According to a report released by Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the United States, self-publishing remains as popular as ever. In 2021, 2.2 million books were self-published. That’s a lot of books! However, as appealing as it is to have full control over the publication of your book, it also comes with a lot of challenges. Simply knowing when your book is ready to release to the world is a major consideration. You don’t want to hit that publish button too soon, because that can impact your potential success. But when do you know it’s the right time?
Today, we address this complicated question with Sarah Kolb-Williams, co-founder and lead editor of Spoonbridge Press. This publishing services company helps new and growing authors navigate the world of self-publishing. With fifteen years of editorial experience and a passion for helping independent authors thrive, Sarah delights in unlocking the fullest potential of every client’s manuscript. Along with project manager Britt Peterson, she supports authors through the intimidating process of self-publishing a book while giving them full creative and financial control over their publishing journeys.
WOW: Thank you for talking with us today! Simply by the books I have seen on your website, such as 26 Points of Light by Maureen O’Brien and Sparks from Lightning Bugs and Other Life Lessons by Richard Howerton, you do incredible work with authors. Why did you and your business partner Britt decide to start this business together?
Sarah: In my fifteen years of freelance editing, I’ve watched so many clients spend good money on editing only to make avoidable mistakes and skip critical quality control steps. Meanwhile, Britt watched a close relative really struggle after publishing a book with a vanity press where she had to price her book way too high for a debut novel. She spent a lot of money for all these services, but she isn’t even the publisher on record and has to go back to this company every time she wants to know what her royalties are or look at her sales reports.
We started Spoonbridge Press because we knew first-time authors needed some sort of middle ground, where they could receive helpful guidance and professional services but also make their own decisions and be in control of their own book listings. We help our clients figure out the self-publishing strategy that works best for their books, budgets, and goals. Our goal is to empower our clients to publish great books and continue their author careers in whatever way makes sense to them.
WOW: That’s awesome how you blended the helpfulness you’d find with someone publishing your book with giving authors the control they desire and deserve. For authors interested in self-publishing, what do they need to know about preparing their book before hitting the publish button?
Sarah: So much!
First, before they ever reach that stage, it’s so important to have a sufficiently edited, well-developed manuscript. We understand that a robust editing plan can be a financial burden for many authors, and if that’s the case, we advise authors to take the time to learn what book editors actually do so they can develop their manuscripts on their own as much as possible. And anyone who can’t hire an editor needs to work with beta readers so they can get some outside feedback and perspective. But if it’s at all possible, we strongly recommend any new author at least purchase a written editorial assessment from a professional editor who can clarify any potential issues and how authors might address them.
Then, before getting too far in the process, self-publishers need a good understanding of how all of their publishing decisions are interconnected. For example, if you don’t understand book design specifications like trim size before you have your book designed, you could face unexpected issues during the file upload process that can derail your progress.
Authors should also be super clear on what they can and can’t change after they hit that publish button. You can always go back and tweak your book description, but you can’t change certain fields or undo some of your decisions. Also, distribution is hard to roll back; you can always unpublish your book, but that just means the book isn’t available for sale anymore—it doesn't make the book listing itself disappear. That sales page is going to be out there on the internet indefinitely, attached to your name, so make sure you’re happy with all of the public information and all of your decisions before you publish.
One of the biggest mistakes authors make is using a free ISBN provided by KDP (Amazon’s publishing arm). Why buy an ISBN when they can just use a free one? Well, that free ISBN isn’t actually connected to the author’s name or imprint. If an author eventually decides to distribute their book somewhere else, they can’t reuse that free ISBN because they don’t own it.
One final note: Publishing a high-quality book takes time, and it’s best to give yourself as much time as possible so you’re not rushed. If you absolutely need to set up a pre-order or organize a launch party (and most authors don’t), give yourself a lot more time than you think you need so you don’t have to scramble if something takes longer than expected or new steps crop up that you hadn’t thought of. Self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint, so try not to put all your energy into the book launch and burn yourself out!
“One of the biggest mistakes authors make is using a free ISBN provided by KDP (Amazon’s publishing arm). ... If an author eventually decides to distribute their book somewhere else, they can’t reuse that free ISBN because they don’t own it.”
WOW: I agree! I don’t think many authors realize how much time and investment goes into getting their book ready for publication. What challenges do you help authors address when producing their book as an e-book?
Sarah: Another great question. There are many different ways to produce an e-book, including throwing a Word document into some software and spitting out an e-book. The problem is, after the interior layout has been designed and proofread, that Word doc probably isn’t the most up-to-date version of the book.
We typically create our e-books using our clients’ actual typeset interiors so they reflect the cleanest version of the manuscript. Also, because we use the interior layout, the design of our e-books are closely tied to the print versions in a way they wouldn't be if we created them from Word documents.
WOW: I love how you make sure the e-book is closely tied to the print version—something you couldn’t do with simply using Microsoft Word. Why should an author hire an editor, even if they’ve combed through the book for errors?
Sarah: This is a great question. There are a lot of things editors do that just aren’t super obvious to new authors. A good editor can turn a sprawling, wordy manuscript that doesn’t clearly make its points into an effective, concise book that hooks readers and delivers punchy, powerful arguments. It’s not that the editor will erase the author’s voice; it’s that they have the training and perspective to help an author say exactly what they’re trying to say, in a way that best hits readers.
Another reason is that readers are used to certain conventions: different types of dashes used correctly, words spelled the same way every time they appear, consistency of chapter titles and headings and other elements throughout the book. A copyeditor will focus not just on internal consistency but also on maintaining publishing standards (and for most books, that means adhering to the Chicago Manual of Style). Editors can tighten up language, flag gaps in logic, point out plot holes and character issues, and so many other things.
By the way, it’s important to get all your editing done before you start working with a book designer. By that point, the content should be so solid that the only things that might change are minor necessary corrections. Part of a book designer’s job is to avoid formatting circumstances that just look weird to readers: starting a page with the last line of a paragraph from the previous page, breaking a word over a page spread, that kind of thing. Extensive late-stage revisions can create formatting issues that wreak havoc on a book’s design and require a lot of extra work (and cost) to fix.
WOW: These are so many helpful reasons to hire an outside editor! There is a lot to prepare for in terms of the publishing process, especially if you are self-publishing. Why is it so important to have someone on your side who knows the ins and outs of publishing a book?
Sarah: There are a lot of complex distribution choices to make (DRM, KDP Select, etc.), and if you’ve never published a book, it can be pretty challenging to make sense of how each of these decisions can affect you. Not to mention things change all the time—as soon as you think you know something, KDP up and changes everything. A good self-publishing consultant or team will help you stay ahead of all these changes so you always know you’re publishing according to best practices, in a way that doesn’t just work for you today but keeps you nimble throughout your whole author career.
It’s also easy to skip important steps if you don’t know what they are. A good publishing team will make sure you’re taking all the right quality control measures so you end up with a polished, professional product.
That’s not to say all self-publishing companies provide the same level of support or share your goals for your book. The key is finding a partner who genuinely has your best interests at heart. As Britt’s relative learned the hard way, some self-publishing companies take such a high percentage of each sale that it’s impossible to price a book competitively. There’s just no reason a debut novel by an unknown author should cost a buyer $24.95. No reader is going to take a chance on that book. That’s a good question to ask any self-publishing company you might be considering: How are your list prices determined?
“Some self-publishing companies take such a high percentage of each sale that it’s impossible to price a book competitively. There’s just no reason a debut novel by an unknown author should cost a buyer $24.95. No reader is going to take a chance on that book.”
WOW: Helpful insights! Having someone who knows what they are doing throughout this process will save authors a lot of headaches and complications later down the road. I feel like the back cover copy is one of those items that can be overlooked. Why is having a back cover copy that captivates the reader so important?
Sarah: That’s absolutely right. A lot of authors forget about this until their cover designer asks for it, and then they kind of throw one together. But an effective back cover copy is an important sales tool when it comes to raising interest in your book.
Don’t confuse back cover copy with a synopsis; it shouldn’t be a summary of your entire plot, and you don’t have to mention every subplot or character. What’s the hook? What's the main theme? What will readers learn or experience? It should grab readers and hint at what they’ll experience without giving everything away or getting too in the weeds.
For nonfiction back cover copy especially, think about breaking your main points into bullets. Don’t just list what readers will learn; tell them how they’ll benefit from what they’ll learn.
And think about the physical limitations of a printed book. You can’t fit 400 or 500 words on a back cover unless you shrink the text down so much that no one can read it! It’s a balance between giving readers enough to engage but not so much that the copy won’t fit comfortably in the available space. Try to stick to around 150 words, 200 if you really need them.
Also, keep in mind that readers probably aren’t going to decide to buy a self-published book by picking up a physical copy and flipping it over to read the back cover. They’ll probably read the sales copy in your online book listing. That sales copy is typically a longer version of the back cover copy, but it should also include relevant search terms your target readers might use while still sounding natural and not overly stuffed with keywords.
WOW: Great tips! Knowing just the right amount of words and what to say can be a challenge. It’s awesome you provide this service for authors. So, it’s a truth in life that people judge a book by its cover. Why is having a professionally designed cover so important for increasing book sales?
Sarah: Cover design and writing are two very different skill sets, but—fair or not—when most readers see an amateurish book cover, they will assume that the author is just not interested in producing a high-quality product. According to wordsrated.com, over 10,000 books are published every day, so your book cover needs to stand out from the competition.
This is another area where the best option is to hire a professional cover designer, but if that’s a financial hardship for you, take the time to learn the difference between a good cover and a bad one. Study a bunch of books in your genre, make sure your cover is effective not just at full size but also as a tiny thumbnail, and ask a lot of people for honest feedback.
“You can’t fit 400 or 500 words on a back cover unless you shrink the text down so much that no one can read it! ... Try to stick to around 150 words, 200 if you really need them.”
WOW: I agree! Readers definitely feel it reflects the book if the cover is poorly designed. You also help with the distribution process for authors. What is important to know when it comes to getting your book inside of bookstores?
Sarah: It’s not impossible for independent authors to make it into physical corporate bookstores, but with such stiff competition, the truth is that it’s just not very likely. Even if your book has serious marketability, it takes more than just good metadata and keywords to make it onto the shelves.
That said, forming relationships with independent bookstores is a much more achievable goal. Definitely approach your local independent bookstore, your alma mater’s academic bookstore, and your local library about stocking your book or organizing a book signing. But don’t count on the book-buyers at Barnes & Noble to stumble across a listing for your self-published book and take a chance on stocking it in their stores, and don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t happen.
WOW: That’s so true. It’s the indie bookstores authors will want to start with! What kind of budget should an author prepare to have for publishing a high-quality book?
Sarah: This is a tricky one to answer because an author’s publishing costs will largely depend on the book’s editing requirements and word count. Especially where editing is concerned, you definitely get what you pay for. If you’re hiring all your own people and managing their work, you don’t need a ton of editing, your manuscript has straightforward design needs and is not terribly long, and you’re comfortable taking care of your own uploading and distribution, you might spend a couple thousand dollars.
But if your manuscript has a longer word count and requires several rounds of editing, the cover or interior design will be complex, and you’re hiring a publishing coordinator to manage some or all of those tasks, you could be looking at a publishing cost in the ten-thousand-dollar range.
Ultimately, self-publishing costs should align with an author’s specific needs and goals. Working with an experienced team can increase costs, but it can also provide valuable support and expertise for authors who want to self-publish but might feel overwhelmed by the process.
WOW: I completely agree. I think having a team to rely upon is valuable if you want to have a successful self-publishing career. At what point in the author's writing process should they contact you for help?
Sarah: We’re happy to speak with an author whenever they have a viable working draft of their manuscript!
If an author hasn’t done much revising on their own, or if they’ve never had anyone else read their book and offer feedback, we typically recommend that they spend some time working the early kinks out first. You never want to send an editor your first draft; if you can take your book as far as you can on your own and also get some outside perspective, you’ll get a lot more out of the editing process because your editor won’t have to focus on the basics and point out some of those more obvious issues.
But once an author has done that work and is ready to move forward, we’d love to help them move forward. We offer everything from developmental editing to copyediting, and we help authors figure out an editing plan that will turn their draft into a publish-ready manuscript.
WOW: How exciting to be at the stage! Tell us a little bit about the services you offer to authors.
Sarah: At Spoonbridge Press, we offer complete project management and guidance for self-publishing authors and help them create professional-looking books they can be proud of for years. Throughout the process, we handle editing, book design, proofreading, distribution, and all the little bits in between.
During the writing and editing stage, I act as lead editor and help to finalize each manuscript according to the editing plan we’ve agreed on. I also craft back cover copy and assist clients in refining their author bios.
When all the written materials are prepared, we transition into book design. Britt manages our team of cover designers and interior layout professionals, and she collaborates closely with each client to ensure their book’s design meets their vision. After proofreading the print files, we convert them to e-book format and start gathering information for the final stage.
Then, depending on our agreement with each client, we either manage their publication or provide support as they self-publish their own book. In either case, we work with clients to determine the best list price, and we do a bunch of behind-the-scenes work to optimize their sales pages. We never mark up the print cost or take a cut of our clients’ royalties, and they own their own ISBNs and have full access to their publisher accounts, royalty statements, and tax information.
WOW: You help with so much. What’s the next step if an author wants to talk to you about how you can help them?
Sarah: Just send us a message at www.spoonbridgepress.com/free-author-consultation/, and if it looks like we might be a good fit, Britt will reach out to you to schedule a free chat.
Thanks so much for this opportunity and for asking such great questions! It’s been a pleasure.
Nicole Pyles is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She has her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication (summa cum laude) from Portland State University. She has written for several media outlets including Mental Floss, Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, WOW! Women on Writing, and more. Her fiction has been published in Sky Island Journal, Arlington Literary Journal, The Ocotillo Review, and The Gold Man Review. Say hi on Twitter @BeingTheWriter.