“A top-of-her-game literary agent tells us she receives about 3,000 submissions a year,” says Joe Sedgwick, the head of writing services at The Literary Consultancy. “Of those, she requests to see the full manuscripts of about 70. Of those writers, she will take on maybe five to 10.”
Faced with these odds, many people who dream of getting their writing into the hands of readers are turning to self-publishing.
Do it yourself
Paul Ilett self-published his first novel, Exposé, in 2014 and sold about 35,000 copies worldwide. He is about to publish his second, Exposed. “Second time around, I haven’t considered anything apart from self-publishing. I am very comfortable being completely in control of my book – its look, content and promotion.”
Ilett used Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service, which, at its most basic, doesn’t cost a penny. As well as ebooks, authors can opt to offer paperbacks and hardbacks, to be produced on a print-on-demand basis.
Darren Hardy, the UK manager of author and editorial programmes at Amazon.co.uk, says: “There are a few simple steps the author goes through to get that book uploaded on to KDP and then published anywhere around the world, and there are no fees or costs attached.”
Be aware of the costs
Being “in control” also means managing every stage of publishing. Pressing the KDP publish button is free but getting a book ready for readers, with editing and design work, and then marketing it later, is not.
Ilett estimates you would need a budget of about £4,000 to produce a professional-quality book.
For starters, according to the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, the minimum recommended hourly rate for basic copy-editing – to ensure your work is grammatically correct and free from repetition and misused vocabulary – is £31.30. A proofreader will charge from £26.90 an hour.
Recouping costs depends on selling enough to rack up royalties. For ebooks, Amazon pays either 70% or 35%, depending on the cover price (£1.79 to £9.99 usually qualifies for 70%), with royalties paid 60 days after sale. For hard copies, KDP pays 60% to the author, minus manufacturing costs.
Unlike KDP, Matador Troubador, the self-publishing arm of Troubador, selects manuscripts and will reject a proportion of those submitted. It gives a sample price of about £725 to turn a “192-page MS Word manuscript into print-ready files (includes typesetting, design, ISBN, barcode, cover … everything to make the manuscript ready for printing)”, but stresses costs vary.
The Choir Press, a self-publishing services firm based in Gloucester, specialises in hard-copy books. It charges about £583 for a ready-to-print manuscript for 10 small paperback copies in colour – subsequent copies printed on demand. A manuscript of 50,000 words, including editorial work, would cost about £1,739. There’s an extra cost for ebooks.
You can’t assume you’re going to sell lots of books because you might not sell any
The average royalty paid by The Choir Press is 19.7% of the cover price. “Our model is unusual in that we pay the author the difference between the print cost we quote, and the wholesale price,” says Miles Bailey, the company’s owner.
He adds: “There’s an important distinction between the self-publishing and the traditional publishing worlds, in that the author is our customer. In the traditional model, the publisher is paying the author to publish their book. With self-publishing, the author pays us.”
Although the customer is not always right – the company relies on sales as part of its business model, and turns down books if they have no chance of selling. Bailey says: “We do get some pretty poor manuscripts that we can’t publish, just because they’re so badly written.”
It’s important to be realistic, he says. “We tell people, ‘You can’t assume you’re going to sell lots of books because you might not sell any. Don’t enter into a transaction that you can’t afford.’ We are very concerned to let people know that what they’re getting into does carry a financial risk.”
Put simply, the majority will not earn back what they have spent. “The single most important characteristic for an author is that they want to do it for themselves. The fact that a small percentage do make some or all of their costs back is kind of irrelevant,” says Bailey.
Crowdfunding means you set a cash target and get people to pledge a sum in return for a copy of your book. In effect, you are soliciting pre-orders but, according to Oriana Leckert, the director of publishing and comics outreach at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, it’s also about “building community and having a direct line to your audience”.
It follows that people with a big audience are likely to reach the most impressive sums – the US fantasy author Brandon Sanderson raised $41m on the platform. But it has also been successful for people without thousands of followers.
Sarah Burns, an artist raising funds for two books, set a target at £2,000 to cover publishing costs but raised £13,635. The photographer Philip Butler and Art Deco Magpie Publishing raised more than £10,000 (the target was £4,000) for a photobook, Tube Station Typologies 1924–1961.
In 2021, only 53% of publishing campaigns met their target, though the success rate was 82% among those with at least 25 backers (suggesting they had done more than “asking your mum and best friend”, says Leckert). Total fees for 100%-funded projects are about 10% through Kickstarter.
No money changes hands unless you meet the target, so if you don’t succeed, the backers simply keep their pledged money and you have no fees to pay. But Kickstarter is a funding platform, so if you do succeed, organising the rest of the publishing process is down to you.
Halfway publishing house
When Jane Perrone, journalist and presenter of the On The Ledge podcast, decided to write her book about house plants, Legends of the Leaf, she ruled out Kickstarter. “I didn’t have the time or energy to research where to get the book printed, or finding somebody to edit it. That’s not an efficient use of my time. I just wanted to write a book.”
So she approached Unbound, where authors can fund projects through its crowdfunding platform.
Its co-founder John Mitchinson says: “We behave very much like an independent, traditional publisher. We do marketing, we have a relationship with a sales team that sells into bookshops, we do publicity, design, printing and all the services you would expect.” Where it differs is that it is a platform for sales, crowdfunding, and submissions.
There is no guarantee that a book will make money
It’s not an easy club to join: Mitchinson estimates only 10% of projects come through submissions. A third of the books on the site have come through agents, and others are by authors Unbound has sought out.
Projects generally need about 500 backers, and funding targets range from about £12,000-£30,000. Unbound begins paying royalties once books are fully funded – if a project does not reach its target within six months (or less), there is a “serious discussion” to be had; backers may be refunded and a line drawn under the project.
Compare the services, royalties and contracts for at least three different self-publishing firms – they often have different models, so you may not be comparing like with like.
There is a world of difference between a self-publishing company that you pay for a service, and those claiming to offer a publishing deal while charging you.
Bailey says: “Some companies will tell an author they would like to offer them a contract, subject to an editorial review panel. When the review panel comes back with feedback, they say, ‘It’s a good book, but because you’re a first-time author, we’re going to have to charge £6,000.’” Others will offer to send your work to “a Hollywood director” for a few thousand.
Self-publishing should never involve giving up the rights to your work and, says Sedgwick: “There is no guarantee that a book will make money – no legitimate publisher or agent should ever promise that a book is going to sell.” That goes for self-publishing firms, too.