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Managing without a publisher: when to go it alone

There are various reasons why you may decide to self-publish, rather than seeking the services of a professional firm. For example:

  1. You want the book published more than you want a commercial success. For example, if you are writing in order to preserve your family history or to set the record straight about something you consider important, you may decide that having printed copies is more important than gaining a commercial publishing deal.
  2. You are completely convinced by your book idea, and want to be taken seriously by a commercial publisher. It is true that some books do get picked up by publishers on the basis of the author’s commitment, both financial and emotional, to producing the first edition. The logic runs that if the author is prepared to commit their own funds to getting into print, it may be a worthwhile investment to follow.
  3. You are very specific about how you want your book to look, and so plan to produce a limited edition at your own expense to show how the product might best be produced. (Incidentally, this is how Bloomsbury came across Ben Schott’s Original Miscellany. He had produced 50 copies of his book of lists, at his own expense, and it was seeing one of these that persuaded the publishers to take him on.)
  4. You know more about the market than any publisher could. For example, if you want to write a book about your professional area of expertise, and have both a greater market knowledge of the subject and a more complete list of potential customers, it is arguably unreasonable to have to share the profits of the enterprise with a publisher who is not able to contribute in equal measure. And whilst you may know little about publishing, you can always buy-in expertise to cover areas you don’t know about; writing magazines offer the names of several firms offering this kind of service.
  5. You are fed up with publishers saying no and feel you have a good idea. You decide to go ahead anyway, learning what you need to know along the way:

‘I was wasting too much time waiting for publishers. I am an artist. I have to start.’
Chantal Zakari, US self-published author of Web Affairs

Of course, it may be best for a commercial publisher to take on your book – because a third party is investing in you, and few would-be authors know much about production, distribution or marketing. But if you do decide to go it alone, you will need to think about the following…

Case study: Jo Westwood

Jo Westwood, BA, C. Psychol., Educational Psychologist, Englishtype Ltd & Zed Project

When I decided to spend my time writing some books to help children through the first stages of reading and writing using structured phonics (now often called ‘Synthetic Phonics’), I thought that the most difficult part would be in creating interesting stories using a very restricted vocabulary. But that bit of what I wanted to do, although very difficult, was part of my professional expertise, because I had been diagnosing and teaching dyslexic people for some years as an Educational Psychologist, and I knew how to provide a strong structure for effective learning.

The first versions were illustrated by a friend. I had met him as a client; he was dyslexic himself and he had a dyslexic son, whom I had taught to read and write using my methods. We produced versions of the stories (using a photocopier and coloured paper) which could be tested out in schools and then we approached all the educational publishers we thought were relevant (probably 12–15 in all). We had a few interviews with potential publishers – Ladybird, Hodder and Stoughton, Blackie and Heinemann – but every time we were told that structured phonics was out of fashion (the fact that it was then no longer being taught in schools is the reason why we have so many illiterate young people and adults!). Meanwhile, the photocopied ‘books’ I had made out of our materials were used to destruction in a couple of schools to whom I had given them for trial. I knew that they were effective in helping children to learn to read.

Deciding to self publish

Sometime later, I met Lucy Juckes through her mother-in-law, Patience Thomson (I knew Patience from the time we both served on committees at the British Dyslexia Association, and I had had a fruitful association with her in publishing some software). At the time Patience and Lucy were setting up Barrington Stoke to publish children’s books, and Zed Project seemed to be a possibility for them to publish. Lucy helped me to find an illustrator, and after a revision of the content of the books in line with what I had learned from the first versions, it seemed that Zed Project would at last become a reality. But then Barrington Stoke decided that they would specialise in books for older children and so Zed was, once again, put to one side. But Lucy suggested that the content was so unusual and effective that it was worthwhile self-publishing. Attempting that was a fast learning curve, but with Lucy’s support and access to a printing company owned by a friend, Zed Project became a reality. The day I first saw the books, beautifully illustrated and ready for the children to learn from, I cried. I was intensely proud of what I had achieved. I set up a Limited Liability company, organised the ISBN numbers for the titles, none of which I had ever done before.

With hindsight, I can now see that the difficulties I had encountered in the writing, testing, illustrating and creating the pages, registering them properly and setting up the company were in fact the easy parts. Little did I know how difficult the next stage was to be …

I have been selling software for more than 25 years and we have a successful company selling touch-typing software. I had thought that my knowledge and experience of marketing software would lead to being able to sell books. I knew about what should be in the books, I relied upon my intuition and knowledge of children to produce books which looked really attractive to them and teachers, but my knowledge of marketing books was zero.

Marketing challenges

My daughter, Sue, joined our family businesses at the start of 2005. Her academic background is in Psychology, but she had followed a 12-year career working in marketing departments of some of the UK’s big-name companies: Cadbury, Unilever, Carlsberg. She decided she wanted to try and sell something more meaningful than beer and chocolate! So, she came on board to work with us and we have had a very enjoyable two years working together. We mostly agree with each other about business decisions – but when we disagree, we always end with a hug to make sure mother and daughter stay in our most important roles! She has increased our software sales by about 50 per cent, a huge achievement in a market that is struggling, and I am immensely proud of her. The books, however, have been a problem – even for her.

Applying her commercial knowledge to the books, Sue set out to look for marketing opportunities, but found that, sadly, the book market is very different from the software market. Lots of software is sold to schools and homes through independent, third-party retailers; effectively a supermarket (in reality, more of an Argos!) for software. This means that independent sellers have an effective means of selling into schools, as well as the very big publishers. All the products sit alongside each other in a catalogue or on the website.

For books, the distribution system seems to be completely linked to the big publishers – there are few independent re-sellers, and those that there are concentrate mainly on big-name companies and books. We approached the few that we could find, but got absolutely no joy in getting listings in their catalogues. Given that our product was mostly educational in focus, we concentrated efforts here and did not attempt to tackle the high street.

In today’s world of technology, the self-publishing part is actually the easy bit. Finding a route to buyers (a distribution channel) and communicating with those buyers so that they are aware of the product is the biggest challenge when it comes to books. One channel that should make all this possible, you would imagine, is the Internet. Here anyone can set up a website to communicate with potential customers, and sell in a virtual shop via that site. It does work to some extent, but the reality of the vastness of the Internet, and the millions of products that are now offered upon it, means that unless you have a very specific product designed for a very specific target, it is likely to be difficult for people to find your site and product. So, sadly, selling books seems to be a tricky business.


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

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We also offer lots more advice on self-publishing here. If you’re looking at self-publishing your manuscript, try our self-publishing comparison engine first.