Starting A Publishing Company (Not Imprint)

Sometimes I see authors on lists talking about starting their own publishing imprint when they really mean publishing company. In some rare cases, authors do get the opportunity to start an imprint, meaning that an existing publisher finds their name or ideas so valuable they feel it deserves an independent list of its own. Those books will still be published by the parent company, but they’ll carry the name of the imprint on the binding and title page. It’s part branding strategy (for customers) and part selling strategy (to bookstores) because it gives the publisher the opportunity to list a promising book in the #1 slot of the new imprint. In that way, a large publishing company with a dozen imprints can have a dozen premier titles, while another large publishing company with only one imprint who publishes exactly the same number of books that year only has one premier title. Tricky, eh?

I usually don’t care about such technical details as the difference between an imprint and a company, and I can rarely keep such things straight, but I wanted to point out the vast difference in scale between the big, established trades and a new publishing company. The big trade publishers are so big that they can break their companies into divisions (which generally have their own company name and are often acquisitions) and these divisions can be broken into imprints and the imprints will still publish fifty times as many books as a small publisher. That was a very long-winded way of saying, when you’re starting a publishing company, don’t try taking the big trade publishers as your example. Their business model doesn’t scale down to a one person business, much less a capitalization less than $100 million. They have departments to do things that you’ll be doing in your spare time, and workgroups to do things that you won’t be doing at all.

There must be a half-dozen posts about starting your own publishing company in the archives by now, so I want to write about something I generally skip over, being strictly a self publisher. If you go looking for authors to publish, you’ll have no trouble finding them. I make it clear in a variety of places that I don’t publish other authors’ books, but I get a regular stream of requests from writers who are hoping I might make an exception. These authors think of being published as an end unto itself, and perhaps it is if all they care about is having a copy on the shelf to look at when they’re feeling down. For those of us in the publishing business, selling a sufficient number of books to cover the risks and costs, not to mention generating a sufficient profit for living expenses and retirement, isn't a peripheral issue. I write books for a variety of reasons, some I give away for free online in their entirety, but I publish books for one reason, to make a living.

Starting a self publishing company is much less risky and stressful than publishing books for other authors. Strangely enough, I hear from authors who want to publish their own books but believe they have to start by first publishing other authors’ books or nobody will take them seriously. I’m not sure whose opinion they are worried about, but I can state for a fact that the way you get people to take you seriously in the business world is by making money. If you want to get a round of applause at the local poetry slam, then mortgage your house, pick out the least commercial poets you can find and publish their works in beautiful hard cover versions. Have a fun year or so being a patron of the arts before drowning in red ink. If you want to be a book publisher who one day, in the distant future, might have offices in NY, London and Zurich, publish books you can make a profit on.

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