Guest post on self-publishing by Simon Wilcox, author of MUDLARK RIVER

Simon Wilcox published his first book, MUDLARK RIVER, in October 2014. It tells the story of how, after finding a Victorian map of the Thames in a London antiques shop, he used it as a basis for walking the Thames from source to sea; and how along the way he explored the hidden history of the river. 

Some very prestigious publishers liked the project but in the end he self-published the book. I asked Simon if he'd like to share his thoughts on the experience of self-publishing, and he's contributed this typically eloquent guest blog post. Thank you, Simon - over to you.... 

It is often alone late at night, with a glass of wine in my hand, when an old memory sometime pops into my head. It is of me crossing a finishing line, arms aloft, in the pole position of a race that I shouldn’t have started, let alone win. I was 17 at the time, and pulled in as an eleventh hour replacement to run the 800 metres race for my school in the regional athletics championships. My opponents had no idea who I was; but against all the odds I left them flailing in my wake on the last bend. Overnight I became a school hero, and for about a year afterwards I believed that this was what the rest of my life was going to be like. A series of spectacular dashes to glory.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like that. Like most people, I’ve had my moments, but I’ve also had my fair share of disappointments. One of the biggest of these was a couple of years ago when a travel book I had written missed out on getting a traditional book publishing deal when at one point things looked hopeful. I had some nice feedback from book editors, Simon has “a rather charming voice” said one, but in the end I didn’t make the cut. At that point, I had to make the painful decision to self-publish.

Yet, self-publishing can bring its own rewards, not least the sense of personal achievement in doing the whole thing yourself. So how did I go about it? Well, at one end of the spectrum are the services of a publishing package provider, and at the other end is the DIY option, and then there is everything in-between.

To take the fully-assisted path first, there are a number of companies – Silverwood and Matador in the UK are among the ones with good reputations – which can take your manuscript, prepare it for publication, publish it and make it available in book stores and through online retailers. This full service comes at a price – Silverwood’s cheapest package starts at £1795 – but, in return, you get a published book for a minimum amount of hassle. Should your budget not stretch that far, though, the same firms can offer tailored one-off services such as copy-editing, ISBN registration, cover design and book promotion.  

These might be of help if you are doing it all yourself, with a little help here and there. The DIY route was the one I chose, mainly for financial reasons. My first port-of-call was getting someone to look over my manuscript and check it for any mistakes in syntax (copy-editing). For this job I took on the services of an editorial contact (or rather a contact of a contact) who promised to give my copy the once over for a fee of £250.

All my words would have been worthless, however, if they had not been pleasing to the eye when they appeared in book format. My next challenge was the typesetting and formatting of my raw text into a particular typographical style – a challenge made doubly difficult by the fact that I was running to a tight budget. Some in my situation would have done it themselves, using a simple layout software; but in the end I decided to turn to Createspace, the assisted self-publishing arm of Amazon. For £140 upwards, depending on which service you choose, their designers based in Charleston in the US will consult with you over fonts and chapter headings and all that sort of thing, and come up with something that looks professional and readable.

The Charleston outfit can do a lot of other stuff for you too, but it was to a local designer near my home in Warwickshire, England, that I looked to for the design of my book cover. This artwork needs to communicate the ethos of your book so choose your graphic designer carefully. You also need to be aware that designing the cover is not only about looking good but also about getting the dimensions right. In order to comply with Createspace specifications, my designer had to think about the ‘trim size’ and ‘bleed’ and things like that, and that bumped up her fees to about £600.

One of the most important features of the cover is the ISBN product number. This is essential if you want bookshops or Internet retailers to order copies of your publication. Registering with Nielsen, the UK’s ISBN agency, for example, puts you on their international bibliographic database, which is used by libraries and booksellers across the world. You can order a single ISBN number from Nielsen for around £75. The bar code, which is created from the ISBN, can then be sourced from a number of suppliers for £25 or so.

With my bar code in place, I was now ready to publish at what I regarded as a reasonable cost. But as I said earlier, there are a number of paths a would-be independent publisher can follow. Mine was just one of them, and another might or might not have saved me more money. For every person who takes the DIY route, there is another who will buy a full package from a self-publishing company. For every Createspace, meanwhile, there is another print-on-demand provider such as Lulu. And for every Kindle Direct Publishing there is another e-book platform such as Kobo, or a distributor like Ingram Spark who can help you reach a lot of different platforms at the same time. If you need more advice then seek out the Alliance of Independent Authors, the professional association for authors who self-publish.

But how did my efforts turn out, I hear you ask. Well, through the Createspace service, I uploaded the print version of my book – Mudlark River – to the Amazon online bookstore, and then shortly afterwards an e-book version of it to Kindle. The uploading was free by the way, but there were a few costs that seemed to appear out of nowhere which served to dampen earnings. With Createspace’s print books you earn 60% royalties, but that’s after you’ve coughed up two printing charges – one, a fixed fee per book, and the other is a charge per page which, though tiny, soon mounts up when you have 343 of them. So, think carefully about pricing. E-book earnings are much better. An author earns 70% royalties with Kindle Publishing and there are no costs to speak of.

So, to sum up, self-publishing is never going to fund a retirement in the Caribbean.

But then I never thought it would. Some writers, I have heard, are making a good living out of self-publishing. These are the people who are beginning to challenge and redefine the rather cloistered, cliquey world of publishing.

But for me, going it alone was always about building a presence for myself. After I published my book, I shelled out £160 to a book publicity firm to pitch particular magazines and newspapers with a press release, and I also built a rudimentary website with the help of a geeky friend, registering my url with a web hosting service for under £50.

Small steps, but progress. In my mind’s eye, I am still running that school race. Self-publishing has given me the legs and the stamina, but what will happen next is anyone’s guess.