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How I Chose An Assisted Self-Publishing Service

Debbie Young & SilverWood Books Team

Debbie Young & SilverWood Books Team

Horror stories of indie authors ripped off by unscrupulous assisted publishing services companies are enough to propel any author on the road to becoming a one-man self-publishing band. But in my view, you should no more let these few rogues tarnish the business of ethical service providers than allow your perception of banks to be dictated by hoaxters who email you for your pin number in order to empty your bank account.

Nor should you assume that the safest way forward is to go it alone unless you are prepared for some serious multi-tasking.

DIY self-publishers must add to their job title of writer all of the following positions of responsibility: copy-editor, proofreader, typesetter, graphic designer, cover artist, print manager, e-book formatter, legal services manager, distribution manager, delivery boy, sales-person, promoter and PR.

This demanding job description does not suit everyone, especially those who are already juggling a day-job, family responsibilities and a social life – oh, and writing their next book!

If you prefer to outsource your book’s production, you should feel free to do so — while still retaining the status of indie author. It’s just a question of choosing the right partner.

To help you do this, I’ve compiled a comprehensive checklist (below), with the help of my friend, Helen Hart. As the author of nine traditionally published YA novels, and director of my own preferred publisher, SilverWood Books, Helen completely understands the writer’s viewpoint and how important each book is to its author.

It doesn’t surprise me that her company has amassed an extensive list of clients who value her expertise, including well-known traditionally published authors who have turned indie (prize-winning author and broadcaster Sarah LeFanu, USA Today bestselling historical novelist Helen Hollick), established self-publishers of multiple books – Harvey Black and Gael Harrison, and many debut writers.

1)      HIGH STANDARDS

On the shelf of a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, their books should not be stand out as self-published. Cover design, paper quality, format, blurb, internal layout – all of these features should equal those of traditionally published books. Ask to see samples of your prospective partner’s books. Touch them, hold them, read them. Download their e-books to check for layout and typos. Are they up to scratch?

2)      CLEAR COMMUNICATIONS

Prices should be clear, itemised and transparent. “The company should sell you only what you need and what you can afford,” advises Helen. “They should also be able to explain to you the financial implications of your choices, such as how the profit margins differ on print on demand books and bigger print runs.”

3)      UNDERSTANDING & EMPATHY

They should make every effort to understand your book, your ambitions, your abilities and your budget. “No two authors and no two books are the same, so a good publishing partner should treat you as an individual,” says Helen. “You shouldn’t feel as if you are on a production line.”

4)      REALISTIC APPROACH

The company should give you a reality check regarding the commercial viability of your book. They should not simply tell you what they think you want to hear in order to get your business. “If someone brings us a manuscript that simply is not viable, we will say so,” says Helen. “Conversely, if we really think you have a strong chance of getting a traditional publishing contract, we’ll tell you. We have turned people away for both reasons in the past.”

5)      PARTNERSHIP

When giving you a reality check, they should do it nicely! Their staff should be diplomatic, kind, tactful and pleasant to deal with. You should have a sense of teamwork, with everyone adding to the game. Says Helen: “A good publishing services partner should share a common goal with its authors: the best outcome for their books.”

6)      LEGAL EXPERTISE

They should offer you a proper, formal contract, clearly worded so that you can understand what it means. It should be completely transparent. In particular, make sure that the copyright remains with you, the author; that you are not tied in for any fixed time period; and that you are not bound to work exclusively with them. If they ask for any of those things, walk away!  “Many authors worry about legal issues but a good publishing services company should talk them through this and put their minds at rest,” says Helen.

7)      ADDING VALUE

Your publishing partner should add value to your manuscript. You may have only one book to publish, but they will probably have published hundreds, amassing a wealth of experience that will fill them with ideas for enhancements that you would not have thought of. A professional and experienced company will offer a coherent set of services that makes your book the best it can be.

8)      VISION

Their vision for your book should go beyond putting the final printed copy in your hand and giving you their bill. They should have established relationships within the distribution chain from top to bottom (distributors, wholesalers, retailers, readers) and ideas for how you should move on to the next stage in your book’s life. But do not expect them to market your book for you – it doesn’t come as a standard part of any publishing package, although they may offer marketing services at an extra cost (but they should NOT put pressure on you to use them!)

9)      REPRESENTATION

Although the company may not market your book, they should be able to represent you, selling your book through their online shop, from copies within their own stock, so that you have an alternative to Amazon and other outlets. They should also be able to direct you to appropriate distribution channels.

10)  MORAL SUPPORT

Even after your book has been published, they should be supportive, encouraging and interested as you begin to market your book. SilverWood, for example, follows up its authors with free mailings of helpful book promotion fact sheets, and runs a closed Facebook forum for its authors to share best practice and to celebrate their triumphs together. “We SilverWood authors are a special breed!” commented author Harvey Black on SilverWood’s Facebook forum the other day, after a particularly satisfying exchange of success stories. What they should NOT do is bombard you with sales pitches by email, post or phone.

11)  TRACK RECORD

They should not only have an impressive catalogue of published books, but also a substantial number of returning customers, i.e. authors who have commissioned them to publish more than one book. “Be suspicious of any company with no evidence of any authors who have published more than one book with them,” cautions Helen. “It probably means all its authors have taken their second book elsewhere.”

12)  REFERENCES

The company should be happy to put you in touch with their previous clients so that you can gain first-hand references. Ideally, it will also have a frequently updated website showcasing new authors and books, so that you can see how its business is growing, Its website will also indicate to what extent it is genuinely interested in supporting authors rather than just selling its services.

If these 12 indicators sound at odds with the experience you have had of publishing services companies, I suggest that you’ve picked the wrong company. Forget about the vanity publishers of old. There is a new breed of dynamic and fresh-thinking self-publishing companies out there now who offer all that I’ve described here, providing genuine support to writers rather than simply taking their money and moving on to their next customer, or constantly pressuring existing ones to buy further services.

I’m very glad I’ve found one that suits me.

Now, back to my writing…

The Alliance of Independent Authors’s guide to Choosing A Self-mail_image_preview-2Publishing Service, for both the DIY and Assisted routes,  helps guide writers past the potential hurdles and snakepits to a happy self-publishing experience. More info: here

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21 Responses to How I Chose An Assisted Self-Publishing Service

  1. Graham Peebles August 4, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    As you know Debbie, this article was spot on in my case. I was ripped off for nearly a thousand pounds. Yes the company concerned published my book on Kindle and Create Space using my own artwork. They edited, in their own fashion of course. luckily I stumbled across ALLi, thank god.
    Now I use an excellent editor and I am far more aware of the sharks out there. Yeah I still wrestle with formatting and such but at least I feel some sense of control, which is good. Be warned, avoid the publishing sharks like the plague and take good advice form your peers.

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  3. Clive - Self Publishing Company May 31, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    Self publishing companies are like a ray of hope for the struggling writers who have been rejected by many publishing companies or put on the strange terms and condition. On the other hand Self publishing companies give you the freedom how would you like to treat your book and with their experience guide you on every aspect of publishing a book even promote your book through various mediums.

    Great post as always!

  4. Jen Smith (@JenSmithSick) March 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    This is really all common sense and didn’t prevent me from getting ripped off from a company I paid $600 for formatting. The ebook had all of the text to the left with no indents for paragraphs. I was horrified. I finally found someone to reformat it perfectly for only $35. Big difference wouldn’t you say? One this I learned is don’t let anyone else push that publish button and don’t trust anyone no matter how professional they sound.

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

      Oh, Jen, that’s awful! Sadly there are still sharks out there and it is such a shame that you fell prey to one of them.

      You are right, much of what I’ve written is common sense. A good point to add that I’ve missed is that with any service, it’s worth shopping around and getting comparative prices from at least three suppliers. That way if one jumps out at being wildly above the others, without good reason, you’ll know to avoid it.

      I hope your unfortunate experience doesn’t put you off trusting the good guys out there – of which there are plenty. Belonging to a group such as ALLi is also hugely helpful in this regard, because its membership includes very experienced self-published people who are happy to give advice and share their experience. I’m sure if you’d asked on that forum whether $600 was an acceptable fee for formatting, and whether your chosen company was reputable, you’d have got plenty of helpful answers.

      I joined the ALLi Facebook forum a few months ago and this kind of discussion comes up all the time. I don’t know if you’re already a member of ALLi, but if not, do consider it – the annual membership fee is relatively low and the advantages are many.

      Good luck with your book!

  5. Mick Rooney March 28, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    Good points, Linda.

    I think most authors will find that copy and substantive editing will be cheaper with a freelance editor. Rarely will you get a better deal (or as good a quality edit) from a service provider. I always recommend an author try and work with a freelance editor they can use over a number of books rather than a one-off.

    No buts about it. You really need short digital run or an offset run if you want to be taken seriously by booksellers (physical). POD just doesn’t create that option for a number of reasons Linda has outlined as well as having wholesale channels and ideally a real distributor to actively sell-in books to book buyers – not a POD drop shipper like Lightning Source. Most booksellers, even many independent sellers, will only take books available through a wholesaler they have an account with like Gardners or Bertram.

    You need an assisted publisher also prepared to sell books to the author at print cost or as near as – not with a huge mark-up. Your assisted publisher has already made up much of their costs through the fee charged to authors.

  6. Linda March 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    Very interesting article. The points made are definitely those that an author should consider before entering into a contract with an ASP (assisted self-publishing) company. That said, I must add that there is so much more an author needs to know before investing the large sum of money that will be required by an ASP company.
    Four such examples:
    *Books on the shelves of brick and mortar stores—that’s a biggie. It is because there are fewer and fewer physical stores in existence. But most importantly, bookstores won’t accept non-returnable items. POD books are rarely returnable.
    *Track Record—An impressive list of books published by an ASP is not evidence of great service or sales for the authors. It only represents those who chose the services of the company.
    *Editing—Editing usually doesn’t show up until one has selected an extremely overpriced package. Even at that, substantive editing (that every book needs) is usually offered as an ala carte service at an exorbitant cost.
    *Cost of Inventory—You’ve invested heavily into getting your book into what is considered marketable form. But you still don’t have inventory. You will be required to purchase your books from the company. The problem most have encountered is having to purchase at near or at retail price. In order to realize a profit, most make the mistake of listening to their sales rep and overpricing the book. That in itself makes the author non-competitive among their peers.

  7. Janis F. Kearney March 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    I smiled throughout this piece because its so `right on target,’ for me.
    I’ve been at this for ten years in November, 2013; and can attest to the fact that
    the `island’ approach is not the best approach for most people…we just don’t know enough about all the intricacies of publishing. I determined ten years ago that a small, tight, quality team was my key to success. I am a writer with a vision of what I want my books to sound, look and…sell, like. I need people much more skilled in the other areas of publishing: graphic design, proofreading and editing, book design and, oh yes…marketing and distribution. Of course, we indie publishers and authors have to be the final words as our books go out to greet the world, but that doesn’t mean that ours should be the only words.

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      Great summary, Janis – and the island analogy is spot on! Thanks for commenting.

  8. Darlene Elizabeth Williams March 28, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Interesting post, especially given I’ve read Helen Hollick (excellent author) and been approached by Silverwood to review novels, which means they are marketing their authors.

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

      Thanks for that comment, Darlene. I must say I have been really impressed with how supportive SilverWood are of “their” authors – they really care about them in the way that I’m sure a big trad company, with an eye solely on profits, would not.

  9. Mick Rooney March 28, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Great advice, and while I’m all for the democratisation of the publishing world, this piece highlights the trap many self-publishing authors fall into when following the DIY ‘cheap and cheerful’ approach by loading unedited and poorly laid-out books onto Smashwords and Kindle KDP.

    Self-publishing IS NOT, and should not, be seen as the poor man’s option or a second class path to publication. If you want your book to be taken seriously by readers and the book trade, then you need to hire professional services for editing and design and ensure your book is as well distributed as possible. If you are serious about your book and self-publishing it properly, then treat it the way you would like your readers to receive it. If you can’t afford to self-publishing professionally, then you really can’t afford to self-publish.

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Well said, Mick! I do totally understand some authors’ impatience to get their books out there, but it’s not worth compromising on quality for the sake of speed – especially when there is no time constraint on indie authors in which to market their book (unlike the trad published, whose publishers’ clock starts ticking the minute a new book hits the shelves). One thing we indies don’t have to worry about is our books being remaindered or pulped by impatient publishing companies!

  10. Philippa Rees March 28, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    I think this was good advice and analysis. Having reluctantly embarked on entirely DIY ( for want of finding a company that I could trust) I would endorse the relief that having some aspects taken care of elsewhere would offer!

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks, Philippa! Relief is definitely the right word – it is a HUGE responsibility to do everything oneself! I can’t think of many other professions in which one is expected to be such a jack-of-all-trades – indie authors are pretty amazing to take on so many challenges, whether or not they outsource some of the tasks involved.

  11. lynne morrison March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    Its good that you can afford to pay so much. Most of us can not afford anything close to that.

    • Debbie Young April 7, 2013 at 11:33 am #

      Hi Lynne, I know I’m very lucky to be in this position – 30 years of full-time employment in a day-job have brought me to this point of relative affluence – but I’m also hugely grateful to live in an age of technology that allows everyone to self-publish virtually free of charge if they want to. It’s truly wonderful that so many people’s manuscripts will now be able to find an audience that not long ago would never have seen the light of day. The playing field has never been so level (even if there are still quite a few bumps in it!) Thank you for commenting, Lynne, and I wish you the very best of luck with your writing. Best wishes, Debbie

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