Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chapter 6: Profiling, Researching, Interviewing and Selecting a POD
Friday, January 13 2012 @ 12:01 AM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
This series highlights aspects of my experience self-publishing The Alexandria Project. If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here (just click on the cover of the book). And you can read a new chapter of its sequel every Monday here.
For the last several weeks we've looked at how the various types of PODs differ in their business models and in the services they offer. We've also looked at the importance of ensuring that your goals align as well as possible with the POD you eventually select. This week we'll use that background to construct a decision tree and question list you can use to find the POD that's best for you. I'll also suggest (from painful experience) how you can avoid some of the problems I've encountered.
As you'll recall, some of the ways in which PODs differ include price, personal service level, range of services offered, ability to place your book into all channels, and ability to make hard copies as well as eBook copies available. If all of those capabilities are of importance you, then you'll want to look at one set of PODs. But if not all of them matter to you, then you may decide to limit your review to a far smaller set of candidates. Given how many businesses have jumped into this pool, anything you can do to narrow the field will be a time saver.
Step One: Here's a list of key questions that should help you decide what's of importance to you.
Have you discovered
The Alexandria Project?
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Decision 1: How much do you care about owning your files?
The quick answer should be, "a lot." This is less of a problem than it used to be, when many vanity and POD publishers claimed the right to own the files that they created for you (although you would still own the copyright in the book itself). This meant that if you became unhappy with their service, you had to start all over with another vendor, paying them to create publishable book covers, eBook files and printer proofs all over again. Happily, there are many PODs to choose from now that do not claim this right, but you still need to watch out for "release fees" or PODs that don't say they'll return your files (e.g., cover designs) in editable form. Since the files will include the publishers name, this would otherwise be a problem.
Decision 2: Do you want to make hard copies available as well as eBooks?
With just about any POD that works with eBooks, you can get an eBook on sale more cheaply and quickly than a printed copy.
Decision 3: How much do you care about convenience as compared to cost?
It's possible to spend a great deal of money taking a book from manuscript to full market introduction, especially if you want to hire a firm to help you do a real PR campaign that would involve lining up interviews, book signings and so on. Most authors aren't going to want to pay that type of money, and if you expect modest sales or wish to bring multiple short eBooks to market, then per-book costs are likely to be of concern. Even a modest service package, with no marketing services at all, can easily set you back $2,000 at many PODs.
On the other hand, as we've discussed in previous installments, there are a lot of elements to the process of bringing a book into the marketplace, and for some people being able to look to a single vendor to do all of them will seem well worth the cost.
Since there are several different main tasks involved, some of which you may feel comfortable with and others not, its worth addressing this topic separately under a few main headings.
Decision 3A: How important is assistance in file set up and conversion to you, as compared to cost?
eBook Only: If the answer is very important and all you want to make available is an eBook version, then you would want to check out Amazon/Kindle Direct, Google, Smashwords and similar automated carefully, because each is free for the basic package. Which of the three named would be best for you?
- Amazon is easy to deal with and has the most services, and will sell hard copies later as well, if you later change your mind. The easiest way to get your books on sale is through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. How to go about loading your file is described in this free download guide. Amazon will sell copies that can be read not only on Kindles, but also iPads, Macs, PCs, Blackberries, and most Android phones. You could also consider whether you'd like to enroll in some of the programs that Amazon makes available, such as KDP Direct plan, under which you agree to make your eBook available exclusively through Amazon for 90 days in exchange for the right to participate in (what appear to me to be very minor) additional profits. On the other hand, if you want your book to go on sale anywhere besides Amazon, you'll have to do all the work necessary to make that happen on your own.
- Google will get convert your eBooks into all of the main eBook formats, and then make them available in each of the important channels (including Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Once your book reaches Amazon, you'll be able to take advantage of all of the normal tools that someone could use that had started at Amazon's CreateSpace. The Google eBook Publisher's information page, with links to everything you need to know or do, is here.
- Smashwords will provide the same options as Google, plus offer you a variety of other options and services
On the other hand, if the answer is that you don't have the time or expertise to want to mess around with files, cover designs and the like, then you have several alternatives:
- Hire a free lancer or design shop to set up your files and submit them to one of the PODs referred to above for you
- Go to one of the PODs that provides these services, either a la carte or as part of a package
eBook and hard copies: If you want hard copies as well as eBook versions, then only Amazon of the outfits referred to above would meet your needs. So if you want more assistance than Amazon offers, then you'd need to look at the full service PODs as well.
Decision 2B: How important is layout and design assistance to you, as compared to cost?
This one is a sore topic for me, because layout and design is very important to me. As I may describe in greater detail in a later installment, I can rate my experience with the two PODs I've worked with to date in this area as being, without exaggeration, disastrous. So if there is one piece of advice I would strongly urge you to follow out of this entire series of blog posts, it's this: take a couple of hours in a local library and go to the section that has your genre of books, whatever it is (computer technical manual, children's book, bodice ripper or whatever). Then keep taking books off the shelf until you've found one with a design that appeals to you. This means one that has:
- a title page you like (layout, fonts, and graphics)
- a chapter first page (same)
- headers at the tops of the pages that appeal to you in style and information (book title on the left, chapter title on the right; title on the left, your name on the right; title on both; etc.)
- page numbers where you'd like to see them (top left and right; bottom left and right; bottom centered, and so on)
- any other page layout that you need in your book
Once you're happy with what you've got, walk down to the photocopy machine and make copies of the page in question. Once you pick your POD, they'll be delighted to save themselves a lot of work on the design end, and you'll be sure to end up with something you're happy with.
If this doesn't work for you, then you may want o consider hiring a free lance book designer who will be likely to be much more flexible in working with you then most PODs and will also be willing to spend time with you on the phone, something neither of the PODs I've worked with would do (the rep insisted on playing go between, and did a terrible job in the process). You may find that the price may still be competitive, especially if you decide to take only a basic package from your POD, or if you negotiate a plan discounted to exclude design assistance, which they are often willing to do in order to get your business. You may also find that the turn around times for this step in the process are better as well.
On the other hand, if design is not very important to you, there wouldn't be much reason not to go with a POD that has a reputation turning out a decent looking product (they will probably have sample titles at their site, and you can also look inside books they published that you can find at Amazon). There would be many PODs to choose from that provide full services, and they will send you style sheets (e.g., title page, copyright page, first chapter, etc.) using your manuscript that you would then approve or mark up with requested changes.
Decision 3: Do you want to purchase editorial services?
Assistance in improving the quality and presentation of your prose comes in three levels:
- Full editing (e.g., evaluating your story line, characters, etc.) and making rewriting suggestions
- Lighter editing (working with what you have to make sentence structure better, correcting grammar, etc.)
These services aren't included in any but the higher-priced POD packages. It's important to know that these services can also be purchased on a free-lance basis, and I would suggest that you look for recommendations in this area (either personal, or through many on-line writer sites). It may be that you will find someone that does a better, cheaper or faster job than working through a POD.
Decision 4: How important to you is promotional assistance?
If you plan to aggressively promote your book to brick and mortar stores, then there are a number of materials (posters, promotional post cards, business cards, etc.) that you will probably want to buy, and it will be easier to get them through your POD. If they're included in a package anyway, that's great. If not, you can get a competing quote from Kinko's or a similar local business if the convenience of one stop shopping with your POD doesn't win the day.
On the other hand, many other promotional services a POD offers (e.g., sending out a press release) may have no impact at all. So:
- 4(a) If the answer is not very important, then look for a POD that has everything else you want in an inexpensive package that doesn't include promotional assistance.
- 4(b) If the answer is that you want the basics (business cards, posters, etc.), then look for a POD that has a good "next level up" package
- 4(c) If the answer is "very," then consider going to a separate vendor that promotes books as a discrete service. The price will be high, but the results may be more effective than through many PODs that will only go through the motions for their authors (also for a high fee).
Decision 5: What else might I want?
It's generally considered essential to have some sort of Web presence for your book. If the POD sells books as well as setting them up at Amazon and elsewhere, it will usually include a Web page for your book in their basic package. However, this page won't be directly editable by you after you give the POD the basic copy (about the author, about the book, and maybe nothing else). Anything grander will either require you to buy a more expensive package or to pay extra - often a lot extra. As with your files, you'd want to be sure that you would own the site and the URL if you and your POD part company. Given that anybody can set up a presentable site themselves through a site such as Wordpress or GoDaddy for far less, I'd suggest that you not purchase a site through your POD unless you want the convenience of working with a single vendor for all of your book-related needs, and don't mind paying extra for it.
Decision 6: How important is your profit share?
Realistically, most self-published books aren't going to sell a lot of copies, so I think it's important to be realistic in this regard. That said, why get paid less as between two otherwise qualified PODs? Note that there are other important pricing terms to consider as well. For example, if you have written a nonfiction book that you wish to use in promoting your business, then the author's per-copy cost in the format you wish to give away (probably soft cover or hard cover) will matter much more than the royalty on third party sales, since it's going to come out of your pocket.
Decision 7: How important is direct selling to you?
In addition to making your book available at the main on-line distributors and making it possible for brick and mortar stores to order you book, many PODs will offer two additional routes: selling it from their site, and selling it from your own site. In fact, delivery of your eBooks will come from a third party (e.g., Amazon) or the printer (e.g., Lightningsource), but the profit on the sale will be higher to you (and the POD Publisher) if the sale is logged through one of these "direct" channels. Some PODs will charge you several hundred dollars to place a shopping cart at your site that will net a higher amount to you than sales through their site. This will pay off if you sell a lot of books that way, but you'll lose money otherwise.
There's also a hidden consideration here: currently, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the majority of all on-line sales will complete through Amazon. And the more sales you complete through Amazon, the higher your Amazon "Best Seller" ranking will be, which can lead indirectly as well as directly to greater sales. For example, if your ranking gets high enough, your book will begin to display along with other popular titles below the banner that reads "People who bought this book also bought..." For this reason, many authors choose to forego the higher profits for direct sales through their own site, or the Web page set up by the POD publisher, in favor of seeking to maximize their sales through Amazon, figuring that they'll make more money through higher volume at Amazon in the end. Keep in mind that you would have to sell a fair number of books at Amazon, though, before this effect would kick in.
You should also be aware that it takes only a minute or two to join Amazon's affiliate program. When you do, you can place a display advertisement (see the inset ad that appears above in this blog entry) to your site. When you do, if someone clicks on the ad and goes to the Amazon site, you'll earn a commission (currently 4%) on whatever they buy at Amazon during that visit. https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/ That's not much, but the more they spend at Amazon in addition to your book, the more it adds up.
Decision 8: How important is speed to you?
Odds are that once you've finally got your book ready to publish, you'll want to see it on sale as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, delivery times can be (in my opinion) absurdly long at PODs. Given that so many offer a significant up charge for expedited service, it's tempting to conclude that these PODs are pulling a bait and switch: they show low charges for their standard packages, and then charge you hundreds of dollars more to get your book available in less then four months time, even when you've provided a clean manuscript ready for conversion.
Step Three: Once you have your priorities straight, the time consuming part begins: locating the PODs that have what you want at the price that you want it, and that have a good reputation for producing happy authors. The first two steps are the easy ones, because POD publishers generally have sites that present their service packages in a way in which they can be at least roughly compared. The last step is more time consuming, and should involve two steps:
- Utilizing the various books that evaluate PODs (some of which have already been mentioned in earlier installments of this series)
- Visiting writer sites where people comment on and rate PODs (and agents, book designers, and so on)
Step Four: Now that you've got a final list of POD prospects, it's time to pick up the phone and ask the questions that will bring your information up to date (often even the POD publisher's sites are somewhat out of date) and fill in blanks that their sites and the secondary materials you have consulted did not address.
By the time you're ready to sign up and sign a check with your final choice, you should have received satisfactory answers to the following questions, either from your research or in response to direct questions.
General questions: (especially if you are talking to a POD that you haven't been able to read up on):
1. How long have you been in business?
2. How many authors have you worked with? How many books have you published?
3. How many repeat authors do you have?
4. Approximately how many books do you have in process (as compared to already published) right now?
5. How many service representatives do you have working with those authors (I'm not talking about sales representatives or layout people)?
6. What is your average time between contract signature and availability of an eBook at Amazon? Of a print copy?
Specific questions: (you may not need all these questions, depending on what your plans are).
1. Will I own all my files?
2. If so, what fees, if any, will I have to pay to take possession of them?
3. Will they be editable?
4. Will you quote me on just the list of services I want, or do I have to upgrade to the next higher package to get them?
5. Walk through each step of the publishing process with me, giving me the delivery dates for each step (editing, design, delivery of page proofs, final copy, conversion to eBook and printer files, submission to printer and on-line eBook distributors, availability of printed copies for sale).
6. If you charge for changes to proofs, at what point do you start to charge, and what are the rates for changes?
7. If I want faster service, how much faster will it be, and what would I pay?
8. If I buy a Web site from you, will I own it, and will you transfer control of it to me on request without cost?
9. Here's the list of services I want. What's the best price you're willing to give me?
10. Do you have any sales coming up within the next month for two? If you do, will you give me a refund or credit for the difference? (Sales are common at the end of the fiscal quarters and especially fiscal year ends of PODs)
11. Do you have discounts for repeat authors?
12. If I bring my own cover design or conversion ready text file, how much of a discount will you give me?
13. What markup do you charge on per-copy printer costs?
Step Four: Review the legal agreements of the POD you plan to do business with.
This is not quite as bad as it sounds, as most are short and in relatively plain English. The main thing is to be sure that you don't run into any surprises (e.g., the agreements say what you've been told to expect, and don't contradict any of the answers you've received to your questions).
In Summary: If tackling all of the above sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. But by the time you start looking for a POD you will have already invested a lot of time and toil in your masterpiece, so you don't want to spend six months in overpaid frustration waiting for a book that you are unhappy with. Better to spend a bit of time early than repent late.
Read the first chapter of this series here
Read the next chapter of Adventures in Self-Publishing here
Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here