In this episode: How to build a publishing team. Self-publishing is a misnomer. A good book is always a team effort. As a beginner author, it can be tempting to either try to handle everything yourself or totally hand over control to a publishing service. Neither is most likely to bring you a successful publishing business.
Today, ALLi Director Orna Ross and Production Manager Dan Parsons promote a best-practice approach that has brought success for countless ALLi members and other indie authors.
This podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Dartfrog Books. ALLi Partner Member DartFrog Books provides indie authors with opportunities for bookstore placement and promotion to more than 27,000 book clubs. Their self-publishing, hybrid, traditional, and single-service publishing platforms are designed to engage authors of all types, at every stage of their journey. We'd like to thank Dartfrog for their support of this podcast.
And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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How to Build a Publishing Team (Blog Post by Dan Parsons)
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Read the Transcripts: Publishing Team
Orna Ross: Hello everyone, and welcome to our first of the year, actually, foundational podcast for beginner indie authors, talking about various aspects of self-publishing advice with Dan Parsons again. Hi Dan.
Dan Parsons: Hello, Orna. Hello everyone.
Orna Ross: Great to be here again in 2022.
Tonight, we're going to be talking, or today, wherever you are it may not be night-time, here in the UK it is seven o'clock, and we are going to be talking about the all-important topic of building a publishing team when you're a new author, what do you need to know?
So, all indie authors need to work with teams. Teams tend to get a bit more people and a bit more complex as you go on in this business, but at the beginning, who do you need? How do you set up your team? How do you make sure that it runs smoothly? And any other questions that you might have about running a team as a brand-new indie author, because this is our foundational podcast where we talk to people who are starting out or new to this particular aspect.
So, you might have done a book before and put it out there, but you might not have got the support of a team. So, if it's new to you, then this is the podcast for you.
So, we are sponsored by Dart Frog Books for this podcast, and we are very grateful to them for that, and that is a publishing service, which will actually take it and do everything for you, or do particular parts of the service for you.
Publishing is a seven-stage process. There's seven different stages that you need to get on top of, and we'll be talking about that this evening, and keeping your team to a minimum at the beginning until you learn how to manage it.
So, yeah, let's kick off, Dan, teams for newbie publishers.
How can indie authors benefit from having a team?
Dan Parsons: So, we should probably start with the different routes that people take, I think. So, often, if people have started in traditional publishing, they would have gone down the route where they let a traditional publishing team do everything for them. The important difference is that even though you might feel like you're working with a team, you don't have direct access to everyone on that team. So, they're not your team, they're the publisher's team and you are a client with a contract, essentially.
So, the difference with being self-published is you actually manage a team yourself. You are essentially the project manager, and you will deal with various people like editors and cover designers.
So yeah, basically you need to not outsource everything to the point where you feel powerless. The idea of building a team is that you can become competent, because when we first start off, especially if we don't have a budget at all, we all need to become competent in the different areas of expertise that are needed in a publishing team. But the idea of this is to actually outsource the bits that are not your specialty, while you still know how to use the tools and how to do the things that need to be done, just so that they can be done a little bit better by people who are experts, but you project manage them and do quality control.
So yeah, it's all about building a team where you have the power to make changes. Whereas, with a traditional publishing company, you don't always have the final say on everything.
Orna Ross: And what we find with some authors, with a number of authors, is that they get confused about this, particularly as a lot of publishing services go out there calling themselves publishers.
So, they think they hire somebody who does everything for them from start to finish, and pay them a fee, and sometimes pay a very sizable fee, and sometimes pay a very sizable fee for services that are not particularly good. So, what we encourage here, and what we really highly recommend and see as best practice is that you get to the point where you feel competent to run your own team, and do recognize that for some authors, that might be a huge stretch, and that sometimes they want to hire a publishing service that will do a lot of things for them at the beginning on the first book, and then learn from that process for the second and the third.
But the point being that you recognize the best practice is actually in being an indie author, being an indie publisher, who's going to make a profit at this business, generally means that you get good at hiring the services that you need and using your own skills and competencies for the things that you're your most talented at, and that only you can do, for example, the writing.
Dan Parsons: Yeah, I think a mistake that people make early on, if they are really adamant on going down the indie route, which obviously we all have, and I feel like we've all possibly made these similar mistakes, is they think that because they're not going with a publisher, they need to do everything themselves.
I've got a control freak aspect about me, I like to see the outcome of everything and make sure I influence the outcome of everything, but I also know that I'm not a professional-grade book designer.
So, it's one of those things where you need to make sure you're clued up in these different areas. You might need to read into what sort of book covers sell well in your genre, but you're not necessarily going to be the one creating your book cover, you just need to be able to make the final choices and have the calls, and have intelligent conversations with the people on your team, like a cover designer or a different professional. Because if you understand all of the components that go into their job, then you can ask more intelligent questions and get more from them at the same time.
So, I've got a bit of a saying that may be a new catchphrase thing, there's the control freaks burnout, but then the self-doubters actually lose out.
So, the opposite end is the people who are too afraid to manage a publishing team, and then they would rather hand everything off to a traditional publisher, but because of that, they lose out on all of the different decisions they could make, but also a massive cut of royalties, which is the well-worn wisdom that we've been told many times.
The happy medium is the manager's win part at the end of this, where you're not completely controlling every aspect to the point where you're doing everything and working a hundred hours a week, but you're also not losing out by handing it all off to someone else. You just want to know the bits that you need to know so that you can add value to a team that comes together and makes a better product than you can make on your own, but you get to keep the control.
Orna Ross: And self-awareness, I think, is really important here because a lot of beginner authors think they don't need an editor, for example, or think they can design their own book cover, and generally speaking can't. Every single book that's produced by a professional publishing company, or a professional publishing service, or a professional indie author has been edited. So, the beginner author who's starting out, who thinks they don't need editing, is undoubtedly mistaken.
And similarly, if you don't know about book design, if you haven't worked as an actual book designer, then there's a lot you don't know. So, you might quite fancy the look of a book cover that you put together yourself, but it's not likely to impress your readers. So, it's important to understand where our skills begin and where they end.
Dan Parsons: You also don't know a lot of the legal aspects of these things. So, when it comes to cover designs, I myself in the past have made the mistake of creating my very early designs, straight out of uni, I thought I'd just create my own book covers, and I actually used Google images to take the images to put on the cover, and then quickly found out that, that is copyright infringement, and then quickly took them down and got a cover designer to create new ones. But yeah, that was a lesson that I learned quickly, because when you're not into, you know, reading about intellectual property rights, you don't always know when you're running into these errors, and you could be making potentially illegal mistakes that you don't even realise.
Orna Ross: Absolutely. But I think that it's also important to recognize that making mistakes is very much part of the learning process here, and if you've done any of these things, that's 100% fine. We're talking here about best practice, and you quickly learn, as Dan says, if you've done something wrong because people will be there to tell you; it's a very open game in that way.
So, if you have done a really bad cover, it's not likely to convert, and so you'll start wondering, why isn't my book selling? And one of the things you'll have to consider is the cover, as an example, or you'll get a review that will talk about the fact that you've got loads of errors and mistakes in the book that you thought you had perfectly proofread all by yourself. So, you know, it is a learning process here. Every single one of us has made countless mistakes. We actually have on the podcast, Joanna Penn and myself did a whole episode on all the mistakes we had made from start to now, and yeah, we could have done three shows. So, that's fine too.
Which types of people should be on a new indie author’s team?
Orna Ross: So, yeah, what does the new indie author absolutely need on their team? What function for people?
Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, depending on who you are, you'll need different things, and obviously if you're coming at this with a more experienced business background, you may have a backend business where you'd need different people involved, but for the average indie author, your essential team members will be a cover designer and an editor.
Now, whether you choose to go with one editor or multiple editors is up to you, but generally people pay for one editor because that is cost effective. I think at the giant publishing companies they have five or six that proofread each other's work and double-check things, but you don't want a team of six editors as an indie author unless you're selling seven figures a year, just because it's not cost-effective. So, yeah, as long as you've got one editor, that's absolutely fine, and they can do a developmental edit, which is the first round of editing looking at the story structure, or structure of a nonfiction book, and then later on you can get the copy-editing round done, where they're looking at grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, and things like that.
But yeah, when you're looking at the cover designers, typically you want someone who has experience working in your genre, because even if somebody is a designer in general, they're not necessarily going to be a good book cover designer because they don't know how to sell a book using visual cues. And if they are a book cover designer, they're not necessarily used to working in your genre. You know, if you write horror and they're a romance cover designer, you're going to possibly get some very different fonts that don't really match the reader expectations for your genre.
Orna Ross: And similarly, I think, if your editor has experience in your genre, that's really helpful. They can really bring more to your book, particularly at the developmental stage. And I would say that somebody who, depending on your previous writing experience, and depending on the book, if you're doing a short how-to nonfiction book, as an example, you may not need a developmental editor, you may just have a very clear outline, just need to write it up and just need the copy editing and proofreading stage. If it's your first novel, and particularly if it's a complex novel, a long novel, or one that's highly literary, or something like that, chances are you definitely are going to need a developmental editor as well.
That can be expensive, but I think it's really important to see it as a cost of doing business, and also as training, you know, being edited by a good editor, you will learn more on that than you will learn on any MFA in creative writing, just going through that experience.
So, everybody, I think, every experienced indie author and everybody at ALLi, is agreed that the professional cover designer and two rounds of editing, and if you want that to be one editor or you want it to be two, you know, sometimes people would say it's best to have somebody completely different on the copyedit phase than somebody who's already done the developmental, and there may not be any extra cost in that to have a second person have a look, that's up to you. If you really like your editor and they're very supportive and you get on well, you might want to stick with one. But our point is that these are two absolutely essential members of your team that you simply can't do without.
Dan Parsons: Yeah. I know that other people would like to have people like, you know, proofreaders, who are perfectly valid, and typesetters, and accountants, and web designers, and all that type of thing. But yeah, those two really are the essentials.
I think the one person that everyone wishes they had on their team is a marketing manager who could just handle all of the marketing for you. But generally, for most indie authors, that's not viable or recommended, just because, what you'd be paying to a marketing manager often doesn't reflect in book sales, and somebody else handling your marketing is never going to care for the marketing in the same way that you do, in terms of cutting costs and keeping the budget within what you think is affordable, and you'll need to generate so much more revenue just to cover what you're paying the marketing manager. So, I think what you're better off doing is actually learning that bit yourself, and like I said, if you've got to a position where you're making multi six figures a year and you could afford a marketing manager then you can look into that. But for most people, it's in your interest just to learn the marketing inside yourself when you're starting out.
Orna Ross: Yeah, what we say at ALLi is don't hire a marketing person until you know how to do it, because marketing is something that's definitely trial and error, and you're absolutely right, at the beginning, I think, authors want to hand it over, but the more experienced authors actually want to manage it in the same way that we manage our editors and manage our designers, because you understand that marketing is part of the whole creative experience of publishing a book, and marketing is the bit that connects you, and connects the reader back to your actual writing, and the reason that you decided to write the book in the first place, and the influence you want to have in your genre, and all of that. So, you come to enjoy marketing after a time, but it is something that you need to learn. It's not a skill that most authors go in there wanting to learn or do, they see it very much at the beginning as oppositional to the writing, but with more experience, it becomes very much part of what you're doing. And the better you get at it, then you can hire somebody, certainly to help with social media ads or social media organic updates, and there are lots of ways in which you can hire marketing help in the same way, but at the very start it's best not to worry too much about it, to get in there. It's the way in which you get to know your reader, doing your own marketing, and it's how you start to think about where your books are positioned in the marketplace, by doing your own marketing.
And then it's how you learn what kinds of promotions work for your kind of book, because there is no rule about this. Some people do really well on one platform and another book that seems quite similar doesn't, and it really is a trial-and-error process for you to discover what works for you marketing wise. So, another thing that we see a lot with beginner authors, in relation to marketing, is if the first thing they try doesn't work then they just stop. They just say, my book's not selling. Or they don't try any marketing at all, they expect that just producing the book and putting it out there on the self-publishing platforms is enough, and it's very hard to blame them because that's a lot of work to get to that point, and it can be quite challenging then to turn around and try a whole new skillset, which is marketing and promotion.
I think marketing is best viewed as a long-term process where you're constantly learning, constantly changing, because the publishing world changes trends in your genre, everything keeps changing all the time. So, it's not good to have too fixed an idea about how you market or what you're going to do. It's very easy for people to give you a list of a hundred things that sell books, and, you know, there are lots of such lists on social media and blogs and so on, and all of those things do sell books, but will they sell your book? That's the question. And that's where you need to bring your good creative brain, and the brain that created the book, into the marketing as well.
Dan Parsons: It's actually good to be in the weeds of your own marketing as well, because you can see the analytics, you also see which copy you've written actually works well, and when you see the comments and things on different posts that can actually feed into what project you potentially go onto next, because you can see what people are enjoying and what people are talking about.
It may not be your best-selling book, but if somebody says that they really like a side character and you see there's enough of an appetite for that, you can create a spinoff series that you wouldn't have noticed if you weren't managing your social media yourself.
Where can Indie Authors find the right team members?
Orna Ross: Exactly. So, where do we find our team? I think this is something that we get asked a lot in ALLi, you know, I know I need an editor, I know I needed a designer, I want to now hire a marketer, where do I find them?
So, we run at ALLi, I'll just speak about our own partner membership where we have a number of self-publishing services across the different seven stages of publishing, and multipack services as well who will package up different things for you. And you can find, as a member, you can find that list, that database is searchable in the member zone. So, if you just log in and go to partner members, and also many of our partners give discounts and deals to ALLi members. So, it's always worth checking out the discounts and deals page there. And we produce each year a directory of those partner members, and that will be publishing shortly. So, again, as a member, keep an eye out on your member email because that will be circulating soon. And all of those services are vetted and approved by the ALLi watchdog. So, you can be confident thought you're in good hands.
So where else, Dan?
Dan Parsons: One thing I will say is definitely don't try to source it from people you know. If you don't know professional editors or book cover designers, but you think you know someone who's vaguely qualified, don't just go to them.
I've made the mistake in the past. I did an English degree at university, and surrounded by English students, you assume they would be good enough at editing, and then quickly found out in the reviews that that's not the case and you actually need to hire a professional. So yeah, go for someone who's got some experience in your area.
And yeah, you will potentially look at comp titles, that was the first place that I looked at when I started looking is, who were the editors that were mentioned in the acknowledgement sections of books that I already liked that were in my genre. Often, they will be people who are working in traditional publishing, if you're used to buying books from supermarkets and things like that, you know, this was a few years ago before the creator marketplaces had emerged.
More recently though, obviously there's Facebook groups, and you can go to networking events and things, and you will run into people who are running these services at the different networking groups. Or you can look for freelancers on sites like Fiverr or Upwork. There are lots of different competing sites with these different marketplaces now, and often they've got star ratings, and everyone puts their fees up front, and you can see previous projects that they worked on. So, you can actually find out quite a lot about them in the same way that a company would look at an employee for the sales history on LinkedIn, you can sort of go that route.
Orna Ross: And I'd like to give a particular shout out to Reedsy, which is a marketplace specifically for the book industry, and Reedsy is also a partner member of ALLi. And again, the services there are vetted and there are services all across the different stages of publishing. So, that's a really good marketplace, specifically for the book industry.
Dan Parsons: Reedsy are often very active at networking events as well. So, if you go to any of the big networking events in the UK and the US, and I think they also operate in some other territories as well, you can usually find a Reedsy rep of some description, someone from the company is there, and they're usually more than happy to talk to anyone if you've got any questions.
So, there's lots of places to find people.
Orna Ross: Yes, there is no shortage, and the challenge is, I think, to make sure that, as Dan said, you recognize that every aspect of publishing is highly skilled and highly professional. So, even your auntie Mary, who's an absolute grammar fiend and pulls you up on everything, is not good enough to proofread your book.
And the second thing is to find people that you trust, and I think ALLi and Reedsy, and people like that, take a lot of the difficulty in that out of the search, but it's more than trust, particularly with editing, but also with your designer, you need to find somebody that you have a good relationship with, and they get you. They get what you're trying to do with your book, and you get them, and you like working together. I've worked with so many editors over the years, and had lots of really fantastic editors, but there are a few that I feel outstandingly comfortable with, and their style matches my style, they're very forgiving. That kind of thing becomes important, particularly if you're trying to produce a lot of books, or if you're not the most organized person in the world, or whatever it might be. You're in charge, you're the manager, but it's a creative business, you don't have to be a machine. Very much it's about finding the personality type that suits you, as well as the skill base. So, there are both of these things to think about.
What mindset changes might indie authors need to work with a team?
Dan Parsons: Yeah, I think the difficulty people run into is not often finding someone to do the work, but actually learning how to manage them once they've started. So, I think this is an entirely different skillset that you learn as you develop in your self-publishing business. I think a good way to start though is, depending on what sort of nature of the relationship, is either going with a trail or a sample basis. So, you could say, if you're one of these authors who's extremely prolific, you could say, we'll work together for a month on a number of projects, or you could say, we'll work together with X-X-number of words. So, you can see a chapter or something, and you'll pay them a small fee just to see how they edit, and then if you're happy with that, you can move on. If you're not happy with that, you know, nobody really minds, that's the nature of the business, and you can move on to somebody else that you think fits your style a little bit more. And then once you've actually found someone that you're happy with, it's always important to get a contract in place, particularly if they're creating digital assets for you like a book cover, because you'll want to be in control of the intellectual property as much as possible. So, if you can buy the intellectual property, so you can use source files for ads and things, that can sometimes help, depending on how savvy you are with your own graphic design abilities.
And yeah, sometimes you'll just want to make sure that nobody else gets the same book cover as you. So, it's always important just to keep yourself covered, because you don't want to lose your unique selling points by working with someone who's also selling those assets to somebody else.
I think the thing is that you will make mistakes as you go along, and we learn.
Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely.
In terms of agreements, ALLi has some sample agreements that you can use, again for members, if you log in to the member zone and just go to contracts and agreements, there are some sample agreements there that you can use to hire people, particularly illustrators, and the kinds of people that we're using all the time, that can be helpful.
But if you get to the point where you're looking at the contract, then things have gone wrong, and that's ultimately not what you want. The point of the contract, really, is to have those discussions up front so that you get very clear about your expectations and your service provider makes clear what they expect from you, and I think that this is one of the most important things about learning to manage a team well is learning to be fair and respecting other creative professionals and all that they are bringing to the book. Sometimes authors can find that quite challenging, you know, particularly if it's your first time to be edited, you can have quite an emotional response sometimes to an editor at the start, and I think it's learning to take the feedback. Editorial feedback can be a learning process for some authors, I mean, I think for everybody. I love being edited now, but I was quite nervous on my first book.
Also, you will generally, if it's a good editor, you will generally find they're challenging you, and pushing you, and making you feel a bit uncomfortable, and that's good. Their solutions or suggestions might not be a hundred percent what you want, or you don't agree with them, but if they are picking out something that they have noticed then generally it's worth your attention at minimum.
So, learning to work with other creative professionals, similarly with your designer who may come up with a completely different sort of idea to what you had in your head, you need to be able to listen to the reason that the designer has done it in that way and make a fair and well-reasoned judgment as to whether it works or it doesn't work.
So, in other words, managing people comes with responsibilities. It's not just kind of bossing people around.
Dan Parsons: No, no, it's always a to-and-fro. Yeah, I think, as you build up trust and things, often you'll need to share folders and accounts with people who are working with you, and it pays to sort of drip feed access as you go. And then obviously, as you build your team, you can do the same thing with them.
I think initially you'll want to focus just on book production when it comes to building your team, you know, the core team aspects that help you produce books, but then once you've got a backlist and some revenue that you've got coming in on a consistent basis, you can possibly change the nature of your business a little bit and look at the people that you always imagined to be on your team when you think of the glitzy lifestyle of an author, you know, publicists and things like that. But that is much later, once you've got the core team already in place and you've got revenue and it is a business that is viable.
But yeah, I think in terms of the types of people, in terms of affordability levels, that you'd want to hire, you possibly should start off with someone who is working within your price range, and look for someone who is passionate and hardworking and who understands your brand and what you're trying to achieve, because yes, you might want to go for this superstar editor who edited The Martian, or something like that, but often you'll get just as good a result with someone who's edited a few books in your genre that have done quite well that are not mega best sellers. But yeah, it just takes time.
What is an important thought is to have a range of people that you work with who do the same job, because then if somebody disappears overnight, because they, you know, move off to a company that wants to hire them full-time and doesn't want them doing any freelance work, then you've always got someone who can sort of step in and save a project, particularly if you're on a tight deadline and you weren't expecting the first person to leave.
Orna Ross: Yeah, exactly, and then it evolves. So, over time you find that members of your team perhaps come in to give you general admin assistance, that's somebody that we haven't mentioned that I think is important for authors at the beginning as well, as soon as you can, to get rid of the administration headaches that are just boring to you and that you don't love doing.
So, the aim is, obviously you do what you have to do at first, but as time goes on that you're letting out the rope and getting to a point where in the end, you're only doing the bits that you're really, really good at and that you really love to do, and that your team is taking care of the other parts of it for you.
And you may well find, certainly it's been my experience over time, that your team members grow with you and that perhaps somebody starts as an admin assistant, but they end up doing your book production, you know, heading it up for you or looking after all of it for you, just as an example.
So, the team will evolve and shape around you, and you'll probably try a lot more people than you'll actually keep. People will definitely come and go, and you change, I mean, writing and publishing grow people hugely, they're expansive creative businesses. So, you change very much, particularly at the beginning, I think the first three books you really do grow and change a lot, and so it's likely that the people you hire in the first instance, some of them may not stay with you and may move on, which is absolutely fine, it's a trial-and-error kind of thing.
Dan Parsons: Yeah, but you do get better at is as you go, and more importantly, you become less sensitive to problems as they arise, because ultimately you are growing a business, and this is the nature of businesses; you grow and the people under you change and develop and become their own businesses in their own right.
Team-building resources for indie authors
Orna Ross: Exactly. So, that's it really on building a team. We have a few recommendations, and we'll put these links into the show notes. Dan has done a very comprehensive blog post on how to build a publishing team and that self-publishing formula, and it's well worth a look. That's a short read.
We have also, Chris Ducker is really probably the outstanding reference here, a really comprehensive, fantastic book called Virtual Freedom, and Chris also does a whole kind of support thing around hiring virtual staff, online staff on contract. Lots of really, really good advice in that book.
Any other recommendations, Dan?
Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, in terms of a general business sense, the Diary of a CEO podcast, I've been listening to quite a lot recently. This is the guy who was the new dragon on Dragon's Den, and he talks quite a lot to different entrepreneurs, and one in particular has Ben Francis who has created a sports brand called Gym Shark in the UK, and they talk about growing a team which, you know, they've gone from zero to hundreds, and it's all about the nature of how you change your interview process and how you move from one person to another, depending on the size and nature of your business and your needs at the time.
So, yeah, there's loads and loads of resources out there. You'll go down a rabbit hole as soon as you start.
Orna Ross: So, yeah, I think that certainly gives you enough to be thinking about it, and I think the main thing is to remember that we are a business, as indie authors, that's what we do, and to take that sort of approach to it is a good place to start, to have that kind of mindset.
Anything to finish off, Dan?
Dan Parsons: Yeah, just start with it and make mistakes as you go, because everybody does and it will be fun, and you'll actually come out with A, possibly more revenue and more book sales and the glamor and all the rest of it, but B, you'll have a sort of happier business lifestyle and you'll be able to free up some of your time. So, there's benefits all around.
Orna Ross: Absolutely. So, until next time, happy writing and happy publishing. Bye-bye.