Self-publishing? The 1001 questions between you and your printed book

Back in 2006, I was given the opportunity to get my first novel printed by the long-established printer-publisher Headley Brothers of Ashford.  A Quaker-run organisation, helping out an unknown author was part of their ethic and we agreed to make five hundred copies so that they could test out their new digital press.  Quid pro quo, Clarice.

The finished article, no thanks to me.

The trouble was, as I sauntered in through their reception and met the team that would give physical form to my masterpiece, I had misjudged my preparedness.

So, as I settled into a chair, ignorantly overconfident, surrounded by attentive and talented creative designers, typesetters, page setters, proofers, binders, print finishers and digital press professionals, my coffee grew increasingly cold to the point where, three hours in, I had to set it aside in realisation that I had to make an awful lot of decisions myself to facilitate the printing process.

Cutting to the chase, the conversation went rather like this:

‘So, you’ve written a book,’ they said.  ‘Well done.’
‘Thank you.’
‘What’s it about?’

[Why is this such a hard question to answer?  I did write the thing, after all.]

‘It’s an action-adventure in a fantasy setting, with a group of friends that get embroiled in a quest to save the world,’ I probably reply.  ‘They have all sorts of adventures and it’s brilliantly exciting with a tense conclusion and –’


Awkward silence as sensible people at work drat the thirty-something novelist with his head in the clouds.  More bloody elves, they think.

‘Have you thought about what you want the book to look like?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I reply, confidently.
‘So, where shall we start?  Seats shuffle closer in and notebooks open.
‘Well, what do you need to know, off the top of your head?’

The questions rained in at me like rotten vegetables lobbed at a sixteenth century stocks-bound villain and I realised I would be there for some time.  At this moment I should point out that some of my answers were thought but not said:

0001 ‘Well, how big would you like it to be?’
Note: saying ‘regular size’ at this point is unhelpful.

Question two followed some thirty minutes later.

0002 ‘How many pages long do you want it?’
Isn’t that a given based on the number of words?  Apparently not.

0003 ‘Have you thought about margins?’
Yes [but, after 25 minutes discussing margins, it seems I had not thought about them in depth].

0004 ‘What about the cover image?’
Ah, that’s sorted.  And it’s in PFD format. [crosses arms and leans back.]  “P-D-F?  I see.”  [Thank goodness for talented sisters.]

Only fifteen minutes on that – at this stage.

0005 ‘Do you want matt or gloss finish?’

0006 ‘What colour paper do you want to use?’
Paperback colour?

0007 ‘What weight of paper would you envisage?’
Thin and pulpy, please.  Can’t use it in a digital press?  Oh.

0008 ‘Have you thought about the font?’
Yes.  Times, please.

0009 ‘When do you need it by?’
Oh, no hurry.  It took me years to write it.  What?  OK, by next month at the latest, do you hear!

0010 ‘What sort of unit cost are you going for?’
A low one.  Lower.  Keep going.

0011 ‘How are you planning on selling it?’
Oh, well, I have a MySpace and a website and friends and it’s Christmas soon so I’m sure I’ll have no problem.

0012 ‘Do you have the MS in PDF format?’
The what in what format?

0013 ‘Are you going to use your own name or a pseudonym?’
My own name [I did invent some pseudonyms but they all sucked.]

0014 ‘Do you want us to sell it through our website?’
Yes, please.

0015 ‘How many copies do you want us to make?’
Ooh, 25?  OK, let’s make it 500 then.

0016 ‘What price do you want to charge?’
I get to choose?

0017 ‘Do you have an IBAN number or shall we use one of ours?’
Huh?  I felt like Graham Chapman in Life of Brian begging the beard seller determined to haggle with him: "Oh, please tell me what to say!"


Early versions of covers on different papers and with different finishes.

And so on.  For another six hours.  Then, three more full days after that.


0356 ‘How wide do you want the spine?’
Enough to fit the pages inside.

0357 ‘Where do you want the page numbers to go?’
On the pages.

0358 ‘Do you want new chapters to start on the right, left or variable?’
Right.  Definitely....


[At this point, drowning in options, feeling like a charlatan, I had my first realisation of what the publishing industry actually DOES, and in taking all of this off the writer's shoulders I am genuinely thankful it exists.  Sir Christopher Wren may have designed St. Pauls Cathedral's wondrous dome but if he had been obliged to then go on and build the flipping thing I suspect he would have drawn an outhouse instead of the soul-inspiring landmark we enjoy at the easternmost end of Ludgate Hill.]


0959 ‘Do you want an author photograph?’
Yes [but in hindsight, not that one.]

0960 ‘Will you add acknowledgements?’
This was easier said than done.

0961 ‘What book blurb do you want on the back?’
Hardest three paragraphs I’ve ever had to write.


Eventually, and with much support and guidance from the team, I managed to provide them with sufficient answers to allow the book to go into production.  Due to the short run, the web press – and hence thinner paper and lower unit costs – was out of the reckoning and it was agreed that digital printing was the correct way to go.

At this point I should advise anyone who finds themselves standing by a room-sized digital press not to call it a "large photocopier".  This is by no means a compliment…

This dictated the paper type (approx 90gsm) and we settled on a 350gsm silk paper for the covers, which were printed separately then matt laminated by a 3rd party before being bound to the text.

Never think your MS is free of errors.  It is a truth you discover when you go to press that typos, grammatical errors and inconsistencies grow overnight like mushrooms when you’re not looking and reveal themselves only once they have been printed.  Test copies must be rigorously reviewed by professional editors, then re-reviewed ad infinitum until you simply have no eyes left.

However, it’s all worth it.

Despite the evolution in publishing it offers, no eBook is capable of providing the same emotional relationship people have with real, printed, physical books.  There’s no comparison.  One is an ethereal, conceptual, only-available-with-electricity collection of ‘1’s’ and ‘0’s’.  The other, especially if it's your own, is like a first child.

Like fatherhood, I’d not known what to expect and was frequently underprepared, but the moment of delivery will be a memory I will cherish forever.  And that’s the best thing about a good book.  It can stay with you for life.

It’s why we write them, I suppose.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
Main | Avoiding Writers' Crock - how to survive your desk »