The short answer is no. You can’t get owt for nowt – everything has an opportunity cost.
But supposing we took the question to mean, “Can you set up a book-publishing house without any financial outlay?’
I’ve tried to answer this question hypothetically. Here’s what I came up with.
1. You need a computer. You may have access to a library or other communal centre that provides online access free of charge. Obviously, though, it would be preferable to have your own computer.
2. You can obtain content free of charge – by generating it yourself, using out of copyright material, or not paying an advance. And you can use photographs published under the creative commons licence.
4. You can use free e-book conversion software to prepare your publication.
5. You can distribute your e-books without a start-up fee through various services, including Amazon Kindle.
6. You can market your publications using free social media sites such as WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. You can create a website using wordpress.com.
7. You can archive text and data on the cloud, for example through Google.
8. You can accept payments through PayPal.
9. You could avoid company registration fees by setting up as a sole trader or partnership (though I wouldn’t recommend it, because your liability would be unlimited).
10. You can use a free online book-keeping service such as Brightbook.
So you can do a great deal, though some of the above actions (especially # 1 and 9) involve serious compromises. What can you not do adequately? I suggest:
1. Proofreading: if you’ve written or edited the text, you really need a fresh pair of eyes to do the proofreading.
2. Indexing: of course, your book might not need indexing – most fiction goes un-indexed – or you could try to do it yourself, perhaps aided by software – but unless you were a trained indexer, it wouldn’t be as good.
3. Obtaining an ISBN: you could do without by selling and distributing your publications only via your website, but that would be extremely limiting. To access industry distribution systems, one needs an ISBN.
4. Getting insurance – and I wouldn’t advise anyone to publish books – or indeed run any kind of business – without insurance.
So one needs some capital. And the above assumes there is already a good deal of human capital (for example, technical skills and advanced literacy skills) already in place.
Still, the answers above demonstrate that one doesn’t need, strictly speaking, very much start-up capital. Think three figures or perhaps low four figures. And there is one business model that could overcome even the constraints listed here, namely open access – provided that one can at the start persuade sponsors of publications to pay upfront. To do this, however, before one had anything to show, would require a good deal of social capital – not least in the form of trustworthiness.
If anyone can suggest an even more parsimonious approach, do please feel free to do so!