The rise of self-publishing has made it possible for anyone to be an author. Now, some people are also choosing to outsource their book project by hiring an author services company.
On the surface, this seems much easier than finding and hiring a half-dozen professionals to create your book. (For background on the self-publishing industry and author services companies, please read my previous MediaShift article.) But is it worth it? Below are some of the potential danger zones of working with these services, as exposed by authors who were seduced by the promises of quick and easy self-publishing packages. I also offer some advice about avoiding these pitfalls.
Beware the ISBN Acquisition
Larry Jaffee wants his book back.
“Albert Square & Me: The Actors of EastEnders” is based on 18 years of interviews with actors from the popular BBC show. He chose iUniverse to publish his book because “I was looking for a one-stop shop that would run the interference I needed.” He bought their Premier program for $899 (on special from $1099), which included the ISBN and bar code acquisition, and distribution in the U.K. Getting into U.K. wholesalers Bertrams and Gardners was an integral part of his marketing plan, as the 25th anniversary of the show was coming up.
“They even talked me into an additional $699 for a program to handle bookstore returns,” he said.
The only problem?
“The U.K. bookstores didn’t order it because it was a [print-on-demand] book.”
Jaffee is planning a second edition of the title, and he intends to do things differently this time.
“I have over 30 interviews that didn’t make it into the first edition, so I’ll create a second edition with my own ISBN,” he said. He’ll probably design the book himself in QuarkXPress, and will hire one of his editors to edit and proofread the work. He is considering an offset printer because he fears that printing with Lightning Source will tag it as a POD book, which the U.K. wholesalers reject. (Jaffee need not worry: Lightning Source is a publisher services company whose business model is based on print and distribution. They do not have the same stigma with resellers.)
How to buy your own ISBN and bar codes: Visit Bowker Identifier Services to purchase a block of 10 ISBNs for under $250. Why 10 and not one?
Because they’re a lot cheaper in bulk (a single ISBN is $125), and you’ll need a new ISBN for each form of the book: print, e-book, audio, new editions and, of course, your next book. Also, if you buy just one, booksellers might figure out that you’re a self-published author. You can purchase EAN Bar Codes for each ISBN for $25 on an as-needed basis for your print editions. With your own publishing house name on the book, you can print and distribute offset or print-on-demand or short runs, and booksellers won’t lump you in with Lulu, iUniverse, and other POD services.
Great Distribution, Paltry Profits
It’s important to realize author services companies do not make their money from selling books — they make money from convincing authors to buy their services. An author services company sells your book through their program to online resellers like Amazon and in their own online store, and they allow you to buy an inventory of your own book for a set price.
For example, when Jaffee sells “EastEnders” on Amazon, he gets about $2 per book after iUniverse takes their cut. That’s an incredibly small payout for a book with a list price of $25.95.
On top of that, author services companies rarely receive orders from brick-and-mortar booksellers, unless a customer specifically orders the book.
“Lulu is really deeply embedded with the distribution companies,” she said, “which I thought was great until I wanted to take my book off Lulu and create my own company, maximizing profits with a ‘real’ distribution deal.” (Bartlett eventually made a deal with Sasquatch Books.)
How to get great distribution and a nice profit margin: Get a DBA name and publish your book with your own company name and logo. (Be sure to choose a name that doesn’t scream “self-publisher.”) Booksellers, distributors and readers are not likely to notice, or care, as long as your book is produced professionally and you have a great website and social media presence. From there, join the Amazon Advantage program to sell your book directly through Amazon.com, or sign up with Lightning Source to get listed in the Ingram database. Sign their print and e-book distribution contracts for U.S., U.K., and Canadian online and brick-and-mortar resellers. If your book is of very high quality and you have a great marketing plan, you can apply for bookstore distribution with a reputable company like Small Press United. You will ship a large number of offset print books to them (the best price breaks occur at 1,000 and 2,500 copies), and they will handle all domestic (U.S.) distribution for you. These channels will all take a 55 percent cut on the retail price, but when you sell your book through your website and personal appearances you receive 100 percent of the cover price.
Print-On-Demand: The Proof is in the Price
Many POD author services companies outsource their printing jobs to the lowest bidder. The result is a lack of quality control. When Bartlett published “GrassRoutes” with Lulu, she was delighted with the ease of the process but said “the print quality was awful. Guidebooks are used — they’re opened and closed and bump around in backpacks. Pages fell out, bindings cracked, covers curled.”
Lisa Alpine, a member of my Wild Writing Women group, is a book-birthing coach and author of the upcoming anthology, “Exotic Life: Laughing Rivers, Dancing Drums and Tangled Hearts.” She advises using Lulu or CreateSpace only for printing cheap proofs.
“Proofs can cost up to $75 from print companies, but I upload my latest PDF to Lulu, click the print button, and get a copy of my latest experiment in the mail for under $10,” she said. “It’s an affordable way to learn, to play with the design, fonts, even the order of my stories.”
How to print a proof, a short run, get a good POD contract, and a quantity in offset: Use POD author services companies with no upfront costs like Lulu or CreateSpace to print proofs only (do not include the ISBN and barcode). When you’re sure of your product, print a small inventory with a reputable short run printer like 48HrBooks (100 minimum), and sign up to print and distribute with Lightning Source, which can take a while, as a representative will need to walk you through the process. When you’re ready to print 1,000 copies at a time, find a reputable offset printer. Both Alpine and Bartlett chose Transcontinental. “They’re printed on 100 percent recycled paper, have great service, excellent quality, and are priced very competitively,” said Alpine. Jaffee may go the same route, but in the meantime he’s stuck with the iUniverse contract: He pays $10 per book for a minimum quantity of 500 books.
Marketing and Publicity: More Than a Press Release
Many author services packages that include promotion and marketing cost between $1,500 and $15,000. Karen Leland, a San Francisco Bay Area book publicist and president of Sterling Marketing Group, said clients often come to her on the verge of tears after paying an exorbitant amount of money for just one press release sent to traditional media channels with no results.
“While the best publicist in the world can’t guarantee which publication, blog, radio or TV show will run with a review of an author’s book, or interview them as an expert, there are certain things a dedicated publicist can do to customize the PR campaign and improve the odds the writer will get picked up by media,” she said. “The problem with the generic approach author services companies take is that it’s ‘one size fits all.’ That rarely produces the best results.”
How to build your platform and choose a promotion professional: Leland recommends you start promotion activities as many as two years before your book is published. This builds your platform. These activities include getting a website, blogging and taking advantage of social media and networking tools. If you’re going to hire a publicist, request a detailed plan that includes the specific projects that will be part of the campaign, the timeline for delivering on these projects, what you as the author are expected to provide to the publicist, and the process by which the publicist will keep you updated on the progress of your campaign. And be sure to ask them to provide other authors as references.
Editing and Design: Big Investment, Big Payoff
The book interior and cover design tools author services companies provide are very easy to use, but they’re also proprietary. You have to start all over again if you want to move your book to another company. Also, if you’re paying for their design and editing services, remember that their business model is to sell services to authors, not to make your book the next big bestseller.
“It’s a crapshoot,” said Joel Friedlander, a professional book designer who has spent time correcting bad book covers and interior designs that suffer from poor font choices, inadequate margins, and poorly thought out images. “I have a book from CreateSpace on my desk with the odd page numbers on the left, the even ones on the right, set completely in Times and Times Bold. What a disaster! These companies lead you to believe that you’re getting a professional-looking book when all they are selling you is a paint-by-the-numbers standard template that may be completely inappropriate for your book’s intended market. It brands the author as an amateur, or worse, incompetent. Find a designer who will respect your work, treat you as an individual, and give you a book that you can proudly sell against the best books on the shelf.”
Lisa Alpine’s search for a copy editor turned up many who replied to her carefully spelled-out requirements with an email stating, “I’d love to take a look at your book!” and no details on pricing or process. The editor she hired was “the only candidate who professionally returned a price sheet with clear descriptions of the various levels of editing with prices clearly stated for services from proofreading to conceptual editing.”
She hired her to edit one chapter to see if their personalities fit.
“The working relationship between editor and author is so close,” said Alpine,“that it’s essential you’re on the same page, so to speak.” This is also true for working with designers. Alpine hired Lyn Bishop to consult with her on the cover for “Exotic Life,” though she also did part of the work herself since she’s competent in Photoshop.
How to get great editing and design: Take a look at Friedlander’s articles about book design to get an idea of the complexity of design. For cover design trends, peruse the Book Design Review blog, (though be aware that it was recently put on hiatus). Find an editor by asking around at local writing and publishing organizations, and by asking online groups. Get recommendations and clarity on pricing, and start with one chapter to make sure you’re compatible. Print proofs and commit to perfection.
More and more people with serious ambitions for their book are realizing that author services companies aren’t necessarily the place to go. More people are starting their own businesses and professionally producing their own books.
In terms of working with consultants, remember that paid professionals are as proud of their work as you are of your own, and they’re a joy to collaborate with. For book authors this is, luckily, the more rewarding choice.
“I really savor each step in the process, and getting involved so I don’t have to be stressed out and mystified,” said Alpine. “You know, we used to throw manuscripts to a publisher and hope for the best. I think it’s a real privilege to be able to have control of your own book.”
Carla King is a publishing and social media strategist and co-author of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbook, which grew out of experiences leading workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and on her website.