December 18, 2009
JC: Usually when readers have something to say to us, they put it in the comments or send us an email. Marc Schuster, however, has a lot to say. He’s the author of The Singular Exploits on Wonder Mom and Party Girl, and the editor of excellent site Small Press Reviews. Here’s an essay he sent about Print On Demand:
Wherefore Print On Demand?
by Marc Schuster
The turkey Panini came highly recommended, but nobody mentioned that the man who operated the Panini press had a girlfriend who happened to be a writer. This latter fact came out while the Panini was cooking and the man behind the counter asked what I did for a living. When I said that I was an English teacher, a friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, added that I was a writer, too. This, it turned out, was the opportunity the man behind the counter was waiting for—a chance to plug his girlfriend’s book. It was a book of poetry, he explained, as he scribbled his girlfriend’s name and the title of her book on a sheet of wax paper. I should look the book up on Amazon.com, he added, and I promised that I would, largely because my Panini was beginning to burn.
The book was, in fact, available on Amazon.com. It had an ISBN, a bright cover, and a four-star customer review that described the volume as “unique.” It was also published by Outskirts Press, one of a handful of printing services that utilizes print on demand (POD) technology to turn aspiring writers into published authors the quick and easy way. “Say goodbye to the rejection of traditional publishers and the two-year publishing cycle,” reads the Outskirts Press website; “Say hello to the flexibility and control of self-publishing combined with the full-service support and confidence of a book publishing company, all under one roof.” To a lot of writers, this probably sounds like a dream come true. The problem, however, is that when writers say goodbye to rejection, they tend to say goodbye to a lot of other things, too—editing, revision, and a critical eye chief among them.
In a recent CNN.com article titled “More Authors Turn to Web and Print-on-Demand Publishing,” Gail Jordan, the Director of Public relations for POD publisher Lulu.com echoes the sentiments of Outskirts Press: “Anyone can publish, that’s the beauty of it… Nobody’s going to say, ‘We don’t like your cover. Chapter 10 should be Chapter 6.'” On one hand, this sounds great insofar as it gives everyone, even the least literate among us, an opportunity to share a number of bound pages of printed text with the world at large. On the other hand, what if Chapter 10 really should have been Chapter 6? What if making that or other changes would have turned the book in question from a good book to a great book? Without an editorial process in place, there’s no means of improvement, no way of (gently or otherwise) suggesting to a writer that another round of revisions may be in order.
That most print-on-demand publishers also offer editorial services (at a premium) doesn’t do much to mitigate the problem—particularly in light of the fact that all of the marketing for these enterprises centers on ideas like those expressed by Jordan: writers don’t need “the man” to tell them what to do. Case in point: the XLibris “loser” ad campaign from a few years back, which encouraged potential customers to place themselves in the company of authors like James Joyce, who also had to self-publish. They did it, so why shouldn’t you? the ads all but demanded. But after convincing potential customers that “the man” is unnecessary, turning around and trying to sell the services of “the man” to the customer comes off as somewhat disingenuous.
At the end of the day, what’s lacking in print on demand publishing is a mechanism for ensuring that someone other than the author has seen a book before it goes to print. The reason this matters is that writing is not a solitary pursuit despite what popular sentiment and the purveyors of print-on-demand services might have us believe. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound. F. Scott Fitzgerald had Maxwell Perkins. In the case of the former, Pound challenged Eliot to pare The Waste Land down to its essential core. In the case of the latter, Perkins wrought Fitzgerald’s mangled prose into Standard Written English.
While it may be true that publishing houses don’t—as the almost constant handwringing over the current state of the publishing industry insists—have editors like Perkins anymore, editing is still a major part of the publishing process. I have a number of writer friends whose books have been published by the “big houses,” and all of their work, without fail, has gone through a fairly intense round of editing before it has seen print. The same holds true for my friends who have agents: before the manuscript goes before an editor, a good agent will usually offer suggestions for strengthening the work in question.
For those not in a position to be dealing with an editor, writers’ workshops serve a similar function: they put your manuscript in front of someone before you unleash it on the public. In the best of situations, this someone—or these someones—will share a writer’s aesthetic sensibilities and challenge the writer to make a writing project as strong as it can be. Again, look at Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Pound’s heavy pen cuts huge swaths of verse out of Eliot’s manuscript for The Waste Land, and his comments are unrelenting: dogmatic deduction but wobbly as well, verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it, make up yr. mind, and (bluntly) bad—but cannot attack until I get typescript. Though hopefully more tactful, a good writers’ group can be equally frank about the quality of an early draft while, at the same time, championing its potential.
Needless to say, such frankness can be daunting, but in the end, it’s better for a writer to be told that a passage in a story isn’t especially interesting (or is simply bad) before it’s gone to press than to find out from a reviewer afterward. And that’s what print on demand services don’t sufficiently address in their marketing rhetoric. By insisting that anyone can and should publish anything and everything while passively making editors and agents out to be villains, these services fail to note that some writers need to spend a lot more time on their craft before foisting a book upon the world at large. Or, more bluntly, they don’t admit that some writing is just plain bad.
None of this, however, is to say that POD technology doesn’t have a legitimate place in publishing. The concept actually makes a lot of sense insofar as supply is always equal to demand. Additionally, there’s no telling how many trees the print on demand phenomenon has saved—assuming, of course, that everyone who’s gone that route would have otherwise ended up publishing hundreds of copies of each tome through a more traditional vanity press. Finally, there’s the fact that some print on demand services charge no upfront costs. Considering the vagaries of the book market, print on demand is clearly an idea whose time has come.
Given the benefits of POD technology, it would make a lot of sense for a latter-day Maxwell Perkins to start a press and work with a small number of authors to hone their work and share it with a worldwide audience via a service like Lulu or Lightning Source. One editor who has been doing something along these lines is Lily Richards of Casperian Books. Working with authors like widely-published small press author Curtis Smith to publish his novel Sound + Noise, Richards has developed a catalogue of twenty titles, each of which has gone through an extensive and thorough editing process.
According to Richards, each book that Casperian publishes takes about a year to go from the initial query stages to the final product. This process begins with a dialogue between the potential author and the editors at the press: if the editors like what they read in a query, they ask a number of questions to make sure, among other things, that the author understands how much time and effort goes into turning a manuscript into a book. Assuming Casperian decides to acquire the title, the editors then begin a lengthy dialogue with the author.
“Once we get a contract in place, the editorial process begins,” Richards explains. Most of the times, this process involves two to three rounds of edits in advance of a final copy edit: “The first round is just a general e-mail after contract signature where we list the items that should be addressed manuscript-wide and usually request that the revised manuscript is submitted together with a timeline for the MS… The second round is usually a rough edit from us, together with nitpicking of specific and localized problems within the manuscript, such as, ‘Your timeline’s broken right here.’ This step might be repeated once or twice based on author edits and rewrites. After that, it’s off to copyedit, before the manuscript moves into production.”
For Richards, this editorial process is the key distinction between what Casperian does and what most POD services offer.
“I think it’s important to distinguish between a POD service—which in essence is used for self-publishing purposes–and small presses/publishing houses utilizing a POD service to print books with reduced inventory and risk,” the publisher notes. “The primary reason I say it’s important to distinguish between a POD Service and a small press though, has less to do with the logistics, distribution and finance, and more to do with editorial standards and the peer review process. POD services that have no editorial process and basically allow anyone who want to self-publish their books regardless of quality are, in essence, what gives POD a bad name. At least vanity publishers usually throw in a basic edit, which gets rid of typos and punctuation errors, even if it does nothing about the quality of the book itself.”
Of course, sentiments like this aren’t what many writers who take the POD route want to hear. The day before the Panini incident, I took part in a panel discussion on the craft of writing, during which I expressed the opinion that workshopping, revising, and editing are all essential to the writing process. Interestingly, I never explicitly said anything about bad writing, but a few people in the audience were sharp enough to intimate that revision implies room for improvement and that room for improvement implies that there’s a difference between good writing and better writing. Extending this logic a tiny bit further, at least one member of the audience drew the inevitable conclusion that I was also suggesting a difference between good writing and bad writing, and that I was unfairly lumping her work into the latter category.
The woman was 93 years old and working on a collection of poetry that she intended to publish. When the panel discussion was over, she touched my wrist and gently informed me that I had no right to tell her that her poetry wasn’t good enough for publication. This was America, she said, and people have the right to express themselves however they see fit. Nobody, she insisted, could tell her what she could or couldn’t write.
“I write for myself and only for myself,” she said.
To which I did not reply, “I guess that explains why you’re publishing a book.”
Instead, I nodded and told her that what she was doing was wonderful. I was glad that she was writing a book, I said. And I really was happy for her. I’ve never in my life said that anyone shouldn’t write. But there’s a difference between writing for oneself and writing for an audience—and that’s a difference that most POD services do their best to obscure.