To Publish or Self-Publish? – Producing ‘Alternative’ Books
As the author of books on truth and mysteries, many produced by bigger publishers but some issued through his own Vital Signs Publishing outlet, Andy is often asked by prospective authors in the ‘alternative’ sphere which is the best way to share ideas with a wider readership – to find a publisher or to set up their own conduit. Both paths offer opportunities and this article by Andy may help…
The following substantial piece is probably best read in sections like (appropriately) an e-book. It usefully outlines the pros and cons of producing books in different ways, and how to go about them. It is not intended as an authoritative guide but is a sharing of my own personal experiences. Although aimed primarily at writers in the alternative world, it could be helpful reading for budding authors in any non-fiction genre. Originally written in 2016, this is a newly revised and expanded version.
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. Finding companies brave enough to issue such material these days isn’t so easy, but it is still worth a go; if not, however, other options are available. 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 material (and sometimes the work of others) through my personal 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. [A mixture of just some of the books I have had published or have published myself is pictured.] This is where any prospective alternative author 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 risking remaining in its narrow niche? There are arguments which can be made for each path, which this article explores, while examining 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 know you have just written THE new zeitgeist-catching blockbuster then having this kind of support could work wonders. However, if you have 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 major company deals 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. Indeed, owning your own copyright and keeping control of a project can sometimes see more sales, using canny determination, targeted promotion and retaining unlimited reprint options. 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 their own PR in a fast moving world where they are just one tiny passing cog in a publisher’s 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. Unless you already have contacts in the industry, the age-old grind of sending emails/letters of introduction and, eventually (if asked), chapter samples and manuscripts remains the way forward. You need to get a publisher’s interest quickly by telling them you have an exciting new project that they mustn’t miss the chance to be a part of, 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 insider connections 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 staff 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 is 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 that even these will be looking for a book with commercial potential, first and foremost.
If, having successfully followed the introductory methods above, happily a publisher expresses interest in hearing more details, supply any requested samples of your writing accordingly and see what happens from there. Don’t send a whole manuscript until asked. You will often be prompted to provide a detailed outline/breakdown of the book first and then to submit a sample of a whole chapter or two. These don’t have to be the finished versions but their intent should be clear and making them as polished as possible is wise (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 that in your search for interest you will most likely get rejected several, even many, times unless you are touting something really sensational. Don’t be put off by this; it’s usual. Some of the most famous books were initially spurned by many leading companies. Hold your nerve. In the end you may get somewhere. If not, you might want to think about finding the 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 the main 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 bookstore, supermarket and airport around the world (or even just in your country), you are very 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 was considered a bestseller in the alternative realms, 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 of my books had its required word-count reduced by 20,000 words by the publisher on an economy drive just as I was finishing it, and they wouldn’t budge. I had to then quickly find a way of identifying extraneous material to remove. Later, on reflection, I realised it actually made 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 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 work could have a wider appeal with some judicious and mutually-discussed tweaks.
And have you got the correct title for your book? This is a big one, not to be taken lightly, as getting this right can make such a difference to sales. A good non-fiction title should give the reader an instant flavour of what the book is about; a subtitle can explain the details but it’s often only the header that gets listed and it needs to have a strong hook. Publishers will often wrangle endlessly about titles, changing their favourites from week to week – and none of them may include your own cherished preference. 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. All of these observations also apply to the front cover, which is another important aspect that can hugely influence sales. Insisting on the use of an obscure image that means something only to you isn’t likely to be the best way forward.
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 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 are a lot of good freelance editors and proofers out there who might do it for less cost than expected, or you could know a person who is qualified and capable and who might do it for a bottle of bubbly. It is 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 transform a book’s chances; 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 could 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 doing much more than you can 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 kept 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 cut 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 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. Always try, without being aggressive, 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 will be no real commitment to selling your title and it may just trickle out with minimal fanfare.
Remember, even if your publication 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 didn’t produce 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 certain 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 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 editors despite the potentially inflammatory nature of some of the material. If you have a good relationship with your company contacts, 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; 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 an easy rapport with the people at the company, in the hope you can reason with them. The actual payment of royalties may require the odd nudge from you but they usually get there in the end. 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. They might, of course, but I have had several conversations with authors who have 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 those authors no longer have the rights to revive it. Thus, one must accept that books published by companies can vanish without trace if it decides to stop reprinting them (although e-book versions are likely to remain available indefinitely, which is something), unless you can buy the rights back. This can sometimes occur and the option is usually woven into the small print of a contract but the price can be high or a significant amount of contractual years have to elapse before the rights can be renegotiated. By comparison, a book like The Truth Agenda, which I produced through my own Vital Signs outlet, has done equally as well as some of the titles I have had published by others, if not better, and is still in print after several years because I retain the rights to update and republish and to license it to 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 one can be found.
A Brief Word on Promotion
It is wise to 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 shopping mall shelves) 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, BitChute, TikTok or whatever. If you do make regular public appearances, start collecting email addresses (I always put out a clipboard at talks, plus people can sign up from the website you are reading now) to create a promotional emailing list to which you can periodically send out information. It’s best to use a mass-emailing company like MailerLite or Mailchimp to help do this if you want to save yourself a lot of hard work and avoid (for the most part) being zapped as a spammer. Email may be seen as old-fashioned by some but many people, especially in certain age groups, still extensively use it, sometimes more than social media, and its potential shouldn’t be underestimated.
As for social media, that is now inevitably one of the key outlets which simply cannot be ignored; Platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and Twitter, if you can face the very direct responses and sometime-trolling from other respondents) are now the key places where many people (especially younger ones) look out for new things and it is worth forcing yourself to familiarise yourself with the social media world even if you think it’s not really for you and that you may never be an ‘influencer’ as such. If you don’t use it at all, you are losing a major conduit where you can reach people. Look up the myriad online advisory articles on the positive use of promotional social media.
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, messaging as many review sites, blogs, magazines and radio shows as you can. Especially in the alternative world, there is a strong network of podcasts and radio (particularly in the US) which specialises in this kind of material as a reaction against the mainstream’s general blocking of it. Research them; it’s worth it. On top of publicity, there is always advertising to consider, of course, but this costs (the rates of some leading alternative magazines are eyebrow-raising) and you will have to weigh up your budget against what you will realistically gain from it. Years ago, it was possible to advertise on whole TV channels dedicated to alternative material (kudos to the late Edge Media TV/Sky 200, for example, which endlessly promoted my book The Truth Agenda with nightly TV commercials for next to nothing, something that can barely be imagined today). Sadly, in these more closed times you will have to target any paying promotion very carefully indeed to make it worthwhile. Either way, however you promote your work, you can never rest on your laurels unless you are 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 (below); with self-publishing, you certainly don’t want a garage full of rotting masterpieces no one is reading, which is all too sadly a common phenomenon. Books, once produced, need to be sold and read, 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, often 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 necessarily 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 certain 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 by default a publisher. Choose a name for your brand or ‘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 suggest they will only be small narrow-interest projects that probably aren’t worth reading, even if this isn’t the case and they 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 apply to if you want your book to be registered with online retailers and libraries and to have any kind of presence in the book world. It will also be required to get a barcode, which should be displayed on your back cover so that retailers and distributors (below) can swipe your item. Barcodes can be easily generated on the internet, and downloaded as graphics. Run a search for how this works.
In the UK and Ireland, ISBNs are controlled by the Nielsen company. It’s surprisingly straightforward 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, although the package of ten is more economical. Of course you may never use more than one of them (though you might do if your first book does well), but there’s no obligation to ever activate them, so don’t be panicked – it’s just the way the system works. Use the first (or only) number you get for your new title and once the book is finalised and ready to go into production then inform the ISBN provider of the details, title, page numbers, content, etc. They will tell you what you need to give them. I have always found the people at Neilsen very helpful on the phone, so don’t fear contacting your provider if you have any queries.
Now that you are a registered publisher, you can finalise your book’s text (making sure it’s well-edited, as noted) and compile any illustrations. Then, you can begin deciding on the layout and start planning how to get it all produced and printed, and/or uploaded in an e-format. This can actually be far less daunting than it sounds.
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, obtain 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/app 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 package, 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 for you. Again, you may have to pay, 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 be straightforward.
Do, however, avoid using a basic programme such as Microsoft Word for the layout – this will show through clearly to anyone with an eye for this kind of thing and can look cheap and nasty. Word is good for manuscripts but is not really intended for end-products unless you are skilled at disguising it. Many alternative books, with great content, are let down either by daunting unbroken tiny print or cramped layouts (remember that, for a printed book with a spine, the margins in the centre of a page should be wider than those on the outer edges, for instance) or they just 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 appear attractive to the eye. Don’t stint on this crucial part of the publishing process. If in doubt as to how the layout should look, find a book you like and emulate what you see there. If your page setups don’t seem as good as the ones you find in bookstores, 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 undeniably popular, 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. 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 on a website, but that is not really a book and the two are perceived quite differently by readers.)
If you are taking the physical format path, you need to find a printing company. Where to start? There are many good printers available today and now Amazon can even provide such facilities for you, although this will tie you to them; 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 printing company is listed by name, 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 frequently seems to cost more here than in other countries. 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, 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 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 eastern European countries such as Latvia, where conditions are fair, although check out the local VAT rules of any given country before committing and also consider the extra cost of freighting the books from there (the printer will arrange this for you but will charge for it). Overseas printers regularly court Western business and both their manners and their English are generally very good – which helps! If a swift delivery date matters to you, though, bear in mind the extra time deliveries from other countries can take. A shipment of one my earlier titles (produced through a bigger publisher) once got stuck on a quayside in Indonesia for months due to a local strike.
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. The number of 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 extras. Printing technology has changed massively in the last ten years and made it easier and more economical, to the point where even quick-print companies like Instantprint (in the UK) now offer book-printing services. The caution here is that cost-per-item is clearly going to be higher than if you have a bigger run done in the first place but if you are not sure how well your title is going to do it might be possible to start with a few copies this way as a tester. If demand grows, then implement a fuller run. 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, do complain and ask them to print the books again, but properly. No printer wants bad online reviews.
Knowing exactly how many copies of a book to print will depend on how big you think the catchment 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, although 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 certainty that fans will buy in large numbers (even the closest supporters can be oddly fickle when it comes to spending money if they think they may have heard it all before from you) but plainly you’re going to stand a better chance than if you are just starting from scratch, i.e., building your audience with the arrival of your book.
If you are feeling confident that at least a few hundred people may buy your book, then starting with a run of 500 is probably fine but bear in mind that the cost difference between that and 1000 copies is often slight. If you’re VERY confident, then 1500 upwards will bring the unit price down further and therefore bring in more income in the long-run if you do sell all your books, although this is where storage can become an issue (below). As a rough gauge, at the time of writing (2022) 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 somewhere around £2500, but paper and ink prices are currently soaring due to various world crises and costs can be more or less depending on the page count and whether you want a higher quality paper (see note below about colour pictures). Hardback productions will obviously add a significant extra cost to your bill, so decide whether you really need to go for this format – the majority of books read today are paperbacks (or ‘softcovers’).
Also consider the binding; decent binding can make a big difference to the feel of a book – 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. Short publications can be stapled (especially if there aren’t enough pages to make up a proper spine) but this will have your work labelled as a ‘booklet’, so it depends on how you want it perceived. Also, do you want a matt or gloss finish on your cover, or ‘spot’ processing where only specific elements or title headers are glossed? These choices can make a 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 £1500 or more on such a run. Remember also that if you will be mailing ordered copies, and/or hopefully freighting them out to various countries in larger numbers, good quality paper adds greatly to the weight and therefore the cost of postage, never mind the extra back trouble you will get from lumping the boxes around (as I discovered with Truth Agenda). So, think through both your ultimate vision and your budget before deciding on your format and print run and see what you can realistically reach for, remembering to allow funds for the all-important promotion afterwards. If you are going for a very niche market and only printing a very few collectors’ editions, however, then by all means print at the best level possible with all the very finest options, hardback or otherwise, 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, happy-go-lucky or simply very confident, just go ahead and print as many expensive tomes as you will. But have you remembered the storage issue..?
If you have decided to go for a print run of 500-1000 or more, one shock you may have is just how much room that many books can take up, and just how strong the smell of print can be – not so good if you are allergic to it. When the stacked pallets arrive [pictured] from a dauntingly-large lorry and you are suddenly staring at a wall of very 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 have gone for a small-format book this will be less of an issue but if you have chosen something bigger then the reality of what that means in large numbers can be sobering. Make sure you have a spare room or very clear storage space where the books can comfortably live before ordering your run – and it must be a space that is well-aired and DRY. Unsealed garages have ruined the stock of many a small publisher; an unsaleable damp-rippled book is the saddest outcome of all.
If you find that you just do not have the space to store your stock, perhaps ask around again. A kindly landlord I once had let me use the unused upper room of his house for free, for instance. If none of these options are available, then paying for storage is the other path. Some removals or delivery firms offer this service more cheaply than actual storage companies. This usually costs something like £70–£100 per month and can work well, but be careful to check, when sales start slowing, that you are not actually paying more to store them than you are actually making from them.
Selling the Book
Now that 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 fascinating, if sometimes time-consuming, world of marketing.
When ‘self-publishing’, the promotion routine runs pretty much as described in the ‘publishing’ section above, thus 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. Once again, don’t risk overlooking the role of social media; like not or not, this is 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 in these days of suppression, 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 that 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 genuine reviews. This isn’t always easy and some gentle cajoling and re-nudging 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 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 its profile.
As well as following all the ideas listed above, don’t think you are done yet; instead, consider even 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 radio is sometimes very keen for something to fill airtime and such coverage can lead to lecture invites from groups – this is how my own public talks began three decades ago, something which has grown somewhat since, many thousands of engagements on. Also, contact any bookshops you know that sometimes stage events and offer to give a talk and/or a book signing, although incorporating the former is best if you want to avoid the risk of sitting there by yourself looking forlorn; people want something to come out for and unless you are a name it is the subject they will be drawn to rather than you as such. Such shops will generally create window displays to promote your upcoming talk for several days [display for New Heretics at Watkins Books in London pictured]; if nothing else your book will thus pick up more passing trade as a result.
In the end, it is probably worth sending out a general press release to absolutely any website and publication you think might be interested in your work. The success rate may be 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 that make for clear targets; look them up. There are sadly less than there used to be but Nexus Magazine, as just one example, is still going strong. There are still some sources that review books (good review quotes 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 into 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, or see if they will accept a digital PDF copy. Otherwise, randomly mailing out 50 physical copies of an expensive book, thinking you will see it reviewed in all the nation’s colour supplements, will invariably lead to bitter disappointment and wasted stock.
The mainstream is mostly a closed shop to the alternative world, unless, as ever, you know someone in the business. Some publishers no longer send out any review copies of their titles unless requested, so low is the appearance rate of subsequent reviews, even in journals you might think would cover them. So, clear targeting of where you send copies to is sensible. Magazines are frequently swamped with review requests, often with inappropriate material (part of the problem), so do anything you can to clearly describe and raise your book’s profile enough that they might pluck yours out above others. Taking out the aforementioned advertising is sometimes one way of guaranteeing coverage, making your ‘review’ basically paid-for ‘advertorial’, but this will depend on your budget.
TV and Radio
As previously noted, if you can get interviews on alternative radio and web TV stations, this is a good conduit for this kind of material. 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. Clearly, if you can get on mainstream TV too, all to the good (although it doesn’t necessarily increase sales), but this isn’t easy to break into given its current resistance to this kind of material. I’ve been fortunate enough to get onto several major TV shows (Richard & Judy, The One Show, GMTV, etc., and various US documentaries) over the years, if sometimes briefly, but it has generally been through an ambient growing awareness of my work in the public domain or through personal contacts rather than through direct responses to specific PR, and paranormal research appeals far more to them than the now shunned conspiracy area. One of my most watched interviews was on the youth-orientated internet channel Vice TV, talking about crop circles. But you never know – if you want to have a go at contacting high-profile TV and radio channels with whatever material you have, by all means try. Maybe you’ll be in the right place at the right time and suddenly find yourself flavour of the month.
Some people wait until their book is actually published before attempting to do any talk show rounds – these programmes tend to like a hook, and if you go in too soon (long before your title 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 and viewers 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 hours that you have a new book coming out in however many months’/years’ time, and the moment will have been missed. On the other hand, some mainstream outlets like the scoop of something just about to come out and consider it old news once it is published, so bear this in mind also. On the whole, though, if your primary motivation is getting the book read, wait until you have something solid to sell or are about to sell. It is generally reckoned that a work can be considered ‘new’ for about a year, before progressing to being your ‘current’ title until you publish something else. These promotional observations are not about putting commerce before the truth or wisdom that may be in your writings but 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 genuinely altruistic aim here.
If your tome is to find its way to a reasonable number of booksellers, catalogues and shops, you will need to get some official ‘distribution’. In the UK, for instance, there are a number of big distributors, but I would recommend first approaching Gardners (based in Eastbourne, East, Sussex), which is the biggest and most respected UK distributor. The US will have their own equivalents; look them up. This matters because sometimes you need to have an account with a mainstream distributor to get your books into chains like Waterstones, who won’t take titles directly from publishers anymore. Once you have a deal with a distributor this means that orders made from any shop or online company, including Amazon (although see below), go through them instead of you, and you just need to supply them with 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. Most distributors pay publishers every month (once invoiced) for any titles they have supplied to retailers. If you are self-published through one of the direct-selling Amazon systems, however, then you will indeed send your books straight to them, as they will effectively be both your seller and distributor, depending on the arrangement you have.
You can still deal personally with independent bookstores if you want, of course, even if you do have a distributor, but getting the money out of them afterwards can be a chore. If shops have bought copies on a ‘sale or return’ basis, even if they do eventually return your stock instead of paying you, the dog-eared unsaleable items you will probably receive back can make the whole venture pointless.
Having a distributor doesn’t automatically mean that your book will actually appear in mainstream booksellers, mind. You often still have to contact retailers direct to call attention to your title and push through the grind of initial indifference, and smaller outlets generally don’t prioritise genuinely alternative material (irritatingly, mainstream fodder that debunks it is usually more than available, of course). But having an account with a proper distributor will hugely increase your chances of shops stocking your title on their shelves. And don’t forget to put your barcode on the book, otherwise it will almost certainly not be accepted for retail. It may sound obvious, but things like this are easy to miss if you are new to publishing.
Distributors are usually pretty amenable to taking new books but they generally demand hefty discounts. However, 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 browsers unsure about taking a chance on your title (although at promotional events and lectures you can always discount them as you think right). It’s a balancing act. I have heard alternative researchers complaining at events when people are failing to buy their modest-looking book retailing at £25–£30 a copy but what do they expect, especially in times of austerity? Remember, this kind of material may be new to some people and spending money on it may be seen as a risk, so try to find a happy medium that doesn’t undervalue your work but doesn’t make it unreachable for the tentative either. If you can pitch something between £10–£20 max at events, even if that is a notable discount from the cover price, you are likely to do much better.
After all of this, you will hopefully find you have reached an audience and got your message out to the wider world in a way which may or may not have been as successful as going through a mainstream publisher. At least this way, even if it was not quite as read as it might have been with a big industry push behind it, it might have retained its integrity and standing more in the eyes of those who distrust the establishment – and your reputation amongst them will have been cemented. Most likely, you will never know which way will have been better. Occasionally, an independently-published book can be picked up by a major (as my Christmas book was) if they see a commercial opportunity for a broader readership, so the option of seeking a publisher may still remain open even if you have initially chosen the self-publishing path.
These, then, are the basics of either finding a publisher or becoming your own publisher. This article isn’t in any way comprehensive but it gives a glimpse into what is involved on both sides. If it sounds challenging at first, in reality it is actually quite straightforward, whichever option is taken, especially if you apply a little time and determination. If you have 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 ever more outreach in the face of a frowning 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 potentially another domino tipped. If only a hundred people end up reading your book and get exposed to new ideas, that is still a hundred more than before you came along and shared your insights.
Ultimately, the success you achieve in choosing to be your own publisher will depend on how much work you put into it. 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 those more familiar with the 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 flourish. 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, as we have explored.
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 allowed out into the world. Whether that happens is up to you and the energy you want to donate to finding its best outlet – after all, we only live once. Unless you are writing a book about reincarnation, of course.