How to Tell Which Self-Publishing Company is Right for You

The following is an update of a post I wrote for Joel Friedlander’s ever-helpful blog at

On the path to self-publishing, your first decision will be whether to:

  • Engage a self-publishing service company (SPSC) to do everything from editing to distribution. Some SPSCs are BookLocker, Mill City Press, Outskirts Press and Dog Ear Press.
  • Do it yourself (DIY) by hiring editors, designers, and other freelancers, and uploading your finished, formatted cover and manuscript to POD providers such as CreateSpace and IngramSpark and ebook distributors such as KDP and Smashwords.

You may also mix the two, since most SPSCs have a la carte menus, and many POD providers offer editorial, design, and marketing services as add-ons. Alternatively, you could hire a self-publishing consultant to walk you through the process. Literary agents are also jumping in and offering to help—for a percentage, of course.

At first, almost everyone is tempted to hire an SPSC. After all, DIY involves hundreds of decisions. What’s the best trim size? What colors will make your cover pop? What font conveys the correct tone? How do you price your book? What do you say on the back cover? How do you hire the right editor, designer or publicist, and what if you have to fire them?

In contrast, the websites of SPSCs promise to deliver stunning books into your hands in a few weeks.

In reality, the DIY process is manageable if you take it one step at a time. But for those considering the SPSC route, here are seven questions to help separate the good SPSCs from the bad.

  1. What is the lowest retail price you may set for your book?

Believe it or not, some SPSCs control the retail price of your print book and set it unrealistically high. One company claims its high pricing is author-friendly because it increases potential royalties.

Forget it. You may have a fabulous book, perfectly edited, with a stunning cover and interior, but if it is priced at $20 alongside bestsellers priced at $15, $12, or $8, no one will buy it.

To market your book successfully, the price must be competitive. I would stay away from any SPSC that will price your book out of the market. You should control the retail price of your book. Period.

  1. What is the author price for your book (the price you pay per copy)?

As an indie author, you will be buying a lot of books and giving them away to reviewers, bloggers, friends and family, or reselling them at readings, school visits, conferences, and through your website. Choose an SPSC that will sell your books to you at a reasonable author price.

The SPSCs that set high retail prices typically offer to give their authors a measly 30% discount. So, if they price your book at $19.95, you will pay $13.96 per copy, plus another $2 to $3 for shipping and handling. That’s ridiculous.

The author price should be the actual printing costs plus a reasonable markup (15-20%) and not a discount from the retail price. Why pay more because the SPSC sets the retail price at $20 instead of $10? The printing costs are the same.

You will have already paid the SPSC hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for design, editorial, and marketing services. Why pay double or triple the printing costs for a copy of your own book?

Let’s take a hypothetical 250-page, 6” x 9”, black-and-white trade paperback on standard paper. The cost for POD printing is approximately $4.65 per copy. As of December 2013, for this hypothetical book

  • Author House fixed the retail price at $19.99, and the author price was $13.96 per copy for orders of 24 or fewer copies.
  • Dog Ear Press would not fix the retail price, and its author price was $6.28 per copy.
  • Mill City Press would not fix the retail price, and its author price was $4.65 per copy.
  • CreateSpace would not fix the retail price, and its author price was $3.85 per copy.

In my opinion, an SPSC that sets a high retail price for your book is not expecting to make money by selling it to the public. They are going to make money selling it to you at a high author price. Dump that SPSC from your list and move on.

  1. What royalties will you earn?

You should be able to calculate your royalties online by assuming different trim sizes, pages, and retail pricing. I would be suspicious of any SPSC that did not have a royalty calculator on its website. If the website states that pricing, royalties and such cannot be determined until your manuscript is reviewed or formatted (and typically after you have given them your credit card number and paid a nonrefundable amount), move on to another SPSC.

  1. Is the agreement exclusive or non-exclusive?

You should never give an SPSC any exclusive rights to your work. And no options on any other works, formats, movie rights, subsidiary rights, anything. SPSCs are not traditional publishers that has invested capital in your book. They are service providers only and are not be entitled to any exclusive rights or options.

You might not be able to answer this question without looking at the SPSC’s contract. A reputable SPSC will post its contract online. Avoid any SPSC that will not release its contract until you sign up. For help reading the contracts, check out my post A Writer’s Worst Mistake.

  1. Is it easy to terminate the agreement?

You should have the right to terminate the relationship following no more than 30 days’ notice delivered via email. None of this certified mail, return receipt nonsense.

After termination, the SPSC may have the right to sell off its existing inventory, but that’s it. It should not have the right to continue to print and sell your book, even if the right is nonexclusive. If a traditional publisher were interested in your work, they might want you to buy out your former SPSC before they penned a deal. See my post Welcome to the Hotel Author Solutions about the traps of a contract that goes on and on.

  1. Will you get production-ready files upon termination?

If you terminate, the SPSC should give you the final production-ready files of your cover and interior at no or low cost. Not PDFs of your print-ready files, but the actual, functional production files in Adobe InDesign or comparable format.

If you move your book to a new printer without the production-ready files, then you’ll have to create new files at considerable cost. It is outrageous for an SPSC to hold onto these files after you’ve paid for the design, editing, and layout work. You own the work product and should control it.

  1. What is the reputation of the company?

Go to websites like Predators & Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, and Writers Beware and search for information about the SPSCs. Reviews may be available at The Independent Publishing Magazine site. Read about the lawsuit against Author Solutions and its affiliated companies.

Every company will have its share of unhappy customers, so sort through the complaints to get a sense of which ones are legitimate. If you find multiple reports from unhappy customers, stay away.

I do not want to scare you away from using an SPSC. Some offer reasonable deals and enjoy solid reputations. They permit you to control the process and the result. But do your homework before you commit.

Have you had any good or bad experiences with SPSC? Help other writers and share your stories in COMMENTS.

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