Self-publishing your first book can be a terrifying prospect, even when you know what you’re doing.
When I was a child I wrote a story about a polar bear, typed it up, added pictures, designed a cover and bound it into a rather crude-looking book. Little did I know that it was the precursor to a varied and interesting career in the world of books that has recently culminated in creating my own imprint and publishing my first book.
Twenty years ago I made my entry into the publishing industry. I’d dropped out of my science degree after spending much of my first year sitting in the library writing bad poetry and avoiding chemistry lectures. I’d chosen science but thought perhaps I really wanted to study the arts.
As the months rolled by, bringing no money and no direction, I finally decided to do something about this and grabbed a copy of the Yellow Pages, flicking through looking for industries in which I might like to work. The plan was to save up and put myself through university doing what I wanted to do – when I finally decided what that was.
My eyes paused at the heading ‘Publishing’. I loved reading. My mother, who worked in a library, brought home lots of interesting books for me all the time, but I’d never considered following in her footsteps. And until that moment I’d never given much thought to what publishing might involve. I mulled over the idea for a moment, then chose a publisher I’d heard of and typed a letter ‘to whom it may concern’ offering my services free for two weeks.
To my amazement, a letter arrived saying that if I was still keen, there were plenty of things this publisher could find for me to do and that I should make a time to drop in and have a chat. So I did.
Excited, I went to work and at the end of the second week I was told they were so impressed with my work that they would create a paid position for me. My career began in the marketing department because that’s where the most help was needed at the time. Very quickly I learned about the different departments that operate within a publishing house: editorial, rights, production, design, marketing, sales, accounts, customer service, distribution. Even better, the publisher allowed me to return to university part-time to do an arts degree.
It was during this time that I decided I’d really like to work in design. I’d studied graphic design at school, and I was teaching myself PageMaker and Photoshop in my new job. I designed catalogues, brochures, posters, point-of-sale items, postcards and advertisements, but I really wanted to design books because, like authors, designers put so much of themselves into their work. To my mind, it’s the next most intimate part of the process.
This desire was stifled for several years because I showed great skill at marketing books and my career kept getting pushed in that direction. After five years in my first job, I moved into other publishing roles. I worked as a marketing manager, then moved briefly into sales before returning to marketing and publicity. Then, a stint as deputy editor of a magazine was followed by a very brief period as a development editor. During those years I’d started to think maybe I wanted to be a publisher instead, but the desire to design books was still strong so I went back to university, where I studied graphic design. After this, I returned to publishing, working for several years as a book designer/studio manager before leaving to start my own book design business.
About a year ago I decided to make use of those years of experience and put into motion a dream I’d had nearly my entire publishing career: to have my own imprint, publish what I wanted to publish and not worry about relying on it to make a living – but hopefully make enough to publish the next project; to be motivated and creatively inspired, but also to explore ideas and work on projects that might not be commercially viable but were worth doing for their own sake.
My first book, Sectioned, is a limited edition photographic essay on the theme of mental illness. I had several hundred photographs that I had taken at a disused mental hospital two years ago as part of research for a novel manuscript. I hadn’t intended to do anything with them until I started sifting through and realised I could create a visual narrative of these atmospheric images, using this decaying group of buildings as a metaphor for the loss of identity and sense of abandonment felt by generations of people committed to asylums.
After choosing the images that best illustrated this, I decided on the format of the book. I designed the cover and internal text and set the images. I wrote a small spiel explaining the content of the book and created a mock-up that I showed to publishing colleagues, friends and family. They were impressed by the photographs and immediately understood what I was doing.
I registered a name for my imprint and opened a bank account. I designed a logo and whipped up a basic website for online selling. I applied for an ISBN and CIP data, and set a retail price. I received quotes from printers, tweaked the design and sent the files to print. Easy. I’d done it so many times before.
Then my stomach dropped. Would the proofs give an accurate indication of the final output? Should I not have chosen matte on black for the cover, knowing from years of experience that it scuffs easily, even though it was the look I wanted? Would the size be too small? Would the logo show on the spine? Would this be a complete waste of money? Was I mad?
Finally I received the advances. My heart was pounding, my hands shaking. I felt like I was about to jump off a cliff. There among the brown paper and bubble wrap were six little square copies of my newly printed book. Yes, it smelled good. It looked exactly how I’d hoped. The paper was the right weight, the finish on the cover was good, the colour reproduction was perfect. I was relieved; all the anxiety and worry dissipated.
The bulk of the stock arrived three weeks ago. In that time I’ve been revisiting my old sales, marketing and publicity skills. Copies have been stocked by some independent bookshops and an art gallery. I have sold some online and, as to be expected, my mother has been selling copies to many of her friends and colleagues.
So now I’ve come full circle. It’s too early to tell if this will be a success. I have a few advantages that other micro-publishers don’t, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether it takes a year to sell, or ten. For me it’s about the love of creating books and using the variety of skills I have developed during my career to do what I enjoy most. And if others enjoy it too, then that’s a bonus.
Anne-Marie Reeves is the designer of Kill Your Darlings. Sectioned is published by Wolf & Owl. Visit www.wolfandowl.com for more information.