How to Start a Publishing Company: A Great Big Overview

Abi Wurdeman
March 15, 2024

There are several reasons a person might want to learn how to start a publishing company—like an official one with paperwork and a business bank account and all that.

Maybe you plan to self-publish and want to help bookstores and readers take your book seriously with the help of an imprint logo on the spine and an ISBN that belongs to an actual publishing company.

Maybe you’ve been self-publishing and are ready to turn your indie author experiment into an intentional business. Or you’ve been so successful at selling your own books you’ve decided to set up an LLC and start acquiring books from other authors.

Or maybe you’ve never written a book and don’t plan to. You just know great writing when you see it and want to team up with promising authors.

Whatever the reason, you’re at the beginning of a thrilling journey. It won’t be easy, though. Running your own business is complicated and time-consuming no matter what industry you’re in. And heaven knows publishing comes with plenty of its own unique challenges.

So I can’t promise you that this guide has everything you need to know to start a publishing company. You’re gonna want to read a lot of articles. And books. And listen to podcasts, attend publishing conferences, and definitely reach out to people who’ve already had success as publishers.

My goal in this article is to give you a clear overview of how to start a publishing company. We’ll talk about:

  • How your company fits into the wider publishing world
  • How to research and plan for success
  • Legal and regulatory considerations
  • How to set up your business
  • Financial management tips
  • The process of publishing, promoting, and scaling, whether you publish your own work or someone else’s

Hopefully, by the time we’re done, you’ll have a clearer sense of where you’re heading and what you need to do next. Let’s get started.  

Quick Overview of the Publishing Landscape

A small group of people gather around a coffee table, conversing over a book.

When a person sets out to publish a book, they essentially have two options: traditional publishing and self-publishing.

There’s technically a third option, hybrid publishing, in which the author pays a hybrid publisher to publish their book. But that particular approach is less common, potentially predatory, and not really what this article is about. If you want to know more about it, we discuss it in this article.

For now, let’s look at the two more typical options and how your future business fits into the larger publishing industry.

Traditional Publishing

In traditional publishing, a publishing company takes care of editing, producing, distributing, and (usually) marketing a book. They pay royalties to the author. Royalties are a percentage of the profits. You can learn more about those puppies here.

When people think of traditional publishers, they most often think of the Big Five, which include major publishing houses like Penguin Random House and Macmillan. But small publishing companies count, too.

So if you start your own company and acquire other authors’ books, those authors will be traditionally published through your imprint.

Self-Publishing

In self-publishing, the author does everything themselves. They might hire editors, a cover designer, or other professionals to execute aspects of the process that require special skills. But ultimately, it’s up to them to oversee the vision and put up the money to get it done.

If you start a publishing company with the goal of releasing your own books under that imprint, you’re still a self-published author.

Why Starting Your Very Own Publishing Company is a Thing

If you choose to self-publish, you’re technically a publisher. You don’t actually have to establish an official publishing company. You can self-publish your book under your own name and pay taxes on that income as an independent contractor. You know, keep things super simple.

So why do so many self-published authors choose to create publishing company?

Some do it because they actually want to own a publishing business. They don’t want to stop at their own work. They’d like to build a full catalog of books from a wide range of authors. To do that, they have to establish the proper business structure for building a team and paying authors.

Others like the air of legitimacy that comes with having the name of a for-real publishing company linked to their books. They also dig the legal protection involved in setting up a registered business, assuming they choose the right business structure for that. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.

Plus, when you start a publishing company, it’s a signal to yourself that you plan to treat your self-publishing journey as a business rather than a hobby or experiment. 

Add in the fact that starting your own publishing business is easier than ever in the digital age, and the choice feels obvious for many self-published authors. That doesn’t mean it’s the perfect path for everyone, but if you’re thinking it might be yours, read on.

Researching the Market and Creating a Business Plan

A person with a bob haircut peruses the white shelves of a bookstore.

The first step in starting a publishing company is establishing a vision and determining what you need to do to make that vision work.

Who’s your audience? How will you find them and get them to buy your books? And what about your financial strategies? How will you get all those numbers to number the way you want them to?

The more specifically you can answer these questions, the likelier your odds of success once your publishing company is up and running. Let’s take a closer look at the details you need to nail down.

Finding Your Niche

How does your publishing company fit into the market?

You can start to answer this by looking at the high-level answers. Things like:

It actually helps a lot to create a mission statement, which is a declaration of your values and (non-financial) goals as a business. 

Honestly, I’ve always found mission statements to be pretty eye-roll-y, especially when they come from any for-profit endeavor. But in recent years, I’ve discovered that having that kind of clarity around what I want to put into the world has made me much better at focusing my writing and marketing efforts to connect with the readers who get me.

Do you want to publish dark mysteries that offer readers a spine-tingling escape? Spicy romance that challenges conventional assumptions about love? Narrative nonfiction that promotes empathy and understanding in a divided world?

A more specific vision will help you get a clearer sense of who your target audience is and how to grab their attention.

On that note, it’s also essential that you research your reader. Learn as much you can about their demographics and buying behaviors. Where do they hang out online? Where do they go for book recommendations? What are they saying about their favorite books?

Doug has a great article loaded with tips on researching your target market. I highly recommend you check it out.

Finally, get to know the current bestsellers in your genre so you can study what works. And keep tabs on emerging authors. If you hope to publish works other than your own, you might discover a self-published author who’s nailing the content but could really thrive with someone else overseeing the business end of things.

Creating Your Publishing Imprint

Once you have a sense of what your publishing company is all about, you can start thinking about your publishing imprint.

An imprint is the name you publish your books under. The major publishing houses have several imprints, each representing a specific area of focus. For example, Harlequin is a HarperCollins imprint that publishes romance.

As a small business, you’ll want to start with one publishing imprint. Think of this as your publishing brand. If you plan to only ever publish your own novels, this might overlap with your author brand.  

Your imprint's name and logo will appear on the spine of every book you publish. You’ll also want to set up a website, especially if you hope to attract other authors.

Developing a Business Plan

A business plan is a comprehensive document laying out how you plan to build and sustain a profitable publishing company. There’s way too much involved in a business plan for us to go over all of it here, but the short version is that you’ll want to include things like:

  • Your mission statement
  • Long-term goals
  • Short-term goals
  • Strategies for achieving those goals, including your publishing schedule and marketing tactics
  • Financial projections, including budget, expenses, sales goals, and how long it will take to turn a profit

There’s a steep learning curve when it comes to running your own publishing business, so it’s a good idea to revisit and revise your business plan periodically. 

I also suggest doing a lot of research and staying conservative when it comes to those financial projections. You don’t want to drain your business bank account because you were betting on an immediate return on investment.

Legal and Regulatory Considerations

Against a blue background, a white sheet of paper has a column of three check boxes. A red checkmark is in the top box.

When you start a publishing company, you’re 1) starting a small business that 2) profits off of creative work that may or may not be your own. Both of those facts mean you’ll be held accountable for abiding by certain tax and copyright laws.

I’m going to give you an extremely general overview of what that could mean if you’re a U.S. citizen operating your business in the U.S. I’m not remotely qualified to give you tax or legal advice—plus, laws change—so this is just to give you a sense of the types of things you’ll want to consider as you set up your publishing company.

Please research current regulations and consult an accountant or lawyer before making decisions and drawing up contracts.

Registering Your Publishing Company as a Legal Entity

You’ll need to make your publishing company official in the eyes of the country and state. That means selecting which business structure you’d like to establish. Small publishing companies usually opt for either a sole proprietorship or a limited liability company (LLC). 

The biggest benefit of a sole proprietorship is that it’s cheap and easy. You’ll have to claim your business income on a Schedule C when you do your taxes, but you don’t even need to get an employer identification number (EIN) unless you plan to hire people. 

If you want to operate under a business name instead of your own name, you can file a Fictitious Business Name or DBA (“doing business as”). Fees vary by state, but they’re usually inexpensive.

A limited liability company comes with bigger fees, but it offers more legal protection. For example, if someone decides to sue your publishing company and you have an LLC, only your business’s assets will be on the line. If you’re operating as a sole proprietorship, they can go after your personal assets, too.

Whether you go with a DBA or LLC, you’ll need to decide on a business name. You can use your own name, the name of your publishing imprint, or something else entirely. 

Once you decide on a business structure and get an employer identification number (if you need one), you can set up a business bank account. Even if you’re operating as a sole proprietorship, it’s best to keep your personal finances separate from your company’s finances.

Copyright Laws and Intellectual Property Rights

Once again, I’m not remotely qualified to offer legal advice. So I won’t. What I will say is that if you plan to publish the work of other authors, you need to make sure you understand exactly which rights you hold under the contract.

Even if you realize their book would do great in Germany, you can’t start tapping into that market if the contract doesn’t grant you those rights.

You also need to watch for potential copyright violations in any book you publish, including yours. Make sure you work with a cover artist who knows how to determine which images, fonts, and elements are fair game, legally speaking.

Setting Up Operations

A person in glasses smiles from behind a laptop.

Now that you’ve got your own publishing company, it’s up to you to determine how this whole operation is going to work. You’re officially a business owner, which means everyone involved is looking to you to run the show.

Sounds like a lot of pressure, but with some careful planning, you’ll at least have a framework to start from. Plus, you’ve already got a business plan to help you stay focused on your goals, priorities, and strategies.

Let’s take a closer look at the things you’ll need to consider before you officially open shop. 

Processes and Guidelines

If you plan to publish the work of other authors, consider what the editorial process will look like. How will you acquire new titles? What standards must they meet in order to warrant the time and resources you’ll have to invest in them? 

Don’t just look for quality writing and a good story. You’re creating a brand and trying to compete in a saturated publishing industry. Consider what it means for a novel to align with your vision and what it will take to stand out in your target market.

Once you’ve selected a book, then what? How will you determine what you’re willing to offer the author in terms of advance and royalties? What will the contract look like? Again, it’s a good idea to consult with a lawyer on this.

From there, decide what factors will go into setting up your publishing schedule. How many books do you hope to publish in a year? Do you plan to do any season-specific releases, like holiday-themed books? 

How much time will you give yourself to deliver editorial feedback? How much time should you give an author to make changes? Once the content is ready, how long will it take for line editing, formatting, and packaging?

Remember to factor book launch strategies into your publishing calendar. Determine what you’ll need to do to create buzz and generate preorders. These details are important even if the only books you plan to publish are your own.

Of course, your systems are bound to change as you execute them. It’s important to adapt according to the market and your own capabilities, so leave a little room for flexibility. 

Building Your Team

When you first start a publishing company, you’ll probably want to hire other professionals on a contract basis. It’s just simpler and more affordable. Once you’ve had some success and are ready to grow your business, you might consider hiring employees.

Depending on your own skill set, you might choose to work with professionals like a developmental editor, line editor, cover designer, and/or marketing specialist. You might be able to handle one or some of these jobs yourself successfully. If you’ve already published a few books, you probably know what you do well. 

Ultimately, the key to building a great publishing team is being honest with yourself about your own skill set. You might save money by handling line editing or cover design yourself, but if you can’t do expert-level work, your readers will notice and point it out.

Having a logo and business name won’t make up for a product that your target audience perceives as amateur.

Financial Management

A pair of hands hold a perfect ball made of $100 bills.

Let’s talk money. More specifically, let’s discuss what you’ll have to pay for upfront and where you can find the cash when you don’t have any books out there yet.

These are things you’ll want to think about when you first create your business plan and on an ongoing basis. Your business can only thrive and survive in the long term if you can get more money flowing in than going out before your resources run out.

What Goes in the Budget

You’ll likely have to make some tricky decisions about which business expenses to prioritize and which to skip, at least while your publishing company is still young.

This is not an exhaustive list, but remember to account for things like:

  • Annual taxes and fees associated with registering and licensing a business
  • Office supplies and equipment
  • ISBNs (international standard book numbers—you’ll need one for every book you publish)
  • Copyright registration fees
  • Contractors (editors, sensitivity readers, cover designers, marketers, etc.)
  • Advertising costs
  • Website domain
  • Web design
  • Subscriptions to trade publications
  • Software and subscription-based programs
  • Conferences and book festivals
  • Associated travel expenses
  • Author advances

Also consider additional expenses specific to the way you plan to do business. Will you release audiobooks or publish in foreign markets, for example? Then your budget should include things like narrators or translation services.

Plan for as much as you can ahead of time. When an unexpected expense arises, return to the budget to see if you’ll have to cut back somewhere else to make it work.

Funding Options

Now for the big question: how are you supposed to pay for all these things if you’re not already selling books?

One option is to keep your day job and fund your publishing company yourself. 

That’s not a fun suggestion, I know. If you’re already working while trying to start a publishing company, you won’t exactly be able to hit the ground running, as the business people say. But believe me, many publishing companies start that way, especially when it’s one author setting up a business to support their own novels.

You may be able to pursue grants created to support small businesses, but be aware that many grants are created for specific communities or missions, and even then, they’re unlikely to pay enough to let you quit your day job.

You could apply for a small business loan, but you’ll have to demonstrate that your business will be capable of paying off the loan. Not to mention, you’ll want to know you can pay off the loan, and it can be tough to predict when you’ll start making a profit if this is your first publishing adventure.

As for investors, publishing companies don’t have much luck with them in the traditional sense. That said, crowdfunding is an increasingly popular tactic for authors with a strong fan following. 

Brandon Sanderson is the most famous example of Kickstarter success(es), but many other writers have been able to get novels and special edition books funded by their own fans in advance. The caveat, of course, is that they already have a following or a super compelling nonfiction book that speaks directly to an unmet need.

If none of these options fit where you are right now and it’s looking like you’ll have to start small with your own money, that’s perfectly fine! The beauty of starting your own publishing business is that you can do it in your living room with the release of one novel and build from there.

Publishing Process

A book sits on a table with its pages fanned open.

So you’ve got a business name, a strategy, a budget, and a vision. You’re ready to start knocking out some books. What does that look like?

Here’s an overview of the standard publishing process.

Manuscript Acquisition

If you only plan to publish novels you write, you can skip this section. If you’re hoping to add other authors to your catalog, stay right here.

First, you’ll need to make sure people know your publishing company exists and is legit. Make sure you’ve got a professional website up and running. Announce the founding of your company in trade publications. 

Then, when you’re ready, put out a call for submissions in places like Poets & Writers. Be clear about the type of work you’re looking for and whether you want to see the first chapter, 50 pages, or query only. Also, do your prospective writers a solid and mention how long they should wait to hear back from you.

Work with a lawyer ahead of time to draw up a contract so you can move quickly when you’re ready to make a deal. Just be aware that the author may wish to negotiate.  

Editing, Formatting, and Design 

It’s customary for the publisher to request some edits, so don’t be shy about sharing your notes. The author should be expecting it. Or, if there’s a developmental editor whose insight has already been valuable to you, you may wish to contract this work out to them. If you do, remember to factor their availability into your publishing schedule.

Once everybody’s happy with the story and prose, you’re ready for line editing and formatting. If either of these things are not major strengths for you, hire a professional. Typos and poor formatting will hurt you. More specifically, they’ll get called out in reviews.

The same is true for cover design. The book cover is your number one marketing tool, so make it a good one. You can find tips on cover design here.

Printing and Distribution

I would say that this is when you decide where and how you want to distribute the book, but that’s actually a decision for much earlier in the process so you can set up preorders and build relationships with bookstores.

So it’s more accurate to say that this is when you execute on your distribution strategy.

The options for how and where you sell are more expansive than ever, from staying exclusive to Amazon to managing direct sales through TikTok. It’s more than we can get into here, it’s an ever-changing landscape, and there are many factors to consider, so I’ll just recommend you do your research when the time comes to choose the best path for your business.

Marketing and Promotion

A pair of glasses, a coffee cup, a houseplant, and a computer keyboard sit on a white desk beside a phone with the words "online marketing" on its screen.

In today’s publishing industry, authors shoulder much of the marketing and promotion burden. Even the major publishing houses rarely give debut authors the same advertising push they used to.

Even so, promotional support and a wider reach are some of the biggest reasons authors choose to work with a publishing company instead of going it alone. Plus, you’re trying to make a profit for them and for yourself. 

So get ready to do some serious marketing, whether you’ve got a whole roster of authors or it’s just you on there. Your survival depends on it.

Developing a Marketing Plan

Take your target audience into account as you set up your marketing plan. What is the best way to reach them? What social media platforms do they hang out on? How do they interact with the authors they love? Where are they buying books? What resonates with them?

Study comparable titles and authors. Note what works for them as well as any efforts that seem to fall flat.

Once you’ve done a few bucket loads of research, do your best to lay out a plan for where, when, and how you’ll get this book in front of readers both leading up to the launch and after it’s released. 

Then, be flexible. As you move forward with your marketing plan, double down on what works and let go of what doesn’t.

Marketing Strategies

Of course, it’s easier to create a marketing plan when you have a sense of what tactics might be included in it. 

As always, the best strategies vary depending on your genre, target market, and shifting trends. That said, some common tactics include:

  • Newsletter/email marketing
  • Social media
  • Paid advertising on platforms like Amazon and social media
  • Book trailers
  • Live author events
  • Online author events 
  • Cross-promotion with other authors
  • Podcast appearances
  • Newsletter swaps
  • Giveaways
  • Launch party

You’ll also want to work on getting reviews out prior to the release of the book. And you’ll want to do a lot of this:

Building Relationships

The publishing business is just like every other business in that relationships can get you pretty far, especially when it comes to promotion.

Find ways to connect with bookstores and libraries. Engage with content from book influencers, podcasters, YouTubers, and book bloggers. Build relationships with other authors in the same genre. 

In time, all these relationships could open up more opportunities for cross-promotion, guest appearances, or—in the case of libraries and bookstores—more book sales.

Scaling Your Publishing Businesses

A person in a leopard print jacket smiles as money falls all around them.

Making money is great and all, but at some point, you’ll want to figure out how to bring in even more income without investing an equivalent amount in time and resources. That’s the key to sustaining a publishing company over time.

Here are some scaling strategies to keep in mind as you grow your business:

Expanding Your Catalogue

One of the best ways to scale your business is to just have more products to sell. Go figure. 

Admittedly, each book you publish requires a significant investment of both time and money, but once it’s out there, it’s a product you can sell forever. You’ll still have to invest in marketing, but you’ll eventually have some word-of-mouth assistance from readers who love the book. Plus, every book you release under an author’s name will help sell other books by that author.

So make sure you treat your authors well so they’ll stick with you. And always keep an eye out for emerging self-published writers who might be a great fit for your publishing company. 

Also, regularly review your backlist to see if you need to make any changes to keep up with market trends, whether that means re-covering a book or creating a new ad campaign for an older novel that happens to be the exact thing readers are currently looking for.

Exploring International Markets

There’s a big world out there. If you’re only selling books in your country and language, you could be missing out on a lot of potential buyers.

Just make sure you do your research before you take on the expense of having a book translated. You never want to assume that a book will be a hit in another country just because it did well in your own.

But if you’ve got good reason to believe a book will succeed in a particular foreign market, the cost of translation is fairly small when you consider the possibility of reaching a nation’s worth of new readers. That’s assuming you have the proper rights. On that note…

Subsidiary Rights and Licensing

Subsidiary rights are the rights to generate revenue from a creative work through processes beyond publishing print books and ebooks. For example, you might want to create audiobooks, graphic novels, translations, or merchandise from one of your bestselling books or series

These can all be great ways to get even more money out of your books for a comparatively lower investment. Be aware, however, that if you’re not the author, you can only do this if your contract grants you those rights.

Finding Support for the Journey

A person rests their chin on a book and gives a thumbs up.

As I mentioned before, this guide is simply an overview of how to start a publishing company. By now, it’s probably clear to you that there’s plenty more to learn about each topic we’ve touched on.

That’s why it’s so important to keep a supportive community close as you set up and run your own publishing company. 

Connect with authors and publishers who understand how challenging and fulfilling this process can be. Join communities where you can ask for advice from people who’ve been there. Find ways to stay on top of trends and strategies in the publishing world.

Dabble can help with a bunch of those things. Join the Story Craft Café to connect with authors who are on similar journeys… or may be looking to collaborate with a small publishing company like yours. 

Hang out in DabbleU where you can find tons of advice on both the craft and business of writing and publishing. 

Subscribe to Dabble’s non-spammy newsletter and get new articles and insights delivered right to your inbox once a week.

As challenging as this journey can be, you’re never in it alone. So go ahead. Be bold. 

Create the publishing business you’ve been dreaming of.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.