Session: How To Grow Your Author Business: From Self-Publishing to Self-Publisher
Marina Aris is a writer, speaker, creative entrepreneur and the founder of the Brooklyn Writers Project and the Brooklyn Writers Press. She works with writers one-on-one or in small group settings to help them write, publish, market and distribute their work. She runs Meetups and hosts indie publishing workshops with co-organizer, Beth Kallman Werner of Author Connections in NYC and Miami. Her work has been featured in the Magic of Memoir anthology published by She Writes Press, and her memoir, Running Into The Night will be released in 2019. Marina is an avid supporter of writers at all stages of their career. She serves as President of the Board at Pen Parentis, is the Ambassador for the Authors Guild NYC Chapter, and a member of ALLi and IBPA. www.brooklynwritersproject.com
Audience: All Levels
This post is part of London Book Fair Self-Publishing Advice Conference (#SelfPubCon2019), an online author conference that showcases the best self-publishing advice and education for authors across the world — harnessing the global reach of the Alliance of Independent Authors’ network. Our self-publishing conference features well-known indie authors and advisors, for 24 sessions over 24-hours, in a one-day extravaganza of self-publishing expertise straight to your email inbox. We hope you enjoy this session. Let us know if you have any questions or input on this self-publishing topic. Visit our Facebook Group and join in the conversation there, or leave your questions and feedback in the comments section below.
Self Published to Indie Publisher. Should you start your own independent press? Hello and welcome. My name is Marina Aris. I am a writer, indie publisher and the founder of the Brooklyn Writer’s project. When I’m not writing or teaching, I host literary events and workshops on Indie publishing. I also work with writers one on one or in small group settings to help them write, publish, market and distribute their work. If you want to produce beautiful books that can compete with traditionally published titles, this session is for you, so whether you want to raise the bar on publishing your own books or you want to consider starting a small press to publish the work of other writers, you’re in the right place. Please note that in 30 minutes I won’t be able to cover every resource I’d like to share with you. However, I have created a free handbook that you can download after this session
In 2013 when I decided I would self publish my work I had no idea that several years later I would be publishing the work of other writers. So, to be perfectly honest, I stumbled into becoming an independent publisher. Writers who knew me approached me and asked if I would consider publishing their work. While I appreciated the vote of confidence and I was excited by the opportunity, the fact is I was forced to sink and swim at the same time. By 2016 I understood conceptually everything that went into indie publishing, but I had finally had to put everything into action and that proved to be a little bit harder than I expected. It hasn’t been the easiest venture and the learning curve has been incredibly steep, but every day I still wake up looking forward to the work that needs to be done.
As a Mark Anthony quote states, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” This couldn’t be more true than with indie publishing. If you’re anything like me and you enjoy the business side of publishing just as much as the creative side then owning your own press can be incredibly fulfilling and despite the challenges and the learning curve, you’ll push through until you succeed. Becoming an independent publisher has allowed me to marry the two things I am deeply passionate about: books and entrepreneurship.
The Amazon dream machine, as I like to call it, introduced the opportunity for writers to take control of their careers. It gave them the tools they needed, not necessarily to produce a great book, but simply to produce a book regardless of quality. Over the last five years, I’ve come to realize that although anyone can self publish, not everyone should and yet there is nothing that will stop the endless digital bookshelf from being stocked with books that no one will ever read. The simple reason being that many of these books have been poorly produced.
Here’s what I’m getting at. Last I checked you don’t need a special license or a degree to start your own press. You can decide to start one and open up shop. What this means of course, is that anyone can own an independent press, but not everyone should. Which brings me to the reason I am hosting this session today. The publishing process is not rocket science, but it does involve incredibly tedious work, especially when you want to execute it at a high level. I strongly believe that a well produced book has a decent shot at both finding readers and competing against traditionally published titles in the marketplace. In fact, the publishing process I’ve implemented is based on meeting traditional publishing standards.
So let’s talk about you. I’ve already said that anyone can become an independent publisher, but not everyone should. What I mean by that is that if you are only publishing your own work and you make a mistake, okay, you learn from it and you start again, but when other writers are relying on you to produce a high quality book and you don’t or can’t deliver, well then that’s a higher level of responsibility that you really need to think about and decide that you want. So how will you know with becoming an independent publisher is right for you?
For starters, you need to ask yourself if you really do enjoy the business side of publishing, when you strip it apart, the production process is not all that sexy. There are countless iterations, not only with the manuscripts but the book cover, the interior layout and so on. If you’re set up properly, you’ll have a production schedule, but as with most projects there are almost always delays. The three most important skills and qualities of a successful indie publisher include being highly organized, detail oriented and incredibly patient. When you’re small you get to touch just about every aspect of the business.
Next year I’ll have to think about leadership and teams. If you really want to produce a high quality product, you’ll need to build a team of professionals you can work well with and you’ll have to have a system in place for pitching projects and providing guidance and feedback on the work you receive in the beginning. This can be especially challenging. There is a lot of trial and error and as you will quickly learn, every professional you work with has a preference for the genre they want to work in.
For example, a book cover designer that prefers children’s books won’t be the best fit for your romance novel, even if they know all of the concepts that go into putting together a good cover. Same for editors. Some can work on a nonfiction manuscript, but they won’t touch a poetry collection. The larger your team of trusted professionals, the better you’ll be able to manage the book production process. An important question to ask is what type of press will you run and what types of genres will you publish it? I decided early on that I did not want to be a vanity publisher. A vanity publisher will publish any manuscript regardless of quality for a fee.
Instead, I decided to become what is considered a hybrid publisher. The hybrid publishing model sits directly in between self publishing and traditional publishing. In essence, the best of both worlds combined in practice. This means that I curate the titles I publish based on the quality of the writing. Authors pay for the production of their work and in exchange they keep their intellectual property rights and 100% of their net sales proceeds. They also have greater creative control over the production of their work. As for genres, I decided to publish in all of them, so long as the quality of the writing is strong and the book concept is viable, I will consider it for publication. Now let’s talk about the benefits of starting your own press.
Benefit number one, it’s a great career move if, like me, you happen to be a reader and a writer first. This is a career path that will allow you to be fully immersed in something you’re likely deeply passionate about. Just think about the books you’ve read and loved. Someone had to believe in the writer, the writing, and then take it upon themselves to produce the books for the masses. IBPA’s Independent magazine managing editor, Alexa Schlosser, in response to what excites her about the indie scene said, “Independent publishing celebrates the voices that traditional publishers tend to ignore. Diversity isn’t treated as a necessity. Instead, it’s indie’s lifeblood. Independent publishers never stop challenging and delighting us as readers.
Benefit number two, you can work remotely as long as your workflows are well established, your publishing team is in place and you’re highly organized. It’s easy to set up a mobile business, which means you can work remotely in the environment that works best for you. Today I run my business from my home office and we work locations in New York and Miami. My business model is truly portable and I enjoy the freedom of being able to work on the go
Benefit number three. If you make it a point to keep up with current and future trends, you’ll never be bored. The publishing industry will continue to evolve not only because of technological developments but also because business growth over the next five years is expected to be global. For example, companies like PublishDrive had may have made digital distribution possible even in China. Amazon recently purchased Souq, the largest digital retailer in the Middle East. Kobo is owned by Japan’s largest ecommerce company, Rakuten. The British Council predicts that the number of people actively learning English around the world is set to exceed 1.9 billion by 2020. India alone has an estimated 120 million English speakers. Think about the opportunity publishing and global markets presents to you as an independent publisher and to the authors whose books you represent. An increase in English speakers can lead to an increase in global book sales potentially. These are just some of the benefits.
Next, I’d like to talk about some of the challenges that come with running your own press. The first challenge is implementing a sound accounting system. Keeping track of income and expenses if you do it consistently is not all that difficult. The challenge for small publishers is having a sophisticated enough accounting system in place to properly track sales and royalty splits and then pay out to authors.
If you choose to split royalties with authors, you should really have or ideally have a trained bookkeeper manage the financials. Depending on the number of authors you work with, managing royalty splits will eventually take a significant amount of time and effort. Aside from tracking the splits, you’ll need to have a system in place for paying out in a timely fashion. I decided against royalty splits for several reasons. Number one, given the significant upfront financial investment authors make with the hybrid publishing model, I believe it is fair to allow them to keep their royalties, but that is my personal opinion.
Number two, as a small publisher, I do not have the resources in place to properly handle royalties, so I would much rather save myself the trouble. If you have the resources in place, then by all means split royalties. Keep in mind that in hybrid publishing at least, authors receive at the minimum 50%. when I first contemplated splitting royalties, I wanted to offer between 80 and 90%, just to give you an example.
The second challenge is that there are a lot of moving parts. While each book is assigned a production team, you, the publisher or someone that you hire will need to evaluate the results and deal with any issues as they arise. Sometimes there are delays on the production end. Sometimes authors will be committed to a design idea that won’t work and once you have several books in production, you’ll find that a good amount of time is needed to properly track and manage each one. Again, this goes back to your needing to be organized, detail oriented and patient.
The third challenge is relationship management. The better you are at establishing and managing relationships, the more efficiently things will run. Two of the more common challenges in relation to this are an author insisting on something that does not serve the project or meet industry standards or a contract or not delivering on time or to the expected standard. In both of these cases, your communication and collaboration skills will come in handy. Ultimately, you or someone you hire will need to track, monitor, and handle the production process so that it continues to move forward. Maintaining healthy working relationships is key.
How to set up your press for success. When I decided to start the Brooklyn Writers Press, if I’m honest, I was mostly motivated by my passion for books and for helping writers. The first writers who chose to publish with me decided to do so not because I solicited them to work with me, but because they knew me personally. That’s certainly helped to get my press started quickly, but it also made it so that I skipped a few important steps. I just got started and figured everything out as I went along, but the fact is independent publishing is not much different than many other types of businesses and taking some time to plan before you execute is always a good idea. I have come up with 10 suggestions for how to set up your press for success.
Number one, create a business plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated or dozens of pages long. The most important elements to focus on include a mission statement, vision statement, financial projections, team development, and the catalog you would like to develop or the genres you would like to publish in. For example, the Brooklyn Writers Press’ mission is to create high quality books readers will love.
The vision is that those books will perform as well or better than traditionally titles as far as genres are concerned, so long as the writing is strong and the project is marketable, it will be considered for publication. Number two, create a “must learn list.” As a small publisher, you’ll do better if you invest in understanding not only how to produce a quality book, but how to market, sell and distribute it. I didn’t mention it earlier, but if you’re someone who enjoys learning new things, that will only help you as there is plenty of things that you’ll need to learn in this industry.
Some of my favorite resources are Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, both her website and her podcast will keep you well informed. Also, you’ll want to keep up with current and future trends. For example, I know that AI and blockchain technology will impact every industry including publishing. At the London Book Fair in 2018 I attended a presentation by a company called Publica. They developed an author-centric blockchain book sales model and in the same year ALLi published a white paper on blockchain for authors. These are just some examples of trends you should know about.
Number three, join professional organizations. Two organizations I highly recommend are ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors and IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. Becoming a member will not only keep you up to date on current publishing trends, but will also offer your member benefits and discounts for services you’ll likely be interested in using. Also, depending on the genre or genres you choose to publish in, I would also suggest joining organizations like Mystery Writers of America, or Romance Writers of America. There are organizations, groups and conferences for every genre. You need to keep up with the latest trends in those genres and be on the lookout for cross promotion opportunities for your authors.
Number four, create a workflow for all phases of production. The phases you’ll need to prepare for are author onboarding, book production, marketing and distribution. It is not enough to be able to produce the book. If you’re truly going to be an asset for an author you need to have a distribution plan in place for both digital and print. Having a workflow for each of these will help increase efficiency and aid in keeping all parties informed including the author.
Create a schedule for business tasks. Choosing a day of the week and or month to review operations, the project dashboard and financials will go a long way in helping you grow and scale your business when the time is right. Business operations are most closely related with other types of businesses because it includes financials and administrative tasks.
For example, even if you operate as a DBA doing business as or a sole proprietor, you’ll still need to keep careful records of your income and expenses. In the US you can file a schedule C at tax filing to report any tax deductible expenses. It goes without saying that having an accountant you know and trust will be helpful. You may want to consider adding quarterly calls or meetings with your accountants to your schedule.
Number six, create documents and agreement templates. Every author whose book I publish signs and author agreement, the agreement confirms that they can retain their intellectual property rights and 100% of their net royalties. Although you don’t absolutely need an attorney to produce this document, I would highly recommend it as early as possible. I would also recommend putting together a handbook for your press eventually, if not at the start, you’ll need to hire an assistant and it helps to have all of the business workflows and processes in one document.
Number seven, hire a professional to design your marketing materials if you have the budget for it, that is. I did not have the budget to hire someone to design my websites, so I wound up investing hundreds of hours to do it myself and to create designs that you see on this slide.
if you opt for doing it yourself, I would recommend using Wix for the website and Godaddy for the domains. Your online presence is important. Not only because you may want to attract potential authors, but because you will want to appeal to readers who may be willing to give your books a chance before you hire a designer or go about doing this on your own. I would give some thought to what you want your brand to look like.
For example, what colors, fonts and style best define the press you’re trying to establish. So if you only want to publish children’s books or horror and fantasy, for example, your press branding will need to reflect that.
Number eight, establish a production timeline. As a publisher, this is your responsibility. The best way I found to produce this timeline quickly and efficiently is to have a team in place before you start publishing. Ask each independent contractor such as editors, cover designers, illustrators, et cetera, to provide you with a rate sheet and a turnaround schedule. Make sure you ask how much lead time they need for each new project you pitch. As you continue to work with the same contractors, you’ll get into a more predictable workflow and things will inevitably run smoothly even if there are delays.
Number nine, decide who will be the author’s point of contact. At the Brooklyn Writers Press, that’s me. I want every author I work with to feel fully supported when they have questions. I answer them usually within 48 hours and throughout every phase of production I give them as much or as little information as they want from me. Writers come in all stripes. Some want to focus on writing and leave the production decisions to my discretion. Others have an interest in book covers, for example, but little interest in formatting or vice versa. When authors are unsure about something, I help them figure it out.
I want the authors I work with to feel as if I am their publishing partner, which means that I do care about their book just as much as they do. This is a culture I am building because for me this is more than just a business. It is slowly becoming my life’s work and my legacy. For your press, you may decide not to take on this role which is fine, but know that authors do need someone from your press to not only keep them informed but to walk them through the process. Perhaps because I am a writer first I approached my business model in a way that fosters strong working relationships, which brings me to the final suggestion.
Think about the future of your press. There is nothing wrong with embarking on a business venture purely for profit, but that, as you’ve likely noted, is not the business model I’ve developed. If I’m honest, to make a living today, I do other things to pay my rent such as teaching workshops, managing the production of books, coaching writers, and developing content marketing strategies. That’s how I really pay the rent, but that is by design.
I have chosen to become a publisher because sincerely, I have a passion for books and over time I’ve also developed a passion for helping and supporting writers. If I can create a platform to showcase good work, then that is enough motivation for me. Your motivation may be different, will likely be different, but you need to know what it is because on those days when things don’t go as planned, that is what will keep you going and more importantly, you need to have a vision for the future. Consider having a plan in place for either selling or handing off your publishing business.
I happen to be a divorced mom and the other day my seven year old, for a school project on careers, decided that she wants to become a publisher when she grows up. On the one hand, I’d rather we allow children to enjoy their childhood without putting into their young minds concepts of the future. They are still too young to truly understand. On the other hand, how wonderful that today a child can come up with publisher as an answer to that question. Whatever my daughter decides to do in the future, I will fully support her and if by some sheer stroke of destiny, she still feels this way when she grows up, well then it looks like the Brooklyn Writers Press will be in good hands and around for a good long while.
That’s about all we have time for today. I know this was a lot to take in, so as I mentioned at the beginning of this session, I put together the Indie Publishers Handbook: How To Successfully Set Up Your Press and Publish Like A Pro. This is my free gift to you. You can download it on my website, BrooklynWritersproject.com/go and if you have questions, comments, or feedback, I’d be happy to receive them. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your time today and I hope you enjoy the rest of the Self Publishing Advice Conference.
Do you have any questions or feedback about this Self-Publishing Advice Conference Session? Leave a comment below, or send us a question using hashtag #IndieAuthorCon
Register for #SelfPubCon2019
Our next online conference for authors runs in association with the Digital Book World, September 2019.
Register now and we'll send details of our speakers, sessions, sponsors and competitions closer to the time.
Hosted by the non-profit Alliance of Independent Authors. Always free.