In 2018, there were over 1.5 million new self-published titles that hit the market. Since then, the number of new authors has only increased. Because of this trend, more self-publishing companies are appearing; it seems a new company pops up in my social media feeds almost every day.
This is both good news and bad news for self-publishing authors. There are more options than ever to self-publish a book with professional support. While this has also led to an uneven level of quality between companies. As long as a company has a decent looking website, they can appear legitimate, and self-published authors are left taking a risk not only with their money but also their reputation as an author. An author’s debut has one chance to impress their audience, and if they produce a book that looks amateur and is full of errors, no one will take the book seriously, and therefore will not take the author seriously in the future.
You’ll encounter a wide range of prices, services, and, unfortunately, quality across the self-publishing landscape, so it can be frustrating to navigate all the options and all the promises self-publishing companies make. Choosing the right company can be the single most crucial decision you make for your book and your career as an author. The good news is that there are some strategies to help reduce your risk and increase your chance of success.
Determine What You Need
I often tell people that once they write a book and decide to self-publish it, they have become a business owner — and their product is their book. Because it is a business, you take on all the responsibilities of making the book a success. This can become a little overwhelming for first-time authors because they may lack the experience to know what they need and what services they will have to secure. Here is a list of necessities for most books.
Editing. No one can edit their own book. Read that again — you cannot edit your own work. Our minds will skip over mistakes and even add missing words. You can refine and revise your work to get the most out of editing, and it is recommended that you try to produce as clean a copy as possible. One way to do this is to print out the manuscript and read it out loud with your red pen in hand. Reading a book aloud uses a different part of our brain and helps us catch mistakes more easily. However, it is not a fool-proof system or a substitute for another set of eyes on your work. It is recommended that most authors get a three-level edit, as each level addresses specific issues.
- Developmental edit - This is the most intensive edit as it looks at the big picture of your story or content, and analyzes the plot, gaps, characters, arguments, narrative and more. Not all authors need a developmental edit, but many first-time authors certainly will. It is about the bones of your story, and a good developmental editor will elevate your work from a decent draft to an engaging page-turner. This is often the most expensive item on your list—editors usually charge by the word or the page. Writing a book is an investment, and as a self-published author, you are the investor. You can shop around for the best price, but avoid cutting corners.
- Copy edit/Line edit - Once your book’s content is refined, a copyeditor or line editor will dig into grammar, syntax, spelling, and flow issues on a sentence level. Some line edits are heavier than others, and some editors will offer some developmental editing alongside line/copy editing in a package deal.
- Proofread - This edit finds all the smaller errors that the first two edits missed, which should only be misspellings and typos at this point. There are bound to be a typo or two in any work. By this time, you have also made changes from the first two edits and may have even rewritten passages or added material, and so a proofreader will be able to look over that rewritten material for any new errors. All books, with no exceptions, need a proofread before they’re published and printed.
If a self-publishing company only offers one edit, it is often a proofread, which, while important, will miss larger issues with the work. Edits take time, and so if you are getting an edit back in two days, you can guess that it was not very complete. A good editor takes breaks so that their eyes are fresh on your work every time they sit down with it.
People indeed do judge books by their covers. Even in online publishing, people's eyes are attracted to good covers. Self-publishing authors often drop the ball on a good cover for two reasons—cost and vanity—a notion that they can design the cover themselves. Unless you are a trained graphic artist, you should hire someone to do your cover. The prices can vary.
When hiring a company to do your cover, you should have options of cover designs to choose from and, if possible, more than one designer to select. Every designer has their own style and book genres in which they specialize. There is no right designer for every book, and you want a designer that has experience with your genre and audience. They should be asking you questions about your goals, and it will take some back-and-forth to get the cover just right. Before you sign off on a cover design, you should share it with others to see their response, especially if you have a few designs for them to consider. Again, this should not be a rushed process.
Once your book is edited, it is ready to be "laid out" in an interior design. The design should reflect your genre and should be easy on the eyes. Specific fonts are standard book fonts and should be chosen carefully. Most professional designers use Adobe InDesign or a similar program. These are very technical programs, and not easy to learn, but they produce the best results. It is not a matter of converting your Word document into a PDF, and assuming you are done. That is similar to taking your smartphone to a live concert and comparing the recording to one done in a professional studio with special equipment and sound engineers. A book has to look stunning inside and out.
Most self-publishers want to sell their books both in print and in electronic form. eReaders use two types of files. .Mobi files are used exclusively for Kindle books, whereas .epub files are used with most other eReaders such as Nook. While it is possible to do so, it is not as simple as converting a PDF into one of these file types, as it would limit what a reader can do with the book, such as skipping to particular chapters, and you can run into file glitches if this is not done correctly. This is often an add-on service. Ask the company what programs they use to design their covers and interiors; ask for samples of other books they have produced. Do your due diligence before signing a contract and locking yourself in.
Reviews. It is never a good idea to rush a book. Companies that claim you can produce a book in a weekend or even 30 days should be avoided. It takes time to create the book, and that is only the beginning. Putting a book on Amazon and hoping for the best is not a plan. Your book will be lost, and only your family and your friends will buy it. Take time to get professional reviews. An Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) is often created to send your book out for reviews in the media and online ahead of release. Reviews take about three or four months to get returned, and so setting an immediate release date is not advised.
If a self-publishing company offers reviews, ask them precisely where they are sourcing those reviews. Places like Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, Goodreads, and NetGalley are examples of top-tier places to get professional reviews. If they don't have these services included, then they are just charging you for something you could do on your own for much less or at no cost. Be aware that some reviewers want printed books, and the cost is often put on the author for printing and shipping. Decide what you want and have the self-publishing company develop a plan that works specifically for your needs and budget.
Marketing. Marketing planning should begin as early as possible, with a foundation laid even before the draft is completed. You want a decent website that is branded to you, and while you don't have to pay a ton for a great site, it is much like covers and interiors; unless you have the experience, you should look to a professional for help. Ask to see other sites they have produced; not only will this give you an idea of the quality of their work, but can also give you ideas for your own site. Marketing also includes media appearances, tours, and advertisements. Ads can cost a lot of money if you don't have someone who knows what they are doing. Start slow and see what works. Ask for a detailed plan in writing that includes all of the marketing strategies with dates on delivery.
Look for a company with plenty of positive reviews and referrals. If you see a good deal of self-promoting, but you can't find anything else to support their claims, be cautious; it is easy to add generic fictional claims on a website. Try to look up people who supposedly left a testimonial. If you can't find any of them, reach out to the company and ask them for some of their successful clients' contact information. If they don't provide any, then you have your answer.
Follow through if you find some other authors and ask them about their experience with a particular company. Look on retail sites to see how people's books have fared. If there are only one or two reviews, then more than likely the book did not do well, and frequently it is not a reflection of the story; it could be a bad cover, typos, or just a lack of marketing.
Do your due diligence. Other places to look are the Better Business Bureau, and Google searches with keywords like scam, fraud, or complaint. If you don't find any negative responses, that does not guarantee that they are a great company, but it does help mitigate the risk.
Five Things To Avoid
There are red flags that can be caught before you lose money by choosing the wrong self-publishing company.
- They overuse the word "Bestseller." This is a very ambiguous term. Often they are referring to "Amazon Bestseller," which usually amounts to nothing. Every hour the algorithms change in categories that a book is listed under. You can literally sell one copy of a book at midnight in some obscure category, and it shows up as a bestseller. Guaranteeing an Amazon bestseller doesn’t require them to publish a quality book or provide a chance at real success. It is a smoke and mirrors tactic that often hides the reality of the lack of credible services offered.
- Don't be rushed into anything. If they call, email, and text you every day to sign on the dotted line, they are most likely just after a quick buck.
- If they want you to buy large quantities of your own book, this is a red flag, and these companies are referred to as a vanity press. In the age of print on demand, there is no reason for you to have a garage full of books you have not pre-sold. Even with print runs, inventory should be handled as part of distribution.
- If you can't talk to a live person, this is an issue. You should speak to a human being, not a call center or an AI customer-service robot. Book issues are often technical, and you need to work with real people to resolve them. Many self-publishing companies pretend to be in the United States, but they are overseas. Insist on talking through the services with a live person. Ask questions, and see how they answer. If they use "car salesman" pressure tactics, consider walking away.
- Watch out for contracts that are vague or only protect the company should something go wrong. Consider having your attorney eyeball a contract before you sign. It is worth paying an attorney for an hour of work rather than be stuck paying for services that harm your book's chances of success with little recourse to do anything about it. A good contract will protect the author’s rights.
When you are with the right company, you will know it; trust your gut. With the right company, that feeling of comfort and confidence allows you to do your book justice and start developing a fan base hungry for your next book.