Getting Help for Your Book (Even When You’re Broke)

BY HANNAH GUY • December 17, 2019

Getting Help for Your Book (Even When You’re Broke)

There comes a time in every writer’s life when we look at our manuscript and think, “Now what?”

Sometimes we don’t know if the book is done. Sometimes we know it needs help, but we don’t have the time or skill set to fix it—and in some cases, we can’t even see what’s wrong with it. The truth is, whether you’re polishing up your manuscript to pitch it to literary agents or publishers or you’re planning to self-publish, you’re going to need help.

Take a deep breath. And one more.

You’re going to need help.

If you’ve been following the Kirkus Writers' Center during the last year, you’ve probably seen us encourage authors to pay for professional editing, cover design, interior layout, and even book descriptions. All these things are paramount in ensuring your book not only looks professional and inviting to readers but is actually salable.  

Very few of us are skilled in every aspect of book publishing. Some of us know enough about book publishing to know how much we don’t know. Others know very little but figure no one will notice. (They will.) And still others underestimate the value of these skills and figure they can wing it. And everyone else … well, they can’t afford it. So how do you find the best professional help for your book? By following these steps.

1. First, know that asking for help is OK.

It sounds simple, but for some people, asking for help—or even contemplating asking—is by far the hardest step. Depending on how you were raised and your life circumstances, you may feel that you shouldn’t ask for help, let alone need it. But securing help can have an enormously beneficial effect on the quality of your book, and that will give you a greater chance to either increase sales or market your book to a publisher or agent.

2. Figure out your budget.

I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion that when people think about their book budgets, they look at their wallets and think, “Hm, I have an extra $50 in here. I wonder what that’ll get me?”

For most of us, when it comes to our writing, we can’t bring ourselves to think about spending money when our book hasn't made any money yet. But that’s exactly when we should think about it. After all, it’s taken you somewhere in the vicinity of several months to several years to write your book. After all that time, effort, sweat, and tears, doesn’t your book deserve the best editor or designer you can afford? But before you go crazy with the checkbook or credit card, let us offer some advice.

Don’t create your budget based on sales goals. In the book industry, a sure thing is a rarity (unless you’re already an established bestselling author who’s made millions). Spending $5,000 to $10,000 won’t guarantee you’ll make that money back. After all, publishers face this challenge all the time—some books become bestsellers, and others just fade into the discount rack. So your interests are best served by thinking about how much you can afford and leaving your sales expectations out of the equation. This should be about making a good book that people will want to read, and not a guaranteed financial investment.

Do the math. How long does it take someone to read a book? Now double that (or sometimes triple it, depending on complexity of the book) to imagine how long it takes to edit—considering that editors are stopping to make notes for you, fact-check terms, verify spellings, ensure consistency throughout your manuscript, and write an editorial letter. Now multiply that by what you would consider to be a fair hourly rate based on the assumption that the editors you are hiring have the experience, the skill, and the recommendations to ensure they have a good reputation. Chances are, they won’t make a living from anything that works out to be $10/hour.

Now think to yourself, how much would you pay a contractor to put up new drywall in your living room? A dentist to fill a cavity? A lawyer to draft a cease-and-desist letter? Editors, designers, and copywriters have spent years and often a good chunk of money learning to excel at what they do. They don’t owe you discounts or free work.

Consider alternative means of raising money. Sites like Patreon and other crowdfunding avenues offer new ways to raise money for artistic endeavors. Remember that your “investors” will want something in return, whether it’s a mention in your acknowledgments, a free copy of your book, regular blogs and updates, or the knowledge that their money is being put to good use. Approach your friends and ask if they’d like to invest in your book for a potential share of sales.

Offer an exchange of services or barter. If you’re short on cash, think about whether you have a service or product you can offer in exchange. Maybe they need some help coming up with a professional website, creating a marketing plan, or even something like a newsletter or social media assistance. Not a writer by trade? Consider offering your professional expertise or services that they may need.

Remember that you get what you pay for. As with most products or services, anytime you see a price tag that’s extraordinarily cheap, be wary of the quality. In rare cases, you might have hit upon a gem of an editor, designer, or copywriter who—for various reasons—needs to work and has slashed their rates. Or perhaps you’ve stumbled upon a skilled logo designer who has never designed a book cover for a client before and wants the experience. But more often, you may be facing people offering low quality, low-cost services. Whatever the case, make sure you know what you’re getting by asking for samples and recommendations. You don’t want to pay twice to get the job done right.

3. If you want a professional, be a professional.

When getting help with your book, it’s best to think of this as a simple transaction between a client and a contractor. You pay a fee, and they provide a service. By keeping those professional boundaries drawn, you can ensure that you reduce the potential for misunderstandings.

Know what you want. Don’t expect editors and designers to anticipate your needs; do your best to provide them with a clear road map. Good communication is paramount between authors and publishing professionals. For any contractor, the hardest clients to please are those who don’t know what they need—or have a “perfect” idea in their head but don’t share it.

Be honest about what you think your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses might be and what your goals and expectations are for the work. Without this information, any editor you hire won’t be able to give you an accurate estimate of costs, or will give you a copyedit when you wanted a substantive or structural edit. A designer will create cover concepts that never seem to quite fit what you were hoping for. And a copywriter will write a book description that is polished but will require multiple revisions as you contemplate changes in length, point of view, and tone. All of these will result in mutual frustration—and extra costs.

Gracefully accept “No, thanks.” You must anticipate the possibility that the editor, designer, or copywriter might not be interested in working with you. Whether they’re overbooked, you’re not able to pay their rates, or perhaps it’s not a project they’re interested in pursuing, respect their decision. They may also be able to recommend someone who can help you.

Don’t waste more time than necessary with endless emails and messages. Most publishing professionals who freelance or do contract work should be able to give you a good idea of how they operate and what the process is, as well as a rough idea of turnaround time. If you’re paying an hourly rate, many contractors will include time spent on emails (especially if it becomes time-consuming) on the invoice.

Consider using a contract. Most publishing pros rely on contracts to clearly establish the terms of the business agreement, including deadlines, revisions, fees, and any other costs. This can drastically reduce any misunderstandings about what is expected from you and from them.

Listen to their advice. There are a lot of writers in the world—with varying degrees of success—who might tell you that the most important person to listen to is yourself. And that’s true … to a point. However, when you hire a publishing professional, you should keep in mind that these seasoned experts have specific reasons for doing things a certain way. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing that certain colors or phrases will drive sales higher. Sometimes it’s a case of knowing an idea or phrase might alienate readers. Most editors, designers, and copywriters have substantial and extensive insight into the publishing market beyond just that particular book. So before you veto an edit, a cover, or a description, consider asking, “I am not sure how I feel about this. Can you give me some insight about your choices here?” As you work with publishing professionals—whether they’re editors, designers, copywriters, marketing pros, and even beta readers—remember that their advice comes from years and years of experience. And remember that writing a book is one thing; selling it is quite another.

End things on a good note. Once you have paid in full and the work is finished, be sure to let the editor/designer/copywriter know that you appreciate their work. You can take that further by letting other people know what a great job they’ve done, or by leaving them either feedback or an endorsement that they can use on their website or social media pages.

At the end of the day, these individuals are here to help you. Much writing, editing, and design work happens through referrals, and contractors’ reputations are everything to them. Plus, trust us, no one working in book production is getting rich; it’s largely a labor of love. The best contractors will make your book as good as it can be, knowing that they’re helping another author successfully publish a book.

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