The World of Self-Publishing: First-Hand Insights

books upstairs windowWhy self-publish?

A number of years ago I wrote a book of fifty essays about various different aspects of life in Dublin. I sent it to a relatively small number of publishers and was somewhat surprised by the feedback…

While a lot of positive insightful comments came back, nobody wanted to run with the book. A writer I knew suggested self-publishing as an alternative.

In those days I believed, as I still do, that the publishing industry works quite well (if you can get into it). You submit a manuscript, it is accepted and then goes on its own mysterious way out into the world. I like this idea because, unlike self-publishing, it doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of input from me (other than writing the book in the first place!).

That being the case, over time I began to see the benefits of self-publishing as a way to get the word out about my writing so last year I ‘delivered’ City Portraits: 100 portraits of everyday life in Dublin.

Self-publishing is, for a variety of different reasons, growing in acceptance and popularity. In the UK, for example, the Guardian recently decided to run a monthly showcase and literary prize for self-published UK authors.

Was it worth the effort?

Very much so. City Portraits is now in many libraries, and has been selling steadily in Dublin bookshops like Winding Stair and Books Upstairs, opposite Trinity College.

In addition to this, I have been invited to take part in a number of cultural events, give talks etc. based on the book.

The main thing I would say is that, compared to languishing in a semi-permanent obscurity, publishing City Portraits myself was definitely the right thing to do. The book is out there, slowly but surely word about it is spreading, and since I believe that what I am doing is quite original, I am cautiously optimistic about the future.

At the moment, I am writing a new book, set in Mayo, about hill-walking and the rivers and mountains poetry of Ancient China. Given my positive experience with City Portraits, I intend to go ahead and publish it myself while continuing on my engagement with publishers and literary agents (for an illuminating discussion of the importance of small presses, see this recent interview with Eimear McBride).

Self-publishing tips

  • Collaborate. Writing, editing, proof-reading, designing, publishing and marketing a book is a daunting task on one’s own. If you are lucky enough to have someone who shares your vision of what you are doing, work together, divide the labour because it is a lot to engage with on your ownio!
  • There are plenty of printers/businesses out there offering publishing services. Ideally for 200-300 copies, you should be looking at a unit price of 4-5 euro max… Avoid people whose services come out at 20 euro per book for inclusion in their special club etc.
  • To do it right, you need an ISBN number. These are available from Nielsen in the UK in batches of ten (£132). You will use one for the book, one for the e-book edition which leaves eight more for future creations!
  • Aim to, at the very least, break even. If your initial costs amount to 700 euro for 200 copies, then calculate how many copies you need to sell to make your money back.
  • I set my price-point at 9.99 which I felt was a reasonable price for a book. One thing to factor in is postage and packaging for online orders. This is around 4 euros for one book (Ireland) which in effect means that if you pass the full cost on to the reader, the book costs 13.99…
  • You can build a website and sell your book online. Note that Paypal fees for a transaction of 13 euros are approximately 1 euro.
  • You can find a list of ‘independent’ bookshops here.
  • Note that not all ‘independent’ bookshops take self-published books. The cut given to bookshops is generally 40%, another thing to factor in to your ‘profit margin’ and recommended retail price.
  • Distribution is generally closed to self-published books in Ireland. I was told that authors have to generate publicity for their books and only if there is a reaction to the publicity will the book be considered. I guess this is due to the fact that many books are being self-published today, and you have to draw the line somewhere. It is a pity though because I do believe there is a large largely-ignored market for more ‘challenging’ fiction (see Eimear McBride’s interview for more on this).
  • Product differentiation, if I may put it that way, is key. As with any endeavour, quality is the most important consideration… The cover is important, but it’s not all about the cover. At the end of the day, the quality of the writing and the originality of the concept is the thing that will make the book a success!
  • Kindle can be a good platform for selling your work painlessly… There are different royalty percentages per price point in different geographical locations. Personally, I resisted the temptation to reduce the price to almost nothing because it’s an e-book…
  • It’s debatable to what extent Facebook pages are good platforms for selling books. Since Facebook listed, the push is on to monetise the site which makes building a community for free difficult. Spending money to get ‘likes’ doesn’t seem to be the way to go…
  • There are plenty of free options. Posters, public readings, book fairs, t-shirts, placing the book in bookshop windows are all good strategies.
  • A good blurb is something to look into. I was too busy juggling everything to include a description of what my book is about on the back cover. The thing I like about this approach is that it forces potential readers to open the book and decide for themselves whether it is worth reading or not.
  • Work out which blogs might be open to giving you some publicity.
  • Good time management is key. It’s difficult to juggle promoting your book with writing your next one.
  • Writing down goals is a key element in helping you achieving them.
  • Adopt a tripartite approach. Keep up your engagement with publishers who accept submissions, and agents.
  • Those in the know tell me that it all takes time so don’t be disappointed too quickly.

Any other comments, useful advice, we would be happy to hear from you!

(Pat Upton)


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