As the author of several books on mysteries and truth issues, many produced by bigger publishers but some put out through his own Vital Signs Publishing, Andy is sometimes asked by prospective authors in the ‘alternative’ sphere which is the best way to go with projects they want to share with a wider readership – to find a publisher, or to set up their own outlet and print (or issue digitally) the book themselves. This article by Andy may help…
The following thoughts outline the pros and cons of producing books in different ways, and how best to go about them. It is not intended as an authoritative guide but is just a sharing of my own personal experiences. Although aimed primarily at writers in the alternative world, it may be useful reading for budding authors in any non-fiction genre.
So you have written a book, or are writing one, a book which you feel might inform and enlighten people on at least some level, and you are wondering how it might best find its audience. The question is, in a world where easily available technology, relatively cheap printing and e-books have changed the whole nature of publishing, does one take the classic route of seeking a known publisher, or instead have a go at ‘self-publishing’, whatever that means today?
In an ever-more censorious world, getting word out there about unusual or ‘difficult’ subjects has become more important than ever, as highlighted in my own book The New Heretics. Yet, finding someone brave enough to issue such material these days isn’t so easy, though it is still worth a go. I have been very lucky in my career and have been supported by a number of bold publishers willing to take chances (especially with New Heretics – thank you, Watkins). But I have also chosen on more than one occasion to put out my own (and sometimes others’) material through my own Vital Signs Publishing outlet when I felt that I didn’t want to shave off some of the harder corners of the subjects in the way that a bigger company might request to make a project more palatable for them. This is where a path has to be decided on by any prospective alternative author, who must ask the question – is their material going to be served better by having the widest distribution possible (probably, but not always, via a mainstream publisher) but softened slightly in tone, or should it be preserved in its purest, unsullied form (most probably via self-publishing) but be resigned to remaining in its narrow niche? There are arguments which can be made for each, which this article explores, but it also examines the pure realities of creating a book both ways.
On a purely practical level, having a well-known publisher can clearly expand the reach of a book and takes away the expense of printing a physical book. If you’ve just written the new zeitgeist-catching blockbuster then having this kind of support could work wonders. However, if you’ve produced a work of more modest ambition, yet one which you feel still somehow needs to be shared, having a major publishing house does not necessarily guarantee more sales or a higher profile. I have known authors with deals with major companies who have found the experience disappointing and far from lucrative. A book with a clear target audience can sometimes be just as successfully produced and sold by the author as by going through a bigger outlet. Indeed, owning your own copyright and keeping control of a project can sometimes gain more sales, using canny determination, targeted promotion and retaining unlimited reprint options. It all depends what your priority is. So, which way to go?
Let’s look at finding a mainstream publisher first.
Finding a Publisher
The advantage of having a mainstream publisher is that they will do all the hard work of producing the book and getting it distributed to retail outlets. They will also do a modicum of marketing, although this is often limited. Authors themselves are today expected to do much of the PR donkey work in a fast moving world where you are just one tiny passing cog in their budget-stricken publicity machine. If you already have a following of some kind (i.e. you have a good social media presence, give regular lectures, or run a popular online blog or website) then publishers will be more likely to sign you up; if you are an individual with a good idea for a book but little more, they may be more reluctant unless they can see real sales potential in the subject.
The process of obtaining a publisher hasn’t changed much over the years. Either someone finds you (where you are approached by a publisher who has seen you online, say, or at a live talk, which is how I got my first serendipitous break), or you have to find them. The latter approach is basically still the age-old grind unless you already have contacts in the industry, so sending emails/letters of introduction and, eventually, chapter samples and manuscripts remains the main way forward. This is still the way much business gets done, rightly or wrongly. You need to get their interest quickly by telling them you have an exciting new project they may be interested in publishing, stressing the commercial benefits it could bring to them as much as to you and your hoped-for audience. Many companies, however, no longer accept unsolicited material, so if you do have contacts with anyone in the publishing trade, then use them! Otherwise, you may need to be very inventive with getting a foot in the door or you will have to seek an agent (see below), although there are pluses and minuses to this method.
It would be wise to research your target publisher before doing anything, finding out who exactly you should send your communications to and whether they will even be accepted. Posting something only to a general address is as likely to end up in the bin or the ‘deleted’ folder. You need to get it on the desk or screen of someone who matters, so do some background research first to find out who they are. Go to their website and you’ll usually find contact details and their job descriptions easily enough. If all else fails call their office and ask.
As for which publishers to talk to in the first place, it’s worth seeking out ones who have produced material not dissimilar to your own and contacting them. You might strike lucky with a huge publisher willing to try anything, but if you are writing in the alternative genre, as this article is more focused on, aiming at a company that specialises in your kind of area is probably the better course. It is unlikely that Penguin Random House is going to publish something which challenges the very foundations of Western society, for instance, but some of the better known alternative companies might. Bear in mind, though, that even these will be looking for a book with commercial potential, first and foremost.
If, having successfully followed the introductory methods above, the publisher happily asks for more details of your work, supply any requested samples of your writing and see what happens from there. Don’t send a whole manuscript until asked. You will often be asked to provide a detailed outline/breakdown of the book first and then to submit a sample whole chapter or two. This doesn’t have to be the finished version, but its intent should be clear and making it as polished as possible is wise – see below. If you are eventually asked for a copy of the whole manuscript, then wonderful, but make very sure you have backed up your digital files first or have a duplicate somewhere; whole books have been lost this way, somewhere down the back of an office sofa, real or digital.
Bear in mind, in your search for interest, that you will probably get rejected several, even many, times unless you are touting something really sensational. Don’t be put off by this; it’s usual. Hold your nerve. In the end you may get somewhere. If not, you might want to think about finding that aforementioned literary agent who could be able to help you get a deal by doing this gruelling work for you, which we will discuss soon. Otherwise, the ‘self-publishing’ route offers a Plan B.
There is certainly a market for alternative material out there, as long as one realises it is unlikely to sell in the millions. I can’t complain, because my own books have done well enough, but it’s good to always be realistic about likely sales. If you go in expecting your tome to be sold in every airport and bookseller around the world (or even just in your country), you are likely to be disappointed unless you get really lucky. A majority of books are now sold via online retailers in any case. Bar the odd successful wildcard, the alternative genre is a limited market. Speaking of wild, the late popular New Age author Stuart Wilde used to say that a book that sold 10,000 copies in the alternative realms was considered a bestseller in that world, which is an interesting gauge. Even in the mainstream market, bear in mind that some books which appear in the Top 10 hardback lists, for instance, will sometimes only sell a couple of thousand copies, if that – incredible, but true. Paperbacks do much better, but it’s generally novels, cooking guides or celebrity autobiographies that make the big sales. However, you may as well aim high.
Making Your Book Marketable
Remember to make your book very marketable if you want it to appeal to publishers – if you are insisting they produce a 500-page book in full colour (colour raises costs substantially), for instance, you are going to severely limit your options. Moreover, if the subject is one that will appeal to no more than your family and perhaps a few friends, it’s not going to work. The first question a publisher asks is whether they can make money from your book – if it’s too obscure or too expensive to produce, the odds are they won’t go with it unless they are really behind its ethos. Always be prepared to compromise a little. If you have illustrations, do they really need to be in colour? And is it possible some word-trimming might actually help your project? One book I had published had its required word-count reduced by 20,000 words just as I was finishing it, and the company wouldn’t budge. I had to then quickly find a way of identifying extraneous material to remove. Later, on reflection, I realised it did actually make the book better; it was tighter and far more readable. So don’t be overly-precious – your editors may have a point.
Beware, though, of overly-zealous editors who query every point and change every line seemingly just to suit their own personal style, not because anything is wrong as such. This can be wearing and, depending on your contract, you should have the power to demand things are changed back if editing goes too far. Watch out also for more devious-minded publishers who insert their own new material into a book without you knowing until you see the near-to-last proofs, presumably to make it more their vision of what the book should be rather than yours. This is bad practice and you don’t have to put up with it. This happened with a surprisingly big US publisher I once licensed a title to and I later heard of it happening to another author who used the same company. After wrangling and very loud complaints from my end, they did take the offending extras out. But such nightmares are relatively unusual; very often editors are indeed worth listening to, especially if they think your book could have a wider appeal with some judicious and mutually-discussed tweaks.
And have you got the right title? This is a big one, not to be taken lightly, as getting this right can make such a difference to sales. Publishers will often wrangle endlessly about titles, changing their favourites from week to week – and none of them may include your own cherished one. A good publisher will always listen and shouldn’t force a title on an author; they are not always right – but equally, neither is the author. Be prepared to consider their concerns and be open to suggestions. The choice can go back and forth for months, like a long tennis match, but it’s often worth the angst. Some of my own favourite titles have come from fifth or sixth options that I would never have considered when my original was (seemingly) callously discarded and all the other suggestions started. Suddenly, something can click into place and the finding of the right title can even completely reinvigorate the writing itself if this is still going on when the decision is made. Again, if you want to play the big publisher game, a bit of give and take can yield genuine rewards.
If, however, you really cannot bear to cut a single word or be open to a single suggestion from anyone, no matter how steeped in industry experience they are, then self-publishing is going to be the better option, explored below.
Editing and Proofing
Whatever path you pursue, remember to make sure your book is well-edited before showing it to anyone. If you do go with a smaller publisher, it is possible they might overlook some sloppiness, but at the same time the final product might not get edited very well either, which never looks good. Some books are produced by very well-meaning authors and smaller publishers, but are full of errors and basic language mistakes on every other page. It damages the reputation of the content because intelligent readers worry that if care has not gone into the basics then maybe the facts have also not been checked (if that means anything to the doubting alternative mind). A few mistakes always seem to trickle through in any book even when the publishers’ professional proofers have gone through it, as I know to my own disgrace, and my own English isn’t exactly perfect. But too many become a problem. One of my old publishers always used to say “the perfect book has never yet been printed”. He was probably right, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be aimed for. Well-edited text makes all the difference to finding potential publishers and encourages the readers to have faith in the material. It is worth investing in a copy of New Hart’s Rules (Oxford University Press), one of the key industry guides to accurate use of the English language.
In terms of honing the manuscript, as noted above a good publisher will check it all anyway, but if you want to avoid them making too many of their own changes, ones which might unwittingly compromise the material, I would suggest getting the text read by a nominated editor before submitting it anywhere. There’s a lot of good freelance editors and proofers out there who might do it for less cost than one might think, or you might find a person you know who is qualified and capable and who might do it for a bottle of bubbly. It’s worth asking around. Certainly, getting at least one other competent person to go through a manuscript with a fine tooth comb for basic points of logic, punctuation and grammar can make a huge difference; they’ll often spot things you simply hadn’t thought of. Believing you are above such a process can be a mistake.
Going Through an Agent
In the contained and controversial (to the mainstream) genre of truth, mysteries and conspiracies, it is easier to target who you want to sell your book to as your options will probably be limited anyway. However, if trying some of the above methods fails or doesn’t suit your temperament then finding a literary agent can help in getting your work to the right people at the right publishers, who they will know how to find. Note that finding a good agent can be almost as hard as getting a publisher and may take time in itself. Lists of agents can be found online and in industry publications.
The good news of this approach is that if you do find a really good agent with great mainstream contacts, it can increase the choice and generosity of the kind of contract you might then get. Like it or not, the phrase ‘it’s who you know’ still has currency. On the other hand, bear in mind that the agent will then take a cut which might take you back down to the same earnings (if any) you might have got without them. Choosing to go with an agent may depend on whether earning potential or getting your message across matters most. Also be careful of signing your life away to any old C-list agent who isn’t increasing your chances any more than you could do.
Beware also misunderstandings between agents and publishers. I once got a book commission through an agent who I unwittingly assumed (from what the publishers implied to me) had already agreed terms with them, only to find later that the publishers had in fact negotiated directly with me without going through the very agent that had originally tipped me off about the opportunity, who was then cut out of the loop. This caused a dispute that saw the agent then retrospectively trying to stake a claim on some of the already not-huge percentage I had agreed with the publisher (i.e. I would have negotiated more had I known at the start that the agent’s fee hadn’t been factored in), and it took some sorting out.
Contracts, Terms and Advances
So, let’s assume you do find a publisher, by whatever means, and that someone, fantastically, wants to put your book out. What terms should be agreed to? Whether a contract is negotiated either through an agent or your own efforts, these days a run-of-the-mill author is doing very well indeed if they get even a 10% royalty and any kind of advance (handy if you are spending time on a project which limits you earning money by other means). Some authors are on the likes of 2.5% and no advance from smaller publishers, and think they’re doing well. Know, therefore that you are unlikely to achieve any big earnings with this kind of material even if you do find a mainstream publisher, which is something to bear in mind before ordering that flash car. At least try to get the best advance you can from any publisher, as this means they will have to work all the harder to sell your book to try to earn it back. The absence of an advance sometimes means there is no real commitment to selling your title and it may just trickle out with minimal fanfare.
Remember, even if your title does sell well, you won’t get any royalties through until the company’s earnings from it exceed the advance amount, and that can take time; on the other hand, if, however disappointingly, your book doesn’t sell, you do at least still get to keep the advance and have the satisfaction of knowing that it earned you a little money even if it wasn’t the world-changing hit you dreamed of. This is why it is worth negotiating as much as you can from the beginning. Try not to accept the first amount you are offered if you feel there might be leeway – it is always worth pushing to see what a publisher will go up to, and they generally expect authors to try.
Another consideration when looking at contracts is how much it means to you that you have full control over your content. If that matters above all (which, with contentious alternative material, it might), you could do better to put the book out there yourself, as discussed below. The cautionary tale above of publishers sneakily inserting their own material into a book is rare but the small print in the contract did technically allow them to do it and they could have forced the issue had they been persistent. ALWAYS read the small print in every bit of legalese that comes your way. If in any doubt, hire a not-too-expensive solicitor/lawyer to check it. Ultimately, ask yourself how important it is that you have as much control of your material as possible – if this is your primary concern, then stipulate this in the contract you agree with the publishers or at least try to reach a reasonable compromise, which can be done. If they say no to all your requests, you may want to think twice about using that company.
This doesn’t mean that publishing horror stories are ubiquitous. The New Heretics and my earlier book Conspiracies book have gone far and wide, for example, and only minimal and, on reflection, well-considered changes were suggested by the publishers despite the potentially inflammatory nature of some of the material. If you have a good relationship with your publisher, all can be well, so try to make sure you have that from the start. Having trust in your publisher is important. Some new authors wonder, for example, how they can know for sure whether they are being given accurate sales information, and the truth is that it is impossible to know unless you’ve hacked into their accounts database. You just have to have faith. This said, if you’ve heard through the grapevine that your book is a big hit, but your annual (or bi-annual) royalty statement says you’ve only sold 53 copies, you may want to raise an enquiry, so it is good to then have the kind of people at a company that you feel you can reason with. Hopefully a publisher with integrity won’t rip you off, but it has to be watched out for. Sometimes any discrepancies are just where simple mistakes have been made.
If you do find yourself signing a contract, know that the publisher will have full control over both the material and the book’s availability from that point on, and understand that there is no absolute guarantee that they will sell your product well for you. I’ve had several conversations with authors who’ve agreed deals with well-known publishing houses, only to find that the book isn’t properly promoted, sinks without trace and is never republished again – and the authors no longer have the rights to revive it. Thus one must accept that books you’ve had published by others could vanish without trace if the company decides to stop reprinting them (although e-book versions are likely to remain available forever, which is something), unless you can buy the rights back. This can sometimes occur, but the price can be high and some contractual years usually have to elapse before the rights can be renegotiated. A book like The Truth Agenda, which I published through my own company, has done equally as well as some of the titles I’ve had published by others, and is still in print after seven years because I have the rights to keep updating and republishing and to licence it to other overseas publishers if and when I wish.
This is one thing to look out for; check whether you are giving a publisher the global rights (usual) – which means they can license the book around the world to other publishers too (you won’t get such a good royalty on overseas versions, but that’s how it is) – or whether you are just selling them the rights for the country or zone they are based in (usually your own), leaving you with the right to license other foreign editions yourself. Most publishers will want global rights and they might do a better job than you in marketing it to overseas publishers anyway, but this is not always the case and it is something to bear in mind.
It is valuable, therefore, to ask yourself what matters most before signing any contract, and to decide what your main motivation is in putting the book out there. A bigger publisher will get it into bookshops more easily, true, but, as mentioned above, online sales count for more these days. If 100% control means more to you than anything, even at the expense of some sales potential, then self-publishing is the way to go. If compromise is fine and you just want your book out there in any fashion at all, then going with a bigger publisher is probably the better option – if you can get one.
A Brief Word on Promotion
Remember that getting a book published, or even self-published, is only half the battle. Selling it and getting it widely distributed is another story altogether. PR is sometimes a weak area for bigger publishers. You are one author among thousands they may have on their lists, and your book may be just one of dozens they’ve produced that month alone, so you may not be their priority. Publishers like authors with a lot of outreach and tend to help those who help themselves. Don’t think that simply being on Amazon or in a publisher’s printed catalogue (or even on the shelves of Waterstones) is going to automatically make your book a bestseller.
People have to know your book is out there and you have to shout about it – and know exactly who you want to shout at – if you really want it to be read. It can be a long ongoing journey and takes a lot of work. Know this before you start! If you don’t give lectures and public promotions, perhaps you ought to think of doing so, either live or via YouTube, TikTok or whatever. If you don’t use social media, that’s also now one of the key outlets which simply cannot be ignored; Instagram and Facebook (and Twitter, if you can face the very direct responses from other respondents) are now the key places where many people (especially younger ones) look out for new things and it’s worth forcing yourself to learn the social media game even if you think it’s not really for you. If you don’t, you are losing out on a major conduit where you could reach people.
Moreover, having a dedicated website, promoting either you or your new book, is not a luxury but now a basic tool, like having a telephone. If you can’t set one up yourself, find someone who can and be prepared to pay them to create a site that looks nice and makes your book sound enticing, with excerpts and reviews. Then get the link sent around as far and wide as possible. It’s worth it. You can never rest on your laurels unless you’re in the Dan Brown league. If you want your book to sell, you have to play the PR game. At least by having a publisher you don’t have to store the actual books (see below); with self-publishing, you certainly don’t want a garage full of rotting masterpieces no-one’s reading, which is all too sadly a common phenomenon. Books, once produced, need to be sold, otherwise what’s the point? The art of promotion is really for another article, but I will say a little more on it below.
So what about the self-publishing route instead? Let’s have a look at that.
How to Become a Publisher
In a world where any reasonable desktop publishing software and an artistic eye can produce a sleek-looking layout, and the Internet offers access to publicity and retail outlets that are only restricted by your time and imagination, what is still labelled rather disparagingly ‘self-publishing’, is now really just… publishing. You may not have the huge infrastructure that a big publishing house has, but this doesn’t mean you can’t sell an alternative book as well as they might. Indeed, as already observed, it is sometimes possible to do better this way with this kind of material. There are, of course, ‘vanity publishers’ available, who will produce your book for you from start to finish to your specifications, but paying for that convenience can often be much higher than doing it yourself, and you will still have to do most of your own publicity if you want a book to be successful, no matter what the company promises. If you have a little self-confidence it is generally better to go the DIY route.
The basics are that as soon as you publish something, you are a publisher. Choose a name for your ‘company’ that feels right for you, but do choose a publishing name and create a little logo. However wrongly, books that have very obviously been produced solely by the author, with no logo or corporate style, can carry a stigma that they will only be small vanity projects that probably aren’t worth reading, even if this isn’t the case and you have in fact produced a masterpiece. Your new publishing house may grow beyond a one-man operation in time anyway if you do well.
Once you have chosen your official name, then apply to the overseeing body which controls the international ISBN system in your part of the world, which you will need to be part of if you want your book to be registered with online retailers and libraries and have any kind of presence in the book world. It will also be required to get your barcode (below). In the UK and Ireland ISBNs are controlled by the Nielsen company. It’s not hard to set up an ISBN number – just go to their website. If you’re not in the UK, you can check to see who controls ISBNs where you are at this Wikipedia page. Follow the instructions when you get to your ISBN provider’s website. For a modest fee you will then be sent an allocation of unique ISBN numbers that are yours forever. You used to get an obligatory ten at a time in the UK, but single numbers can now be bought. If you still go for the ten package this is more economical, but of course you may never use more than one of them (though you might do if your first book does well), and there’s no obligation to do so, so don’t be panicked – it’s just the way the system works. Choose the first number on the list for your new title and once the book is finalised and ready to go into production inform the ISBN provider of the details, title, page numbers, content, etc. They will tell you what you need to give them. Here in the UK I have always found the people at Neilsen very helpful on the phone, so don’t fear contacting them if you have any queries.
So, now you are definitely a publisher! Finalise your book’s text (making sure it’s well-edited) and compile any illustrations; then all you need to do from hereon is get the book produced and printed, and/or uploaded in an e-format. This sounds like I’m being facetious, but in truth it is really that simple.
Producing the Layout
I am presuming here that the reader is at least a little tech-savvy and already possesses a reasonably up to date computer – if not, get one, even second-hand, and save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run. Trying to get modern programmes running on steam-driven antiques really isn’t worth it. Then find a desktop publishing (a slightly old-fashioned term, but we’ll go with it here) programme to run on it. This isn’t an article about how to manage publishing software, so if you don’t already possess a good programme, why not run an internet search and see what other people suggest would be good for setting up books with? The industry standard has long been Adobe’s ‘In-Design’, but this is expensive to download and its hegemony is now being challenged by other cheaper and often very good contenders. See what’s out there. If you need to learn how to use a programme, there are some good online tutorials available.
If you lack the skills and confidence to do the layout yourself, alternatively find a helper you can employ to do this. Again, you may have to pay someone, but you may well also know a friend or family member who could chip in. To some degrees this will depend on how complex your book is – if it is arty and the look is key to its concept, then plainly you need very good skills or very good help. But if it is mainly text-based, it may not be as difficult to plan out as you think. Do, however, avoid just using a basic programme such as Microsoft’s ‘Word’ for the layout – this will show through clearly to anyone with an eye for this kind of thing and can look cheap. Word is good for manuscripts, but not really intended for end-products unless you are skilled at disguising it. Many alternative books, with probably great content, are let down by either cramped layouts and daunting tiny print or look amateurish and unappealing in general. If you want a browsing reader to purchase your book, it must feel nice in the hand (see note on binding below) and look attractive to the eye. Don’t stint on this crucial part of the publishing process. If in doubt as to how the layout should be, find a book you like and emulate what you see there (without completely ripping it off). If your page setups don’t look as good as the ones you find when browsing through Waterstones, then keep rearranging them until they do.
Uploading / Finding a Printer
If you are only producing your tome as an e-book, then the quicker task ahead of you at this point will be to find out how to convert your files to an electronic format that will work on the likes of Kindles and other readers, and upload it to the online retailers you wish to use. Again, you will find plenty of help by running a search for instructions. The likes of Amazon often provide their own facilities for doing this and will effectively then become your electronic ‘distributor’. But although e-books are gradually on the rise, printed books are still very much alive and well, especially among older readers. Not having a printed version removes the outlay of paying for printing, but may also remove much of your potential audience. Dead trees still sell. Conversely, having an e-version as well as a print edition will widen your availability to those who prefer digital formats, so going both ways is probably best. (A simpler way of e-printing is to simply upload your pages as a PDF file onto a website, but that is really then a website and not really a book. The two are perceived quite differently by readers.)
If you are taking the physical format path, whatever other formats will be available, you need to find a printing company. Where to start? There are many good printers available now, and again Amazon now even provides such facilities, but going independent will give you a freer hand in where the book sells. You will probably need to get quotes from a number of printers before deciding on who to go with. Cost matters, but feeling confident about the attitude of the company is important too. See which one feels best above all. Search online for good reviews of printers or, again, find a book you like the look of and see where it was physically printed (as opposed to published – usually a completely different realm). If the company name is there, it may be worth getting a quote from them. If living in the UK, better prices can often be found overseas – though not always – especially if you want to print in colour, which for some reason frequently seems to cost more here. Some publishers go to printers in India, Indonesia and China now, which generally offer the most competitive prices, although if the conditions of their workers matter to you, then you might want to consider this. (Bear in mind, of course, that Amazon has been accused of having poor worker conditions too… yet most authors and online buyers use it because basically one has to if wanting to get anywhere in today’s book market. Sadly, moral dilemmas are never far away in the world of commerce.) However, good prices can also often be found in upcoming eastern European countries such as Latvia, where conditions are fair, though check out the local VAT rules of any given country before committing, and also consider the extra cost of freighting the books from there. Most overseas printers regularly court Western business now and both their manners and their English are generally very good – which helps!
If cost isn’t an issue for you, then of course you can just go with a printer that has a good reputation in your home country and not worry about it. How many copies of a book you require may determine the kind of printers you need, though. Some specialise in bigger print runs (500-1000 upwards), but increasingly others now offer ‘Print on Demand’ (POD) services, where you can have as few or as many copies as you want, from one to twenty or whatever, and they will happily print more for you as and when you need extra copies. The caution here is that cost-per-item is clearly going to be higher than if you have a bigger run done, but if you’re not sure how well your title is going to do it might be possible to start with a few copies this way and see how things go. If the demand grows, then get a fuller run done. Quality can sometimes be an issue with POD, so be sure that the printer is going to produce each small run of your book as well as it can – be vigilant that they’re not just bunging them out without any quality control. If you’re not happy, don’t accept the delivery and ask them to print the books again, but properly.
Knowing exactly how many copies of a book to print will depend on how big you think the market is going to be for your title and just how much marketing you are prepared to do. There is simply no way of anticipating the outcome for sure, though if you are already out there on a lecture circuit or have a strong online following, then you will have a much greater chance of selling to your audiences. Even here there is no surety that your fans will buy in large numbers, but plainly you’re going to stand a better chance than if you’re just starting from scratch, i.e. building your audience with the arrival of your book.
If you’re feeling confident that you know at least a few hundred people may buy your book, then starting with a run of 500 is probably fine, though bear in mind that the cost difference between that and 1000 copies often isn’t that much. If you’re VERY confident, then 1500 upwards will also bring the unit price down and therefore bring in more income in the long-run if you sell all your books, but this is where storage can become an issue (below). As a rough gauge, at the moment a run of 1000 black and white books of around 250 pages each on standard ‘trade paperback’ paper (the kind most novels are printed on) will cost around £1500-£1700, but this can be less or more depending on the page count and whether you want a higher quality paper. Decent binding can make a big difference to the feel of a book too – don’t be tempted to go for a cheap basic glue binding if you can avoid it; these are the books that warp unpleasantly when you bend them, making flicking almost impossible. If you can go the extra mile on the cost, get proper ‘perfect-binding’; look up different bindings first and explore the options before committing. Also, do you want a matt or gloss finish on your cover? These choices can make a small difference to the price, but the guide cost mentioned above does include perfect binding.
If you are using colour throughout, and this matters to the project, then note that you will need a thicker and better paper to avoid bleed-through; this and the required inks will probably add around £1000 to your cost on such a run. Remember also that if you will be posting ordered copies, and/or hopefully freighting them out in larger numbers, good quality paper adds greatly to the weight. So think through your budget before deciding on your print run and see what you can realistically reach for, remembering to allow funds for the all-important promotion afterwards. If you’re going for a very niche market and only printing a few collectors’ editions, however, then by all means print at the best level possible with all the very finest options and enjoy the experience of simply holding in your hand something beautiful that you know you have created. (Remember to flick the pages and smell the fresh ink when you get the first copy too – always an important moment, I think.) Otherwise, if you’re wealthy and happy-go-lucky, just go ahead and print as many expensive tomes as you will. But have you remembered the storage issue..?
If you’ve decided to go for a print run of 500-1000, one shock you may have is just how much room that many books can take up, and just how strong that print smell can be – not so good if you are allergic to it. When the stacked pallets arrive from a dauntingly-large lorry and you’re suddenly staring at a wall of aromatic cardboard boxes that you now have to live with, this is where one can suddenly realise what being a publisher actually means. If you’ve gone for a small-format book, then this will be less of an issue, but if you’ve chosen something bigger, the reality of what that means in large numbers can be sobering. So make sure you have a spare room or clear storage space where the books can comfortably live before ordering your run – and it must be a space that is well-aired but DRY. Unsealed garages have ruined the stock of many a small publisher; an unsaleable damp-rippled book is the saddest outcome of all. Don’t do it.
If you find that you just don’t have the space to store your stock, perhaps ask around again. A very kindly old landlord I once had let me use the unused upper room of his house, for instance. If none of these options are available, then paying for storage is the other path, and some removals or delivery firms offer this service more cheaply than actual storage companies. This usually costs something like £50-£70 per month and can work well, but be careful to note, when sales are slowing, that you’re not actually paying more to store them than you are actually making from them.
Selling the Book
Now you have your wall of books, you don’t want to be staring at them for the next few years. You wrote that book with fire and enthusiasm (if not, why are you doing this?), so you want it to be out there being read and hopefully making a difference to at least a few of your readers. This, then, is where you have to enter the interesting world of marketing.
When ‘self-publishing’, the promotion routine runs pretty much as described in the ‘publishing’ section above, so the following paragraphs all apply even if you have a big publisher behind you, as the publicity that you do can make all the difference. And once again, don’t overlook the role of social media; like not or not, it’s the key window for promotion these days. and should not be seen as an ‘extra’ (I know that younger people will wonder why I am even mentioning this, but some generations are still catching up). Bear in mind, however, that if your material is too controversial, you may find yourself falling foul of algorithms and online censorship that can swoop down on anything seen as too contentious these days in these days of alternative suppression (see my book The New Heretics), so the way you phrase and word things is crucial if you don’t want to be instantly ‘deplatformed’.
Getting your ISBN will have ensured that your book has now mysteriously appeared on the likes of Amazon (which is why you need to get an ISBN), but this is only the beginning. Having online reviews makes a huge difference to the amount of useful recommendations Amazon’s automatic algorithms will make for your book to buyers of other related titles. Encourage one and all, family, friends and, most importantly, buyers, to post up reviews. This isn’t always easy, and some nagging is usually required, but it is worth it in the end. You want good but honest reviews, of course; fake sycophancy shows up soon enough. A book having even three or four reviews on its page will attract the attention and confidence of an online retailer browser far more than one with no reviews and minimal information. In the UK, Neilsen offers ‘enhanced information services’ for an annual subscription, where you can add extra details to your book’s page, and this is worth considering if you want to raise your ‘product’s’ profile.
As well as following all the ideas listed above, don’t think you’re done yet but instead consider yet more new ways to get your book noticed. Is there mileage in trying to get local press or radio stations to run a small piece about you and your new masterwork, for example? They may or may not go for it, but phone and ask, or send in a press release with contact details on it. Local coverage can sometimes lead to lecture invites from groups – this is how my own public talks began three decades ago, something which has grown somewhat since then.
Indeed, it is probably worth sending out a more general press release to any website and publication you think might be interested in your work. The success rate may be very patchy, but not doing it ensures total failure. The alternative world at least offers a clear finite number of online or printed magazines and journals (sadly less than there used to be) that make for clear targets. Look them up. There are still some sources that review books (good review quotes can also make a difference to how a book is perceived, naturally), or at least may be interested in running an article written by you that can promote your work. On the other hand, DON’T waste time sending out costly review copies to mass media and press that are very unlikely to do anything other than throw your precious book in a skip. If someone asks for a review copy (this is why preliminary phone calls or emails to magazines are wise), then go ahead and send one by all means. Randomly mailing out 30 copies of an expensive book, thinking you will see it reviewed in all the nation’s colour supplements, however, will invariably lead to bitter disappointment and wasted stock.
The mainstream is mostly a closed shop to the likes of us, unless, as ever, you know someone in the business. One of my US publishers no longer sends out review copies of their titles at all, as a matter of routine, so low is the appearance rate of subsequent reviews, even in journals you might think would cover them. I wouldn’t go that far into caution, but clear targeting of where you send any copies to is sensible. Magazines are frequently swamped with review material, so do anything you can to raise your book’s profile enough that they might pluck yours out above others. Taking out advertising (often expensive) is sometimes one way of guaranteeing coverage, making your ‘review’ basically paid-for advertorial, but this will depend on your budget.
TV and Radio
If you can get interviews on alternative radio and web TV stations, this is also a bonus. There’s lots of them out there and it’s worth a proper search. Some have shows every week or more, and are crying out for new content so your email to them may be very welcome and you could find yourself ‘on the circuit’ talking about your book sooner than you think. Invites to speak at events can follow, and off you go. Clearly, if you can get on mainstream TV too, all to the good (though it doesn’t necessarily increase sales), but this isn’t always easy to break into, given its increasing resistance to this kind of material. I’ve been lucky enough to get onto several major TV shows (Richard & Judy, The One Show, GMTV, etc.) over the years, if sometimes briefly, but it’s generally been through an ambient growing awareness of my work in the public domain or through personal contacts rather than them responding to any PR from me. You never know, though – if you want to have a go at contacting high-profile TV and radio channels, by all means do. Maybe you’ll be in the right place at the right time and suddenly find yourself flavour of the month.
I would suggest waiting until your book is actually published before attempting to do any talk show rounds – shows tend to like a hook, and if you go in too soon (before the book is out) then when it comes to actually wanting to promote the final thing they may not have you back on again at the most useful time. Listeners have very short memories – if you go on a show, even if it’s a great interview, they may well not remember within even a few days that you have a new book coming out in however many months’/years’ time, and the moment will have been missed. If your primary motivation is getting the book read, wait until you have something solid to sell. This isn’t about putting commerce before the truth or wisdom that may be in your work. If you want that truth and wisdom to go wider, then you need as many people as possible to read the book, so there is a wider altruistic aim here.
If you want your tome to find its way to more booksellers, catalogues and shops, you will need to get some official ‘distribution’. In the UK there are a number of big ones, but I would recommend first approaching Gardners (based in Eastbourne, East, Sussex), which are the biggest and most respected UK distributors. This matters because you now MUST have an account with Gardners to get your books into Waterstones, for instance, who won’t take titles directly from publishers anymore. Once you have a deal with Gardners, this means that any orders made from any shop or online company, including Amazon, go through them instead of you, and you just need to supply Gardners with more stock from time to time, which is at least easier than having to cart books up and down the country to various retailers and shops, or post copies to them every day. You can still do the latter with independent bookshops if you want, of course, even if you have a Gardners account, but it’s a bit gutty trying to get money out of people afterwards. Gardners pay you every month for any titles they have supplied to retailers.
Having a distributor doesn’t automatically mean your book will actually appear in Waterstones and other shops, mind. You usually still have to contact retailers direct to call attention to your title and push through the grind of initial indifference, but having Gardners set up as your distributor will hugely increase your chances of them stocking your title on their shelves.
Distributors are usually pretty amenable to taking new books, but they generally demand hefty discounts. On the other hand you will probably sell more copies in the long run by having them onboard. Remember this when you price your book – you almost never receive the cover price and can sometimes find yourself having to give discounts of up to 60-70% to get titles accepted either by distributors or retailers; harsh, but true. So if the cover price is too low, you may lose out; then again if you make it too high you may restrict sales to those unsure about taking the chance on your title (though at promotional events you can discount them as you think right). It’s a balancing act. Don’t forget to put a barcode on the back of the book too (you will need your ISBN number to do this), so that shops can swipe it, otherwise it will probably not be accepted for retail. Barcodes can be easily generated on the internet, and downloaded as graphics. Run a search for how this works.
… And after all of this you may find you have reached an audience and got your message out to the wider world in a way no less successful than you might have gained through a mainstream publisher. Or at least, even if it is not quite as successful as it could have been, it might have retained its integrity and standing better, and your reputation will have been cemented. Most likely you will never know which way will have been better.
These, then, are the basics of either finding a publisher or becoming your own publisher. This isn’t in any way a comprehensive guide, please note, but it gives a glimpse into what’s involved on both sides. If it sounds daunting when read here, in reality it is actually quite straightforward, whichever option is taken, especially if you have a little time and determination. If you’ve got an idea that you feel needs to be put out there, then do it. This is how the human race evolves, and alternative ideas need more outreach in the face of a mainstream that wants to pretend they aren’t there. See your Herculean efforts as striking a blow for righteousness. Every one extra copy sold is another domino tipped.
Ultimately, the success of choosing the path of being a publisher will depend on how much work you think you can do. If you enjoy the business of business, or at least think you can manage it without too much stress, then it can be rewarding and satisfying. If you prefer to do all the creative work but want to leave the heavy lifting to the existing industry, then finding an established company is probably the best solution. Either way, you will have to dive into the world of promotion to at least some degree if you want your book to be successful. Getting a book produced really is only half the task; having it distributed and telling people it’s there to be read is the next big adventure.
So, time perhaps to dig out that dusty manuscript or find that old Word file in the ‘pending’ folder. There might be something in there that could change lives if ever allowed out into the world. Whether that happens is up to you and the energy you want to donate to finding its best outlet… Bear in mind, we only live once. Unless you’re writing a book about reincarnation, of course.