It’s a jungle out there. Anybody who has ever self-published, or even thought about it, knows this. Sure, the opportunities for self-publishing success seem almost limitless these days, but why is it that some self-published authors have sold millions of books while others spend thousands of dollars and only manage to sell 122 copies—mostly to friends, acquaintances, and their mom?

Then there are all those other questions facing the self-published author. For example, right now, e-book prices are all over the place, so how do you figure out the best price point to maximize sales? And, what about digital rights management? There’s a big controversy over whether DRM is a good or a bad thing for authors in the long run. We will discuss all of these issues in future columns.

For now, what is a self-respecting, ambitious self-publisher to do? It all comes down to this: take charge. Whether you’re working with a subsidy publisher like CreateSpace, Book Baby, or Lulu, or you are taking the do-it-yourself route, it is essential that you oversee every aspect of the process. First, you have to make sure your book is the very best it can be. Second, you have to become smart, savvy, patient, and persistent in the marketing department—but we’ll discuss the second part of this equation in another column.

What are the three things every self-publishing writer can do to significantly up the chances for success?

  1. Hire your own experienced content editor.
  2. Hire your own professional cover designer.
  3. Buy your own ISBN.

Let’s talk about editors first. Content editors are also sometimes called developmental or structural editors, as opposed to copyeditors and proofreaders, who read manuscripts more closely and check for style, punctuation, and grammar. These content editors are the people who often become your new best friend. They usually work with you from the start, with a single goal in mind: to help you make your book the best it can be. You is the key word here. This is your book. Your name is on the title page, not the editor’s. If you ever find yourself working with an editor who seems to be more interested in having you do things her way than your way, dump her. Good editors always listen to the writer and try to understand what it is that he or she wants to accomplish, whether it is to tell a good story or create the first and only history of the American Beauty rose.

In my experience as a content editor in the traditional publishing business for more than 30 years, I’ve seen what a difference a good content editor can make in a manuscript. Quality begets quality. Quality sells. If you want your book to look professional, to deliver what it promises, then hire an editorial pro.

How do you find a first-rate editor? Ask your self-published friends for recommendations, or go online and check out freelance editors and editorial groups. Be sure to talk with several editors before selecting one. It is important that you feel a connection with the person you select, and find out:

  • what their publishing experience is;
  • how much they charge, and what the payment schedule is;
  • deadlines, in other words, when they will deliver what.
  • And don’t forget to check their references.

This advice applies when you are hiring a cover designer, too. You can judge a book by its cover, and that’s what many people are doing now, deciding to buy a book, especially an e-book, because they like the look of the cover. It has caught their attention, the type is easy to read even in a postage stamp–size image, the title is short and intriguing, the image is arresting, and it reeks of “quality.” You may be good at drawing or have a well-developed sense of color, but you are only going to get a professional-looking book cover from a professional.

And finally, it is always a good idea for you to purchase your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from, even if the subsidy publisher you are working with suggests it can buy one for you as a part of your publishing package.
Why insist on buying the ISBN yourself? Because when you do, you will be listed as the publisher, not your subsidy publisher. You will be in charge. Only official holders of an ISBN can register data about their titles, and often subsidy publishers do not register your ISBNs with your title and the other title data, or metadata, about your book. And as you probably know, you will need a separate ISBN for each edition of your book: hardcover, paperback, EPub, Mobi, and PDF. Without available metadata, you might just end up with a book that no one can find, and since you would not be listed as the publisher, you would have no rights to do anything about it.

If you have questions about any of this, please let us know at BookWorks: The Self-Publishers Association. Our mission is to help all self-publishing authors find the best path through this lush, verdant, ever-changing jungle.