Self Publishing

Like all publishers, those specializing in books on automotive history, cars and motorsport are increasingly being squeezed by high street and internet retailers for ever increasing trade discounts.

This problem is particularly serious when it involves books which are produced in relatively small quantities, and all too often, when high unit costs have been followed by narrow profit margins, books previously thought to have been commercially viable (perhaps because they had been supported by a Michael Sedgwick Memorial Trust grant) have proved in retrospect not to be so. The increasing caution being displayed by these specialist publishers when presented with a new publishing proposition is in consequence very understandable.

However, for enthusiasts and historians who are keen to turn their specialized knowledge into book form for the benefit of fellow enthusiasts, and who have failed to attract the support of an established publisher, there is a solution which is gaining considerable popularity. This is Self Publishing, where the author engages directly with a printer/binder, bears the production and marketing costs, but offsets these against the revenue derived from both direct selling and from bulk sales to specialist collaborators such as relevant car clubs and car book retailers.

Being aware of this trend, the Trustees of the Michael Sedgwick Memorial Trust on a number of occasions have assisted authors along the path to self-publishing and, provided the project is deemed to be sufficiently worthy, are happy to continue this support. However, a few words of warning: almost all publishing involves risk, so what follows is a summary of some of the pitfalls which should be avoided and the steps which need to be taken before making a commitment to the considerable sum that almost certainly will be involved. We will also consider below print-on-demand which minimises up front costs but imposes some restrictions in return.

Research and the Resulting Book

Answer these questions: Assuming you have already adequately researched your subject to the point where you can produce a manuscript for a complete book, how many words will it involve? Will the book be illustrated? If so, do you have all the images you require? Are they copyright-free, and if not, what reproduction fees will you be required to pay? Will black-and-white illustrations suffice, or is colour essential? (Colour printing has historically been significantly more expensive, the difference is less pronounced now.) What print run does your market research indicate is appropriate (remembering that the longer the run the lower the unit cost because the considerable start-up costs will apply whether the run is for 100 or 1000 copies)? Nowadays where runs are very small or the final demand is uncertain, these may be undertaken by means of print-on-demand, although the price per copy may be higher. As mentioned print-on-demand is one option where numbers of copies are highly uncertain but the quid pro quo is that price per copy is increased, and this is considered in more detail below.


Having completed the manuscript and captioned all the illustrations, unless you have had editing experience it would be advisable to pass the material to a friend or colleague who has the necessary skills before committing your words to print. Normally, a printer will assume that everything has been edited, proof-read and ‘passed for press’ – ready to go straight on to the machine.


Do you envisage a soft-cover (popularly known as paperback) or hardback book? If the latter, remember that a loose jacket will be more expensive than a printed paper case, where the case is covered directly by the laminated cover illustration rather than by a fabric or leather material hidden behind the loose jacket.


Disregarding the value of your own time, your actual costs must cover not only printing, binding and illustration fees, if any, but also all the pre-print expenses, in other words the costs of typesetting, page layout, scanning of illustrations and then presenting your book in the format required by your chosen printer. Don’t be tempted into designing the book yourself using desktop publishing software; this may be fine for creating leaflets or newsletters, but a book needs to be designed and produced to a professional standard, and that means engaging the services of a studio.


Select one or more printer/binders specializing in self publishing work, discuss and agree the dimensions of the finished product (ideally, steer clear of A4, which is a stationery rather than a book size and is often too tall to fit vertically on a bookshelf), discuss paper options with a view to obtaining good quality photographic reproduction, and ask for a quotation (A) for a quantity at the low end of your estimated requirement, plus (B) a run-on cost per 10 per cent of that figure. (If 1000 copies will cost you ‘A’, 1200 copies should produce an invoice for ‘A + 2xB’.) If the printer can offer pre-press studio facilities as listed under COSTS above, ask for this to be separately quoted (it should be the same sum regardless of the length of the print run). Do get some check quotations from other printers.

You will be relieved to know that books are zero-rated for VAT, although any associated work invoiced separately from that of the completed books may well carry VAT. If you are registered for VAT yourself, this should be reclaimable. Be sure to agree credit terms with the printer prior to confirming your print order. Normally these would be 30 days after completion and delivery, but sometimes it is possible to negotiate extended terms and staged payments over a few months while sales revenue increases.

Order Fulfilment

Unless you are in the happy position of having your own mail-order operation up and running, it will probably be beneficial to engage an outside company for this, one with storage, packing and dispatch facilities and with packing materials already to hand. If your chosen printer can provide this service, so much the better, but you will need a quotation in advance (it will probably cost you more than if you struggled to do everything yourself, but is almost certainly worthwhile).


Websites are becoming an increasingly popular means for book purchasing, so make sure that your book is offered on established appropriate sites. Send review copies (free of charge) to all specialist magazines in your subject area, preferably with a personal letter attached, addressed to the actual desired recipient if he or she is known. A sample copy to the established specialist retail booksellers, again with an accompanying letter outlining the terms on which you can supply the outlet, may generate a first modest trade order which hopefully will be followed by re-orders.

Remember that if your book is to be sold commercially it must carry an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) on the cover and on the copyright page (usually page 4) as this will be the only way the book trade throughout the world will identify and acknowledge its existence. In the UK the ISBN agency is Nielsen Bookdata ( who will allocate you a number, which should appear on all your promotional material.


Many print houses have extolled their ability to print books on-demand but in reality this has been on the basis of small batches rather than individual copies. Amazon have introduced Kindle Direct Publishing which is a genuine print-on-demand service but which has important limitations. The main drawback is that the manuscript is submitted fully designed, with a suitable cover. Unless you are a skilled designer the resulting product runs the risk of looking amatuerish and even accomplished authors have employed designers for layout and front covers (softback only). Whilst the book can be put together using Word, some compromises result and desktop publishing software may be required to produce a satisfactory result. Nonetheless the opportunity is there to produce a book where Amazon will print a copy when the customer clicks “buy” so there are no stocks held anywhere. If you are prepared to accept the limitations of softback covers, no design help unless you source it yourself, and Amazon taking up to 85% of the cover price, then Amazon’s offering may be of interest.

Reprints and/or Second Editions

If you underestimate the demand for your book and run out of stock, beware the high unit cost of a short-run reprint; it will be far greater than the run-on cost of those additional copies at the time of the original printing. Ideally, 90-95 per cent of your print run should cover all requirements during the year following publication, leaving just an easy-to-store 5-10 per cent of the run for residual sales. The discovery of some new information after your book has been published is not – or should not be – an excuse for a second edition. This can only be justified when the original book has been out of print for a long period, there is a sustained demand from your trade and retail customers, and the second edition will contain a substantial amount of new material. Even then, it would be a costly mistake to assume that nearly everyone who bought the original book will want the new one; in fact, historically, only a small percentage do so.

Profit and Loss

The aim of every book publisher – professional or otherwise – should be first to cover costs and then hopefully to make at least a modest profit. By definition, a book which is earmarked for self publishing is financially risky because almost certainly it will have been offered to, considered by, and then turned down by more than one of the established publishing houses. Some self-published books have indeed proved profitable for the author, but many have not, so the profit motive should play an insignificant part in the decision-making process. Far wiser, having established the total cost of the venture, is to decide how much of this you can afford to lose if faced with a worst-case scenario. Be comforted by the thought that any financial pain, if suffered, should be offset by the great satisfaction of having not only authored a worthwhile book, but also brought it into publication.

Record Keeping

Finally, remember that any profit will attract the interest of the Inland Revenue, so it is essential that full and accurate accounts are kept of revenue and costs, including all allowable personal expenses such as travel costs. These could have been incurred from when interviewing people as part of your original research right through to the personal delivery of finished copies to trade customers. A taxing task, but it could save you tax!

Useful Addresses

There are websites in profusion to be found on the internet offering self publishing services to authors. If possible, make contact with one or more companies which seem able to supply what you need and are located sufficiently conveniently for you to pay them a visit. This will enable you to establish personal contacts, view their facilities and ask to see examples of their work. This website contains a handy list of self publishing services, the inclusion of details of self publishing services does not constitute a recommendation by the MSMT.