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Choosing the best Self-Publishing Companies and Services: Author Tips from ALLi

Frankfurt Book Fair 2017 FBF IAF LogoThis post is part of Frankfurt Book Fair Indie Author Fringe, an online author conference that showcases the best self-publishing advice and education for authors across the world — harnessing the global reach of the Alliance of Independent Authors’ network. Our self-publishing conference features well-known indie authors and advisors, for 24 sessions over 24-hours, in a one-day extravaganza of self-publishing expertise straight to your email inbox.

We hope you enjoy this session. Let us know if you have any questions or input on this self-publishing topic. Visit our Hot Seat and join in the conversation there, or leave your questions and feedback in the comments section below.

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When an author sets out to self-publish, he or she can very quickly become overwhelmed by the choices on offer.

At ALLi, we have evaluated hundreds of self-publishing services and vendors. In addition to compliance with our Code of Standards, there are specific issues we look out for and these areas deserve extra scrutiny when you are considering any self-publishing service.


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New Version Out Soon

Choosing A Self-Publishing Service Excerpt

Extract from Choosing The Best Self Publishing Services by John Doppler

When an author sets out to self-publish, he or she can very quickly become overwhelmed by the choices on offer. The self-publishing services sector is, on one hand, exciting, innovative and fast-growing; on the other, idiosyncratic, illogical and incoherent.

Some services are run by people who are knowledgeable, dedicated, helpful and fair; others are clueless, greedy, callous or manipulative. In an unregulated marketplace, where the same service can cost $500 against $15,000, for pretty much the same thing, depending on where you shop; where useless services are sold at inflated prices; where one large operation with many imprints, and controversial practices dominates the information stream and where there’s so much to learn and to do, how do you find your way through? How do you know who to trust?

Our ALLi’s Partner Membership, is our association’s attempt to offer a trustworthy guide to the global author services sector. Partner Members are carefully vetted against 25 criteria, and are regularly reviewed to ensure they are providing high-quality services to authors.

Although these rating methodologies vary in their level of scrutiny, each type of assessment hinges on adherence to the ALLi Code of Standards,. It’s our guidepost when evaluating services, and your first line of defense against unscrupulous operators.

How The Alliance of Independent Authors Rates Services

At ALLi, we have evaluated hundreds of self-publishing services and vendors. These ratings (which are available to all online) offer a means of swiftly weeding out the bad operators, and identifying the good ones.

Best and Worst Self-Publishing Services Reviewed & Rated by the Alliance of Independent Authors

In addition to compliance with our Code of Standards, there are specific issues we look out for when evaluating a potential Partner Member for ALLi. These areas deserve extra scrutiny when you are considering any self-publishing service.

Code of Standards

The ALLi Code of Standards

Services that adhere to the eight principles of our Code of Standards are likely to offer a positive experience to their clients. Services that fail to live up to any one of these standards do not have the author’s best interests at heart, and should be avoided.

When somebody signs up to be a Partner Member of ALLi, they agree to the following:

Integrity

We recognize that Partner Membership of ALLi means our primary aim is to enable authors to effectively publish and sell books. We follow through on all promised services and fully honor all advertisements and publication agreement terms. We never spam, oversell, or harass authors to buy our services or sell a dream to the uninitiated.

Integrity is the most critical aspect of a client–vendor relationship, and it’s often the hardest one to evaluate. Companies may offer much, but once the contract is signed and the client’s payment is in hand, they may fail to deliver on their promises.

This is where customer reviews prove to be a precious source of information, especially word of mouth from trusted colleagues. If you’re relying on anonymous customer reviews, view them with restraint. Whether named or anonymous, while one negative review may be a fluke, an impossible-to-please client, or even someone with a personal grudge, numerous complaints from multiple sources indicate a pervasive problem.

Services that rely on spam, high-pressure sales tactics, or inflated promises should also be regarded with caution. These are the hallmarks of trying to find a client for a product, rather than trying to find the right service for the client. Integrity demands that the service provider works to the benefit of the author. One that’s more concerned with meeting a sales quota than with serving your needs has abandoned that principle.

Value

We add value to each publication commensurate with the fee charged, relieving authors of key publishing tasks, enhancing readability, design, or discoverability.

Price and value are related but separate issues. One provider may have reasonable pricing, but still deliver poor value, either failing to honor the promises made or bringing useless services that don’t benefit the author. Another may have higher-than-average pricing but deliver exceptional value for that fee. (Don’t assume that higher pricing means better service, however. In the majority of cases, it does not.)

The best way to appraise the value of a service is to examine the end result. If it’s providing editing, are clients’ books well edited? If it’s publishing to retailers, are the sales pages professional and error-free? If the provider specializes in marketing and publicity, can you see evidence of their footprint on the landscape of the internet?

When the results of the service are not easily gauged, as with certain PR services, customer reviews are again a useful guide. If the typical customer is disappointed with the results, chances are you will be too.

Pricing

Our price quotations are accurate, transparent, and complete. Pricing is in line with market norms.

Pricing should be clearly and fully disclosed, with no hidden fees. Reputable service providers inform their clients; they do not hide vital information from them, especially key information like pricing.

Pricing that is drastically different from market norms—above or below typical pricing—is another red flag. Grossly inflated pricing is rarely justified by the quality of the services rendered. In the other direction, pricing that seems too good to be true usually is.

When comparing prices to determine the market norms, be sure to measure against known, reputable providers with a proven track record. Predatory operators often have higher visibility than the legitimate ones, so comparing the first results you find on Google may yield highly inflated averages.

Clarity

We make clear what we can and cannot do for the self-publishing writer and how our service compares to others.

Service providers must be clear about what services they are providing, and how those services will benefit the author. Too many self-publishing services rely on vague descriptions of services and even more vague promises of success. This can lead to confusion and open the door to deceptive practices.

When evaluating a provider, learn to slice through the marketing fluff and look for concrete statements about how it operates. If you can’t find any, or the provider seems evasive about the process, that’s a danger sign.

Examples of Concrete Statements:

  • “We distribute your book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google Play, and internationally through Ingram’s global network.”
  • “We guarantee 1,000 hits to your Amazon sales page, independently tracked, or your money back.”
  • “Our Silver Package includes professional cover design and copyediting up to 70,000 words.”

Examples of Meaningless Fluff:

  • “We distribute your book worldwide.” (To what countries? Through what networks?)
  • “We will promote your book to our thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers.” (How many? Do those followers actually see and interact with the page? Are those followers interested in a book like yours, or are they just other authors promoting their own books?)
  • “We take care of everything!” (What, exactly, and how?)

Partnership

We involve authors in planning and decision-making for key aspects of the publication process, from titles and cover design to sales and marketing strategies.

ALLi characterizes indie authors as creative directors of their books who expect that status to be reflected in any partnership.

Service providers that respect indie authors recognize their role in supporting the author’s creative vision. That attitude tends to shine through in their marketing materials and direct communications: “How can we help you succeed?” as opposed to “You need our services.” “Here’s what we offer,” rather than “This is what you need to do.”

After the contract is signed, the author should remain an active participant, not a helpless passenger.

Service

We are accountable for our work. We keep authors informed each step of the way and provide good customer service and follow-up.

Good service incorporates all of the other principles in the Code of Standards, but centers on one key concept: accountability. Accountable providers’ representatives treat the client as their personal responsibility. They treat the client as a person and not a commodity or case number. When a problem arises, they take steps to correct it, and they follow up to ensure that the client is happy.

But service is most obvious when it’s missing. That lack of accountability ripples through every aspect of a provider’s operation and every item in the Code of Standards, so those with poor service tend to be flooded with a wide variety of complaints.

Communication

We provide helpful and timely information to authors at all stages of publication, and beyond, and facilitate authors to get any ancillary information we cannot provide.

Communication overlaps with several of the principles in the Code of Standards because it’s paramount at all stages of the author–vendor relationship. Correspondingly, it’s one of the most common reasons for customer dissatisfaction.

Poor communication can stem from several causes. The vendor might be understaffed and too busy to answer questions. They might not respect the client. Or they might be actively concealing information.

Each of these is a recipe for a disastrous business relationship. If you see complaints about a provider’s communication, be wary, particularly if the breakdown seems to happen after the contract is signed.

Remember: You have a right to full and accurate information from a prospective service provider before you enter into any agreement. Pricing, options, and process should all be discussed openly, and these discussions should never be conditional on signing the contract.

You have a right to know what’s in the contract you’re signing, in clear, easily understood language. Ask to see a typical contract before entering into negotiations. Any unpleasant surprises buried in the contract are a bright red flag that should put you on highest alert.

You have a right to know how your money is being spent, and what actions are being taken on your behalf. When a service provider condescends to a client by saying, “Just let us do our thing,” or “It’s complicated,” it is no longer treating the author as a partner and an equal.

You have a right to regular, timely updates on a project’s status. Lack of communication in this area is a frequent cause of customer dissatisfaction—and with good reason.

Community

We have a long-term commitment to author-publishing and support the empowerment of self-publishing authors.

Most reputable service providers are active within the author communities they serve. They show their support for indie authors by catering to the specific needs of self-publishers, by listening to authors, and by joining and supporting professional groups.

However, some providers position themselves in opposition to a community. They pander to disgruntled authors by proclaiming contempt for traditional publishing or prey on insecurities by insisting that authors can’t succeed without their help.

Neither attitude reflects the reality of indie authors. No author exists in a vacuum. We are all part of the publishing industry, a larger community that includes self-publishers, traditionally published authors, hybrid authors, service providers, professional organizations, and more.

A service provider that relies on needlessly divisive tactics is not working to empower authors, but is working to isolate them. This type of manipulation should be regarded with suspicion.


What to Look For In Publishing and Self-Publishing Contracts and Agreements

1. Nonexclusive Contract with Clear Terminology

Never sign a contract with a publishing service unless you have fully read and understand what you are signing. Some providers issue a physical contract, while others will request a click to a “terms of service” document online.

As an author looking for a service, you should receive a contract that refers to an agreed set of services: some combination of editing, design, formatting, print, distribution, marketing, and promotion. You should not be assigning secondary publication rights, copyright, or subsidiary rights (film, TV, translation, etc.) to the provider.

Be wary of providers using terminology in a contract like “We, the publisher.”

A reputable service will also include a clause outlining cessation of the agreement and the period of time (e.g. 30–60 days), and means by which this should be executed by either party.

If you start to read the terms of the contract and they appear unclear, or there is an overuse of legal terminology, it may be an indicator that the contract is not author friendly and was drawn up solely to protect the rights of the provider in the event of legal action.

If you are unsure about the contract, or any terms, always request clarification. If your service is cagey about answering direct questions, take your business elsewhere.

2. Clear Breakdown of Fees

Understand whether quoted discounts or royalties on book sales are offered based on the retail price of a book or on the net receipts (the money the service collects).

Ascertain what the print-only cost of a book is, and what price the provider charges to offer books directly to you.

Knowing these crucial details allows you to work out what kind of markup the provider is placing on books sold directly to you “at cost.” If it’s difficult to elicit this information, then it’s likely the provider has something to hide and wishes to confuse and complicate the process. Take your business elsewhere.

3. Multi-format Availability

Look for a service that offers the whole gamut of print options, other formats, and distribution platforms. Few services have the resources to print in-house, but they should have external print partnerships or affiliate agreements to deliver customer requirements.

If your provider cannot offer a hardback print edition, an offset print run, an EPUB or MOBI format, or the option of a full-color interior, it’s likely the service has limited print resources (possibly only a POD facility) and few or no distribution programs in place. Take your business elsewhere.

4. A Book-Centric Attitude

Your service should be reader and book-centric and not author- or service-centric. Look for these signs of quality:

  • Books are prominently displayed on the service provider’s website.
  • Books are sold in an online bookstore, with clear buy links and biographical details.
  • Books are of professional quality, particularly cover design, paper quality, format, and internal layout.
  • Book launches and author events are promoted on the website and externally. Service and author social network links are prominently displayed on the website. Links and listings to articles on self-publishing specifically as well as the general book industry.
  • Official logos as proof of membership in publishing associations and connection to reputable industry guides.

No sign of books? Take your business elsewhere.

5. Ownership of Book Files

If you paid for the editing, formatting, and conversion of your manuscript to a digital format, you should own it. A good provider will allow that. Always seek clarity on this key question before you enter the production process. If it’s not forthcoming, take your business elsewhere.

6. Access or Referral to Editing Professionals and Services

A package self-publishing service should offer access to professional editors (named and listed) and any other pre- and post-production services required. If the provider does not offer such information, it may be a clear sign that it accepts anything for production “as is,” no matter how poor the quality.

Be wary of a provider that will not give the name of a specific publishing professional or the name of an affiliate service it uses.

A good service will always advise you on what work is required to improve your book. You should also be free to work with any other external service or professional you wish in conjunction with your chosen service.

Never accept the line, “Oh, we only accept books using our editing/design services.” If the provider cannot be flexible, then take your business elsewhere.

7. ISBN Ownership Facility

A good service will always offer you the option of using your own ISBNs and publishing imprint name. Do not let the provider insist you use its assigned ISBN. By doing this, you give up the right to be identified as the publisher of your book.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using an assigned ISBN from a provider so long as you understand that you, the author, will not be the “publisher of record” and cannot take the edition of your book “as is” to another service, without first changing the book files and logos and reregistering the new edition with your own ISBN and publishing imprint.

There may also be additional issues with copyright on the cover images used. And you can’t use a CreateSpace ISBN to distribute on Ingram, for example.

Contact the ISBN issuing agency in your country (Bowker in the US; Nielsen in the UK) to request and purchase a block of ISBNs yourself, before contracting a service.

8. Agreements with Wholesalers and Distributors

It’s important as a self-publisher to understand the difference between a wholesaler and a distributor.

A wholesaler is a company with a warehouse and a vast database of listed books—some physically housed there as well as “available” on a database inventory for purchase and shipment to booksellers.

A distributor has a team of sales representatives operating on behalf of a list of client publishers, dedicated to selling “their” catalogue of books to buyers in bookstores.

A wholesaler reacts to book orders from the trade, whereas a distributor is proactive about selling its clients’ books to the trade. So, a self-publishing service listing books with a wholesaler won’t, in and of itself, sell a single book.

Few self-publishing services have book distribution deals in place, despite the claims you may hear. They depend on online print book sales through vendors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and ebook sales through platforms like Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle Store—both functions you can easily and cheaply organize for yourself. They are rarely successful in getting print books onto the shelves of physical bookstores, either major chains or independent stores. Those that do achieve it by having small niche distribution deals, often direct, and combined with considerable input and promotion by authors and their social networks. If any provider is promising you this service, read the small print. Ask how it will deliver this distribution.

Many self-publishing services, including Amazon, use Ingram for print (and, since the advent of Spark, for ebooks too), as this gets print books listed in the Ingram book catalogue. Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the US, also operates as a distributor for many large and independent publishers.

In the UK, Gardners is the largest wholesaler of books, and Bertrams is another UK wholesaler offering distribution services.

However hard a service works to support and promote a book, its primary revenue comes from providing solutions to an author’s needs. Most providers are not Macmillan or Random House. The best may have the success and penetration of a small independent press publisher, but most are little more than printers.

If that’s what you find, you should take your business elsewhere.

9. Strong Presence on Social Networks

Up until a few years ago we wouldn’t have listed this one. Now, social media serves two fundamental functions—as a necessary promotional tool for the service’s authors and books, and for public transparency of the service itself.

Social networking is an important tool in the arsenal of a self-published author. It is fertile ground to grow contacts, reach like-minded people, and promote fan bases and brand following. It can be a red flag when we don’t see a provider on any social network, but it’s not necessarily a negative. It might suggest that the provider has limited staff resources, or that it doesn’t understand the importance of social media, or it might suggest that it’s hiding from public exposure and criticism. Before deciding, you’ll have to dig deeper, and if necessary, take your business elsewhere.

10. Transparency of Staff Skill Set

Too many self-publishing services are opaque about the number of staff members, and about skill sets and experience in publishing, editing, design, and marketing.

Too many are one- or two-person bands, claiming to be much more. We’ve no problem with small operators—many of our most valued Partner Members are sole proprietors—so long as there is no misrepresentation, and the service can deliver what it promises. If you suspect otherwise, take your business elsewhere.

11. Marketing and Promotional Support

The reason most authors choose a self-publishing service is that they are daunted by the thought of marketing and promoting their books. Yet for many services, marketing is just leaflets, business cards, a website, or showing an author how to set up a social media account.

Good marketing and promotion require the service to work with the author to bring ideas and suggestions, as well as being willing to take the author’s ideas on board. Planning and implementation of a strategy and launch should take place over a period of several months, and it should do something that works for books in that particular genre.

The service should not just be using the author’s own provided contact list. It should also bring a press and bloggers list and other tools and resources. A “press release” should see the provider sending targeted information to particular journalists and bloggers, not a blanket, standard email.

Printed bookmarks, posters, and business cards are not marketing services; they are materials.

Another red flag is expensive display advertising in magazines like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Readers do not read these magazines, and those who do—librarians and book industry people—generally make buying decisions based on the editorial, not the ads. Be very wary of such packages unless you have a clear underlying strategy that includes them.

If this is all that is being offered by your service, you are effectively on your own when it comes to marketing and promoting your book. Take your business elsewhere.

12. Communication

Communication is the biggest complaint we hear from authors who contact us about problems with a provider. “If they had at least told me” is a common feeling. Poor self-publishing services often have high staff turnover because interns or part-timers are employed to fill gaps, and authors get moved from one person to another, with little satisfaction from anyone.

Your service should listen to you and identify your needs. Both of you should agree on your book’s requirements, and you should never feel that you are being sold services you don’t need. Ask about communication systems and who’s in charge if something goes wrong.

If your provider doesn’t have the ability to work well with you, communicate and update you in a timely fashion, and keep to deadlines, then—yes—take your business elsewhere.


Ten Questions to Ask Service Providers

When choosing a service provider, ask these questions.

1. What Rights Am I Encumbering?

When a publishing right is licensed to another entity, it is encumbered; its use becomes restricted by the other party, and potentially less valuable because of that restriction. Understand the consequences of encumbering rights, even if the license you’re granting is nonexclusive and time limited. Limit the license to what is appropriate for the payment you are receiving. If you are paying for the service outright, ensure you retain all rights. For more on rights, see our guidebook How Authors Sell Publishing Rights.

2. Where Will My Book Be Distributed and Sold?

Ask for a list. Ask what distribution means in this instance. Will somebody be engaging with booksellers on your behalf, or are you just going to be placed on a database or website along with hundreds of thousands of others, with no discoverability service built in?

3. Is Your Service Exclusive or Nonexclusive?

Digital publishing services marketed directly to authors almost always operate on a nonexclusive basis. That means you can use the service to sell your ebook while simultaneously selling your ebook in other venues.

There are three notable exceptions to this, all big players:

  • You need an Apple computer to create ebooks with Apple’s iBooks Author tool. It’s a proprietary format. No other device aside from an iPad or iPhone can view an ebook created by the Apple iBooks Author tool.
  • Ebooks enrolled in Amazon’s optional KDP Select program, which gives better royalty terms in some areas and allows your book to be lent to Amazon Prime readers through Amazon’s “library,” are exclusive to Amazon for the period of enrollment. This 90-day term of enrollment is renewed automatically unless the author leaves the program.
  • Audible, the audiobooks distributor, reduces royalties for those who choose the nonexclusive option.

4. Who Owns the File after Publication?

ALLi’s line on this is simple: If you have paid for conversion and formatting services, you should own the file. Steer clear of services that don’t facilitate this.

5. Can I Make Changes to My Book after It Goes on Sale?

Most direct retailers like Kobo and KDP (ebook) and CreateSpace (print book) allow you to upload new and revised files as often as you like. Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Pronoun are the only distributors to allow this. Other multichannel distributors, like BookBaby and Ingram, charge fees to make changes.

6. Do I Set My Own Prices?

While some services have restrictions (e.g. Amazon won’t allow prices below $0.99), standard practice is to let authors set their own pricing. Amazon also guarantees its customers (readers) that they won’t find your book at a lower price elsewhere, so if you reduce your price elsewhere, Amazon may price match at its discretion.

Some authors who want to use “permafree” books as a marketing tool use this to their advantage, making their ebook available for free elsewhere, knowing Amazon may then match the price to free. This has proven trickier in recent years, as Amazon has shown increasing reluctance to price match certain titles. Amazon generally looks to major retailers for its price matching, and may ignore pricing on some distributors.

7. Is Payment an Upfront Fee or a Percentage of Sales or Both?

This is one of the most important clauses in your contract.

Giving up a percentage of sales can ease the financial burden on cash-strapped authors, and ensures that the service provider has an incentive to see your book succeed. However, the cumulative cost of that percentage of sales will likely outweigh the value of the service in the long term.

Paying in advance means you won’t have an ongoing deduction from your sales, but requires caution: once the service provider has your money in hand, will it remain dedicated to the success of your book?

The ideal payment arrangement will likely depend on your sales expectations and your immediate budget.

8. How Is My Royalty Calculated?

While different services have different models, the fees should be transparent and upfront. For example:

KDP, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Press, and Apple’s iBooks are all free to use until the point of sale. They make their money by taking a cut of your payment for each sale made, from 30 percent upwards. Depending on your pricing, it may be more.

The Smashwords service is similarly free to use and it distributes to all major ebook retailers except Amazon. Smashwords pays you 85 percent of your list price on sales directly through the Smashwords site, minus PayPal transaction fees. It pays between 38 and 60 percent of list price, depending on the retailer and region.

BookBaby and other distributors charge fees upfront. You earn “100 percent net” from these services, but that number can be misleading, as “net” may include any number of fees and deductions from your sales.

Always read the royalty terms carefully. Many companies are less than transparent in the figures they offer. For example, a service from Author Solutions called Booktango claims to offer free e-publishing services plus 100 percent royalties, but that’s only if the sale is made on its own site. Even then, there’s a 30 percent “bookstore fee.” Ultimately, you’re receiving 70 percent, not 100 percent.

Do the math. If, like many writers, numbers make your head spin, get somebody to help.

9. Are There Any Extra Fees or Charges I Should Know About?

There are instances in which you might end up paying more than standard rates for conversion or formatting, such as if your book is longer than average, if you have a lot of charts, tables, or images requiring formatting, and so on. Make sure no unpleasant things—such as hidden fees or rights grabs—are lurking in the terms of agreement or the contracts. Highlight any potential issues at quotation stage so there are no nasty surprises.

10. Where’s the Value?

“Your publishing partner should add value to your manuscript,” says ALLi’s Author Advice Centre’s editor, Debbie Young, who worked with SilverWood Books for her first publication. “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 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.”  Debbie Young

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