My Top 7 Tips For Authors Who Want to Evolve into Book Publishers

by | Jan 19, 2015

I’ve had a long love affair with book publishing. At this point I can’t quite put my finger on when it began, but growing up in a printer’s family probably didn’t hurt.

When I first moved back to New York City after my youthful travels, I started planning a series of cookbooks based on public domain works that I was going to sell through classified ads. Don’t ask me where I got this idea, but looking back, it’s probably better that I never got very far with it.

But eventually life and opportunities lined up with what my work made possible, and I published my first book in 1986. By that time it was more feasible to start publishing, since I was working for a book publisher, and had spent years in New York’s graphic design industry.

So, yes, I knew how to make a book, what goes into it, who you need to help.

I’ve told the story elsewhere about publishing that book and what came of it, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.

But one of the other results came a couple of years later when Jill and I started our own publishing company, based on our experience with that book.

Making the Leap from Author to Publisher

There’s an astonishingly huge difference between publishing your own book, and taking on other authors and trying to make a profitable business out of publishing their books.

As the indie publishing field matures, we’re starting to see more authors attempt this leap. Others are forming publishing cooperatives, and still others are acting on plans to create small presses.

These are all positive and expected evolutionary changes, as simple organisms develop into more complex ones, creating new opportunities for all concerned.

But even in the era of the 72-hour ebook (“Write it on Day 1! Prep it on Day 2! Publish it on Day 3!”) there’s a whole lot involved in making this transition from author to publisher.

So if you’re one of those authors who has caught the “publishing bug,” if you think you can take your success to the next level, here’s some guidance from someone who’s been up on the shore.

My Top 7 Tips for Going from Author to Publisher

  1. Get help—Although many authors do just fine as self-publishers by doing virtually everything themselves, it’s rarely a good idea to run a publishing company without help. What kind? Start with an author’s assistant or virtual assistant (VA). Pretty soon you will have many administrative chores that take up valuable time, and which could just as easily be done by your assistant. And you’ll be glad every time you launch a book that you’ve got help with the crushing weight of tasks that pile up around your launch. You can also have your assistant filter your email inbox, do basic research, and a myriad of other things that will help you in your publishing venture. Take this seriously.

  2. Get organized in your business—While it’s fine for many authors who are experimenting with self-publishing to treat it as a hobby, if you’re serious about being a publisher, you’ll need to get some good advice from a CPA or other tax or legal professional about the best way to establish your company, whether you should be a sole proprietor, a partnership, a Subchapter S corporation, a limited liability partnership, etc. You’ll also want to make sure you’ve got adequate bookkeeping systems in place because you’re going to be responsible both to yourself and to any authors you publish for accurate and timely reporting.

  3. Get serious about branding—When you turn from a self-publisher into a publishing company, your author brand will only help sell your own books. It makes sense to put some serious attention into the branding of your publishing enterprise. What kinds of books will you publish? Who are your readers? Even a small amount of market research and reflecting on what you find will help you establish your publishing or imprint name, your overall approach to your market, even how your publisher website should look and act.

  4. Get other authors—I can tell you from personal experience that, about 10 minutes after you hang your “Book Publishing Company” sign, your mailbox will start to fill with submissions from authors looking for a publishing contract. This has both positive and negative effects. On one hand you’ll be meeting authors you likely never heard of before, and getting a more accurate idea of what kind of books will be available to you. On the other hand, you’ll be spending time looking through and rejecting manuscripts (aren’t you glad you hired that assistant now?). You are likely to do much better by making up a list of authors whose works will fit in with your own, your editorial philosophy, and which will appeal to your core audience without the need for explanation. Finding authors with a following and a positive sales record will go a long way to helping your fledgling enterprise take flight.

  5. Learn contracts—Yep, there’s no way to get around it. Include in this tip “learn math” if you have a challenge in that area. It’s absolutely vital that every author you publish has a publishing agreement (contract) before you go into editing or production. You, as the publisher, must understand these contracts and their implications. For this reason I recommend you find an attorney you can communicate with and who understands something about intellectual property. They will be important in helping you set the proper foundations so your company can continue to grow.

  6. Learn rights—It’s astonishing how many authors—even published authors—have no understanding of rights, or the fact that their contract is basically a rights license. Understanding these rights, how they can be manipulated, separated, and sold will give you a huge head start on maximizing the income you receive from both your own and other authors’ work. Every savvy publisher knows this, and develops publishing plans that exploit these rights, and you should too.

  7. Keep writing—Now it’s possible that you’ll get so wrapped up in publishing, dealing with authors, and producing and marketing your books that something will get lost in the process. Don’t let your own writing get lost. I made this mistake myself, because the publishing company we started was based on my own self-published book, which continued to be our best seller when I started publishing other authors. But I stopped writing the follow-up books I had planned, and that was a mistake. So keep in mind you started this because you’re a writer with something to say. Don’t let the busy-ness of the publishing business take that away from you. Keep writing.

It’s really an exciting time to be an author, and I know that many of you just want to keep writing and not worry so much about stuff like marketing, business plans, book launches and all the rest of it.

But the unparalleled opportunities open to writers today, from the incredible publishing platform of the internet itself to the rapidly changing world of books, make many dreams possible. Education is more readily and fairly available, social media allows us to participate in the mother of all networks, and readers see eager to keep reading quality books.

Turning yourself into a publisher won’t be easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding in many ways. And if you can create a self-sustaining publishing business, you’ll have made yourself a media mogul. Congratulations!

Have you thought about making the leap? Already done it? What has your experience been like?

Photo: bigstockphoto.com


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9 Comments

  1. Sandra Hutchison

    I have thought about this from the beginning, partly because I worked in publishing for many years and sometimes got frustrated with decisions we made. I also have at least one good author who regularly begs me to publish her (quite good) book, and another author I wish I could publish because it makes me crazy that her wonderful traditionally-published books don’t sell. But everything you’ve listed here holds me back, particularly the loss of focus on my own writing. Also, both of those authors I can already tell are not really comfortable marketing their own books, which is part of why they’re not already out there doing well on their own. And that is when I really begin to identify with traditional publishers and their decision-making. :)

    Reply
      • Sandra Hutchison

        Ha! Yes, I’ve heard similar tales of woe. The owner of our two small local bookstores started “Staff Picks Press” to publish fine local work (separate from her successful venture into POD vanity publishing) and launched at least one local author very successfully. Last I heard from her, she had given up on it because of that exact same problem: the deluge of submissions was just too time-consuming. (And in her case, although she didn’t say it, this probably came along with the potential to annoy a lot of customers with literary dreams of their own.)

        Reply
  2. Skip Michael

    I’m fairly good at self-publishing and several people have come to me to publish their book. I saw the pitfalls and decided I would just be a consultant and not a publisher. My problem is how much do I charge. To low and they think I don’t know what I’m doing. To high and they wont pay the price. Any ideas?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Skip, I’ve dealt with this exact situation myself. What I did was start pretty low, a bit lower than my peers were charging, so I could gauge the market and how effective my consulting advice was, and how it was received. As this service became more popular, I started raising my fee, watching the response. Now, 3 years later, I can report that my current rate is more than three and a half times the rate I started at. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  3. Ernie Zelinski

    Actually I have thought about publishing other people’s books and have been contacted my many authors to do so. I am glad I didn’t.

    I have several times indicated that my mentor has been Robert J. Ringer. Ringer is the only person to the best of my knowledge to write, self-publish, and market three #1 New York Times bestsellers in print editions. His self-published books sold over 10 million copies in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Not so long two of Ringer’s self-published books were listed by the “New York Times” among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

    After Ringer’s success in publishing his own books, he decided to publish other’s people’s books. That was a big mistake for him. Ringer states:

    “I had the misfortune of striking it rich on the very first book I published, which is analogous to going to Las Vegas for the first time and coming away a winner. The book was a doom-and-gloom treatise on investing called ‘Crisis Investing’ . . . sales of the book went through the ceiling. Even more amazing, ‘Crisis Investing’ ultimately enjoyed a string of fifteen consecutive weeks in the number-one position on the ‘New York Times’ best-seller list and became the biggest-selling hardcover book
    of 1980.”

    In the end, Ringer said that he wished he had failed with that book. His publishing company actually managed to put three of other people’s books on the “New York Times” best-seller list after less than a year in business.

    Ringer said that this experience of publishing other people’s books gave him firsthand appreciation of what conventional publishers have to put up with in dealing with authors — and he didn’t like this at all! He called
    the business of dealing with authors the “Publishing Asylum.”

    Ringer stated, “The one thing that most unpublished authors have in common is that each of them seems absolutely certain that he’s written the sequel to ‘Gone with the Wind’ — or at least ‘Think and Grow Rich’ — and makes demands accordingly.”

    Ringer continued, “It got to a point where my staff and I would spend a large percentage of our time discussing strategies to humor our most deranged authors. When I finally extricated myself from the publishing business, I could have written a great movie script based on my zany experiences. I can see myself now, accepting an Oscar for ‘Psycho Author’.”

    In short, reading the above comments by Ringer in his book “Million Dollar Habits” along with the nature of some of the phone calls I received from wannabe authors convinced me that I never want to publish someone else’s book — even one written by a good friend. This approach has helped me focus on my own books with the result that my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” has just reached the milestone of having earned me $1 million in pretax profits. (The book also has just reached the milestone of having sold 250,000 copies.) By having focused on my own books, I have gotten to the point where I have to work only one hour a day to earn an income better than 90 percent of the population.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Ernie. Even my short experience owning a publishing company matches up pretty well with what Ringer experienced, so we’re on the same page here.

      Reply
  4. Kate Tilton

    Great advice Joel!

    Getting an assistant can be a huge step for authors to take but so important, especially when making the switch to the role of publisher.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Kate. Getting an assistant helped me reach my goals more than any other single thing I’ve done, and I highly recommend it.

      Reply

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