Small Press Publishing for Profit, Part 2: ‘The Nine Days’

The second installment of a series in which Valley Press founder Jamie McGarry reveals his tried-and-tested formula for making a living as a self-employed literary publisher. This week: costing our time, redefining the concept of ‘minimum viable product’, and how to publish a book in nine days.

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A selection of books produced by Valley Press — in a teetering pile, to add drama. (Photo: David Chalmers)

Last week, in part one, I explained why a small press publisher could only rely on a net profit of £3 for each book of theirs that was sold. Due to popular demand, I then wrote another piece (‘Part 1A’) on how to ensure you don’t slip below the £3. I hope by now, we’ve agreed that the £3 is a realistic possibility — and we can move forward, assuming that’s how much will be made from a single sale.

This article will describe a business model through which you, as a self-employed person, could make a full-time living purely from publishing books; but we’ll need to make a few more assumptions. The first is that you can sell at least 200 copies of each new title you publish. Part three will explain how to do that; for now, take it as read (no pun intended).

Let’s also assume that to make a living, you need to pay yourself a living wage — in 2016, the UK government says this is £7.20 per hour, but we’re going to be a little more generous and set your wage at £7.50. You’re going to work hard in this example (this isn’t The 4-Hour Workweek!): 48 weeks a year, five days a week, eight hours a day (or a re-arrangement of that), giving you an annual salary of £14,400 before tax.

Maths wizards will have noticed that our annual salary divides nicely by three; to make £14,400 at £3 per book, we’ll need to sell 4800 books. That’s a lot of books! Plus, in this example, we’re only certain we can sell 200 copies of each title — so to be absolutely sure we can make our salary, we’ll need to publish twenty-four new titles a year. Yikes.

Take a minute to think about that — two new books a month, published entirely by yourself — then read on to see how it’s possible.

There’s a term in the software industry, ‘minimum viable product’ (or MVP), which technically refers to a particular sort of prototype. I’d like to re-define that phrase to mean ‘the least you can do’, the most basic thing you can put into the world without being embarrassed — a product that is ‘good enough’.

You might think such a product sounds like it would be rubbish, but this is a gut reaction to the language I used. A product that is good enough is good enough. In the case of books, do I mean, use the cheapest paper, haphazardly stapled together? No, because readers can spot a shoddily-produced book and will avoid it — your MVP needs to look as good as anything else in Waterstones (that means a good cover design too). Do I mean, just copy and paste the author’s manuscript straight into a template without editing? No, because authors expect (and deserve) an editing process — without it, they’ll leave in droves, so your MVP needs to include editing. The books need to be good enough, sufficiently good; they need to be viable.

But, if you’re completely happy with the book, and the author is too, and the readers as well — guess what? It’s good enough. You’ve produced your minimum viable product. And if you’re going to publish 24 new titles a year, that’s what your books need to be.

Your working year (as described above) gives you 48 weeks to produce these 24 titles, so that’s two weeks each; or ten working days. But you can’t spend 100% of your time purely working on new titles — you need to leave every tenth day free to support the ‘backlist’ (a.k.a. older books), and to do general admin relating to the business. So that leaves you nine days to get through the entire publishing process. Are you still up for this? Good! Here’s how it’s done:

Before the nine days start, you will have already read the book once and signed a contract with the author. Neither of those activities will have to be done on your own time — you can set things up so you are paid to read submissions, either with an entry fee (like The Poetry Business competition), or by requiring submitters to buy a book first (my personal preference, as most people can afford a small paperback, and they still get something for their money if they aren’t successful.)

For every submission you read the whole way through, there will be a few you just glance at, and lots in the middle; it soon works out. As for contracts, once you’ve got a template set up, it’s simply a matter of altering a few fields; ten minutes work at the start of day one. (I’m not going to give you that template in these articles — maybe one day, if I ever turn all this into a book?)

I mentioned earlier that editing is important; but it doesn’t have to take forever. Most of the books you publish as a small press will be on the shorter side; even the longest poetry collection won’t get far past 8000 words, and though poetry is more difficult to edit, you can definitely edit three 166-word poems an hour and get through that chunky 8000-word poetry collection in two days. (Taking regular breaks, obviously.)

If it’s a 4000-word poetry collection, you could go through in precise detail twice, which would be brilliant. With prose, I can manage 2000 words an hour; maybe you can do better? That means I can fit books of 32k words into this model; if I use day nine for editing too (see below) I can just about hit 48k, the length of a typical 160-page novel.

For really long prose books, which there’s no way you can get through in the two/three days I’ve given you, the RRP will need to go up so your £3 becomes £3.33 (for four days), £3.66 (for five days) and so on. Not ideal, but not a huge difference for the customer either. You can profitably publish any length of book using that formula.

What I can’t do here is tell you how to edit; I can define it, roughly, as making the text the very best it can be, but it’s something you can do or you can’t. If you can’t, good news: you can pay someone else to do it, and concentrate on your other jobs (so long as you don’t pay them more than £7.50 an hour).

You can pay someone else to do this as well, if you want — and actually, all the other stages, too. If they won’t do the work at our £7.50 an hour (£60 a day), you can simply increase the RRP, as we did for editing the longer books. Or, you could give them some of your pay from day nine (see below).

You don’t actually need any artistic or digital skills to be a publisher. A robot could do it — it could arrange focus groups to recommend what to publish, have freelancers do these nine days of work, and no-one would be the wiser. But that’s no fun, is it! I would highly recommend learning editing, typesetting etc. to keep RRPs low and job satisfaction high.

Typesetting is actually quite easy; the trick is to have two sturdy templates set up in your design program of choice (InDesign, Quark etc), one for prose and one for poetry. Once those are ready, you just need to paste the text of each new book into your templates — then spend the rest of the day tweaking the design to make it absolutely perfect. With poetry, I centralise the poems and try to avoid lines running over; with prose, I seek out and eliminate ‘widows and orphans’. (I’m a bit nerdy, though.)

This is not the black art many people make it out to be. Here is a short workflow I use for coming up with a concept:

  1. What is the tone of this book? What are the themes?
  2. What are some of the key images (in the literary sense) in this book?
  3. Does the author have ideas/existing graphics for the cover? Are they sensible, and do they fit in with 1 and 2? (If yes, you have the makings of a cover, if no go to 4)
  4. Do I have ideas for the cover? Are they sensible, and do they fit in with 1 and 2? (If yes, go to 5, if no, go and do something else and come back in a week)
  5. What images can I find on reputable websites, filtered by license (i.e. free use with attribution), that can make my idea come to life?

Once you’ve got your concept, and the appropriate image, you just need to add the necessary text in a style that doesn’t get in the way. Perhaps it is a little more involved than this — and you will need all eight hours — but those are the basics.

If we don’t do this, we won’t sell our 200 copies and the whole thing falls down. However, I’m going to talk about marketing and publicity in the third part of this series, so I’ll say no more here.

I’ve heard one publishing professional compare organising writers to herding cats; another coined the phrase ‘emotional admin’, which has become part of my vocabulary, and I’m surprised hasn’t been used elsewhere.

In most cases you’ll need an extra two days of work (16 hours) for emotional admin; which is all the additional contact an author might need (emails, phone calls, meetings) to ensure they feel valued and are 100% happy with the service. On the rare occasion you work with an author who doesn’t enjoy writing emails — so when they do it’s just to say things like: ‘I approve these edits’, ‘I am happy to move forward with this cover’ — you can spend these extra days doing more marketing. Jackpot!

We’re dealing with an artistic process here — things are never going to be entirely straightforward, but that’s okay so long as we allow for it. Some of the other days can easily run over, or require a little more time to get right (e.g. going through various cover designs), so it’s best to build a buffer into our plans. Also, if there are unexpected expenses in the project (or pricey freelancers involved), you can cover them by dipping into the money you would have paid yourself for this day of work, if that makes sense.

Otherwise, we’re home and dry. Good going!

I’ll end by anticipating, and answering, an obvious question: if all this is necessary, why have you, at Valley Press, never published 24 books a year?

The answer is that this is just a formula; in reality, you’ll never have to spend 90% of your working hours producing new titles. You might spend a few days reading submissions (I explained earlier how this would be paid work), and you’ll definitely spend a lot of days at launch events and book fairs, where you’ll make an extra £1.80 on all books sold (remember the orange 20%?); meaning once you’ve sold 34, you’ll have made your living wage for that day without having to do any actual publishing work.

You could also do some workshops, a bit of public speaking, some freelance work of your own — you don’t have to publish yourself into the ground. The formula (and most of this article) is for someone who wants to make 100% of their money purely from publishing new books; adapt as you see fit, but I hope, at the very least, I’ve shown it can be done.

Now hit the comments, and tell me why not.

Written by

Founder @valleypress. Have mostly written here about small press publishing, but am starting to branch out. Stay with me, people!

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