You’ve written your book, you’ve hired all the relevant people to help get it to the last stage, and now you’re trying to find out how to publish it.

There are several options open to you, and in this article, I’m going to explain the differences between those choices. Each one has it’s pros and cons, but most authors-to-be want something that’s immediate, and it’s one of the reasons why I created Compass-Publishing UK.

I’m often asked, ‘If I publish through Compass-Publishing UK, how does it work?’ and in this article, I’m going to explain all of the different variations we offer, including other options such as traditional (trad) publishing and other hybrid publishers, and I hope it’ll clarify what has become an overly complicated process.

But before I go any further, let me explain what ‘publishing’ means, so that you’ll have a clear understanding of the term.

What publishing means

In essence, publishing your book means preparing your book for sale. So, once your book has been printed, and you’ve made it available for people to buy, you have then, by definition, ‘published’ your book.

It does not mean it’s then automatically available through all selling channels, such as bookshops and online, although steps can be taken to maximise this activity. However, if you’ve published traditionally, this could be an automatic process, and for more-popular authors, a presale of that book will no doubt be launched. But for those who are self-publishing, that’s not the case, and unfortunately, the meaning of the term ‘publishing’ has been muddied over the years, causing confusion and misinformation about what the term actually means.

Why the confusion? Because trad publishers make it so! They like the mystique, and because it all seems so complicated and out of reach, writers then strive for a trad-publishing deal, which in turn means more money for them, but alas, in most cases, not for you the author.

But panic not, my authory friends, there are other avenues open to you, and I hope that, after reading this, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the process. I’ll be explaining all the options available, so you can make the best decision for your goals/project.

I will say that to get your book selling through all of the channels (such as bookshops and online retailers – Amazon and Waterstones, for example), and not just through your own selling channels, you need one magic ingredient, and that’s an international standard book number (ISBN).

And it’s how you obtain this ISBN that determines who is considered to have published your book.

A quick word on copyright

In the UK, your book is automatically copyrighted and is stated as such on the title verso page of your book. You don’t need to apply for copyright, unlike in the US, and this is often displayed using the © symbol.

An ISBN does not affect your copyright status.

Copyright duration is the lifetime of the author plus 70 years.

Most trad publishers will ask the author to assign certain rights to them. This can be one of several models, including these: the author assigns copyright to the publisher for the term of copyright, the author assigns exclusive rights to the publisher for the term of the copyright, the author assigns exclusive rights to the publisher for the term of the of copyright or until the work goes out of print, or the author assigns non-exclusive rights to the publisher for the term of the copyright.[1]

Before you sign any deal with anyone helping you to publish your book, check what their copyright agreement is. This is really important, and I highly recommend you make yourself familiar with what this means in terms of your work. As a side note, Compass-Publishing UK assigns no rights to your work; all we ask is that if you decide to publish elsewhere, you a) let us know so we can update our records, and b) you state in your book that it was first published by us, which is a legal requirement anyway.

What an international standard book number (ISBN) is

An ISBN is a 13-digit number (it was 10 digits before 1st January 2007) that identifies your book. It’s a bit like how a car reg / licence plate links all the information associated with your car.

If you want to sell your book online from a third-party website, such as Amazon or Waterstones, or if you want to sell your book in a bookshop, then you’ll need an ISBN.

You can obtain an ISBN in any one of three different ways:

  1. through a trad publisher, such as Penguin or Random House;
  2. through a third party, such as a hybrid publisher or Compass-Publishing UK; or
  3. directly from the ISBN agency.

In the UK, ISBNs are obtained from Nielsen.[2]

Once your book has been printed, this ISBN is then registered through Nielsen’s database, using its PubWeb portal. The registration information includes the name of the publisher, the title of the book, how much it costs, its size, its genre and all of the other details that retailers need.

And this is where it gets confusing.

Who the publisher is

Whoever owns the ISBN is the publisher.

If you buy the ISBN (from Nielsen in the UK or Bowker[3] in the US), then your book will be published by whatever name you gave Nielsen/Bowker when you bought it (they ask this at the point of sale). So, for example, if you gave ‘Your Name Publishing’ to Nielsen, then that’s who you declare as the publisher.

However, if your book has been published traditionally or you’ve bought your ISBN from a third party, then that publisher/organisation will own the ISBN attributed to your book, and they will be your book’s publisher. Therefore, if you obtain an ISBN from Compass-Publishing UK, it’s the publisher of your book, not you!

(Knowing who is the publisher is the most confusing part of the process, and writers think that if they obtained their ISBN from a third party, the writer themself is the publisher, which is a very common misconception; read this for more ISBN myths.)

Depending on which option you’ve chosen (or been offered), and what the terms and conditions of that offer are, this will then have an impact on in your marketing and the availability of your book to outlets.

Let’s now look at what this means in terms of the examples I’ve given previously.

Which type of publisher to choose

The following sections detail what you need to be aware of regarding each type of publisher, to help you make your choice.

Traditional (trad) publishers

If you publish through a trad publisher, then a contract between you will have been drawn up, and all of the sales terms, your advance (the amount paid to you for your story/book) and the percentage of book sales you’ll receive will be covered in it.

Usually, this includes a fee paid to you, the creator, upfront. Then they’ll usually produce the book and sell it for you, with a percentage of the sales being paid to you for each book sold. Each publisher has different terms, so I can’t go into the specifics of what those amounts are, but it’s usually a lot lower than authors expect, with only a fraction of the cover price being paid back to the author. Think 5% rather than 50%!

Pros: 

  • Your book will automatically get into bookshops, all major retail outlets, and online stores such as Waterstones and Amazon. You’ll also be able to presell your book.
  • The publisher will do some of the marketing for you. (It’s recently been made known to me that trad publishers will expect you to do some of the marketing as well, and they may require you to get your book edited at your cost, so make sure you read the fine print in your contract.)
  • You gain kudos from being selected by a ‘known’ publisher.

Cons:

  • You might be restricted as to where you can sell your book, and you’ll only get a percentage of the cover price.
  • You might need to change your story, and you’ll probably have strict copyright terms for your work.
  • You might not be able to republish your book with anyone else, or if you’re allowed to go somewhere else, you might not be able to republish your book in another format.

Don’t fall for the hype

Most want-to-be authors chase the dream of being published traditionally. They’re attracted to the lure of the large advance, and they have visions of a David Walliams-style lifestyle of giving up work to write full time.

Unfortunately, this scenario is very, very rare.

And if you dig a bit deeper under the murky surface of what a deal actually looks like, it’s usually something along the lines of a small advance – perhaps as much as £5,000 – and then no more than 5% of the cover price in royalties, so for a typical novel, which is priced at around £7.99, that’s just 5p a book you’ll receive. If you do the maths, you’ll see that a lot of books need to be sold for you to be able to write full time. In fact, to make £1,000 a month, you’d have to be selling 20,000 books every four weeks!

Mmm, well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?

Even worse, a deal can be struck and papers signed only for the publisher to pull the offer after a year if the book doesn’t do as well as they’d hoped. Also, don’t think that trad publishers won’t want you to do some marketing too. In fact, some will be looking at what you can offer them in terms of followers/exposure right now before they’ll sign the deal.

And I haven’t even gone into the hoops you’ll need to jump through to get a deal. If you want to know how that works, then read the article here.

Hybrid publishers

There are now some hybrid publishers out there that are similar to trad publishers in that they’ll pay you a percentage of the book sales, but you’ll generally have to pay them to help you get your book produced and published. However, you need to do your research and due diligence. I’ve heard some awful stories about people who’ve gone down a hybrid route, having been lured by the advance, and then get nothing in terms of percentage of sales.

Look at the hybrid publisher’s track record. Speak to other authors who’ve used them and get testimonials. Read the terms closely (including the small print) and see exactly what is expected of you regarding what you have to pay for and what you’ll get in return.

Pros:

  • You’ll get support, and you might get an advance.
  • The publisher will usually have an in with bookshops, and they might also take care of the distribution of your books for you.
  • They might help with the marketing of your book.

Cons:

  • There are some really shady hybrid publishers out there, so do your research.
  • They might or might not pay for the production of your book. They’ll also more than likely take a percentage of your book cover price; it’s usually much less than a trad publisher, but you need to find out exactly what it is, as what they pay you might only be a small percentage.
  • You might still need to market or distribute your book.
  • They might have strict copyright terms that will stop you from taking your book anywhere else for a period of time, so make sure you check this too.

Whilst I’ve highlighted the pros and cons above, I can’t stress enough that you must do your research on this option. There are some great hybrid companies that are supportive and have some clout in terms of getting you into bookshops, but they’re few and far between. They also usually require a hefty fee, and that isn’t an option for many first-time writers.

Going solo (using your own publishing name)

Of course, you can do everything yourself. If you’ve bought the ISBN directly and are publishing through your own publishing name, then you’ll take 100% of the cover price, but you’ll pay for the production of your book (editing, layout, cover design, etc.) and you’re in charge of the whole process. This can be a bit of a minefield if you’ve not got prior experience.

Pros:

  • You’ll own your book and can write whatever you want.
  • You’ll receive 100% of your cover price. You may sell your book wherever you want, although you’ll have to get those agreements yourself. You also know exactly who has bought the book if you sell directly.
  • You may still get a trad-publishing deal.

Cons:

  • You’ll pay for the book’s production. You’ll need to find and hire all the other skilled individuals whom you’ll need to finalise your book, including an editor, proofreader, typesetter, illustrator (if needed) and cover designer.
  • You’ll need to find a printer and `choose the right paper and cover finish for your project. You’ll need to organise delivery and any proofs.
  • You’ll need to obtain an ISBN. You’ll need to register the book on Nielsen’s PubWeb (more about that later).
  • You’ll need to get your book converted for Kindle. You’ll need to upload your book to Amazon yourself.
  • You won’t automatically get your book into Waterstones online, as you’ll need to set that up (you can find out here how to do that). Once you’ve done this, you’ll still need to check that it is now showing as ‘available’, as sometimes there can be issues. You’ll have to do the distribution[4] unless you get a third party to do this for you, at your expense.
  • All of the marketing is up to you.

Note on ISBNs: You’ll need to declare the ISBN on your title verso page, along with your publisher’s name and all of the other legal info, such as a copyright statement, and any other people who need to be named (your editor, for instance, or your illustrator, if applicable [see this glossary  for more details about this term]). You’ll need to convert your ISBN, which is a 13-digit number, to a barcode-style graphic for the back cover of your book. There are places online that can do this for you or you can pay extra for Nielsen to do this. Just make sure it’s set to the right printing specifications: greyscale and 300dpi (see this useful glossary for more info about these terms). Of course, if you’re using a trad publisher or another publishing company to help you, such as Compass-Publishing UK, this should be done for you.

Publishing through Compass-Publishing UK

I set up Compass-Publishing UK to make it easier for authors to get their books sold through online platforms, such as Amazon, whilst still allowing the author to sell directly. As we have a relationship with the major book distribution company in the UK, Gardners, then your books will be available in Waterstones online (I’ll be explaining how that works a little later in this article). However, we can’t automatically get your book into bookshops. Of course, you can approach bookshops independently, and they might then agree to stock your book, either through a buy-or-return deal or through ordering from Gardners (see this link for how that works), but that’s one of the drawbacks of self-publishing. However, with the right planning and determination, many of our authors have successfully negotiated deals with local bookshops, including Waterstones, so this option is open to you if you’re willing to talk to bookshop owners and managers.

Pros:

  • We do all the heavy lifting to get your book to the printing stage, through offering all aspects of book-production support, such as editing and layout. We can also arrange for printing and Kindle conversion if required.
  • We don’t take a percentage of your sales, and you’re free to republish with anyone else, if you decide to.
  • We deal with the registering of your book, and that will then trigger a host of different obligations (which I talk about in the next steps later in this article), and we deal with the orders from Gardners, which we pass on to you. We have a relationship with Waterstones, and your book – once registered – will automatically appear on their website. We can help you get your book on Amazon as well.

Cons:

  • You’ll need to pay us for all the production costs listed previously, but it’s usually at a much lower cost as we don’t take a percentage of any sales.
  • We don’t get involved with any marketing of your book – we leave all of that to you – although we’ll post about your book on our social media and you’ll appear on our website.
  • We don’t distribute or fulfil any orders of your book for you, so that is again left to you.

Having someone to help you navigate all the aspects of book production can be really useful, and we just let you get on with what you do best: writing. Plus, because we help with all of the layout aspects, you can rest assured that your book is going to look fantastic, and we have a great relationship with several printers that will deliver the perfect product for you.

We also guide you in the best way to sell your book. For some, this means selling only on Amazon. A much as I dislike the platform, if you know what you’re doing, you need to sell volume, and you don’t have the space or time to stock boxes of books in your hallway, then this is a very viable option and can work well.

A last word of caution before you choose your publisher

Whatever route you decide to take, I can’t stress enough that due diligence is required before you sign anything. My rule of thumb is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There’s no doubt that getting a trad-publishing deal is something to be incredibly proud of, and if you’ve listened to The Pen to Published Podcast – specifically, episode eight of series four – then you’ll know my views on this. However, I can’t help but think that most writers are unaware of the truth behind the deals. Authors-to-be can be incredibly blinkered in terms of what they think they’ll be offered, when in truth, it’s never as generous. They strive for years to woo the right agents only to find the money they get in return is pence in the pound.

Therefore, getting a hybrid deal or going self-published can be the right option – especially if you’re not a patient person or you need to get your book out sooner rather than later.

So, research your options, talk to other writers about their experience, and then make sure you’re clear on any terms or contracts you’re offered. And if any company/agent/publisher tries to make you sign anything within a time limit that seems unrealistic, step away.

Finally – and this is a biggie – no agent from any publisher will ask for money up front to read a manuscript. You may be required to pay for a sample edit from an independent editor, but that isn’t the same thing. So make sure you know whom you’re dealing with, and always ask for testimonials if you’re unsure.

Next steps once your book has been published

So, now you’ve decided how you want to publish your book, let’s look at what that means in terms of the legal obligations you’ll have as an author once your book has been published.

If you’ve decided to go for a trad-publishing deal, a hybrid option or Compass-Publishing UK, then these next steps will be done for you – although it’s good to read through what happens, just so you’re aware of what goes on behind the scenes.

If you’re going solo, then you’ll need to complete each one of these steps yourself.

Registering your book on PubWeb

Once your book has been printed, you’ll need to register your ISBN on PubWeb[5] so all the book’s information is then linked to it. You’ll be given details of how to do this when you purchase your ISBN, or if you’ve been given your ISBN through a third party, such as a trad or hybrid publisher, this will be done for you.

Your legal responsibilities once you’ve registered your ISBN

When you register your book, a set of actions then needs to be done, including fulfilling your legal obligation to submit your books to various libraries across the UK.

All books with an ISBN are required by law to be submitted, so make sure you have this factored in when you’re getting your book printed. You’ll receive written confirmation for the British Library deposit and an email for the others (see here for full details of where to send them to).

Once your book has been registered, an automatic listing will be made to several online stores, including Amazon.[6] Nielsen doesn’t share all of these locations, and you can’t pick and choose where they’re listed.

Enhanced service

This service may be offered by your ISBN provider (Compass-Publishing UK offers this service), or if you’ve bought your ISBN yourself, you should have access to this option.

The enhanced service offers a bigger description of your book, including a long and short description (not just the classification description you get with the basic listing), a table of contents, and an author bio.

You’ll need to contact Nielsen directly to set this up with your account. You may need to pay an additional subscription for this option, and it’s billed yearly. The cost depends on how many ISBNs you’ve already registered.

Selling your books online and in bookshops

Once your book has been published, it’s time to sell it!

This is probably the biggest challenge most authors face, and it’s where having a trad-publishing deal makes it so much easier, as this bit is all done for you.

Marketing and selling your book is relentless, and it’s where most authors fall short. They either didn’t think of this last step, or they think that, by simply having it listed on Amazon or on a webpage, the book will magically sell itself. Alas, this isn’t the case.

Your marketing strategy will affect your book sales, and it’s something we always encourage our authors to think about before they begin their writing journey.

We don’t get involved in the marketing side of things, which is why we don’t take a percentage of sales. How you market it depends on your target reader. Where do they hang out? What type of book are you writing? If it’s a business-lead magnet, then selling directly through your website is a well-known tactic that can work really well.

Facebook groups can also work if you’re selling novels or children’s books – one of our authors, Kylie Dixon, has done extremely well using this method. Go and find her on her Mushroom Marvellous Facebook group and see her authory journey from when she wrote her first book, Inkcap and the Nethers,to her hotly anticipated third book, Inkcap and the Agaric Circle.

Finding the right avenue to sell your book is something you should definitely look into before you begin writing. Don’t leave this bit till the end. Get people involved with your story as you write, and do your research as to where they’ll buy from.

This part of the process is relentless, and you have to be focused and consistent for it to work. Don’t underestimate it!

How to get your books sold by Amazon and Waterstones

Don’t forget, this next step can only be actioned once you’ve registered your book with Nielsen. If you haven’t done this, then none of the following will apply.

For your book to show up as ‘available’ on Amazon, you’ll need to set up an account that allows you to sell your book. As there are several options available to you, it’s probably a good idea to look at these and see which one is right for you. If you’re interested in Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which is where Amazon prints and distributes your book for you, then get in touch. We have a KDP upload service, and it’s a quick and easy way to get your book Amazon ready.

To get your book listed on Waterstones, you’ll need to complete a trading form (which can be found here) and send it to Gardners directly, and this will then allow a listing to made on Waterstones online. (If you’ve used an ISBN from Compass-Publishing UK, then this step will already have been done for you.) You may need to check your Waterstones listing from time to time. I’ve noticed recently (November 2022) that a book’s listing status can change from ‘available’ to ‘currently unavailable’. It seems that its warehouse ordering system is going through a huge overhaul, and this has caused issues with its listings for independent publishers. Having contacted Nielsen directly about this, I’ve had to trigger an override on my titles to show them as ‘available to order through publisher’. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, but if you can imagine how many thousands of self-published authors are releasing books every day, I guess it’s only the tenacious authors who get rewarded.

How to get your books sold by bookshops

This is probably the biggest – and most frustrating – part of being a self-published author. The quick answer is this: not easily!

The way bookshops order books is frustratingly archaic, and you have to go through a distributer for this to happen easily. The UK’s book distributor is Gardners.[7] Unfortunately, for this to kick in automatically, you need to be selling a certain number of books a month. It’s a bit of a catch-22 if you’re not able to get your book into bookshops to begin with.

By default, your book will appear on the Gardners website as ‘not available to order’. To change this, you’ll need to contact Gardners directly. If you’ve used Compass-Publishing UK, this will be done for you, but if you are going solo, then you’ll need to add this to your to-do list. You’ll need to contact Gardners’ independent publisher helpdesk and then email it your details, including the front cover of your book. This will get your book’s status changed from ‘not available’ to ‘special order line’, which will then allow bookshops to order your book from them.

One of the simplest ways to get your book sold by a bookshop is to go and talk to the bookshop managers yourself and strike up a relationship with them. They might then offer you two choices: buy and return, where you give them X number of books for a discount, and then they return any unsold books; or they’ll order in X number of books directly from Gardners. Again, if you have a trad-publishing deal, your publisher will already have this relationship with Gardners, and your books will automatically appear in bookshops across the country.

However, a fair few of our authors have approached independent bookshops and had much success through this method. If you’re able to get press coverage or come up with ways that the bookshop will benefit from stocking your book, then this will really appeal to them. We always remind our authors to make this relationship as easy as possible, and giving exclusive rights might sweeten the deal.

Again, don’t underestimate this part of the process, and be relentless in your pursuit of getting your book stocked by bookshops. Build relationships and offer attractive deals. Any additional press coverage will, of course, help your cause.

Other book formats

Before I finish this article, I thought I’d quickly mention e-books and audiobooks as these have slightly different rules in terms of how they’re published.

E-books (for Kindle and other e-readers)

An e-book  is simply an electronic book. Think of it as a version that isn’t a physical, hold-in-your-hand type. They typically come in one of three different file formats: ePub[8], Mobi (although this is only for fixed-layout Kindle editions, and it isn’t really used anymore) and PDF. Depending on which file format your e-book is in, you can open most of them on your computer, a mobile device (such as a smart phone or tablet) or on a dedicated e-reader device. You can also sell your e-books directly from your own website (these are typically sold in PDF file format).

A lot of people use the term ‘Kindle’ to mean an e-book. This isn’t correct. Strictly speaking, a Kindle is a device used to read a specific type of e-book and is exclusive to Amazon (see glossary here). The Kindle uses ePub files (or Mobi files for e-books in a fixed format),[9] and you buy a Kindle edition of the book when you visit Amazon. However, you can’t sell a Kindle edition of your book on your own website, as Kindle editions can only be bought from Amazon.

Kindle e-books don’t legally require an ISBN. To get your book on Amazon, you’ll need to get your book converted to an ePub format, and then you can upload this version (alongside your other formats) within KDP.

However, if you want your book to be available on other e-readers, such as Kobo and Remarkable, then you’ll need to look into these platforms individually to find out what format your book needs to be in to be read by that e-reader (almost always ePub) and how to make your book available through them, which is dependent on how each of these platforms works.

If you want to distribute your book electronically, then Smashwords is a free e-book publishing platform that is perfect for this; you can find out more about that option here.

Audiobooks

Getting your book converted into an audiobook is a smart way of making your publication accessible to all book lovers. There are several ways you can do this, much like there are for getting your book printed.

Audible is Amazon’s audiobook platform, and it’s one of the most popular ways of getting your book distributed in this way, although there are others. If you’re interested in getting your book on Audible, then our sister company, The Book Refinery Ltd, offers this as a service (click here for details).

You can, of course, do it yourself, but be warned: it’s not an easy process, and you’ll need to meet Amazon’s quality control standards before you can upload your book. It’s also not cheap, with the recording being the most expensive element. It’s highly recommended that you use a professional recording studio, and this is where the majority of the cost lies.

You’ll also need to make sure the book has been edited for narration. This means phrases such as ‘see below’ or ‘the chart on the next page’ will need to be edited as they won’t make sense when the whole book is read aloud. Of course, if it’s a novel or children’s book, it’ll be much easier.

In conclusion

Book creation and publishing is a bit of a minefield, but I hope this article has helped explain what publishing means and all of the options available to you.

Knowing how you’re going to print your book, be it trad or self-published, is something you need to think of first, before you begin writing.

A trad-publishing deal may seem like the holy grail of publishing, but remember that it’s only a tiny proportion of published authors who go on to make it big. And getting a deal takes know-how and resilience.

Hopefully, I’ve debunked the myth of how complicated self-publishing is, and I’ve offered you some other avenues to pursue. But as with any big goal, doing your research first is really important, and I can’t stress enough that you must do your due diligence for whichever path you take.

Do the maths!

But above all else, enjoy the process. Writing a book is an art, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Once you’ve written your book, your authory journey has only just started. Strap yourself in for the next part – production and selling as it’s relentless. But if you choose the right avenue and have a great team helping you, then it can be a profitable one. And that might not mean a trad-publishing deal!

If you’re looking for other writing support, then why not join my free Facebook group, The Writers Refinery? Or listen to our podcast, The Pen to Published Podcast, as this offers all of the best advice in terms of self-publishing. It might just make your journey that bit easier!


[1] Marques, M. (2017). Institution as e-textbook publisher. Jisc. [online] Available at: https://etextbook.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2017/11/08/copyright-in-publishing-author-rights-and-licences-and-the-use-of-third-party-material/

[2] You can also obtain an ISBN through Amazon. If you opt for their ‘free’ one, this means that your book is published by them. They’ll automatically register your book for you. It also means that you can’t get your book printed anywhere other than Amazon.

[3] I’m not familiar with how Bowker works in terms of obtaining an ISBN, as I don’t live in the US. Please click here for more info on obtaining an ISBN from Bowker.  

[4] If you upload your book directly to Amazon KDP or Ingram, then they’ll print and distribute the book for you, but at a cost. Our sister company, The Book Refinery Ltd, offers an upload service for your book; click here for more details.  

[5] PubWeb is an online platform run by Nielsen. Your login details are given to you when you buy your ISBN, and you need to log in to this platform to register your book; click here for more details. 

[6] For your Amazon listing, until you set up a reseller account or upload your book to KDP, your book will be shown as ‘unavailable’.

[7] Visit the Gardners website for more details.

[8] ePub is the format required for most e-readers, such as Kindle and Kobo. Some e-reader vendors (e.g. Kindle) will also allow you to upload a DOCX file, but we always encourage our authors to get it converted to ePub, as this will most resemble your printed book because that’s what is used for the conversion.

[9] Click here for more details on the Kindle file format.

Publishing Your Book: What, How and Everything in Between