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.”
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.
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!)
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.”
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-Publishing 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