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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.

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Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice 3G1B is the collaboration of four friends and colleagues in the book business. Together, they review books and stories, interview authors, and maintain an ongoing conversation about publishing, bookselling, writing, pr, and nearly anything else.

JONATHAN EVISON is the author of All About Lulu and West of Here and TNB's Executive Editor. He likes rabbits. He also likes being the ambiguous fourth guy in the “Three Guys” triumvirate. He is the founder of the secret society, The Fiction Files (if he told, he’d have to kill you). He has a website, but it’s old. Just google him.

DENNIS HARITOU has bought books for Barnes and Noble for seven years, for warehouse clubs for five, and has led a book club. He is currently Director of Merchandise at Bookazine.

JASON CHAMBERS has been in the book business for over fifteen years, including tenures as General Manager/Buyer at Book Peddlers in Athens, GA, and seven years as a Buyer and Merchandise Manager at Bookazine. He now works as an bookstore consultant and occasional web designer.

JASON RICE has worked in the book business for ten years at Random House in sales and marketing and Barnes & Noble as a community relations manager. Currently he is an Assistant Sales Manager and Buyer at Bookazine. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines online and in print. He was once the pseudonymous book reviewer Frank Bascombe for Ain’t It Cool News. He’s taught photography to American students in the South of France, worked as a bicycle messenger in New York City, and for a long time worked very hard in the film & television business in NYC. Production experience includes the television shows Pete & Pete, Can We Shop ( Joan Rivers' old shopping show), and the films The Pallbearer, Flirting With Disaster, and countless commercials---even a Christina Applegate movie that went straight to video.

10 Responses to ““Wherefore Print on Demand?” by Marc Schuster”

  1. [...] Print on Demand publishing, “Wherefore Print on Demand.” The essay can also be read on The Nervous Breakdown. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)All looking ok for POD??US newspapers struggle to [...]

  2. Good start for discussion, with some very thoughtful analysis. Kudos for that.

    Didn’t Pound go insane editing Eliot? I can’t remember where I read that, but I could swear I remember that editing The Waste-Land caused a Nervous Breakdown (copyright and TM and who’s reserving rights, anyway, ZOMG ha!).

    I get what you’re saying about editorial process; I think you’re right in general, but I also think that, as in many cases over generalization, details are missed. I used Lulu to publish a collection while I was at USC and had a mostly great experience with it, but then again I also had a network (USC) most other writers wouldn’t. In fact, I did have an editor (one of my colleagues) and several beta-readers I asked to catch me if my pants were down. I also know lots of people who have used Lulu; Chris Meeks was on the faculty at USC while I was there and published several collections (and now a novel), and I remember Brad Listi himself used Lulu once upon a time, though I’m not sure he continued the endeavor of it.

    “What if making that or other changes would have turned the book in question from a good book to a great book?”

    Well, sure, but what’s ‘good’ or ‘great’? I pretty much hated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but the Pulitzer people liked it enough to give it an award. In a recent post on this site, a discussion sprang up about Franzen’s The Correction, oft-hailed as an example of a good-if-not-great book but one I know many people who couldn’t make it past page 50 of. So far as editing goes, feedback is certainly necessary, but then I think of Raymond Carver’s relationship with Gordon Lish, and I read how “The Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and I can’t say one version is really exactly better than the other. Someone cynical might suggest Lish was just a frustrated creative heaping his ideas on a more talented writer.

    I also get what you’re suggesting about the 93-year-old woman’s motives, with regard to writing for herself or writing for an audience, but isn’t there also an argument that circumventing the traditional, commercial publishing model is actually writing for an audience at its most pure? Many writers compose novels with the hope of getting picked up by an agent who can sell it to an editor for acquisition at a corporate house, while some others compose their books and instead attempt to sell them directly to readers…

    I’m not an advocate either way, truthfully. I’m just a writer who is doing my best, using all tools available, to reach the most readers possible at every given moment. The POD/self-publishing model (I use the slash because they’re not the same thing) is a good one for niche markets and specific targets; my collection is of short stories, essays, and poetry, the market for any of which is terrifically small and narrowing by the day as magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic cut more content and lots at Conde Nast either fold altogether or experiment with iPhone apps. Thus far, I wouldn’t use it for a novel if only because books like The Lost Symbol and Twilight demonstrate that there is, in fact, a large, wide, interested audience for books that excite them, and I don’t think that particular audience is best served by POD distribution.

    In a few years, though? Who knows?

  3. Will — It’s interesting that you mention Chris Meeks. I read and enjoyed his collection Months and Seasons as well has his novel Brightest Moon of the Century. What separates his work (and yours) from a lot of POD titles is an awareness of writing for an audience. This isn’t, of course, to say “catering” to an audience, but writing with the idea that someone else is going to read the work. Along these lines, my big issue isn’t with POD itself but with the language that POD providers like Lulu and Outskirts press use to promote their services: it’s always about “you” (i.e., the author). I’d be a lot more comfortable with the marketing of these services if they devoted a little more attention to discussing things like niche markets and how to develop them, as a market implies an audience, and a discussion of audience would take prospective POD users out of the “all about me” mindset encouraged by the current marketing rhetoric and at least give some consideration to the idea that writers need readers.

  4. Christopher Meeks says:

    Thank you both for mentioning what I do. My first job after I received my MFA in creative writing was to work for a small publisher as its senior editor. Twenty years later, when I was having a tough time getting a collection of literary short stories published–most of the stories had made it into literary journals–a friend who had worked there told me about print-on-demand and said, “You’ve been in publishing. Do what we did at the publishing house for yourself.”

    I could not edit myself, which is a lesson all writers should learn. What I did was mirror what any good publisher would do, which is, as Marc’s article stresses, use a great editor. I did not rush to publish “The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea,” but went back and forth with an editor until everything was right. An editor is invaluable because I did not want egg on my face. After the publishing company, I had been a book and then a theatre reviewer for a decade, and I saw how some of my fellow reviewers could be ruthless. I wanted my own books to be professional, something that could be admired by reviewers and readers alike.

    Once I accomplished that, I also sent out review copies far in advance of a publication date. That’s what big publishers do. That’s what I did.

    I’ve also been teaching creative writing at USC, CalArts, and the Art Center College of Design, where I’ve been surrounded by artists of all sorts. Most writers, dancers, painters, actors, filmmakers, musicians, and more don’t make a lot of money here in America, but those who make an impression on others do so because they think of themselves as artists and as professionals. I tell my students to picture themselves in an interview. Can they talk about how their work is an art?

    Too many self-publishers dash off a document and rush to publish, hoping to be a literary tycoon. That’s the wrong approach. Make your books to be about something. I take my cue from Flannery O’Connor who wrote in an essay about the serious writer and the tired reader, “The great novels we get in the future and not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that inerest the novelist … that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and talents.”

    That’s what I’ve done with all my books. I’m proud of my recent novel, “The Brightest Moon of the Century.” The rest is just being patient. Once your book is published, write about it where you can.

    By the way, I came across this blog just as I was writing one of my own on the subject. You can read that at http://www.redroom.com/blog/christopher-meeks/being-practical-publishing-vs-self-publishing-part-two

  5. Okay, Marc, I totally get what you’re saying now, and with that I totally agree. I also think that’s something all writers need to know better and keep in mind, and not just the ones who use POD. But like I said, really good, thoughtful article.

    And hey Chris! I like your mention of thinking of ourselves as professionals. Which we are and need to remember. And which I posted about today, with regard to the dilemma of blogging for professional writers.

    • Christopher Meeks says:

      Thanks, Will! May your short story collection continue to interest people. I look forward to what comes next from your rich mind.

  6. Minx says:

    It is such a disappointment that POD has become the evil step sister of traditional publishing when it could be such a wonderful tool for publishers to use to get more authors published, for less money, with less risk and with less impact on the environment.

    POD has never actually been the problem – self publishing has been around for quite a long time. It’s the people who use it in ways that give the technology a bad name that have made it difficult – but not impossible – to use POD legitimately and without receiving judgment from other traditional publishers.

    Which is such a pity.

    These small presses, of which I know quite a few in the horror and bizarro fiction areas, create some fabulous books and provide a starting point for some amazing authors – some of which move on to greater things with big publishers some of which are happy to have their niche audiences.

    The beauty of it is that these niche audiences can be grown with POD without a ridiculous outlay from the publishers and without the let down of not selling that supply and pulping it when you have no room to store the 400 left overs from your 500 print run – not to mention the depression that can lead too.

  7. Reader-customers and author-customers should keep in mind that vanity publishers like Outskirts and Lulu are promiscuous whores. They will provide services for anyone with money. Literary quality and even potential sales are irrelevant. Editing is an option that a writer can skip. Writers who format their own pages won’t have ugly pages fixed.

    Even the promotional books published by the vanity publishers are ugly and full of errors.

    In one of his books, Outskirts Press boss Brent Sampson mis-identified the author of Roget’s Thesaurus and confused a foreword with a preface.

    A promotional book from Infinity has bad grammar, bad typography, garbled sentences, factual errors and misaligned pages.

    Lulu boss Bob Young misspelled “misspell” and confused “less” and “fewer” in a blog post. He told Publishers Weekly that “We publish a huge number of really bad books.” If Bob knows they’re really bad books, he shouldn’t publish them.

    Michael N. Marcus

    author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742

    author of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” coming 4/1/10. http://silversandsbooks.com/storiesbookinfo.html

    http://BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com

  8. Schuster’s sentiment parallels my own in many regards. As a Literature & the Arts columnist for a newspaper, I receive a stack of books monthly to review. Sounds like a great gig until you realize that roughly 50% of said books are self-published and that 50% of those self-published books are by local authors fully expecting a write-up, that e-mail me asking, “When do you expect the column to come out?”

    I actually don’t have anything against self-publishing as long as it is done so in a responsible manner. For example, I plan to self-publish a collection of stories and artwork from a slew of local and not-so-local writers and artists sometime in the next year. It’s for a non-profit I am in charge of and the money raised will benefit our organization. With that said, there will be numerous eyes editing the work. There’s an avenue for self-publishing with that sort of thing and other books: cookbooks, quote books, etc.

    In contrast, what I find most common regarding self-published books or books from vanity presses, however you look at it or whatever you want to call it, is that the author didn’t take the time to edit the book properly. That is usually evident in the first five pages, sometimes the first.

    It’s almost like their mom or daughter or friend or whoever has just heaped praise on them so much, telling them how great they tell stories (and I have no doubt it’s genuine too) for so long that one day the writer says, “I’m going to print this” so they get online and Google the course to being a “published” writer. Then they realize there’s a lot of work to actually being a writer: rejection, rewrites, endurance, persistence… and yes, luck. And you know, there’s that whole thing about actually being good enough. A lot of people can play basketball but a lot of people aren’t making it to the NBA. And so, some of these writers bypass steps 2-10 and do it themselves.

    Sometimes I read self-published books and it’s painful. I honestly just have to put it down, call my Editor and say, “I’m not lying to the people reading my column. If I give this book good marks or even so-so marks and someone goes and picks this book up or orders it online, reads it, says, ‘What the heck was this guy reading?’, then they’ll never take my opinions or my column seriously again. They might stop reading my column altogether.”

    And you know, when I think about it that way, I am fully aware that it is not fair to the other writers who DID take the time to not bypass steps 2-10.

    That’s my biggest problem with self-publishing and Schuster echoes that. Maybe Chapter 10 should be Chapter 6. Maybe Chapter 10 shouldn’t even be there. Maybe “your” should really be “you’re” and “their” “there.”

    In the end, I don’t have beef with self-published books so long as a careful eye has gone over it and red ink splashed on its pages, or if it’s something done more for personal reasons and not to be a “published author.” It can indeed fill a void. Sometimes good stories are passed over. It happens a lot.

    But a lot of the vanity presses are, excuse the term, bullshit. They prey on and lure in young writers and older writers with the promises of being a published author. I remember back when I had MySpace before I got tired of being sent a friend request by twenty hookers every day, if you had “writer” down anywhere on your profile, there it was at the top of your page, a big ass advertisement from some POD company or a vanity press.

    I think that’s what I’ve come to understand more and more each time I receive the heap of self-published books to review. I’d say 75% of these books are written by someone over the age of 60.

    I feel like writing the older author who went this route to say, if you ever decide to self-publish again, go with Lulu.com and do not order a mass quantity.

    “You too can be Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Did you know that ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham was passed over ten times?”

    These vanity presses are like Medicare vultures circling their victims and swooping in to collect their $1,700-$3,800 a pop.

    P.S. Sorry for this being so long. Damn good article. I’m going to find a way to redirect folks to this in my next column.

  9. [...] publishing your book via a Print on Demand or POD service, you might want to check out my essay, “Wherefore Print on Demand?” at The Nervous Breakdown. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

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