What do you think of Print On Demand? While I understand the business reasons why someone wouldn’t want to do it (bookstores won’t carry POD books, publishers don’t look at POD books as “real” books,etc), it’s also a very easy, cheap way to get your stuff into print. Do you look at POD the same as traditional self-publishing, or does that POD label automatically mark it as something else?
Because of digital technology and a changing publishing industry, I think we can expect to see a lot of hybrid stuff going on well into the future. Barnes & Noble publishes their own imprint of classic works now. What’s that? Self-publishing? I don’t know. There are press shops now that operate both sheetfed and digital presses. For runs under 1,000, you can use a digital press, no matter what kind of publisher you are. And if the book sells, then you print another 1,000. And so on. Is that on-demand? I think the future of digital-press technology will continue to blur the boundaries between self-publishing and on-demand publishing and short-run printing and all that. I’ll give you a rundown of my experience.
XLIBRIS. I used them in 2000 to print my first collection of stories. This was self-publishing and therefore limited to a kind of self-promotion. I hoped I would at least make back my investment, but that didn’t happen. Xlibris designs and lays out the book for you, and it’s really user friendly. But they charge way too much for an individual author to recoup their investment. Their books are priced too high compared to other titles. And somehow my Xlibris book kept appearing on Alibris, a used-book online seller, at a fraction of the cost of the original book; I bought a few of these and confirmed
my suspicions that these were new, not used, books: not cool. I now cannot recommend them to anyone for any reason. I even pulled my book off Xlibris completely, and it’s now out of print.
BOOKSURGE. For my second collection of stories, I went with a very small press, and they let me do my own design and typesetting and I even set up the whole thing through Booksurge. Much cheaper and still fun, but also something I did for the lark of it. I made no money on it. I never used them
again, and I can’t recommend it. One thing I did differently with this book is that I tried to get into bookstores on consignment. This was possible because I had a small press publish it, and so, while it was POD, I could still shelve a few copies with indie bookstores. I sold a hundred or so. Most were shipped back to me. Some bookstores I never followed up with. The transaction costs of consignment with indie bookstores are simply too great. It costs too much to print the book, make the calls, fill out the forms, ship the books, and then either split the cost 60/40 with the bookstore or pay for the return shipping of the books. In many cases, I just let the bookstore keep the books. It wasn’t worth the cost to get them back. I was essentially paying to sell my books. Bad news.
CHAPBOOKS. For two of my fiction/graphic-art collections, I worked with two small presses to
produce chapbooks. Chapbooks are usually 100 pages or less. They are printed out on someone’s desktop printer, folded and bound by hand. Covers may be printed in short runs on a digital press (I did this with my collection We Were Ugly So We Made Beautiful Things, the cover of which was designed by Eduardo Recife of misprintedtype.com). These are another kind of hybrid, made possible by stubborn and creative individuals with personal computers, layout software, and spare change, simpatico with the zine ethic. In this manner, you can control your expenses and earn a little cash by placing your chapbooks with a few select bookstores and, most importantly, by selling them online. We Were Ugly still sells decently well online and in bookstores, according to Word Riot Press.
As a designer, I can also heartily recommend this approach because you retain all control and you are very much forced to get down and dirty working hands-on and trying to be imaginative with a small to
nonexistent budget. I still make by hand my books of eulogies for the Dead Bug Funeral Kit. I had to get very creative with the production of that book, and I still enjoy making them.
LULU. The new kids on the block of POD are places like Lulu.com. Lulu charges nothing for you to set up your book with them. You need to be very design savvy and have all the software and skill that designing a book requires. But once you design your own book and create your PDFs for the cover and interior, you can order your books one by one. This is still expensive per book. However, I now use this kind of printing technology for very specific purposes. I print out a few copies of my portfolio. I print photo books that I give as gifts to family or friends. And I print early draft copies of my books so that I can proofread the copy and review the cover design and layout. These are great uses of this technology, and they depend on printing very few copies and not trying to earn money off their sale. don’t use Lulu to print books in order to earn money. I can’t recommend that. It won’t work. But I do recommend using Lulu for these very limited cases.
SHORT-RUN DIGITAL PRESS. Many presses now offer short-run work on their digital
presses. I have used a few press shops to print in-house books (like Twisted Fun, a recent collection) and even for my latest novel, American Home Life (published by So New Publishing). For Twisted Fun, I had learned how to negotiate my way through the entire book-printing process, from concept and design to budget and production, and most importantly I had realistic expectations. I spent about $250 to have 50 copies printed. That’s $5/book, not great, but not bad. And over time I could earn that money back because I controlled the whole production effort, all costs and all income. For American Home Life, the publisher and I worked with another press shop and took advantage of their digital presses (they also print Ploughshares and Opium Magazine, among others) to print an initial short run, and as the first run sells out, we’ll print another run, taking advantage of the digital press to better manage cash flow. So, to sum up, I can only recommend POD as an expensive learning experience and not at all as a business proposition. I recommend making chapbooks using desktop computers and binding them by hand. I recommend trying to sell your books person to person and online
through websites and via Powells or Amazon but not on consignment with bookstores. And I recommend using short-run digital presses when working with a publisher to get your books into print economically and at high quality.
You mentioned the Dead Bug Funeral Kit. You have other quirky things available at your site: Picasso Plates, postcards, The Writer’s Speciman (which I think should be given to every single person who wants to be a writer). How did these come about and do you see yourself as a business and not just a designer and writer?
I do not think of myself as a business. I’d be doing so many other things in the way of
advertising, sales, and marketing if I thought of myself as a business and wanted to turn a profit someday. I rather think of myself as a creative person who makes fun and interesting things and then is able to sell them online. I’d like to continue to create interesting projects and eventually have other people worry about selling them. I’d like to have the Dead Bug Kit and Picasso Plates projects one day sold by a reseller, say, a bookstore chain, a catalog, a place like Restoration Hardware or whatever. I have no ambition or talent for marketing in that way, and I don’t pretend to. I’d rather be writing.