SOME NOTES ON SELF-PUBLISHING

Jill Paton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend

 

 

Illustration from Little Jack of All Trades,
a children's book published in Boston, Massachusetts, 1813

Since the publicity which surrounded the Booker short-listing of Jill's Knowledge of Angels, we have had many requests for advice and information about self-publishing. In addition to Angels (which however was soon taken over by a more professional publisher) we have brought out four titles: a novel, a collection of short stories, the book of a conference -- in effect a set of essays -- and, as a booklet, a lecture given at Oxford by the distinguished American writer Ursula Le Guin. We have not yet lost money on a title, but we have not made any significant amount of it either We are far from considering ourselves experts. What follows is the modest amount of advice we feel able to give.

Self-publishing should be seen as a last resort. It is better to get your book published and distributed at someone else's risk and expense, and to have the process handled by experienced people with adequate staff and equipment, than to struggle with it yourself. Even if your book turns out to be a big success, it is highly unlikely that you will do better with it in terms either of sales or of profit by publishing it yourself than you would have done with an established publisher.

These notes assume that the last resort has been reached, but you should not make that assumption too soon. Many books have been turned down by a dozen or more firms before eventually finding a home and doing well. It is worth while to have an agent (if you can find one to take you on) or failing that to study the advice in the Writers' and Artists' Year- book, and to remember that with publishers as anything else it's a case of 'horses for courses.' Bodice-rippers are not for Faber or high-art novels for Mills & Boon.

The best prospects for self-publishing are books of local or minority interest for which you can identify the potential audience. With these, you might by asking around find a small local publisher or a local printer who would take your project on and even take or share the risk. The toughest to sell are fiction, poetry and general interest books for which the audience may be sufficient but is spread out at large among the whole population, so that you have no way of getting at it. Autobiographies are the hardest of all, unless you're a celebrity, in which case you will find a commercial publisher and won't even need to be able to write. If your book needs a general sale and commercial publishers won't touch it, you are challenging a powerful consensus by publishing it yourself, and must expect an uphill struggle.

Everyone warns you, correctly, about vanity, or 'subsidy', publishers, whose advertisements you must have seen. Some can turn out a decent- looking book, at a price, but the snag is that they are unlikely to be able to sell it, even if they try. The review editors know who they are and in general will not review their books; the booksellers also know who they are and will not stock them. There are book production consultants, who will handle the production of a book without pretending to sell it; but they are rather thin on the ground, not easy to find, and not cheap. Your best move probably is to find a printer who is accustomed to book production and who is willing to be helpful and friendly to an amateur. You may well be asked for a reference, which is a reasonable request, and/or for an advance payment, which may also be reasonable but over which you will be cautious. You should of course ask to see specimens of book production.

It's hard to estimate the cost without knowing any details. If you can produce camera-ready copy (that is, finished pages ready to begin the printing process) you might at the time of writing get a thousand copies of a 200-page hard-cover book without illustrations printed for about £3,500-£4,000. A thousand copies will cost less per copy than 500, and considerably less than 200, but it is nicer to run out than to have stacks left over. Paperback printing is cheaper than hardback. Remember that the overall cost will need to be divided by the number you sell, not the number you print! You should work out the break-even number you need to sell. Break-even occurs when the money you have got in covers the outlay. Until then you have not made a penny profit. After that, the whole sum, net of the discount and postage, is profit. Getting the size of the print run right in relation to the production cost, the price, the break-even and the number actually sold is the whole art of not losing money in publishing!

As a rule, it is not advisable to price your book much lower than the going rate for the kind of book it is: -- a lower price means a lower profit for booksellers and reduces their incentive to order Next to producing camera-ready copy, the best way to keep your printing bill down is to supply the printer with clean copy on disk. A good clean typescript on paper may be acceptable to the printer but will involve you in keying costs. A manuscript or messy typescript will not be acceptable and you will have to use a typing agency; these will these days come up with a disk ready for the printer

There are established practices for the half-title, title page, copyright page etc.; printers know them, and you should look at the opening pages of existing books to see how they go. It is not advisable to put your own name as publisher, or to use such a formula as 'privately printed'; give yourself a name such as 'The ------ Press.' You need to get an ISBN (international standard book number), which is easily obtained from the Standard Book Numbering Agency, 12 Dyott Street, London WCI, (sorry, we do not know the equivalent address for the United States,) and while doing so you should check with them that the name you propose to use is not being used by someone else already. You will also need a bar code, which incorporates the ISBN and on which the printer can advise you.

The third rule applies a fortiori when it comes to SELLING, which is by far the hardest part of all.
You could try imitating 'real' publishers, by preparing an AI (advance information) sheet, presenting the book to booksellers, with a picture of the jacket, a description including hardback or paperback, number of pages, format, a blurb, the ISBN and along the foot of the sheet, an order form on which terms are clearly stated. You can make these on a photocopier, though the more professional they look the better, and you send them to booksellers, as many as you can afford, and to wholesalers and library suppliers. For this you will need mailing lists. A friendly publisher might slip you one. You can get a list of bookshops from the Booksellers Association, and a variety of mailing lists (such as libraries) from a firm that specialises in such lists.

If you can afford the services of a professional publicist, that will help. Use any connections, friends in the media etc. you are lucky enough to have - books only sell to people who have heard of them. You should send out review copies to every national newspaper, and any local paper or broadcasting station which might feel connected to you, or the subject. There are such things as freelance representatives, who would take your book round the trade, and take a cut on every book sold. Possibly the printer of your book will know someone. Or your local bookseller You could also, if you are bold enough, rep the books yourself. This means finding out (by asking on the telephone) the name of the fiction buyer, or other appropriate subject buyer, for a branch or chain; making an appointment, and then taking them AI sheets, jackets or finished copies, and getting orders. It is very labour-intensive, and needs some chutzpah. It helps to be offering reasonable terms. Green Bay offers booksellers 25% on one or two copies, 35% on 3-12, and 40% on more than twelve. Big buyers may demand still more.

Assuming that you have some sales you will need to keep track of them, sending out invoices and reminders, or, in extremis, threats of the small claims court. But though often tardy, most booksellers are honest. Surely you will by now have appreciated why it is better to have a 'real' publisher! But if you can afford it, and if you feel you must, it is possible to achieve a modest success. Some very few people manage a considerable success. The best of luck with it!

©Jill Paton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend 1995
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