The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing
Chapter 3: Other Self-Publishing Assistance
Aside from self-publishing service companies and other distributors, you’ll find that many publishing professionals are willing to help you at a cost.
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The full chapter INCLUDES:
Literary Agent Assistance
Some literary agents are ready and willing to assist both existing clients and new ones with the self-publishing process. But before you accept their help, you should understand what you may be gaining or giving up—especially when it comes to long-term earnings.
Hiring Editorial Freelancers
Knowing how to hire the right freelancers is another critical skill for the independent author. Those who are unfamiliar with the book business can sometimes stumble in their self-publishing efforts by not fully understanding the what happens during each phase of the editing, production, distribution, and marketing process. By having clarity on the function and purpose of each step of book publishing, as explained in this chapter, authors can be smarter about hiring the right amount of help at the right price.
Hybrid Book Publishing Services
We’ll also look at the offerings of hybrid publishers, which can be hard to distinguish from other service providers—and even charge you even more than non-hybrid service providers, with little added benefit. You’ll learn how to ask the right questions of these hybrids.
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The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing
Chapter 3: Other Self-Publishing Assistance
There are several different scenarios where an author might have an agent assist with self-publishing: (1) the agent represented the book when it was first published and the rights have now reverted to the author, but the agent is still attached to the book under the representation agreement; (2) the agent was helping the author try to sell a new book to a traditional publisher, but had no luck and the author (or author and agent together) decided to self-publish instead; or (3) the author does not have the time or desire to take on all of the aspects of self-publishing and would like the professional help an agent can bring to the table.
If you are represented by an agent for the book, your agency contract might obligate you to self-publish through the agency so it can earn (or continue to earn) 15 percent of your book sales (or 20 percent for international sales, where half of the commission goes to the foreign co-agent). If your agency contract is silent on the matter, and you’d now like to self-publish an out-of-print book whose rights have reverted to you, some agents will insist on being commissioned, and some will not. But, in a best-case scenario, you will have a choice and be free to self-publish on your own with no financial obligation to the agent.
Agencies that demand you publish your indie work through them may use e-book distributors such as Argo Navis to provide the service, which can be financially disadvantageous for the author. To give you an example, in the case of a $10 e-book, this would be the financial breakdown for a single unit sold through Amazon using Argo Navis:
- Amazon takes 30 percent ($3), leaving $7
- Argo Navis takes 30 percent of the $7, leaving $4.90
- The agent takes 15 percent of $4.90, leaving $4.17 for the author
If the author worked directly with Amazon to self-publish, she would earn $7 on each sale, not $4.17. The author earns less than if the agent were distributing directly on her behalf, plus the agent receives 15 percent even though Argo Navis does the work. Furthermore, distributors such as Argo Navis do not cover freelance costs; those are borne by the author.
Argo Navis’s services are available to authors only through a literary agent. Another program available only through an agent is the Amazon White Glove program, mentioned in the previous section, which might be considered as competing against Argo Navis.
In the established self-publishing community, most authors bridle at the thought of agents taking a 15 percent commission on their work. But it’s important to make a distinction between (1) agents who take a commission on specific projects where they provide assistance, administration, and/or marketing support, and (2) agents who take a commission on every work their client produces, regardless of the agency’s support.
The first scenario raises an important question: Does an author benefit from having an agent assist with self-publishing? Arguably it depends on the personality of the author, her existing skills and resources, and how much time she can spend on the self-publishing process. Some authors are well equipped to be publishing entrepreneurs, while others prefer the experience and resources of someone in the industry they trust.
Forward-thinking agents see long-term benefits in assisting their clients with self-publishing, but rightly point out that it’s not an insignificant extension of the work they do. The agents who are engaged and invested in their clients’ self-published work don’t click “upload” and walk away. They help in a strategic manner, in many ways doing the same work a publisher would, with ongoing marketing support and insight.
When agents first began assisting clients with self-publishing, around 2010, some offered a one-size-fits-all model, which usually meant a 15 percent commission on sales, with the author paying freelance costs, such as copyediting, cover design, and e-book formatting. Today, some have moved to tiers of service or customizable arrangements, to take into account the unique needs of each client. The agent may earn a higher commission for providing hands-on marketing support, which can involve advertising placements, blog tours, advance galleys, Goodreads campaigns, and more—if the author wants that level of service.
What You Should Ask
Before self-publishing with an agent’s assistance, ask the following questions:
- Who covers the costs associated with self-publishing? (In most cases, the author covers the costs, but sometimes the agent will cover expenses and deduct them from the author’s earnings.)
- Who controls rights to the self-published work? (It should always be the author.)
- How long must you commit to giving the agent 15 percent of sales on the work? (It shouldn’t be indefinitely.)
- How/when can the agreement be terminated?
When an agency assists clients directly (without a distributor such as Argo Navis), it generally sets up distribution accounts for its clients (e.g., at Amazon), administers those accounts, and pays the authors after taking its commission. Ideally, the author has access to those distribution accounts—which means access to pricing, files, and reporting—and those accounts are turned over to the author if the agreement with the agent is terminated. That way the author doesn’t risk later having to re-upload the book as if it were an entirely new product, losing sales rankings and reviews in the process.
If you seek an agent who would support a hybrid approach to your publishing career, look for someone who already has a track record with hybrid clients. Query your project on its own merit, and if representation is offered, tell the agent about your publishing goals, and ask:
- How does the agency assist with self-published work, if at all? What arrangements are most common or acceptable?
- What happens if you self-publish without the agency’s assistance?
The overriding goal for most agents, especially in representing unpublished clients, is to sell the author’s work to traditional publishers. Don’t expect to receive a response to your initial submission with an offer to help you self-publish; that conversation typically happens only after months of trying the traditional route, and by mutual agreement. For established clients, agents may assist in getting their backlists on sale again, and helping release digital shorts in between larger book releases (a strategy more and more authors are using to keep readers engaged and earn extra money in the process).
Authors who are unfamiliar with the book business can sometimes stumble in their self-publishing efforts by not fully understanding what happens during each phase of the editing, production, distribution, and marketing process. By having clarity on the function and purpose of each step of the publishing process, authors can be smarter about hiring the right freelance help or purchasing a service package. Note that if you’re using a full-service publishing provider, as described earlier, then that company will generally source all of the needed assistance—or, at least, provide whatever level of help you paid for in your service package.
Before any author hires help—especially if new to the industry—she should list the very specific goals she hopes to achieve by hiring freelance assistance, and then try to match those goals with professionals who have experience in achieving them. Sometimes the terminology we use to describe the book publishing process is fuzzy, and we have different understandings of what an “editor” or a “marketer” does. Eliminate the confusion by being goal-focused in your hiring.
Nearly all manuscripts require some level of editing, even if it’s just proofreading for errors. However, be sure that you don’t buy editing services without understanding the different types of editing available, and what type of editor your book might require. Editorial work falls into the following three broad categories:
- Developmental and content editing
- Line editing and copyediting
The editing process should always work sequentially from the top level down—starting with big-picture editing and revision (i.e., developmental and content editing), followed by line editing or copyediting (which helps shape the material on a sentence level and style it consistently), and then ending with a final proofread to catch typos and obvious errors. Not all editors are right for each type of editing, and not all types of editing should be done at the same time, on the same pass. For the highest quality, authors should plan to hire editorial help at all three stages. For work that has been previously published, a proofread is usually all that’s needed, unless the author needs to revise or update the work.
The first editing phase—developmental editing, content editing, and book doctoring—inevitably leads to revision and significant, substantive changes to the manuscript. It is virtually unheard of for a writer to work with a high-level editor and not end up doing rewrites. The writer should not expect validation or praise, but rather an extensive editorial letter and manuscript notations, with detailed advice, so that the writer can revise the manuscript successfully.
Developmental editors (DEs) are most commonly used for nonfiction work, especially by traditional book publishers. DEs focus on the structure and content of your book, and if they work for a publisher, their job is to ensure the manuscript adheres to the vision set out in the book proposal or what everyone agreed to when the book was contracted. They get involved early and while the writing process is ongoing.
Content editing has more or less the same purpose as developmental editing—it’s focused on structure, style, and overall development, for both fiction and nonfiction. However, content editors don’t often work on your manuscript while it’s still in progress. You’ll sometimes hear the term “book doctor” used in connection with this type of work. A book doctor is someone who performs developmental or content editing on your manuscript, usually after you have a completed draft.
A developmental or content editor gives you someone else to trust and lean on. This professional’s goal is to produce the best book possible for the reader, and her suggestions are made with an eye on producing better sales. This type of editor will be concerned with the narrative arc, pacing, and missed opportunities. She’ll do her best to problem-solve and offer solutions for any inconsistencies or structural problems.
Line editing focuses on sentence structure, word use, and rhythm. Its goal is to create smooth and streamlined prose. Copyediting is generally more focused on correcting errors in grammar, syntax, and usage. Some copy editors also fact-check and seek out inconsistencies or lapses in logic. Proofreading comes at the very end of the editorial process, sometimes after the book is already typeset. At this late stage, an editor would only be looking for typos, formatting mistakes, and other egregious errors that shouldn’t make it to publication.
Design and Production Help
Most authors need these design and production functions fulfilled:
- Print book design: cover and interior
- E-book design and production
- Website and digital media design
It’s rare that you can find a single designer who specializes in print book design, e-book design and production, and website design. Usually, you’ll need one designer to handle the print book (and sometimes even two—one for the cover and one for the interior), and if your e-book requires complex formatting, you may need to hire a specialist to assist. Then either you or a designer will need to translate or incorporate your book cover or design into your website and digital media promotional materials (such as your social media profiles).
It will be challenging to design and format the interior of your book without some assistance, unless you have familiarity with the Adobe products InDesign and Photoshop. Some authors try to get by with a book formatted entirely in Microsoft Word, but the results rarely look as professional as one produced through InDesign. That said, if you want to economize on costs and time, the best product available to turn your Microsoft Word document into a professionally designed print book is Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates (bookdesigntemplates.com). The drawback is that you won’t have a customized interior book design, but for a text-driven work, it may not matter as much.
Sales and Distribution Help
This is where a great deal of confusion occurs. Most self-published authors cannot—even if they want to—hire sales help. That’s because there are few or no retailers or sales outlets that are willing to meet with a salesperson or hear a sales pitch for a single book from a single author, especially if that book is self-published.
However, it is possible for indie authors to get distribution that equals the distribution of traditionally published titles. By using IngramSpark or other services, authors can make their book available to customers around the world, at little or no cost. But it’s up to the author to build market awareness and demand for her book, and spur customers to place orders for the book. A book can be well distributed, but sell poorly because there is little or no marketing effort.
Many publishing service providers will claim and emphasize that their books are distributed worldwide through Ingram, that your book will be available at many hundreds or thousands of retailers, and otherwise point to the sizable number of places that your book can be sold. This is mostly a smoke-and-mirrors game; an individual author, working by herself, can usually achieve the same level of distribution—you don’t need the muscle of a service provider. Thus, it bears repeating: the self-publishing author’s challenge is not distribution; the challenge is in getting anyone to order your book in the first place once it’s in the distribution system. This brings us to the next challenge.
Marketing and Publicity Help
There are many types of marketing and publicity help out there, and if authors are confused about sales and distribution services, it’s even worse in the marketing category. That’s because it’s a very large umbrella for very different activities, including:
- Copywriting: writing good, persuasive descriptions of your book for retailers, for your website, and through any messaging that reaches potential readers
- Keyword and search optimization: making sure your book is easily found through search engines or retailers, based on certain keywords and categories
- Pricing: choosing and setting appropriate pricing windows based on format
Online marketing and inbound marketing
- Producing an effective author website and possibly a blog
- Creating and sharing podcasts, videos, newsletters, or social media posts to reach potential readers
Book-industry focused marketing
- Review campaigns: sending review copies to professionals or readers who might review your book; possibly paying for professional reviews
- Advertising: getting visible to librarians, booksellers, book clubs, and others who work in the business
Getting media attention
- Approaching influencers to talk about your book, interview you, or host you on their site or blog
- Pitching traditional media outlets: TV, radio, print
- Pitching online media outlets
Launch and post-publication marketing
- Setting up events or speaking engagements (conferences, signings, shows)
- Deciding when to have discounts or giveaways after launch
- Evaluating the news cycle and identifying ways to pitch the media again on your book
An author may be able to hire a marketer or publicist who can put together a big-picture plan that encompasses all of these areas and more, but sometimes an author’s budget can only sustain efforts in a couple of these areas. The most critical areas for laying the groundwork for long-term success are product optimization and a strong author website. All other efforts typically do better when the book and website are at an A+ level.
Marketing that targets the established book industry (e.g., industry reviews) is one of the toughest challenges for indie authors, unless they’ve been traditionally published and are already known to professional reviewers, librarians, and others who wield influence. Not only are there far too many self-published titles on the market for the average industry insider to separate the wheat from the chaff, but also these professionals have limited time and space to devote to the traditionally published titles, which are usually their number one priority. To effectively compete against the Big Five, respected small presses, and academic presses, an indie author needs not only the most professional, high-quality package and pitch, but also a long lead time (at least three to four months) and hopefully some kind of “in” that will grease the wheels.
Media attention is another difficulty, for much the same reason—because there’s more than enough output from traditional channels, media outlets aren’t eager to spend time looking for the diamond in the rough from the indie channels. This is why many indie authors end up devoting a lot of time to consumer-facing marketing and publicity: trying to find the readers for their work through online and offline channels, without going through any kind of gatekeeper. Despite the number of closed doors in industry-facing media and traditional media, most readers do not care how a book was published, and can be effectively reached with a well-thought-out marketing campaign, combined with competitive pricing. These issues are discussed in-depth in the Marketing and Publicity chapter.
While self-publishing options can be overwhelming or opaque to the industry outsider, there’s an even more complicated sector: so-called hybrid publishing, which is neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing. It exists somewhere in between. The upshot is that it’s becoming next to impossible to categorize certain publishers and services and, in fact, some wish to avoid being labeled altogether. They consider themselves innovators, providing an important alternative for authors.
Just about every hybrid publisher has a unique business model or way of operating, making it difficult to judge or compare them against other companies. More confusing still, some companies calling themselves “hybrid” publishers are really just self-publishing services trying to market themselves as something better or more partnership-oriented. (And, as an aside, don’t confuse “hybrid publisher” with “hybrid author.” The term “hybrid author” refers to someone who both self-publishes and traditionally publishes, not an author who uses a hybrid publisher.)
The best hybrid publishers are those that conduct some level of gatekeeping or curation (i.e., not everyone who knocks on the door is accepted as an author), offer some value that authors would have a hard time securing on their own (such as brick-and-mortar distribution), and pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal.
Authors need specialized knowledge of the industry to evaluate hybrids effectively and to understand the underlying value of a service and whether it has the power to make a difference in their book’s success. Here are a few starting questions to help you sort through the fog. (We will be using the terms “publisher” and “service” interchangeably.)
Will there be a traditional print run—and who’s paying for it?
A print run equates to an investment—someone is taking a financial risk on the book’s success. Having a specific number of books printed anticipates sales and marks confidence that the book will be actively stocked in brick-and-mortar stores. Authors shouldn’t pay for their own print runs unless they know exactly how and to whom those books will be sold. If a hybrid publisher has a requirement that the author must pay for a specific number of books, it’s a good sign the company is merely a dressed-up version of an old-school “vanity” press.
You can also judge a hybrid publisher’s commitment and belief in your project by whether it’s printing and distributing your book strictly as a print-on-demand edition. POD requires much less investment than an offset print run. Another way to think about it is this: Anyone can start a publishing company based on print-on-demand and e-book technology since there are little or no warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping costs. Only serious players can invest in print runs of 500 or greater where stock will need to be managed.
Will the book be pitched to retailers or distributors by a sales team?
If there’s investment in a print run, there’s a greater likelihood the book will be pitched to retailers or distributors by the publisher. (After all, it has stock that has to be placed and sold!) However, it’s still possible for a hybrid publisher to have a sales team and sell to accounts even with just a print-on-demand edition available. So be sure to ask if the hybrid calls on specific retail accounts with sales reps, or ask who its distributor is (who may also perform this function). Another way to approach this issue is to ask about the publisher’s catalog. Sales teams will find it tough to pitch without having a catalog that lists all the books being released each season from the publisher. You could also inquire about the average “sell in” for a book—that’s the number of copies sold to retailers or distributors in advance of the publication date. A hybrid publisher that is confused by these questions or dismissive is probably not selling and marketing your book to retailers, and may rely only on you and Amazon to spur sales.
How will your books be distributed?
As was made clear in earlier sections, anyone can get a book distributed through Ingram and Amazon. If your book is available through Ingram, book retailers can place orders for it at any time. (That doesn’t mean your book will ever sit on a physical shelf, but it can be ordered through a store.) If a publishing service touts being distributed through Ingram, that’s rarely a selling point—you can do that on your own. However, if the hybrid’s books are being sold or pitched by Ingram to specific accounts, that’s different.
It’s exceptionally rare for any publishing service (hybrid or not) to actively sell and distribute physical copies to bookstores, which is costly and requires industry contacts. However, a couple are Greenleaf Book Group and She Writes Press.
Print distribution isn’t the only reason to work with a hybrid publisher. Authors must also assess their strengths and consider whether their books would be more successful if they had a service partner supporting them. When evaluating a service, look for signs that it will be a good business partner and will likely produce a successful book. Owing to the extreme ease of publishing and distributing books in digital format, anyone can put out a shingle and call herself a publisher. So here are some additional questions to consider.
- What’s the company’s editing process like? Some services will take exactly what you give them and publish it, without any editing. Even if that sounds appealing, this shows a lack of professionalism. Virtually no manuscript is ready for prime time without some editorial work.
- What marketing and promotion support do the company’s titles receive? Ask what the service’s baseline marketing plan is for each title. Does it send out review copies? Does it write a press release? Does it submit the book to media outlets for coverage? Find out the bare minimum it commits to, and if it does little more than make the title available for sale, rethink why you want to publish with it.
- Can you speak to their recent authors? This can be the best litmus test of all. Are other authors pleased with the publisher’s communication and level of involvement? How much value did the publisher add to the process?
Finally, before committing to any service, get clear answers on costs, and read your contract carefully. If things go wrong, know when and how you can hit eject (and at what cost) so you can pursue a better path.