Publishing? It’s not so easy on your own

publishing at plashmill pressIf you’re considering publishing a book, then there is one thing you must ask yourself: do you actually have a book to publish? This should absolutely be question number one and you need to answer it completely honestly.

At PlashMill Press I have read hundreds of books by prospective authors who seek to be published. I should estimate that of these, perhaps six or seven were actually complete, finished books. These books still had to be proof-read and required the usual editing process, in which the editor proposes subtle changes and discusses these with the author before arriving at an agreement. But they were finished books, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which required no major changes.

That leaves roughly 90% of the books submitted. Of these, I should say that about 10% were just too bad to even consider. Of the others, a range of editorial assistance was required, ranging from re-ordering of sentences to improve flow and attention to grammatical inconsistencies, especially of tense, to major changes in the narrative structure of the book. On several occasions, we have advised that large sections of a book should be completely excised and the author should add in more focussed detail in the parts that remained. It is a consistent error of new authors that they attempt to cover too much and end up not covering anything well.

This process is very much a dialogue which proceeds between the author and the editor. It is not at all certain that the two will agree on every point, but usually a compromise is reached which satisfies both. No editor likes to work with a difficult, intransigent author who challenges every alteration, but by the same token, no author likes to work with an editor who is too pernickety and makes marginal or even unnecessary changes. Being a good editor means having sympathy for authors and the investment they have in their work, which might have taken years to complete, but it also means being honest and sometimes blunt in comment and criticism.

For an author to do this alone is extremely difficult. One technique is to put the book away for a long period of time, certainly at least a couple of months, so that when you come back, you have a ‘fresh eye’. This will certainly help although it cannot replace the independent editor.

Perhaps a better solution would be to give your manuscript to a friend or two to read. Make sure they like the genre and are familiar with other works in it. It would help if one of them were a schoolteacher or a journalist – better retired, as the working ones are too busy!

Ask them to give you their impressions and take heed of them. However, these steps, although they can be helpful, really only serve to get the manuscript to a point where it is ready for a professional editor to view.

Almost every manuscript we see contains spelling and grammatical mistakes. I have seen this in MSS that have been professionally proofed. The more eyes that see an MS the better, but you should recognise that it’s likely a few will slip through. That’s why we proof and edit MSS with such care. However, while a few mistakes are normal, if you are getting up to dozens or even more per page, then this MS is not ‘publisher-ready’. I have seen MSS with over 100 errors per page and these just had to be returned. We do need material that is of a high standard to begin with.

Is it 100% error free?

If you are publishing yourself, then you need to consider paying someone to proof and then edit your book. Very few authors can be sure that their work is 100% error free. This, obviously, must be paid for and you need to take that into account.

Proofreading and grammatical editing, however, are only part of the business of editing. Far more important, in many ways, is the structure of the book itself, its design and conception. Is it convincing? Does it ‘hang together’? Are there instances where unexplained phenomena just happen with no warning then disappear? Do characters simply vanish? Is there repetition – a very common error, especially in a longer MS. Does the plot actually work? Or, if non-fiction, does the book actually explain what it sets out to? Identifying and suggesting corrections for issues like these is the real work of a Publishing Editor. And, I am afraid to say, we don’t come cheap.

Printing and publishing

Once you have your MS in a finished, publication-ready form, you’re only half done. First, you will have to reproduce the MS in a form that a printer can use, if you are planning a print edition. It’s somewhat easier in eBook but not entirely so.

In either case, you have almost certainly written the MS in a word processor like Word.

This format is completely useless for either professional printing or eBook publications. Printers need files in Adobe PDF standard. Now you can download excellent programs that will convert your Word document into PDF, but not to the standard required for pre-press. This is because the software to do this is proprietary and costs money. There are, for those determined to do everything the hard way, work-arounds that will allow the use of Open Source (free) software, but you had better know what you’re doing.


Ebooks are in some ways easier, in others not. An eBook is essentially a very long HTML document, sort of like a major web page, so you can edit it using a conventional HTML editor. This will require, again, considerable prior knowledge. You could save your Word document ‘as a web page’ and then tweak it in an excellent, free program like Calibre, but again, this requires some bones. Finally, you could upload the Word document to Kindle Direct Publishing and let them do it; but in doing so you lose the rights in the design and, by the way, it’s pot luck whether it will look anything like the way you want it to or not.

Once you have your MS in printer-ready form – technically, ‘typeset’ – you have made some progress. But it’s not over yet. You need a cover design.

Cover Design

If you are a designer or an artist yourself, then this might be not too great a challenge. However, if you’re not, you have a problem. Nothing looks worse than an ill-conceived, amateurish cover. Sorry. And if you’re printing, remember, it has to be output to the same PDF standards as the MS. You need a professional program like Photoshop to do that.

Alternatively, you could ask your printer to do it. Some printers are good at this and some are not; get samples first. And either way, they are going to charge. So remember to count that in.


Once you have all that sorted – you thought this was going to be easy? – you need an International Standard Book Number or ISBN. If you’re a Canadian, your government will give you one free. Everybody else has to pay. To get one in the UK you must approach the UK ISBN Agency, which is run by Nielsen. In the US the equivalent is run by Bowker. But you can’t just buy one ISBN, you have to buy a block of ten. Currently, in UK, this will cost you £150.

Now a little caveat. You might have heard that Amazon will give you an ISBN for free. And they will. In fact they are delighted to do so. What they won’t tell you is that this will restrict your title to sale through Amazon. In the UK, the retail book trade is supplied by two major wholesalers, Gardners and Bertrams. On my last investigations with their buyers, it was made clear that they would not carry a book with an Amazon ISBN. And shops in the retail High Street trade sure are not going to buy from Amazon, since Amazon is trying to put them out of business. You see how this might be a problem?

All of that leaves you with no choice but to buy your own ISBNs.

That is all before we even consider any marketing costs, like producing Press releases to cover the launch, liaising with retailers for book-signings and so on.

There is a solution

Happily, there is a solution: get a publisher. But if a traditional publisher was open to you, why would you be self-publishing? No, you want to see your book in print and not have to spend years touting it round bored publishing houses that receive hundreds of submissions every week, where a junior employee will look at page one and decide whether it merits the attention of a more senior staff member, who will in turn, and if he or she is impressed enough, pass it over to a Commissioning Editor, who might be prepared to offer you a contract, after it’s been sitting in the slush pile for a year or so. But don’t expect an advance or anything, those days are long gone.

So life is too short to deal with an industry that famously makes snails look hasty. What do you do now?

Use an assisted publishing scheme. These range from bucket shops with no design input, terrible typesetting and poor quality product, to high-end houses that will give full Editorial support, Typesetting, Cover Design, Marketing assistance and also, by the way, provide an ISBN. The best will assist with marketing and produce Press Releases and other publicity materials.

These publishers fall into basically two types: paid-for and semi-paid-for. The former used to be known as ‘vanity publishers’ but in today’s world that is a misnomer. Many produce excellent work. However, they apply very low standards to work accepted and charge for everything they do, at market rates, so, while they can usually provide savings through bulk arrangements with designers, editors and other professionals, the cost of publishing through such a house is not much less than doing it all on your own. Houses like these should charge very small royalties, if any at all, on book sales, passing all they make from book sales to the author, save for a handling percentage.

The second type have much higher standards for acceptance and only charge what publishing the book actually costs. That is to say, they make no money out of the work involved in publication. They make their profit margin from the sale of books, just as conventional publishers do. The royalty they take from sales will therefore be more than a fully paid-for deal.

PlashMill Press is one of these. Although we will engage in fully paid-for arrangements, we far prefer to charge a lower amount up front, making publication more affordable, while taking a fair proportion of the cover price.

We aim to price our books such that the author recoups all of the costs involved in the first thousand sales.

The hardest part of writing is getting started.

scottish winter plashmill press
Early morning in Scottish winter Pic: Rod Fleming

Writing is hard. When I was young, a very wise person (my mother) told me that the hardest part of any job is getting started. Growing up in rural Scotland in the 1960s meant getting out of bed, in winter, when it was still dark, running down to the kitchen — the only heated space in the house — and remaining glued to the front of the Rayburn stove, every morning. ‘Come on,’ my mother would chivvy, ‘Get a wiggle on! Washed and dressed for school! The worst part is getting started.’

She was right. The worst part of any difficult task is getting started. That’s the same whether it be just getting out of the house on a freezing January morning, chopping up the kindling for the living-room fire when you get back from school and would far, far rather go and read — or writing.

Writing is a very hard thing to do. Most people — who never actually tried to write, or whose magnum opus is a semi-coherent string of tweets — think it’s easy. You can tell by their demeanour. ‘But you just sit there!’

In agony, albeit they have no idea.

Continue reading “The hardest part of writing is getting started.”