I’ve never really cared all that much for books.
For the last 30 years or so, since I moved out of my childhood home in Brooklyn, I’ve rarely kept more than three dozen books in my apartments. As soon as I find myself with more than that, I start selling them to used bookstores or giving them away to enemies. Since 1979, I’ve moved about 25 times, often from one side of the country to another, and it became just too much of a pain to schlep tons of books every couple of years. It’s easier to be peripatetic when you travel light.
So I don’t buy many books: maybe three or four a year at most. The only hardcover books I’ve purchased since 1990 were required law school texts. Most of the time, when I tell authors whom I know that I’m going to “get” their latest volume, what I really mean (and here I am outing myself) is that I’m going to borrow the book from the public library.
Don’t get me wrong: as a kid, I was crazy about reading from the first time my mom read me Little Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy and The Tawny Scrawny Lion. As a teenager, I’d spend a good chunk of my money on Bantam or Signet paperbacks for 25 or 50 or 75 cents. I loved literature and all kinds of nonfiction and always wanted to publish my own work.
Back then, books were the only delivery devices available for the long works of writing I liked to read. To me, their importance—sentimental and otherwise—lay in the content, not the package.
Now approaching senility, I’ve come to perceive books as sentimental artifacts of a pre-digital age whose value is mostly related to literary prestige. I expect devices like the Kindle and others to remove what is for me the last major advantage of books: their portability.
Part of my view stems from the fact that although Books in Print lists me as the author of a dozen titles, I’ve never written a single book in my life.
No, I’m not confessing to wholesale plagiarism. (I’ll take the fifth on retail penny-ante plagiarism.) Or to having a ghost writer. (The only ghosts I’m acquainted with are the ones I watch on my cable-less 13-inch TV screen.) All of my books of short fiction are short story collections compiled from stories I’d previously published in literary magazines (“little magazines,” as we called them before the Punic Wars), anthologies, and later, webzines.
So I’m just an accidental author.
Thirty years ago, I signed a contract for my first book with a small New York trade house with offices on Union Square without having tried to get it published. Instead, after seeing one of my stories in a college litmag, the president of the company contacted me to ask if I had a manuscript to submit.
I wrote back saying I assumed he was looking for a novel, but unlike most humans capable of typing, I had not written one. I didn’t want to write one, either. (I never have tried.) I did have over a hundred stories in places like Nausea Review and Street Bagel but was pretty sure he wasn’t interested in that. And they were all mixed up, one story written a week for years, with no thought of any unity.
Undaunted by what he called my “diffident” reply—I had to explain to my parents, with whom I lived, what diffident meant after my mother remarked he couldn’t be much of a publisher if he didn’t know how to spell the word different—the publisher told me to send all my stories in print and his editor would go through them. I sent Xeroxed copies of the pages from the magazines and anthologies in their varied typefaces and formats, along with manuscript pages of the 30 or so stories that had been accepted but not yet published in periodicals. Somehow the editor—the 23-year-old son of the publisher (later a screenwriter, film director, and novelist)—helped me turn that mess into a collection titled With Hitler in New York.
My next three hardcover books were published the same way. Small press publishers or editors queried me, I sent a bunch of published stories, never a manuscript, and they made collections out of them.
By 2000 the first three books, all published before 1984, were out of print or in a limbo state, not officially OOP but not really available. Around this time I started hearing about POD—print-on-demand—books.
Now I may not be much of a book buyer, but I’m cognizant that my luck in getting books published got me a lot of cred that I couldn’t have managed otherwise. I got reviewed in the trades, lots of big-city and small-town newspapers, literary magazines, and even Rolling Stone (which produced a quote on my Hitler that all my publishers since have flogged to near-death). My hardcovers were in libraries all over the country. I got invited to book-and-author luncheons; became a member of the Authors Guild and PEN (back in the day when you had to have penned “at least two books of literary merit”); became the subject of entries in Contemporary Authors, Contemporary Literary Criticism, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
The Silicon Valley Diet, my fifth full-length collection of stories, a trade paperback original published in 2000 by a Los Angeles small press, was the first one I compiled by myself—although the stories hadn’t been written as a part of any book and some were published decades before others.
Hypocritically, I did enjoy being an author even if I rarely contributed to the royalties of others by buying their books. (In my defense, I advised everyone I knew not to buy my own last hardcover book because the 150 pages in it weren’t worth the $24.95 price; spendthrift strangers fooled by a nice notice in The New York Times Book Review were on their own.)
Learning about POD companies like iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and Xlibris, I assumed they were essentially high-tech vanity presses that would publish anyone who plunked down what seemed like exorbitant fees. The only difference: the digital technology avoided the expense of large print runs since new copies of a book were printed one or two or ten at a time when an order for them came in. I am as vain as the next guy, especially if he makes his living in the theater, but I had no interest in being a vanity press author.
But then the Authors Guild announced its Backinprint.com program, in association with iUniverse, to bring back members’ out-of-print books in cheap paperback editions. In my local Barnes & Noble in Florida, I found copies of Backinprint.com books by William F. Buckley (Blackford Oates stories), Mary McCarthy (criticism) and Thornton Wilder (Theophilus North, a novel I loved when it was first published and which I’d last read in a 1974 grad school course on Modern American Fiction).
I was impressed enough to get my first book from 1979 published with Backinprint.com/iUniverse. There was no upfront expense or much work involved for me except getting verification of my book’s OOP status (this involved tracking down representatives of my publishers or their successor companies or presses) and sending two copies of each book to be destroyed by iUniverse as they photographed/copied them for the new versions. The only charges were for the copies I myself ordered with my author’s discount.
Over the next few years, I got the other three hardcover collections—Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, I Brake for Delmore Schwartz, and I Survived Caracas Traffic—out in Backinprint.com editions. Some people might find the books unattractive. As Dan Wickett wrote in a 2005 Conversational Reading post for which I was interviewed:
While I do not have any of the original versions of the three books by Richard Grayson that I have copies of the backinprint.com versions of, I am sure the individual pages look better in the originals.
The reason iUniverse needs two copies of the original OOP books is so they can copy them. That is exactly what the pages of the stories remind me of in the POD versions—photocopies. As one who used to make copies of stories and, in some cases, entire books, back in my college days, I am sadly very familiar with the appearance of such. The type jumps from the pages with that look of ink and not type. While I don’t have copies of any of Grayson’s hardcovers, I do have a paperback copy of his story collection, The Silicon Valley Diet, published by Red Hen Press. Page by page, this book has much more of a book appearance than the three Backinprint.com books. The type print looks like type and not ink.
Beyond that appearance issue, the binding appears secure, flopping the book down at the page one stops at doesn’t seem to do any damage to the spine, but I must admit, I’m a bit overly careful with my books while I read them. The covers are of the type that once you begin reading the book, or set it down in that tent fashion one or two times, the covers will flare out at the edges, not my favorite to be sure, but the Backinprint.com books aren’t the only paperbacks that do this.
So, if copies can still be found, sometimes cheaper than the Authors Guild versions, why would an author go through the regaining permissions, and everything else that goes with the Backinprint.com process? For Richard Grayson it was simple. “I could have paid more to get something other than their non-uniform cover and I could have paid to have an author photo, but basically I was just trying to keep the work in print to have a record that the books existed.”
My other goal, just as important, was getting the books in digital format. (All were originally composed on the typewriter; only the last book of the four, published in 1996, had a manuscript in a word processing file done after the fact.) Originally, the books were to be made available as PDF files for anyone to download from the iUniverse/Backinprint.com online bookstore. I also submitted them to Google Book Search with the idea that anyone would be able to access the entire book, but Google too later switched to limited page views—to my dismay. The annual low-two-digits royalty checks I got from iUniverse for the few copies sold were not as important to me as making my work available to more readers.
By this time, I much preferred seeing my stories online rather than in print. I had basically stopped submitting to print periodicals, leaving those to younger writers who needed the greater prestige (ha!) for their “careers.” At this point, never having made more than a pittance from my stories, I viewed myself as a hobbyist who wrote to escape the pressures of a demanding career in another field.
Webzines had brought me a much larger audience; often people who’d never read a literary magazine would write me after discovering my stories from a Google search for terms like “Biscayne Boulevard,” “Vietnam moratorium,” or “fuckbuddies.” Submitting to webzines was easier and more pleasurable, as the response time and time to publication was much faster, sometimes as soon as days; the last story I had in a dead-trees quarterly took over two years from acceptance to print.
And, in what might seem paradoxical, the online works seemed more “permanent” than those trapped within the pages of an obscure print periodical. Try to find a 1970s copy of Street Bagel, Texas Quarterly, or Transatlantic Review with one of my stories. I’ve totally lost several of my old stories because I can’t find copies of the magazines they appeared in.
Nevertheless, when I had a big batch of stories out in webzines during a bizarre burst of late-middle-age mania, I tried to get a book of them published—partly as a souvenir, partly because as a child of the 1950s, I’m still reflexively in thrall to the siren of book publication. Over time, I had a bunch of new stories mostly about my native Brooklyn, which in my decades-long absence had suddenly gone from being considered a bathetic backwater to a cool place for writers and artists. In 2005, five of my online stories were selected as Notable Stories of the year at the StorySouth Million Writers Award contest, and one of them was a finalist.
So that year I began querying small presses (I knew enough not to bother literary agents or commercial publishers) about my “collection.” Over a couple of years, I contacted most of America’s established presses, many hot newer ones, and some totally obscure ones whose editors didn’t know how to use apostrophes. Nobody was interested.
Having worked for the Fiction Collective (now FC2) for years after it started in 1974, I had no compunctions about subsidizing my own book publication. Indeed, my friend Rochelle Ratner—the widely published poet, novelist, and longtime American Book Review editor whose decades-long career and tragic death a couple of months ago were utterly ignored by litbloggers—used to say that the dirty little secret of American small presses was author subsidy.
I myself had turned over a $5,000 fellowship from the Florida Arts Council to the press that published my 2000 paperback collection, which managed to get good reviews in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. I’d used other state grants to finance three of my four fiction chapbooks (the other was paid for by a grant from the NEA to the publisher).
But at this point I was semi-retired and didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to publish my book. Just then Lulu came into my life.
Lulu is not a rich benefactress but a North Carolina-based technology company whose CEO is Red Hat co-founder Bob Young. As Peter Wayner wrote in a 2006 New York Times article, “Technology Rewrites the Book“:
Lulu.com is a combination printer and order-fulfillment house that prints both color and black-and-white books, takes orders for them and places them with bookstores like Amazon.com.
Lulu works from a PDF file, an approach that forces users to rely on basic word processors or professional design packages. If this is too complex, Lulu offers a marketplace where book designers offer their services. Lulu does offer a special cover design package that will create a book’s cover from an image and handle the specialized calculations that compute the size of the spine from the number of pages and the weight of the paper.
A 6-by-9-inch softcover book with 150 black-and-white pages from Lulu would cost $7.53 per single copy.
A Wikipedia entry on the company summarizes the debate whether Lulu is a vanity press or represents a different publishing model:
While some commentators have described Lulu as a variation on traditional vanity press publication, or perhaps simply as a more respectable version, others have described it as sitting somewhere between a vanity press and a traditional publishing company. For example, David Rani notes that, unlike vanity press publishers, Lulu doesn’t charge authors an upfront fee, but also notes that they don’t offer editing or sales promotion—services that mass market publishers, such as Random House, offer their authors. Thus he determines that they come somewhere between the two. Linda Stilborne, however, states that Lulu is “not exactly” a variation of a vanity press, reporting that authors will find Lulu “affordable” and “books that are not worth reading still won’t sell.” In “Click Lit—There Are No More Excuses for Unpublished Authors,” The Times (UK) denies that Lulu is vanity press, stating that it is “a collision of the web, new printing technology and a universal yearning to vent and dazzle.” On the other side of the debate, many (including Larry Finlay, managing director of Transworld Publishing) point to the lack of “editorial arbitration” and thus define Lulu as vanity press. Lulu themselves go so far as to deny that they are a publisher at all, describing themselves as a “technology company.”
My first experiment with Lulu took place in the fall of 2005. I decided to try to make a print volume out of “Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida’s Fourth Congressional District,” my 2004 recurring feature on the McSweeney’s website. The writing I’d put in the “book” had already gotten past a gatekeeper, McSweeney’s online editor John Warner, who usually made some changes to make my work more intelligible. Although it was already available in full online, I thought a book version might make a nice souvenir, and, more importantly, it was something I could try fairly easily.
The Lulu website’s content creator took me through all the steps of publication, from choosing a book format (paperback, 6-by-9-inch, perfectbound) and uploading my manuscript, consisting of three Word documents (the text from McSweeney’s; the front matter—title page, half-title, publication data page, acknowledgements, dedication, etc., along with a prologue I’d taken from another online article on my teenage involvement in politics; and the back matter—my bio note and blank pages). Lulu turned it into a PDF file and we selected a pre-existing cover design from their free library. I also created front and back covers with their template, selecting from their cover fonts (somewhat limited in both size and typeface; totally limited as to cover placement for both title and author’s name) and priced both the print and downloaded editions.
Within 10 days of ordering the first print “version,” I got a copy in the mail.
I can remember, in May 1979, seeing my first book for the first time. My editor called me to say that copies had come in, and I drove from my family’s house in the outer reaches of Brooklyn to the publisher’s office in Manhattan. My immediate reaction upon seeing a copy: “It looks just like a real book!”
“We’ve cleverly disguised it,” my editor assured me.
With my Lulu book, it did sort of look like a real book, only cheesier. Part of that was that I knew less about book design than your average Jack Russell terrier, and part of it was the same POD flaws evident in the printing of my iUniverse/Backinprint.com books noted by Dan Wickett.
I went through various versions, correcting typos, tinkering with the format so that I avoided problems. Eventually, satisfied it wouldn’t get much better, I “published” it.
At present, Lulu offers three different levels of distribution services, called Lulu Marketplace, Published By You, and Published By Lulu (formerly known as Global Distribution). I did my congressional diary with the last so that it had an ISBN number, unlike the Lulu Marketplace books. Though both were only available at the company’s online bookstore, for me an ISBN meant the book was “really” published.
Last year, after I created two more Lulu short story collections I decided to spring for the more expensive Published By You option for the Diary book. This let me get my own ISBN prefix, a notable difference. Although in the previous Lulu books I’d listed each as published by Dumbo Books, with a street address in Brooklyn, these books used Lulu’s ISBN prefix, making it the publisher of record.
To publish the books with my press’s own ISBN, I needed to raise the price to get distribution by Amazon and other online bookstores, as well as any brick-and-mortar bookstores foolish enough to order copies. Unlike most publishers, Lulu’s distribution service does not accept returns of unsold books from bookstores. In addition, the wholesale discount is much smaller than most bookstores are accustomed to—50 percent is normal for most books, but Lulu gives as little as 5 percent at typical quantities of less than a hundred.
One of my two 2006 POD books, Highly Irregular Stories, was a compilation of my four fiction chapbooks published between 1978 and 1989, one of which the New York Times Book Review called “a cross between Hemingway and Dick and Jane.” The other, And to Think that He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, was a collection of newer, post-2000 online stories, mostly about Brooklyn.
As far as I know, the only bookstore that ordered some of my Lulu books was Powell’s Books, which took one of my 2006 short story collections after I emailed them the review the book got from Kirkus Discoveries.
Oh yes, Kirkus Discoveries. Some will say that’s a vanity review service, and I’d say they’re right. For a fee (recently raised from $350 to $400), Kirkus Discoveries will assign a POD (or small press or OOP) book to the same reviewers it uses for the “legit” (and separate) Kirkus Reviews and publish the review on their website—unless the author or publisher, appalled by a horrible notice, decides to kill the review before it appears online.
Coming in to an unexpected windfall, I decided to blow it on trying Kirkus Discoveries. What mollified me—somewhat—was that they did publish some bad reviews and others that were quite mixed or damned with faint praise.
Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, I got devastatingly snarky notices from Kirkus Reviews. The first one, the first bad review of Hitler I’d come across, which I discovered on my own in the public library after my publishers tried to hide it from me, put me to bed for the rest of that Sunday—until around dinnertime when I got up and called my editor to tell him to send me all reviews, good or bad, saying “I eat Kirkus Reviews for breakfast.”
He complied by promptly mailing a review from the Minneapolis Tribune in which the writer claimed that my “cornucopia of crap” was the worst book he’d read in his entire life. Eventually, in the 1990s, I got a nice review from Kirkus.
The Kirkus Discoveries reviews of my Dumbo Press/Lulu books, easily emailed from their website and sometimes mistaken even by newspaper book editors for Kirkus Reviews notices, had great quotes that really helped get other reviews. I can’t know if the payment influenced them, but on the other hand, everything in each of the POD books I’ve published had previously been accepted by an editor. And to me, the Discoveries reviews are at least as valid as the rave reviews that bloggers give their friends’ books.
My POD books got me reading gigs, a good review in at least one newspaper (The Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to then-book editor Frank Wilson), nice reviews in websites, like the Hipster Book Club and Florida Book Review, reviews by some bloggers, and the listing of each of the two books on a “2006 best books list” on two websites (one selected by a person unknown to me).
Did the books sell many copies? Nah.
The book based on the McSweeney’s feature sold the best, maybe 35 copies, probably because I really tried to get my friends to buy it, because the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call wrote an article about it, and because people mentioned in my real-life chronicle wanted copies of a book with their name in it.
The short story collections have sold fewer than 15 copies each. They’ve each also sold a few “copies” of the downloads of the PDF file available at a nominal price. I’ve gotten a couple of very small royalty checks from Lulu.
But then, I’ve never done this for the money. I would just like people to be able to read my stories if they want.
I intend eventually to do for the two 2006 story collections what I did for my candidate’s diary from McSweeney’s,: get Dumbo Books ISBNs for them so they can be sold in places other than Lulu’s website. I’ll probably change some things. Each has already gone through numerous versions, and the books have even had different front and back covers. What became really interesting to me during the process in which I created version after the version of the book—correcting typos, making editorial changes, taking out stories and putting others in, changing the order of the stories—was that POD books are infinitely malleable. What if there are 200 slightly different versions of a book? (Don’t tell the ISBN people or they’ll freak out!)
I’m currently in the process of publishing (with a Dumbo Books ISBN) a new collection of stories, a mixed bag published over three decades in litmags such as California Quarterly and Bellingham Review and websites such as 3:AM Magazine and Pindeldyboz, which I’ve titled Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens. I’ve already gotten Gawker to write something appropriately snarky about the book.
Just last Friday, after my third round of proofreading and tinkering with the design (I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed the DIY process)—I ordered a new “version.” It was manufactured and shipped in four days and should be here in another couple of days. Just as Lulu’s manufacturing and delivery process has become appreciably speedier over three years, technology has improved POD books’ appearance to where their pages and binding and design are pretty much indistinguishable from books printed the old-fashioned way. Assuming I find no problems or errors with the new edition, I’ll go to Lulu’s website and approve it for final publication and distribution.
Back in the 1970s, the author and editor Judith Appelbaum used to say that some books people think are published are actually “privished”—that is, so few people got to read them or know about them that they are effectively limited to a private audience. Perhaps you think my books are being privished. I call them published.
Eventually, as print-on-demand technology improves in quality and costs shrink, trade publishers will probably rely on POD for all their books, just as some academic publishers have begun to do. Trade publishers waste a lot of money (and trees) by publishing copies of books, even bestsellers in fourth or fifth editions, that never get sold; no matter how many print runs, publishers always seem to have books left over. After my first book was remaindered I bought 400 copies of my first book for a nickel a copy, then discovered the cost of storing them was so expensive that I ended up throwing dozens of copies into a Miami dumpster.
Now I order one or two copies of my book at a time and don’t have to worry about them cluttering up my apartment. Who needs unnecessary books? And what books are really necessary? Not mine, I’ll admit.
Would I recommend Lulu to a young, ambitious literary writer who can’t get her book manuscript accepted by a trade publisher or small press? For a novelist or a memoirist, definitely not. For a poet, why not? For a short story writer, it depends. In all cases, I’d probably say that they have the time to wait; it’s unclear to me whether publication by POD companies like Lulu can hurt those writers who will actually expect to go on to have “careers.”
That said, nearly all POD books are absolutely dreadful, published—or privished—by people who can’t write much better than the students in remedial writing classes I’ve taught over the years. Most serious literary writers don’t want to be associated with that kind of crap.
On the other hand, for an older writer like myself who’s been through trade and small press publication and essentially has nowhere else to go if he wants a book published—also, recall that a major newspaper called my first book crap anyway—POD books from Lulu and similar companies seem like a good deal.
And some younger writers—like all human beings save (at this writing) Hillary Clinton—will eventually deal with repeated discouragement by lowering their career goals. After years of rejection, they too may join those of us who have succumbed to the inevitable and have become, to our horror and amazement, POD people.
Richard Grayson is the author of Highly Irregular Stories, With Hitler in New York, The Silicon Valley Diet, and other books. A retired teacher and lawyer, he divides his time between Brooklyn and Phoenix.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Richard Grayson