Should Self-Publishing Authors Hire Editors, Producers and Cover Designers? Team Publishing vs. DIY

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Related: Author Report 2013-2014

Self-publishing is something of a misnomer, given the various ways that authors can publish books outside of a traditional publishing relationship. In particular, we might consider two modes of indie publishing, do-it-yourself and team publishing. DIY is for authors who go it entirely alone. Authors who seek to make their projects team efforts may engage others to help them with various aspects of publication, whether those teams are groups of freelancers and friends or companies that have formed for the purpose.

Are there benefits to indie authors to outsourcing different aspects of their projects, especially those that emulate the services provided by traditional publishers, or are authors better off saving their money?

The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author survey asked self-published authors whether and what type of services they hired to help them with their projects as well as how much they spent overall on bringing their latest self-published book to print. The survey sample considered in this blog consists of a voluntary sample of 2,197 self-published and hybrid authors who responded to our questions about their most recent self-publishing experience. Since the survey is voluntary, it may not represent the population of self-published authors. However, the extensive survey interviews provide insights into what services our sample of indie authors favors and how particular services relate to earnings.

Just under half of the self-published authors surveyed had hired someone or contracted with a company to help them self-publish their last book. Among those who hired services, the median expenditure was in the range of $500- $999, and the median number of services used was 3. The most popular service outsourced by authors was cover art.

team publishing 1

The survey questions don’t tell us the quality of the services authors received or provided themselves. In my own experiences seeking contractors for different aspects of publishing my serial thriller, I found a range of prices. For example, I found cover artist bids that ranged from $35 up to $1800 and formatting bids from $75 to $700.

What is the difference between the low end and the high end of the spending range, and how much impact does it have on sales? On a limited budget, which, if any, services make the most sense to employ?

Using the information provided by the 1,927 authors who reported their earnings from their most recent self-published book, we find that authors with higher incomes are more likely to have utilized a team publishing than a DIY approach, to have utilized more services, and to have spent a considerably greater amount of money in bringing their books to market. Authors earning higher income were also more likely to report hiring services that were most likely to be provided by traditional publishers, namely professional cover art, editing (independent of or in addition to proofreading), and marketing and promotion.

Of these, the greatest differences between those that had no income and those that earned $10,000 or more from their latest book related to cover art and editing. Among authors making no income from their latest book, 22% contracted cover art, compared to 52% of those making more than $5,000 and to 63.6% for those earning $25,000. Similarly, under one fifth of authors earning no income from their latest self-published book hired an editor to help with content development and/or copy editing (e.g. line edits) compared to 38.5% of those earning more than $5,000 and to 50% of those earning $25,000 or more. Authors with higher earnings on their last self-published book were also more likely to have contracted for marketing and promotion, although with less impressive differences between groups in the percentage utilizing these services.

team publishing 2

These cross-sectional results do not demonstrate causality, only correlation. They show that authors across the earnings range adopted a team approach, such that hiring a cover artist or editor is no guarantee of earnings success. There are likely myriad other factors that determine sales and earnings–for example, genre, number of other books published, etc.–in addition to the quality of the services employed. Moreover, the results do not provide us with information on how much authors invested in each type of service or which ones might yield the greatest payoff. It may also be that authors with prior sales success were more likely to invest more in producing subsequent indie books.

What the survey results do demonstrate is that authors with higher income were more likely to adopt a team approach than were authors with lower or no income from their last self-published books. To me, the results suggest the potential advantage of working with a team to produce a professional package.

Related: Author Report 2013-2014


7 thoughts on “Should Self-Publishing Authors Hire Editors, Producers and Cover Designers? Team Publishing vs. DIY

  1. William Ash

    Wow, that is one of the weakest conclusions I have seen–this data does not show an advantage of working with a team. Without even trying to look at cause, you simply take correlation to promote the team package. While certainly their seems to be a weak correlation for spending money on a team, it also looks like there is no statistical difference between $250 and $2000. And then a slight drop off for less. When you hit $0, what are the other factors–would spending more have made a greater return? Without even trying to quantify the quality of the book, how much influence do the services actually give? BTW, how did you deal with the time a book had been on the market? Are these all ebooks? And the fact you seem to be mixing established authors, presumably with an audience, and debut authors, the influence of the team approach seems tenuous. The other issue is whether the authors using a team is simply convenience (the author does not like doing the work) or a quality issue of actually a better book reflected in the returns?

    I think the only thing the survey shows is the distribution of authors using a team approach and the amount spent. Any other conclusion is simply speculation. I know data is the new black, but responsible use of data is important. How many services are going to jump on this as a marketing gimmick to promote themselves claiming Digital Book World says spending money on these services will get you better returns and the more money, the higher the return!?

  2. Scott

    When you’re referring to authors reporting their \earnings\ from their last book, are you meaning the net of the book’s revenue less any expenses for the services like those you list? Or are you using \earnings\ to mean the revenue the book generated? I’d love that clarification.

  3. Travis Luedke

    If I was to participate in your survey, my two biggest investments would be #1) Promotions and Marketing #2) Cover Art

    No matter how beautiful the cover art is, if no one ever sees the book, it simply won’t matter.

    Promotions and Marketing will always be the largest expense in publishing. Cover art is a drop in the bucket by comparison.

    Its startling to see how many people are willing to spend a few dollars on cover art, but not spend a dime to promote the book. Which is probably also the reason so many Indie novels do not sell well.


  4. Michael W. Perry

    Like much in life, hiring versus doing it yourself is an \it depends on\ issue. Take covers for instance, and look at the first book I published some fourteen years ago:

    It’s OK, but certainly nothing to praise. Now compare it with my latest, out only a bit over a week:

    Note especially how the front and back covers of the print edition work together. Now take my second most recent book from last fall:

    The contrast between the front and back covers is deliberate. It’s the same lovely little girl before her leukemia was diagnosed and at the height of her chemotherapy. That, I tell readers, is what ‘my nights with leukemia’ were like. We transformed children who looked like the front picture into ones who looked like the back and we did it to save their lives.

    The change from my first cover to the last required much effort on my part: a lot of thinking, a lot of learning from observing others, and more than a few mistakes. The same is true of the interiors and of creating books whose content works well in print and digital.

    It all depends on what you want to accomplish. Do you want to just write or do you want to control every aspect of your book like the architect Frank Lloyd Wright did his buildings? Are you willing to pay a price for doing it yourself: perhaps seeing your first books look less than impressive than someone you could hire but perhaps see those covers improve over time? The latter comes at a cost though. Time spent wrestling with covers is time not spent writing.

    In a sense this ‘it all depends’ is like the conflict that exists for traditional publishing versus self-publishing. Here is an illustration.

    I spent many hours coming up with the title for a recent book, which is also based on my experience at a major children’s hospital. That is Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals. Just yesterday I was telling a neighbor that self-publishing that book meant that I need not deal with a publisher who might get upset with first book’s sales hurt that of the second and try to block a parallel book. That one is likely to be entitled Bedpans and Other Embarrassments: A Nurse’s Guide to Happier Patients. Both use the same illustrations from my time working with children and teens both deal with what is perhaps the greatest unspoken issue in hospital care, patient embarrassment.

    And keep in mind that doing it yourself in some areas doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself in every area. I’m terrible at marketing. I’d no doubt benefit from finding someone to market my books.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  5. John F. Harnish

    Contracting with a company to provide “publishing services” isn’t a team approach nor is it cost-effective for the author. Most of the “publishing services” generate the bulk of their profits from selling overpriced services of questionable value to novice authors—only a small percentage of their bottom-line comes from selling books. Their bundled services typically cost much more than if the author had done the due diligence and contracted with a freelance editor and cover artist. The majority of books released by “publishing services”—such as the publishers with assorted imprints in the Authors’ Solution corporate gaggle—rarely sell more than one hundred books. Most likely those copies were purchased by the author. It is unlikely the fees paid to these “publishing services” will ever be recouped by the author.

    The critical number that’s missing is how many authors surpassed their breakeven point and earned a profit from their wordsmithing efforts. No matter if the cover art has a dynamic design and the copy editor has all the words working perfectly there’s no guarantee the book will sell in significant numbers—odds are it won’t. Then the only ones profiting from the book are the artist and the editor because they were paid up-front. It would be incorrect to make the connection that the more money expended in professional services the better the book will sell.

    Perhaps a trend will develop where a team of professionals contract with the author to provide their services in exchange for a share of royalties. No up-front fee, but when the book sells everyone on the “team” benefits from the profits. Of course the author would have released an ebook to test the water and harvest reader reviews, and naturally the “team” would have read the entire book before approaching the author. Because every “team” member would have a vested interest in the success of the book, they would work diligently together to get exposure and promote the content to consumers.

    Enjoy often… John

  6. Alexander von Ness

    If this is a book as a product whose final goal is to be consumed (bought and read) and not a “cultural heritage” which should be used to better the whole society, than my brief answer would be: Of course it has to! There is no dilemma!

    The author or self-publisher who has serious plans concerning his book should hire a professional editor, he should also have a professional cover design and a responsible person who will seriously be engaged in the marketing of his book.

    If the author underestimates any of these segments which influence the final success and popularity of his book, then the final result will be the same. After that, no one is to blame for the failure but the author himself!

    In the end I would like to take Michael W. Perry’s cue from his first comment where he wrote “Time spent wrestling with covers is time not spent writing.”

    I would add “Time spent with anything what you don’t enjoy doing and what causes headaches and frustration by which you can’t even come close to the success you might have by hiring someone else (who is better than you) is a wasted time. You should focus your energy and time on what you do best (writing).

  7. DM Daye

    I think you need to start by setting a budget you’re happy with, the process of launching a book (even as an indie author) has to be approached in a professional manner otherwise your book will simply languish at the bottom of the pages of Amazon. However, for myself when launching my own I spent the largest chunk of my budget on the book cover design (you can view it here ) as your article and chart indicate it does seem to be where most indies spend their money, but it is the most crucial. People do judge a book by its cover so you need to ensure you get it right from the beginning.
    Thanks, D



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