The Basics of Independent Publishing 01 by Jim Driver

So, you want to publish books, do you? This short series of articles should provide all the information you need (and I wish I’d had when I kicked off) to get you started. But I could write a dozen books on the subject and I’d still only be scratching the surface.

No one knows everything they ought to know about successful publishing. This is partly because the ‘rules’ change every day, and partly because different rules apply to different people. What would restrict me here at The Do-Not Press wouldn’t necessarily apply to someone doing the same job at Harper Collins, say. If a major publisher wanted to rush out a book commemorating some momentous event or other, they could do it in a couple of weeks (as has been proved with rush books on Princess Di, September 11th, etc) and you’d probably not be able to move in bookshops for the things. If we tried it, we’d be told, ‘Sorry – you know we insist on a six month lead-in!’

This article is a general as I can make it, but some detail is specific to the UK. Still, using a little imagination, most facts and tips can be applied equally by would-be publishers in the USA, Thailand, Mauritania or wherever.

You know the expression: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’? Well, that’s especially true around here, and in return for all this free advice I want you to return the favour by buying as many of our books as you can find (buying online is cool) and by telling all your friends how good they are. Deal?

Before you spend any money
The advice most independent publishers will give when asked ‘How do I get started?’ is ‘Don’t’. It may be a cliché, but – like most clichés – it’s true.

Although I obviously ignored the warnings I was given when I started out, you might want to stop and ruminate a little more before you leap in with the chequebook. Right now you’re probably thinking that all these warnings are little more than paranoia or maybe even a way of discouraging potential opposition. But they’re not. Modern publishing is a jungle and furry little creatures like us are the first to get swallowed up.

Publishing is an expensive business and it’s very easy to lose a lot of money. There are very few success stories in the small, independent sector. A handful of people – offhand I can think of three – have started small imprints, built them up to global proportions and made millions – or most probably, once they’ve deducted debts, a couple of hundred thousand at most. Good for them. But there are many, many more who’ve come into publishing with good ideas and better intentions and left with a lot less money and a lot deeper in debt than when they started.

Although The Do-Not Press may be doing OK right now, for many years the reason I kept at it despite spiralling debts was that I literally couldn’t afford to stop. Provided you keep muddling along, people don’t worry too much about their money. Vague promises and a few free paperbacks are usually enough to keep them quiet. But stop, and suddenly everyone who’s owed a penny comes rushing out of the woodwork demanding their cash on the spot. The old joke (I first heard it about the music business) has more than a ring of truth to it:
Q: How do you make a small fortune out of publishing?
A: Start with a large fortune.

The independent publisher – especially one without a track record – is right at the bottom of a very, very large heap. Bookshop buyers will more than likely laugh in your face – assuming you can get to see them in the first place – sales and distribution companies will nod sympathetically but explain that they can’t help right at this present moment (meaning come back when you’re a success and we can make money out of you); and don’t expect potential reviewers to come to your rescue. Although a recent survey conducted by Penguin found that 97% of book-buyers didn’t know who’d published the book they’d just bought (and cared even less), this happy state of affairs doesn’t apply to the media or bookshop buyers who all equate big names with quality.

As a small publisher, don’t expect anyone you ever meet to have heard of you or your imprint, even less seen or read any of your books. I once put a large advert in a trade magazine only to have the editor of the same rag deny having heard of us less than a week later. And if he’d not seen the advert… I soon stopped placing large advertisements anywhere. Even your own family will never get round to reading any of the gems you put in front of them.

In short, you’re on your own, pal, so get used to it now.

Getting Started (1): The name
OK, so you’re adamant.
It’s your funeral, sucker. So let’s get started:

The first step is to choose a name for your imprint. Whether you decide to be a sole trader, a partnership or a limited company is purely a business decision and doesn’t concern us here. The name does. The name is important. Pick something you think you can live with for 20 years or more. ‘Wanky Books’ may be OK when you’re a student (or not), but ten years later the joke might be wearing a bit thin.

The Do-Not Press (including the essential ‘The’ at the start) is a jokey title I stumbled across when I found that my first choice (The Trouser Press) was taken. I never tire of explaining its significance to bank-tellers, delivery drivers and postmen – I do, but who’d listen? – and it does attract attention in the media and with potential customers, which is good.

Try and find a name that has something to do with the type of books you aim to publish. Hardboiled Books is great if you’re into noir, but naff if you specialise in ornithology As a general rule, adding ‘press’ to the name tells the world that you’re small and marginal, and using your own name these days (eg John Smith Books, the Norman Taylor Press) could smack of egotism. Still, tell that to Victor Gollancz, Jonathan Cape and André Deutsch!

If you want to be seen as a modern, go-ahead company maybe you should avoid a regional slant: ‘East Midlands Press’ may go down well in Bromsgrove, but in New York or Melbourne it signifies small and regional. But if that’s the image you’re after, fine.

Spend some time getting the name right. Unless a flash of inspiration gives you the answer within a few seconds, it’s worth exploring all the angles. The wrong name could hold you back and once started it’s very difficult (and wasteful) to change.

Check that the name’s not taken. The last thing you need at this stage is a law suit and the inevitable confusion two imprints with the same name would cause. Search the Internet, check out the directories in the local library, visit your local bookshop. Ask.

Now you need a logo. Design it yourself or get a designer to do it for you. A cheap option could be to find a keen art student who wants to get into the book business. But keep a tight watch on what’s happening. You’ve got to like the logo because it’ll be on all your books for a long time and once it’s out there you don’t want to change it. Fancy calling at libraries or knocking on people’s doors and asking them if you can put a sticker over the logo on the book they bought last year because you don’t like it any more? No, your logo will probably outlive you, so get it right.

Bear in mind too that the logo has to fit in all sorts of places in all sorts of sizes and nooks and crannies: on your letterhead, on the spines and covers of books, inside books, on posters. It’ll have to look as good 1cm wide as it does a metre wide, and you should have colour and monochrome versions that are recognisably the same.

Good luck.

Getting started (2): Find Your Niche
The second thing you’re going to need is a manuscript or manuscripts to publish. Assuming you’ve got that side of the business sorted out, we’ll proceed to the technical side. But not without offering one piece of hugely important advice: specialise. Find a niche, whether it be translated Spanish fiction, erotica, cookery books, gardening or romantic fiction and stick to it. Keep at it until you make it work. More on that later (in Marketing).

Once you’ve got your manuscripts you’ll need ISBNs for them. The ISBN is the unique number each book must have in order to be considered a book. You must have them and they cost money. The only place to get ISBNs is the ISBN Agency, administered by J Whitaker & Son, publishers of ‘The Bookseller’ and various other publications.

New publishers have to register with them (which at the time of writing costs £57.50 + VAT), then you’ve got to pay for a series of ISBNs, which come in 10s (not recommended because, if you’re serious you’ll use 10 up in no time and it’s best not to be changing ISBN codes all the time), 100s (£50 + VAT) or by the 1000 (£200 + VAT).
The UK ISBN Agency only assign ISBNs to publishers based in the UK and Republic of Ireland. You can write to them at:
ISBN Agency
Woolmead House West
Bear Lane
Tel: 01252 742590 (9.00am to 5.00pm)
Fax: 01252 742526
Here’s some information about them from their website:

The UK ISBN Agency:-
* Allocates ISBN Publisher Prefixes to eligible publishers based on the information provided by the publisher.
* Advises publishers on the correct and proper implementation of the ISBN System.
* Maintains a database of publishers and their prefixes for inclusion in the Publishers International ISBN Directory.
* Encourages and promotes the use of the Bookland EAN bar code format.
* Encourages and promotes the importance of the ISBN for a proper listing of titles with bibliographical agencies.
* Provides technical advice and assistance to publishers and the booktrade on all aspects of ISBN usage.
The team at the ISBN Agency will be happy to answer any queries you may have. Please also let us have your comments and feedback about the ISBN site as we are always looking to make improvements.

So now you know.

More invaluable information next time…
© Jim Driver, August 2002