Monday, December 22, 2008


At the above url is an article entitled “Self-publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know” written by David Carnoy. He’s a “tech writer” but this article is not ground-breaking. It’s limited to the technology of producing a book that looks like a business-published book. Between Print-on-Demand (which in the extreme is Espresso, the machine that makes you a book while you have coffee), and the tech inventory management softwares of Google and Amazon which will distribute and -- to some degree -- advertise, an author can become his or her own publishing company.

The first loss, which diminishes daily, is the prestige and Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that is connoted in our culture by being “published.” Getting a book published is one of our “saving the ranch” strategies like winning a rodeo, striking gold, or painting a high dollar picture. Despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary (you’d be better off with a lottery ticket), we persist stubbornly in believing that publishing a book is like getting a Ph.D. (Also greatly devalued in our present culture, though most don’t realize.) It’s more of a prerequisite than a goal. Books are rapidly becoming just books again, the bubble bursting as surely as in the housing market.

BUT, if you really want to be your own publisher, you will need to look closely at what a publisher does. This is where the Carnoy article is helpful, at least for those with thousands of dollars to invest. Even by using “friends of friends”, Carnoy found that cover design, interior typology, content editing and then line proofing, are SKILLS and they are expensive because professionals spend years learning them. What folks around here do in terms of getting the local newspaper printer to compile and print a booklet has no relationship at all. To the practiced eye, things like whether there is one space or two between sentences, how the kerning is managed, whether In Design or Pagemaker can really cut the mustard, the quality and placement of photos and graphs are very important. They matter greatly. The font matters. The margin sizes matter. The kind of paper and the exact shade of cream/white/ivory all matter. And then there’s the fellow who wants an ellipsis to look like this . . . rather than this...

Say you want a well-made, high-end book that will look like the product of a prestige publisher. Say you have the money and desire for a proper graphic designer to create your cover. How do you find such a person? Surely there must be variations of skill and style which a publisher has learned about over the years by hiring them for this and that or looking at their portfolios. But maybe you don’t live in Manhattan where you can just consult the yellow pages. Better head for the library -- maybe your own -- to teach your eye how to choose. And remember, the “thumbnail” that will pop up on Amazon needs to look good.

A publishing business puts out a list of books, some appealing to this person and some to that, so if one book bombs, theoretically at least, the profits from the others can make up for it. But if you have only ONE book to publish and only your own opinion and your mom’s that it will sell like hotcakes, the gamble is quite different.

Never again will I sign a contract with a publisher without knowing the budget and plan for marketing. Some publishers are now asking authors to WRITE the marketing plan and one of the advantages of self-publishing is that you will HAVE to do that. Publishers, esp. academic publishers, have routine in-house check lists they do for every book they publish and, since they are scattershot and limited at the same time, they might entirely miss the real audience for the book. Even if you really know who will snap up the book, it will cost money to get the word out to the number of people that will carry the book into profit.

If you’re not doing the book for profit, then self-publishing might be just the ticket because one is eliminating all the overhead cost of a staff, storage, supplies and communication that go with any business. Print on Demand in particular can put the book in your hands if you can supply all the skills of design and typography, either because you already know or because you study. But there is one feature of being your own publishing house that you’ll need to buy: an ISBN, which is the way inventory is managed. Here’s where you can be a little wee but important-sounding publisher.

For self-publishers, bookstores -- especially chains -- are a pain in the butt. They are trying hard to stamp out unique, local, self-published books because they get so much payola from the professional publishers in the form of fees for good placement in the store, maybe featured advertising or sponsored events. Most of all, the symbiosis between publishers and bookstores has been dependent on the custom of bookstores being able to return all books that don’t sell. When this custom is eliminated and when Print on Demand eliminates storage warehouses, the professional publishers will again have a fighting chance.

But this is only one way to look at publishing, a noble but old-fashioned way that will always persist (in my opinion) but will be joined -- maybe not on shelves -- by high tech (video, interactive, ebooks) and low tech (pop-up books, artist’s books) and every possible variation. The invention that is knocking everyone out this season is a book about birds with pages that actually sing out loud the birds’ songs while you look at their pictures and read about them. They’re only a step up from birthday cards that sing, but the radio reviewers in particular are really loving them.

Consider what you’re looking at: a page in a long book called “Prairie Mary” that is read by about 1500 people a week. It will not become a vlog (video blog) because I don’t want to have to comb my hair. No amount of technology can change human nature THAT much. But it’s interesting that I have one if the crucial missing links: reviewing. Many of the hits I get are on review titles. But I have the freedom to review any darn thing -- whatever I’m reading. Maybe I should rethink that -- payola?


Art Durkee said...

Thanks for this. As one who has spent decades acquiring and using just these publishing skills (I've even created typefaces for special book projects), it sure is nice to be recognized, from time to time. Most writers have absolutely no clue about the mechanics of publishing.

Something that people don't think about much: Everything, absolutely everything, that you see and use on a daily basis, and never think about: Somebody designed that. From books to egg whisks, somebody designed it.

One of my favorite writers in Henry Petroski, who does indeed think about these things. He wrote a 2 or 300 page book on "The Book on the Bookshelf," which is a history of the form of the book over time, the way books have been stored over time, the technologies of reproduction from scriptoriums through digital printing, and many related topics. Fascinating reading.

Lynne W Scanlon said...


Here's how I feel: Never, ever sign with a traditional publisher unless they give you an advance you can live on AND commit in the contract to a sizable dollar amount for marketing that YOU can track. Those figures are the only real indicators as to whether the editor has faith in reaching an audience for your book and whether the publishing company will do more than send out a few author review copies to fulfill its marketing obligation.

Right. You probably won't get published.

After having three books published by HarperCollins, St. Martin's Press, and Berkley Publishing Group, I just rewrote, reformatted and republished one of my old, out-of-date, nonfiction books. I'm really happy with it, but what an ordeal to get it out the door and to the printer. And I know what I'm doing!
Self-publishing entails a huge commitment of personal time and money. And then, once published, you have to devote your life to marketing your book if you have done more than produce the book for friends and family. Yes, you need a Web site! More time and $$$$. Oh, and by the way, here's an off-putting stat: Only 1% of your "unique" visitors to your Web site will purchase your book.