Self-publishing is a topic which flies about the publishing world like helicopters fly around the valley I live in, seemingly never to land. I do see the attraction to a wannabe writer to fork out not very much money and have his or hers masterpiece in his or her hand and it is an idea that is gaining traction. Self-publishing is intrinsically tied up with print on demand or POD as it is acronymed, which enables print runs of one or a thousand as required using laser printing technology. I designed a whole series of books for American poet Daniel Moore between 2005 and 2009, using lulu.com which was a solution to the problem of laying out a lot of cash for a run of books that you had to store and then sell — every publisher’s headache. Furthermore lulu distributed the book and provided the bar codes etc. and got it out on distributor’s lists. Fine so far, but the end result was rather disappointing for me who had been for many years been working with litho printers using beautiful book-wove papers nicely bound with properly sewn sections etc., trying to improve and refine book production. Lulu also limited the self publisher to just a few size formats. It was like eating badly cooked food.
Seeing poetry laser printed on white photocopy quality paper and a cover with automated spine lettering, with cut and glued page sections was a let down indeed. To me printed poetry (and anything else of quality come to that) demands quality typography, quality paper stock, good binding, etc etc., as it is intrinsically part of the magic of the printed word. It proves the author and the publisher believe in their book and want to honour it. It’s as if the smell and touch of the paper are inseparably part of the poem or whatever. It’s all about quality, not quantity and economy. The difference between say an email and a handwritten letter. This is the reason why to me, a poem read on an internet page doesn’t excite in the same way as in the kind of book I describe above. Maybe there is a kind of poem that would suit the internet but I’m not sure what that is. A koan? Maybe a tweet? Poems for limited attention spans. 140 characters.
But things have changed since the early lulu.com experience. I have now sourced quite a few traditional book printers who have now entered the self publishing field and now offer quality books with best papers, binding etc., in all size formats with bar codes and distribution thrown in. You pay more for sewn sections and better paper but not much more and the end result is well worth it. If every author or poet knew how this extra care taken increases the book’s impact, the few extra dollars always looks like a good investment. Not to mention that the book will last a lot longer.
A good American friend of mine, Michael Sugich, has recently dived into this arena having self published his book, Signs on the Horizon, (illustrated above) about his encounters with remarkable Muslim saints over the last 40 years. With my book designers hat on I naturally had serious professional criticisms but strangely the content of the book shone through strongly and its technical and design faults seemed to fade into the background. It was produced using Clearspace.com a Jeff Bezos Amazon company designed to hammer yet another nail in the booksellers’ and publishers’ coffin. Another client of mine in the USA used Clearspace to do a quick pre-print run of a book and I encountered some of Clearspace’s requirements which seemed quite absurd. Eg. requiring a huge inner text margin of 0.75″, a space necessary to avoid the “pinch” when the pages are folded, cut and glued creating a tight book that doesn’t open easily and which is always in danger of bursting when the glue gives out. But it obviously caters for a sector of the market. Although actually ultimately serving Jeff Bezos’s bottom line.
Clearspace looks very much like lulu.com repackaged with the added benefit of Amazon’s goliath like muscle with it’s admittedly efficient book distribution network. I’m told the author gets 35% of the sale which is far more than traditional publishing royalties. So not all bad. But a big publisher has marketing muscle which the self-publisher does not have. This is the argument they use to discourage the self-publisher of course. Self-marketing is the next frontier to free the individual publisher from the old world of publicists and their cosy relationships with broadcasters, news media, advertisers and so on. But what shape that will take I am still waiting on. The internet has changed everything.
By the same token I am disappointed with ebooks which return books to a kind of anarchy where you choose the font, the size etc which although has its uses goes just a step too far. Curiously I read the other day that a man who suffered from dyslexia all his life found that by ranging all the text left in an ebook he could read easily as all the inter word spaces were equal. This may not be the cause of all dyslexia but it’s worth noting. Also for those with difficulty reading like children or old people being able to enlarge the text you can see the advantage.
But I return to my protestations about dumbing down the book because the origins of knowledge are intertwined with the idea of writing, pages and books. These are the metaphors used in revelation and why we have to honour more than we do the almost sacred nature of how we convey and preserve words and language on paper (or by electronic means come to that).
In my job I’m always looking for the perfect book with a perfect marriage of content, design and printing, with paper that will last for hundreds of years (sewn sections, acid free book wove, high rag content etc). Because when the hard drives and the sold state memory banks of the world of stored knowledge and information give out there will be something of quality left to read. Who knows, vellum might make a come back one day as it outlast everything short of carving into granite.
PS There are very good alternatives to Amazon who I have got tired of and who at the time of writing are about to be exposed by a BBC Panorama programme as running what looks like exploitative and inhuman working conditions for their workers. I just used Books etc., which went well. They also enable you to sell your own books at a cut of 15% to them. When I was last selling books though Amazon they were taking 60%! The public’s hatred of Ryanair, the Irish cheapo airline, has been so intense of late that they have en masse gone elsewhere and directly contributed to a second profits warning for Ryanair this year. Now for Amazon. It’s time we realised that the Amazon maybe the biggest river in the world but is full of piranhas.