When most authors start thinking of self-publishing their book (usually after years of failed querying, or with dollar signs in their eyes from reading about millionaire authors like Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking) what they’re really looking for is some magical hybrid service that will do everything for them.
These do not exist.
Traditional publishers pay for everything and give you an advance. You should never pay to publish with a “real” publisher. But advances are diminishing as are royalties, and even successful authors often don’t make a full time living.
On the flip-side, self-publishing authors hire freelancers for their book design and formatting; they hire a proofreader or editor; maybe an assistant; maybe someone to revise their blurb or in rare cases handle their ads (this almost never works well, you really need to run ads yourself.
Self-publishing IS exhausting and it takes years to learn how to do all this stuff or even how to hire the right help, at the right prices. Therefore, many new or first time authors would rather just pay someone else to do things for them.
These small self-publishing “hybrid” presses usually offer a package of services (many that you don’t need) at inflated costs, with substandard service. Some of them make millions of dollars, because there’s a ton of demand. Some of them mean well and are run by good people (who are bad designers or know very little about marketing). Starting a publishing business is an attractive move for failed authors who know enough about self-publishing to start offering services.
And they can be FINE – if you just want to get your book out there. But keep in mind, the vast majority of authors lose money publishing. The handful who are making real money – I mean six figure authors (yes it’s possible) – have without exception learned how to publish without needing a company to manage all the pieces for them.
The dangers are threefold:
1. They won’t do a good enough job on important stuff like the cover or blurb.
2. They probably have no idea how to really grow your audience/email list (crucial for reviews!)
3. You’ve given up control, which means you won’t actually learn all the stuff you need to learn.
Often these companies will upsell you marketing packages that won’t work because you’ve got an inferior product. Often they’re indistinguishable from so-called vanity presses. If you’re PAYING to publish, and you’re spending more than you’re making without seeing results/sales/reviews/readership – your book will not succeed.
Spending too much on your first book is a rite of passage, but it can be avoided!
There are SO MANY brilliant blogs and websites who have tons of content teaching you how to self-publish successfully, for those with the willingness to learn.
WHAT TO PAY FOR
High quality, time-consuming work isn’t cheap or free. You can do everything on a budget and publish for as little as $100, but the average first time author spends at least $2000. Most of my successful friends have gotten that down to around $1000, including cover design, formatting and editing
1. Pay for a cover. Not the cover you think you want. The one that will sell the book.
2. Pay for formatting, or do it yourself with templates.
3. Pay to get your blurb edited/revised.
4. Pay for an email list service like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, Convertkit etc.
5. Pay for a listbuilder that’s genre-specific, so you have some people who might read your ARC (advanced reader copy).
(6). Pay for editing. I think everyone should be able to publish even if they can’t afford an editor, AND I think a lot of editors will just clean up the writing and not actually increase commercial-ability. Most books are beyond hope because they were written without any plan or structure… the right editor can help/improve and point out weaknesses but ideally YOU would have studied the market, the craft and written a book people want to read.
What about author websites?
Yes, you should have something – but in most cases it’s a waste of time. I get a lot of organic traffic for both fiction and nonfiction; that’s free marketing for me – but I’ve spent years adding the right kind of content. Blogging can be smart, but most authors have a website with no content, that’s ugly or hard to use.
If you aren’t getting search traffic, that means you need to manually invite each visitor with a link or business card, and that’s no way to run a business. Much better to learn AMS or Facebook ads; send people to a landing page or optin form (you can set one up free with most email list providers).
WHAT NOT TO PAY FOR
So many things, but keep this in mind:
You need a well-packaged, well-positioned product with intrinsic and obvious benefits to your target readership.
When you put your book cover, your hook, tagline or teaser in front of the right readership, they understand it’s the kind of book they enjoy reading. The benefits are obvious. They click on the cover and read the blurb. Sounds good. They check out the reviews. If they trust the positive ones, they’ll consider buying it and check the price.
The more reader WANTS the book, because the first three are doing their job, the less price conscious they will be… but the reverse is also true! If the cover, blurb and reviews don’t hook or convince, they won’t want the book AT ANY PRICE – you can’t even give away free copies.
Therefore, any and all marketing or visibility or promotion will FAIL if the offer isn’t already converting. Most authors get stuck here, publishing a mediocre product, not being able to get reviews (because they can’t even get people to read a free review copy!) and then spending thousands on more promotion that will not work.
Recently I made a long video review of Xlibris – one of the biggest self-publishing vanity presses – critiquing all the extra marketing services they offer and why most of them are worthless or at least overpriced. Watch the video, because most self-publishing companies offer the same kind of extra services: they offer them because authors want to pay for them, even though they don’t work.
Personally, I think it’s sketchy to hard sell services you know won’t work to a desperate author who believes in their book (and then upselling them marketing services when the book isn’t selling)… but I also don’t want to be in the position of judging an author’s work or chance at success.
This is business: they are providing the services authors think they need, but they only NEED those services because their book isn’t selling and they have no idea what to do next. Most of the time, if you sign up for a publishing package of any sort (or, for example, someone says they want to publish you *but* you need to pay for editing first) – you’re actually paying a vanity press who will (hopefully) deliver the bare minimum publishing requirements, but will farm out the work, hire an account manager to guide you, and give 50% to ads and CEO’s to keep the giant vehicle running.
And I’m not necessarily saying you’ll do better with a small, hands-on, boutique press: those often have good intentions, but simply don’t have the skills in book design or marketing to really pull it all off. In general, if you’re self-publishing, it’s going to be cheaper + better to hire out each service yourself, put it all together and upload your files to Amazon, so you retain full control and earn higher royalities per book sale.
BUT I know that can feel overwhelming, and many authors choose to use a vanity press anyway, because it’s a tidy package. I get that this is a reasonable choice; but most authors seriously regret it later when they realize how much they overpaid and how little value they actually received.
BEFORE YOU SIGN ANYTHING
Red flags: if someone reaches out to you directly because they’ve found your book and are interested in helping you; almost always they’re phishing to sign you up for an expensive package. Do your research. Follow David Gaughran who’s good at calling out predatory author services. Follow Writer Beware. Google the company and try to find real, honest reviews.
Victoria Strauss has a great list of red flags to watch out for.
The Best Self-Publishing Companies (finally!)
I’ve a question for you that different authors have asked, and I don’t know the answer: Of all the self-publishing houses out there, does one stand out among the others? Can you recommend one? Along the way, I’ve heard good things about BookBaby, Infinity, Lulu, Lightning Source, and also Reedsy and IngramSpark. I’ve no idea if these are still highly regarded. Also: Does Amazon have a self-publishing print book option, or is it all KDP?
- BookBaby and Lulu offer full services, so you *can* pay for a package and get everything, including distribution. BUT I can’t recommend the quality of their book design, which is hugely important, and you’ll be overpaying (BookBaby, I believe, is cheaper.) I *think* with BookBaby you pay a flat fee for ebook distribution, instead of the 10% you’d pay with Smashwords or Draft2Digital.
- IngramSpark and Lightning Source are basically the same. Lightning Source was a pain to use so they’ve rebranded as IngramSpark for independent publishers or self-publishing authors. You’ll need all your files finished and perfect; they can handle print on demand and distribution but not book design.
- Reedsy is a marketplace with vetted service providers – and they have some really useful tools, but they don’t (I’m pretty sure) offer publishing packages or distribution: they can help match you with an editor, designer or marketer (though their “marketing” options are limited. I’ve asked Ricardo, the founder about this, and we agree that it’s difficult to find actual, reputable, decent marketing services for indie authors… because most of what’s offered won’t actually work). One thing I dislike about Reedsy is that it doesn’t show prices, because every service provider is different, so you’d have to do the leg work and contact some people for quotes and estimates, then Reedsy (I believe) takes 10% of those transactions.
- KDP and Createspace. Amazon used to have Createspace for print on demand books (shipping and fulfillment) but the system was dated so now they’ve moved everything over to KDP (kindle direct publishing) which is confusing, because they DO offer self-published print books. You just set up an ebook project and they’ll prompt you to make a print version as well.
Best self-publishing service (where to publish)
More nuance: So here’s my recommended list, in no particular order. These are people I’ve met, that I trust, that provide great, reliable information about self-publishing. Most of them are *not* strictly speaking, publishing companies that offer done for you packages, for the reasons I spoke about above (although some do offer services).
As I mentioned, publishing is really just uploading your formatted manuscript, ebook cover and full print cover (with spine and back). The main three contenders are:
Ingram Spark/Lightning Source Lulu
These are print on demand services, which means they will print and ship one book for you when somebody purchases it. Some people use Ingram Spark/Lightning Source so they can set up returnability and industry discounts which *may* be important if, for example, you want to set up author signings at Barnes & Noble.
I did that with my first book, as well as sold books on consignment in bookstores. I no longer recommend it, because it’s a lot of work (you’ll need consistent time and effort to sell each book, one by one, which cannot scale). I’d much rather focus on ads so I can sell books without time or effort.
IF you want your books in bookstores, it may be worth getting your own ISBNs and not using KDP’s free options; business-wise, I’ve found it’s easiest to go directly with Amazon, the biggest bookstore and easiest place to find readers, which is why it’s the only one I use, UNLESS I’m “going wide” and distributing ebooks to Kobo, Apple, etc. (More on that later).
Someone recently asked in my free book marketing group,
Hey guys, I was wondering if anyone knew why you can sell a Kindle for 2.99 and receive over $2 in royalties for it but can’t sell a paperback for near $10 without getting less than a dollar in royalties?
“Because it costs money to print and ship a book (someone is in a huge factory carrying that one single book and shipping it to the right person). You’re helping to pay for the billion dollar machine that makes it possible.”
The thing is, a lot of new authors will try to compete with the trad publishing industry – those guys who spend millions promoting a book. So they’ll set the book up on Ingram Spark or Lightning Source to try to get hardcovers into book stores or libraries. But the massive, industry shakeup fact that revolutionized publishing in the last decade is in ebooks: which let authors offer their book at low cost and find thousands of readers, while earning 70% of profits.
Without a vast print book distribution network, or relying on print on demand/online sales, you’re going to have to go out and sell books one-by-one at events, which is hard and frustrating work. That’s why I don’t focus on print on demand at all (for most genres, print books will be about 10% of ebook sales, though of course for specialty markets, how-to, nonfiction, older readers – sometimes the print book will sell better).
IngramSpark has a reputation for higher-quality print, though in the tests I’ve seen this distinction is unreliable. And they’re a pain in the ass to work with; you need to have your files designed exactly, and (I think, still) pay a fee whenever you revise files, whereas KDP is more accepting.
Lulu is more of a one-stop shop, in that they’ll do cover design and formatting for you (not sure if they still do this? They stopped offering editing and just linked to my editing site instead) but they’ll pay lower margins and their design quality is average at best. Bookbaby, I believe, is pretty similar – they offer packages and/but also help with the ebook distribution; Lulu is the same I believe, services+distribution.
Amazon USED to offer book design, but stopped. So now, unfortunately, tons of authors looking for an easy, done-for-you self-publishing service often get wrapped up by a vanity press because there aren’t other reliable options.
After print books, the other piece of the puzzle is how to get your ebooks out into the online marketplaces?
Smashwords run by Mark Coker is one of the earliest self-publishing companies to distribute your ebook to the major retailers. Mark’s always been uncomfortable recommending author services (because he’s a stand-up guy and knows the industry is full of scammy predatory companies), but he does guide people through self-formatting their books to work with Smashwords conversion process.
A relative newcover is Draft2Digital, which also offers some neat tools and features and is a bit more user-friendly. HOWEVER, personally I recommend uploading to the main online bookstores yourself; you can do this easily on KDP.
Getting into the ibooks store or google play store is a little trickier; I also think it’s better for most first time authors to enroll in KU (Kindle Unlimited, amazon’s 3-month exclusive contract) just to focus your efforts on one platform and try to get reviews up on your Amazon page.
The decision of whether to go exclusive or wide is a big one, with many arguments, but in my experience, authors with no platform, followers, or experience will learn faster sticking to one platform, experimenting and trying to get their book to sell, rather than trying to keep track of all platforms. People who have an audience and more experience with ads and funnels, may do better wide.
It’s also important to note, ONLY people who upload their ebooks directly to KDP can use AMS ads and advertise directly on Amazon, which is kind of huge as it’s the single most direct method for putting your book in front of readers who are actively searching for content.
Can I recommend just one publishing company for indie authors? NO.
I wish I could point to a company that does a good job of book design and marketing, but I just can’t – too much depends on the actual book. Lulu or BookBaby are fine – they’ll get the job done if you don’t have the bandwidth, but I doubt your book published with them will succeed because almost always that depends on you.
Almost all the authors I know who actually make a living with this, hire designers and editors directly; most do their own formatting or hire someone; all upload directly without using an intermediary service. It’s about split between KDP and IngramSpark (maybe authors use both).
Marketing is mostly about ADVERTISING (which you need to learn and control) and NEWSLETTERS (which you’ll need to build and sustain, which means you probably need a website as well). People keep asking me if I could just do all this for them, and the answer I’ve given is NO, because an author platform needs to be cultivated over time to develop a relationship with your readers.
I couldn’t run AMS ads unless having access to your KDP dashboard; I *could* run Facebook ads or set up a landing page for you but I’d charge a lot and I’d rather be doing other things. There’s simply not enough profit in book sales for most authors to outsource their marketing (which means, they would be paying me more than they would be earning in profits, and that’s not great for anyone).
TOP SITES FOR INDIE AUTHORS
I want to go back and add a list to all the self-publishing blogs and gurus I like but for now I’ll just link to this post:
Let me know in the comments what you think of this article and if you’ve found any other reliable, affordable services or publishing companies you enjoyed working with.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.