Plaister Press

Author-Illustrator Gillian McClure has enjoyed a long career working with publishers creating children's books - and then she began publishing herself. Here she offers the story behind Plaister Press.

Early in 2010 I formed Plaister Press in order to self publish new picture books – physical books - alongside my traditionally published books.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of running a small publishing company is acquiring a greater knowledge of the publishing industry; for all the paths I’ve been following are the same as those followed by big publishers. 

    Publishing is like doing the Lottery. It takes only one winning book to turn things around but that winning book is unpredictable; the most unexpected of books win. And all the other books - well they need a lot of dedicated marketing and selling to shift them out of the warehouse. It’s the winner, the best seller that subsidises the rest of the list. Until that happens, if it does ever happen, the advantages of running your own publishing company are not all financial. So what are the other advantages?

  • You have the opportunity of creating a brand – your own list. website
  • You have books coming out and getting reviewed when perhaps there may not be much movement on the picture book front. 
  • You have new books and new workshops based on them for school visits. 
  • If you’re an illustrator, you have new artwork to sell one day.

All this keeps your name alive out there when it might otherwise be fading away as you wait for traditional publishers who take their time in deciding whether to take your next book. My agent Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown agrees; she is happy with what I’m doing; sees it all helping raise my profile. 

My initial reason for starting Plaister Press back in 2010 was a creative one rather than a business one. I’d found myself becoming, over my thirty-year writing and illustrating career, a smaller and smaller cog in a bigger and bigger business and I was becoming frustrated. So when a friend gave me a sum of money to ‘proceed with a book’, I joined up with a typographical designer and started my own publishing company.

Working with typographic designer, Lisa Kirkham.

The creative rewards were great. I love the autonomy and control.
I love experimenting with new formats and working closely from the rough stage with a typographic designer – something I was never allowed to do before. However, ‘proceeding with a book’ means going far beyond an author/illustrator’s usual comfort zone if that book is going to end up on a child’s bookcase.

A business sense is needed. I saw ahead of me a huge learning curve - dealing with -

  • Printers - Chinese printers – getting files to them, working within their schedules – avoiding the Chinese New Year
  • Wholesalers & distributers – Gardners and Bertrams
  • ISBNs and barcodes
  • Invoicing and returns
  • Marketing and promotions
  • Trade fairs – the Bologna Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair
  • Selling
  • Stock keeping – I needed an efficient excel sheet showing how much stock I owned rather than counting boxes under beds or in the attic
  • Bookkeeping – double of everything because I’m still running my self employed business. Double accountancy bills
  • And, on top of all this, leaving enough time and space to create new books  without losing the quality expected of me when published the traditional way
  • I also needed an exit strategy: it helps on sleepless nights to know that, with one click of a button on the Companies House website, I can make my company go dormant. After that, all I have to do is clear my remaining stock in school and bookshop signings before a holiday on the profits! A simple exit strategy has been one of the reasons I’ve not wanted to complicate my business by publishing other people’s books alongside my own

Seeing how big the learning curve ahead of me was going to be, I decided, when I started out in 2010, to cut my teeth on reissuing a back list title with a good sales record where the rights had reverted.  After that, I’ve been publishing new picture books; one a year.

I discovered, early on, to my surprise, that I liked marketing and selling; enjoyed mailing out to all the UK Independent booksellers and spending time in bookshops, learning who my customers were.
So now to the drawbacks: small is beautiful but it’s also a problem. A small publisher, as I said earlier, is following the same route to market as a big publisher. Big publishers are my competitors and one of the real drawbacks of being so small, is that everything in the publishing industry is geared for BIG:

  • Discounts are big
  • Costs are big
  • Print runs need to be big if you are going to make any profit at al 
  • Turnover and numbers of titles need to be big to interest any sales agent 
  • Even the lorry delivering the books from Felixstowe docks to my house was big – too big to get down my street. The driver phoned to say he would have to meet me in a lay by on the outskirts of Cambridge. I had a vision of 1,500 books left unguarded on a palette on a damp autumn day as I made several journeys by car getting them back to my house. I had to come up with some solution quickly or all those cartons of books would go back to the docks. With physical books you have physical problems. 
So three years after creating my publishing company, I found I was a bit stuck. My books were selling but the profit was only just covering the production costs of the next book. I could go no faster than one book a year if I was going to maintain quality.  Alone, I was never going to notch my business up to the next level.

So I signed up to Martin West’s organisation Authorization!   - a very newly formed umbrella organisation for small publishing companies or authors bringing back into print back-list titles. Authorization! has solutions to many of the ‘big’ problems and can help when you’re too small to proceed beyond a certain point on your own.

Gone now are the problems with large lorries delivering cartons to my house. Gone are all the books under the beds and all the trips to the post office. I now have warehousing, a sales agent, rights agent and four reps.

Martin West talking about Authorization! plus Susan Price and myself on a self-publishing panel at the 2012 CWIG conference. He will be speaking again on self publishing at the Society of Authors on Tuesday 16 July 2013 at 6pm: CWIG – Children’s Self-Publishing: Authors in Control?
I wonder whether, in the future, authors and illustrators who are already doing a lot of their own marketing through social media will be expected by their publishers to also foot the production costs of any risky or niche-market book – publishing it themselves. Then, only if a book is seen to be a winner, will the big publishers step in and take it over for the mass market. Perhaps, in this way, self publishing might be the way forward for publishers and authors and illustrators alike.

 Gillian McClure is the creator of dozens of picture books for children, and former member of the Society of Authors CWIG committee. See her website here, and blog here


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is an inspiring article Gillian, your dedication and energy is just amazing. It's great to know that there's a strong support network in existence for those thinking of setting up as a publishing business themselves.

    1. Yes, and I'm sure there'll be more help and support available as more authors and illustrators venture down the self-publishing route.

  3. Thank you Gillian really interesting to read about you experience withe The Plaister Press. The image of the Lorry being too big too deliver to your home has stayed with me!

    1. It was the same lorry driver a year later with another load of cartons and he suggested leaving them in the same place!

  4. Thanks for this, Gillian, a very useful summary of the pro's and cons. The boxes under the bed scenario made me smile - been there, done that!

    1. I'd be interested to hear what you moved onto, Maureen, after the 'books under the bed' stage.

  5. Late in commenting Gillian, regardless wanted to comment on how clear your article was on the process of setting up a publishing company and all the pros and cons that go with it. It brings to mind Tamarind Press and how Verna Wilkins started it out of a desire to have more multicultural books out there representing children of color. A great desire has to be behind it for all the work I think. Thank you!


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