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

POSTED ON Jul 20, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Self-Publishing > An Author's Guide to Book Birthers, Book Shepherds and other Consultants

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

Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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