Think Like a Publisher 2013: Chapter One: The Early Decisions

Here we go again. It’s been over two years since I wrote the first version of Think Like a Publisher. And a year since I updated it into a 2012 edition. Stunning how time goes by.

Since I wrote those first chapters for the first volume, Scott William Carter and I have taught three workshops by the same name, plus an advanced workshop helping indie writers make more money from their books. And in the fall of 2012 Allyson Longuiera and I taught a Print on Demand workshop to help writers get their books into print and learn how to sell them. We are doing the full POD workshop again in May and doing Covers and Interior workshops online now.

And during those workshops and from comments and from hundreds of sources I have learned a ton more information. The indie publishing world has gotten by the early years of the “gold rush” thinking and has now settled into a new normal that should last for years if not decades. 2013 is the first year of that new normal.

Plus the publishing company I helped start (WMG Publishing) now has a full-time employee and three part-time employees and has published about 300 different book titles. And Kris and I have started a new distribution program called Ella Distributing Inc. that will launch in early 2013. (I will announce it here.) That company already has a full time employee and one part timer and will be growing quickly over the spring of 2013.

And the overall publishing business is now stabilizing with traditional publishers holding their own and indie publishing doing great.

As traditional publishers grab for more rights and become even more difficult to work with, more and more writers are moving to indie publishing. As they make the jump, they ask basic questions on how to do it, how to be treated with respect as a publisher, and even how to do simple things like setting up a publishing business.

An indie publisher is still a publisher, the same as any traditional publisher.

Think Like a Publisher 2013 is an updated version of the book from about a year ago, including some of what has changed and what I have learned over the last year or more. I’m sure in another two years I’ll do a fourth edition. 

Every few days I will post a chapter for free here with a link under the tab above. The 2012 edition is still available in book and electronic form. After I get done with these posts and reformatting the book, this edition will appear replacing the old one. But that will take a month or so.

Comments on each chapter are welcome and help us all learn, but keep the comments focused on the topic of the chapter, please.

I hope these chapters help you get a jump on learning how to be a publisher. And on finding an audience for your writing.

Chapter One:

The Early Decisions 

Some of the earliest decisions a publisher has to make can be changed down the road easily. Some are difficult to change. So, I’m going to break down some of these early decisions into basic groups. And keep in mind, there are no correct answers on any of these decisions. Just what you want to do.

You are the publisher. And it’s your business. Always remember those two basic elements and you’ll be fine.

Early Business Decisions

1… Pick a Name.

Yup, as a publisher, your business needs a name. This could be one of the hardest decisions to change down the road, so caution.

My suggestion: Pick a name that is easy for everyone to remember, that is fairly short, and that sounds like a publishing house imprint.

CRITICAL!!!  Make sure the name is not being used and go get the domain address. Do not wait. If there is any chance of using a name and it is open, grab the domain address. Just by simply checking on it being available might cause someone else to buy it. Grab it quickly.

If there is no available domain address with a .com in your business name, pick a new name for your business.

2… Pick a Business Structure.

You basically have two choices. One, keep the business as a sole proprietorship. That means you own it all and on your taxes in the United States you file a Schedule C business form with your yearly taxes. Unless you are planning on growing your business very large or making a lot of money, this is the easiest way to go.

The second way is go to an attorney and an accountant and have them set up your publishing company as a corporation of one type or another, depending on your long-term plans. If you need to ask why you would want a corporation instead of a sole proprietorship, you don’t need a corporation. All a corporation will do is cause you more costs and get you in trouble if you don’t know what you are doing.

(Note: WMG Publishing Incorporated just moved to a corporation structure. But we have employees and three hundred titles.)

3…Open up a dedicated checking account under your business name.

This is easy to do in both types of business. For a regular sole proprietorship in most states, you simply get a form from your bank called a “Doing Business As” form. (There are different names in different states, but most call it a DBA.)

File that with the state and give the response to your bank and you can open up the business checking account.  Then, as you have money flowing in from all the sales in all the different sources, have the money go directly to your business checking account. And take all publishing expenses out of that account as well.

For heaven’s sake, keep all your receipts, just as you do with your writing.

If you started a corporation, you will know what to do. If not, ask your accountant and think twice about starting a corporation.

Early Business Structure Decisions

Okay, you’ve got a business name, a checking account, and have decided what type of formal business you are running. Now you need to decide what kind of structure your business is going to take inside the publishing house. To determine that, ask yourself these simple questions and write down the answers.

Question 1:

Over the next five years, who is going to do all the production work?

A) You do it all.

B) You do some and hire out contract work for other parts.

C) Other people do it all.

D) Combination of the above depending on the project.

If you are going to do it all, ask yourself:

—Do you have all the tools to do covers and the computers and the software to do them?

— Do you have the ability to design covers? Or can you take a class and learn it?

— Can you layout books for PDF files for POD publishing, both interior and cover? Or can you take a class and learn it?

And if not on any of those questions, what is it going to cost and how long will it take to learn how to do all these things? Most tasks are not difficult, but there is a learning curve that takes a little time.

(An aside: I did some pretty ugly covers starting off with an old computer and no good software in helping out WMG Publishing. Some are still up for another month or two. I started getting a lot better once WMG Publishing invested in a computer and new software for my office. Now, with even more training, the WMG covers are looking more professional. It takes time to learn. Take the time.)

If you are going to hire some jobs out, do you have the upfront money to do so? Or if you are going to hire everything done, do you have that kind of up-front money? (Welcome to being a publisher. Traditional publishers can spend a lot of money on your book before they ever earn a penny. You are now a publisher, not a writer. Expect up-front costs.)

Question 2:

How much inventory do you have or will you have in the next five years?

How many books are finished but unsold? How many short stories? How many novels or stores sold are now reverted to you?

How much new product can you produce in the next five years?

If you only write one book every few years and have no inventory, frankly you don’t need to do much of this.

If you have a number of novels, numbers of short stories in inventory, and can write two or three novels a year and some side stories, then mark that down. Publishers work on a “publishing schedule.” Start setting that up as well and be realistic with yourself.

Inventory is critical in any business. I will talk about inventory-in-business aspects of publishing in a later chapter.

Question 3:

Editing and Proofing.

Every publisher has editors and proofreaders. How do you plan on handling that?

— Do you have a good first reader?

— Do you know whom you can hire for copyediting?

— Can you trade with other indie publishers (writers) for proofing, with you working on reading their books while they read yours?

— Or just not do it? And if you want a copyeditor, can you afford the up front fees.

There are other basic questions, but for now that should be enough to get you thinking on the right track as a publisher.

If you are going to compete on an international levels, your books need to be fairly clean. There are no perfect books, so don’t even shoot for that. But try to get them as mistake-proof as possible.

Early Business Chores

As you are setting up your publishing business, there are numbers of just basic chores that need to be taken care of.

I am assuming you plan on being both an electronic and POD publisher. If not, why not? Why make a decision so early on to limit your possible markets? Electronic only consists of about 30% of all book sales. Plan to do it all, so that means you have chores to do. And trust me, these are chores.

Chore #1:

After you have your business checking account, so you don’t have to change these later, set up publishing accounts on Amazon, PubIt! (B&N), Kobo, Smashwords, and CreateSpace (For trade paper. Yeah, I know, you might switch to LightningSource for POD later, but early on save the mistake money and do CreateSpace. Or do as I have done and set up accounts on both. Just practice on CreateSpace where you don’t get charged for every mistake.)

Chore #2:

Set up a PayPal account. Hooked to your business account if possible.  You will need this in more ways than you can imagine, including down the road putting shopping carts on your web site.

Chore #3:

Set up a placeholder web site, even if it is under construction as WMG Publishing website was most of 2012 and is now slowly getting built. You’ll get it fixed later. For WMG Publishing Inc., later has arrived.

There are other chores, like starting to explore how to get books in libraries and how to get ISBN numbers if you even want them, but for now, just stay with the first three. I’ll talk about ISBN numbers and library sales in future chapters in this series.

Early Decision:

What Kind of Publisher Do You Want To Be?

Okay, to keep this basic, there are three major types of publishers in publishing, and I don’t see this model changing at all. In fact, I see it becoming stronger. You can be solidly in one category or actually can function in all three if your readers are clear. But my suggestion is pick one to start.

1) Traditional-Style Fiction/Nonfiction Publisher

2) Discount Publisher

3) High-End Publisher

I will say right off that Pulphouse Publishing Inc. (1987-1994) was a high-end publisher for the most part. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I sold some books for over $50.00 each and most of our books were signed and numbered and retailed between $20.00 and $35.00 each. Very high-end, and although we were trying to change it in the last few years with short story paperbacks and magazines, we never really made the shift before the end.

I will talk about each of these types of publishers and the different business models they demand in future chapters. But for now, here is a very quick summary of the three choices you have to make early on as a publisher.

High End:

I believe that High-End publishers will make great money in this new world with all sorts of enhanced products. This new world is gold for high-end collectors books. But it will take a publisher who can publish top names, do enhanced production and books, and knows how to put out top-quality leather and signed work. This area is difficult at best for a beginning publisher.

Traditional-style Publishing:

Basically, this is the New York publishing model.

Books sell for all the traditional prices, go to the traditional outlets, and are bought by regular readers.  All bestsellers for the most part are traditionally published.  We have positioned WMG Publishing Inc. in this model. Traditionally Published novels will continue to be the vast majority of all books published and where the highest profit margins are per product sold.

Discount Publisher:

This area is very large in the publishing world in general and has many large companies working it. But to most writers and readers, it’s been kept a secret.

The outlets for discount publishers consist of discount shelves in normal bookstores, discount mall stores, and other types of discount stores. Many books beyond the bestsellers that you see at Costco are discount books.

In electronic publishing, the price being set by discount publishers is 99 cents. Going into 2013, readers now look to the 99 cent area with distrust. It was flooded with a ton of garbage and still is flooded. Caution going there with your electronic work now. Use that price range only down the road when you have a large inventory and want to promote a series.

In this area of publishing, the margins of profit are thin and the publishers depend on volume of sales to make even a decent profit margin. Very few traditional publishers have discount arms, but they do high discount at times to some stores like Wal-Mart. That is different than discount publishing as a business model. Most discount publishers only focus on being discount publishers and go for the volume of sales.

Again, more on all three of these major types of publishers in future chapters.

As a new indie publisher, you want to decide what area of publishing in general you want to fit into.

As I said, with Pulphouse Publishing Inc., I started as a high-end publisher and that was our plan from the start. It was only years later that we decided to try to move to the traditional model. And the move, once we were established as a certain type of publisher, was difficult at best.


That’s most of the basic early decisions you have to make once you decide to publish your own work. Get the business set up, do the chores, look at your start-up inventory, and then look hard and fast at what kind of publisher you want to be.

Being a publisher is fantastic fun. And it can be frustrating and sometimes downright scary. Don’t expect to get rich instantly on your first or even your fifth book.

The gold rush is over and now you must produce quality product that readers want to read that can sit on a shelf beside any other book being done by traditional or indie publishing.

(A quick note for the blog post: Stunning how little in this first chapter actually did change in the last two years since I wrote the first pass. I guess basic business is just basic business.)


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover Photo by Edward Fielding/


This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’ve talked about the Magic Bakery a few times in various posts, but just think of this column as a pie and I am allowing samples of the pie here. Understanding the Magic Bakery is critical to making good money as a publisher. So I will talk about it in these chapters coming up as well.

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