An Author’s Guide to Book Birthers, Book Shepherds and other Consultants

by Joel Friedlander on July 20, 2011 · 20 comments

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by Liz Alexander, @bookdoula

We’re very lucky today to have a guest article from Liz Alexander, the author of 11 books who also consults with other authors to help them “birth” their books. Sometimes people like Liz are called book shepherds, or book doctors, or something else. Liz has chosen the title Book Doula for what she does. I’ve been asked many times what book shepherds do, and I can’t think of anyone who can better address this topic. Here’s what she has to say.



As a wordsmith I find the origins of words fascinating.

A “consultant” originally referred to someone who visited oracles, until a reference in a Sherlock Holmes story in 1893 changed it to one qualified to give professional advice.

Back in the early 19th century “coach” was Oxford University slang for a tutor who got students through their examinations.

“Doctor” comes from the Latin root meaning a teacher or adviser.

Over time a “shepherd” shifted from a person who tended sheep to someone who generally watched over, protected and guided others.

Stick book in front of each of those words and it’s not surprising you’re confused as to what exactly a book consultant, book coach, book doctor or book shepherd actually does, let alone whether you need one. Only the term “book midwife” (and my own moniker The Book Doula) directly alludes to the birth of a book being akin to birthing a baby. Let’s agree—for the sake of brevity—that neither are activities that are advisable to do alone.

Let me focus instead on helping you sort through the morass of options available, should you decide to engage professional help to birth your brainchild.

Who are these people?

The current self-publishing free-for-all is not unlike the Klondike gold rush, not least because of how often the unwary are parted from their money. As you review the websites (found by Google-ing any of the terms I mention above) of folks purporting to help you with your book, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How long have they been in the publishing business—and where’s the evidence of that?
    Anyone can say they’ve been involved in book publishing for decades; providing proof is another matter.
  2. Do they come from a book services background (e.g., a former editor at a publishing house) or have they actually written books themselves? How many copies have those books sold?
    It’s one thing to have assisted others to publish their books, quite another to have direct experience as an author. If you plan on an extended period of writing support, for example, the empathy of a published author may well be important to you.
  3. What direct experience do they have of the genre in which you are writing?
    Children’s books and anything historical are just two examples where I believe it’s advisable to collaborate with someone with specialized knowledge. I turn down work all the time from novelists, as my only experience with fiction is a handful of published short stories and completing last year’s NaNoWriMo. I encourage my clients to incorporate storytelling principles into their books, but as a nonfiction author and journalist with a background in self-help, “how-to,” and business, these are the areas in which I feel most qualified to serve.
  4. Does all of the expertise you need reside in one person or will you be working with a “creative team?”
    Be wary of a website that only extols the virtues of the founder or principal when in practice your project will be passed on to a team member whom you know nothing about. If you are relying on a single individual, do they have experience with agents and commercial publishing, with self-publishing—or both?
  5. What range of services do book consultants offer—and to whom?

    Here’s a list of typical services, although not every business may offer all of them:

    • Idea development.
    • Strategic planning (e.g., how a book can help you reach business or career goals).
    • Various forms of editing—developmental, substantive, line-by-line etc.
    • Manuscript critiquing.
    • Copy editing and proofreading.
    • Copywriting for back cover; cover design; interior layout.
    • Title and subtitle generation.
    • Creation of a book-focused website.
    • Consulting on publishing options, book production, distribution, fulfillment etc.
    • Book proposal coaching.
    • Writing coaching.
    • Time management strategies.
    • Co-authoring or ghostwriting.
    • Peripherals: ISBNs, LCCN, PCIPs etc.
    • Marketing and promotion plans; professional press kit.
    • Outsourced publishing.

    Client backgrounds vary but most have one thing in common—the willingness and means to invest in themselves as authors of good books that sell.

    What’s it going to cost me?

    That’s like asking how long is a piece of string? Fees can vary widely. Most reputable book consultants don’t charge less than $50 an hour. . . some cost $200+. One book consultant & marketer quotes $500 an hour on his website! Obviously this depends a lot on the professional’s length of experience, depth of expertise and chutzpah!

    As a rule of thumb you might budget around $125 an hour. Bear in mind that you may need 50 hours or more of the professional’s time to move from idea to final manuscript. Some book consultants offer discounted rates on bigger projects. For example, you might pay $350 for a two-hour “ad hoc” consultation to talk about a specific aspect of your project, with no commitment to move ahead, but find this hourly rate is significantly reduced when you sign up for a three to six months’ package of services leading to a published book.

    How do I find the right professional for me?

    Do your due diligence. You’ll likely spend several thousands of dollars with this person or their business. If you were shelling out that kind of money for a car, wouldn’t you do some preliminary investigation? At the very least review their website (I can’t tell you the number of people who contact me, for example, with projects that are outside my scope of interest and expertise); read their testimonials; ask to speak with satisfied clients (the best you can hope for; no one’s going to put you in touch with a dissatisfied one!).

    But remember that this isn’t just a business collaboration; it’s also an intimate one-on-one relationship that may last several months or longer. Most reputable professionals offer some form of free “taster” session—from regular group call-ins where you can ask questions to 30-minute one-on-one phone consults. Be prepared with lots of questions and trust your gut.

    Red flags—what should I be wary of?

    This is a personal peeve, but I’d run like hell from any who uses the word “guarantee” in their marketing copy. There are no guarantees in publishing. Here’s legendary editor, Bob Loomis, who retired earlier this year after 54 years with Random House:

    “Every day when I wake up in the morning and I come to work, I have no idea what’s going to happen. All the books that I think are going to sell don’t work, and all the books I don’t think are going to work sell a lot and win awards. That’s why I love this business so much.”

    Anyone can be a published author these days; guaranteeing which books will become “best sellers” is the province of those with big marketing budgets, big lists, and scores of adoring affiliates.

    Final advice? Partner with someone who loves their work and your book (almost) as much as you do. Combine their passion for the world of publishing with solid experience and a personality that will motivate you, for an enjoyable journey and a successful outcome.

    book shepherds for self-publishers“Dr. Liz” Alexander, aka The Book Doula has had nine nonfiction books published (by Random House and HarperCollins among others), as well as several that she’s self-published. Combined book sales total close to 500,000 copies in 18 countries. Liz’s transatlantic “portfolio” career includes TV & radio broadcasting, corporate consulting, freelance journalism, magazine editing, career coaching, marketing, training, and speaking. She works primarily with professional services providers who want a book to boost business revenues, future-proof their careers, and establish thought leadership.

    Photo by Sam Jordan

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    { 18 comments… read them below or add one }

    Leonard Rattini, CCP June 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Good advice doctor. As what you mention it’s covered in Joel’s “Self-Publishing Roadmap” course where one learns directly from his personal experiences or he points to experts like you to complete all that’s needed to get published and go beyond into other associated publishing attributes, depending on the author’s goal.
    As to word fascination, one that is used a lot today, which includes the publishing world too, is the word “file” that is confusing to me.

    I’m an old fashioned computer guy that goes back 50 years, which was before Windows and graphic computer application pictorial page displays. Our DOS systems and earlier machinery that came before it, we started with punched cards. Each card was identified as a “record” associated to a subject entity. If the entry related to payroll, the card was a “Payroll Record” that identified one employ on the payroll. Since there were many employees on the same payroll, they each had their identified payroll records cards as well. The total of all payroll records grouped as one, was known as a “Payroll File.” Likewise, “Medical Records” combined, constituted a “Medical File.” In my opinion “file” is so over used today, it blurs its understand between the one who says and the one who hears. http://pcsupport.about.com/od/termsf/g/file-definition.htm makes an attempt to define a “computer file,” which is as clear as mud in my opinion.

    Another word that we users see on our screen pages is the word “Edit.” That’s not a user term. It’s a software term used to describe how data entered by the user must pass program software “edit tests” before its data is allowed into the computer application.

    Here’s a data processing rule everyone can bronze on their wall that relates to the above misused user term. Both by application design and its user’s use, they: “Add” the whole of something that never was there before that now needs to be included, “Change” parts of something that now exists that needs to be kept current, and “Delete” the whole of something that now exists but is no longer to be included. “Something” can be a: profile, record, image, movie, folder, text document, or any other computer attribute. My second book “It’s Not You, It’s Them,” I’m working on, will point out applications that don’t make it clear how their users can perform these three functions easily.

    Reply

    Don Horne October 31, 2011 at 2:22 am

    I am a pilgrim, or, at best a “tenderfoot” as they say here in Texas, to the whole publishing scene. However, I am one who has a definition of success which is more than holding one or two books in my hand or on my shelf and calling myself an expert on self publishing. I have three decent books out of five. I am a member of two local authors groups here in the Dallas area, and I have given one standup presentation and doing another November 12th on “Self Publishing–Fact or Fantasy?”

    Joel’s book inspired me to write, and I will be the first to say self published books as a whole suffer from poor editing and design. Interior design, cover design, and everything else going into producing a quality book is beyond the scope of most people. Having said all that, by all means if you want to write…write! You can publish a book!

    I have several people I am trying to help produce a book, and some, frankly, are “not good.” On the other hand, I have found a couple of gems. With editing, and the help of traditional publishing, they could rival anything on the shelf or in the book store. Would I invest my own money, and take a roll of the dice like publishers do? Maybe, or maybe not. Just because the publishers did not roll out the red carpet and start arranging media for your poorly crafted book does not make them “corrupt.” It makes them business people.

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    Dindy Yokel October 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Right on target Dr. Liz. Have told clients that a public relations and/or marketing expert who guarantees results is lying. You reminded me of this at the perfect time when you wrote, “This is a personal peeve, but I’d run like hell from any who uses the word “guarantee” in their marketing copy. There are no guarantees in publishing.”

    You just found a new fan. Thanks for your candor.

    Dindy

    Reply

    Liz Alexander October 30, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Appreciate it, Dindy :-)

    Reply

    Adeyemi oshunrinade October 30, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Thank you for the advice and insights. However, I believe that traditional book publishing will suffer a huge loss in business in years to come; the bureaucracy and corrupt nature of book publishing making it difficult for aspiring authors to get published, is driving many great authors away to self publishing companies. I see a better future in self publishing, it is just a matter of time before traditional publishers realized their mistakes.
    Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade E.JD

    Reply

    Liz Alexander October 30, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    As a nine times commercially published author with five different publishing houses, I have not experienced the “corrupt nature” you talk about. Nor a lot of bureaucracy, frankly. Just a tendency for publishers to operate at a snail’s pace in a speeded up world; one that often sacrifices quality on the altar of speed!

    It takes hard work and time to produce a quality book…which is why the self-publishing world is swimming in crap. (And if you don’t believe me, check out Nathan Bransford’s blog poll on this topic, where most people admitted they will only read self-published books that are recommended directly by friends and family, or were written by someone they know and admire.)

    Is there “a better future in self-publishing” for everyone in every circumstance? Not necessarily.

    In fact, just recently one of my highly illustrated books went out of print and I had the option to retrieve the rights or leave them with my publishers who planned to offer the book as POD and an ebook.

    I had three options:
    a) re-publish the book myself which, to even begin to bring it up to the same high production values of my publisher (HarperCollins), meant spending more money than I was prepared to.
    b) take back the rights and do nothing with the book.
    c) leave the rights with HarperCollins, allow them to invest in offering my book in these formats, and hopefully accrue more royalties over time.

    What mistakes did my publisher make? How about this: Paying me a sizable advance, absorbing the cost of printing and distributing my book, and not expecting me to pay back the shortfall between my advance and the royalties they made from lower sales than either of us expected. They made an investment (in me) and it didn’t pay off…a daft business model, but that hardly makes them “corrupt.”

    Sadly, few people really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the value of commercial publishing and how those of us who “grew up” with that guidance and support are forever grateful for having higher standards instilled in us than might otherwise have been the case if self-publishing was the only avenue.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 30, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    We can’t forget that virtually all the great books of the last 100 years came from traditional publishers, and that publishing houses are mostly staffed with knowledgable, passionate advocates for literature and authors.

    Although there are many deficiencies in the publishing world, the fact is that technology and an antiquated system of production and distribution are responsible for the changes in the industry. Some of those, like the opening up of self-publishing to a much larger universe of authors, are really positive developments as far as I’m concerned.

    But no thoughtful person with any experience in book publishing would say that one way of publishing is right for all authors, or for all books, so the more choices there are the better, from where I sit.

    Reply

    Alexa Whitten July 21, 2011 at 2:58 am

    Great article, thank you Liz. Trying to explain what we do is a concept that is relatively new…. yet so important when clients are embarking on their ‘writing journey’.

    As with any long term project (or short term, depending on the complexity of the book) just getting ‘accountability’ can have a massive effect in getting the book finished. Let alone the benefits of someone who can brainstorm, coach, provide feedback and of course steer through all of the other necessities that a book requires.

    I call myself the person who gives my clients book project ‘a voice’ – a sort of, ‘don’t forget me’ even though everyday business life seems to get in the way of writing.

    Your list of Questions you should ask are spot on – and anyone looking to hire a book coach should use these.

    Reply

    Liz Alexander July 21, 2011 at 6:37 am

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Alexa. Yes, accountability plays an enormous part in this process and it’s something aspiring authors overlook in their excitement at the thought of having a book in their hands. But to make that happen requires application and persistence. I guess for most of us we’re more likely to follow through on a promise we make to someone else than one we keep to ourselves :-)

    Reply

    Don Horne July 20, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Candy,
    Back before you were born, probably, there was a phrase we used as we adjusted our headbands and brushed the long hair out of our eyes, “Right on!”

    Reply

    Candy Paull July 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I remember. We also used to parody “right on” with “right arm!” (I look younger than my age!)

    Reply

    Don July 21, 2011 at 5:41 am

    I am sorry. We are turning this into a chat room, and that is not what I meant at all. I wrote a novel, Candy, based on my Viet Nam experiences called “From Ann Margret To Battle Stations” and my sweet daughter thought it was a historical novel!!

    Dr. Alexander, thank you for giving us great advice, but some will still not listen. I got an email attachment of text and a group of photos of dogs from an old girlfriend from high school who wants me to turn it into a children’s book….almost for free (she had a budget of 400 dollars). My illustrator is awesome and routinely does cartoons for the local newspaper, children’s books, et al. He said the project would be a minimum of 5,000 dollars. The two editors wanted 500 apiece. The graphic art person laughed and hung up thinking I was kidding. I had to call him back. So, when I told my friend she got mad and complained, “But children’s books cost less than ten dollars!” On top of that, this is the girl that held me, cried and promised to wait forever when I left for Viet Nam. Then, two months later married the lifeguard at the swimming pool!

    My homespun take on book producers, coaches, etc. is about biscuits. Having my biscuits baked by my wife to produce a mouthwatering, delectable, work of art, is a far cry from me hitting a can of biscuits on the side of the counter, retrieve them from the floor and popping the results in the oven. One has to get it done right the first time! You people do not really cost, it pays back many times to use your services.

    Reply

    Liz Alexander July 21, 2011 at 6:48 am

    I empathize, Don. One of my close friends is an award-winning children’s book author and is constantly annoyed by the folks who think that what he does is easy because — according to them — children’s books are short and mostly full of illustrations!!

    My upcoming eBook shares the “secrets, successes, and sob stories” of 18 first time nonfiction writers who spent between $8,000 – $80,000 (the latter with Greenleaf in Austin, a “hybrid” publisher) producing their books. For the most part — aside from the “big spender” — all said they had wasted a lot of money on marketing advice that wasn’t productive. People hear things like that and tar us all with the same brush, as my Scottish mother used to say.

    This is a hugely supportive conversation for sure, but you’re right Don — there are many new authors out there who think they can do everything alone (even edit!!) and then wonder why folks aren’t interested in buying their books.

    Reply

    Don July 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

    My experience is more journalistic than being an author, even though I have published 4 fiction novels and working on another fiction, plus my own non-fiction. It takes more than what I thought to write a good, readable book. Forced into publishing because of my own books, I do not hesitate to turn over manuscripts to the experts. You and Joel and everyone producing quality books are my heroes.

    Candy Paull July 20, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I loved this post and was greatly impressed with The Book Doula website. I have TheBookDesigner blog on my bookmarks bar (and now the Book Doula, too) and check it daily for inspiration. This article helped me put my twenty-plus years of book industry experience into clearer perspective, seeing how I can use my expertise to help others as well as myself. Liz Alexander is right: there are no guarantees in publishing. But having a trustworthy team to support you as an author is even more essential in these days of industry upheaval and the new e-book, self-publishing paradigm. Any investment you make in your book will pay off years down the road. Whether you are self-publishing or looking for an agent or a deal with a New York publisher, a great professional can help you create a better book that has lasting value.

    Reply

    Liz Alexander July 20, 2011 at 10:04 am

    I so appreciate this, Candy…always good to have validation from someone with your extensive publishing experience.

    It would help if more people thought “long tail” because, as you say, this kind of investment “will pay off years down the road” but requires the author to think more broadly about what they need to do today to make that happen.

    Reply

    Don Horne July 20, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Thank you, Dr. Alexander, for “telling it like it is” so succinct even I understand I need to seek out qualified help to publish. At a time when everyone that has ever self published a book seems to be writing one, your efforts to bring about perspicuity to an industry or a business, where most of the content in most books is similar, is to be applauded. Just change the author’s name, and one instantly has written the “latest”, “simplest”, “cheapest”, “greatest” treatise on self publishing in print. Except yours, Joel, and no asides to the “I need help” comment.

    Reply

    Liz Alexander July 20, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I appreciate your comments, Don — glad that this post was helpful to you. As an avid reader of both nonfiction (which I write) and fiction (which I aspire to write), I’m as much on the side of the reader as the writer. It dismays me that so many folks who are professionals in other arenas cobble together books without giving them much thought. And I bristle at the poor advice given out via LinkedIn writers’ groups and other online venues, which reinforces the myth that the self-published author can do everything themselves and still produce a quality product. Just because you “can” doesn’t mean you “should” — particularly with editing.

    There’s a wonderful Buddhist quote, “A man cannot see his own eyebrows.” Similarly, writers cannot see their own typos :-) Hence the need for help.

    Reply

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