WILL PUBLISHERS PERISH?

By Edward Wilkinson Latham

Globe and Mail Review Section

There is a saying that ‘everybody has a book in them’, yet at a time when we have never found it more important to communicate and express ourselves in print, it has never been more difficult to do so. Many authors have become frustrated with conventional publishers, entrenched by market projections, annual styles and the unmentionable word, “returns”.

The alternative is self publishing. Unfortunately in the past, some vanity publishers have tarnished the idea of self-originated publications; many of them notoriously over-charging and under-promoting. Rarely simple, self-publishing can require an author to print, distribute and market their own book, usually involving a lot of expense and hard work.

But with recent developments of digital printing technology, small self publishing business are starting up, that are fast filling the void left by conventional publishers and previous tailored publishing ventures. Using low cost digital printing methods that allow small print runs, known as POD (Print on demand), it is now possible to publish a book for a fraction of the cost of a traditionally published book. The digital book file is simply stored in a database, connected to a network of servers and every time the book is ordered, the file is sent to a digital printer, where it is printed and bound. Networks are being connected to a growing number of printers in different countries, allowing a book to be created and marketed in one country but be printed and bound in another closest to the customer. Ideal for books with limited appeal, book clubs or backlist books in print that only sell a few hundred copies a year, POD has allowed many small printing/press houses to become rapidly popular.

UK Authors is one such company that grooms authors to produce their best work. A joint venture of KMS (Knowledge Mine Solutions Ltd) that supply the printing, distribution and marketing, UK Authors Press then deals with manuscript reading, selection, editing and design.

Writers send initial manuscripts following simple guidelines, clearly displayed on the UKA PRESS site, and if a team of readers accepts the work, the writer is provided a personal editor to finalise the text and to arrange format, synopsis, biography, cover art and even ISBN number - in short, everything, except the writing of the book.

One of the advantages of POD printing is that an author can create and market their book without any cost. Only when the book is ordered on-line, is it then printed and bound and then the self-publishing business and the author share the respective percentages of profit, after incurred costs. UK Authors for example, charges 15%, as opposed to mainstream publishers who run at 8-10%, but actually pays greater royalties than some major publishing houses.

Marilyn Ross of Self Publishing Resources is an award-winning author, having self-published 13 books in twenty seven years, including The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, Jump Start Your Book Sales, and Shameless Marketing for Brazen Hussies. Despite her successes, she says that with POD , there can be a potential for a lack in quality control. “Books are not always edited, some covers are uninteresting templates, and the companies sometimes slap their own names on the books as the publisher. And the purchasing terms are structured in such a way that they don't conform to the 40% discounts for bookstores and no returnable policies.”

Marilyn agrees that in today's publishing climate an author must be dedicated to promoting and publicizing his or her own book, no matter if it be self-published or conventionally published.

“Why do all the work for a paltry 10-15% when you can make triple that or more? Authors today like to be in control of their own destinies. The thought of a big publishing house changing their title, dressing the book or rearranging text is unacceptable.”

She is a firm believer that today with the advantages of POD, a writer can have the best of both worlds. Publish a book, make it a success, and then sell the rights to a major publisher. “We've done this with five of the 13 books we've published. With this approach you remove the risk for them, yet leverage yourself to get a much better advance and have more clout in negotiating the contract.”

Richard Brown, a published writer, both conventionally and self-published and is currently working on a series of Canadian family histories for self-publication. He agrees that the author can retain all creative control over their work, especially if it is created with a niche market in mind.

“Had there been Print On Demand only a few years ago, my last book would have sold even better, because I ran out of the second printing, but orders are still trickling in. There are at least 50 disappointed potential customers out there. With POD, readers and authors are satisfied and the costs can be contained and are easily calculated. Becoming a publisher is now easy.”

PABD (Publish And Be Damned) offer perhaps the fastest and easiest way of seeing your book in print and being your own publisher. Adlibbed Ltd, the founders of the web based concept of “Publish and be Damned” (www.pabd.com), have automated a large amount of the books creation by developing a series of on-line, on-demand tools that help the writer to format and design their own book. The tools are provided free of charge, and if one becomes a member, PABD includes a personal on-line shop, where the client can use further on-line coaching to market their work.

PABD is the brainchild of Iain Plunkett, a professional copywriter and Creative Director, Andreas Duess. Both met while working at The Banner Corporation, one of the UK’s leading technology-focused Advertising Agencies.

PABD established a simple philosophy: To provide writers with an easy means of turning their manuscript into a finished book regardless of the arbitrary tastes of others, and that the marketing and cost of the publication, should not act as a barrier.

“We think it should be easy to see your book in print”, says Ian, “and it shouldn’t cost the earth. We only make one promise: we will help you create a high quality book. What you do with it is up to you.”

Plunkett says a lack of control or guidelines that has plagued earlier self-publishing ventures, but when “people design the book for themselves they feel empowered, especially when the final book has a professional finish that will help it compete on the book shelf.”

“We compare book publishing to amateur dramatics”, says Duess. “You know, people on stage in their local church hall. They'll never be on Broadway, but they give themselves and their family pleasure and that's all that is needed. However, we're finding that a lot of professional writers are coming to us. People who are sick of publishers and want to take control of their own work and distribution. So the quality of work will be higher than we thought.”

As the gates potentially widen, giving the opportunity to every man and his dog to publish, I ask Ian and Andreas if PABD will be the catalyst for the book market to be inundated with sub standard work or even inappropriate material.

“We have some strict rules on the publication of risqué inappropriate work as do most self publishing sites, but a badly written book will simply be sorted out by the market”, Duess says.

Duess, also a keen photographer is publishing artist trading card books and is experimenting with the idea of turning internet ‘blogs’ into books; “only the start of what could be termed 'community publishing”.

“Anywhere there is a community based on mutual interest and, let's be honest, the Internet is absolutely packed to the brim with them, this type of self-publishing makes creating their own publications a viable option. A natural coming together of two growing Internet trends.”

Lisa Charters, V.P. Director of Online Sales & Marketing at Random House of Canada Ltd, says that short run or POD, is seen as a very useful technology for keeping books in print and available to consumers, but is used at the moment by established publishing houses, as a way of extending the life of a book, rather than as a first time printing method.

“Short run printing is currently cost effective for small print runs only. It is therefore not effective for us for the first release of a new book, which requires higher print runs and market distribution to have impact and prominence at book retailers across the country.”

Andrea Lowne, the head of UK Authors Press, admits that at times her job as a small publisher can be relentless, receiving some manuscripts that are either unreadable, or full or grammatical/punctuation/spelling errors. But she sees POD and small publishers as the future. “I personally know many supremely talented writers that are of not related to this or that ‘celebrity’, but I don’t expect things to change in the foreseeable future at publishing houses.”

Before you start writing however,remember that the quality of the book must still be of a standard to compete in the market. Anthony Delgrado of Boho Press notes many authors the “publish what they want, instead of determining the market and need for such a book, often not even researching the competition.”

Those in the book trade may view the developments in digital publishing with mixed feelings But for writers amongst us, professional or unpublished, those dark days of simply hoping to see ones book in print are over.

EWL©

Special to the Globe and Mail