Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Book Shepherds, Part 1

POSTED ON Jul 24, 2013

Sharon Goldinger

Written by Sharon Goldinger

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I’ve been making books together with Sharon for over 20 years, and there’s no book professional whose opinion I value more highly than hers. Whether she’s supplying her (very fortunate) clients with editorial guidance, packaging and book marketing advice, or distribution options, she’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know who works with indie authors.

Since what Sharon does is a form of book shepherding, I wanted to bring her knowledge to you so you can better understand this crucial role. For many authors, a book shepherd can be the best of all ways to get into print and onto the market. This interview is long. Today I’m publishing Part 1, to be followed by the conclusion on Friday. Don’t miss it.

1. What do book shepherds do, and what kinds of clients do they work with?

Book shepherds are full-service contractors for book publishers. A book shepherd takes a book through all the necessary steps—writing, editing, design, printing, marketing, distribution—in the most time-and cost-effective manner possible.

Some of the steps that a book shepherd leads a client through—in terms of setting up a book publishing company and publishing a book—include creating a name for the publishing company; finding, engaging, and coordinating the interior and cover designers; managing the crafting of the book; completing all the necessary paperwork (such as copyright forms and Bowker paperwork); obtaining a distributor and a marketing firm; creating a marketing campaign; and arranging print reorders.

Book shepherds usually work with small and new publishers and then help them grow. Most publishers I work with are authors who have ideas for more than one book. Having more than one book greatly increases an author’s credibility. Also, national distributors usually do not accept one-book publishers. They want to see that publishing is a full-time venture (not just a hobby), and that includes a full publishing program—usually at least one book every twelve to eighteen months.

This is a business, and everyone in it needs to earn a living. It is much easier for the author, publisher, and distributor to do that if a publisher has more than one book. Several of my client publishers plan to publish other people’s works in addition to their own.

So much information about publishing is available in print, online, and via consultants that it’s hard to know what’s true, what’s false, and what’s applicable to a specific book. Some of the advice you find can be really good—but not for your book. A strategy that works for one book may not be appropriate for another (for example, nonfiction versus fiction, business versus self-help).

A book shepherd brings his or her list of contacts, experiences, and war stories to each project. That’s why it’s important to find the right book shepherd for your particular book.

Changes in book publishing used to occur about every five to ten years; then the widespread use of computers made changes happen faster, but it was still possible for authors to keep up with what was going on and make the necessary adaptations.

Now those changes have accelerated to warp speed—sometimes occurring from week to week. How can any one person, especially someone just entering the arena, keep up with all of that information, as well as the subject of the book he or she has written? It’s almost impossible.

That’s where a book shepherd can be of most help: keeping up with the industry, what’s new, what’s being phased out, what’s working, what’s not working, which vendors are doing a good job, and which ones are not.

In short, a book shepherd helps prevent the “I don’t know what I don’t know” syndrome and associated costly mistakes and time wasters.

2. Are book shepherds similar to book packagers?

Historically, book packagers have brought a “package” to a publisher. For example, let’s consider a book on arthritis. The packager would put together the book idea (proposal), which would include finding the author (most likely a medical doctor), hiring the designers, and developing the marketing ideas for the book. The publisher would buy the whole package, and the packager would produce the book (sometimes including printing).

Book packagers were the contractors for a book—hiring and paying for the book editor, proofreader, and indexer and overseeing the production process, up to and sometimes including printing.

3. What kinds of publishing options are available in the industry today?

Three basic choices are available for publishing a book today:

  • “Traditional” publishing: This choice involves finding an agent or a publisher; that is, an agent who will find you a publisher, or a publisher that does not require an agent.
  • Independent publishing: This usually applies to small publishers and can include self-publishers.
  • Subsidy publishing: This involves working with a company that provides some publishing-related services (for example, editing, design, and printing); however, all costs are paid for by the author. With subsidy publishing, the author is not the publisher—the subsidy press is. An author using the subsidy publishing route cannot contract with any entities as the publisher. (For example, only a publisher can have a contractual relationship with a distributor. If an author wants to expand the distribution of his or her book, the subsidy publisher would have to enter into the contract.)

    Many authors think that since they are paying for everything, they are the de facto publisher and can enter into contracts, but that’s not the case. The most important lesson here is be sure to read every contract, ask every possible question, and understand every provision before signing.

In the past, the term “self-publisher” had a negative connotation. It often meant poor-quality editing, design, production, and printing. In other words, if you placed a self-published book next to a book from a big publishing house, you could see the difference in a second.

With the advancement of computer technology and desktop publishing, the only reasons why small presses could not compete with the big houses were lower production quality and poor distribution into the marketplace.

Today, a knowledgeable and experienced person can create and produce a quality product. (Modern technology has allowed this capability in terms of the actual production mechanism as well as the lower cost.) Distribution is still difficult but not impossible with the assistance of one of the national distributors that will work with small presses.

4. How does a book shepherd differ from a vanity press?

A book shepherd is a consultant. A vanity press is a subsidy press. Originally, vanity presses were created so that anyone who had the money could have a book published. It didn’t matter if it was edited or what it looked like. The point was, no editorial staff screened the book to make sure that it met industry standards (in terms of writing and editing) or that an audience for it existed in the marketplace.

Years ago, many of these companies charged an exorbitant amount of money because there was always someone who wanted to have a book published no matter the cost (because of the cachet of being a published author). These companies often promised that they would produce the book to industry standards (and did not), market the book (and did not), and get the book into bookstores (and did not). So vanity presses got a well-deserved reputation for being scams or rip-offs.

Since desktop publishing software has made it easier to produce a high-quality product, more vanity presses have been created than ever before. This avenue is the ideal one for some people, depending on their goals. For example, if an author just wants to have a few copies of his or her book available for family and friends, a vanity press might be the most appropriate option.

5. What circumstances bring authors to your company rather than self-publishing their books on their own or submitting them to a publisher or agent?

Books still hold a sacred place in the marketplace, so it’s not unusual for someone to approach me and say, “I have this book I want to publish. I don’t care if it makes money; I don’t even need to break even. But I feel this book will help people” (or “I want to create a historical record of this information”).

This is a realistic goal, so we can reach a clear understanding of the costs and potential results. (However, when clients say this, I do challenge them by responding back, “There is nothing wrong with producing this book and making money. It’s not against the law; it’s not even immoral.”)

The author’s goals are very important. For example, if an author wants to write a history of his small town with the understanding that it will not be picked up by a national distributor and will be sold only in his local bookstore, that’s realistic (if the person wants to spend the money).

But if an author comes to me with a manuscript that could not be a viable book (which could mean the writing is too weak or the marketplace is not broad enough to sell through, based on the author’s goals), I won’t take the project at all. If the book needs writing help, a ghostwriter can be brought in or the author can hire a “book doctor” to rewrite the book.

Most often, people call me to discuss their options for having a book published. I ask a series of questions to reveal whether or not they have a national platform (required for nonfiction by most agents and publishers today). If they don’t, then the conversation steers to whether they have the time, budget, and inclination to independently publish.

6. At what point would an author hire you? Before the manuscript is written or after?

A book shepherd can be engaged at almost any time in the process—while the manuscript is being written or when it has been completed. Some authors approach me even before the manuscript is written to evaluate whether the premise of the book is viable.

I’ve helped create and shape books, starting with marketing research into what’s in the marketplace already and what’s missing from or needed in the marketplace. I’ve also guided authors through all editorial phases, including developmental, content, and copyediting.

Ed: Watch for the second and final part of this interview on Friday.

Sharon Goldinger, owner of PeopleSpeak, is a book shepherd, editor, and publishing consultant specializing in nonfiction books. With an eye for details, she leads authors and publishers through the often-complicated publishing process and uses her business, marketing, and editorial experience to help produce exceptional books. For more information, visit www.detailsplease.com/peoplespeak or email Sharon at [email protected] or call her at 949-581-6190.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Portions of this interview previously appeared in The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box: Getting a Hook on the Publishing Industry, by Lynn Price, Behler Publications © 2010

Sharon Goldinger

Written by
Sharon Goldinger

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