With the myriad options available for self-publishing—some more legitimate than others—it’s understandable that authors get confused about the best route to take. Being confused leaves one open to scams, so I’m always trying to educate authors about the self-publishing pitfalls, not because it will necessarily help my business, but because it breaks my heart to hear some of the stories authors tell me when they finally arrive on my virtual doorstop, beleaguered and bewildered and often thousands of dollars poorer.
First, the Self-Publishing Horror Stories
Take one author I spoke with recently. She was taken in by a self-publishing “division of” company masquerading as a traditional publisher with purpose. She paid them to design the cover and interior layout, and because the book carried an ISBN owned by the company, the company is listed as the publisher. The company pays her royalties of 10% per print book and 50% per eBook. By not setting up the print-on-demand herself directly with IngramSpark—where, with a 55% wholesale discount she would receive 45% of the cover price less the cost of printing—this author “paid” the self-publishing company far too much! This is without any marketing support, for which the author would pay extra. The author discovered all the customer complaints about the self-publishing company after it was too late.
So while the author might have deemed the price tag for cover design and interior layout to be reasonable and within her budget, her true cost, in fact, was hidden from view; by our calculation, if she were to sell 2,000 copies, she would have sacrificed as much as $6,300 in profits.
What IS the Best Route to Self-publishing?
The definition of “best” of course is subjective: “best” for whom? I’d have to say the above situation was only best for the self-publishing company and not for the author. But how DOES an author determine the best route to self-publish a book, given the confusing and endless options, the overlap between services, the mystifying messaging from the companies, and the fact that all of us—even those of us that only provide services to help authors self-publish—get lumped under the category title of “self-publishing company?”
First Step: Identify Your Publishing Goals and Set a Budget
I came up with the checklist at the end of this article to help authors decide what “best” means to them. Answers to the checklist questions are based on the premise that authors have clear goals for their books and have researched the market and the competition thoroughly. For example:
- Is your book a hobby (e.g., a book of family history meant only for family and friends, or a novel you feel compelled to write even if it doesn’t sell) or will it be used to support your business goals (e.g., to market and grow your business or advance your professional speaking career)?
- Is there an audience for this book? Is it a small niche that traditional publishers won’t touch?
- Have you looked at the best-sellers in your genre?
Make a budget and understand what revenue you must generate to cover your costs (if that’s important to you). Ask yourself how much work you are personally prepared to put into the design, file preparation, and marketing in order to save money.
Name Your Sacrifice: Time, Money, or Quality?
Whether you decide to do certain tasks yourself, farm out the editing to Aunt Edna the English teacher, or hire a team to do the work, each comes with a cost in terms of time, dollars, and quality. What are you willing to sacrifice? For example:
- Are you okay with saving money by not hiring an experienced editor? Hiring family may result in biased editing of your writing or hiding the truth about your book’s marketability. You may waste a lot of time and money printing a book that is not ready for market.
- Will you grimace when you see typos in your book, or be happy in the knowledge that you didn’t spend a few hundred dollars on a proof reader?
- Are you willing to sacrifice many, many hours plus hundreds of dollars to purchase and learn InDesign so that you can save money on professional page design?
- Are you prepared to grin and bear it when your book cover and interior look amateurish next to best-sellers in your genre because you chose to do it yourself?
Once you’ve done this work and know what you’re willing to sacrifice, you’re ready to research possible routes to self-publishing and determine the best one.
Investigate Three Self-publishing Options
The paths to publishing are many; they overlap and interweave, and you will receive much conflicting information from helpful family, friends, and members of online author groups. I recommend that you investigate at least three options, such as:
- Doing it all yourself;
- Contracting out the work to companies or freelancers who do editing, book design and marketing; or
- Handing the whole thing over to a company that promises to publish your book.
Finally, the Self-publishing Checklist
Once you’ve got three clear options, go down the following checklist of questions to help you figure out which route to take (including looking at more options):
- Is the company asking you to apply and pay money for them to “publish” your book? (Note: This should be a red flag and an immediate disqualifier.)
- Has the company/freelancer provided you with a firm quote and clear terms and conditions?
- Does the quote detail each service that will be provided? Can they tell you what other costs to expect, such as the ISBN purchase, title set-up, printing costs, or marketing? Are there any hidden costs or additional costs down the line if this, that, or the other thing happens or doesn’t happen? (Note: A red flag regarding hidden costs is a company that provides you with a quote that is substantially less than the other quotes you have received.)
- Based on the quotes, what is the per book cost? (Note: Know the difference between fixed costs—costs that don’t change with the number of books you sell, such as design or editing—and variable costs, costs that can be calculated per book such as printing.)
- What percentage of the book’s retail price will you receive as revenue (sometimes called “profit” or “royalties”)? If the percentage is less than you would receive from Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or IngramSpark, understand why and know what you are sacrificing. Read more about calculating your per book profit here.
- Are you within your budget? If one company’s quote exceeds your budget, what are you gaining for that additional expense?
- Who owns the ISBN? If it’s not you or your business, just know that you may never be able to publish your book via any other route in the future without spending much time and money—and sleepless nights—wrestling the book away from the company. If the company is not transparent about the ownership of the ISBN, it’s time for you to move on or thoroughly understand what you are giving up. In the US, ISBNs may only be purchased from Bowker; in Canada, ISBNs are available from Library and Archives Canada for free. How do you find out who will own your ISBN?
- Ask the company the publisher name that will be printed on the book.
- Ask the company to point you to their own literature about the ISBN and how it is issued to you. Read their literature carefully; some warning signs may be language such as “ISBN assignment” and “we will give you a unique ISBN.”
- Some self-publishing companies will muddy the waters by equating title set-up at Bowker with actual ownership of the ISBN. Put it this way: title set-up means the company will add your book’s name and authorship to an ISBN they may already own. If a company is doing the title set-up for you, make sure it’s for an ISBN that you have purchased!
- Have you been provided with examples of covers and pages from actual books the company or freelancer has designed? How do they measure up with bestsellers in your genre? Do they fit in or do they look amateurish in comparison?
- Does the company or freelancer receive positive customer reviews? Are reviews easy to find (i.e., on their website or Facebook page)? Don’t forget to Google the company and see what people are saying. If there are no reviews, can the freelancer provide you with references?
- Will your book be accessible to book stores and libraries? Note that IngramSpark is the only print-on-demand company that will distribute to and accept returns from book stores in return for a higher wholesale discount (i.e., less profits to you). Some self-publishing companies will not distribute to book stores because doing so is not as profitable for them. Note also the difference between distribution and marketing. Just because a book store in Kalamazoo can order your book doesn’t mean your book is even on their radar screen. Marketing the book—telling the world about it—is YOUR job, regardless of which route you take, although you can hire marketing experts and promotional services.
I hope the above checklist helps clarify some of the questions you should be asking and increases your awareness of the issues you may encounter on your self-publishing journey. If I have muddied the waters further, my apologies. Feel free to send me your questions, and I’ll respond!