Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Readers of this blog already know that I’ve been publishing via Lulu.com which is also a Print On Demand website, but one with some differences. There are also differences about me. For folks who are trying to figure out what they themselves ought to do, maybe there is some value in tracing them out specifically.

First of all, I started out “publishing” by writing handouts for Bob Scriver, both in the Museum of Montana Wildlife and to accompany sculptures. He did the editing and he was good at it, clear about what he wanted and why. So it was purposeful writing, not just a creative endeavor. For a while I had a column in the Glacier Reporter, which got me in political hot water, so I learned to consider my audience more than my psyche. Then I preached every Sunday for ten years, for three years repeating each sermon four times. It was structured and presumably reasoned writing, pitched to a specific consumer.

I’d written very little fiction until I came to “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” which is the manuscript I’ve published through Lulu. But it is didactic fiction, written to a tight structure and meant for a specific audience. Hopefully, it will inspire Blackfeet to write stories of their own and release them from the trap of having to be 19th century Indians with feathers on horseback. Personally, I’d love to see more stories about the beginning of the 20th century, the Campbell years when a tall red-headed agent neglected oil rights because he believed in mixed agriculture. He was the first agent to systematically visit every Blackfeet household on the reservation. What a tale that might be!

Even for myself, equipped with guides and insider advice, it is a formidable project to get anything Western past the Eastern establishment that dominates publishing. Even the editors of the Western university presses tend to be young, academic, from back east, and full of Red Empowerment politics. Anyway, like me, most local Blackfeet have no money. But Lulu doesn’t cost a darn thing. Type your manuscript, post it, there you go. It’s essentially a blog that you can order bound into a “blook.” (You WILL have to give up the idea that anyone will pay you to publish your writing.)

Let’s compare with AuthorHouse.

1. There is no base price. If you use a library computer, you could theoretically spend no money at all. Of course, you’ll probably want printouts, might have to do some research, and stuff like that. It turns out that historical institutions charge $20 per photo plus you must seek formal permission to use them. This can feel pretty bogus when the photos were collected from your own relatives in the first place. All the photos in Bill Farr’s book of Blackfeet images were once in bureau drawers and boxes under beds around here.

2. If you want to sell in bookstores, you need an ISBN. That will cost you $99. If you just sell from Lulu.com, there’s no cost.

3. You don’t get any free copies. You get a discount, so you can buy some copies yourself and then sell them locally, but that costs money up front. You have access to a database that will tell you how many copies are sold and when. Royalties are paid out quarterly.

4. When I got my two test copies of the book (for which I paid) they looked like any other book I would get in a bookstore. This is not a thick book (about a hundred pages). I designed my own cover, which is plain red with black words: TWELVE BLACKFEET STORIES. A pair of moccasins is dropped over the “ee” in Blackfeet, because in Canada they say BlackfOOt, and I thought it would be good to sell on both sides of the border. Lulu sells anywhere in the world except two African countries which are too unsettled for commerce to be dependable.

I could publish this book in Blackfeet if I could type it that way. They’ll print any language because they don’t edit -- they define themselves as printers and only printers. What the author sends is camera-ready, which is a two-edged sword.

Also, they will make picture books, CD’s, and other media. Since it doesn’t matter how many copies are made, one could easily produce a family album to use for Christmas presents.

Copyright remains in the name of the author. The law protects the rights of any writer as soon as the work is published with the declaration: “Copyright (the year) by (author).” Some of the earlier Print On Demand houses tried to own the copyright and ran into terrible problems. Once in a long while, against all odds, a P.O.D. book becomes valuable.

One of the things I like about blogging is that as soon as my work is posted on the Internet, it is copyrighted. It may be copied, quoted without proper credit, sent here and there, but the earliest publication is provably mine and therefore the copyright rests with me. What we learned in the sculpture business is that it’s nearly impossible to keep other people from copying, but it’s important to keep a record of the earliest creation so that they don’t keep YOU from using your own material by claiming they were first. Even then, it’s rare to be able to collect damages. You can only force them to admit you wrote it.

(The other important thing about blogging is that if writing is on a blog at Blogger, then if one’s own computer crashes or someone at the library erases your novel, it’s still there on the blog.)

All the stories in “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” were posted on my blog and, in fact, circulated in manuscript form even earlier. The first story was written more than ten years ago and I made it a point to hand it around among Blackfeet to see what they thought. They are famously noncommital, so I didn’t find out a lot, except that the “two-spirit” story made some of them very nervous and others very happy. I’ve discovered that the people least likely to read my blog or order books are my relatives and the friends who always encouraged me to write. I don’t know why.

Currently I’m accumulating material for a blook on Animal Control. More slowly, I’m collecting weather essays for a blook to be called “Valier Seasons.” It’s meant for local Christmas trade, presents for grandma and so on. Aside from publishing on Lulu, I’ve been making books on my computer or by using outfits like Kinko. I sold 350 copies of a biography of Bob Scriver, just locally, with a wire binding.

The cost of homemade books breaks out this way: a dollar for cover glossy paper (books that are not glossy don’t sell), .02 per page, .10 for the wire binding, .05 for the last page which is poster board. That’s materials. (The bio of Bob was 57 pages, which some thought was too long!)

The binding machine, a GBC product, sells for a little less than $300. The Pagemaker and Photoshop software can cost up to $1,000 but I got educator’s versions for less. I used my own slides to illustrate. That’s capital investment.

Then there’s my time and the gas or postage to distribute. I figure it takes a solid week -- say 40 hours -- to get the manuscript in shape to duplicate AFTER it’s written. Duplicating and assembling probably takes a little more than twenty minutes each copy. I can assure you that punching holes and crimping wire bindings takes a certain amount of muscle and doing 300 copies at a time will make your arm sore.

I sell at tourist venues with few exceptions, and they are at least thirty miles away, so a quarter-tank of gas to get there and back. Last summer I compiled the earliest of my blogs on prairiemary.blogspot.com, entitled them “Blackfeet 101 for Napi-kwans,” (napi-kwans are white friends) and sold them to stores for $10 each. In turn, they sold them for $17.50 which some people thought was outrageous. I always end up giving some away to friends and influential people. I’m not making any profit, except that I’m learning, so I can count it as education.

No one edits these books except me. I’ve laid them out to be large print, in two columns per page, on letter-sized paper so they’ll be easy to read. “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” includes a time-line, which is what got me started on the idea in the first place. I’m arrogant about it on the one hand -- after all, I was an English teacher for ten years -- and humble about it on the other hand. (My next-door neighbor, who considers me an educated fool, pointed out that in my first book I’d gotten my own phone number wrong!)

Lulu doesn’t market. If books are sold, they credit one’s account. If those books come back, they debit. I don’t know where the books end up. Lulu doesn’t promote. Lulu doesn’t do layout. The system they’ve worked out is listing a little circle of approved professionals who DO do some of these other things. I just do all this myself.

A blog is a good way to promote a book -- so long as the provider doesn’t decide to charge commercial rates for the blog all of a sudden. People could just download the material and bind their own book for free, but I doubt that many do. The angle I’m coming from is that there are certain categories of people (a tribe, an occupation like animal control, a locale like Valier) who look for materials specific to them and use both Google and Amazon. They often have newsletters that accept ads or meet for conferences where readings might be presented. Most important, word of mouth is likely to be high energy and valued. The commercial publishing world ignores them.

I’ve been slow to understand that if a book does well as Print On Demand, a publisher might ask to include it on their list, buying the right to do so. Books sometimes start out self-published or published by a small company, and then “catch on” so that it is worthwhile for a bigger publisher to buy the rights. By that time often the editing and layout investment has already been made.

Of course, everyone dreams of selling the movie rights! Even if the movie never gets made! It's so much fun to pretend to cast it! Let's see -- who should play ME? A little modest narcissism is a reward for most authors!


DarkoV said...

Fabulous writeup. Solid comparison and great info.

Actor to portray you? Has to be someone who's lived the life. I'd have to suggest Meryl Streep or Cherry Jones

Kry said...

vieni al votarci!

prairie mary said...

Darkov, people used to say if there were a movie made about me, I should be played by Shelley Winters -- "Come Back, Little Sheba!"

As for Kry, I have no Italian dictionary on hand! I've got Spanish, French and Blackfeet. My guess at translation is "let's go vote for anyone but George Bush" -- is that right?

Prairie Mary