The Author's Dilemma: to Self-publish or Not

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 For the past year I’ve had a problem. A casualty of the economic shut down, my Virago biography of the sisters, wives and daughters of the lake poets - A Passionate Sisterhood - was allowed to go out of print by the publishers. It was still selling, still in demand, but not in sufficient numbers to justify Virago keeping it on their back-list. Print-on-demand and making older titles available as E-books simply hasn’t made an impact on an industry whose feet are still set in the concrete blocks of the gentleman’s club era of publishing.

So I began to consider the idea of printing a new edition myself and marketing it over the internet and through local bookshops and Wordsworth related tourist outlets in the Lake District.

I also had another problem - much more complicated and worrying. My UK publisher, for the new Katherine Mansfield biography I’d just spent 5 years writing, had been bought out by another publishing company whose policy didn’t include literary biography. They didn’t want the book. Penguin New Zealand were still more than happy to publish The Story-teller, but Penguin UK couldn’t take on the English edition because one of their top authors, Claire Tomalin, had also written a Mansfield biography, albeit twenty five years ago. So there was a conflict of interest.

My agent assured me that she had tried every publisher in London, but none of them were willing to risk money on a big, serious biography of a big, serious literary figure, at a time of financial crisis. If I’d been writing about a soap star, or a footballer (or been one myself!) ....... These are frightening times. Two publishers in London - one of them Harper Collins - declared that they weren’t even going to look at submissions of biographies until 2011. Lists were slashed everywhere.

Meanwhile, I had a book almost everyone loved, which I believed to be commercial, but no-one other than Penguin NZ was willing to publish. And it’s a quirk of the publishing world that territory is so jealously guarded that they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it anywhere else. People wrote to me from all over the world asking when this new book on Mansfield was going to be available; reviewers from several of the heavyweight newspapers and magazines wrote offering to review it; book festivals wrote to enquire whether I’d be available to promote it. I just didn’t have a book to promote.

So, the idea has been growing - why not create a private imprint of our own and print 500 copies of the hardback of The Story-teller for distribution in Britain? And why not put A Passionate Sisterhood back into print at the same time? Neil registered himself as a small publisher and began to design covers.  The Book Mill has been born.  He is also very good at the IT side of things and was able to convert my text files into PDF files to send to printers.
Neil's cover design

We began to get quotes from printers - choosing to go with proper trade printers rather than choose ready made self-publishing companies like LULU. I just didn’t feel that publication by one of these sources would give me the kind of credibility I needed. There is, sadly, still a great deal of prejudice against ‘self-publishing’. In the states they call it Independent Publishing and I think that is the right name - after all many of the greatest writers in the world published their own work - publishers as we know them are a modern invention. Originally many books were also published by the book-sellers themselves - as Amazon are beginning to do now. Perhaps it’s time to go back and dismantle the huge publishing houses who control authors lives and act more for their share-holders than for readers or writers. Perhaps it’s time to take control of our own work?

I have just sent A Passionate Sisterhood to the printers, having obtained an ISBN allocation online. For this book we’ve chosen to have it printed digitally - which is cheaper than litho printing and for a paperback there is, apparently, no discernible loss of quality. We’ve chosen to put most of the money into the printing of the cover. It’s all cheaper than we’d imagined. A standard 300 page paperback without illustrations would come out under £1000. Mine is rather more because I’ve got photographic plates and a colour cover. They have promised the books in three weeks. Fingers crossed. Am I mad? Still exploring the options for the Story-teller and I’ll keep you posted on progress.


  1. A few years ago I'd have said that self publishing was a fool's game - but not any more. I'm very glad that you've responded so creatively and courageously to the problems and found such a positive solution. There will still be difficulties to overcome, I'm sure, but I'm very pleased that THE STORYTELLER will be available. I've been looking forward to it!

  2. Oh Kathleen bravo you!! How incredibly exciting. Next stop E-books.

  3. I've gone with Lightning Source which is radically cheaper than LULU and the like in terms of printing cost.
    And they are a subsidiary of Ingram International so to the wholesaling market your imprint looks like a small publisher to wholesalers (not a home job).
    I've got library distributors (albeit only from Oz) asking for Veiled in Shadows before it is out because I am listing through Ingram.
    I prefer POD because there is very little up front cost and they list straight to Amazon and the Book Depository then it's just promotion you have to handle. You'd have an advantage there already having a name in the biographical field.
    Good luck! It's an adventure anyway!

  4. It's certainly an adventure! Thanks for your encouraging comments Lillyanne, Mary and Al. I decided not to go with Lightning Source in the end, after reading some not so complimentary things about them on the Writers Beware blog. The listing thing is all important in terms of distribution - I think that's the advantage of LIghtning Source. I have to tackle the distribution myself and find a firm that will do a good job. I may go to POD for follow-up copies after I've sold my first print run (fingers and toes crossed!)
    This is going to be something of an adventure.

  5. I loved A Passionate Sisterhood - though I bought my copy second hand, so it did nothing for your sales. I'd love to read The Story Teller when it comes out

  6. I think it's great that you've decided to go ahead. The cover for "A Passionate Sisterhood" looks very good, and it is clear that you've got a carefully-thought-through plan.

    As Al mentions above, your established reputation in the field, and the fact that both these books have already received good reviews that you can use in promotion, also helps greatly. So (rashly, perhaps), I predict success!

    You are not the only established author I know who is going down this route, and I think that it will become increasing viable for authors, or cooperatives of authors, to handle their own publishing arrangements. It seems to me that marketing and distribution are the two hardest things to get right in the book trade, so the key question is whether new publishing arrangements can improve on the traditional publishing industry's track record in these areas.

  7. I'm just coming up for air and catching up with my favourite blogs - am so impressed with what you are doing. Delighted that A Passionate Sisterhood will rise again . . . and am sending many good wishes for the success of the Book Mill.


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