How I sold 10,000 books without a publisher
Self-publishing has been great, actually
I’ve just sold the 10,000th copy of my debut book, The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes, a pocket-sized manifesto / roadmap / journey toward a better relationship with fashion. The response to it has been amazing, but not much has been said about the fact that I published it myself. Hitting the 10k milestone feels like the right moment to talk about why I chose to go down the self-publishing route, how I made it work, and why it’s been such a big success for me. Thank you to everyone who bought a copy — if you haven’t yet, you can pick one up here.
Toward the end of 2020, bored and exhausted from what had been a shitty year for basically everyone on planet earth, I decided to write a book. I was absolutely not thinking big — the last thing I wanted was to spend years working on a 400-page hardback, but I thought it would be fun to do something small, maybe the length of a few op-eds or a long-ish essay. Maybe I could find a small publisher to make a few hundred copies, or just photocopy and staple something together myself.
It wasn’t that I always dreamed of being an author, I just felt like I had something to say. I was frustrated that fashion was giving so much attention to sustainability topics like recycling and carbon offsetting, but nobody was asking why we buy so many clothes in the first place. And I felt I could write something pretty interesting about that, because I’d spent so much of my career in the heart of consumerism, reporting on fashion week and the streetwear scene at Highsnobiety. Plus, I’d had a fun title sitting in the back of my mind since the beginning of the pandemic — The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes.
I was pretty sure I wanted to keep it small and do it myself, but I sent a proposal to a literary agent out of curiosity. They turned it down, which was all I needed to know. I’d publish it myself, and as long as I broke even, I’d be happy. If I could sell it in some cool shops, even better.
That was three years ago now, and I’m way past breaking even. The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes has sold over 10,000 copies, without a publisher, literary agent, or Amazon.
The Financial Times declared it one of the best fashion books of 2022. Business of Fashion dedicated a whole episode of their podcast to it. It’s been featured in the New York Times, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, i-D and Dazed. Tyler The Creator posted sections of it on Instagram, Acronym sneaked a copy into one of their lookbooks, and it’s been sold in the gift shop at the Tate Modern.
It’s been a huge, transformative project for me. It’s put my work in front of thousands of new people, and given me the confidence to imagine a future where I can support myself entirely from my writing. Since I left my Highsnobiety job, I’ve been doing a mix of branded copywriting, editorial pieces and consulting, but if things keep going at the pace they’re at, I’ll be able to give that up next year. That’s partly because this newsletter is going great (thank you to everyone who’s subscribed!) but also because of the book — it sells really well, and the margin from self-publishing is so much better than a regular book deal. Most authors get somewhere between €1 and €2 per book from publishers. I make €10 for every book bought on my website, and just under €6 from each one sold at a bookshop.
The downside is that I have to pay for everything myself, and have a lot of tedious admin to take care of. But honestly, I love it. Being able to make good money from my writing is worth all the extra accounting and logistics. The goal is to get to a place where my Substack content exists alongside a mini publishing business that makes fun little books about big serious topics. I’ve started the work on my second book already, and am hoping to get it out into the world toward the end of next year. Thank you to everyone who’s picked up a copy so far!
Why I went down the DIY route
I had a really specific idea of the kind of book I wanted to make — I knew it had to be short, and it had to be fun. A few years earlier, I’d given my mum a copy of Mary Beard’s Women and Power for Christmas. It’s a pocket-sized little book based on a few lectures, just over a hundred pages long. I read it on my mum’s sofa in about an hour. That seemed like the perfect way to do it — short and sweet, the kind of thing you can easily read while on a train or killing time in an airport. In my interview on the Business of Fashion podcast, Imran Amed described The World Is On Fire… as a “manifesto”, which is pretty much how I imagined it — short, quick and to the point. It’ll take up a few hours of your time and leave you feeling energized and inspired.
I’d been posting a lot of infographics on Instagram at the time as well, so they felt like a fun thing to throw into the mix. They’d also help make it more shareable online. That was the thinking behind the big pull quotes as well — highlighting a passage from a book on Instagram is annoying and just looks bad most of the time. Why not take the spiciest bits and make the text really big, like you would in a magazine?
I know I keep coming back to the idea of fun but really, that was such a huge motivator for me. I wanted to make something that I’d enjoy making and reading myself, so that’s how I ended up with a double-page graphic of a hype collab brainstorm and a sneakerhead version of lazlo's pyramid of needs. To me, it all made sense — most non-fiction books are kinda boring and way too long. But making something short, punchy and engaging just doesn’t seem to be the way Big Publishing works, and that’s one of the big reasons self-publishing made so much sense to me.
I also had a really specific idea of where I wanted it to be sold. I love independent retail. Places like Tres Bien, Voo and Goodhood are such important parts of the fashion landscape — they sell great brands, are amazing places for discovery and curation, and they also have really fun edits of non-fashion stuff, like homeware and of course, books. I wanted to get out of the sustainability bubble and reach the audience I was speaking to back at Highsnobiety, the people buying Stussy and Prada. They might not know what Scope 3 emissions are, but they still care about the planet. Being able to work with an indie distributor to get in front of this kind of audience was a big priority. And honestly, I don’t think my kinda-weird idea for a tiny book about consumerism would make much sense in a giant Barnes and Noble — it’s too indie for that kind of consumer, and I’m not sure you can even get into those places when you’re self-published anyway.
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Speed was also a huge issue. It takes conventional publishers years to release a book, and I wanted to move fast. The pandemic felt like a really pivotal moment — people were really questioning their shopping habits and the way that the whole industry works — and I didn’t want to miss my chance. In hindsight, I didn’t need to worry so much about that. We’ve been out of lockdowns for a few years now, and if anything interest in The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes is only growing — if you haven’t already, you can pick up a copy here.
So that’s why I chose to go self-published. The rest of this piece is going to look at how I did it. This is absolutely not meant as business advice, but hitting the 10k milestone feels like the right moment to share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years of running my own little book business. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but writing is such a tough profession these days that I want to be transparent and helpful for anyone else who’s considering it. For me, the freedom and money has been worth all the extra headaches, admin and logistics.
Anna, my coach at the time, introduced me to a friend who runs Casimir, a boutique agency that produces printed publications from front to back — they take care of everything from sourcing paper and preparing the files to coordinating the printing and delivery. I worked pretty closely with Kris Pyda, Casimir’s designer, to bring the book to life visually.
Anyone who’s worked in production will tell you about economies of scale — the more things you make, the cheaper they become. It didn’t cost much more to print a few thousand copies than it would to make a few hundred. But if I wanted to have the margin available to sell the book to shops without making a loss I’d need to do at least 2,000. It would cost just under €9,000 for the whole project. Obviously, that’s a lot of money. But it was in the middle of the pandemic, and I’d been lucky that I still had freelance work coming in, so I was hardly spending anything, and I have low living costs because Berlin is still relatively cheap. Plus, I’d put a preorder online to help bring some cash in before all the invoices were due.
Honestly, it was still scary. I’d need to sell 900 books to break even, which seemed like a crazy amount. I had an audience already on Instagram, which I’d slowly built up over years, but I’d never actually asked them to do anything for me, let alone pay for my writing. But toward the end of the whole process, it started to feel like the project had some pretty big potential, so we brought in another of Anna’s friends, Yasha, to do a copy edit and Gia Kuan, who did a small PR campaign to get the book in front of people in the USA. I put together a small website on Squarespace with the help of a friend, which I later migrated over to Shopify with the help of another friend.
I figured I’d raise as much cash as I could from the preorder, and then cross my fingers and hope that I’d break even after that. And if it did end up running a loss, I could write it off on my tax return. In the end I made over half of the €9k from preorders, and broke even a month or so after the book officially released in March 2022. I sold over 400 copies a month, thanks to Instagram and the features I was getting in GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Dazed and i-D. Some pretty big accounts like Future Earth and Hector Bellerin were shouting it out online as well. I’d sold all 2,000 copies by the end of June. I was out of books for a few months until the second edition was printed, but I did a much bigger print run this time. A little over a year later and I’ve sold my 10,000th book. It feels great.
The Guardian reported last year that the median salary for professional authors in the UK is just £7,000. Honestly, I’m not surprised. Forbes reports that between 600,000 and a million books are published every year in the US alone, and that’s not even including self-published authors. When there’s that many books out there, published by that many authors, then of course making money is going to be hard. And like so many parts of culture, it ends up being the rich and the well-connected who are the most successful.
Fundamentally, the Big Publishing model is about throwing hundreds of books out there and hoping that one of them works. That’s why author royalties are so low, usually somewhere between 5 and 15% of net profit — because the publisher is spending so much money making books that don’t sell. It’s a really weird, archaic business, and that’s before we get into the finer details, like the fact that the New York Times’ bestseller list isn’t really about who’s selling the most books.
The main advantage of a book deal is the advance, and the fact that the publisher takes care of the production costs. That means you won’t end up out of pocket if the book doesn’t sell, and you have a bit of a cushion to support yourself while you’re writing it. As I said already, I financed the book myself — which was a big risk, but the preorders helped a lot — and I wrote mine while also doing my regular freelance work. Honestly, it was intense and pretty exhausting. I nearly burned out a few times, but the book is only 19,000 words, so the pain only lasted six months or so.
The advantage to self-publishing is that the margin is so much better. If an author on a regular deal makes a bit over a euro per book, I make between five and eight times that, depending on where it’s sold. Most months I make between €500 to €1,000 from my online store, which is by no means a salary, but it’s good money. If something big happens online — like the Business of Fashion podcast, which was huge — then sales can spike hard. The payments from my wholesale distributors are bigger, but they come every quarter.
Bookstores can buy The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes through Antenne in the UK, and Idea everywhere else. These guys have gotten the book into some amazing places, like McNally Jackson and Mast in New York and Do You Read Me? and Dussmann in Berlin. Museums have picked it up as well — the Tate Modern in London, Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the MoMa in San Francisco. And even Tres Bien and Voo, two of my favorite fashion retailers, which I’m still so happy about. It’s such a diverse mix of places, and that’s another thing I love so much about indie publishing — you can reach people in so many different places.
Even though the book has been out for almost two years, the wholesale side feels like it’s only just getting started. There are so many bookshops in the world, and none of the territorial politics you get in fashion retail. If one shop sells it in a city, then that’s not going to stop someone else from selling it too. It’s also important to be able to reach an audience IRL as well as online, where you have to break through the algorithm just for people to see your name.
I use a fulfillment company in Berlin to ship all the books out — the books sit in their warehouse, and their system plugs into the Shopify API to read all my orders and ship them out automatically. It’s effortless, apart from the occasional customer service issue that I take care of myself. The distributors take books on consignment, so I ship a bunch of books out to them a few times a year (another expense). The sales are paid quarterly.
Cashflow is the biggest challenge I have, like any small business. The downside of self publishing is that you have to finance everything yourself, and I need to make sure I’ve got enough money on the side to fund the next edition so I don’t accidentally run out of books. My second edition cost almost €10,000, and that print run started to run low not even two years later, so I’ve just printed a third edition. Shipping is a huge cost as well — I actually charge less than what it costs me, and just take the hit because nobody wants to pay €8 to ship a pocket-sized book.
The tax situation is pretty complicated as well, so I pay a lot more in accounting fees than I did when I was just doing freelance work. I have to subscribe to some software to process the VAT info for orders in the EU, and the same company provides a plugin to create invoices for each order as well. Shopify won’t do that, for some reason.
The ebook version was really easy. Kris, my designer, just needed a few hours to convert the print file into an ebook file. There’s a few infographics missing and we switched the pull quotes into regular text, but apart from that, it’s basically identical to the print file. My website is the only place you can buy the ebook, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
There’s still the possibility of doing an audiobook, but you need to put a lot of time and money into producing that, and even then, I think the only way I’d be able to make it work is through Audible, which takes a ridiculous 60% fee. I’m not on Amazon either, for a few reasons — one, I want to support independent retail, but also it’s become a platform in and of itself, powered by algorithms and paid placements. It’s probably great if you write cookbooks, but there’s very little search volume for sustainable fashion, so I’m not sure how many people I would reach there anyway. I’m happy knowing that Jeff Bezos isn’t getting any money from me.
The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes has sold over 10k copies, which is thousands and thousands more than I ever imagined. It’s been reviewed in some of my favorite publications from across the internet and sold in some of the world’s coolest shops. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s all gone, and I feel like I’m just getting started.
If there’s one thing that I really want to get across here is that the book is only a success because people want to read it. As I said before, the majority of non-fiction writing is just way too long — I’ve read so many books where the author took an interesting idea, and made it tedious by repeating the same point over and over again, or by citing hundreds of different studies and sources for really obvious things. I don’t need to pull research from brain scans for readers to understand that shopping is fun or that we love to own things nobody else has.
One thing I’ve noticed after years in the sustainability space is that people really care about fashion’s impact on the world, but so much of the conversation is about turning fashion (which is fun!) into homework (boring!). That’s why it felt so important to have a simple, optimistic message for people to take away — just buy less, but buy better. I also know from my years working at Highsnobiety that having a short, punchy message is the most effective way to reach people. As I say in the book’s introduction, I’m not trying to write the ten commandments of sustainability. The vibe I’m going for is more like the kind of conversation you’d have at a bar: here’s some interesting stuff I’ve learned over the years and what it could mean for you and your life. That’s also why I gave so much space to the emotional and philosophical themes running through the book — clothes are really meaningful, and I wanted readers to understand that’s okay, that we don’t need to feel bad for caring about what we wear.
And for anyone who’s thinking of writing their own book — where it’s through a publisher or the DIY way I’ve done it — I can’t stress enough the importance of building an audience. I had something like 27k followers on Instagram, so there were enough people out there to take an interest in it. And after spending three years talking about sustainability online, people more or less knew what my perspective is. I know it’s easy to be intimidated by other peoples’ follower counts when you’re starting from zero, but that’s where everyone else starts from too, so what are you waiting for?
Networking is another huge factor. I knew a bunch of editors already, which made it so much easier to get press around the book. That’s another thing people get a bit intimidated about. but it’s not rocket science, you just need to put yourself out there. Follow people whose work you’re into, and tell them you’re into it. Talk to strangers at events. Email someone you’ve never spoken to before. We’re all human, people love to meet interesting new people, so go for it!
It all comes down to giving people a reason to be interested in what you do. Whether you’re selling a book or starting a newsletter, a podcast or anything else, you can’t expect the world to care about your work just because you do. You’re not just competing against the millions of writers out there, but Netflix, online shopping, memes, and all the other noise online. And yes, self-publishing costs a lot of money. But as well as the preorder model, there’s the possibility of crowdfunding or getting financial support from cultural funds and foundations.
I’ve started working on a second book, which is really exciting. Of course, that means I need to worry about paying for even more books — as if writing the thing isn’t enough work already — but I’m feeling pretty great about the whole self-published situation. The preorders helped so much last time, so I’ll definitely be doing them again. It’s going to be a pretty similar concept, but a totally different subject — it will be another small, fun book about a big, important issue.
The funny thing is, before I thought of doing a book, I was going to make a zine. I would interview a bunch of people I knew to get some perspectives that I felt were missing from the conversation. But as soon as I started speaking to people about it, I realized I was just holding myself back. The only reason I thought of interviewing others was because I didn’t have the confidence to say things myself. That’s a big hangover from my old Highsnobiety job — when you’re just a byline, people read the publication first, the author second. Deciding that I wanted to stand behind my own words was a huge moment for me. It gave me the confidence to put myself out there and say what I wanted to say. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of a good idea when you don’t believe in yourself.
The money was also a happy accident. I didn’t intend to make money out of the book, but it’s been a huge motivator for me to think bigger, to imagine more books. That’s another hangover I had from my old job — I saw first-hand how badly writers are paid for online work, and assumed it had to be that way forever. I always figured I’d need to do commercial work to pay the bills, whether it was from corporate consulting or branded copywriting. Breaking free of that and being able to think bigger has been a pretty amazing thing for me.
And that’s what I’m really working towards — being able to make a living from writing what I want to write, and what I feel needs to be written. I don’t care about a celebrity foreword or a bunch of five-star reviews on the cover, and I don’t need to be on a best-seller list. Being able to support myself from my fun little books about big serious issues is the dream. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of the journey so far.