Do You Need Professional Help to Self-Publish?

A few weeks ago I got this email:

Hi Jaye, [a regular client] said you can help me. I got the rights back to my novel [title] published by [Big 5 house]. I had it scanned and converted it to Word. This was back in October and I’ve been working on it off and on, but it’s getting worse instead of better. I’m ready to just forget the whole thing. Is there anyway you can help…

quinngiveupOf course I could help. It’s what I do. He sent the scan, and 48 hours later I sent him back a Word doc in manuscript format with the text restored well enough for him to proofread. It cost him less than $90.

I’m not telling you this to boast about my mad skills. Restoring text from a scan is just something I happen to be very good at–and I’m fast. The reason I’m good at it is because I’ve restored millions of words and I have applied myself to learning how to do it quickly and efficiently. I’m a pro.

I also happen to be good at making ebooks. I’ve done hundreds. I’ve worked and worked to learn how to do it well and how to do it efficiently. I’m pretty good at laying out print-on-demand books, too. I’m even doing covers.

Book production has become second-nature to me. It’s what I do, day in and day out. Most of what I do is very easy for me. I still run into challenges–hell, I look for challenges–but overall I know what I’m doing and I know how to get the job done with minimal fuss and muss.

Writers, on the other hand, write. Formatting an ebook or making a cover or laying out a print-on-demand version look pretty straightforward on the surface. Why not DIY? It sure saves a lot of money. Right? Right?


Sometimes getting professional results will be beyond you. Not because you’re too dumb to figure it out, but because you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have the hours and hours and hours to figure it out. You’d rather be writing. Sometimes your time is more valuable than money. So let’s answer the question:

Should You Hire a Professional?

  • Do you have an ereader? (a Nook, a Kindle, an Android tablet, an iPad, etc.) Do you read ebooks? If the answer is no to either, I suggest hiring a professional. Unless you have a good idea how ebooks work, you will not be able to create a professional product.
  • Is your project complicated? Most formatting pros won’t tell you this, but I will: Conversion programs have gotten much, much, much better at turning word processing program files into ebooks. If your project is simple, which most fiction is, you can create a professional ebook using Word (and other word processors). You do need to take care and pay attention to details. It helps if you have a good guide to walk you through it. I recommend Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide. If you want to go a little more sophisticated, try Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting. You can do it yourself. On the other hand, if your book contains complicated formatting (lists, tables, boxes, nested styles, etc.) hire a pro. Complicated formatting is not for the dabbler.
  • Do you have the time? I get a lot of emails from writers who can’t make their DIY ebooks work properly. Quite often the problem is a simple one. A line of code. Or a messed up ToC or a distorted cover. Sometimes the problem is more severe and my recommendation is for the writer to go back to step one and completely strip, then restyle their book. What I hear back is a variation on: “But I’ve been trying to do this for weeks! And you say I have to start over?” Think about it. How much money are you saving if it’s taking you a month or six weeks to do what a pro can do in a day? Book production requires time spent NOT writing and NOT marketing and NOT promoting. Publishing is a business and knowing when to delegate responsibilities and hire sub-contractors is part of doing business.
  • Do you know what you don’t know? Ebooks are getting better, production-wise. It’s rare these days for me to buy one that’s a total mess (even from the trad publishers). Except for one thing: Either margins and line-spacing that cannot be adjusted for my reading comfort. I know what causes it. The formatter used either Word or InDesign and locked the styles either by justifying the text or messing around with page margins. (This irritation is so common in trad pubbed ebooks that I have to really, really, really want the story and it has to be really, really cheap before I will click to buy.) It boggles my brain that the formatter does not know the ebook is broken. It tells me they do not know enough to load the book on a device and run it through its paces. Ebooks are fairly simple, but there is stuff going on beneath the surface that every formatter (DIY or pro) should know. Do you know the difference between MOBI and EPUB? Do you know the difference between manuscript punctuation and printer punctuation? Do you know how to work with styles? Do you know about bloat? How to validate an EPUB file? If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn these things, hire a pro. [If reading my little list gives you an ‘oh shit’ moment, you might want to hire a pro.]
  • Are you willing to do the work at a professional level? If you want to sell your ebook or trade paperback, then your customers deserve a professional product. DIY self-publishers can produce professional products. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you? Book production is work and it can be frustrating and there’s a ton of conflicting information on the internet when you go looking for answers to sticky problems. If you prefer to put your energy and time elsewhere, there is no shame in that. There is shame, though, in putting a price tag on a sub-par product.

So Where Do You Find a Pro?

I’m not going to recommend anyone (not even myself) because it’s your book and your budget and your schedule. There’s a healthy industry of book production specialists springing up on the internet. Do a Google search for ebook formatting services. Do avoid anything connected to Author Solutions and other vanity publishers. Stay away from “automated” services, too. The only thing they do is convert your Word file–Garbage In-Garbage Out. Kindle Boards is a good place to look, too. Ask other writers. People who are happy with their service providers are usually more than happy to recommend them.

For this post only, if you are a book production specialist, leave a comment with your contact info. I will check you out and if you’re legit, I’ll post your info.



30 thoughts on “Do You Need Professional Help to Self-Publish?

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing with trad pubbed ebooks – weird spacing. Lines out of whack. Makes for less than pleasant reading. I never see it in your ebooks.

    • It’s so annoying, Julia. I have a charming little novel on my Kindle right now that I can only read in stretches of maybe 20 minutes max because I can’t adjust the line spacing. I read late at night, so I need comfortable settings for my tired old eyes. Producers need to actually read their products and then they’ll see how user-friendly–or not– they are.

  2. Hi Jaye:

    I must admit, I got a tremendous belly-laugh when I read the title to this article. I fully expected it to be a discussion of one’s sanity instead of its actual content (which is quite exceptional, by the way).


  3. Can an author make a recommendation. I’m using BB ebooks based in Thailand. They’ve done two books for me and is now working on a third. The fellow in charge is an American expat, and he responds quickly to my emails and the work is top-notch. Fixes are made quickly. They’ve recently set up a part of their site that stores your ebook files so you can communicate through that portal and download files when you need them 24/7.

    I do a lot of my work myself. I create my covers and lay out the trade paperback. But I’ve been a copy editor for 20+ years and have done this type of work (including working with PhotoShop) for years. I’m also a font geek and love graphic design, even though I’m not trained in it. I can even do ebooks, but only so I can proof the manuscript with a fresh set of eyes. I’ve learned enough to realize that I don’t have the time to devote to turning out a professional ebook that readers will enjoy, and that professionals who do this every day can keep up with the technical changes in the industry. It’s also a great feeling to have someone on my “team” that I can trust.

    • Hi Bill, excellent recommend. I was kind of hoping Paul would pop in and tout BBEbooks. He’s the first person I think of when I am too busy and need to refer a writer elsewhere.

      You also bring up a really good point. If I were putting out a book, I would feel comfortable formatting it because that’s technical stuff. But I would hire a copy editor and a proofreader. Even though I do both professionally, no way would I “doctor” my own text. In this biz it’s not really what you know that helps or hurts–it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

    • I can’t even begin to guess what is causing that.

      But, this does remind me to remind people to ALWAYS preview their ebooks before sending them off into the wild. Adobe Digital Reader has fallen out of favor with me. It’s so full of quirks and bugs, and every update just seems to make things worse, that I don’t even want it on my computer anymore. Calibre just keeps getting better, as does the Kindle Previewer. Folks who are using Word docs to format can take a few steps to preview their ebooks.

      For Amazon, convert A COPY of your Word doc with MobiPocket into a prc file. Upload that in the Kindle Previewer. Run it through its paces. Load the resulting .mobi file onto your Kindle. You’ll find problems that way. If everything is okay, your Word doc is fine for direct upload to Amazon.

      For EPUB files, use Calibre to convert your Word doc, preview and fine-tune your file. If the file fails to validate, you can use Calibre’s epub editor to fix the problems.

  4. I created the ebooks for the first few of my out-of-print backlist titles myself,but then was fortunate to find you through Larry Block and for all the sound reasons you cite here never looked back. Thank you for the gorgeous and flawlessly executed ebooks you have done for me and the all the frustration and time you have saved me in the process, Jaye. Don’t ever even think about trying to get away. I’d hunt you down like a tracking dog, next Word doc in virtual hand. Thanks!

  5. I so want to just copy that entire thing about “Should You Hire a Professional?” and post it on all the eBook site I frequent. JW, I format. And, I use a few of your tricks to make it easier. I just finished formatting Book #600 this afternoon. It was a poetry book. Lots of fun with special formatting. But then, where’s the fun if it is all easy. Thanks for all you do.

    I tell them “Do what you like doing and what you do best, and hire out the rest.”


  6. Jaye – Is there a good way of finding a missing quotation mark in a 200 page word doc? It drives me insane when I can’t find that missing beginning or end quote. I never thought I had OCD until this issue came up.

    • Yes. Easy, but time consuming. Open the Find/Replace box and click the box for Wild Cards. In the find box copy/paste THREE characters: a left curly quote, an asterisk, and a right curly quote. (If you just type in quote marks it will not give you the results you want. You have to use the exact characters.) When you hit Find Next it will highlight text strings wrapped in curly quotes. You’ll see if something is missing.

      The way I usually find missing punctuation (or misplaced punctuation, or turned around quote marks or any of a thousand other little gremlins is during the proofread with the book loaded on my Kindle. It’s astonishing how efficient the Kindle makes the job. (I use my eink reader rather than the tablet)

      • Two reasons. One is comfort. Eink (I have a Paperwhite) is excellent for close, careful, sustained reading. As much as I love my Fire tablet, it can be hard on my eyes. The other is purely psychological and I have no idea why it is so, but it is. When I’m proofing on the Paperwhite, my brain says, “Work,” but on the tablet, my brain wants to READ the story.

        The one exception is when I’m proofing a pdf file. I can adjust the display size on the tablet, but not on the eink, so I use the tablet for that.

    • Hi Paul, glad you popped in. (Readers, this is Paul of BBEbooks–his very useful book on making ebooks is featured in the sidebar. Check out his website. He has TONS of good info and tools for DIY formatting.)

      Yeah, there is something very, very wrong with me that I enjoy restoring text from scans so much. It’s one of my favorite jobs. I am taking new clients (except no stand-alone proofreading or copy editing jobs). If you know anyone who’s struggling to restore their text, send them my way.

  7. Paul and others.

    Getting the rights back is a super thing. And using one of the Scanning services sure does beat re-typing the entire book. I got my start formatting when Linda got the rights back to nine of her books in 2011. Four of them scanned with minor difficulties. Three scanned, but …

    We took the opportunity to re-visit each work as we went through and got rid of breaks in the middle of words, funny little sideways “L” figures, returns where there shouldn’t be and other anomalies.

    So, hang in and once you are happy with your new and improved back list book, then get it formatted.


    • Yeppers. What most people don’t realize is what happens to the scan when it’s converted with OCR. If you convert to a straight text file, every line will have a hard return and there will be no paragraph indents, so restoring paragraphs straight from that can be a bear (unless you know some nifty-difty tricks with Find/Replace) plus the file will be full of bugshit (weird characters). If you convert via OCR into a Word file, the text will be in relatively better shape, BUT Word will also “style” it for you. It makes monstrously huge, bloated files that seem to shift and do weird things every time you type a character. And that’s just fiction. I’ve had converted non-fiction files that were close to 25 MB is size! What I do is convert to Word, tag the paragraphs and then get it into a text editor as quickly as possible for relatively painless clean up.

  8. You didn’t mention Scrivener’s ebook creation feature. Is that something you endorse, hate, or are meh about? I’m about to try (one of my beta readers wants to read on her Kindle). Another wants pdf files, which I have producing from the compile feature by going through Word, where I do a quick formatting proof, to Save as pdf.

    I’ve been so caught up in the writing I haven’t been fine-tuning the formatting, and I want to at least try it myself before bringing in the pros – and for minor things like quick copies for an ARC. I figure it will make me a better customer if I appreciate more of the complexities, and the reasons for providing a clean file to start with.

    • Good questions, Alicia.

      re Scrivener. I haven’t used it in quite a while, so I’m not up to speed on all its features. As for using it to produce commercial ebooks, I’m hesitant. Unless it has changed greatly, it creates really bloated files and has a tendency (like Word or InDesign) to lock the formatting which in turn breaks the user controls on Kindles. I’d experiment and take the time to figure out what it is doing behind the scenes. And, like Word or ID or any other word processing program it fools the user with apparent WYIWYG and distracts them with the display. Wonderful for creating print docs, but it will mess you up every time for an ebook.

      As for the other, I do that all the time. I don’t like reading long documents on my computer, so what I do is do a fast cleanup of the Word doc, give it a quick nav guide (apply Heading 1 to chapter starts and sections), then use MobiPocket Creator to run a .prc file I can load on my Kindle. Nobody touts MobiPocket anymore, but it’s really fast and it allows you to direct load a Word file. So it’s handy and convenient. For quick pdf files, I use Word. I don’t see why you can’t use Scrivener the same way.

      As for formatting as you go, one word: Don’t. The text is raw material. I wish writers would treat it as such and go back to old school manuscript style for composition and editing, and leave the formatting for the production stage of the game. The very first thing I do with a document is strip out ALL the formatting. I turn it into a text file and clean it up. Then I have clean material I can turn into an ebook or a print doc or a pdf for an ARC. The only things “formatting as you go” accomplish are to a) make more work for the person who creates the finished book; or b) fool the DIY-er into thinking they’ve created a one-size fits all finished product in one fell swoop.

      • You have taught me well: do NOT format as you go. I keep the raw text in Scrivener, produce a Word file, and then a pdf from that, but the only Master Source File is the one in Scrivener. I make sure changes go there – and I will start fresh to make a clean file from there when I’m formatting.

        Thanks for the tip: I’ll see how big the ebook files Scrivener makes are, but think of them as conveniences rather than final forms.

  9. This is what is holding me up. I’ve been trying to do this on my own for over a year, but time is my enemy, and I don’t want to learn things I really have no interest in. The stories are done. As soon as I get the funds, and have everything proofread, I’ll be in touch. It’s obvious to me I can’t do this for myself. It’s just too much to learn, and too little time to do it in. Writing is easy, getting it correct is not, at least for me. As you know, I write a lot of short articles for a living, and paying the bills this way is a time sucker. ~Proto~ Aka~ Peter August

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