Self-Publishing: The New Gold Rush

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On January 24, 1848, one lucky fellow named James W. Marshall found gold in California. For the next seven years, hordes of hopefuls flocked to the West Coast state in hopes of striking it rich with a pickaxe and just a bit of luck. For the vast majority of them, that never happened. What did happen was thousands of opportunistic entrepreneurs making a fortune selling gold seekers the tools they needed for forty times the actual price.

While self-publishing is by no means a new idea, it follows a similar trend. According to Wikipedia (so take the info with a grain of salt), in 2008, there were more books self-published than published by traditional means for the first time in history. For those who got into the eBook publishing game that early, the following handful of years were truly fruitful. The eBook market expanded rapidly as people not only accepted digital books, but embraced them with amazing enthusiasm. Those authors made tidy little fortunes, some even went full-time or built up enough status to rival traditionally published bestsellers, and like James W. Marshall, those early success stories had budding authors all over the world flocking to self-publishing in droves.

But that growth stage of endless opportunity is over now.

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The market for eBooks has matured. Like the Californian Gold Rush, thousands of authors still flock to self-publishing and eBooks with the same hopes and dreams all of us have: to make it; to be a “real author”; to see our names on the NY Times Bestsellers List; to make so much money we can retire from the day job and move out into a lovely McMansion and do nothing but write and look important all day. Only problem is, there is precious little of that to be found. Forecasts for 2017 are sobering across the board: more eBooks, more eBook sales, but less royalty income. More difficulty gaining exposure and interest. Pressure to devalue eBooks to the point of making them free. More authors slowing down or quitting over the diminishing income.

We could argue and debate until the cows come home about what’s causing this and how to stop it, but that’s not the point of this post. I want to talk about the opportunists instead. Remember the Gold Rush entrepreneurs? In the book industry, that translates to unqualified armies-for-hire: anything from editors, formatters, and cover designers, to publicists, virtual (or in-person) assistants, and snake oil salesmen all of whom swear up and down that they know the secret to guaranteed financial success, for the low price of everything you own.

See, I have a problem with this. Because, on the surface of it, most of these professions are useful, sometimes even necessary for an author to run their self-publishing business without losing their ever-loving minds (except the snake oil salesmen, of course). In theory, I am all for employing any or all of these if/when you need them and can afford them—I encourage it wholeheartedly. But there is a stunning lack of honor and integrity floating around with these so-called “professionals,” who are really just people with little or no experience taking advantage of hopeful authors who have even less. It’s the stuff of gutter scum excrement, and I see it more and more, everywhere I look.

I hate that I have to see hopeful authors sink their life savings into a project and lose it all. I hate that I have to see so many people out there so greedy that they are willing to take someone’s money and not give anything useful in return. And I hate that more and more, it’s becoming just a fact of author life, totally accepted and allowed. It shouldn’t be. At best, it’s dishonest; at worst it’s criminal fraud, and because most of this takes place online, it’s almost impossible to stop or prevent. Kind of like piracy, except more insidious, because it does look totally legit on the face of it.

And because I don’t like to present a problem without offering a solution, here is my recommendation (and no, it’s not alcohol):

Steps to hiring a legitimate professional:

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0. Protect yourself at all times.

Before you do anything, make sure to cover your ass. If you already have the final, edited version of your book completed, register it with the office of Copyrights. It is your only admissible piece of evidence in any copyright dispute that you are the owner and creator of your work. Don’t argue, just do it. You’ll thank me later. If you only have the first or unedited draft, hold off on copyright registration, but make doubly sure that you know whose hands you put it into. Anyone you don’t know and can’t vouch for could potentially be a way for your book to be pirated before it’s even published.

1. Do your homework and try to do it yourself first.

With the exception of a good editor (whom every author should have, without exception), most other things around eBooks, even print books you can actually do yourself with a little blood, sweat, and tears. There are free guides and tools out there to help you, and a lot of times, those same tools are what the pros use, or equivalent. For example, you don’t need to hire a web developer to create a beautiful website (case in point: I made mine with minimal adjustment using WordPress.com). Try it once, try it twice, see how easy or difficult it is. At least then you’ll know what you’re actually paying for when you decide to hire someone. For a partial list of resources I recommend, click here.

2. Play the field and utilize your contacts.

The odds of coming across the right person for the job right off the bat are slim to none. In most cases, you’ll want to look around first, compare several people or companies based on the services they provide and the price they charge for them. Beware of anyone who does not make their basic price list (even an estimated one) freely available. That means they are charging everyone differently, which is a sure sign they will take you for one hell of an expensive ride. If you have friends who are published authors, ask them for references on who they use for what and how happy they are with them. That is always a good starting point. I personally tend to do most things myself, by I can highly recommend my editor, Golden Standard Editing. Check them out.

3. Ask a lot of questions and demand real answers.

If the person you find only has vague information on their site, or you’re unclear on something, ask them for clarification. If they’re legit, they’ll happily answer any questions you might have. Some might even give you tips or references for someone who might be a better fit for you. A professional who knows what they are doing and has done it before will have no problem explaining their process in detail, and providing you with a list of references you can check out, perhaps even contact. If they refuse to answer, or give an answer that leaves you confused or unsatisfied, stay away. It means they have something to hide.

4. Google, research, stalk, and in general get as invasive as you can.

This is your life’s work we’re talking about. You want to entrust it into safe hands and be sure you’re actually getting what you paid for. A simple Google search will often reveal quite a bit about your potential professional-for-hire. Reviews, blogs, news articles, and social media mentions tend to be a pretty good gauge of a person’s true qualifications. If you find anything you wouldn’t be comfortable with happening to you, stay away. However, if you find nothing, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad. It could just be they are starting a new business and haven’t yet accumulated enough feedback to impress Google’s algorithms. Tread carefully, but no need to shy away—yet.

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5. Debate, negotiate, haggle, and discuss.

Having completed all of the above, you should now have a short list of people you would be willing to work with. Some will be rigid in the services they offer and how much they charge, while others might be willing to work with you for whatever you need. Never be afraid to ask, negotiate, and compare. For example, a brand new business might not be a bad place to go, but they should not be charging 20-year-professional’s fees. You shouldn’t have to take their expertise on faith. Ask for a trial period, or a test project to see how things go. Some editors will offer to line edit a few pages of your work for free to showcase how they work and let you decide if you want to work with them. Some publicists will do a free ad run to see if they can successfully raise your sales using their methods. It won’t always be the case, but based on how they talk and negotiate, you can usually tell a person’s attitude toward working with you.

6. Don’t get desperate, and don’t rush.

Rush decisions tend to end badly. If you don’t have the time to go through this process, do it in pieces, or hold off. If you can’t afford the services you need, set your project aside and save up for it first. You alone can decide how much you are willing to spend in terms of time and money, and you alone can decide what your book is worth. I won’t lie, you’ll have to spend money to make money. But you shouldn’t have to spend a fortune. If someone tries to pressure you to move up your timeline, walk away. They’re trying to manipulate you into paying more than you have to before you find a cheaper or better solution.

7. Always get it in writing.

I don’t like vague promises. I don’t like wishy-washy anything. If I am paying someone to do something, I want to know what I’m paying for, how it’ll be done, and when it’ll be finished. Anyone you hire, make sure you get something in writing, be it an email confirmation, or an actual contract. Always read the fine print and make sure you’re not signing away your livelihood along with your soul. If any point is not to your liking, negotiate. If they refuse to budge and you aren’t comfortable with it, walk away. There are a lot of fish in the sea, and one is bound to work out to both parties’ satisfaction. Never settle for less than that.

Addendum on Pricing.

Very few jobs in this industry require a per-hour rate. Unless you’re hiring someone to work for you full- or part-time on a continuous basis, their rates should reflect an honest effort on their part to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable price. Never accept a per-hour rate on a finite project; it leaves the person you hire free to stretch the time as much as possible to make more money off you.

Editing, for example, should be priced at per-project (e.g. Novels 80,000+ words: $350 for line editing) or per-word (e.g. $0.005 per word [for an 80,000-word novel, that would be $400]) rates.

Website building should be charged based on the project scope (e.g. the type of website and content, number of individual pages, etc.) and you should have details on where/how it will be hosted. Unless you’re hiring this person to be your admin (meaning they will go in periodically to update your website), it should be hosted on your server, or on an independent one that you have access to, in case you decide in the future to go with someone else to administrate it. This is so that you don’t get locked out of your own website and have it held hostage.

Advertising should be charged on a per-ad basis, and should spell out details of what it includes (e.g. type of ad, where it will be posted, how it will look, who will see it, and how long it’ll be “live”).

Cover design should have one standard rate for eBooks and one for print books. Sometimes the price of stock images is included, other times it’s extra. That’s okay. As long as you know what you’re paying for. If you’re paying extra for the stock image, you should actually receive the stock image for your own use (or purchase it yourself and send it to the designer to be used on your cover).

Reading fees, while not illegal, are highly unethical. If you go to a publisher and they ask for money up front, stay away. If you go to an editor and they charge an “evaluation fee” to basically read your book and tell you their opinion, stay away. That’s not how publishers and editors work. Publishers get paid from royalties, just like you. Editors get paid for correcting/proofing your book. If a reviewer charges fees for their reviews, stay away. Some big trade review companies do this, and you could end up paying hundreds for just a sentence or two to put on your book cover. They are used a great deal, but whether or not those reviews actually make a difference is unknown. Small blogs and individual reviewers charging these fees are not to be trusted. (Side note: Amazon now deletes paid reviews as they find them, and if they catch you paying for reviews with anything other than a free review copy of the book you could get your publishing account with them banned.) In short, if they are asking for money to read your book, they are bad news.

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Why I wrote this.

One of the predictions for 2017 I read recently was that authors will band together more. I dearly hope this is true. We have enough people barking and snipping at us without us turning on each other. Being a less-than-social creature, I don’t usually go out of my way to, ya know, talk to people, but I do try to respond and help as much as I can when someone reaches out to me. I don’t have much in the way of connections, so it’s not like I can say, “Hey, I know a guy who knows a guy who can get your book to a Big 5 Publisher!” But because of that, I do have some experience in navigating the publishing waters on my own, and am always willing to share what I learned. It’s my own brand of solidarity, my way of paying it forward. My hope behind this (admittedly long-winded) post is that someone out there will read it and avoid getting into a bad business relationship. If I can prevent even one person from being cheated out of their money, my words will not have been wasted.

Until next time!

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2 thoughts on “Self-Publishing: The New Gold Rush

  1. Crystal Flynn

    Really appreciate that you have taken the time to share what you’ve learned about making your craft work–and what pitfalls to avoid along the pathway to success. As I’m a firm believer in helping others, who follow you, as you navigate your own successes–this is awesome and VERY helpful! Keep writing!!!

    • Alianne

      Hi Crystal,

      It’s always good to know help and advice is out there. 🙂 I’m glad I was able to share at least this much and that someone found it useful. Thanks for reading! 😀

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