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On Publishing

May 20, 2011

Recently, I have been getting into ebook publishing. It is quick, free, and easy. So easy that I think everyone who has a story or special knowledge to share should be doing it. It has been said that there is at least one book in everyone – now it’s a snap to get it out there.

I still prefer hard copy for reference books, picture books, and guide books. There’s nothing like holding a nicely produced book in your lap or seeing it displayed on a book shelf as a reminder of something you know and love. But I’ve had some tough experiences with the world of old-fashioned book publishing that make me welcome the ebook revolution. I think it is the way to go for novels, self-help, and a lot more.

I’m not going to name names, but I want to share some of my publishing experiences in the hope that they will make other authors and illustrators a bit more cautious or modest in their expectations. Of course, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to have my writing and artwork published, but it has been a rocky road.

- Publisher A was listed in the Literary Market Place. They accepted my illustrated story book. Yay! It was to be published in hardback and paperback. Finally the books arrived – the pictures weren’t centered and were reproduced on an ink-challenged xerox machine, the pages tended to fall out and were not always in the right order, and the binding featured blue duct tape and magic marker to make the gray cardboard edges match the cover.

- Publisher B did a wonderful job of producing my book. However, when sales began to lag, I asked if I could help. I suggested a mail campaign, featuring letters to educators from me. I was told in no uncertain terms that my help was not needed and that the publisher would handle marketing, thank you very much. Virtually no marketing was done and sales continued to lag for a few years until Amazon came on the scene and reached the wider audience.

- Publisher C (bigtime) hired me to do a series of illustrations for one of their books. I charged a modest amount – $30 each – thinking that this would lead to more work. I never heard from them again, but they went on to use my drawings in at least a dozen subsequent titles, eventually forgetting to credit the artist.

- Publisher D did a very nice job of designing and printing my book, but charged so much for it that I couldn’t afford to buy a copy (they did send me a few at first). I asked why so pricey and was told because they only sell to libraries and students (poor students!). Trouble is I’m not a professor and have no students to fleece and the book was written for a general audience rather than for the classroom.

- Publisher E contracted with me to write and illustrate a book for a relatively small fee. The rest of my payment would come in royalties after publication. However, the “contract” was never actually written up and the managing editor was replaced after the book was finished but before it was published. The new editor decided not to publish after all. I complained very loudly and the book was eventually printed – but not marketed. It was sold for $1 a copy for a while, then hurried out of print. Repeated inquiries finally resulted in a very small royalty payment. I understand there are boxes of this book sitting around somewhere.

- Publisher G hired me to illustrate a book. They then consulted with me about a printer as I had some experience with the local options. I said “anyone but Printer X.” So, of course, they went with Printer X – and the illustrations are so faint they are barely visible.

- Publisher H hired me to do a large number of illustrations (well over 100) for a large book. It was published with a very long and forgettable title, offered to an extremely small local market, and then disappeared. The illustrations – which would have been useful in many contexts – were never used again.

- Publisher I was small but respected. They accepted my book, but were very slow in producing it. Finally I learned that one of the three principals was ill. When this person died, publication was postponed for “at least a year.” Another delay occurred when principal number two passed away. The remaining editor told me that the book was all but complete and would be published on such and such a day. I offered to travel to the book launch but was advised to wait until a couple of details had been worked out. The next thing I heard was that principal three had died – only two years after the first fatality. The company was eventually bought out by another company that eventually decided not to publish my book after all.

There are many more stories I could tell, but perhaps enough already. These experiences led me to pursue hard-copy self-publishing, as shown by the wall of boxed books in my storage shed, most of which will probably never sell. It’s an expensive way to go. On-demand printing means that I don’t have to print hundreds or thousands of copies, but, unless a title really takes off, there’s virtually no money to be made because the booksellers take a very high percentage and tend to order single copies so that postage eats up most of what’s left.

Amazon’s CreateSpace program is a breakthrough – hard copy on-demand printing with no shipping and no storage. However, you have to do your own professional layout (or pay for someone to do it) and the per-book royalties are meager unless you price the book through the roof. Still, a nice way to get into hard-copy print without spending a lot of money.

All-in-all, the digital age is a tremendous boon to us long-suffering “content providers.”

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