Birth of a Publisher - Guest Post by Mary Hoffman

OK, so this is not about self-publishing and it’s not exclusively about digital, but it’s a case study of how two people with more ideals than sense decided to start a publishing company that would operate rather differently from the traditional model and the Big Five. If anyone else out there wants to follow suit, it might help you to avoid some of the mistakes we made.

Making the Decision

It was in the Roxy bar in Siena some time in July 2014. I was there drinking coffee with my husband Stephen Barber (I think he had a round cake too) and we were sitting outside, when the heavens opened and we were going to get soaked.

We ran inside and ordered another round of coffee while we waited out the storm. I had a notebook and pen with me (naturally) and we had been talking for some time about possibly starting an independent publishing house. We knew from blogs like this and the experience of friends that it was getting easier for complete tyros to bring out good-looking books.

We talked and roughed out a possible two-year publishing schedule. There are a couple of books Stephen wants to write and I had the feeling that no-one was going to want to publish my next two YA novels, which were both historical, so this could be a vehicle for both of us.

But I was also acutely aware of the tough time fellow YA novelists were having in getting publishing contracts – great writers, some of them prize-winning but writing the kind of books that just weren’t fashionable currently.

We also knew some non-fiction writers involved in interesting projects and I had the benefit of working with my contacts on The History Girls, some of whom had already produced a traditionally published anthology earlier in the year (Daughters of Time, Templar 2014).

So we scribbled away and drew diagrams and talked about money until Stephen finally said, “let’s do it!”

Taking the plunge

It took a bit longer to take the definitive steps towards making it real but in October 2014 we registered The Greystones Press with Companies House. It was on a Sunday and took less than an hour. Setting up a business bank account with HSBC, however, took MUCH longer.

By then I was writing Shakespeare’s Ghost, a YA historical novel with a paranormal twist and it was an obvious candidate for our first list. We had decided to publish YA and adult fiction and adult NF “in areas that interest us” and no illustrated books.

My agent had sent a synopsis and some sample chapters to the main publishers the year before but had replies like “we already have a book on Shakespeare” or “we’ll need to see the whole text.” For someone who had been accustomed to sell a book on a paragraph or two of an idea, this could have been a bitter blow. But I determined that this was just the way things were now and wrote a different novel – of which more anon.

But having missed the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, I suddenly realised that I had to get a move on if I wanted to make this year’s 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

I finished the first draft on January 22nd 2015, aware that no conventional publisher would be likely to get the book out in time, allowing for revisions, submission and then my agent sending it round all the publishers. So we said, “October then”, to get it out at the same time as the other Shakespeare titles.

Reasons of family illness set us back six months. By July last year we realised that October was an unrealistic aim so opted for 23rd April 2016, a good date for my book at least.

By then we had asked Katherine Langrish if she would expand her marvellous essays on her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, into a book of the same name. And we’d been asked by a dear friend if we’d consider re-issuing a book of hers. It was just the sort of book we love but highly illustrated. What to do?
Also I had written an adult novel that had been much admired by agents but not published so we decided to bring that out too, under a pseudonym. Because I was working on an App about Michelangelo in Florence  for Time Traveller Tours and Tales, we also wanted to make sure my book David would be available again in time for summer 2016, this time in an adult edition.

So we had some books. But what next? We had initially decided to do a small print run of paperbacks for review copies and author copies and then do Print on Demand (POD). And we would do ebooks too.

What we had to find was editors, designers and other team members. So we joined the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), got their book and started trawling the Net for likely people. Then we had a piece of good fortune – we found Talya Baker, who not only is a superb copy-editor but took on the role of Project Manager for fiction for us.

Talya, with whom I’d worked briefly at Bloomsbury, introduced us to the other rock of our enterprise, Nigel Hazle, Text Designer. We didn’t know that these last two roles existed when we started. But Talya and Nigel have been the Godmother and Godfather of our project, putting us in touch with proofreaders and a non-fiction copy editor.

To stop this post from being too long, I’ll whizz through some of the stages: we had to discover about writing Advance Information sheets (AIs), Press Releases, buying ISBNs and tangling with Nielsen’s Title Editor online.

We had to commission and provide material for a website, write contracts, decide what to do about PR, choose covers for five books, work out how on earth we were going to publish the illustrated book (of the kind we positive were not going to do, remember), re-think the whole POD and ebook model, have stationery designed, etc. etc.

One shock was discovering that the Bookseller and Nielsen’s want the AIs five or six months before publication! So you have to know the extent (number of printed not typed pages), price you’ll be charging etc. perhaps before the book has been finished. That definitely didn’t happen this time around but we’ll know better next time.

Paper books

Another piece of luck, after  finding Talya and Nigel, was a telephone conversation with Diana Kimpton, who had self-published some titles. We had been agonising about POD and whether to use CreateSpace or IngramSpark and then Diana told us about Clay’s.

We had been veering towards Ingrams (Lightning Source) because of the shipping costs from America of using CreateSpace but as we were going to be a small independent publishing house rather than a self-publisher, we were fearful that bookshops would not only not stock but also not order our titles if they were POD only. A brutally frank email from a US publisher we were talking to made us think again about our publishing model.

And then we talked to the wonderful Rebecca Souster at Clay’s. Yes, they could do short print runs, from as little as 50 copies, they would store copies at a small charge and the books would be distributed through Gardner’s. It wouldn’t be POD but they could print from files in 10-15 working days and reprint in 10.

We had found our paperback solution.


I’m afraid this was a bit of a no-brainer. Kindle accounts for 85% of ebook sales so we have gone for the KDP Kindle Select option, which brings in 70% of the price, in return for exclusivity.

If you want your books available for other platforms, the royalty drops to 35%. Our margins are so tight on the paperbacks (see, I even talk like a publisher now) that it will be n Kindle if anywhere that we make some money, enough to enable us to publish more books.

For we have taken the expensive route of separate freelancers, cover designers and artists etc. A package like Draft2Digital or the new self-publishing one offered by Amazon or Ingrams would have been much cheaper.

But we are now a bit addicted to the skills of our team and the way they make our books look:

We hope to publish three more books in October, one of them the YA novel I wrote before Shakespeare’s Ghost. It’s called The Ravenmaster’s Boy and is sort of “Wolf Hall for kids,” being set in the Tower of London January to May 1536. And four more next April.

But for now we are feeling pleased that we made the publication date of 23rd April with our first five titles:

Shakespeare’s Ghost by Mary Hoffman, YA fiction
Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish, Adult Non-fiction
David: the unauthorised autobiography by Mary Hoffman, Adult fiction
The Moon: Symbol of Transformation by Jules Cashford, Adult Non-fiction
The Italian for Love by Kate Snow, Adult fiction

It’s been a nest of clichés: steep learning curve, roller-coaster ride etc etc. But actually huge fun. It would be nice to have some money coming in as well as the huge sums going out. And we have already reprinted three of the titles before publication.

It’s not going to be for everyone but being a small independent publisher seems to suit us.

Twitter: @GreystonesPress
Facebook page: The Greystones Press


Susan Price said…
I can only cheer you on, Mary, while admiring your courage! I find self-publishing my own books hard enough. I can't imagine taking on all this.
Susan Price said…
Oh, and I've bookmarked Clay's - thank you for that tip!
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm impressed. I don't think I could have kept up with the pace of that. As it is, it's difficult to balance writing, publishing and promoting tasks as a self-publisher, although I have to say that despite the difficult balancing act I much prefer it to the traditional route - been there, done that, and worn the tee-shirt! But to set up a publishing company would be one too many balls for me to juggle. I'm full of admiration for you and wish you every success in the future. You deserve it.
Mari Biella said…
I can only echo what the others have said - as someone who finds publishing her own books a considerable challenge, I am full of admiration!
Lydia Bennet said…
What an exciting and challenging undertaking! Well done both of you for taking this on. About 'self-publishing' though, and definitions, if you form a publishing company and publish your own books as well as others', (which quite a few are doing these days), is that self-publishing or not? Either way it's still 'indie' so you are bang on target for our blog! Thanks for an informative and interesting post.
Very informative and interesting post - and many thanks for the information about Clay's. I have one question though - I get the 70% royalty on all my self published titles that are not in Select in the UK and the US. (I know it drops to 35% in some countries) But for these two big markets, it's related to price rather than exclusivity. I only have two on Select at the moment. They have to be exclusive to take advantage of Kindle Unlimited which is down to pages read, but I'm not sure it's worth it. Not that the other sales channels are particularly good for me, although I know they are for some writers - Amazon is by far the best at the moment. Of course it might have something to do with company status but the smallish publisher that publishes a couple of my novels also has my titles available everywhere - iTunes etc - and not just on Amazon, although Amazon is still the Big Cheese in terms of actual sales! Can you clarify?
Dennis Hamley said…
Wonderful post, Mary. And I so much enjoyed the Greystones launch at Blackwells on Tuesday. I can also confirm that 'Shakespeare's Ghost' is a riveting story based on an absolutely fascinating premiss. As one who is losing hope about starting a publishing concern because of the difficulty of getting four people to agree on anything, I found this inspiring reading. Good luck to Greystones Press.
Mary Hoffman said…
Lydia, I think the term for us is probably "hybrid" because, although we are publishing some of my books, we are also publishing books by other people. The number of books by me will go down after this year and next, as I had some ready to go. But then Stephen is planning some, so I suppose we'll stay hybrid.

Catherine, I don't know he answer to your question! When filling in the KDP details, it appeared we had to opt for exclusivity in order to get the higher royalty. Perhaps someone can enlighten us?

And thanks to all for the positive response. So glad you are enjoying Shakespeare's Ghost, Dennis.
Mary, I don't think you do have to go for exclusivity to get the higher royalty. I think it's price that matters. A 99p price point will only give you the lower royalty. Also a too high price point, over £9.99, as far as I remember, also means a lower royalty. Amazon know what sells and at what price, so they are trying to force publishers to stay within those prices. There are some countries where you get a lower royalty unless you're on Select, but not the UK or the USA and those are the biggest markets. You may be depriving yourself of a royalty stream by exclusivity - although I know some writers and publishers find that it pays to be exclusive to Amazon for at least some books. But I believe Chris Longmuir and Wendy Jones and others on here publish eBook version elsewhere, either via D2D - which is what I use - or Smashwords. But maybe your 'status' as a publisher makes a difference. I don't know.
Enid Richemont said…
Mary - I do admire your courage and determination. You represent, for me, a fight-back against everything the current publishing scene throws at us (Dennis - have you given up?)

I have eleven children's and Y/A books on KDP Select, and two currently - today and tomorrow - on free promotion, which can also be dispiriting. I believe, that, to get the 70% royalty, the price of the book must be higher. Two of my books I've held back on, though - one because there has, via a close friend, been film interest, and the other - Maritsa, which Dennis knows already, because I felt it needed a more respectable/respected outlet. At present I have an adult novel with my agent, one which has an interesting history, but I'm not holding my breath.

Kath's Steel Thistles are now on my Kindle, and I must, must, MUST read Shakespeare's Ghost - the next on my wanted list.
Stroppy Author said…
Excellent - wonderful that you got them all out on time and that they are doing so well. And thank you for this fascinating insight into how you did it!
Mary, you do NOT need to be in Select to get the 70% royalty in the UK and the US... you just need to price your book between $2.99 and $9.99 (the KDP pricing page will helpfully tell you if you are pricing wrongly for the 70% option).

But Catherine is right, and your royalty at other countries like India will drop to 35% if you're not in Select. With my middle grade/YA titles, however, I find sales tend to be much smaller in those countries and so the drop in income from not being in Select is more than made up for by sales at other outlets... currently, my ebook income works out at about 80% Kindle, 20% other outlets (mostly Apple and Nook, with occasional sales at Kobo).
Mary Hoffman said…
That is very helpful, Katherine! And gives me the hope that when the dust has settled, we might be able to put our books on other platforms.
Thanks for confirming, Katherine! I have a couple of titles temporarily in Select but I wouldn't want everything to be exclusive.
Same with me, Catherine - I do have a series in Select, but the rest are currently wide. I think the main advantage of being in Select is that you also get paid for 'borrows' by Kindle Unlimited readers who might not otherwise buy the books.

Glad to be of help, Mary, and best wishes with the new venture! For my own books, I use Draft2Digital as a distributor to the other outlets - they take a small commission on sales - and I believe others here use Smashwords. Those are the two main ones, but as a proper press with more books you might prefer to sign up direct with the stores... it's probably worth experimenting a bit to see what works for you and your authors.

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