As anyone who's courageously ventured into the arena of self-publishing knows-or soon will-there's much more involved in the process than simply sending your manuscript off to a printer, dropping off review copies at a handful of bookstores, and kicking back and waiting for the revenues to roll in.
To the uninitiated author journeying alone, the critical decisions that need to be made along the way can be overwhelming, frustrating, and even downright daunting.
Fortunately, a new breed of publication consultants has grown up right alongside the flourishing self-publishing population to serve as guidance counselors through each phase of the complicated process. Though self-publishing is largely considered a DIY endeavor-hence the designation self-publishing-there may be many advantages to using a professional book shepherd (as book consultants have been dubbed by self-publishing guru Dan Poynter) that makes hiring one well worthy of consideration.
But, just what exactly is a book shepherd? In practice, many of the professional services book shepherds provide include either direct assistance with or advice on cover and interior book design, manuscript editing, printer brokering, forms filing, production, distribution, marketing, and publicity. Some shepherds work within fully staffed one-stop firms that will ferry your book through production and beyond; others work autonomously and will often refer you to experts in the areas they don't handle.
The Benefits of Hiring a Book Shepherd
Collaborating with a good book shepherd can increase your chances for publishing success-in more ways than you might think. "There's a bit of a misconception about what a book shepherd does," says Ellen Reid of Smarketing-Infinite Possibilities, "that it's all about book production. That's a component of what we do, but it's not the entire reason to hire a book shepherd."
Reid likens her consulting approach to playing the role of a creative director at an ad agency or the producer of a film, and she revels in the creative aspect of her job. First, she assembles a creative team of resources for each of her clients-a copywriter, an editor, and a cover and interior designer-then she oversees every aspect of design, production, and distribution.
Book shepherds can save authors time and keep them from making the major mistakes that self-publishing rookies are apt to make. "Self-publishing is not a simple business," says Simon Warwick-Smith, president of Warwick Associates and former senior VP of marketing for a large U.S. book distributor, "and people can either spend a few years learning about it, or they can go to someone who's been there who can tell them what to do."
Cynthia Frank, book consultant and president of Cypress House, who has 20 years' experience in the business, shares Warwick-Smith's philosophy and uses a similar approach. Frank asks her clients to describe their definition of publishing success so that she can help them reach that level-whether it's achieving a good sales ranking on Amazon.com or using their first book as a stepping stone to a traditional publishing contract. Next she asks her authors to perform a self-assessment, honestly representing their weaknesses and strengths regarding aspects of the business, so she can formulate a comprehensive plan that will align their definition of success with the concrete steps to making it happen.
"If my client is not good at marketing, for example, and all of his capital is tied up in inventory," says Frank, "then there's no money left over for marketing, and he's heading for trouble. I help my clients see where they're coming up short in the planning stages."
Book shepherds also help their clients get up to speed quickly on the ins and outs of self-publishing. "There's so much jargon in our industry, and if somebody is just starting out, their eyes will be spinning in their head," says Frank. "We explain the different registrations and distribution methods and help them decide whether their books should be sold in bookstores, specialty shops, or gift and stationery stores, for example."
Planning ahead, experts agree, is of the utmost importance. Self-publishing is, in effect, a small business, and it deserves to be treated as such right from the start. Most shepherds strongly advise authors to prepare a formal business plan for a self-publishing venture before they even begin writing the manuscript. "Oftentimes we see people go into self-publishing with no more forethought than they would use to order a meal at a fancy restaurant," says Frank.
Sometimes, too, a book shepherd has connections and proven strategies that can benefit the aspiring author. "I've developed relationships with national distributors," says book shepherd Gail Kearns of To Press and Beyond, "and if the product is great and the price is right, I can usually get the books into the hands of distributors. We also have some creative ideas for marketing that don't cost a lot of money."
In essence, a good book shepherd can save an author time, money, headaches, and-one hopes-disappointment.
How to Get the Most from a Book Shepherding Session
But don't plan on using a book shepherd to hold your hand every step of the way-unless of course, your pocketbook is bursting at the seams. With hourly rates ranging from approximately $50 to $150 and up, depending on the services you use, the fees can pile up quickly and eat up a good chunk of your budget.
It's much more prudent to do a lot of homework up front, advises Barbara Denise Files, author of two self-published books including her latest, Ballet Secrets for Skaters: How to Hone Your Artistic Competitive Edge.
Files enjoyed a positive experience working with book shepherd Marilyn Ross, co-founder of Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN), and she attributes much of the collaboration's success to the fact that she did a lot of research before she even called Ross. "I didn't just pick up the phone and say, ‘You know, I think I might want to write a book,'" Files says.
After formulating a business plan, Files did a background check on her prospective coach by monitoring her newsletters and submitting some questions to Ross via the internet. Satisfied that Ross really knew her stuff, Files gathered her materials-a mission statement, some demographic information she'd compiled on her target audience, and ideas for how to serve them-and developed some specific questions for Ross to answer during their consulting session: Should she write one book, or should she divide her information into a series? How could she best market her niche publication? How many copies should she have printed in the first run? And the all-important: What should the title be?
For Files, using a coach enabled her to make better-educated choices: "When you're a self-publishing author, there are a lot of crucial decisions you have to make," Files says. "A book shepherd acts like a sounding board and using one gives you access to professional feedback."
In order to make your book shepherding experience cost-effective, Files recommends networking with other self-publishers on Internet forums, joining writers' clubs, taking a class, and reading books on self-publishing so you can learn the rules of the road before hiring a consultant. "Make the call only after you have a specific plan and specific questions to ask," says Files, "otherwise, you're going to end up spending a lot of money and time asking basic questions without receiving much direction on your project."
Working with a book shepherd is like most experiences in life, according to Files, who says, "The more you put into it ahead of time, the more you'll get out of it."
Shepherds' Tips on Self-Publishing Success
1. "Self-publishing is an expensive business that has an all-or-nothing aspect to it. I don't recommend trying to publish on a shoestring. If you can't afford to do it right, just don't do it." (Simon Warwick-Smith)
2. "First I tell my authors that it's critically important to plan ahead. There are 120,000 new books per year on the market, a market that is glutted with books, and one needs to know how to approach that. Don't think about marketing, sales, and promotion after you've printed your book; get expert help on the cover, the content, and the page design." (Simon Warwick-Smith)
3. "Hire a professional book cover designer. The cover is hugely important real estate-it has to scan well into black and white, it has to have integrity at 1½ inches tall, it has to be clear at 10 feet tall, and it has to fit into its genre and stand out in quality." (Cynthia Frank)
4. "Approach your book-publishing venture like you would a business plan: Plan out what you are going to do yourself and what you are going to hire others to do. I don't think it's a good idea to do everything yourself...or to hire everything out." (Cynthia Frank)
5. "The look and feel and the copywriting on the cover are the most critical components. They speak for the author and give the book its best chance for success." (Ellen Reid)
6. "If you're really going out there to play in this $2.2-billion industry, you've got to have the same level of product that the traditional publishing houses put out." (Ellen Reid)
7. "If you do it all yourself, your book will look like you did it all yourself." (Patty Weckbaugh of Casa Graphics)
This article orginally appeared in Between the Lines, a free writers' e-zine brought to you by The Editorial Department, a 26-year-old freelance editorial firm. Please see www.editorialdepartment.com for the e-zine.