So you want to start your own small press?

Over on Quora, an anonymous reader asked me to answer the question, “How should I go about starting a small, independent press?

This question was asked by someone who was already publishing his or her own work, but who was considering expanding beyond that to publishing others’ books.

This got me thinking. Thinking a lot. Probably way more than the poster wanted. If you don’t want to read all of what I came up with, the TL;DR version is down at the bottom.

Here’s what I had to say:

As Anastacia Moore and Randall Reade have pointed out, running an independent press is not easy, and it’s not something to do for the money. Not just for the money.

If you’re a self-publisher, you already run an independent press. You’re not affiliated with any of the Big Five (is it still five?) corporate publishers, nor with any university, nor with any governmental organization. You’re an independent publisher. Congratulations.

The hard part isn’t running an independent press (though that’s hard enough). It’s making it earn enough for you not to have to rely on other sources of income. There are a number of ways to try to do this:

  • Expand your offerings (but rationally). The more titles you have in more media (ie, ebook, print, audiobook), the more discoverable you are as a publisher and the more discoverable your books are for potential readers. Nothing markets a book like another book. The best marketing is a series — book 1 sells book 2, and so on. But books by the same author sell each other, especially if they’re in a similar genre.The next best book-to-book marketing tool is genre, and this is one of many reasons that large publishers break their book lines down into imprints or brands. TOR/Fantasy is a brand that one set of readers follow; they are not exactly the same as those that watch for new releases from TOR/Science Fiction (though obviously there’s some overlap).The point here is not just cross-marketing (see below). It’s also the fact that by expanding your offerings you will develop a larger readership, a larger online presence, greater Google “juice” — and a diversified portfolio, if you feel like looking at these pieces of intellectual property as investments (which is what they are). By developing both depth (lots of books by a particular author or in a particular genre) as well as breadth (multiple authors and genres), you’ll start experiencing some economies of scale and some security if one work or genre stops selling. You’ll drive more people to your site and (hopefully) develop more readers. You also may find that the market begins to teach you what does and doesn’t work — which is hard to notice when the books are few and yours.An example of this last: two years ago I was mostly publishing books on philosophy (Stillpoint/Thought) with a little romance (Stillpoint/Romance)  and my own books of myths and folktales for children (Stillpoint/Youth). In late 2013, I started publishing Stillpoint/Eros (warning: adult readers only), a line of erotic romance books — not what I’d intended at all when I started, but the writers were good, and the stories slowly took off. They now represent about 80% of my royalties, and growing.I’m now also developing a science fiction line (Stillpoint/Prometheus)See my point about being flexible below.
  • Cross-market. Every book should have a preview in it from another book. Preferably from the next book in the series, but another book by the same author or in the same genre will work (if the author of the books don’t object — do ask first). Every book should list others in the same series, by the same author, or in the same genre that you’re putting out. Ebooks should include live links to the landing pages for the books either on your site or on the retailer where the book is posted. (Never include a link to buy the book on Site A in an ebook you’ve uploaded to Site B!)Put together box-sets/collections of different authors’ articles, stories, or books. Not only will there be a certain synergy — Authors X, Y, and Z will all encourage their own readers to purchase the collection — but there is obviously the opportunity to introduce each author’s readers to other authors’ works. Make sure that the works will appeal to a common audience.Have a site. Have a good site. If you don’t already own your own domain (not mypublishingcompany.wordpress.com or whatever), spend the money. It will be worth it. Pull together a visually appealing, informative, interesting site — WordPress can do just about everything you’re going to need.Part of cross-marketing is having a dynamic, interesting site where readers can come and find out more about your authors and their books. Not just descriptions and order buttons — previews, interviews, blog posts, etc. It doesn’t have to be a fully functional ecommerce site (thought those are not as hard to create these days); each book’s (and author’s) page can include links to buy at various retailers sites without ever having to set up your own estore.(If you do want to sell your own digital downloads, know that you won’t make a huge amount of money at it; most folks want to buy through the channels they’re used to. Still, if you want to go for it, I highly recommend WooCommerce for WordPress. I’ve used a number of ecommerce solutions and it’s easiest to set up and use. That’s not to say that it’s simple… but simpler than anything else I’ve found.)Another major part of cross-marketing is building your mailing list. It’s essential for authors to have an active list of folks interested in their writing, but for a publisher of multiple authors its a matter of life and death. A good book on how (and why) to build a mailing list is Nick Stephenson’s Reader Magnets: Build Your Author Platform and Sell more Books on Kindle (It’s a freebie — though obviously, being an author in the book marketing business, he’s got lots of upsells available. Still, it’s a great nuts-and-bolts introduction to the art of the mailing list.)
  • Find other ways to market your books. I hate to say it, but get over the “I’m no good at marketing thing.” Neither am I, by nature. Neither are most people. Marketing requires a special kind of imagination that’s quite separate from the creative imagination most authors possess.Your options are:
    1. find someone else to do the marketing for you
    2. give up
    3. learn to do it yourself

    #1 is probably out of reach unless you’re related or married to a marketing genius, since the odds are very low that you’ll make more in increased sales than you’re spending on your marketer — at least until you’re big enough where you’ll need a partner or employees, in which case, a marketing genius is a good thing to find. #2 is probably good practical advice, but I’m going to assume that you’re not willing to take it at this point. #3 is your best bet then.

    I’ve written a post on some good free ways to market books. To be honest, there are an infinite number of ways to let the people who should know about your books know about your books — and most of them won’t cost money, just time and effort. Be willing to put the time and effort in.

    Try to be as sparing as possible in using paid advertising (through programs like AdWords, Twitter Ads, etc.)  Unless you’re dealing with a fairly high budget, the economics are iffy at best. Internet advertising works best on large sample sizes with a lot of market research. (Goodreads giveaways are the most effective “advertising” tool I’ve found, and cost very little: wholesale printing price plus shipping. You can even drop-ship from your print-on-demand distributor.)

    • Find other ways to monetize your assets. There are lots of ways to use a site or a book as a way to make money. Look at selling ads on your site (See on Quora: How to sell ads directly on my website? or Are there alternative ways for a vertical website to sell display ads?)Look at appropriate affiliate possibilities (Affiliate Marketing). (Every link to someone’s book on a retailer’s site should be an affiliate link — you’re driving traffic elsewhere, you might as well take advantage of it.)
    • Find other ways to monetize your own skills. I actually started not as a publisher but as a publishing services provider. I’m an ebook designer, an editor, an audiobook producer, and a print layout designer. I offer a service to add social networking links to ebooks (Smidget – the social media widget for ebooks), I do covers, I research permissions… If it has to do with books, I’m happy to hire myself out to do it for someone else — for the appropriate fee.Find things that you can honestly say you’re skilled at and offer your services on your site (eg, What Can Stillpoint Do for You?). Offer your services on sites like Writer.lyBibliocruchElance, or even Fiverr. Join a guild like Editorial Freelancers Association. Let everyone you know now about your services. Build up some experience and a sense of what you can charge and how time and energy a job is going to take. (Just know this: it’s always going to take a lot more of both than you think it will — especially at first.)Know this too: this will be another huge energy and time sink in terms of marketingOne thing to be very, very careful about if you go this route: always be clear when you are offering a service (in which case you are working for pay — your client is the publisher) and when you are offering to act as a publisher yourself (in which case you are either paying to use the author’s writing or offering to split royalties with the author). A lot of new authors don’t know the difference, and a lot of sleazy so-called publishers prey on their ignorance. (AuthorHouse? Hello?) To quote Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil.”
    • Reach out to other indie publishers. There are formal and informal organizations where you can exchange ideas (here in the the US, there’s an association called the Independent Book Publishers Association that you really should join). There are also local groups that meet talk about all of this sort of thing. At the moment I’m the vice-president of the Bay Area Independent Book Publishers Association (BAIPA), which brings about a hundred of us together on the second Saturday of every month — there are local equivalents across the continent.

    I’m still working at all of these items. I make a living from my company — but not as much as I’d like or (frankly) need. Stillpoint Digital Press is just busy enough that I can’t do all of the work myself, but not yet big enough to hire the kind of help I need. Still, it’s happening. I’m proud of it. I wish you the best of luck.

    TL;DR: Running a small press is incredibly difficult with lots of challenges — but it also can also be incredibly rewarding work that offers wonderful opportunities. Good luck!

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