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.

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.