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personal book publishing
December 8, 2006 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Kevin Kelly on the latest in personal book publishing advice.
posted by stbalbach (63 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
It used to be, not long ago, being a published author and having a physical object on the shelf to prove it was a life-long dream for many but rarely achieved (although common enough to produce floods of new books each year). From now on, the question will be who hasn't published a book. Full color, hardcover, coffee-table books, everything is available and steadily becoming easier and cheaper to produce. Of course books from self-publishers are different from commercial publishers, but then does it matter when it comes to the joy of knowing someone has read and owns your book, an experience now within reach of just about everyone.
posted by stbalbach at 7:17 AM on December 8, 2006


[this is great!]

Relevant AskMe search.
posted by ao4047 at 7:20 AM on December 8, 2006


Very Great! I have recently started looking into publishing a book. Its strange I saw this, because minutes before I was busy researching. Very interesting.
posted by JokingClown at 7:51 AM on December 8, 2006


Akin to the blogosphere, in which everyone can share her/his ideas and insights, this is a great development...the true democratization of knowledge production and dissemination! Thanks for sharing.
posted by crunchee at 7:53 AM on December 8, 2006


Thanks.
posted by dobbs at 8:01 AM on December 8, 2006


The photo books are an excellent idea. They make great Christmas presents for new grandparents.
posted by vbfg at 8:05 AM on December 8, 2006


Yes, vanity publishing is very different to failed commercial publishing - the letdown of minimal sales is easier to handle because your expectations aren't so high. The hope and the disappointment as your 'special project' either rots in the delivery boxes in the back room (after people you know, and even some you have only briefly met, have a copy) or clogs the remainder baskets is somehow easier to bear because - it was just for me (and my family, and some of my friends).
posted by tellurian at 8:10 AM on December 8, 2006


There's only one drawback to these kinds of services, and for some it'll be huge, while for others it won't matter. It's that these services use toner as opposed to ink for their printing. Printing with ink is far more expensive, but it has certain advantages.

Toner is essentially a powder with water. The powder particles in toner in the machines professional printers use are much smaller than the powder particles in toner in home printing. But, they share the same essantial weakness -- they're water-soluble and break down at lower temperatures than ink. Plus, since ink molecules are closer to liqiud than solid, while toner molecules are solids dissolved in water, ink is more flexible. All of this means that anything printed with ink lasts longer, is more durable, and maintains its original quality for longer.

Carbon copies are sort of the original application of toner, and though the technology for manufacturing and applying toner has improved dramtically since the days of carbon copies, anything printed with toner still has the same weakness that carbon copies have/had: the forces of nature can break it down very easily. The carbon from carbon copies comes off the paper onto your hands very easily. Now, the partcile size of power use in carbon paper is much larger than the particle size of modern toner. But: get something digitally printed, and then put it under enough pressure or heat or moisture changes, and ink will come off the paper, especially if the paper is a non-glossy surface. The more porous your paper, the less coverage, and the more likelikhood that ink will come off the paper.

An example: before I knew any of this, I had some birth announcements printed digitally on a press not dissimilar from these used by the prointers recomended by the article. The announcements were printed on a non-glossy paper (but it wasn't what I'd call rough, either -- it just wasn't glossy) and when the announcements were sent through the mail, the normal forces of natues mail encounters in transit resulted in the color coming off of the printed surafe onto an unprinted surface, and in some cases, there was smudging.

The moral of this story is: if you want to print a book that lasts a few years (maybe 10?) or you want to print something people will either: not use a lot, or: get rid of, then go digital. Brochures, business cards, menus, reports, and other ephemeral items are good things to print digitally. But anything you want to last and survive many readings/uses, like a lot of the stuff Kevin Kelly is making, then it's better to do some kind of press printing (screen printing, offset printing or letterpress -- i.e. a process where ink is used.)
This is not to say that you can't get something nice-looking when you go digital, but you should just be aware that, for example, with these photos books, the page will become visible through the toner at the folds and coners much sooner, and should the item get wet, there's no drying it out on the radiator, because the ink will run. How wet it'll have to get will vary depending on the printer used and the quality of the toner, of course.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:25 AM on December 8, 2006 [6 favorites]


Also:

Here's a short comparison of digital to offset printing.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on toner.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:32 AM on December 8, 2006


...these services use toner as opposed to ink for their printing.
In fact, these books are astounding. That's because they both use the same back-room engine, the HP Indigo 5000 (as do the other color book makers like Snapfish and MyPublisher). The Indigio is essentially a very wide ultra-fast ink jet that will print your photo book several pages across.
High definition imaging and unique liquid HP ElectroInk - create rich, vibrant color prints at 812 x 812 dpi and up to 812 x 1,624 dpi when printing in high resolution mode, and up to 230 lines per inch
posted by prostyle at 8:35 AM on December 8, 2006


prostyle, the "ink" in HP ElectroInk is still toner; it's just toner with a smaller particle size, which allows for greater dpi printing.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:40 AM on December 8, 2006


See here:

The HP Indigo is a brand of digital press that uses a unique liquid ink called ElectroInk. The ink like other toner based machines use an electrical charge to control the location of the print particles. The advantage to this liquid ink over the toner based machines is the particle size is much smaller with ElectroInk.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:43 AM on December 8, 2006


And don't get me wrong -- I'm not down on digital printing; I use it all the time; but I don't know if it's the best solution for the kinds of books Kelly is making, at least not if he wants them to last a lifetime.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:45 AM on December 8, 2006


AsukaBook offer a real offset press, and do runs of 1 copy. The quality blows every other photo book I've seen out of the water, but it costs more and you have to be a pro photographer to use their service. Compared with what was about 10 years ago, it's a revolution.
posted by bonaldi at 8:45 AM on December 8, 2006


That does look like some high quality stuff, bonaldi. I wonder if their process for verifying one's status as a "professional" goes beyond a checkbox at the bottom of the sign up page...

Not that it matters to me, since I own a graphic design business
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:50 AM on December 8, 2006


Wow real press for 1 copy! How much is that?

Also - well said, eustacescrubb.

We did a calendar one year on hi-quality digital output; it was very nice, and it was only meant to last 1 year.
posted by Mister_A at 8:51 AM on December 8, 2006


As commercial book publishing crashes, personal book publishing is booming.

Ummm, commercial book publishing is not crashing. Perhaps it may in years to come, but currently the number of books being produced by commercial publishers is on the rise, a steady increase for several years now. And while some commercial publishers fold, others are still launching, often in the form of imprints under large umbrella corporations.
posted by mijuta at 8:52 AM on December 8, 2006


I'm sorely tempted to make a photo book, now. The toner caveats are well-noted, but on the other hand an unprinted book lasts exactly zero years.
posted by cortex at 8:54 AM on December 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Well then I certainly stand corrected. Very interesting, eustacescrubb.
posted by prostyle at 8:57 AM on December 8, 2006


I would think there has to be an emotional difference between knowing that a disinterested second party (a publisher, say) was willing to put up money for your book and an individual ponying up his own cash for a minimally interesting effort. Granted, no one in their right mind would expect a publisher to want granny's love letters (unless granny was already notorious), but to have a serious imprint on your book, to have a check in hand- that has to set you apart big time from the also rans, no?

Moeover, as a reader who already treats any book as guilty until proven innocent, a volume's self publishment is as great a damnation as knowing that Judith Regan is behind it.

Life is short, books all too many- I need filters, and self-publishers by and large do not help. So to that extent, count me as the grinch at this particular celebration. (NB also that most periodicals won't even consider self published books for review.)

(Interesting disquisition on inks and tones, Mr Scrubb, many thanks.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2006


Great timely post: I have been trying to put together a photo book for my parents; I had been planning on using another service but Blurb looks like a winner to me. Hardcover - sweet. Toner-based ink - not really an issue for me, in this project. It's supposed to be somewhat ephemeral, isn't it? Real photographs fade and yellow; why should I be concerned that over the years this present could also show its age? That will just mean it has been handled, instead of left on a shelf untouched.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:02 AM on December 8, 2006


I agree with you, indigo, as far as publishing fiction or "serious" nonfiction; but I think there is a certain amount of value in doing a nice photobook for yourself or your SO or parents, or what have you. But I would not dub myself a published author (or photographer, painter, etc.) after creating such a book.
posted by Mister_A at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2006


2 character domain name. Awesome.
posted by chunking express at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2006


I like the on-demand idea and will probably use it myself for some materials. However, if you want to communicate information through books, there are other aspects to consider. I published a book with O'Reilly a year ago and was struck by just how much more a publisher provides than access to a commercial printing service.

* The effects of a good editor are significant, better organization in the text being the main one.

* Having a copy editor is like having your car waxed well. It takes time and effort, but produces a beautifully smooth result.

* An index is crucial if the book is printed (indexes are grep 0.1, after all). Doing this yourself is tedious and error-prone.

I'm not anti-Lulu, but let's not pretend that just because something is printed, its the same quality as a professionaly-produced book.
posted by mdoar at 9:08 AM on December 8, 2006


I would think there has to be an emotional difference between knowing that a disinterested second party (a publisher, say) was willing to put up money for your book and an individual ponying up his own cash for a minimally interesting effort.

I agree and disagree. I've never been published (hopefully due to a lack of effort as I've only ever sent something out once and I still haven't heard back), but get asked often enough by readers when I will publish. It's nice to know the interest is there on the reader end and that if I were to use Lulu, I could tell in advance how many I could sell with a simple email.

I'm also a bit of a whore for really small print runs. I like the idea of publishing 26 lettered copies (or even a couple hundred) of something, for instance, like those done for Bukowski's books by Black Sparrow. They were hella expensive but they're gorgeous books. The quality of small runs (few thou) by companies like Murphy Design are gorgeous and very inspiring--a nice kick in the ass--to self-publish something small.

There's no way I'd get a publisher to do a super tiny run for anything I write so this option is quite cool, I think.
posted by dobbs at 9:11 AM on December 8, 2006


I self-published a small run of letterpressed chapbooks a few years ago. The book came with a self-produced CD of me reading the poems to music. It's the sort of thing I keep meaning to put on the web and post to Projects, but I haven't had the time. The "demand", as it were, for something like that is different than a mass-produced book; most of the people who buy hear me read first, and then decide to buy after hearing my poems. It's more personal, and the audience either likes my stuff enough to buy or doesn't. It's more like the days of Wordsworth and Coleridge and less like the capitalist publishing industry.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:37 AM on December 8, 2006


Moeover, as a reader who already treats any book as guilty until proven innocent, a volume's self publishment is as great a damnation as knowing that Judith Regan is behind it.

I would imagine that very little of the enthusiasm shown herein has to do with aspirations toward Being Published. Books are very visceral artifacts. They're neat to have, to share. That printing very small lots is the focus of the linked article should make that distinction clear.
posted by cortex at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2006


"As commercial book publishing crashes, personal book publishing is booming." Double nonsense. Commercial publishing is still big business, and the "boom" in vanity publishing is not equivalent to a "boom" in vanity book sales.

There is a use for self-publishing (A Guide to New England Glass Doorknobs, that sort of thing), but the gatekeeper is still a vital necessity for literary works.
posted by QuietDesperation at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2006


The fact of self-publishing being easy certainly allows for boat loads of utter tripe, but as Whitman self-published his first 5 or so versions of Leaves of Grass and Nietzsche his first versions of Von Gut und Bose, there's also precedent for fine works to undergo this treatment before being "discovered" by the money machines. Self publishing's a nice bridge between making art and making it, to compete with the growing wallpaper of professionally published rejection letters any artist is likely to acquire.
posted by sarcasman at 9:48 AM on December 8, 2006


I'm in the middle of using Blurb now for a big (360 p) hard bound 1-off. The software is fantastic. Also, when I had a minor problem (my own fault), one of their QA people - who is tremendously responsive and helpful - gave me their personal cell # to work through & fix the problem very quickly.

I like the iphoto books, don't get me wrong, but the quality of these seems much higher, the layout options far broader, and the final product a lot sturdier.

I'll definitely use it in place of iPhoto and Flickr/qoop books in the future. I hope the Blurb / booksmart approach replaces those eventually; I think it has the potential to easily replace shutterfly, iphoto and the rest.
posted by luriete at 9:49 AM on December 8, 2006


I've been working on a lulu book, but now I might instead go with blurb for it, because I'd like to have full-bleed photos alongside the text. Basically, I'm grabbing and editing a bunch of old love letters I sent to my wife when we were first dating, and I'm writing a few essays on how we met, the day we got married, the day our daughter was born. I was hoping to finish the project well in time for printing, but it's looking like I'll miss xmas for sure. Perhaps I can give it to her on Mothers Day.

It's basically a book with an audience of one, which these printing services are perfect for.
posted by mathowie at 9:49 AM on December 8, 2006


That's totally cool mathowie. For our first anniversary, I hand-bound a hardbound book of the emails my wife and sent each other the year we were apart while we were dating - similar idea, and I can tell you now, mrs. mathowie will LOVE it. :)
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:52 AM on December 8, 2006


Related: the New York Times' How to Be Your Own Publisher and Publish magazine's How-To: Self-Publishing with Publishing On Demand.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:58 AM on December 8, 2006


I'm toying with the idea of doing a family cookbook using LuLu or the like. I think it would be a fun project. It'd have an audience of like, 15 people, and those same 15 people would essentially be the authors, but I think it would be cool.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:26 AM on December 8, 2006


Hand-bound books are awesome. My wife's friend makes these journals/photoalbums, which we've given many times as gifts.
posted by Mister_A at 10:28 AM on December 8, 2006


It's interesting to compare people's attitudes about vanity publishing ("Major publishing houses serve as much-needed gatekeepers!") with people's attitudes about similar developments, both online and off, in the music industry ("Finally, indie bands have a chance! Fuck the RIAA!!").

There's a lot of hostility toward vanity publishing from people who work in the publishing industry. Personally, as a jazz musician who has known dozens of acclaimed colleagues who have stacks of unsold records in their basements, I see a definite value in the ability of vanity publishing to produce limited quantities of a professional-quality product. I wouldn't expect Barnes & Noble to stock them, just as I wouldn't expect to see CDBaby's inventory in Tower Records; but it allows the artist to deliver a good product to the market within his direct reach.
posted by cribcage at 10:28 AM on December 8, 2006


Minor revision to the first paragraph
Personal book making entails printing high-quality books in very small quantities, including quantities of one. New technologies permit anyone to print one copy of a softcover or hardcover book, including all-color photo books. These printed-on-demand books are indistinguishable from commercially printed books. In fact, some of the books you buy on Amazon are manufactured with this same technology. You just can't tell the difference.
Partly kidding, of course, but the "high quality" part is not par for the course in do it yourself printing, and most of these books are eyesores. [To my eye, even the highest quality laserprint (as eustacescrubb mentioned in his ink v. toner bit above) is pretty easily distinguishable from offset.]

That said, there are plenty of times when nontraditional techonologies like POD are a good solution even for traditional publishers (in particular for academic and specialty presses), for example being able to keep a low-demand book "in print" without spending thousands of dollars and having to warehouse copies that aren't going to sell many years.

And of course, a book doesn't have to be high quality for a person to enjoy reading it. Mass market paperbacks are a solid testament to that.
posted by camcgee at 10:37 AM on December 8, 2006


From now on, the question will be who hasn't published a book.

Same goes for CDs; used to be that personal music distribution was done on tape, and very few people could have their music on vinyl (comparatively). Now anyone can have a CD, and very cheaply, from a professional duplication house in the smallest quantities desired.
posted by davejay at 10:48 AM on December 8, 2006


This is cool, but has nothing to do with the publishing industry. All comparisons between the two are lame. It's a totally different thing. The relative success of one has no real effect on the other. Try to see the value in both.

Looks like a really fun tool for personal projects and small business needs.
posted by lampoil at 10:49 AM on December 8, 2006


I see this as part of the democratizing trend of digital media first heralded by online music distribution in the late 90's. Yes the low-cost of production/distribution subverts established channels (and editorial oversight, others have correctly noted) and floods the 'virtual market' with inferior "product", but the trade off has obvious benefits: more people encouraged to do creative work and a higher likelihood that those same "money machines" will hit their mark more often by picking up on underground currents -- ultimately delivering more of what people want and less K-Fed.

My wish is that there were a cheaper service for publishing fiction, one that uses ink and acid-free paper and is somewhere between the toner-based micropress scale and the proper printing press. I briefly worked at a very large, well-known press and noticed that the smaller runs (for proofs) were extremely expensive. It seems so many of these micropress companies are trying to reach the "turn your family photos into a book-gift" market (which services like Lulu and Apple's service seem great for), so there's an emphasis on cookie-cutter templates and a less permanent product. All I want is formatted text on a page, printed black and white, glue-bound with ink. 1-500 copies. Does anyone know of a service ideal for this?

Also...my girlfriend recently ordered one of those iBook (or i-whatever they call its) from Apple and I thought the quality was only okay. Certainly not better than her Epson photo printer.
posted by inoculatedcities at 10:55 AM on December 8, 2006


This is pretty good stuff:

I've been working on a technical book, and was considering the self publishing model.

It's the marketing I get nervous about, but hey, it's not like it's a huge investment to get going, either.
posted by mgorsuch at 11:00 AM on December 8, 2006


How easy or hard is it to use Google Books as a data source for these services? I've recently found Google Books' scans of many hard-to-find nineteenth-century books very useful in my research, and a convenient bound reprint would be nothing short of miraculous, both for research and teaching.
posted by RogerB at 11:09 AM on December 8, 2006


cribcage: It's interesting to compare people's attitudes about vanity publishing ("Major publishing houses serve as much-needed gatekeepers!") with people's attitudes about similar developments, both online and off, in the music industry ("Finally, indie bands have a chance! Fuck the RIAA!!").

I agree that there are differences in the standard applied, but your example seems to be to be comparing two very different things -- the majority of bands who are gaining success as a result of the decline of major labels are not putting out their records themselves, they're just on smaller ("indie") labels. The folks signing artists at those smaller labels whoever are still serving the "gatekeeper" function, even if they're not major labels or part of the RIAA.

If you talk to music industry folks, you'll find the same dismissive attitudes towards much of the direct-to-audience music on garageband.com and the like as you will find in the publishing industry towards vanity press material, which is of a different stripe than books released by small/indie presses.

Slightly related, and interesting, if only to me: looking through the first half of Billboard's hot 200 list and the NY Times' bestseller lists for (hardcover) fiction and nonfiction, I see about the same number of independent labels/presses on each -- discounting the confounding factor of the partnerships between some indie producers and their big-time distributors.
posted by camcgee at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2006


An acquaintance emailed me a few months back, letting me know that he'd recently published a book on a certain technical topic that I was interested in. A couple months after that, it sounded like it would come in handy so I ordered it from Amazon.

2-3 rounds of "This book has been delayed" emails later, it finally arrived, and I realized that it was a print-on-demand type book from a vanity publisher (not one of the ones mentioned here though). Quality of the book itself was shoddy, and the content consisted of about 30% screenshots and stuff rehashed from the online documentation. If not for the fact that my employer paid for the book order, I would have returned it for a refund.

In short, some of these services let absolute junk get published, when in some cases a copy editor and someone reviewing it for technical competency would have made all the difference in the world (as mdoar mentioned above).

That said, maybe its time to start looking at doing a Hobbyist Handbook for Sun Hardware again, now that actually getting it printed is cheap...
posted by mrbill at 12:32 PM on December 8, 2006


(and it turns out that Amazon owns the vanity publisher in question....)
posted by mrbill at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2006


How easy or hard is it to use Google Books as a data source for these services?

Some books have a "download" button on the search results page that lets you grab a full PDF (an example -- look underneath the thumbnail page view at the top of the right column). PDF is standard submission format for all of these print-on-demand services, so that would work no problem.

However, even when Google's book search will let you read the whole book online, you won't always have a download option (because of copyright issues). I don't think there's any service that will let you print from Google's book search pages directly.

A couple other places to look are Microsoft's new Live Book Search, which is exclusively public domain books, all of which are available for PDF download, and Project Gutenberg, which has books in a variety of formats.

Whether the POD service would require some kind of justification before they'd allow you to print a PDF from one of these sources, I don't know. I'm sure they all have TOS agreements about not reproducing material if you don't own the copyright.
posted by camcgee at 12:42 PM on December 8, 2006


Now anyone can have a CD, and very cheaply, from a professional duplication house in the smallest quantities desired. --davejay

Hell, even lame community weblogs have professionally duplicated CDs these days... ;)
posted by Bugg at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2006


Hmm... this just gave me an idea...

Chapter 1: In the beginning, there was the matthowie...
Chapter 6: I Got Five on Metafilter
Chapter 17: The Scourge of the Ceiling Cat
Chapter 23: The Death of the Image Tag
etc.

Alright, who's in for Metafilter the book?... I know, I know... take it to projects.
posted by Bugg at 1:57 PM on December 8, 2006


Heh. Don't tempt me.
posted by cortex at 2:15 PM on December 8, 2006


Stipulate, first, that:

(1) Lulu.com is a terrific service.

(2) Self-publication has a long and distinguished history; many excellent works have been self-published.

(3) Kevin Kelly is a smart man.

Nonetheless:

This article's opening sentence is misleading, tendentious, and false to fact. As mijuta points out above, commercial book publishing is not "crashing." And the service Lulu.com very capably provides is not "personal book publishing."

What Lulu offers is a variety of printing, priced to make low runs far more affordable than in the past. They are not "publishers" because printing is not publishing. Publishers pay printers to make books. What publishers do is get books out to potential readers. They make their books public. They don't always do a great job, just as I don't always make perfect oatmeal, but that's the business they're in. Printing is only a tiny part of it.

To sum up:

(1) Lulu.com: yes, terrific.

(2) Kevin Kelly: usually insightful.

(3) Opening line of this particular article: dumb as a box of rocks.
posted by pnh at 2:24 PM on December 8, 2006


I think now's a good time to iterate that there are other companies out there besides Lulu, and which charge a lot less. Lulu is kind of the "Kwik-E-Mart" of short-run printing... it's neither cheap nor unusually good, but it's convenient.
posted by calhound at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2006


I browsed over this entire article several times, and then over the comments to it, and I have to say, three important points have been overlooked.

One, self-publishing is the best route I know of for author's to get our work noticed by traditional publishing houses. And, incidentally, published.

Two, of the all books I have had commercially published in the past, the only one I have begun to see actual money from is the one I just self-published. The 15% (high) to 7% (low) net I was getting from traditional publishing contracts resulted in 0 % for me. Yet from a book I have only just begun publishing I am already seeing income that is double traditional percentage levels...and I am actually getting it!

Three, self-publishing makes a way for important (good) writing and ideas, writing and ideas ordinary publishers often are unable to identify.

Print quality? Publishers as quality filters? Plah! If you have an idea that is unique and attuned to an unattended audience, self-publish!
posted by mongonikol at 3:00 PM on December 8, 2006


Monogonikol:

"One, self-publishing is the best route I know of for author's to get our work noticed by traditional publishing houses. And, incidentally, published."

I don't agree with this at all. Self-publishing is a fine way to get noticed if your self-published book sells thousands and thousands of copies, which of course most self-published books do not. Otherwise, the best way to get to the attention of a publisher is to put it in front of their faces in the manner which they have provided (i.e., the one in which your work is guaranteed to be seen by someone at the publishing house), which is the existing submission process.

There's irony in me noting this because I had my first novel published via an unconventional process (I posted my novel on my Web site and it was subsequently published), but I note that the number of people who are published via the conventional route is exponentially larger than the number of people who have gotten published the way I have.

"Two, of the all books I have had commercially published in the past, the only one I have begun to see actual money from is the one I just self-published."

You didn't get advances for your previous books? And if you did, how is that not actual money? (And if you didn't, why did you sign a book contract without being paid?)

In contrast to Mongonikol, I've self-published (electronically) and I made a fair amount of money off it. I've been professionally published and I made rather considerably more, both in advance money and in the back end with royalties (not to mention foreign rights sales and etc).

Given the two, I've found being professionally published (if one can manage it with a good publisher) is a far better experience. There are definite times and places for personal publishing (typically, with very personal material or small subjects). But if you have an idea which you think is marketable, unless you're willing to handle all aspects of publishing (including copy-editing, book and cover design, publicity and marketing), or alternately are so depressed with the submission process that it fills you with moral revulsion, you might as well at least try to find a conventional publisher.
posted by jscalzi at 3:39 PM on December 8, 2006


I have quite a few friends who's careers as professional writers started in the world of DIY zines. A friend of mine publishes an internationally distributed, sold at the newstand lifestyle magazine that started 10 years ago as a made at kinko's, give it out to friends hobby. If he was starting out today with the self publishing options available, I imagine he would have reached the level he is at today in half the time. The tools don't build the house, but better tools help you build the house faster. I've used Blurb to print my design portfolio, and it's a phenomenal tool.
posted by billyfleetwood at 5:15 PM on December 8, 2006


How easy or hard is it to use Google Books as a data source for these services?

I downloaded a 1907 travel book called Across Persia from Archive.org in native PDF format, did some re-sizing, uploaded it to LuLu, made a stock cover and now it's for sale. I have sold zero copies in since a year ago (other than a couple to myself). I read it and it's a good travel book, well written, interesting, golden age of travel through Iran.

I imagine there are people doing this large scale with all the free books available with the hopes that a couple will be hits and make up for the loss of the rest, or long tail economics.
posted by stbalbach at 6:36 PM on December 8, 2006


"I have quite a few friends who's careers as professional writers started in the world of DIY zines."

Goodness me, imagine that!
posted by pnh at 7:26 PM on December 8, 2006


One, self-publishing is the best route I know of for author's to get our work noticed by traditional publishing houses. And, incidentally, published.

Mongonikol, I've been working in publishing for eleven years (for the past six with a major house) and this statement is blatantly wrong. Any self-published book sent in for submission is typically returned by publishers, unless the self-published book is currently being repped by a known literary agent or if the self-published book has sold extremely well (at least over 10,000 copies to even warrant an initial reading).

Two, of the all books I have had commercially published in the past, the only one I have begun to see actual money from is the one I just self-published.

Why weren't you paid advances for your commercially published books?

Three, self-publishing makes a way for important (good) writing and ideas, writing and ideas ordinary publishers often are unable to identify.

Ordinary publishers are unable to identify "important (good) writing and ideas"? Please. The New York Times Book Review receives around 300+ books a week. They review about 5% of them and 95% of the books they review are by "ordinary" publishers. You'll find plenty examples of books with "important (good) writing and ideas" in their pages.
posted by mijuta at 8:10 PM on December 8, 2006


But if you have an idea which you think is marketable, unless you're willing to handle all aspects of publishing (including copy-editing, book and cover design, publicity and marketing), or alternately are so depressed with the submission process that it fills you with moral revulsion, you might as well at least try to find a conventional publisher.

A slightly divergent take, from another published author. I'm inclined, at this point, to cast my lot with the proponents of self-publishing. I feel rotten admitting it to myself, but I really do feel like one of the very few things going the traditional publication route has gotten my book is distribution - but for the toner vs. ink issue, I'd probably be comfortable going it alone from here on out.

I don't mean to pooh-pooh distribution. It's quite significant. There's just about no chance that, acting on my own behalf, I could have placed this book with Borders and Barnes & Noble and Powell's, and I'm lying if there isn't a certain satisfaction in walking into one of these strip-mall behemoths at random and finding one's own work on the shelf.

As others have pointed out here, though, the terms of the contract I signed with my publisher mean that I make a lot less money on that placement than I would have from selling a far smaller number of copies directly. So the very first question you as a prospective author are going to have to answer to your own satisfaction is this: do you care more about your ideas getting out there, or about turning a buck for them?

(Neither are the two necessarily mutually exclusive these days. You could certainly offer a freely downloadable PDA on the Web, ensuring reasonably wide circulation of your work, while selling directly from a stock of short-run printed copies.)

So on the plus side we have distribution. There is also - and it should not be minimized - a fair deal of satisfaction and ego juice in knowing that some third party has thought enough of your work to put their own effort, reputation and money on the line in publishing it. For better or worse, this sort of credential still opens doors. And I would surely agree that the right professional editor can take competent prose and buff it to a military shine.

On the other side of the ledger, though, the negatives add up just about as swiftly.

If you care at all about design, composition and typesetting, for example, prepare to be disappointed - there's a reason why Ed Tufte wound up self-publishing. If these things are important to you, you should either get design approval explicitly called out in your contract, or choose another option.

You are likely to feel that your publishers do not work hard enough promoting and marketing your work - that they miss obvious placement or review opportunities, or otherwise simply do not understand the title they have on their hands and how to best present it to potential audiences. Virtually every author I know feels this way. (Whether or not it is objectively true in each and every case seems to be beside the point. For all I know, Martin Amis feels this way.)

In fact, whether professionally- or self-published, a very important thing to keep in mind is that nobody will ever care about this book (as text, as object) more than you do. To the degree that self-publishing brings every aspect of the final product under your direct control, then, it's a net good only insofar as your judgement is sound. And you're the only one who can speak to that, in your secret heart of hearts.

If you are truly comfortable with the level of design, editing, indexing and promotional resources you can bring to bear on the project - and the longevity of toner is not for whatever reason an issue for you - it has to be said that self-publishing looks a little better with every passing day. If producing archival-grade output is important to you, though, or you need for this book to open professional doors, or simply want the reassurance (for however much longer it lasts) of having been vetted by the duly-empowered and -credentialled professionals, jscalzi's advice is still reasonable. The fact that the choice is not at all a no-brainer for a great many prospective authors is what I myself find most interesting of all.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:55 PM on December 8, 2006 [3 favorites]


adamgreenfield,

If the book you want to publish is mostly text (it looks like the book you link to is, based on the PDF sample, anyway) and you're just talking about a color cover, and you have a couple grand to invest, you could offset print the book and get it perfect bound with a full color cover (which is SOP for Peachpit Press I think -- they go straight to soft cover usually) Printing black and white offset isn't that expensive, since it's just one run through the press per page - it makes it comparable to digital, and actually, if you think you can sell more than 1000 copies of the book, it might be cheaper than digital printing.

In short, if you have the money to invest, and you're sure of your product enough to print a thousand or more copies, you can afford quality printing and binding. You may even be able to find a good offset printer who will do a quality, cost-effective job on 500 copies.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:22 AM on December 9, 2006


I write using somewhat grandious terms, nonetheless...

jscalzi, granted, many people with author books that are poorly written, incoherent, or DOA (or "sans voce"), but I am referring to bona fide 21st Century authors when I adamantly maintain that the best way to get noticed by a publisher is to 1) self-publish, and 2) (of course) sell. My pardons for implying selling as to be understood. Authors who self-publish, you must sell.

BTW,
"There's irony in me noting this because I had my first novel published via an unconventional process (I posted my novel on my Web site and it was subsequently published), but I note that the number of people who are published via the conventional route is exponentially larger than the number of people who have gotten published the way I have."

Even for people who have succeeded in the same manner you have, and in which I have described, it is difficult to imagine or believe that - now in 2007 - self-publishing for good authors works best.

Also,
"You didn't get advances for your previous books? And if you did, how is that not actual money? (And if you didn't, why did you sign a book contract without being paid?)"

A couple of checks for ten thousand dollars is not (again, by my way of thinking) actual money. Yes, money I got paid is actually money, but I what I was implying is that actual money is synonymous with real money, and real money has to to with sales which, it turns out, is so convolutedly meshed together within facets of publishing, legal expenses, and publisher's marketing that I found (and still do find) to be entirely disfavorable to authors, but entirely geared towards keeping traditional publishing machines alive and kicking. (Regardless of their present-day greatly anachronistic nature). Also, I found even the small publishing houses to be remarkably (dumbfoundedly) slow-moving and unable to react to market changes.

And ijuta,
as for your statement - ""Ordinary publishers are unable to identify "important (good) writing and ideas"? Please. The New York Times Book Review receives around 300+ books a week. They review about 5% of them and 95% of the books they review are by "ordinary" publishers. You'll find plenty examples of books with "important (good) writing and ideas" in their pages." - far be it for me an author to mince words with a publisher or reviewers. I would sooner as a magician discuss magic with a producer or an audience, as a chef discuss dinner with a restaurateur or dinner guests, or as an honest visionary discuss a rosy future with a the grasping priest of a large and once-prosperous religion or that priest's flock.
posted by mongonikol at 12:07 PM on December 9, 2006


Mongonikol, you wrote: far be it for me an author to mince words with a publisher or reviewers. I would sooner as a magician discuss magic with a producer or an audience, as a chef discuss dinner with a restaurateur or dinner guests, or as an honest visionary discuss a rosy future with a the grasping priest of a large and once-prosperous religion or that priest's flock.

I'm not stating that you can't have your opinion about publishers. I would grant you that even if you weren't a "published author." But your previous statement that "publishers often are unable to identify" "important (good) writing and ideas" is ridiculous. Check out the fall 2006 lists published by FSG, Harcourt, Houghton, Scribner, and all the Random House imprints, to name just a few.

Perhaps you are bitter because your books published with a commercial publisher didn't sell well, or you had an unpleasant experience with them. I hope that when you self-published your books you paid for a good editor--as seen in your two posts above, you don't have a basic grasp of correct grammar and your prose is quite clunky.
posted by mijuta at 1:53 PM on December 9, 2006


The claws come out!
posted by cortex at 2:42 PM on December 9, 2006


Mongonikol:

"I am referring to bona fide 21st Century authors when I adamantly maintain that the best way to get noticed by a publisher is to 1) self-publish, and 2) (of course) sell."

Well, you know. I'm a bona fide 21st Century author -- check the copyright dates in my books. And I think what you're suggesting to authors aspiring to be picked up by publishers is almost entirely wrong. At best, self-publishing introduces a generally entirely unnecessary step in the submissions process; at worst it kills a book's chances, as there are publishers who prefer not to work with material that has been previously published in book form.

I also think a bland acknowledgment that anyone who self publishes must also sell rather dramatically underplays the difficulty of selling one's self-published work. In fact it's incredibly difficult. They're difficult to publicize (because many magazine and newspaper and online site won't review self-published work) and they're difficult to market and sell (because most booksellers won't take non-returnable stock). The vast majority of self-published work will not have anything close to the sort of sales that would make the works attractive to an established publisher. Handwaving over the difficulty of selling large amounts self-published work is not doing anyone any favors. It's not unlike saying all you really need to get to the World Series is the ability to toss a ball around.

One can easily maintain that self-publishing is the best way to attract the attention of publishers; we all have opinions, after all. The actual test of the assertion is to compare a) the number of people who have had their self-published works picked up by a publisher with b) the number of people who have sold their books to publishers by using the traditional process of submitting their work according to the publisher's specifications, over a set period of time (say, from 2001 to now). If a) is not greater than b) -- and it's not -- than people are, in fact, better off submitting their work to publishers in the traditional fashion.

Now, Mongonikol, if you are able to provide factual evidence that suggests that since 2001 self-publishing has become the preferred way of publishers to receive work, I will happily cede the point to you. Otherwise, I would suggest to people who would like to become bona fide 21st Century authors that when it comes time to bring their work to the attention of publishers, that they consider the traditional means of submission first.

"Yes, money I got paid is actually money, but I what I was implying is that actual money is synonymous with real money, and real money has to to with sales..."

You know, the money I get for my advances spends in just as real a fashion as the money I get for my royalties, which suggests its "real money" in every practical and useful aspect. Moreover, advances are just as much part of the mechanics of publishing (and sales) as royalties, so I'm not at all sure I follow your rationale for making a qualitative distinction between advance money and royalty money.

One can argue whether authors are undercompensated via royalty schedules and the like, of course. This is the part where I would suggest one gets a good agent, and one should not sign a publishing contract in which one feels one is undercompensated.

Assuming that one does signs a contract with an agreed-upon advance and royalty rate, if one doesn't receive any money for one's books after one's advance, then either the book didn't sell well enough to earn out the advance, or it sold precisely the correct amount. In the latter case, the author has done better than he or she might have in a royalty-only situation; in the former, he or she has done exactly as well. In both cases the author has the advantage that he or she gets the advance early; royalties are generally assessed on a semi-annual basis and a certain amount held back as a reserve against returns.

If you didn't consider your advance checks real money, Mongonikol, you should not have signed the contracts for what you consider to be so little.
posted by jscalzi at 4:24 PM on December 9, 2006


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