7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Self-Publishing Company

by | Jun 27, 2014

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.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. easton

    I like the tip that you gave to check the reputation of a publishing service before you hire them. My wife is thinking about writing a book, and she would want to have it published. If she were to write the book, I would be sure to mention that she should check the reputation of a publisher before she hires them.

  2. KenB

    Thanks for the information, which would have helped be before I published with Trafford and xlebris.

    There isI discussing with a company name Black Lacquer Press & Marketing Inc. Have anyone any idea about this company.They say they are Hybred.

  3. Helen Sedwick

    Kathleen, There are many consultants who will help you through the mechanics of setting up your social media platform and publishing your book. But this help is not cheap. So, before you hire someone, look to see if there is a local writers or indie publisher’s organization with meetings and a network. These organizations help writers at all stages of the self-publishing process. The time you need the most help is NOW, when it seems so intimidating. The self-publishing process is not so bad, if you take it step by step.
    I would not sign up with a large self-publishing company or buy one of their packages until you have a better understanding of the process. Their packages are ridiculous expensive. You can do better if you do some homework and hire someone through referrals.
    If you need more help, contact me through my website.

  4. kathleen Burns

    Thank you for the great article, 7 Questions to Ask! It gave me insight into what all I need to do in order to publish my parents’ manual, “Top Students, Top Parents, Good Students are Made at Home, Not at School.”

    I am 81 years old, and just knowledge of what all I need to do makes me panic. So much advice, what to watch for, who to trust, book covers, reviews, website, social media, how much to pay, etc. etc. I’m afraid I may not be able to finish what I start if I go it alone. I need someone whom I can trust to partner with or who can advise me.

    I’m a dreamer, like most authors; however, I do believe the advice in my book is the answer to our educational woes. I have a great market just through schools and parent groups throughout the nation, even Betsy DeVoss, our current Secretary of Education.

    I can sell it as a parents’ manual and also make several chapters into booklets such as, “The Home Environment Conducive to Learning,” “The Dangers of Electronic Entertainment,” “The Importance of Play,” “How to Read to Your Child,” “Reading Comprehension,” “Responsibility Leads to Success,” “Good Homework Habits,” “Learning from Mistakes,” etc.

    I would so much appreciate your suggestion. Thank you very much!


  5. John L Pavon

    Thank-you both for this information,Editing Process may interfere with copyrighted How do you handle that?

    • Helen Sedwick

      John, I am assuming your question is whether the copyright to any editing work is owned by the editor and not the author of the original work. It is highly unlikely that an editor’s work would be considered a new work covered by a new copyright owned by the editor. The editor’s work would be considered a derivative work of the original, and the author of the original owns rights to all derivative works. Now, if the editor is writing entirely new paragraphs and sections, those might be covered by a new copyright, but line edits, reshuffling of sentences, suggestions of plot, structure, voice, etc., those would not be.
      Nevertheless, it’s always best to get a written agreement with an editor that clearly states that you, the author of the original work, own all copyright in all editing work. Better safe than sorry.

  6. Angela

    Thank you for your valuable information. Wish I had known this before I signed up with****. What is the best course of action, when one realizes they made a mistake? Do they attempt to start over, with their now purchased illustrations, and start a company, try to get traditionally published or hope for the best?

    • Helen Sedwick

      Angela, In the long run you will do better if you terminate that contract and start over by self-publishing or going the agent/publisher route. Most of these contracts can be terminated with 30 days notice and sometimes you can buy the print-ready files. In reality, I have found I have to hound and hound these companies to stop selling the book and deliver the files. It can take months, sorry to say.

  7. John R McLellan

    Hi Helen
    Excellent article. My stomach has settled down a bit. I have several books i want to publish however the first one is the one I am most concerned with for obvious reasons. It is a “How To” book and i have already proven the techniques in it.
    I was planning on using KDP however when I asked them about copyright they just said I have to do that myself and din’t give any advice on it at all.
    I also did not see a market in China on their site.
    I foresee a huge market in China for my book.
    I found your link on CreateSpace.
    Not sure who they are except they started sending me emails when I contacted KDP.

    My daughter and her husband are both corporate litigation lawyers. She retired after 3 years to raise her family.
    I asked them about a “Poor Man’s Copyright” and they both agreed we could do it that way.
    I would print a hard copy and a disk and mail it to them via registered, signature required, mail and they would place it in their safety deposit box.
    I live in Ontario, Canada.
    Also KDP’s pricing system seemed confusing!
    Again, thank you for being there with sensible information.

    • Helen Sedwick

      John, It sounds as if you may be just starting the self-publishing part of your writing adventure. The various steps in the process will make sense as you start working through them.
      Regarding copyright, you own the copyright in your work as soon as you put it into tangible form. Registration is an additional step that provides more protection. Poor man’s copyright merely serves as evidence of what your work looked like on a particular date, and does not give you any added rights.

    • Olivie

      Most people would make a very low price to make people accept their books first.

      if you set a very high price, nobody would really wanna buy your book, dont even say to attract their eyes or draw their any attention.

  8. Burt Silver

    This is great information about self publishing. I have been writing my novel as a hobby for almost three years now. I am almost finished, and I would really like to self publish it and get some copies circulating. Thanks for mentioning to ask a potential company about what royalties you will earn from your book before you hire them. That shows that they will compete for your business and want to be transparent with you.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Burt, Many sites (such as the CreateSpace site) have a calculator what will show you what your royalties will be at different retail prices. That’s so helpful.

  9. Linda

    Hello Helen,
    I have been putting together family books (given to me by family members) on a cd as a gift for our reunion. Our family has two historians, now deceased and unable to fill requests for their works. These works were not published by a publishing company, they were self-published.
    One historian has no descendants or spouse living. The other historian does have descendants but they are not interested in filling requests.

    My question, are these under copyright laws?
    Would I be able to legally scan and provide the works as a gift to family members?

    • Helen Sedwick

      Linda, yes the books are covered by copyright. Copyright applies automatically as soon as the original work is put into tangible form such as a hard drive or a pad of paper. It does not matter if the work is published, self-published, or never published. Technically, you need permission to copy and distribute the books. The heirs may or may not care if you are distributing only a few copies for no payment. Try to ask them and see what they say.

      • Linda

        Thank You

  10. Gail

    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

      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 [email protected] 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.

  11. Cornel

    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

      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

        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.

  12. Robert

    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

      Robert, You should search the US Trademark office (https://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.

  13. alex abaz

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

  14. John Eod

    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?

  15. N. L. Brumbaugh

    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

  16. Ernie Zelinski

    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.

  17. Laurie Harper

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

  18. Frances Caballo

    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

      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.

  19. David Colin Carr

    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

      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.

  20. Demetrius

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

  21. Chris O'Byrne

    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

      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

        Thank you, Helen. That is excellent advice.



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