Ever been tempted to publish a book yourself? One brave but disillusion ed spirit describes some of the perils and pitfalls. Yet, despite it all, he still loves publishing
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SETTING up a small publishing company has been compared to swimming the Atlantic with the Statue of Liberty tucked under your arm. Perhaps it's just me, but I'm not finding it quite that easy.

I'd already elbowed my way in to the book trade before I discovered that my background as a small-time rock 'n' roll agent/manager/ promoter and journalist hadn't adequately prepared me for the quirks of publishing. The Do-Not Press was conceived more in the tradition of a maverick independent record label than as a '90s answer to Ward Lock. I foolishly thought that, whether you're selling records or books, the principles would be exactly the same. I soon discovered that the two worlds are at opposite ends of the spectrum. For instance: in the music business, "dress casual"on an invitation signifies scruffier jeans than usual; in publishing it means you can get away with a flowered tie, but only if you don't mind being branded an anarchist.

After years of serious research (if haunting bookshops and sending off for publisher's catalogues qualifies as research), I finally stopped prevaricating and started looking for a name. I toyed with Jigsaw, fumbled with The Trouser Press, but found they'd both been taken. The Do-Not Press is either admired as a name or ridiculed, but nearly always misspelt. It invariably also gets abbreviated to "Do-Not Press", which makes even less sense.

Unlike Timothy Mo, I wasn't looking to self-publish - my own novel is likely to stay a "work in progress" for another 20 years - but I did have the idea of a paperback series, a sort of off-the-wall Granta for people without sensible shoes. Because of my rock 'n' roll background, the obvious first subject was music, and Rock Talk was conceived. I set about writing letters to friends and idols in the music world. I urged rock musicians to pick up pens and journalists to knock out articles on a low royalty basis. And you thought Hercules had it tough?

It soon became apparent that I needed help. Martin Roach of the Independent Music Press and Trevor Dolby from Pavilion gave me some sound advice, and a much-thumbed copy of Get Into Print by Christopher Stevens (New Caxton Press) became my bible. (I've only just noticed that its cover contains the legend: "A Guide to Producing, Publishing and Sellling [sic] Your Own Books".)

For some reason, everything in publishing is done months in advance. You need to tell Whitaker's (who compile the database which bookshops use to order from) at least three months ahead of publication exactly how many pages your book will have, and I see from last week's Bookseller that all titles for inclusion in their Christmas Books Preview must be submitted by 9 June. Oh dear. Two of our Christmas blockbusters haven't even been written yet.

From the 300-plus letters I wrote for Rock Talk, I received 20 firm promises, six maybe's, and an agreement from cartoonist Ray Lowry to do the illustrations. Because I'd told Whitaker's and the printer that Rock Talk was going to be 192 pages long and 21.6cm high, once everything was in, it became apparent that even with the contents pages and suchlike, the whole thing only took up 174 pages. So, publisher, editor, typesetter, marketing man, designer, salesman, accounts clerk and warehouseman had to squeeze on another hat and write a further 18 pages him/myself, in just three days, whilst simultaneously working on the final edit. Other inconveniences included John Cooper Clarke's article on Otis Redding being stolen from a car in Manchester two days before the printer's absolute deadline, the pre-proofed version of Rock Talk being sent off for printing by mistake, and another book with the same title appearing out of nowhere. I was rushed into buying an essential Apple Mac computer because the salesman said he could only hold the price for one day: true, a week after I'd spent pounds 2,335 on it, the same package was being advertised for pounds 1500.

It is practically impossible for a small publisher to sell books to bookshops. When shops can be persuaded to take them, the books are invariably supplied on a "sale or return" basis, with the publisher footing the bill for packaging and carriage. As this, depending on volume, can amount to anything between 20p and pounds 1 per book, you obviously try to persuade booksellers to order a reasonable number: ie more than one. The large chains of shops like Waterstone's and Dillons insist on a discount in the 42-48% range, independents turn their noses up at anything below 33-40%, and the typical credit period is 60-90 days from the end of the month you supplied in. So a bookshop might agree to put your book on its shelves and pay you just over half of what they've already banked, four months after they've made the sale. And if it doesn't sell, the book comes back to you, and they pay you nothing.

You have to get your title in to as many shops as possible. It doesn't matter how many reviews (Rock Talk got a massive 37), or radio and TV plugs you set up, if the book isn't on shelves, it can't sell. Ordering is an option, but personal experience shows that assistants in bookshops will usually try and sell you something that's nearly what you want. On one of my regular "shop-check" expeditions, I was offered a book on mountaineering in one central London shop, it being "almost the same, but better" than Rock Talk.

Britain's largest bookseller, WH Smith, buys (or probably, if you're a small publisher without a potential bestseller, doesn't buy) all its books centrally, and John Menzies and music shops like Virgin and HMV must approve titles before any of their branches can stock it. If they don't approve, you don't get in. Well, those are the theories. Despite around 30 letters, faxes and telephone calls, it proved impossible to contact the book-buyer at one leading music chain, and so, to satisfy orders we'd received from their stores scattered around the country, I naively went ahead and supplied 80 copies in batches of fives and tens. That was six months ago, and I'm still trying to sort out payment.

Then there is the Dillons thing. When Dillons' parent company, Pentos, went into receivership last February, we hadn't received a single penny for any of the several hundred books we'd supplied them. Early in March, an advertisement in The Bookseller placed by the chain's buyers, Thorn- EMI, announced that small publishers who were owed less than pounds 10,000 would be paid in full, "immediately". There was a small reinvoicing task, which I completed two months ago, but as yet I've seen no money from them. In the meantime, I'm trying to pay royalties to Rock Talk contributors, and finance the next titles.

Then there's the shop in Exeter who wouldn't take Rock Talk because it "won't sell here", but who subsequently ordered single copies for three separate customers who had obviously spurned books on mountaineering and insisted on ordering ours. Or how about the other music chain, who returned their copies the day after a favourable review appeared in their own magazine, or the Manchester bookshop who rang at Christmas to order ten copies, snootily, because they'd had "people coming in for weeks asking for it"? It transpired that they'd had a box lying unopened in their storeroom since October. Not their problem: "sale or return" made it mine. Some shops even returned copies in their original wrappings, totally unsullied by grubby-fingered browsers.

Even other, larger publishers are out to get you. This goes way beyond their sales reps putting their own titles in front of yours, as happened with Rock Talk many, many times. The attempts by publishing conglomerates to dismantle the Net Book Agreement are a cynical attempt to increase their slice of the business at the expense of less powerful rivals. If a pounds 16.99 book can be sold in Asda for pounds 8.49, the retailer must be getting a discount of more than 50%, and so it becomes obvious the pounds 16.99 tag is a sham. Assuming sales of 3,000 (which is still a way off), the cost of Rock Talk, including printing, binding, royalties and an allowance for carriage - but not including overheads and labour - comes to pounds 2.62, or 44% of the pounds 5.99 selling price. By breaking the NBA, these conglomerate publishers are not - as they claim - giving the Asda and Sainsbury customer a good deal, they're giving the small booksellers and their customers a bad deal. It will inevitably lead to fewer independent booksellers, fewer independent publishers and a narrower range of books.

Don't get the idea that I hate publishing. I love it: for every idiot running a bookshop, there are ten dedicated booksellers. But I do enjoy a challenge, and The Do-Not Press is definitely that. The next title, Funny Talk, contains 25 contributions from the likes of Bob Mills, Jeremy Hardy, Hattie Hayridge, Ralph McTell and Michael Palin. But despite Michael Palin's face being displayed in every bookshop in the country, and despite Bob Mills hosting his own game-show on ITV, Jeremy Hardy appearing on Radio 4, etc, more than one shop "buyer" (I wish they'd find a better name for these people) has told me he can't see Funny Talk doing well because it's basically an "underground" book. These same people would kill for Lesley Joseph's Book of Pussies or Jackie Collins' Hollywood Geriatrics. Well, they won't be getting them off me.

! 'Funny Talk' is published by The Do-Not Press on Thursday at pounds 6.95 (ISBN 1 899344 01 2).