Skipping girlNew writers, or anyone who hasn’t got a publisher yet, look into self-publishing service houses. These are the companies like Hay House, Author House, Xlibris… you probably recognize them because they’re peppering your inbox. For so many of these, they’re a way to invest in your book. But you want to do some work in advance of your spending, like with any investment.

I suggest you skip Xlibris. It’s one of the oldest companies that serve the self-publishers. These are called author services companies by now. They do the “system integration” of editing, printing, and distribution. Xlibris has some dissatisfied customers out there, and some have been unable to retrieve their products from the Xlibris catalog.  You can also skip Author House, Hay House, Lulu… the list goes on.

How do these companies do business? Most of the time, they sell to the less-experienced writer. A traditional publisher will invest money in your book, take a higher share of the royalties, and use their existing catalog to try to leverage interest and sales of your new book. Self-publishing author services companies do none of these things. Bookbaby can be useful. They recommend 7 editing companies, and offer a complete publicity service. You can purchase a review, or use the service that’s included with a book production package. Editing services at these author houses can be tricky.

A friend has discovered that editors from the Philippines are serving Xlibris customers. The Philippines can be a fine place to contract for English-speaking customer support. The English is adequate for phone conversations about typical transactions and situations. But you can see how a country without a native English culture could produce ersatz English services. These kinds of author services companies — and even firms like Web.com, for author websites — undersell and bid rock bottom by going offshore for their contractors. Offshore services coming from England, of course, are not offshore in that same sense.

Marketing is the realm where the author must take the lead. A nonfiction book, thank goodness, is far easier to market than a novel. (Every book is easier to market than a novel, except perhaps poetry.) The Writer’s Guild has released a survey of its members that points at the evaporation of publicity and marketing from traditional publisher services.

Sometimes a company like Bookbaby will mention publicity. The level of outreach is short, though. “Traditional publishers’ promotional budgets have all but dried up,” said the Guild, whose members all have traditional contracts. “Authors are now expected to maintain their own web and social media presences.” You get a book tour through blogs with these trad publishers, most often. A popular stop is the website Writer Unboxed. You write a blog post, and your book is thusly promoted. The traditional houses can get you reviewed by a publication’s website, but nobody makes promises about publicity.

The legendary physical tour, through a few cities’ bookstores? Reserved for the five-figure advances, where the publisher is working to sell your books to win back that advance. The travel is often on your own to purchase. One of my friends who published a book with a six-figure advance got five cities. She does her own work now, reading at libraries and smaller bookstores. Some writers sell from the box of books they carry in, if the read at a library.

One of the writers who’s workshopped a book through The Writer’s Workshop created a deal with She Writes Press. It’s a fine place to hybrid publish — a mix of your own distribution and their channels — with help for distribution, as well as assuming the costs of editing and book production. The cover looks great, and her book was transformed over a year of editing. However, my writer has also hired a publicist during the start-up of her novel’s life. Even at the big houses, a good publicist won’t be working for you more than a month or so. It can be an investment of $1,000 a month when you hire your own.

For an author services company, a $5,000 arrangement is a common starting point for a genuine package, one that includes interior book design and superior proofreading. Try to avoid the $4,000 book trailer they want to produce for you. When did you last watch a trailer to decide to buy a book?

Publicity packages, as well as everything else from the author services houses, should be viewed with a critical eye. Like any service you buy, ask for references, and contact them yourself if possible. Those of us who help books into existence care about the quality of the book and its potential for reaching an audience. We serve our writers. It’s the place of integrity that creates a relationship, not just a sale.

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