Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Be Smart, not Taken: Red Flags to Heed When Seeking Self-Publishing Providers

I received a call several months ago from a potential client who wanted to discuss a possible “redo” of his book. The person who designed it claimed to know what he was doing; and editing … well, let’s just say there was virtually none. Worst of all, it was already listed on Amazon.

Upon meeting in person and seeing the book for myself, I was crestfallen that what this author had deemed acceptable—because I suppose he didn’t know any better—was nothing more than a bound first draft in book form, replete with myriad errors and every earmark of a poorly self-published book. How it got to Amazon in that stage was appalling; it honestly needed many hours of attention in every possible arena before it could be presented to readers.

To add frustration to the scenario, the people in charge of the company’s book budget on behalf of the author were reluctant to put the necessary funds into it. The money they invested badly in the blatantly amateur version impacted the budget they needed to bring it to a professional level for publication, and not knowing anything about book production, they didn’t understand why it still needed so many hours, and therefore more money to make it right. It was a true recipe for disaster, one that I wish the author—and every writer out there who wants to independently publish—had known enough to thwart.

Though this instance was extreme, it’s sadly not the first I’ve seen … or been asked to rectify.

As a professional book doctor whose sole commitment is to help authors produce the highest quality self-published books—those that truly rival traditional house publications—I’ve been disheartened to have increasing numbers of authors come to me after they’ve already made some costly mistakes. Because I sincerely don’t want to see this happen to you or any writer you know, it’s vital that you be aware of the red flags that, if heeded, will keep you from investing in inferior work by unqualified providers and encountering problems after your book is published.


I know how hard it is to hand over your labor of love to an editor. And because it's your baby, it’s imperative that you seek an editor with a body of work you can view to determine if the person is right for you. Referrals from other writers can be great, but you still need to do your homework for your particular book. The subject matter may not be the best match, so it’s up to you to assess several editors before deciding on the best one for your project.

Case in Point:
One of my clients paid $2,000 (a competitive rate for the length of her book) to an editor who was recommended to her by another writer. After the book came to me as the designer/proofreader, I found hundreds of errors that needed correcting, ranging from punctuation to clarity to grammar to flow. My client was heartbroken, having trusted this person to do the job well.

Another client who found her way to me mid-process initially believed she had a great editor—the website and phone rapport was all impressive—yet she was continually invoiced for work she never saw. Hmmm.

Red Flag Busters:

In my last blog post, Why Quality Copyediting Is Crucial When You Self-Publish, I outline in detail some steps every writer should take in finding the best editor. Here’s a quick list:

  • Look for a robust website that outlines their skills and what they offer. Are they developmental editors only or are they copy editors too? Do they work with fiction only or with fiction and non-fiction? In which capacity do they work in your genre? Are they also proofreaders? Do they offer manuscript evaluations or even coaching? Do they craft promotional materials, such as press releases, book descriptions, author bios, book pitches, etc.?
  • Ask what their specialities and strengths/weaknesses are. Every editor will specialize in particular genres and types of editing, so you want to be sure there's a good match for your book.
  • Ask to see examples of their work and/or credentials. What books have they worked on? Who have they worked for? If they don't have an editing credential (many don't) or haven't worked for a publisher, that's not a deal breaker; just be sure to inquire about the type(s) of editing they do and ask for specifics in terms of what they do as an editor. 
  • Pay them for an “audition”—a set amount of time (hourly rate) or flat fee for editing a chapter or portion of one so that you can assess the quality of work for your individual project.
  • Ask how they charge. Many charge by the hour (from $40–$120, depending on their expertise and whether it's a deep developmental edit or a routine copyedit), while others charge based on word count. Be sure you know exactly what you're getting for the rate you're paying. If they charge by the hour, they should be able to give you a range of expected cost from reviewing the manuscript.
  • Seek legitimate testimonials from clients on the editor's website; if they seem too generic or unverifiable, ask if you can contact the endorsers directly.
  • Ask what style guide(s)/references they use. Book editors should always use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and know which edition is current.
  • Inquire about the process they employ when working with authors. Some editors are old-school red-pen-to-paper, while most will use track changes, add comments for guidance, and send files through email; some will be harsh, others gentle and nurturing. No matter their style, you need to think about what will be best for your book and what will work well for you as an author.
  • Ask how they communicate. Will you be able to talk on the phone if you want to discuss your edits? Are they email communicators only? Be sure they're willing to communicate in the way that best works for you. 
  • Have a phone conversation. If you get a gut feeling that the person isn't right for your project, trust it and interview another provider.
  • Once you're working together, be certain you receive files showing the work being done—and done competently—on a regular basis. If you can't see what you're paying for, don't write that check until you do!

If any of the above expectations can’t be fulfilled, assess where the lack is and be smart in deciding if you should proceed in hiring—or keeping—them. You don't want to be disappointed or out your hard-earned money!

Book Design

You’ll hear me say this a lot: Most people have absolutely no idea what goes into quality book design. There are many layers and phases that are devoted to every aspect of your book—attention that must be paid to individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words, not to mention the front and back matter—and a person must be knowledgeable in traditional book design standards to accomplish this. The more complex the book, the more vital this is.

But even fiction, which seems fairly straightforward, commands much more than requisite margins and a decent font. Creating a customized interior that reflects the material is paramount. It should appear so seamless when it’s done right that it appropriately adds to the whole experience of reading the book.

Case in Point:
Another author came to me recently, proof copy in hand, excitement in her voice as she felt she was near ready to approve those final files. “It probably needs more editing,” she said, “but I just want to finally get it out there since I’ve been working on it for so long.”

Uh oh, I thought. When she sent a copy to me, I found that it not only needed more editing than she realized, but perhaps worse, the book also suffered from inferior design in every possible way. Again, someone claimed to be able to lay out her book who had no shred of knowledge in book design. I know I broke her heart when I, as gently as possible, told her this was the case.

Red Flag Busters:

  • If someone claims to be proficient in professional book interior layout and design, they should have an online portfolio that showcases their work; if they don't or are new to book design, they should be willing to create a short chapter concept for you to earn your approval.
  • When you view samples, you shouldn’t be able to distinguish them from traditionally published books. 
  • The provider should be able to outline—preferably on their website, but also by phone or in person—all of the conventions they use to produce a customized, yet industry-standard book for you. 
  • If they can’t explain all the nuances involved, don’t even think about hiring them.

Cover Design

You’ve seen them: covers that “look” self-published. And it’s rare that those covers sell books to a mainstream market. Why? Because they’re perceived as that of an amateur rather than a credible author, and we all know that the cover is our first impression of a book, one made in a hot millisecond.

Case in Point:
You don't need me to tell you that this They Did It With Horses cover suffers from poor design (I'm sorry to whomever designed it … I don't mean to pick on you, but it was already featured on a site about poor cover design, sad to say). This is exactly what typically happens with do-it-yourself programs where you plug in a photo and some text with an overused, basic font. This is clearly not a cover that had the benefit of thoughtful artistry behind it. The result? The author doesn't convey much credibility, if any. And the audience draw? I'm sorry to say that there's probably not much.

Again, a professional cover designer should have a portfolio that showcases covers that rival traditionally published books (or were actually traditionally published, if they once worked for a large house or small press and are now independent). If they’re just starting out, you should at least be able to view robust graphic design samples that exhibit their ability to utilize typography well, as this is a key aspect of excellent cover design. If they have none of these to show, you probably don’t want to trust this person to create your book cover.

How to spot the red flags?

  • Few or no samples that demonstrate their ability to produce a quality book cover
  • Cover samples with poor typography (the poor Horses book is a classic example of this)
  • No understanding of their responsibility to first do sound market research of your audience
  • Unwillingness to read your book (but you must pay them for their time to do so) so that they can appropriately reflect your material in the cover design
  • No knowledge of the book industry—cover design is a specialty and must be treated as such
  • Offering a low flat fee to produce your cover—achieving the right one often involves 2–5+ concepts, or at least several tweaks to the first one—so don’t go for a “one-size-fits-all” type of deal that won’t make your book shine (and be prepared to pay an hourly rate for a top-notch designer between $50 and $75/hr).

One More Piece of Advice

Be aware that when you pay companies such as CreateSpace (as of 2018, they no longer provide this service), Lulu and the like to produce your cover and/or interior, they retain the copyright to those designs, not you.

What's the problem with that?

If you decide at some point to publish your book through another company, you'll be faced with paying to have your cover and interior created all over again. That's right—those files aren't yours to reproduce. If this never comes up for you, it may not be an issue, but I just wanted you to be aware. Authors don't always realize this, and it comes as an unexpected—and expensive—shock when the knowledge comes too late.

So how do you own your files for publishing with anyone you wish?

Hire a competent independent book design professional by doing your homework, avoiding those gnawing red flags, rejecting shortcuts, and committing to producing a book that rivals a traditional house publication. You, your readers, and your labor of love deserve it!

Stay tuned for the next post, where you'll get the best advice to Shine with Stellar Book Cover Design so you achieve the best cover for your labor of love.

Until then, please share in the comment box below if you've encountered any of these snags on your self-publishing journey … and if you think this article has value for others, please share it on Facebook and/or Twitter using the buttons below. Thanks so much!

Write from the heart …

Much love,

Stacey Aaronson is a professional Book Doctor who takes self-publishing authors by the hand and transforms their manuscripts into the books they've dreamed of—from impeccable editing and proofreading to engaging, audience-targeted cover and interior design—rivaling or exceeding a traditional house publication.

Enter your name and email at the top right of any page of my site to receive my Top 10 Mistakes Self-Publishing Authors Make … And How YOU Can Avoid Them. It's a super free gift from me to you!