We’re not talking mental health here, although some would argue otherwise (one must be crazy to take on the challenge of self-publishing!). No, we’re talking about professional service providers: editors, cover designers, interior layout designers, and proofreaders, specifically.
What’s the big deal? you wonder. With services like Grammarly, Canva, and KDP, who needs professionals anymore? Well, you might be surprised.
Professional editors and proofreaders (they are not the same thing) are experts in finding and correcting errors, improving the quality of an author’s writing, and making the text look and read like professional copy.
Grammarly and other digital services like it cannot do all that, no matter what their ads tell you. Why? Because those services cannot understand nuance and context. And they definitely don’t understand poetry. They can only check for what they’ve been programmed to, while a human being—one trained and experienced in the field—can do so much more.
Here’s an example: Say you’re a poet who likes to put a period at the end of each stanza but otherwise uses very little punctuation. You have a collection of poetry that you send to an editor who notices that two of your poems are somewhat heavy with internal punctuation. The editor questions whether or not you’d like to make those two poems consistent with your overall style.
With all due respect, Grammarly can’t do that.
And what about your aunt or your best friend or your wife? They’re good at grammar. Why not just have them do it? Because they haven’t been trained in industry standards and specific styles, and they likely don’t have the resources that professionals have. They also don’t have an eye for all the types of mistakes people make. Can you or your best friend spot an extra space between two words? A professional proofreader can.
And before we move on, just in case you’re wondering, the difference between editors and proofreaders is this: Editors check for all sorts of stuff, including consistency, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, readability, inappropriate content, and much more. Proofreaders check the manuscript after it has been formatted for publication. They look for errors including page numbers, footnotes/endnotes, spelling, consistency of punctuation, capitalization, and heading styles, and other errors that can cause a book to look less than professional.
There are two major advantages to hiring professional cover designers. The first is that you have the opportunity to get totally original images that no one else has, unlike with a service like Canva where everyone is pulling from the same image library. And even if the designer uses stock imagery, they will be able to use it in ways that are unique to your design.
The second major advantage is that many designers either specialize in a particular genre, so they know the requirements of that market, or they offer market research as part of their service (usually built into the price). Either way, they are able to customize a cover for you that is likely to appeal to your target readers.
When you’re looking for a professional designer (I keep saying “professional” because that’s an extremely important requirement), be sure to ask a few key questions:
Do you use stock images and, if so, who owns the rights to those images and how will I be able to use them in my marketing campaigns? This is important, because if stock images are not properly licensed and that licensing owned by you, then you may not be able to repurpose the images for your marketing materials and you may, in fact, not even be able to use them, legally, on your book cover. Yikes!
If you create original images, will I have full rights to them after I’ve paid you? Again, ownership of images is very important. Ensure that any original illustrations or other images will be yours to use as you see fit. Also make sure that the designer will not use your images on other projects.
What is the cost to provide single images (like photos, illustrations, and title copy) for use on marketing materials? Maybe you have a photo on your cover that you would like to also use on bookmarks and flyers. You won’t be able to pull the photo out of the final cover file (unless your designer provides a layered file and you know how to use it), so the designer will need to provide that image as a separate file. So be sure to discuss obtaining cover text and images for use on marketing materials.
Interior Layout Design
Please, for the love of Pete, do not format your book in Word. All due respect to Microsoft, Word is a word processing program, not a page layout program. Books formatted in Word rarely look professional, and the last thing you want is for your self-published book to look self-published.
There are interior book layout software options out there; however, note that most of them cater to the novel-writing crowd. If you’re working on a book of poetry, software like Vellum or Kindle Create will be woefully inadequate. And software like Scrivener, which may ultimately have just what you need, can be very complicated to learn. Unless you have and know how to use page layout software like Adobe InDesign, you may be better off working with a professional.
What professionals can offer, aside from software expertise, is book layout expertise. If you’ve never worked on a book layout before, you may be surprised at how complex it can be. Do you know what goes on a copyright page or which pages belong in the front matter or back matter? Do you know what “front matter” and “back matter” mean? Are you familiar with terms like gutter and bleed? Professional layout designers are.
The Bottom Line
Something to keep in mind: Really good self-published books are occasionally noticed by agents and publishers, and this can be a way to get your foot in the door of traditional publishing, if that’s what you ultimately desire. Also, there are great contests out there for self-published books, and placing in a distinguished contest or two can give your book serious cred. But that won’t happen if your book is full of mistakes or has an amateurish design.
If you want to do it all yourself, you need to accept a few realities:
You are likely to publish some errors that you aren’t qualified to catch or able to see (because it’s easy for an author to look right past their own errors).
You will need to spend a significant amount of time learning—the best software/services and how to use them, the requirements of print book covers versus ebook covers (they aren’t the same!), proper page numbering for front matter versus text pages, how to create a table of contents, how to set up gutters, margins, and headers, the fundamentals of typesetting, and so on.
And aside from the time to educate yourself, you will need to spend a significant amount of time doing the actual work.
You are likely to make mistakes that range from merely frustrating to unbelievably embarrassing, and most of these mistakes are avoidable if you just hire professionals.