Be an author, not a sucker: What services should non-fiction authors buy?

Face it: if you’re prospective non-fiction author, you may as well have “sucker” written on your forehead. Everyone knows you yearn to be a bestseller and they’re quite happy to take your money to feed that need.

Much of what they’re offering is waste. A lot of it is worthwhile. But it could cost you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to chase that dream.

After publishing four of my own books and two ghostwritten books — and working with dozens of other authors using every imaginable publishing model — I’ve seen the yearning and the result. Now I’ll share what’s worth paying for and what’s not.

Before you consider buying anything, settle your goals and your publishing model

What are you trying to accomplish? That matters. Early results from my author survey (which is, as of this writing, still active) show that authors’ main goals are to boost their reputation and share their knowledge. Most who published felt they accomplished those goals.

Other goals are more challenging. Some people want to bolster a speaking career or generate leads. A few have the unrealistic goal of writing a bestseller and making money from that (you might hit that goal, but not by lunging at it).

If you invest in your book, align the size and shape of your investments with your goals. Keep that in mind as you review the list below.

The second question you should ask before you go forward is how you want to publish. You have a choice among traditional publishing (slow), hybrid publishing (faster, but costly), and self-publishing (fast, but lower impact). Hybrid publishing in particular requires investing $10,000 to $40,000 to get the book out.

That’s why the list and table below highlight different answers based on your publishing model.

Analysis of author services

Here’s a list, in roughly chronological order, of stuff people want to sell you and whether it’s worth it to buy those services. As always, I try to provide as balanced advice as I can. (In the interests of disclosure, the services I offer are marked with an *, but you can get these services from lots of other people, too.) The services listed here are in inappropriate or unnecessary in some publishing models; I note that in the explanations and the table below them.

  • Title and idea development.* Unless you know what your book is really about, you’re going to have a hard time writing or selling it. If you can get help with sharpening the idea, it’s likely to be worth the investment. If you’re already on solid ground with the title and idea, skip it.
  • Table of contents/content organization.* A developmental editor can help with this, as can those who do idea development. Again, quite worth the effort — combined with a title and well-developed idea, this kind of help can help make sure your other efforts are productive.
  • Book agent. You only need an agent if you’re pursuing traditional publishing. Even then, you can skip it if you have a friendly editor at a publishing house — but the agent will still get you the maximum advance. Reputable agents get paid on a percentage basis, so there’s no up-front investment.
  • Proposal writing.* A proposal will maximize your chance for selling to a traditional publisher. While writing a proposal is a good first step for all publishing models, it only makes sense to pay for it if you’re pitching traditional publishers.
  • Research. If you’re strapped for time, get a good research assistant. But only do this if you can be efficient at communicating your needs: managing researchers takes time, too.
  • Ghostwriting.* You can hire somebody to write the book. That’s expensive, but if your strength is ideas, rather than writing — or if you don’t have time to write — it may be worth it.
  • Graphics. Lots of people forget this, and it causes them pain. Your publisher expects you to deliver the graphics in final form, just as they expect you to deliver the text — they won’t create diagrams or charts for you. (They will do tables, which are part of the text.) If you have any figures and you fail to invest in a professional designer/illustrator, your graphics will look like crap, and so will your book.
  • Developmental editing or writing coaching.* A good developmental editor helps you with feedback on everything from organization to content to wording. If you’re self-publishing, you’re a lot better off with an editor, because they’ll see flaws and blind spots you can’t. If you’re using a traditional or hybrid publisher, they provide an editor. But these days, publishers’ editors tend to have limited time to work with manuscripts in process. Many traditionally and hybrid published authors still hire their own editor.
  • Fact checking. You need it. Do it yourself or hire someone. If you don’t, you risk making stupid errors or even getting sued for libel.
  • Copy editing. This is the final editorial stage, looking for typos and spelling and grammar errors. If you have a publisher, they provide the copy editor. If you’re self-publishing, hire one. Manuscripts full of errors make you look like an idiot.
  • Page design and page layout. Publishers handle interior design and layout, usually quite well. (In my experience, hybrid publishers are both faster and do a better job than traditional publishers, but both will get the job done.) If you self-publish, you’ll need to hire a designer. Exception: even if you have a publisher, if yours is a heavily designed book, like a cookbook, you’ll need to collaborate with the publisher to design the pages.
  • Cover design. Publishers do covers and dust jackets for you, but you do have a say. If you’re self-publishing, you need to hire a cover designer.
  • Ebook formatting. Publishers do this for you; you’ll have to hire someone if self-publishing.
  • Distribution. Publishers do this for you; it’s not an option for self-publishing.
  • ISBN registration and Amazon/B&N page. Publishers do this for you. If you’re self-publishing, you can do it yourself or hire someone.
  • Publicity. Promotion is your job. Yes, if you have a publisher, they will say they can help. But unless you are a celebrity getting a $500K advance, counting on them alone is a mistake. Everything from media reviews to social media promotion to video promotion to stimulating Amazon reviews to speaking tours are, typically, your job. Hiring publicity help make a lot of sense. (One note: when publishers say “marketing” they mean “bookstore marketing” — see next item. This confuses authors who think “marketing” means book marketing, but publishers call that “publicity.”)
  • Bookstore marketing. That’s the publisher’s job, whether it’s schmoozing buyers or paying for placement in bookstores or airport stores. (These days, both traditional and hybrid publishers often ask you for the placement money.)
  • Speaking tour. Almost always, your job. Good luck.
  • Speaking coaching. Not really an author task, but so many authors are also speakers that I include it. And help is widely available.

Here’s a chart of all that.

Did I miss anything? I’ll be happy to address it in the comments.

Have you participated in my author survey yet? It’s for authors or those planning to become one. I’ll send you a copy of the compiled results when it’s done.

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  1. Great list, Josh! You really covered it all, and I appreciate your focus on title and concept development, a critical piece that is often underestimated by authors. The only thing I’d add is on the topic of developmental editing / coaching. You say it’s provided by the publisher but to consider it anyway. In fact, it is sometimes provided by the publisher and sometimes it is not, in which case the author really ought to consider it as it’s so important. As you know from working with us, our hybrid publishing company LifeTree Media provides those services with every project, so an author would not have to procure them independently. But not every hybrid does that.

    All in all a very good post!