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Starting Out in Self-Publishing


Everyone involved with the production of a book - the editors and publishers, the manufacturers of paper, the binders, the van drivers, the accountants, the publicists, the booksellers, the office cleaners - makes a reasonable living except the starry-eyed masochists who actually provide the words without which all the others would have to be doing something else.

Milton Shulman

I'm writing this guide with the assumption that you, the reader, are interested in getting something published. Much of this essay is gleaned from nearly eleven years of self-publishing, and six years of work in professional book & magazine publishing. This essay is particularly aimed at those who are interested in publishing "one-off" books & booklets, but much of it is also valid for those who are interested in starting up magazines or journals.


Setting Out to Publish

The first thing you need to do of course, is to look at your idea for a publication, be it a book, booklet, or magazine. This may be no more than a rough collection of ideas, something you have been working on for some time, or a collection of writings which has been published in various magazines.

The Value of Networking

Networking, in this context, means making contact with people who can be of assistance with your project. Start by making a list of anyone whom you know who could possibly be of assistance, whether it's help with proof-reading, design, DTP, marketing, promotions, sales, or someone who can set you up with a venue for a talk or seminar. Make a list of areas where you might need assistance and approach people appropriately. Networking can grow on an exponential basis, as some of the people you ask for assistance will doubtless know others who can be of help to you as well. Bear in mind that Networking is a process of sharing. Most occult magazines need writers, for example. People who set up talks & seminars need speakers. Working with other people is generally more effective than trying to everything on your own. Networking can be a slow process of building good relationships with people, but it is well worth making the effort.

Recovery Time

"Recovery Time" is the time which a publication takes to cover its production costs. As a general estimate, it can take about three months for a publication to pay for itself. Most occult small press publications are in a situation of just about breaking even, if ever. This is an important consideration, as if you borrow money to float a project, you need to consider how long it will take the publication to pay for itself.


The time of the year when a publication is released is important, particularly if you are in a hurry to recover your initial costs. The Conference & Festival season runs from April - October in the UK, so if you bring a publication out in April, you're in a good position to catch them all. Sales at conferences & festivals can be unpredictable, however.

Product Speciality

I use this term to describe the focus of the publication to a particular audience. This is why Aquarian Press put out lots of books on tarot - it's a proven market. Whilst this shouldn't necessarily put you off releasing your material, it is worth bearing in mind, as it could affect your Recovery Time.

It's often very difficult to predict how the market will respond to a book. Hermes Press, one of the publishing groups I worked with released a book on ESP which we all thought would do very well - unfortunately, actual sales were somewhat slow.


Once you've decided to publish, you need to look at the format the publication will take.


Booklets (or chapbooks as they are also known - as they were sold in the streets by chapmen) tend to be A5 in size and centre-stitched (stapled) with card or paper covers. They are relatively easy and cheap to produce.


Books, whatever their size, are mainly either semi-stiff or hardback - depending on the type of cover used. There used to be a distinct feeling that 'hardbacks' were more classy than semi-stiff books, but they are bulkier, more expensive, and more difficult to produce, particularly if you are going to do it yourself.


I've done magazines both in A4 and A5 size, ranging from 4 page freesheets through to 48 page monsters like Chaos International. As there's a lot of other considerations to be aware of if you're setting out to do a magazine, I'll cover magazine production in a separate article.

Some basic points on book design that you need to be aware of include:

Basic Layout Skills

There is a common tendency for newcomers to DTP to 'go mad' with special effects and fancy typefaces. Bear in mind that it's easier to make a production look awful than it is to make it look good. If you are new to DTP, then it's a good idea to look at publications which are of a similar nature to your own project, to see how they've been laid out. Personally, I favour the simple approach - using a typeface such as Times or Palatino for body text, and Helvetica (or something similar) for Chapter Headers & Sub-Headers. You should also consider the size of your Body Text - if you use a small typeface, you can pack a lot of words onto a page, but it might be difficult for people to read. If the body text is too large, it will look as though you don't have enough material, and that you are trying to 'pad out' the book. Paying close attention to the basic layout of the publication is very important, as potential customers will react to the layout before they begin to actually read the text.

If you know someone who is good at DTP, it would be worth approaching them and asking if they would be prepared to work on your project, and what kind of renumeration they would require for this.


An important aspect of page layout is paying attention to the margins around your page area. It's tempting to set low margins so you can cram in as much text as possible, but this can end up looking really bad. It's also worth bearing in mind that printers will trim the edges of your pages, and if you haven't got much of a margin in the first place the result will definitely detract from the 'look' of the finished product.

Some people seem to think that layout isn't really something that matters. Personally I find that if a book isn't well laid-out then attempting to read it is a very irritating experience.

I find that doing some research on how large publishers lay out their books is well worth doing, which just means spending more time looking at books in bookshops. It's all too easy, when you're sitting in front of a computer, to go mad with special effects, whereas a simple approach to layout might be more effective. This is particularly important for magazines.

Computers & Software Applications

I recently read an article in the computer press which implied that if you want to get into Desktop Publishing then you really need a high-performance machine with lots of RAM, and a large hard disk, not to mention a scanner, digital camera, graphics tablet and some kind of external media for moving large files around. Similarly, some people will tell you that if you are going to do DTP properly, you need either Adobe Pagemaker (which can cost around £600) or Quark Xpress (the latest version being a snip at around £1100!). All this is fine if you've got money to throw around, but not terribly helpful if you're on a low income. It's nice to have (or have access to) professional quality gear, but it's not necessary by any means. When I started self-publishing in the late 1980s, I produced 7 A5 booklets (most of which went into second or even third printings) and a monthly pagan magazine on a 1-megabyte RAM Atari ST with no hard disk, and Timeworks DTP, a 'budget' DTP package which cost, in those days, around £80. There were times when I didn't even have a laser printer and had to rely on the very few output bureaux in the UK which supported the Atari.

Nowadays, there are a wide variety of 'budget' DTP & Graphics applications for both the PC and the Apple Mac. The price of laser printers, scanners etc. have dropped and the PC markets eternal drive towards bigger & better machines means that the price of lower-performance computers keeps going down. Which is all the better for those of us who want to publish our own stuff but not break the bank in the process.

Most modern DTP applications are capable of printing out collated pages - i.e. in the order that they will fall in the publication. This is particularly good for booklet and 'zine printing, as it takes away the hassle of manually having to paste up pages before taking them to be printed. Of course, you might enjoy messing about with scissors, glue and letraset.

Community Centres

It's worth looking around to see if there's any local Community centres which offer free or low-cost use of computer equipment and even printing! A few years ago, I was involved in doing a free pagan newsletter, and most of our printing was done courtesy of friends who had access to photocopiers. Later, when I was producing my first booklets and the monthly 'zine Pagan News, we found a cheap 'alternative' printing service run by members of Chumbawamba. The only problem was that they didn't do any binding, which resulted in us hosting 'stapling parties' to get the magazine bound.

Initial Costings

Once you know how many pages your publication is going to be, you can ring round a number of printers to find the most competitive cost. More printers nowadays are specialising in low-cost, short-run books so it should be too difficult to find someone who can match your needs.

Bear in mind that the more copies you print, the lower your unit cost per book is going to be. However, it's pointless printing thousands of copies if you're going to be stuck with them for years! You need to carefully consider how many books you think you can realistically shift. For example, when I have printed booklets in the past, I have usually kept the print run to 300 copies, estimating that I can shift this amount within a year, and then consider a reprint once they've sold out.

When you know the total production cost, you can work out a unit price. My general rule-of-thumb for working out production costs is the total cost of production, divided by the print run. So if printing 300 books is going to cost you £693.37, then the unit price will be £2.31 per book. I usually multiply the unit price by 3 to get the cover price. Unless you plan to sell all the books yourself, when you price your book you should take into account that retailers are going to want a discount on books you sell them - this can be negotiable with some outlets, but larger stores will insist on a larger discount.

Unfortunately you can't stick on any price you want as there are general expectations from readers about what is a 'fair' price for a publication in a particular format. It pays to do some research into this. For example, I have found that £4 is generally thought to be the upper limit price for a centre-stitched A5 booklet (given a run of 300 copies for example).

ISBN Numbers & Barcodes

Why bother with ISBN numbers? If your publication has a unique ISBN number, it can be ordered through any bookshop. To get an ISBN number in the UK, you have to register as a publisher with Whitaker Bibliographic Services, 12 Dyott Street, London WC1A 1DF (Tel: 0171 420 6000, Fax: 0171 379 5469). Whitaker will send you a sheet of unique ISBN Numbers and forms to submit details of your publication, which will be added to Whitaker's Index of Books in Print, which is distributed to bookshops regularly. Note that at the time of writing this article, Whitaker's were taking at least two months to process the details of books submitted. So as soon as you have the basic details of your book sorted (size, page count, no of illustrations etc.,) it's a good idea to get your Whitaker's form in.

Most printers will be able to add a barcode to your book (although this may well cost you - one printer I used for example charged £23 for inserting a barcode onto a book cover). If you are thinking of doing a number of books, it is well worth investing in some barcode creation software.

Sending books to Printers

Sending books to be printed can be a daunting task if you're not used to it. You need to be aware of the following points:


The more colours you have on a book's cover, the more it will cost.

Most printers can work from Camera-ready Copy, although if your work is very graphics-heavy, it might be better to supply them with Postscript files and if this is the case, you should seek instructions from your printer as to how to prepare files to their specifications. Also, you may need to check the printer's requirements for cover design file formats. If you are working in a relatively obscure DTP or Graphics application, you might have to go to an independent output bureau in order to run out your files on film. Check with your printers about what applications they use to output files, and how they would like you to prepare the files in order to minimize their work. Remember, the more messing about your printer has to do with what you supply them with, the more it will cost you in the long run. So it's useful to:

Most modern printers have access to email or ISDN, so if you have access to either, this can be an effective way to send corrections, etc. You can also, if you feel it is desirable, request an uncollated book block of the text and a proof of the cover - but bear in mind that full-colour proofs of covers can be expensive!


Books do not sell themselves. An obvious point you might think, but I've met quite a lot of people who think that all one has to do is produce a book and it will somehow sell by some mysterious process of osmosis. The more work you do to market and promote a book, the more likely you are to see a return on your investment.

You need to consider how you intend to go about marketing the publication. One way to do this is to advertise in appropriate magazines - either by lineage or display ads. Advertising doesn't necessarily sell a book, but it does serve to alert people to the fact of it's existence. Obviously, review copies to magazines also help.

Personal Appearances

By far the best way to generate direct sales is to take the publication around yourself to events and meetings, particularly if you do talks, seminars, workshops etc. which are related to your work. If you present yourself well, people are more likely to be favourable towards your written work, and you are creating an impression that will last. Another point to bear in mind here is that by doing talks, workshops, etc., you can build up a mailing list of contacts which can be useful if you plan to release other publications.

Book Launches

If you've access to a friendly bookshop, then a book launch can be worth considering. Even large chains such as W.H Smiths or Waterstones can sometimes be talked into supporting the launch of a local author although for occult authors I feel it is better to stick to specialist outlets. A great deal depends here on how much of a 'splash' you want to make - i.e. do you want the launch to be a 'party' and if so, do you want to fork out cash on buying wine and peanuts for the guests. An alternative to the 'party' style launch which can work very well is to hire a room in a pub or hotel, invite some guest speakers in addition to yourself and charge people a couple of quid to get in - which can be discounted from them buying your book. The last time I did this we managed to shift about 50 copies of a book, which brought in nearly £500 - very useful for covering the print bill!

Limited Editions

Limited editions of a book (i.e. individually numbered copies) do have a certain 'collector' appeal. One booklet I did drew so many requests for 'number 23' that I considered giving an entire reprint run the number 23! It does also happen that a few years on, you'll find that second-hand dealers in occult books considerably 'mark up' copies of limited editions. The first edition of my booklet The Pseudonomicon, for example - when it came out in 1994 it was priced at £3.00. I've since seen copies of the first edition priced at £12!

Writing Articles

If you are an 'unknown' writer, it can be very difficult to sell a publication in any quantity. So it does help if you can plan a writing campaign - perhaps using extracts of your publication - aimed at the magazines where you are hoping to advertise your publication or your 'target' audience.

Review Copies

Sending out review copies of a publication is a good way of letting people know that it's available. The first thing you need to do is look at your publication and decide which of the many pagan, occult, & esoteric journals are appropriate (in terms of interest, readership circulation and frequency of issue, etc.) for your publication. Once you've made a shortlist of target journals, send them the publication, together with all relevant details - price plus postage, how to order the book etc. and a polite request for a review. Favourable reviews of your publication can be quoted if you design advertising flyers, order forms, etc.

Unless you know someone who is on the staff of a magazine, it's difficult to exert much say over what a review of a publication will say. Some magazines do try, where possible, to give a publication to someone who's own interests will allow them to do a thorough review of a product. Writing reviews is itself a skill, and relatively few people are good at it. If, for any reason, you get a 'bad' review, don't write in and complain, as this tends to put across a poor impression of you as an author or publisher, unless you have very good grounds for a rebuttal.

Exchange Adverts

Many small press occult magazines run 'Exchange Ad' listings with other 'zines of a similar nature. This can be a useful way of circulating the details of your publication.


Frankly, distribution is a big headache. You need to approach various retailers & offer the product at a discount (35% is usual), raise invoices, and then be prepared to wait months & months for the money to come back. Many Occult bookshops are notoriously bad at paying up. Mailing out samples to retailers gives a return of about 1%, and is not really worth doing for one-offs. If you are financing a publication yourself, then obviously you are going to want as many direct sales as possible - which basically comes down to advertising & direct promotion. However, if you do decide to use outlets, it does help enormously if you can establish a personal contact with them. If you can find a good distribution service who will get your publication into a wide range of outlets without taking all your profits, all the better.

There follows some sage advice from Towards 2012 magazine's editor, Gyrus:

If you have time to go around branches of chain stores, it's often worth making a personal appearance. Make a point of checking out relevant stores in towns & cities you visit, even if the visit's for other reasons. Check each store out that you go into - go to the relevant sections of the store and check to see what they already stock. This will give you an idea of how to pitch your creation to the person on the shop floor. Look 'presentable', and don't go in with your stuff when it's busy - NEVER on a Saturday! Have a snappy 'rap' lined up and a sample copy of your book at hand for when you speak to the person in charge of buying local stock. Tailor your 'rap' according to the store, their stock, and your initial impressions of the person you deal with. If they decide to take some of your books (5-10 is a usual initial amount), you'll usually have to leave a delivery note with the store (with all the information you'd put on an invoice, most importantly the date of delivery), and send an invoice to their head office. They usually pay a few months after delivery. This set up may vary from chain to chain. ALWAYS take the phone number of the store if they take some stock, and, just as importantly, the name (and department) of the person you dealt with. This is vital in chasing up the payment, which can be a bureaucratic nightmare with big chains.

I've always found Waterstones the most receptive to 'radical' material, and the most reliable in terms of getting your money. I've never really dealt with Dillons, who are a bit more conservative in their stock, and have always insisted that you have an account with their head office before they take any local stock (not so with Waterstones). However, Waterstones and Dillons have recently merged. Waterstones was previously owned by WH Smith, and Dillons by the EMI Group plc. Both have been sold to HMV Media Group plc. Handling of invoices and payments is now done by the old Dillons purchase and returns ledger departments in Solihull. As far as I can make out, you still need an account with Dillons to supply local stock to them, and you still don't need one for Waterstones.

For Waterstones, Delivery notes must

  • be given to the store with your delivery
  • clearly show your name, address and phone number
  • clearly show quantity and retail value
  • clearly show delivery note number
  • state the date of delivery

Invoices must

  • be sent to this address: Purchase Ledger Department, Waterstone's Financial Operations, c/o Dillons, Royal House, Prince's Gate, Homer Road, Solihull, B91 3QQ
  • relate to one delivery and one branch
  • state the delivery address and branch number (get this information from the store - you can also ask the store or the head office for a full list of stores, with addresses & branch nos.)
  • clearly show your name, address and account number
  • clearly show the delivery note number, if different from the invoice number
  • state the date of delivery
  • show the total quantity of goods invoiced
  • clearly state that they are invoices
  • show the retail value, cost and discount (the standard discount is 33%)

All this information has been adapted from the letter Waterstones sent to me when they merged with Dillons. It can be obtained from stores or the head office, but I think you probably stand a better chance of starting on the right note with any individual store if you walk in already conversant with their way of operating.

Virgin Megastores have an increasingly interesting selection of publications, and, like Waterstones, individual stores are authorised to take local stock. Probably not worth bothering with unless your book has some sort of 'popular' appeal, though. Also, in my dealings with several Virgin stores, I have met with infinitely more confusion, hassle and incompetence than with a dozen Waterstones. One store took ten copies of 'Towards 2012' part III and, a year later, had sold none. The fact that they had marked the cover price up by 350% and had put it on the computer magazines rack may explain this! I've also had countless problems chasing up payment, and have yet to really work out what their policy for delivery notes & invoices actually is. Decide for yourself, but I'd say don't bother.

If your book is of local interest, it may be worth trying WH Smith. I recently adapted my research into a West Yorkshire goddess, and the legends & myths surrounding her in the region, into a very accessible booklet. I now have authorisation to supply local stock to WH Smith branches in the area. To get this authorisation, you need to write to: WH Smith Retail, Greenbridge Road, Swindon, SN3 3LD (Tel: (01793) 616161)

Include a copy of your book and a covering letter. Their standard discount is a whopping 48%, but I managed to get it down to 40%. If you get a 'letter of acceptance', take this letter with you into any stores you try to get your book into. With such 'local interest' books, of course it's worth trying relevant tourist spots, and the gift shops located there. Tourist Information may take your book, but it may be an idea to get a copy to the local archaeologist (if it's related to local prehistory etc.), so that they can give the thumbs-up to Tourist Information (who, in my experience, are suspicious of odd little books that may be a little unorthodox in the way they treat local history).

A crafty tip: If you visit a big store with your stock in regularly, each time you go in, find it on the shelves; if it's not very 'visible', subtly rearrange it so that it is!

Dealing with Paperwork


If you are going to distribute your publication through retail outlets, you will need to raise Invoices to the bookseller. A good invoice usually consists of: Your address & details, retailers address & details, date of invoice, invoice number, product item & number, & discount given, amount outstanding (for items), plus postage (if you are going to charge postage) and then a grand total. You will need to keep copies of the invoice for the inevitable task of chasing payments up. Whilst there is a wide range of computer programs which can be used to generate invoices & statements, you can, at a pinch, do them on a word-processor.

Pro-Forma Invoices

Normally, Invoices are shipped with products or on a monthly basis. Occasionally though, you may be asked for a Pro-Forma invoice. Pro Forma invoices are used when a company does not have an established trading relationship with you, and so payment is made before the goods are sent. The standard discount for Pro-forma is 25% for a single item, and 35% + postage for multiple items.


While you are waiting for publications to sell, they are taking up storage space. If you have limited space available to you, then this should be thought about.

Direct Mail

If you are hoping to distribute the publication yourself through reviews & ads, then you will have to shell out for envelopes & stamps. Standard practice is to add 50p for postage on A5 booklets, with a £1 for books (dependant on size, weight, etc.)

Direct Mail requires taking out adverts in suitable publications, and if possible, building up a mailing list. Here you need to think carefully what, for your book, are 'suitable publications'. A book on Satanism, for example, is unlikely to sell well when advertised in Psychic News, but might do very well from a suitably-worded advert in Kerrang!

Using Friends as 'Agents'

It's a fairly common practice to use one's friends as agents to distribute your publications at meetings, events, and to their local bookshops. I do feel though, that it is better to do this only occasionally, rather than expect people to do it all the time for you. For this type of distributing to be effective, people need some form of renumeration for it, even if they initially refuse to accept one.


Quotations & Copyright

It is generally considered to be legitimate for a writer to quote from someone else's work for 'purposes of criticism or review' as long as 'sufficient acknowledgement' is given. This is a fairly elastic principle. For example, according to the Publisher's Association, a single extract of up to 400 words, or a series of such (of which none exceeds 300 words) to a total of 800 words from a prose work, or of extracts up to 40 lines from a poem (providing this does not exceed a quarter of the poem) is considered to be acceptable. What a writer must not do is 'lift a substantial part' - in one case, four lines from a thirty-two line poem were considered to be 'a substantial part'. If in doubt, contact the publisher or author (if possible) for approval. It's in your interest to clear up copyright-related issues as soon as possible - finding out that you don't have permission to quote from a work, or have to pay a high fee, just before you go to print can be embarrassing and time-consuming.

If you do approach Publishers over copyright, they will often want to know how widely the book is to be distributed. World distribution copyright permission tends to be more expensive than UK only copyright permissions.

Note also that the copyright situation in the USA is somewhat different to the UK and Europe.

From Self-Publishing to Publishing Companies

In my own experience, it does help, when you're tentatively approaching one of the larger occult publishers, to have some self-published works under your belt, as it were. If nothing else, it demonstrates to them that you have something of a 'market' and are not a complete 'unknown'. I started writing for occult magazines in 1977, self-published my first booklet in 1986, and finally landed a 'contract' with a major publisher in 1994. I mention this so you can see the kind of time it can take to become 'established'. There's a common idea that new occult authors are 'snapped up' by publishers. I don't know anyone that this has happened to though. For all the people I know who write occult books, it's been a hard, hard slog to slowly clamber out of the gravity well of small-press & self-publishing into the wider world of contracts and royalties.


It can be helpful to acquire a literary agent. Again, this requires some shopping around and I have found that word-of-mouth contacts is often the most effective way of finding a good agent. Agents will want a fee, though, usually a cut of any deal that gets struck between you and a publisher. From friends who work extensively through agents, it seems there is a growing trend of publishers coming up with an idea for a book and then approaching agents to find suitable authors.

Vanity Publishing

Vanity Publishers will happily publish your work - at a price. Some do so-called 'private editions' which basically mean that they will produce & print so many copies of your book but then, it's up to you to distribute them. Others will undertake to market and distribute your book. The problem with Vanity Publishing is that it's difficult to recoup the initial cash you have to cough up through sales. Far better then, to do it yourself or in collaboration with friends. One good point about Vanity Publishers is that you as author may get far more control over the 'look 'n' feel' of your book than you might from a larger publisher.

Get Real!

I've met over the years, quite a few people who have confidently set out to publish with the expectation that they are going to be very successful and get all their income from their writing. Whilst this is certainly possible, it's a bit unrealistic. Most of the authors that I know (some of whom are very well known in their own field) have 'day jobs' and I've only met three authors who's sole income is from their work, and for each of them, it took years (if not decades) to achieve this.


These days, thanks to the World-Wide Web, anyone with access to it can publish to the Internet, either on their own home page or on someone else's. This has obvious advantages in that putting up a page of html or an Adobe PDF file is a lot simpler and less cost-intensive than publishing a book and your work may, (theoretically) be read by thousands of people. The disadvantage of course, is that you're unlikely to be paid for it. Some authors do use the web to distribute 'samples' of a publication or book and invite interested readers to 'pay' for seeing the remainder of the work. Having never tried this, I can't say how viable this is. Some starry-eyed pundits have announced the impending 'death' of the book due to electronic publishing but I feel this is a little premature. Books are still a very user-friendly 'write once, read many times' media. There's a kind of magic in holding your own book in your hands (and much more in seeing it on the shelf in a general bookshop) that isn't quite the same as looking at a page of html on a computer screen.

Having said this, the Web can be a useful place to promote books & publications. Selling books on-line is also a possibility, but to do this entails all the hassle of getting set up to handle on-line credit card orders, etc. which will probably entail setting up your own company.

This 'guide' is only a starting-off point, so feedback & suggestions for expanding it would be most welcome! - Phil Hine