Notebook Publishing: How I Came to Create an Industry-Changing Book Publishers
‘When did you know you wanted to open a publishing house?’ This question has been put my way on so many occasions I can hardly count them. It’s something pretty much everyone asks me when they find out what I do for a living. Variations have included ‘How did you get into publishing?’ and ‘Have you always wanted to work in publishing?’ Whenever I’m asked this, I’ve given the simple answer; the generic ‘I don’t want to bore you’ one. But the full, no-details-spared, actual account of how my roots and various life milestones led me down this path isn’t a generic one (nor boring, I would hope!); rather, it is one filled with books and goals and aspirations, and so many twists and turns that still led me here that, I have no doubt, this is what my career and life were supposed to be.
The roots of my publishing house were first born when I was just 5 years old — and I remember the moment vividly. It was December 27, 1988, when all of this was first set in motion; one Christmas, one person, and one decision.
The routine of my life, as a young child, was predominantly centred on my love for school, where I was a favourite amongst my teachers and peers, and regularly told I’d one day achieve great things, with time at home spent escaping to wherever that day’s read would take me. And when bedtime came, I would hide under the blankets, a small fibre-optic torch held between my knees, while I secretly read more of whatever I had managed to lose myself in. It was this love — this deep-inside-myself passion — that my uncle Graham had recognised, decided to act upon, and helped to nurture at the end of 1988.
My uncle — step-uncle, technically — visited us this particular Christmas and, making no secret of the fact I was his favourite of all the nieces and nephews, brought with him an amazing gift I would never forget: what seemed to be a sack full of books. Enid Blyton and C. S. Lewis; so many that subsequently became childhood favourites. And to a child whose background was neither wealthy nor affluent, and for someone who regularly felt that she did not belong in her family, this meant the world.
Fast-forward however-many nights, and I picked up ‘The Adventures of the Secret Seven’; a collection of five stories published in 1986 by Chancellor Press. It was a hardcover — the first I’d ever owned — and I thought it was something truly special. I remember sitting and running my fingers across the cover, so in awe of the fact that this was mine; I owned this. And I decided then and there — like I did every morning when reading the cereal box back to front and top to bottom at breakfast — that I was going to read every single word.
This is where the course of my life changed. I remember reading the Copyright page. And when I saw the publisher, the ISBN — and realised someone had actually made this — I decided I wanted to own a publishing house.
From this point on, my passion for reading and writing overtook everything. Although I was very academic in school and continuously strived for top grades in all subjects and all activities — no doubt to earn the admiration, love and respect of my teachers — my main focus was English, and I wrote and read, read and wrote, and spent non-reading time stapling pieces of paper together to create my own books complete with Copyright page and publisher logo. And when the desperation for a new book hit, I would ask my mother if we could go to the Forum in Civic — the local town centre — where there was a library. There, I very quickly read every book in the children’s section; however, in a Matilda-esque fashion and at the request of my step-father (who attended with me one afternoon), at nine years old I was (arguably inappropriately) provided with an adult membership card, which gave me access to quite possibly thousands of books, allowing me to read one book after another without limitation. As a result, my bedroom, as my mother recalls, was always full of books and pieces of paper with random stories and poetry — and even a beautiful old, mechanical typewriter, gifted to me by a family member, that hurt my little-girl fingers but which allowed me to create almost-real books. I was addicted, and my life goal was cemented in my soul.
However, fast-forward just a handful of years and life hit a few bumps. My family fell apart, and everything I knew became fragmented. And with the heartache and domestic upheaval that tore its way through my home, separating me forever from the family I’d known all of my life, came even more long-term consequences; low grades at GCSE when the coursework I’d invested myself in for 2 years was deliberately thrown away; the opportunity to go to college and university taken away from me as a result of family circumstance; and a deep-rooted desperation for unconditional love and a family that led me to start my own family at a young age.
It was at this point, with a baby in-arms and people looking at me like I’d ruined everything for myself, that I almost — almost — gave up on my dreams. I told myself that I would never be able to open a publishing house, that I’d need a bricks-and-mortar setup with expensive tools and equipment, and that was only for Trust Fund or silver-spoon babies. I wanted to prove people wrong — the people in the street who were judging me for being a young mother; my parents, who were disappointed I’d wasted my potential; and a particular colleague of mine who, when I started an admin role when my daughter was six months old, ridiculed me for choosing to have a baby at 19 years old. I wanted to show them all that I hadn’t thrown everything away, and that I could still achieve something.
Reasoning, at this point in my life, that opening a publishing house was an impossibility, I then turned my attention back to writing… I was 21 years old and decided that this would be the way to prove to people that I could be successful — and would earn me the love, respect and admiration (reminiscent of what I felt when around my teachers and peers during my childhood) I so desperately craved. I became convinced that this was my path to success; that writing and getting my book published would erase the years of feeling worthless and inadequate and like I was nothing more than a statistic and poster child for teen pregnancy. It would give me status, and people would write to me to tell me how much they loved what I’d written, and I’d have fans, and nobody would ever look down on me again.
My goal was all-consuming. I was 21 years old and, when I finished work and had put my daughter to bed, I would write late into the night — until 3 am — and then head to work at 7 am. I was on a mission — unwaveringly focused on my goal — and, in just 6 weeks, my book was complete.
And that was when I hit a wall. The wall of traditional publishing. Thinking this was the only route to publication, I queried relentlessly, with a letter of rejection feeling like a splinter across my heart, with dozens eventually stacking up. I was told my writing was unmoving, that I needed to rewrite, and I felt like my soul ached every time I arrived home from work to a stack of yet more disapproval. Worse still were the publishers and agents who didn’t even consider me worthy of a response. It was utterly devastating.
That was when I decided to seek out other avenues. I researched and realised that, if I continued in this way, I could spend years querying and being rejected or ignored, all to never see my book be published. It didn’t make sense, and something inside me knew: if I was ever going to achieve my goals, this just wasn’t the way forward. However, it seemed that other options were self-publishing or what people referred to as vanity presses — neither of which seemed to resonate with me.
But nonetheless, I invested myself in research:
Vanity presses, at first glance, seemed to be a possible route as, although publishing was a paid service and I had virtually no spare money, I realised it would allow me to get my book in print. However, I quickly came to realise that the ‘leader’ in this industry (I say this loosely now considering I disagree with their model) would be asking me to forfeit my rights, creative control and some of my royalties, which, all in all, seemed to be a huge sacrifice. Then, upon further research, I found that this particular vanity publisher would actually require a significant initial outlay, all of my rights, a huge percentage of my royalties, with a book that seemed to be far removed from those that were traditionally published and, worse still, not actively marketed — not at all what I had envisaged for myself.
I then directed my attention toward self-publishing. I found that, although this would allow control over my words and cover, it required I be proficient in various other areas; cover design, typesetting, editing and distribution — and not to mention one that worried me more than any other: marketing. Nonetheless, the self-publishing option made more sense because I’d be able to keep all of my rights and would have complete ownership over my work, even though it concerned me greatly that I would need to cover all bases on my own.
With that said, however, I knew the decision was a no-brainer: I would travel the self-publishing route.
I wish I could say my endeavour was a success, but I experienced massive failure in the form of the dreaded book flop, with self-publishing lacking in so many areas. My dreams were shattered, and I felt completely mortified and so humiliated. Quite simply, I hadn’t had the right tools, knowledge, skillset or experience to do justice to the countless hours I had invested in my book and, as a result, the book was a huge point of embarrassment for me for a long time. In fact, I ended up so scared of this same failure that I didn’t write again for another 9 years.
At this point in my life, it seemed like there was no viable option allowing a writer to do it all; to keep control of the book as a whole whilst also achieving success and not producing a substandard book. And it was then that I started to develop the real foundational underpinnings for the publishing house I would somehow someday launch…
As a result of researching traditional publishing and vanity press, and through my own journey into self-publishing, I realised there should be a fourth option: a hybrid approach to publication that allowed writers to produce a professional book with the same reach of a traditional publishing house, whilst also benefitting from maintaining creative control, complete rights to their work, and 100% royalties.
As time passed, and as the seed of my ideas started to grow, with the modern, online, globalised world every day presenting a greater wealth of services and tools, I reasoned that, surely, writers no longer needed to compromise. And why should they? Why should writers who have spent potentially years investing their heart and soul, their time and their passion into their book not have access to book publishing platforms simply because a traditional publishing house deems it not worthy? Words are subjective and everyone has their own preference, and I felt, deep in my heart, that all writers should be able to publish and gain access to the right channels without sacrificing their rights (traditional) and without doing it all themselves (self-publishing).
In essence, I wanted to create a publishing house that would stand above the rest by offsetting the numerous disadvantages presented by other models. That meant a skilled and dedicated team in all necessary areas; cover design, editing, typesetting, publication, distribution, and marketing.
And so my decision was made: I was going to pursue my childhood dream of opening a publishing house.
In 2010, my dream started to become a reality. It was at this point, whilst in my third year of running two editing businesses I had launched in 2007 and 2009, respectively — notably putting to good use the flair for language I had always nurtured — that I started to research the backend and operation of a publishing house, and what I would need to do in order to establish myself as a publisher. I threw myself into it without reservation; hungry for every bit of information and using my experiences as a Copy Editor and failed self-published author to put together the very best publishing model I could. For 3 years, while working full-time running the editing businesses, I strived to put everything into place that any writer could ever need.
However, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process:
I knew I would face the accusation that my publishing model was nothing more than vanity press, and that I would need to fight that perception daily. And I knew there would be people who believed that only traditional publishing was validated and that a writer should never pay to publish, regardless of the results achieved. But even when those challenges presented themselves, I continued pushing forward; at first, explaining why we were different and then proving how by showcasing our publications and our results. I emphasised the same points over and over: “If someone wants to build their own house,” I would say, “they would need to hire the help of professionals to do it properly. And while they could do it all themselves, they would ultimately end up with a substandard home at the end of the process.” I knew publishing was the same — I’d experienced it, after all — and so I focused on overcoming the huge obstacle and stigma of vanity press and instead focused on positioning myself as a reputable publisher offering high-quality services. And I was soon rewarded:
For every 1 writer telling me you shouldn’t pay for publishing but should take the traditional or self-publishing route, there were 10 others telling me they had been querying for years and getting nowhere, and for every 1 person telling me you should self-publish, there were 10 more people who had self-published and experienced a flop because they didn’t have the skills, knowledge or expertise to execute book-creation, production, launch and marketing. This recognition soon snowballed, and now every single day I receive so many messages of love and support from those I was helping to publish, and nobody can speak highly enough of our publishing house. In a short period, I have gone on to show writers across the world that there is indeed another option for publication — a hybrid approach — and it seems the industry is taking notice because, now, we’re not the only one to offer such a model.
Now there is another choice. There is the choice of 100% royalties, complete rights, complete creative control, and a team of experienced and incredibly skilled professionals on-hand to guide and lead writers through the transformative process of becoming authors and presenting their cherished books to the world. There is that option. And although I fully support anyone deciding to opt for traditional or self-publishing options, I now maintain there is another just-as-credible opportunity when it comes to publication.
Notebook Publishing has allowed me to achieve my dreams by helping others to achieve theirs, and now, I am proud to say I have become someone who truly cares about, and who is appreciated by, those we have been able to help along the way. I now know that irrespective of the obstacles we faced in the beginning, regardless of the setbacks, and despite the personal difficulties I experienced years ago, all of this was destined to happen. Everything has led me here, down this path — the right path. I know this because every single day we are providing writers with a platform to showcase their work in the best possible way and without compromise, and it is just so incredibly rewarding to watch things unfold; to see how happy and proud each one of our Notebook writers is of their achievements and their books.
No longer do writers have to choose between only self-publishing and traditional, and no longer do they have to accept compromise on the professionalism of their book or their creative control, nor do they have to give up on their rights and royalties. Now there is another way, and I’m so proud that Notebook Publishing is a part of that.