Small Press Publishing: A Model Workflow for 2018

or, ‘what Jamie thinks you should do, and in what order, to make books happen in this crazy modern world’

Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

Those familiar with my output on the subject of small press publishing will be bracing themselves for a lot of financial talk in this article, at least one graph, and maybe even a couple of indecipherable formulas — so let me reassure you straight away, that won’t be the case. Today, I’m simply writing with a list of the key steps needed to bring a book to the shelves, some thoughts on what order they should come in, and when they should happen in regards to the book’s official release date (or vice versa, as you’ll see).

The usual disclaimer applies: I’m not saying this is what happens at Valley Press every time, or indeed that the below applies to any existing publisher. What I am saying is that I would apply this workflow if I was starting again tomorrow, and that if you’re involved in the small press world (or are about to be) you could do a lot worse.


Step 1: Signing the contract

You must start here, every time, and you mustn’t do any other work until the signed contract is in your hand (or on your hard drive). If you have a variety of robust templates prepared, this should only take a few minutes of effort from your end — so there’s no excuse.

NB: Don’t commit to a precise release date in the contract; just promise to produce the book in a sensible period of time (i.e. a year after the manuscript is delivered). Don’t commit to a retail price either! You’ll see why later on.

Step 2: Global editing

This phrase, currently only used by me, refers to the big editing decisions that must be made as early as possible. If you’re working on a collection of poems or stories: which pieces are going into the final book, and in what order? If you’re working on a novel or other long-form prose: are there characters, chapters or sections that need changing drastically, or cutting entirely?

Get those issues sorted now, at the beginning of the process, and you’ll have a firm grasp of the final product before anyone does any further work — which will be ideal. When this step is completed, both you and the author (or anthology editor) should be in complete agreement that the ‘final manuscript’ has been delivered, assembled or created.

Step 3: Author questionnaire

One thorough questionnaire can save literally hundreds of emails later on in the process; it’s a triumph for efficiency, and will ensure the project runs as smoothly as possible. The content is up to you, but the document can and should grow over time. Whenever you find yourself asking the author (or anthology editor) to do something, provide something, or give their opinion on something, add it to the questionnaire so you’ll not have to ask again.

(In that spirit: assume when I say ‘author’ from now on, that this also refers to the editor of an anthology if it’s their brainchild; or multiple authors, or multiple editors. ‘Author’ here is essentially a synonym for ‘client’.)

Step 4a: Copy editing

A more familiar phrase here; working on the book at the sentence, word or punctuation level to make every line the best it can possibly be. Assuming you’re doing all these steps yourself, I find it ideal to work on this and the next step simultaneously…

Step 4b: Publicity materials

…because while copy editing, your head will be filled up with this particular book, which puts you in a great position to write the publicity materials too. Of course, at larger publishers, the publicist and the copy editor wouldn’t be the same person; whether this is an advantage over the one-person-does-everything reality for many small presses is up for debate. (I’ve tried it both ways, and am still on the fence.)

Publicity materials would include blurbs (one sentence, 100 words, 300 words), a plan for who to approach for comment/review on the book (you could even send out a few of the tidier sections now), a draft press release, an author bio, a few key ‘sales points’, the genre codes, and the beginnings of an AI sheet or catalogue page incorporating the above, if applicable.

Remember to get the author’s approval on this stuff when you’re done, and of course get them to sign off on the finished text of the book when copy editing comes to a close.

Step 5: Decide on the format

With the final text in place, and with a good idea of the market for the book, you can decide whether to go for paperback or hardback, and what trim size is needed (particularly important for poetry). This is a short but important step.

Step 6: Text design

Yes, I’ve finally given up on the word ‘typesetting’. Get the finished text of the book laid out beautifully on the pages; it matters.

Step 7: Choose a printer

Surprised to see this before cover design? It helps to get a few estimates, and see who’s willing to throw in some fancy finishes, before you commit to a firm direction for the cover — and of course, getting the spine width early avoids the minor, irritating job of correcting your design later. You should get a range of quotes, for printing slightly more copies than you are confident of selling, pick the best one, then…

Step 8: Set the RRP

At this point you can be confident of knowing all expenses connected to this project (steps 9–13 should be predictable), and so are well-placed to set the RRP for this book. My method of choice at the moment is:

a) Figure out how many copies of this book you are sure will sell. Don’t be mega pessimistic, but do be honest, and consult figures from past titles.

b) Divide the total expenses for this book, including the applicable percentage of your company overheads, by the number from a). The result is the revenue you need from each sale to break even.

c) Double the number from b), to give yourself negotiating room, then round up to the nearest pound. Knock off 1p if that’s your style. Hey presto, that’s your safe RRP!

You’d best select an ISBN number too at this point, if you go in for such things, and generate the barcode. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Step 9: Cover design

Take your time with this; get it right, get it done, make sure the author is happy. Maybe even get a few opinions from booksellers and readers in the target market. It’s crunch time!

Step 10: Proofreading

I’ve learned the hard way that you want to have your proofreader a) look at the text after typesetting, and b) look at the cover as well. It’s amazing what can sneak in. After your print-ready files have been scrutinized and approved by all involved, you can actually go ahead and send them to the printer, and indeed book the job in; it’s best not to hang around. And then what do we do? Is there something I’ve forgotten? Oh yes…

Step 11: Set the release date

Yep, you’re reading this right. We finish the book, send it to print, then we set the release date. If you’re not already doing this, it’s worth a thought; it’s by far the best way to avoid stress when moving through the workflow.

How far ahead you set the publication date depends on how involved you are with ‘the trade’, i.e. national distribution networks. If you’re not a big trade player just yet, two or three months would be ample time to print the books, plan the launch, and execute your publicity plan. If you are more heavily involved with things like The Bookseller Buyer’s Guide, wholesaler catalogues, and submitting lots of finished copies to awards, then you’re looking at a six-month gap to publication, minimum.

Before anyone starts typing out horrified replies at the thought of sitting on finished books for six months, let me ask you something: when was the last time you overheard this at a gathering of publishers?

‘We left ourselves too much time before the book came out. We had finished copies far too early… had far too many weeks in which to calmly and effectively stoke interest in that title before it was released. It was a disaster.’

No? Me neither, actually, because it’s impossible to have too much time to prepare for a book’s release. You’ll also have a nice window of time in which to produce any ebook or audio editions you might fancy getting involved with (I won’t be including those here).

Step 12: Register the book

Not the most exciting stage by any means, but you’ll want to register with the ISBN agency as a minimum (always do that straight away, once you have the date). The book might need a listing on your website too, then there’s Goodreads… you can probably think of a few more.

Step 13: Final publicity & admin

Once the books arrive, you can do justice to your publicity plan, and wrap up any minor tasks that might be left over (like sending the author some copies, or fulfilling obligations to the legal deposit libraries). When release day comes, no tasks should remain… except changing the listing on your website from ‘coming soon’ to ‘out now’ (I usually forget that, and end up feeling silly when it’s pointed out to me weeks later).

You can then relax, knowing you’ve done your best; you’ve delivered the next vital slice of modern literature to its readers, and made another author’s dream come true. So, onto the next one!


Thanks for reading, as ever — remember to ‘clap’ if you’ve enjoyed this, and please do reply (or tweet me) if you want any more info, or if you’ve spotted a mistake, or indeed if you just want a good old-fashioned argument. Ideas and requests for future articles are welcome too. Cheers!