• Stacey Aaronson
  • Be Smart not Taken: Red Flags to Heed When Seeking Self-Publishing Providers
Be Smart not Taken: Red Flags to Heed When Seeking Self-Publishing Providers
Written by
Stacey Aaronson
August 2013
Written by
Stacey Aaronson
August 2013

I received a call several months ago from a potential client who wanted to discuss a possible “redo” of his book. The person who designed it claimed to know what he was doing; and editing … well, let’s just say there was virtually none. Worst of all, it was already listed on Amazon.

Upon meeting in person and seeing the book for myself, I was crestfallen that what this author had deemed acceptable—because I suppose he didn’t know any better—was nothing more than a bound first draft in book form, replete with myriad ghastly errors and every earmark of a poorly self-published book. How it got to Amazon in that stage was appalling; it honestly needed many hours of attention in every possible arena before it could be presented to readers.

To add frustration to the scenario, the people in charge of the company’s book budget on behalf of the author were reluctant to put the necessary funds into it. The money they invested badly in the blatantly amateur version impacted the budget they needed to bring it to a professional level for publication, and not knowing anything about book production, they didn’t understand why it still needed so many hours, and therefore more money to make it right. It was a true recipe for disaster, one that I wish the author—and every writer out there who wants to independently publish—had known enough to thwart.

Though this instance was extreme, it’s sadly not the first I’ve seen … or been asked to rectify.

As a professional book doctor whose sole commitment is to help authors produce the highest quality self-published books—those that truly rival traditional house publications—I’ve been disheartened to have increasing numbers of authors come to me after they’ve already made some costly mistakes. Because I sincerely don’t want to see this happen to you or any writer you know, it’s vital that you be aware of the red flags that, if heeded, will keep you from investing in inferior work by unqualified providers and encountering problems after your book is published.


I know how hard it is to hand over your labor of love to an editor. And because it's your baby, it’s imperative that you seek an editor with a body of work you can view to determine if the person is right for you. Referrals from other writers can be great, but you still need to do your homework for your particular book. The subject matter may not be the best match, so it’s up to you to assess several editors before deciding on the best one for your project.

Case in Point:
One of my clients paid $2,000 (a competitive rate for the length of her book) to an editor who was recommended to her by another writer. After the book came to me as the designer/proofreader, I found hundreds of errors that needed correcting, ranging from punctuation to clarity to grammar to flow. My client was heartbroken, having trusted this person to do the job well.

Another client who found her way to me mid-process initially believed she had a great editor—the website and phone rapport was all impressive—yet she was continually invoiced for work she never saw. Hmmm.

Red Flag Busters:

In a recent blog post, Why Quality Copyediting Is Crucial When You Self-Publish, I outline in detail some steps every writer should take in finding the best editor. Here’s a quick list:

  • Look for a robust website that outlines their skills and what they offer.
  • Ask to see examples of their work and/or credentials.
  • Pay them for an “audition”—a set amount of time or flat fee for editing a chapter or portion of one so that you can assess the quality of work for your individual project.
  • Seek legitimate testimonials from clients on the editor's website; if they seem too generic or unverifiable, ask if you can contact the endorsers directly.
  • Ask what style guide(s)/references they use.
  • Inquire about the process they employ when working with authors—be sure it’s a schedule and style that works well for you too.
  • Have a phone conversation. If you get a gut feeling that the person isn't right for your project, trust it and interview another provider.
  • Once you're working together, be certain you receive files showing the work being done—and done competently—on a regular basis. If you can't see what you're paying for, don't write that check until you do!

If any of the above expectations can’t be fulfilled, assess where the lack is and be smart in deciding if you should proceed in hiring—or keeping—them. You don't want to be disappointed or out your hard-earned money!

Book Design

You’ll hear me say this a lot: Most people have absolutely no idea what goes into quality book design. There are many layers and phases that are devoted to every aspect of your book—attention that must be paid to individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words, not to mention the front and back matter—and a person must be knowledgeable in traditional book design standards to accomplish this. The more complex the book, the more vital this is.

But even fiction, which seems fairly straightforward, commands much more than requisite margins and a decent font. Creating a customized interior that reflects the material is paramount. It should appear so seamless when it’s done right that it appropriately adds to the whole experience of reading the book.

Case in Point:
Another author came to me recently, proof copy in hand, excitement in her voice as she felt she was near ready to approve those final files. “It probably needs more editing,” she said, “but I just want to finally get it out there since I’ve been working on it for so long.”

Uh oh, I thought. When she sent a copy to me, I found that it not only needed more editing than she realized, but perhaps worse, the book also suffered from inferior design in every possible way. Again, someone claimed to be able to lay out her book who had no shred of knowledge in book design. I know I broke her heart when I, as gently as possible, told her this was the case.

Red Flag Busters:

  • If someone claims to be proficient in professional book interior layout and design, they should have an online portfolio that showcases their work; if they don't or are new to book design, they should be willing to create a short chapter concept for you to earn your approval.
  • When you view samples, you shouldn’t be able to distinguish them from traditionally published books. 
  • The provider should be able to outline—preferably on their website, but also by phone or in person—all of the conventions they use to produce a customized, yet industry-standard book for you. 
  • If they can’t explain all the nuances involved, don’t even think about hiring them.

Cover Design

You’ve seen them: covers that “look” self-published. And it’s rare that those covers sell books to a mainstream market. Why? Because they’re perceived as that of an amateur rather than a credible author, and we all know that the cover is our first impression of a book, one made in a hot millisecond.

Case in Point:
You don't need me to tell you that this They Did It With Horses cover suffers from poor design (I'm sorry to whomever designed it … I don't mean to pick on you, but it was already featured on a site about poor cover design, sad to say). This is exactly what typically happens with do-it-yourself programs where you plug in a photo and some text with an overused, basic font. This is clearly not a cover that had the benefit of thoughtful artistry behind it. The result? The author doesn't convey much credibility, if any. And the audience draw? I'm sorry to say that there's probably not much.

Again, a professional cover designer should have a portfolio that showcases covers that rival traditionally published books (or were actually traditionally published, if they once worked for a large house or small press and are now independent). If they’re just starting out, you should at least be able to view robust graphic design samples that exhibit their ability to utilize typography well, as this is a key aspect of excellent cover design. If they have none of these to show, you probably don’t want to trust this person to create your book cover.

How to spot the red flags?

  • Few or no samples that demonstrate their ability to produce a quality book cover
  • Cover samples with poor typography (the poor Horses book is a classic example of this)
  • No understanding of their responsibility to first do sound market research of your audience
  • Unwillingness to read your book (but you must pay them for their time to do so) so that they can appropriately reflect your material in the cover design
  • No knowledge of the book industry—cover design is a specialty and must be treated as such
  • Offering a low flat fee to produce your cover—achieving the right one often involves 2–5+ concepts, or at least several tweaks to the first one—so don’t go for a “one-size-fits-all” type of deal that won’t make your book shine

One More Piece of Advice

Be aware that when you pay companies such as CreateSpace, Lulu and the like to produce your cover and/or interior, they retain the copyright to those designs, not you.

What's the problem with that?

If you decide at some point to publish your book through another company, you'll be faced with paying to have your cover and interior created all over again. That's right—those files aren't yours to reproduce. If this never comes up for you, it may not be an issue, but I just wanted you to be aware. Authors don't always realize this, and it comes as an unexpected—and expensive—shock when the knowledge comes too late.

So how do you own your files for publishing with anyone you wish?

Hire a competent independent book design professional by doing your homework, avoiding those gnawing red flags, rejecting short cuts, and committing to producing a book that rivals a traditional house publication. You, your readers, and your labor of love deserve it!

In the meantime, if you believe this article has value for others, I would be most grateful if you'd share it on Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn. Thanks so much!

Write from the heart …

Much love,

Stacey Aaronson is a professional Book Doctor who takes self-publishing authors by the hand and transforms their manuscript into the book they've dreamed of—from impeccable editing and proofreading to engaging, audience-targeted cover and interior design—rivaling or exceeding a traditional house publication.

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  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thank you for your kind words, Karen! I'm so happy you found my post helpful to you. :-)

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thanks, Doreen! I'm so glad to know this article was beneficial to you and that you heeded the sound advice of others in ensuring your book was top quality before publishing it. It's so important that self-publishing authors enhance the literary marketplace with their work, not diminish it, which is so often the case (hence the not-always-so-great reputation of self-publishing in general). This is precisely why I work so hard to give writers the best guidance possible if they're going to self-publish. :-)  Kudos to you for doing it right!!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for posting these tips, Stacey....and a great reminder of the importance of diligence and patience with the book publication process.

  • Doreen Pendgracs

    Great tips! I can relate to what the author was saying about "just wanting to get it out there." But I followed the advice of others and took the extra time to be sure the book was of the highest possible quality I could afford. The good thing about self-independent publishing is that you can make changes before you do your next print run. 

  • Stacey Aaronson

    By all means, try them! Joel is awesome. :-)

    And yes, content editor comes first, then copy editor, then proofreading after the book is typeset and you have a physical proof. Sounds like you have a good plan, and I wish you all the best!

  • Kathryn Mann

    Stacey, I'm curious to try the template precisely because it is Joel Friedlander's.  He says it doesn't quite reach the level of one of his custom designs, but I'm wondering how it will turn out.  Thanks for the reference for the editing.  I want a good copy editor and proof reader as well, but I'm going to a content editor first.

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thank you for the great comments, Kathryn! I so appreciate you sharing and love the book cover comment! I tell all of my clients that they should be able to hold their book, turn it over, and flip through it, all the while thinking it looks like it came from a bookstore. I don't settle for less when designing for clients, and I don't think authors should settle for less either!

    Joel is such a leader in our field, and I have great respect for him. I'm not a fan of templates myself, but it's great that he has them available as an option and certainly hope you find using them to be a super choice for you! :-)

    And your feelings of inadequacy? Well, I don't know many writers who don't feel that way on some level. I say if you've written something you haven't yet seen in the marketplace, BRAVO! If you're able to reach a niche in the market, you could very well have something special. Do seek a reputable, good-for-you content editor by all means—you can try using BiblioCrunch or SelfPublishingTeam for resources—but don't stop believing in yourself and your work ... and be sure to share when your book comes out!

    In the meantime, don't hesitate to reach out if I can be of help on your self-publishing journey! :-)

  • Kathryn Mann

    Great post.  I did get a cover from a graphic designer who was mentioned by Joanna Penn of Creative Penn, and I showed the cover design to a group of people before finalizing it.  My favorite comment was, "I would pull that book off the shelf and turn it over to read the back if I saw that cover in a bookstore."


    I plan to use one of Joel Friedlander's book template.  I hope this way to avoid a few of the pitfalls of new writers.


    Now I just have to get past the feeling that my book isn't worth publishing because I haven't seen anything else quite like it out there.  It has a risky passage near the end.  But if it's worth doing, take a risk, right?


    So I'm going to try to find a content editor who can look it over.  Yes, this all costs money, but if my name goes on it, I want it to be the best I can make it.  My writing may develop over time, but this is where I am right now.

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Hi Susie! I'm so glad you found this post helpful to you! Thank you for the kind words ... and all best wishes on your book!

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thank you, Elisabeth!

  • Susie Klein

    Wow, this was super helpful to me. Packed with good and practical advice! Thank you! I am going to save this for that stage of my book.

  • Very insightful

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thank you, Karyne! I'm so happy you found it helpful!

  • Karyne Corum

    Stacy, this was fantastic. Chock full of some really vital info and well written. Thank you so much for helping us writers to see what we need to know before we sail off into the vast space of publishing.

  • Stacey Aaronson

    My pleasure, Debby! I'm with you all the way on that sentiment and thank you so much for your kind words. :-)

  • D,G. Kaye

    Thanks for sharing a most excellent post.  Hoping that most Indies are getting the message so we can wipe out the stigma that seems to hinder self publishers.

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Thank you, Dawn! I so appreciate your kind words and am happy the article was helpful to you!

  • Dawn Brazil

    Great post! It has given me much to think about.