A One-Page Business Plan for a One-Person Publishing Company

Or, how you can make £24k a year from small press publishing, ethically and sensibly, with minimal headaches and a 20-hour working week. No, really.

Though it’s been a few years since I ran Valley Press entirely on my own, for some reason I find myself coming back to the ‘solo publishing’ scenario again and again; this article being no exception. The plan below doesn’t have any new research or ideas — it’s simply another way of explaining what I’ve been going on about since I first started writing about this topic. Feel free to tweak any of the numbers to suit your particular circumstances.

For me, figuring out business models is like doing the crossword, or a Sudoku; except in addition to some healthy mental exercise, I get the fun of sharing (and vigorously debating) my answers on the internet, with people like you. So thanks for clicking, and please do write a reply if you have any questions.

This plan is for someone working as a self-employed publisher four hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year, with a target annual salary of £24,000. That’s £25 an hour, but you’ll need to earn a little more to cover company overheads; let’s say those are £1920, £160 a month for travel, stationery, postage, maybe renting a desk somewhere. So you’ll actually need to earn £25,920 from your publishing activities, or £27 an hour.

Here’s how you’ll fill those hours:

  • MONDAY: Submissions. Any respectable publishing house will have no trouble getting submissions. At the start, you may like to look at incoming manuscripts outside working hours, and fill your Mondays with other profitable activities; but when the volume exceeds what you could sensibly handle, you’ll need a filter, and a way to pay yourself to read. This could be the ‘buy a book to submit’ concept, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst small presses, or you could run a competition and charge an entry fee. To give each manuscript an average 15 mins of your time, you’d need £6.25 from each submitter, plus extra for any prize money offered and promotional costs. Keep fees fair, and be generous with feedback where you can; you don’t want to swindle anyone.
  • TUESDAY: Admin. Books need to be registered in the right places, boxes need to be ticked, freelance editors need to be hired. (This model assumes you’re doing no editing yourself, but you could take some on outside the 20 working hours described above; just note your fee below). You also need to keep financial records, but one day a week should be plenty.
  • WEDNESDAY: Design. With the right templates, a book can be designed by any computer-literate person in two working days — so two Wednesdays a book. Yes, I’m serious! It’s all about getting those templates in place.
  • THURSDAY: Publicity. Best achieved through a lively, essential-reading email newsletter, regular social media, and targeted approaches to the press. You can write your blurbs here too.
  • FRIDAY: Communication. As a one-person publishing house, you are going to have a LOT of emails. Use this day as overflow too; if a crucial task from the other days is left undone, start your Friday with it.

That’s it: rinse and repeat, spend two weeks on each book, and aim for 24 new titles a year. Each of those needs to cover your £27 an hour across eight days (Mondays are sorted, remember), which is £864.

You can rely on a well-designed and promoted book to sell 200 copies fairly swiftly, so to cover the £864 we want to be making a clear £4.32 each time one of those copies is sold. You’ll also need to consider costs to print at least 220 copies (some ‘frees’ are essential), fees for any freelance editors (or your own editing time), plus other expenses accrued in production.

Then, to set your RRP for each title, add up the print costs, editor’s fees and other expenses and divide that number by 200 (which gives you your general expenses per copy). Then add the author’s royalty per copy, and the £4.32 to give you your essential income per copy sold — then double that figure and round up to get the RRP. This allows you to offer up to a 50% discount when selling the books, whilst still breaking even every time, which is helpful if you’re going to distribute through modern channels.

An example of this formula at work: I print a short book for £1 a copy, £220, which I paid an editor £200 to work on, and an illustrator £50 for some cover art. That adds up to £470, so my general expenses per copy are £2.35. I pay the author 50p per copy sold, so with the £4.32 my essential income per sale is £7.17. The RRP for this book should therefore be above £14.34 (so £14.99, if you like 99s, or £14.50 if not).

If that example RRP sounds high, remember no-one need ever actually pay that; when selling direct you can happily charge just above the 50% (so perhaps £8 in the example). If a trade buyer takes 50% but doesn’t offer a big discount to their customers, that’s their problem; people who want the book will come to you instead and buy direct. If those direct orders get overwhelming, you could reduce your discount a little and pay a distributor (or some grateful intern) to do the honours.

For reprints, you should print to demand (short run or POD) if you want to stay in control of your outgoings, and not end up with a house filled with boxes of books. Treat any sales above the 200 as a bonus, saving that money for harder times or investing it back into the business; you’ll then have the option of growing the company, if you want to. The sky’s the limit.

So that’s the plan — what did you think? I should add, if you are lucky enough not to need a salary of £24k, you could reduce your overheads considerably, which would also reduce the RRPs, and the whole thing could be just a little more pleasant. I’d love to hear your own versions of the above, or indeed any questions, queries or complaints; there should be a reply button below. Otherwise, see you next time!

Update: after seeing your reactions to this post, I realised a detailed follow-up piece was called for; you can find that here.