I’ll be honest. Had one of the big corporate publishers offered me £100k for the book, I’d have jumped at it. But the reaction my agent was getting around the fiction imprints was bizarre. “We liked it a lot,” said one (rejecting) editor. “I did absolutely love this,” wrote another, “and it made me laugh out loud.” But? “We don’t tend to do well with comic novels.” And so it went on. Eventually I realised I was looking at one publisher who might offer me £3000 if I waited six months. It would then take a further year to publish.

Meanwhile, even as I waited (and waited) a strange story was unfolding up the road. One of our local school mothers had decided to self-publish, having been unable to find an agent for her debut novel, let alone a publisher. Knowing I was in the writing game she popped round for tea and advice. Well, I said grandly, it was all very well self-publishing, the problem was getting noticed. She went off and I thought little more about her until, stopping at a motorway service station three months later I saw her book in the WH Smith travel top twenty. OK, so it’s a well-known fact in the trade that this “top twenty” bears little relation to sales; is, in fact, selected by WH Smith, but still – how had she done it? Shortly after that, her book hit no. 1 in the Amazon charts. Briefly, but now of course agents were pursuing her. One then sold her book here and in the U.S. for two very healthy six figure sums. When I called on her, cap in hand, to pick her brains, it was clear she had stopped at nothing to promote her title. It had obviously helped that she came from a marketing background.

Once I’d talked to her and done my research, it soon became clear that self-publishing really wasn’t that hard to do. If you are happy to work with Amazon, it’s close to being a doddle. Their subsidiary CreateSpace takes care of the print side of things, while a couple of hours with Kindle Direct Publishing (most of it spent entering American tax details) will put your formatted e-book up and online. The clincher for me was realising how much more I stood to make from a self-published e-book. Amazon offer authors 70% of gross receipts, as opposed to the 25% (max 50%) of net from traditional publishers. Factor in that Amazon demands supermarket-style discounts from publishers of up to 70% and the average author is looking at around 7% of gross. 70% or 7% - which would you choose? With Amazon, of course, print no longer means print runs - expensive and risky as they are. It means print on demand (POD), whereby each individual order is printed and delivered separately. Even a couple of years ago, these books were clunky looking items, with poor print on over-heavy paper and terrible shiny jackets. Now the technology has stepped up – and an Amazon POD is barely distinguishable from a book you’d buy in a bookshop.

Nuts and bolts

Having made my decision to go it alone I set up Prospero Press (named after the street where I live). I also liked the fact that it sounded established. “Prospero, ah yes,” people said to me knowingly at literary parties. Sometimes I explained exactly what Prospero was; increasingly I didn’t bother. My manuscript had already been through several rewrites, with advice from my agent, selected friends, and at least one ex-editor, so I didn’t hire an editor. But I paid to have it copy-edited, and was very glad I had, as he spotted plenty of glitches I had skated over (far too close to the material as I was).

Then it was time to get down to the nuts and bolts – formatting the Word document into a typeset book interior. I spent a couple of days trying to do this myself, using CreateSpace’s onsite tools for both print and e-book. After getting into a tizz over first page numbers and then HTML codes I threw in the towel and hired a professional. That was well worth it. The costs are tiny. £60 pays for e-book formatting; for £130 you can have a designer to lay out your interior as a PDF ready for upload. (The Alliance of Independent Authors is one of many sites that list these resources.)

I also, obviously, needed a cover. Again, CreateSpace site offers you tools to do this yourself, but if you want something half decent I would advise hiring a professional. Even a top jacket designer is unlikely to charge more than £800. I found a talented young woman who was adding cover design to her portfolio and charged me £250 all in.

This is when it started to get fun – and I felt the excitement of controlling all aspects of a book at last. Of the many jackets I’ve seen on my various titles, few have been my choice. Of course the author is always “consulted”, but generally the decision is out of your hands. Now my cover was the result of an enjoyable discussion with my designer; and for her fee she also agreed to upload the finished files to both CreateSpace and KDP.

Exclusively Amazon or casting the net wider?

At this point, the self-publishing author has a choice. Stick exclusively with Amazon and reap the benefits they offer – or cast your net wider. With e-books, Amazon’s major competitor is Smashwords, who supply your e-book file to all non-Kindle e-book readers: Nook, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple Ipad and Iphone etc. The advantage is obviously that you are more widely available. The disadvantage is that you are not getting the best deal from the ever-canny Amazon. If you grant them exclusivity through their KDP Select scheme, you get special favours: promotions and so on. The jury is out on which route to take. I didn’t want to be totally in bed with Amazon, so I opted for Smashwords too. There’s another major player here too: the giant US distributor Ingram, who offer e-book distribution and POD services to individual authors through their subsidiary Ingramspark. Slightly slower than CreateSpace, and with extra charges if you choose to make changes to your uploaded cover or interior, they produce, for my money, a slightly slicker POD. Ingram also have the advantage in that they print author copies in the UK. Amazon, by contrast, print customer copies in the UK, but insist on proofs and author copies coming all the way from Charleston, U.S. Not that that takes very long. I ordered my Amazon proof early on a Thursday morning and the finished book was with me by Monday.

So: after a certain amount of jiggery-pokery you have your book, in both print and e-book format. You’ve pressed the button on Amazon and there it is, available for sale in their vast online store, along with 1.5 million other titles. How on earth do you get anyone to notice it?


I opted for the route which I have taken before. In advance of publication I printed review copies and sent them round to literary editors. I hired a book PR (by far the greatest expense of the whole adventure) and she duly badgered said editors. I arranged a talk at a literary festival. I threw a launch party, where printed books were available – all just as I would have done if Fest were traditionally published. So far, so good. The PR and I have experienced exactly the same rollercoaster of promises and letdowns and sudden surprise appearances in newsprint as with any other title I’ve done. On the upside Fest was selected for the Independent on Sunday’s “alternative Booker long list” and was “Thriller of the Week” in the Mail on Sunday (which led to 96 Kindle downloads on the same day). Meanwhile, I am swinging into action with the various online strategies suggested by Kindle guru David Gaughram in his seminal manuals Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible, both of which I would recommend, along with Michael Alvear’s How to Make a Killing on Kindle.

So what about bookshops? This turns out to be the very hardest part of the self-publisher’s task – ironic given all the complaints we hear about how tough it is for independent bookshops these days. I have managed to find myself a distributor, but only, I suspect, because Prospero Press now has a second author with a track record on its list – Giles Milton of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and White Gold fame. A distributor means that bookshop orders are promptly fulfilled, but they don’t get you stocked on the shelf, let alone in the window. Distributors also take 60% of the cover price, which means that unless you invest in a longish print run, you are barely breaking even. The alternative is to self-distribute, but this means being on hand with printed copies ready to pop into jiffy bags at a moment’s notice. And with bookshops still requiring a 40% discount and postage to pay it’s no easier to turn a profit. The truth is that the simplest route is to work direct with Amazon. Your costs remain low, and there are very few readers who are not prepared to buy online.

There is still, I’ve discovered, a stigma attached to self-publishing – it hasn’t totally shaken off that sense of vanity. At one dinner party I was introduced as an established author who was taking the brave step of self-publishing his novel. “That bad, is it?” said one of the guests. But I take comfort in the fact that there is nothing new about going this route. Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol; Beatrix Potter the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Mark Twain set up his own imprint, Webster & Co, to publish Huckleberry Finn. In 1913 Proust paid for Swann’s Way to be published, while Joyce’s Ulysses was printed up by a bookseller friend a decade later.

With the technology as it is, there is no excuse now for the grumbling would-be author, muttering about the rubbish that’s out there while his or her masterpiece remains unnoticed. Now anybody can be noticed – and in any genre: memoir, biography, family biography, indeed any kind of book at all. Just be sure that your manuscript is as good as you can make it, because once it’s out there you have no one to blame but yourself for its shortcomings. To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: “Self-publish and be damned.”

Mark McCrum’s Fest is published by Prospero Press at £7.99/£2.99 (e-book). Available on Amazon and at all good bookshops.