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.
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.
Facebook page: The Greystones Press