through ok, more complicated projects may introduce errors.
The new home of the Google product formerly known as Google Docs. Again this is a free alternative like Open Office, again this can save in Microsoft Office formats for uploading to retailers and distributors and again there can be problems introduced into the formatting when saving from Google's native file types to Microsoft's. One major advantage that Google Drive has is that your files are saved remotely in the “cloud”. This means you can access your files anywhere with an internet connection. For whatever reason you may be away from your usual place of writing, this can be a real boon. In addition to this, it provides a measure of safety in that your files are protected from events such as hard drive failures or your two year old pouring juice on your laptop where all your writing files are saved. These are great advantages. For me, I didn't like using Google Drive for my writing. Whenever Google saved a draft of whatever I was writing, which was very frequently, it would pause and not allow me to type anything. This made it very difficult to get into a real writing groove and was very frustrating so I went back to Microsoft Word. You can still use Google Drive for backup purposes, up to 5gb worth for free, which is going to be more than enough for text files for quite some time!
2. An image manipulation program for creating your covers
Adobe Photoshop CS6
Powerful powerful software. Also incredibly expensive. It's been years (maybe even a decade now… oh god I'm getting old) since I used Adobe Photoshop, but for the professionals it is still the industry standard and from what I hear the latest versions offer so many bells and whistles there is very little you couldn't do to a photo with enough practice.
GIMP, the free alternative to Photoshop. In my opinion GIMP tends to follow in the footsteps of Photoshop a version or two behind, so is never quite as cutting edge as the Adobe products. That said, the value for money is incredible. For precisely $0.00 you get more than enough image manipulation power to create adequate covers for ebooks. With time, practice and generous browsing of the many tutorials available online your covers can look absolutely fantastic. My covers are OK and getting better all the time, any shortfalls are a result of my poor eye for colour and design rather than anything GIMP is unable to do.
3. Accounts with ebook retailers/distributors
These are the organisations that will sell and/or distribute your works.
Kindle Direct Publishing by Amazon
The big gun of the book world, Amazon, provides a nice and reasonably straightforward service.
Pubit by Barnes and Noble
I can't comment on this one. Being from NZ I am unable to use Pubit because it is only available to people with a US tax id. I'm including it here because, although I don't use it or have any experience with it, Pubit is often as big or bigger than Amazon for self-published authors, particularly in the erotica genre.
Kobo Writing Life
For me this is probably the most difficult retailer to upload to. In mid-2012 when I uploaded .docx files they worked fine, but in November something strange started happening to the formatting of .docx files for me. Now I have to save my file as .doc, then save it as a web page, then use a program like Calibre to convert it to an “epub” file and upload that to Kobo. It doesn't take all that long, I guess… but come on!
Until recently, Smashwords seemed to be the only game in town for distributing to places like Apple's ibook store and Barnes&Noble for non-US residents. Smashwords also has its own store where ebooks are sold. On the “good” side, Smashwords publishes your books to its own storefront near instantly. It is the only place where I have had a sale within minutes of uploading something. However, Smashwords does leave something to be desired on the distribution side of things. While, yes, it is simple for a self-publisher to manage what channels he or she wants to distribute to, it can take Smashwords months to get books up on those channels. Then, once your books are live on said channels, it can take Smashwords months to report any sales. I want to like Smashwords for the things it does right, like the ability to create coupon codes for easy promotions/freebies, the quick publishing to its own site and the helpful formatting guide created by head of Smashwords, Mark Coker. Sadly, for me, the slow distribution and poor reporting are major drawbacks, so for distribution I have recently moved to…
Draft 2 Digital
These guys are currently in open beta, which typically means “expect bugs”. I personally haven't experienced any yet, and their uploading process is the very best of all the systems I have used. They distribute to Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Createspace (for making physical paperback editions of your books) and are in negotiations to distribute to more retailers. They take away the hassle of creating front/back matter for your books by generating it automatically. You supply the text and the basic formatting, they do the rest, and the files they generate for ereaders are really beautiful.
4. Stock Images
It can't be stressed enough, don't just use any old picture you find on a Google image search for your book covers. Using stock images for which you have license to produce ebook covers is the only way to stay on the right side of the law on this one. The bad news is that stock images cost money, from a couple dollars up to hundreds depending on the type of license, the size, the quality and so on. Images I use are usually in the range of $4-$8 each, and sometimes I use several to create a single cover image. That's just me trying to be fancy though, you can quite easily get away with a single image and some text.
There is some good news though! Occassionally a stock photo site will have a free trial so you can get a few images to start off with. This way you can grab, typically a couple dozen, images to start with and at least get some revenue before you have to lay down cash for stock photos.