On Writing,  publishing

Think Like a Publisher 2015: Chapter One… The Early Decisions

Here we go again. It’s been over four years since I wrote the first version of Think Like a Publisher. And over a year since I updated it into a 2013 edition. Stunning how time goes by.

Since those first words all those years ago, 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 was the first year of that new normal.

Yes, things are still changing, but massive changes are now going to take place on the traditional side as major publishers scramble for their lives.

Also, the publishing company I helped start, WMG Publishing Inc. now has four full-time employees and three part-time employees and has published over 400 different book titles, with another hundred scheduled. 

As traditional publishers grab for more rights and become even more difficult to work with as they fight to stay alive, more and more writers are moving to indie publishing. As the writers 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.

And questions such as how they get their books into bookstores. You can do that. Honest. I’ll talk all about it in coming chapters and I have talked about it in the chapters of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing.

But the key on almost everything these days is that you, the author, are starting a publishing company.

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

Kill the term self-publishing from your vocabulary and start thinking of yourself as a business person with a business to run. A publishing business.

Think Like a Publisher 2015 is an updated version, 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 another edition.

Every few days I will post a chapter for free here with a link under the tab above. The 2013 edition is still available in trade paper 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.

And it will have a new cover. Trust me, it needs it. (grin)

Comments on each chapter are welcome and help us all learn, but keep the comments focused on the topic of the chapter, please. I’m going to cover a great deal in this book. 

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. It is 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. Your publishing company must have a web site. (If you doubt this, take the Promotions online workshop we offer. You will understand a lot more about what I am talking about in this book from that workshop.)

Also, make sure that your author name is not in your publishing name. Stay away from any “self-publishing” thinking and act like a 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 has a corporation structure. But we have employees and over four hundred titles and we know what we are doing.)

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? Or can you take classes to learn them. At WMG we actually teach six week classes in how to do book covers, paper book interiors, and electronic books that produce clean epubs and hold formatting.

— Do you have the ability to design covers? Or can you take a class and learn it? It is not rocket science. But it does have a learning curve. Just understanding branding and genre for covers takes some learning.

— 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 get started. It takes time to learn. Take the time if you plan on doing more than a few books and collections per year.)

If you are going to hire some jobs out, do you have the upfront money to do so? And do you even know a good cover when you see one? Be honest.

Upfront money. Yes, I said that. 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, but extreme caution on scams. Check with other writers and warning sites before signing up with any “publisher help” site.

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? (Be realistic.)

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. But for now, imagine opening a bakery and having only one kind of doughnut in the entire shop. You won’t get many customers.

Question 3:

Editing and Proofing.

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

— Do you have a good first reader?

— Do you know whom you can hire for copyediting? You can often find someone at a local newspaper or an English department that will be reasonable. These are not book editors, only copyeditors.

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

— If you hire 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. In this new world, your books must be as clean as possible. There is no such thing as a perfect novel or a totally clean novel or story. But make them as clean as you can without going into stupidity.

In other words, spend the money or time to try to get them as mistake-proof as possible. Then release.

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 20% of all trade book sales. (Higher in some genres.)

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.

Note: there are many other book sales sites such as iBooks and OmniLit, but you can get to them later. (iBooks you can get to through Smashwords and other places until you get it all figured out.)

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 among other things.

Chore #3:

Set up a placeholder web site, even if it is under construction as WMG Publishing website was most of 2014. You’ll get it fixed later. For WMG Publishing Inc., later has finally arrived the second time. And we are still on only stage two of the process as I write this in the summer of 2014.

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 my first publishing company, 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.

And this takes a large amount of cash to make work. Many, many start-up publishers have tried and mostly failed to get this kind of cash from places like Kickstarter.  Also, note that the number of collectors are way, way down these days.

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.

I would highly suggest this is your model as well. (Yes, you are setting up a small press in the traditional publishing model.)

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. Now here in 2014, readers look to the 99 cent area with distrust UNLESS the book is on a sale.

That price 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 do special promotions and sales.

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. Make the decision as a business decision, not because you think you are a bad writer and your work has no value.

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.

WMG Publishing Inc. now is a traditional publisher. We are still in the medium press level. Most everyone reading this will be a small press in the traditional publishing model. That’s a great place to be.


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 with professional covers, active blurbs, and clean pages that readers want to read.  Your book must be able to sit on a shelf beside any other book being done by traditional or indie publishing.


Copyright © 2014 Dean Wesley Smith




  • Jake Johnson

    Really good, informative post.

    I do have a question about the name part; I’ve heard its okay to use a different company’s name, so long as its in a different industry. The example everyone keeps using is Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets. In your experience, does this logic ring true in publishing?

    • dwsmith

      Jake, I’m not sure why you would want to use a name that is associated with a different product other than your own. Seems like you are setting up a huge wall for discoverability and a gigantic set of problems. Names and titles are not protected under copyright, but the most certainly are in trademark. If someone has a large enough name to manage to get a trademark on it (tough fight and takes a lot of money and also takes a lot of defense), then using that name would get you slapped with an injunctive letter and cause you all sorts of problems.

      Just come up with your own name. Then check it on Google to make sure you are clear. Then get the URL to make sure that is clear.

      • Jake Johnson

        Thanks for the reply.

        I asked because i came up with a name, but then found out that it was being used by another company (outside of publishing) I then did some research, and according to a few sources i found, using a different company’s name is okay, so long as its in a different industry (the Delta example again).

        But after reading your reply, i feel a little differently now. While there may be some legal truth to what those sources said, I could still see this backfiring on me down the road. I think its best to just stay on the safe side, and find a new name.

        Thanks again.

        • dwsmith

          I think in the long run not setting up a problem is always a good idea. This silly business is tough enough as it is. (grin)