Expert Tips on Starting a Publishing Business

 The Writers Cafe Press

About Cynthia MacKinnon

Cynthia MacKinnon runs a traditional independent publishing company that specializes in Christian speculative fiction. During her 15 years teaching in a public school, Cynthia authored professional articles, held workshops on education and started a part-time editing business, which turned into a full time job. The Writers' Café Press was born out of this editing business in 2005.

What's involved in setting up a publishing business?

There is the business side:

  • Is a license required? This varies state by state.
  • Dedicated bank accounts and credit cards are a must.
  • Business plan and budget

I turned to SCORE for advice-this group of business people provides guidance to new business owners for free. I also checked with an accountant and the IRS and picked up free guides offered by the IRS.

The foundational parts of publishing a book can be overwhelming: from securing ISBNs and barcodes to Library of Congress Control numbers to Cataloging data to putting the physical book together. Amongst these stages is finding:

  • The best software
  • Offset and digital printers
  • A distributor
  • Companies who produce promotional materials
  • Entering book data into all the necessary databases
  • Setting out marketing strategies

TWCP's first book was printed and "distributed" through a print-on-demand service. The outlay of cash was minimal. So were the services received . . . and the profits. I learned the publishing biz is more complex than uploading a book to a server. I did extensive research and found much I wasn't aware of! And, most of it cost a good deal of money. An initial outlay of $10,000 for one book (small print run) is minimum and most of that cost goes to promotion.

What kinds of books do you publish and why?

Although I publish secular fiction and non-fiction my focus is publication of Christian speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, thriller, horror, etc. written from a Christian worldview. Why I focus on Christian or Biblical spec-fic relates to my whole raison d'être for The Writers' Café Press: the large Christian houses are reluctant to publish edgy spec-fic and there are so many worthy works out there that deserve publication. Because these same books reflect a Christian worldview, secular publishers are also reluctant.

TWCP is a traditional publisher providing readers with edgy spec-fiction that is respectful of the Christian worldview. Let me provide an example: Light at the Edge of Darkness is a biblical speculative fiction anthology. Although the stories it contains are high quality, they also break "rules" of the Christian Booksellers Association. Some stories show the seedier side of life, including realistic depictions of violence when appropriate; in this case, "telling not showing" is the rule of thumb for the big Christian houses. TWCP will not publish watered-down fiction.

How is the price of a book determined?

Rule of thumb is PPB (price of paper, printing and binding) x 6. However, the PPB can vary widely depending on the print run and technology-the cost for a 300 page book could be as low as $1.50 or, in the case of POD upwards of $10-12. Non-fiction titles can usually be priced higher than novels because they are specialized and market direct to a niche.

Any key tips on how to generate free publicity?

Free publicity is easier to generate with non-fiction. The key is to find a current event, a unique angle that relates to the book. Scrutinize events in which the author has been involved; it may not be newsworthy on its own, but when combined with "release of a new novel" can be promoted to the media as human interest. Here is an example of what TWCP has done with the sci-fi novel Flashpoint: traditional sci-fi has been disrespectful of Christianity and fundamentalists are distrustful of the genre. However, the concept of "a successful blending of sci-fi and Christian values" has made the release of Flashpoint newsworthy.

News releases or proposals focus on something of interest for their audience that relates to the book-not the other way around. Media can smell self-promotion a mile away, so present the book as an aside.

Do you have advice for others thinking about starting a publishing business?

There are several good resources. The first is a marketing-on-a-budget book: Book Marketing for the Financially Challenged Author. Another useful book: The Well-Fed Self Publisher. Both provide information to get you started.

  • Cash-on-hand to get started (and a credit card) - Start-up funds must be considered an investment-worst case, funds you're able to lose and best case, funds you won't recover for at least a year. Generally printers only accept cash/cheque as payment for book printings.
  • Don't lay out money if it doesn't feel right. The author and/ or the printer may try to convince you the book is going to be a best-seller, but what if it isn't? You'll end up paying insurance and storage while never recovering your investment. On the other hand, if the print run sells out, you can print more.
  • New authors may not understand that much effort is required on their part in marketing the book. Ask for their marketing expertise and what promotion they are willing to do as part of the book proposal package; include marketing responsibilities in the book contract. Key here is: readers do not want to hear from publishers, they are interested in authors-their lives, their writing journey, their discussion about the book.
  • Join independent publisher's associations: a regional one, plus national groups like Spannet. These last two have excellent monthly newsletters. If you join a regional group first, you can get a discount on membership of the larger ones.
  • Make sure your website caters to readers, not authors. The latter shows you are a rookie and can be misconstrued as a vanity publisher's site.
  • Get an established distributor. I use Atlas Books who came highly recommended. The sales rep I work with is Shelley Sapyta.
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