11 Tips For Startup Publishers With A Small Budget

This isn't an exhaustive guide to starting up a publishing house. That would require an entire book (yes I'm open to a book deal if anyone wants to get in touch). This is what it says it is. Ten tips. Not necessarily the top ten tips, but tips that will set you up nicely as you begin your journey into the world of publishing.

Let's start with some credentials so you can decide whether you want to listen to me or not. I'm the owner of This Is Horror, the website, publishing house, and podcast. The website attracts over 40,000 monthly visitors, thousands tune into the podcast each month, and to-date the publishing arm of This Is Horror has released eight books. We're by no means prolific, but we've steadily crafted a reputation for excellence within the horror genre validated by a handful of British Fantasy Award shortlists and a couple of placements in 'Best of Year' anthologies.

This article could be summed up in three points: have a plan, research, and know your budget. But that would make for a slender read.


1. Plan

To maximise your chance of success you need a plan. This should include a publishing schedule, goals, and a mission statement. The publishing schedule could be as simple as “publish a limited edition chapbook every quarter”. In fact, that’s exactly what This Is Horror did in year one. We started small to test the waters and keep the operation manageable. Other publishers (Broken River Books, I’m looking at you) go out with an all guns blazing approach, which is fine as long as it’s planned for, fits the budget, and is manageable.

SMART goals are my preferred tool for goal setting. They’re clear, easily measured, and leave no room for ambiguity. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. I’ll write an entire post on goals in the future.

If you’re starting up a publishers but are not a voracious reader, why on earth are you doing this? To make money? Hahahahaha.

I advise writing two mission statements. First, a private mission statement just for you to keep you motivated when times are tough, to remind yourself why it is you’re doing this. (Things will get tough. Sorry, not sorry.) Second, a public mission statement. Traditionally this takes the form of telling your reader what you do, how you do it, why you do it, whom you do it for and what value you offer the reader. I recommend a hard sell on value and any unique selling points you have.

It’s also important you have a long-term plan so you know where you’re ultimately heading.

2. Separate Your Personal And Business Finances

This should be common sense, but somehow it’s overlooked again and again, and sees individuals and businesses landed in trouble. It’s okay to make an investment into the business, but you don’t want to use your weekly food budget to pay a cover artist and you certainly don’t want to dip into author royalties to pay for Hannibal box sets no matter how good the show is (and it is very good).

3. Know Your Budget And Stick To It 

How much is your budget? That’s the first important question to answer, and it will inform every other aspect of your business going forward. You’ll need some starting capital, for sure, though for this article we’ll assume it isn’t much. This is, after all, tips for startup publishers "with a small budget", not tips for startup publishers “who are absolutely minted”! I can’t tell you how much your budget should be, that’s a personal decision, and one you’re going to have to make. Perhaps you have saved towards an initial investment or you’ve raised money through Kickstarter or another crowdfunding endeavour. Look at all the costs involved. There’s the printing, the advance and/or royalties for authors, the cover art, layout and much more to consider. So tally it up and be sure to create an emergency fund should things go AWOL. Don’t forget, if you’re going to act as a distributor, factor in postal costs. Believe me – oh dear god, believe me – they add up. Once you know your overall budget it’s wise to divide that money into categories. This is for artwork, this is for distribution, this is for editing, this is for reinvesting into the business, etc. Make a zero-based budget where every penny is accounted for. To minimise failure, be overzealous in your estimations. Better to budget too much than too little per category. If you run out of money you will be tempted to invest more of your personal finances into the business. Think very carefully about this, and if you decide it’s a financially sound decision, only put in what you are prepared to lose and can afford. You may have an amount of personal income each month put aside for the business. That’s fine. As above, it’s when you’re spending grocery money on ISBNs you’ve got a problem. You can’t feed a family with ISBNs.

4. Know Your Niche 

Identifying your niche allows you to identify your peers, customers, critics and potential authors. It's a useful exercise that will help you write your mission statement. Discovering your niche may be difficult. Ask yourself “what genre do I want to publish?” Horror? Okay, great, what's your definition of horror? Is it a wide, all-encompassing definition? Is it pulp? Is it literary? Is it classic horror with nods towards Hammer? Do ghost stories fit your remit? How about horrific real-life tales like Jack Ketchum's fantastically depraved The Girl Next Door? Is there anything you don't want to publish? Write it down, even if it sounds stupid, you can fine-tune it later. "I don't want to publish formulaic zombie novels." "I don't want to publish novels that prioritise gore over the story." "I want to publish transgressive fiction." Okay, cool. Now define transgressive. You're beginning to form a picture as to what your ideal reader and writer looks like. Once you’ve defined the genre or genres you’re working in, you’re going to have to tackle other questions. Mass market or limited edition publications? Are you publishing eBooks and audiobooks or physical copies only? Paperback, hardback or both? How about foreign rights? Would you consider a freemium model where you give away part of your content? Is there a particular image you want your covers to project? All these questions matter, and you should take your time to consider each one in turn. Do not rush.

5. To ISBN Or Not To ISBN

I'm going to nail my colours to the mast, I'm part of team ISBN. An ISBN makes it much easier for booksellers to order your book. I discovered this the hard way when I didn’t think to put ISBNs on This Is Horror’s first couple of releases. I received calls from booksellers eager to stock our books. The entire ordering process, pre-ISBN, was arduous and frustrating. You want your book in-store, so make it easy for the booksellers. Offer them a great wholesale discount, too. Mainstream book retailers like Waterstones and Barnes & Noble aren’t likely to touch it unless you offer a discount of 55%. It's worth the expense. 

When you network, whether online socially or real-life out-the-house socially, don’t expect anything from anyone and always offer value.

FYI: An ISBN puts your book in the worldwide catalogue of published books, which is essential if you want your book to be available in libraries. It also looks professional and gives your book credibility.

6. Know Your Strengths

If you're starting up as a one-man band you're going to have to get good at a lot of different things very quickly. Commissioning stories, editing, proofreading, designing cover art, laying out pages, digitising, writing press releases, contacting booksellers, managing financial accounts, social networking, marketing and liaising with authors are just some of the tasks required to run a successful publishers. Make a list of your strengths, what you’re prepared to learn and what you’ll outsource. While running an independent publishers often requires a Jack-of-all-trades mentality, there are certain things you’ll have to outsource. If you know your strengths and budget you’re in a good position to draw up a list of your personal and outsourced tasks. I wouldn't recommend designing the cover unless this is amongst your specialisms. There are many talented artists out there and if you ask they’ll often cut you a great deal as an indie publisher. Similarly, even if you can do something it doesn’t mean you should. Perform a quick time-cost analysis. Case in point, I can digitise eBooks, but for a small fee can outsource this and use the time more effectively. If it takes you a couple of hours or costs you £50 to outsource but you can earn £100 in those two hours it’s a no-brainer.

FYI: This Is Horror has been fortunate enough to work with cover artists Neil Williams, Jason Hicks and Pye Parr. If you like what you see drop them a line.

7. Don’t Advertise

It’s very difficult to measure your success rate when advertising, especially in print media. Yet it can be tempting to advertise within the pages of national or international magazines. With big magazines come big prices, and I’m very sceptical having seen some of these prices, that they will necessarily generate the volume of sales required for that return on investment. A far better way to generate interest is through networking, marketing, PR, social media campaigns, and reviews.

As a reader, a good review from a respected source trumps advertising every single time. Advertising isn’t an endorsement from a publication, a positive review is. I was particularly frustrated, a few years ago, when I contacted the UK’s biggest science fiction magazine to see if they would review This Is Horror’s latest release. I was delighted, initially, when I received an email requesting I ring a member of their team to discuss further. Upon ringing I was told they would like to “offer me a great opportunity”. The “opportunity” in question was to spend a mere £800 for an advert in their summer special. I was assured this was a special offer for small publishers and a fraction of their usual advertising rates. The book in question retailed for £5 and was limited to 500 copies. The special offer, which a follow-up email stated, “would do very very well for sales”, was a bad offer and I was wise not to take it. I’m pleased to report the book did fine without the advertising.

FYI: Please don’t pay for reviews either. You’ll get offers from magazines and websites. “Pay just £XXX and we’ll review your book!” Hell, throw money at a problem and you’ll get offers for just about anything.

8. Network

You need to network with other professionals. This will help you understand the industry you work in and hopefully you’ll pick up invaluable contacts and (heaven forbid) friends along the way. When you network, whether online socially or real-life out-the-house socially, don’t expect anything from anyone and always offer value. This isn’t about pimping your latest book, but more about sharing your own experiences and learning from others. If you’re humble and sincere you’ll do well. If you think this is just about who shouts the loudest, though, and integrity isn’t within your vernacular, well, you’ll see. 

 9. Write Contracts

When money or services are exchanged it’s important to write contracts ahead of time so each party knows what is and isn’t expected of them. A friendly handshake isn’t going to cut it (unless you know the official publishers and writers handshake, which is totally legit and legally binding).  As to the meat of the contract, for the publisher and author agreement here are some things to consider including. An approximate word count, a delivery date, rights details and period (Worldwide? Electronic? Audio?), royalty rates and advance rates. For a more definitive list of things to include, Google is your friend. If you’ve had anything published check out your contracts as a template. Opt for plain unambiguous English. If in doubt include definitions. This isn’t about you, the author or the author’s agent catching each other out. It’s about having a clear contract that avoids confusion and misunderstandings.

10. Consider An Internship And Freelance Work

When I started This Is Horror Publishing I was working full-time within Digital Marketing, but my passion was for editing and the publishing industry. I decided to get serious and level up my publishing knowledge. I booked two weeks off work to undergo an internship at Rebellion Publishing. After my internship I was fortunate enough to land a job with Rebellion as Digital Publishing Associate. It meant a significant pay cut, but the insight into publishing and contacts gained have been indispensible. I’m now working as a freelance writer and editor. Each gig deepens my industry knowledge and of course enables me to spread my income across various assignments so if something goes awry (and it will) all is not lost.

11. Read Widely

Another tip that seems obvious. If you’re starting up a publishers but are not a voracious reader, why on earth are you doing this? To make money? Hahahahaha. But, seriously, I’m going to assume you already read widely within your genre so know your area of expertise, the writers and type of books – past and present – out there. I’ll also assume you read outside your genre, because that advice is touted often enough. I also implore you to read non-fiction. Remember, you’re going to have to be a Jack-of-all-trades, so there’s a lot for you to learn and read about. Read about maximising productivity, managing your finances, self-improvement, fitness (because working at a computer all day takes its toll and occasionally you’ve got to get out the house, though the length of my beard begs to differ), leadership, entrepreneurship and yes, it would also be of benefit to read books on style, copy-editing, proofreading and grammar. 


Have any experience in the world of indie publishing? Let's network in the comments!

Michael David Wilson

Column by Michael David Wilson

Michael David Wilson is a professional writer and editor. He is the Managing Editor and Owner of the popular UK horror website, podcast and small press, This Is Horror. He is the founder of the ancestral health website and podcast, Paleo Minds. A qualified ESL Teacher and graduate of The University of Warwick’s English Literature and Creative Writing Programme, you can connect with Michael on Twitter @WilsonTheWriter.

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