7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Self-Publishing Company

by Joel Friedlander on June 27, 2014 · 28 comments

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By Helen Sedwick

First, I want to thank Joel Friedlander for the opportunity to write a monthly post on the legal issues of self-publishing. With wit and wisdom, Joel has helped many a writer (including me!) grow into an indie author. I am honored to be part of his team.

For the last 30 years, I have been a business attorney advising clients, including writers, on topics ranging from business set-up to copyright protection to collaboration agreements. My goal is to keep clients out of court and at their desks, working on new projects.

You’ll see a pattern in my posts. I want to give indie authors the legal tools to:

  • control their work,
  • avoid scams and lawsuits, and
  • maximize tax savings.

Today, let’s start with CONTROL.

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

  • engage a self-publishing service company (SPSC) to do everything from editing to distribution, or
  • do-it-yourself by hiring editors, designers, and other professionals and uploading your print-ready files to a POD provider such as CreateSpace and/or IngramSpark.

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. You could hire a self-publishing consultant (like Joel) to walk you through the process. Literary agents are also jumping in and offering to help—for a percentage, of course.

Hiring an SPSC

If you are considering using an SPSC and are feeling overwhelmed, join the club.

Dozens of SPSCs offer hundreds of self-publishing packages that include:

  • editing
  • design
  • distribution
  • marketing services

Prices range from $99 to $35,000.

Some SPSCs claim to be created by authors for authors, to foster Christian values, or to pitch your work to Hollywood.

  • How do you choose which company, which package, which price?
  • Will a $600 custom cover sell more books than a $50 template cover?
  • Will your editor have professional publishing experience or be an English major struggling through her first job?
  • How do you measure quality, reliability, and integrity?

Don’t despair. I have looked at a lot of these websites and come up with seven questions to help you identify which SPSCs will give you the greatest control over the process and result.

You should be able to answer the first six by looking at the SPSC’s website. The last question may take a little more research.

The Seven Questions

  1. What is the lowest retail price you may set for your book?
    Retail price? Isn’t that putting the cart in front of the horse? What about editing and design? Print quality? Yes, they matter, but only if your book is competitively priced.

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  5. 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.


  7. 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.

  9. 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.

  11. 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.

    To learn more about the legal issues of self-publishing, check out my book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook and my blog .

One more thing– I need your help to make this column valuable to indie authors. Please let me know what legal worries keep you up at night. If you come across egregious contracts, aggressive sales tactics, and fraudulent offers, tell me about them. Although I can’t answer individual questions due to legal constraints (such as I am not licensed to practice law in every state and country), I will address questions generally to help many readers and writers.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sedwick.HeadshotHelen Sedwick, is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. She is also an author and a California attorney with thirty years of experience representing businesses and entrepreneurs. Her latest book is Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing.

You can find more information about Helen here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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    { 24 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michelle September 4, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Helen. I am doing research about starting a publishing concierge service. My question is what legally constitutes a publisher. If I just offered book production management without marketing or printing (just providing print ready files), would that protect me from potential libel/privacy/copyright legal issues without media perils insurance? Would the marketing or printing component, or both, with their link to distribution/dissemination cause my business to cross that threshold and expose me to more liability?


    Helen Sedwick September 6, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Michelle, Interesting question.
    If you help launch a book that contains infringing or libelous content, then the plaintiff (the one bringing the lawsuit) is likely to sue everyone involved. It would then be up to you to convince the plaintiff or the court that you are not responsible for the content. The more involved you are in selecting or editing the content, the greater the risk that you could be held liable for the content. All this would involve lawyers and legal fees. If you have media perils insurance, it will cover the legal fees.
    You should make sure that your contract with your clients includes appropriate representation and indemnity provisions, like the ones I am posting at the end of this Comment. For a book that seems risky, you could require that your client buy the insurance, name you as an additional insured, and maintain that insurance for at least 4 years after publication. Yes, this sounds like over-the-top legalese, but if you are looking to minimize risk, this is a good option.
    A typical contract provision:
    Author hereby represents and warrants to Contractor that Author is the publisher of the Title and bears full responsibility for the publication and general distribution of the Title. Author further represents and warrants to Contractor that (a) Author has all requisite right, power and authority to enter into this Agreement and perform its obligations hereunder; (b) Author owns all intellectual property rights in the Title and its contents, and/or Author has or has obtained all rights, clearances and permissions to print, publish and distribute the Title and its contents; (c) in entering into this Agreement, Author is not violating any other arrangements, understandings or agreements between Author and any third party; (d) the Title is not defamatory, libelous, obscene, or otherwise illegal, does not invade any right of privacy, and does not infringe upon any intellectual property rights or rights of publicity of any person or entity, and any recipe, formula, or instruction contained in the Title is accurate and is not injurious to the user; and (e) Author is and will be solely responsible for accounting and paying any co-owners any royalties or other compensation with respect to the Title. Author will indemnify, defend and hold Contractor harmless from and against any and all claims, judgments, liabilities, damages and expenses (including without limitation reasonable attorneys’ fees) arising out of any breach or alleged breach by Author of the terms of this Agreement, including without limitation the representations and warranties set forth above.


    Gail October 3, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I’ve asked two book layout designers, one that you, Mr. Friedlander sent to me but once I mention they will need to sign a contract, neither one of them even bothered to respond to me. I’ve been told by my attorney that I need one for the person who is laying out the book and the cover, the copyeditor, website designer and artists. Is that true? I know CS won’t sign any of my contracts. So what are we to do?


    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Gail, I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties you’ve had with vendors. Personally, I don’t take on any projects without a contract. Please contact my associate Tracy Atkins at support@bookdesigntemplates.com for help with interior formatting and layout. I don’t think you can reasonably expect to get CreateSpace to sign your contract, but when you sign up they have their own terms and conditions you agree to as a condition of doing business with them, so I would suggest you take a close look at those to make sure they meet your needs. But with a little looking you should be able to find editors and website designers who will work under contract, unless the terms are deemed to be unreasonable.


    Joel D Canfield July 14, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Good info every author who’s considering self-publishing (my venue of choice) should read.

    One big quibble: self-publishing and vanity or subsidy press are very different. Calling AuthorHouse a self-publishing company confuses some very important issues. Smart man Dave Bricker explains in an excellent article here: http://theworldsgreatestbook.com/self-publishing-vanity-publishing/


    Cornel July 9, 2014 at 7:17 am

    I am starting of as author and beginning to write my first book.I heard someone say if writing an actual story whether it be myself and other people I really know in the book.To have everyone sign a legal document type thing by lawyer giving permission to use peoples real names.so as to avoid any lawsuit that may occur with the book.and is it best to use a pen name for myself and made up name for actual people being included in the book.what would your opinion be on legel grounds safer to use made up names.thank you


    Helen Sedwick July 9, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Cornel, If you are writing fiction, then it is safer to change names and physical descriptions. You may be surprised that those changes improve your characterizations and story, because you have freed yourself from facts and can craft characters to suit your goals.
    If you are writing non-fiction, then the short answer is to be truthful and to “show, not tell.” Tell people what happened and avoid using labels and judgments. Trust your readers to understand your message.
    And, also save your research and back-up.
    I would not bother seeking permissions at this point. Wait until you are far along in the writing and rewriting process. You may find that your story has developed so many new dimensions that you no longer worry about people recognizing themselves.


    Cornel July 12, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Helen thank you for your reply,I will do what you suggest and it is very true.this has been a great help to me.


    Greg Mactye June 1, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Ms. Sedgwick;
    Thank you for making this information available – I am finding it extremely informative. My question is similar to Cornel’s. I am writing my first book (72,000 words and 122 pages complete and edited). The book deals with UW recovery (search and recovery work) and contains true tales about body recovery operations, (with some details changed for privacy) with alternating chapters which explain how we accomplish our mission. My question is – if and how much should I use real names of places and people? Obviously I do not use the real names of the victims or their families, but what about the locations where the recovery took place, or the people with whom I’ve worked – my team members and other team’s people?
    Thank you if you’ve time to reply,


    Robert July 9, 2014 at 7:16 am

    A question: I have created a name for my company, and discovered (after I set up the publishing website, told folks that I was publishing a novel through this company, etc.) that a company with the exact name exists. They are more of an art book press, whereas my company is mainly literary. Do I have a problem using this name, since it’s one that I am attached to and have begun to identify as my own? I am in California, and this other company is in New York.



    Helen Sedwick July 9, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Robert, You should search the US Trademark office (http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/process/search/) to see if the New York company has registered the name as their trademark. If so, the law gives them the exclusive right to use that trademark throughout the U.S. for the class of products listed in their registration, which is probably books. They may never know about your use, or care, but if they did, you would be wise to give up using the name.
    If they have not registered the trademark, then their rights are limited to the their market as of the time you start using the mark. As you can imagine, that is a fuzzy standard and open to argument. Do the search and feel free to email me directly through my website if you have more questions.


    alex abaz July 8, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent article with all the pertinent questions. Too bad that most people don’t read this info until later, when they’re stuck.


    John Eod July 2, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Every website and email service seems to have a privacy policy and their own particular copyright notice. Yet they warn users that ANYTHING they write or upload they, more or less, give up their right of copyright as well as privacy. Just because they state this, does this mean that those policies, etc. supersedes Federal Copyright laws and all laws, including Constitutional regarding right to privacy. If so, then can we all violate these laws with impunity, since websites and email service providers do?


    N. L. Brumbaugh June 27, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    This article is informative. It creates an awareness by highlighting concerns and abuses, things the newbie author is totally unaware of until it’s too late. My self-published book has floundered because of some of these same issues. I decided to click on some of the enclosed links. More good stuff! Then I researched my publisher. More relevant info. Now I’m getting onto something. I realize why I’ve been getting the on-going phone calls from my publisher. Reading about the self-publishing companies taking advantage, the sharks & predators, saddens me. I think of my friend who just self-published. She spent an ungodly amount (thousands) after a publisher “hook” reeled her in. I posted a comment about this problem on my Facebook page. Hopefully it will create more awareness. Thank you for the heads-up. Norma


    Ernie Zelinski June 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    One more question that authors should ask themselves:

    “Who is going to buy my book?”

    And they better have a damn good answer.

    As you say, authors are dreamers, but this is not a time for dreaming when this question is asked.

    If authors were realistic about answering this question, they may not spend as much on their packages and not wind up with such a big financial loss in the end.


    Laurie Harper June 27, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Thank you, Helen. I will be sharing this widely because it is the most straightforward, clear, helpful post I’ve seen.


    Frances Caballo June 27, 2014 at 9:07 am

    This is a great article, Helen. I’ve hesitated to use a self-publishing service company because I love the covers created by my cover designer (Kit Foster) and I also like being in charge of the publishing process. I’ve heard great things about She Writes Press, however, and I was wondering whether you might have looked into them. I know that Kate Farrell has used them recently and had a great experience. Your thoughts?


    Helen Sedwick June 27, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Frances, I too prefer the control of engaging my own team, but for many people the process of doing-it-themselves is overwhelming. That’s where good coaches, consultants, and reputable SPSCs are invaluable.
    I’ve met Brooke Warner of She Writes Press and was very impressed with her. I plan to talk further with her to understand her business model.


    David Colin Carr June 27, 2014 at 8:32 am

    Thanks, Helen, for the simplest, clearest picture picture of what authors are up against as they face the question of What Now? once their manuscript is “finished.” Naming names and providing comparisons is a great service to writers – and it needs to be talked about at every opportunity because many writers don’t have the blessing of living in the hub of a writing community as we in the Bay Area do, so are not as likely to be know about the issue.
    One of my clients, despite conversations with me, out of overwhelm with the marketing and distribution tasks, bought into the Balboa Press package (Hay House subsidiary) for $11,000 even though he had done all the design work already and paid me for editing. His defense was that maybe Hay House would pick up his title since his book was for their market. I didn’t ask if they pitched him that line. And I doubt they would have had an editor on staff who could have talked him, a PhD, through turning academic writing into something that a sophisticated general reader would appreciate (his topic: using traditional Hawai’ian Ho’onoponopono in a therapeutic context as well as for self-healing).
    I wish that this topic was a workshop at the San Francisco Writers Conference, but they are caught up in having a couple of SPSCs as sponsors…


    Helen Sedwick June 27, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Stories like this motivated me to write my book and these posts. Because writers are dreamers, we are vulnerable to these empty promises. I hope to save a few writers from this heartache.


    Demetrius June 27, 2014 at 5:57 am

    Good article. I think the paragraph about pricing much higher than a best seller applies to ebooks also?


    Chris O'Byrne June 27, 2014 at 5:41 am

    Thank you, Helen and Joel, for this post. I started my business as a freelancer providing ebook conversions, and have since grown it into a full-fledged business providing self publishing services. I’m not sure where JETLAUNCH falls in the list of companies, but I’d say it’s a blend. Our model is to provide most of the services in one place a DIY author wants and to provide the highest quality of design and service. We don’t provide marketing services because I still feel the author is the most effective person to do that.

    My intention isn’t to plug my company on your blog post, but to lay a little background before asking my question. We currently do not use a contract because I don’t think we do anything that needs one. However, you might think differently, and I would rather hear from the expert.

    We receive a manuscript from the author, do all of the design and conversion work, and even upload their files to their own accounts. After we’re done, we send the author all of their files and keep all copies archived in case they ever need them again. All royalty payments go directly into the author’s own accounts, and we never take ownership of their files. Do you think we still need a contract? I’ve always told the author that the invoice we send represents the agreement between us for the work being done, but is that incorrect?


    Helen Sedwick June 27, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Well, if you ask a lawyer whether an agreement should be in writing, she will almost always say yes.
    That aside, posting a simple Terms of Service on your website would be a good idea. You could spell out what you do (and don’t do). This information would be helpful to both you and your clients.


    Chris O'Byrne June 27, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Thank you, Helen. That is excellent advice.


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