For the Love of It: I Started an Indie Press
I didn’t know anything about starting a business. Lit mags and small publishers are supposed to be doomed from the start, but I’m doing it anyway.
Everyone is passionate about something. One of my favorite things, in conversation with a new acquaintance, is stumbling into what that is. It’s a cliché, but people really do light up when they talk about something they love.
For me, that love has always centered around writing and publishing.
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, but my first glimpse of publishing was working on the literary magazine at my high school. At the time I was toying with a Rory Gilmore-inspired idea that I might become a journalist, but this was different than a newspaper. Whether creating layouts with the (even then) antiquated program PageMaker, crawling around organizing a flat plan on the floor, or nervously talking to the printer on the phone, I was hooked.
Most of all, I discovered what it was like to publish someone else’s art — to have the responsibility to help edit and arrange a collection of pieces, each of which means as much to the artist as my own work does to me. I knew the excitement of having your work published and thinking about all the readers who would see it, and suddenly I found myself with the opportunity to help make that possible for other artists.
The older I get, the more I understand the infinite amount of trust writers must place in their editors, and on the flip side, an immense weight for editors to honor that.
I’ve followed this love throughout the years, helping start an undergraduate literary journal at college, and volunteering with various independent magazines during and after my master’s degree. But many, if not most, literary journals don’t have long lifespans. Last year, in preface to a list of defunct magazines worth remembering, Nick Ripatrazone wrote for Lit Hub:
“Literary magazines are born to die. Radical passion often meets practical reality.”
And that, really, is how my indie press got its start: with the death of a literary magazine.
In 2015, I’d been working with a couple of other writers on a small publication for over two years when I suddenly stopped hearing from the editor. I checked with the other person who’d been working on it, and he hadn’t heard from him in a while either. Life had gotten busy for the editor, he explained. Work, relationships, and soon family took priority. I would never fault anyone for that, but without direction, the magazine folded.
Having recently moved to a small town in North Yorkshire, I suddenly found myself without a creative community. I’d finished my master’s degree a few months before. The magazine was gone.
Then I stumbled across the work of someone I’d briefly met at a literary event back home in Atlanta. He was sending out writing prompts each month and posting the responses on a website, so members of the community could give each other feedback.
I thought, why couldn’t I do that?
The allure of print
I always intended to bring Palm-Sized Prompts, the online flash fiction writing community I started, into print. I didn’t set myself a deadline or any kind of benchmark to measure when our shifting online community would be sturdy enough or otherwise ready for it, I just knew it was the eventual goal.
They’re always saying print is dead, but I’ll never believe it. There’s too many of us still that love the smell of a bookshop or the texture of the page.
There were others around me doing it — friends and acquaintances that had started a small press that produces zines, helped organize a literary salon that put out a collection, or other similar pursuits.
I knew InDesign from my time editing my undergraduate journal, I was working in it again at my day job, and I had years of work with literary magazines to inform editorial decisions. Since moving back to Newcastle, I’d also been working at a writing magazine, Mslexia, where I was watching how other publishers put out calls for submissions and advertised new titles.
I just didn’t understand the practical, business side of things. How did you find a printer? How did you finance this kind of thing?
I researched. I asked friends how they’d done it, requested samples from printers online, and was even put in touch with the printer who did the Indie Press Guide Mslexia had produced.
I explained our shoestring budget and looked for free and manageable options for everything: submitting listings to the vast catalog of writing organizations I’d become familiar with through Mslexia, offering marketing swaps, and trusting that at least one of our contributors would shout about us on social media.
I settled on Mixam for an affordable, quality printer. We already had a free website through Wordpress, and on a friend’s recommendation, chose Big Cartel for our (free) online shop option.
In the end the only things we paid for were printing, packing, and postage. I based our print run off the number of contributors and pre-orders, knowing that might be all we would sell. It was close, but we broke even — a celebratory thing for lit mags.
But as I was preparing to put this little zine out into the world, there were articles all around about “the death of literary magazines”; even at Mslexia, just as I was beginning my time there, our editor Debbie Taylor wrote a piece about The Alarmist, a London-based lit mag that had recently closed its doors, and the short lives of literary journals in general:
“[T]he odds are stacked against them. The punitive logistics of print distribution, combined with the dearth of readers, mean the financial model of most lit mags is simply not viable.”
Yet I still knew I wanted to keep going. Palm-Sized Press, and the community that makes it possible, still has something to say, and writing to share with the world.
Falling down the business structure rabbit hole
As I write this, Palm-Sized Press has just released Vol. 1 of our magazine.
It hasn’t been a direct road. In moving back to the US, I’d decided to go “actually, like, really legit,” as I’ve struggled to describe it to various friends. But what does “legit” mean for an indie press?
Many zines and small literary journals are produced as a personal venture, much like Palm-Sized’s zine. From a legal standpoint, they function as sole proprietorships:
- There is no separate business entity (meaning purchases and sales are done under the owner’s name, rather than a business name).
- Business assets and liabilities are not separate from the owner’s personal assets and liabilities (meaning the owner can be held liable for debts).
- The owner is taxed as being self-employed — business income is considered personal income.
- They’re the easiest and least expensive business structure to form, because owners don’t have to file anything — you can literally just start working.
- They’re good for low-risk businesses and entrepreneurs who want to test out an idea.
“You’re automatically considered to be a sole proprietorship if you do business activities but don’t register as any other kind of business.”
— U.S. Small Business Administration
But I wanted to venture further than I had before — to try to get an issue out past our online shop, limited in reach to only those who had a link to it. I dream of reaching the point where we can publish single-author works, ISBN and all. So I knew we needed to build our brand as a publisher, and a key part of that for me was being able to do business under a formally recognized business name.
For Palm-Sized, the last year has been more about research and setting up the business to prepare for that hopeful time. I’m lucky enough to work at a place that specializes in business — we help franchises and corporations develop and document their operating procedures and business continuity plans; my fantastic boss lady has explained charts of accounts and P&L statements in our office meetings.
We’re all about process, procedure, and setting things up to allow for growth and scalability.
DBA: What’s in a name?
The biggest decision I needed to make was how to set up the company. In my initial research, I was leaning toward sole proprietorship. Remember that shoestring budget?
But even as I considered it, I had my doubts. Wasn’t this basically what I was already doing before?
The more I read, the more complicated this supposedly uncomplicated path seemed to become. With a sole proprietorship, if you want to do business under any name besides your legal name, you have to file a DBA (“Doing Business As”) in the states where you’re doing business.
As a writer, I intentionally chose a pseudonym. I fell into publishing things under my legal name — first as a student assistant in college, then writing articles for Mslexia, and now I’ve just come to terms with the majority of my nonfiction works appearing under it. But in fiction and poetry, I take on my grandmother’s middle name as a surname.
I have good reason — during undergrad, I discovered that there was someone at my school with the same name as me. We exchanged a few messages, and it turned out she also wanted to be a writer. (I’ve looked her up since, and she has a killer website.) She’s using middle initials to differentiate her name now; I’m not sure if this was before or after, but with the release of the short-lived TV show Emily Owens, M.D., we’re now both completely un-Google-able.
Additionally, I grew up as “the other Emily” in school, and my middle name is just as ubiquitous. I wasn’t going to launch my business — and my hopes for its future growth — under my given name.
DBAs don’t offer legal protection, but they do allow you to do business under a different name than your own. With a DBA and a federal tax ID number (EIN) you can even open a business bank account under that chosen name.
But in Dekalb County, Georgia, registering for a trade name costs $225.00. Wasn’t this business structure supposed to save me money?
LLC: Flexibility and protection
In the end, I chose to form my business as an LLC.
If you’re researching business structures, you’ve probably found as I did that sole proprietorships and LLCs are two of the most popular options. Where sole proprietorships are popular for their low cost and simplicity, LLCs offer protection for owners as well as flexibility.
Unlike a sole proprietorship, an LLC protects the owner from liability. Although publishing is not a high-risk venture compared to restaurants or other establishments, and I don’t anticipate encountering this issue, forming an LLC protects me from financial and legal liabilities. If someone sues an LLC and wins, they would be limited to the assets of the LLC; for a sole proprietor, the owner’s personal assets (e.g. vehicle, house, and saving accounts) could be at risk, since liabilities of the business flow through to the owner.
In terms of taxes, LLCs can benefit from pass-through taxation (meaning profits and losses flow through your individual tax return). The Balance reports that “Because an LLC is fairly new, the IRS does not have a specific tax category for this business type, so they use the tax categories of other business types.” This means owners can elect how they’d like to be taxed, as a:
- Sole proprietor
- S Corporation
By default, single-member LLCs are taxed as a sole proprietorship, and those with more than one owner are taxed as partnerships. In terms of income tax, this means LLCs may have a lower tax rate than a corporation, since the tax rate depends on the total income of the owner. Corporate owners also have to contend with double taxation: the corporation pays taxes on corporate net income, and the owners also pay tax on dividend income. However, since LLC members are considered self-employed, they do have to pay self-employment tax. For a chart comparison, check out the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Business Guide.
The cost of forming an LLC will vary depending on your location, but there are a number of different websites popping up that offer to handle the paperwork for you (e.g. LegalZoom, Incfile); some of them even have samples available on their website of what some of this paperwork may look like. Be sure to check ratings and reviews of services like this before using them. Many will offer a variety of standalone options, packages, and add-ons, like:
- Filing for an EIN (Employer Identification Number)
- Preparation and filing of IRS Form 2553 (to elect to be treated as an S corp)
- Creating an Operating Agreement
- Free registered agent service for one year (the business or individual designated to receive official legal correspondence, such as a summons, and deliver it to the owner; this limits junk mail and personal info available to third parties)
- …and a multitude of other things, from contract templates to websites.
I messaged my boss to ask about these options.
- Where I could have paid $70 for an EIN through the service I chose, I instead just did the form myself — and it really wasn’t that hard.
- With an EIN, I was able to open a business bank account. Since I didn’t file Form 2553, for now I’ll be taxed as a sole proprietor.
- An Operating Agreement is really only important if you have a partnership, something my boss wrote a whole blog post about a few months ago.
- I am currently using the registered agent service, but after my free year, I’ll probably change the registered agent to myself — which you can do, though there are other things to consider besides the $119+ fee.
Don’t forget, if you choose to form an LLC, you will need to complete an annual registration.
Distribution and investment
I don’t know if I am busier than I was a few years ago when Palm-Sized released our zine, but it certainly feels like it a lot of the time. I’ve read articles by other people who run indie presses, and most of them talk about the boxes upon boxes of books they have stored in various corners of their houses, and the time they spend stuffing envelopes and ferrying them to the post office.
We’re not quite at that level of demand, but I knew I wanted to be prepared if ever we reach it. Doing a set print run has limitations though — when you run out of the initial run, will there be enough demand to warrant a second? Will you become best friends with the people at your local post office, or will you have boxes of investment sitting around gathering dust?
Distribution takes a lot of investment, even for presses less established than the ones in those articles. Since Palm-Sized started in the UK, a majority of our community is still there and elsewhere in Europe. When I researched options for postage, I knew I couldn’t ask customers to pay that much, and the press couldn’t absorb the cost either.
But you can’t just account for the cost of the stamp; you also need to consider the time involved. In a business, even one funded primarily by effort, time is a vital cost to consider. If you were being paid, it would be included in the budget: “To create X, we need to invest Y amount of hours at Z hourly rate, plus the actual costs (materials, components, services, etc.). In the end we will sell it for A, and subtracting those costs make B profit.” That B has to be a positive number to warrant the investment.
For Palm-Sized, I know that B isn’t going to be positive for a while. Even without accounting for the time investment, with the costs of setting up a business, I would be surprised if we broke even this year. But regardless of whether you include time in your budget, it’s an important factor.
You may be prepared to invest as much time as needed at the beginning, because these kinds of ventures are driven by passion. I know there’s been a fair amount of days recently when I worked 9–5 at my day job and immediately came home to work on Palm-Sized until 10. Debbie drew attention to this in her article about The Alarmist: “Many long-established magazines teeter constantly on the brink of collapse, sustained mainly by the hard work and self-sacrifice of those who run them.” All that time catches up with you, and not everyone can sustain it.
To limit costs in the short term and prepare the press for growth, I decided to choose a print on demand (POD) printer/distributor. For those unfamiliar with these businesses, think Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and similar: anyone can upload a file, let Amazon attach an ISBN, and suddenly your book is available to purchase through Amazon.
You do lose out on some revenue using these services. Any option you choose will technically pay you a “royalty” after subtracting printing costs plus their own cut: Amazon takes 40%, Lulu about 20%, BookBaby 50%. But if these costs can minimize the time and cost of handling distribution on your own, they could be worth it.
I chose Lulu for Palm-Sized because of the lower “Lulu commission,” but I also found that their postage costs — for sending books to addresses in the US as well as the UK — was lower than other options we were considering. Additionally, if you’re selling on Lulu’s website, you can skip the ISBN. If you’re using an ISSN like us (essentially the ISBN equivalent for a magazine, and free to apply for), you can create a one-piece cover with the barcode included. And presto! You have a print distribution solution.
At the end of the day
Even now, I know I need more steady help than the friends and colleagues I wrangle into volunteering their time with Palm-Sized. I am keeping my eyes on the future; we have so many great opportunities in the works, and I want to be able to keep searching for leads and growing the business.
I don’t want to burn out. I don’t want to go the usual way of the lit mags or indie presses I’ve heard so often about:
“The editors get into it through massive passion, do it for three years, working every night, every weekend, putting all their time and effort into it. At some point it stops being fun. How do you distribute? How do you market? How do you run the business? Very often magazines close down, not because they run out of money, but because the people who are involved become tired of running the magazine.”
- Debbie Taylor quoting Stack CEO Steve Watson
There’s something about reading the beginning of your own story so many times, and how a chapter could end, that can be incredibly disheartening.
Because if someone asked me why, at the heart of it, I’m doing this, my answer would be love. I love the work. I love our artists. I love the idea that we’re putting their work out into this crazy world, and I never want to stop.
Emily Owens joined publisher How2Conquer soon after moving back from Newcastle, England, where she lived for nearly seven years. Previously part of Mslexia, a UK-based women’s writing magazine, Emily is always a little bit homesick for the Toon, but she’s excited to be guiding H2C as it grows. In her spare time, she is the editor and founder of Palm-Sized Press, writes creatively as E.M. Killaley, and enjoys a number of nerdy TV shows. When she’s not geeking out over a good font or InDesign file, she argues with MadCap Flare.