The Rush to Print

Self-publishing has unleashed a torrent of writers
Selfpub 1
Illustration by Sierra Thomas

Since the 1970s, word processing and photocopying, abetted by the advent of personal computers, the pdf, the jpeg, flash drives and graphic software, have become capable, like Shakespeare’s monkeys, of transforming almost any grab bag of words into a book.

The digital revolution has eliminated drafting on paper, that tedious trial-by-dedication of yore. Plus, no matter what combination of words that grab bag might contain, professional formatting lends them a blanketing gravitas! The field has come a long way since Gutenberg’s grand innovations. No more typesetting. No need for 5,000 copy editions. It’s an affordability that has set off an explosive efflorescence of independent publishing, and books march from the kitchen tables of would-be authors like the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Anyone who can type an email can now sidestep the interference of the hoariest of traditional publishers. Established in 2008, Smashwords, the premier, groundbreaking website for self-published books, now claims to have built a digital catalog of almost 600,000 titles. Smashwords’ founder, Mark Coker, writes earnestly about “democratizing” book publishing through digital technology, a well-intentioned goal with the promise of an alternative platform for independent publishing.

Initially, writers of offbeat and niche material everywhere hailed digital publishing, hoping to see their work presented to a broader world of readers … or any readers at all. But while Coker and later imitators espouse idealistic goals, the result has been a kind of literary populism; truly outstanding material can become lost in a free-for-all of not-ready-for-primetime listings.

On the other hand, and to mix a gargantuan metaphor, ’tis a far better thing to tolerate the feathers with the chicken than throw out the baby with the bathwater! The canon of English literature is filled with examples like self-publisher William Blake, who “pre-sold” his Songs of Innocence — “Tigre, tigre, burning bright …” — by subscription to patrons. Critics originally dismissed Blake’s poetry as that of a mad man, yet later generations have come to regard his poetry as classic.

In the sordid world of commerce, no sooner had Smashwords shown signs of prospering than Jeff Bezos and Amazon elbowed their way into the field, cataloging a pyramid of more than 6 million tributary e-titles. Plus, Amazon stealthily diverted Smashwords’ internet links to itself and eroded both Smashwords’ and its own authors’ source of income by drowning them in a sea of themselves! Consequently, none of today’s overpopulated e-platforms are especially browser-friendly, even if one is on the 200,000th listing page.

Still, hope springs eternal. Today’s indy publisher can do everything from justifying the text to designing a book cover with a reasonable investment of time. One simply formats his masterpiece into a computer e-book file as easily as following a cookbook recipe for a chocolate-covered Turducken. Next, one casually uploads the file to the e-book platform of one’s choice, and Voila! — one is a self-published, indy author waiting for the celebrity to begin and the percentages to roll in!

Paper still confers an extra dollop of prestige, and the process for upgrading to hardcopy requires more or less the same sort of twiddling as the e-book — except that the penultimate digital file needs to be activated by a check to the print-on-demand outfit, like DiggyPOD, that one chooses. Printing costs per copy drop depending on how many are printed at a time — as little as 15 to 20% of the retail per-copy price! Then, in two or three weeks, one has in hand a first edition of The Real Great Adventures of Me!

But heads up! At some point in the process, the intoxicating prospect of publication makes it easy to overlook the expenses of the whole D.Y.I. shtick. Assuming one has a budget, caveat emptor, dude. No sooner do the ghostwriters, programmers and freelance editors somehow get wind of what’s going down than they are all up in your face with tempting words about how much one needs their services to crack the market in New York or Hollywood, while the mother of all expenses — marketing and distribution — also awaits!

With paper books, however, the author may choose to be on his or her own. This has brought about 21st-century independents and a return to the time-honored strategy of the aforementioned William Blake. And be happy one doesn’t have to evade the fate of Johannes Gutenberg.

As big an innovator as he was, they repossessed his printing press! 

Writer Tips

J.J. Herbert, an author and the CEO at MindStir Media, offered advice for writers in a post that appeared on Forbes magazine’s website last year. In it, he listed five questions writers should ask before embarking upon a self-publishing adventure: 1. Is your book ready for the public? Be sure to consult a professional editor prior to publication. 2. Which self-publishing platforms are you going to use? Some will go the DIY route and others will turn to a self-publishing company. 3. Which book formats do you plan to offer? Print books are still more popular than e-books. 4. Who is your target audience? “Everyone” is the worst possible answer to that question. 5. Where and how will you market your book? Digital marketing is the most efficient and affordable way to reach target audiences.

Categories: Books