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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Own Publishing Company

As a published author who’d spent over a decade working on my craft, I thought the transition from writer to publisher would be a relatively smooth one.

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Own Publishing Company

It would not be the first time in my life that I’ve been mistaken!

I mean, I knew the two paths wouldn't be exactly the same, but I figured they’d at least be similar enough for me to do well. That was partially true, but the room I had for improvement was vast!

There were a few things I wish I’d known prior to starting my own independent publishing company, Phoenix Media & Books. I hope sharing them here will help you be just a bit more informed if you, too, choose to travel down the path of independent publication either for yourself or for others.

Here are five things I wish I knew before starting my own publishing company.

1. Making a great book is only half the battle.

As I said before, I have been a part of the writing community for quite some time. In 2012, I joined SCBWI and spent years attending conferences, learning about the craft of writing, figuring out essential elements such as plot, pacing, character development, and even proper word count for the genre I was writing.

When I finally landed a literary agent, I was thrilled about seeing one of the dozen books I’d written submitted to publishing house. I knew my books were good. I worked hard for them to be! But what I didn’t realize is that having a good book is the bare minimum requirement for publication.

Phoenix Media and Books Logo

Let me take a moment here to explain why I started my own publishing company when I already had an agent. The simple answer to that is I wanted to create another avenue for authors like me to publish their work. Making it past the gatekeepers is hard for most people in this industry. But I, personally, had so many roadblocks that were specifically due to my race, that I felt compelled to provide opportunities for others.

Authors need the grace and dignity of telling their stories and representing their cultures without the notion that people outside of their culture cannot relate to them. It is the furthest from the truth! We are all human and relating to the humanity of someone who does not share your same race, lifestyle, or culture can be as natural as breathing. (Just look at how many of us purchased Prince Harry’s autobiography and none of us are royalty!) For Phoenix, I wanted to create a safe space to help nurture creators who may not want to take on the task of self-publishing or who would thrive in a collaborative environment like the one I aim to provide.

Now, as a publisher who wants to help my authors succeed, I know I have so much more to worry about than whether or not a book will resonate with its target audience. I have to study and know the market and where the books I acquire will fit in. I have to understand distribution and how that will affect my bottom line.

Marketing is always a top concern, as is finding the right help or support for my questions because I always have questions. There’s also a unique dynamic to working with other creatives so I’ve definitely had to dust off my conflict resolution skills a time or two. Then there’s bookkeeping, keeping up with royalty payments, as well as finding and vetting talented creators.

I will admit, it’s a LOT. But, when a project comes together beautifully and a reader is excited about a book that I produced, it all feels worth it.

2. Preparing for success is just as important as preparing for when things don’t go as planned.

Listen, if you’ve ever set a plan in motion, you likely came up with multiple ways to regroup if things went wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard of having both plan A and plan B and even plan C in these instances! But what about when things go right? Believe it or not, there can be unexpected problems...even when you get exactly what you wished for!

Izzy's Almost Epic Day, by Katie Otey

For me, the launch of my company’s first book went so well that the inventory sold out within two weeks. I didn’t expect that, at all! The average indie picture book sells about 250 copies. I initially purchased 1000 books with the idea that I’d re-order once I sold at least half of those. Well, that first 1000 books sold so fast that I was left scrambling trying to figure out what to do.

Most of my sales were through Amazon, and they do not pay the seller for items sold until the end of the following month. And since my goal was to use the money I made from my initial print run to buy more books, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. I needed to raise money quickly. I also needed to keep the book from going out of stock and tanking the marketing momentum I’d gained. Thankfully, I have amazing people working with me who helped me navigate that storm and I was able to purchase more books.

I am now entering into the next season with more knowledge and the ability to regroup if things don’t go as planned, or to keep marching towards success if they do. 

3. Understanding distribution is paramount in making critical decisions.

Distribution is a heck of a beast, and I am still learning about the different models and options out there. Distribution is how publishers get their books in front of retailers who are interested in selling them to their customers. For a fee, usually a percentage of a book’s retail price, distributors manage a publisher’s inventory and make deals with large retailers such as Target or Walmart, and even smaller mom and pop outlets. They also help with library sales as well.

Landing a distribution deal requires a good amount of sales and the infrastructure to manage those sales. For instance, let’s say you do well and sell 3000 books. Well depending on the sales channels, your income for those books can be tied up for months. You will need to order more books. Then there’s returns. Can your business model handle the average return rate of 30%? If not, you will need to look at your numbers again because even some of the best selling books will be returned. If you don’t allow returns, you severely limit what sales outlets will carry your book.

Also, without some form of distribution, many libraries cannot order your titles. Selling to libraries can be lucrative but many of them can only purchase books through a distributor.

For smaller publishers, using the print on demand services of a company like IngramSpark is one way to navigate that roadblock until sales increase. Another way is to crowdfund or raise money to offset print which can increase profit margins. Understanding and working out these issues up front will only help you make better informed decisions. 

4. Selling books and having money on hand are two different issues.

As I said before, certain sales channels do not translate well into having a quick return on your investment. If you sell on Amazon, which is considered the largest bookseller in the world, you will not receive your payout for books sold until the end of the following month. If you have cash flow problems, that can be a long time to wait. I highly recommend diversifying your sales options to include in person sales, direct sales through a professional website, and school or event visits.

Having these options as part of your plan will allow you to better manage periods of time where you are waiting for payouts. Also, if you're starting your own publishing company, building a slush fund or cushion into your budget is a must. I recommend setting aside at least six months to a year of operating expenses to be safe.

5. The ability to persevere can be your greatest asset

Out of everything I’ve discussed thus far, I can say that the ability to persevere is my biggest strength. There have been days when I felt on top of the world! Receiving a starred review from Kirkus was one of those days for me. There are also days when I question why I ever got into this business. On those days, I take a mental health break with the caveat that I will not give up. I know that if I keep going, keep learning, and keep growing, with time, I will see get to the other side of almost any situation. 

BONUS: It’s okay to change your mind.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on this subject. With all of the decisions I needed to make when starting my own publishing company, there were times when choices I made in the past no longer worked for me. That's okay! Changing course is a valid solution, so try not to get stuck on doing things just one way. Having the ability to pivot can mean the difference between failure and success. 

I hope these tips help lead you to making better informed decisions while on your publishing journey. Just know that most people in our world, whether author, illustrator, agent, or editor, love storytelling and want to see the right book in the hands of the right reader. Helping to make that happen can be a dream for not just you but for anyone who delights in what you create and publish.

Keep going so one day you can reach back and guide the next person that’s starting with just a book and a dream. 

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