How to publish your own books on a shoestring

Ever wanted to design and publish your own books? We certainly have. Leading designers Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy thought the same too. So, in 2010, frustrated at mainstream publishers, they launched Unit Editions.

Since then the progressive independent publishing venture has gone from strength to strength, proving with its high-quality books on graphic design that print is far from dead. The success of Unit Editions also shows that, despite the market for free ebooks, you don't have to be in the money to tackle the print sphere and publish your own books.

Here, we talk to Shaughnessy about how he and Brook ventured into the world of self-publishing without losing money, and how, with a bit of self-promo savvy, you could design and publish your own books too.

01. Find your audience online

Stack of beautiful self-published manuals

Manuals 2: Design and Identity Guidelines followed hot on the heels of Unit Editions' sellout Manuals 1

The success of Unit Editions has been made possible by the internet. Bar a few bookshops around the world that the duo have a personal relationship with, the books are only available through the Unit Editions website. 

"If we couldn't do that, we wouldn't be here, or we'd have to borrow half a million pounds to set up a publishing company. But because of the way the internet has blown away so many barriers, we can do it," explains Shaughnessy.

"We bypass [the book trade] completely and deal directly with the people who are interested in our books. So if we produce a book on, say, Total Design, the Dutch group, there's probably only 2,000 people in the world that are interested. We can find those people, through social media and the internet. If we had to use conventional media channels it would be prohibitively expensive."

02. Pool your resources

Type Plus front cover close-up

Unit Editions' Type Plus investigates the practice of combining typography with images to increase effectiveness and impact

When we spoke to Shaughnessy [in February 2015, when this article was originally published], Unit Editions had just three permanent staff: a designer, an editorial coordinator and social media specialist. However, Unit Editions is lucky in that it can also rope in extra help from the Spin team when required, to bump the numbers up to five or six.

"Somebody once said a really good thing to me: nothing succeeds without the right number of people. I think you can muddle along for a while with just a few hands, but at some point you need the right number of people and I think we're moving towards that," says Shaughnessy.

03. Think global

Supergraphics book cover

Unit Editions' Supernew Supergraphics is a collection of the best architectural, environmental and interior graphic design

In the company's early days, because money was tight, the pair outsourced printing to China. "Chinese printing is fantastic, and very sad to say, substantially cheaper than printing in the UK and Europe," says Shaughnessy.

However, since then it has started printing in Europe sometimes. "I would love to print everything locally, but it does push the price up," he continues. "We'll still print in China for certain things, but where possible we'll print in the UK or Europe, simply because we get it quicker."

04. Be your own client

Herb Lubalin book cover

The compact edition of Unit Editions' wildly successful deluxe version of Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918-81)

Going it alone does come with plenty of perks. "We don't have anybody breathing down our necks. We don't have anybody telling us how our covers should look or we've used the wrong colours," smiles Shaughnessy.

"It goes back to our frustrations with mainstream publishers who will tell you things like: 'Oh you can't do that cover because it needs a photograph on it.' Or 'I want to see what a manual looks like.' We know designers don't need that kind of signposting, so we can just go ahead and do it, but it's having the confidence to do it.

"You have to be very confident about what you're doing and also you have to be respectful of your audience. You have to know what people want and what they feel and what they think. And if you make a mistake, it's your fault – it's your problem."

05. Be prepared to put in the hours

Type Only front cover

Type Only, published by Unit Editions

Shaughnessy's closing advice to would-be publishers? You can do it yourself. "You can. You really, really can. The internet, social media, allows you to tell everybody that you've done this and I would just urge people to realise that they can do it themselves."

That doesn't mean it's going to be easy – you'll need to be prepared to put in the legwork. "I did four hours on Christmas day," he continues. "I can't step off the treadmill at all. It's constant, constant work. But it's what I want to do, so I don't find it a strain. So I would say to people: just do it yourself, if you can!"

This article was originally published in Computer Arts, the global design magazine – helping you solve daily design challenges with insights, advice and inspiration. Subscribe to Computer Arts here.

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.