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Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Four

Publishing on Demand: 
Good Deal, or Fool’s Errand?

There are other avenues to publication, too, and this is the matter at hand: publication on demand. This does not mean that one gets one’s novel or epic poem or political diatribe published by showing up at an editor’s desk and saying “I demand that you publish this book!”

Librarians everywhere probably received copies of the flyer that came my way the other day. It was hard not to notice: “GET PUBLISHED NOW,” it said in all caps in stark black, white, and red. “You Can Be a Published Author,” the face of the flyer said at the top in smaller type. 

As I held the flyer in my hands, I expected to see Ed McMahon materialize at my door, telling me that I was already a winner (provided none of the 43 million other contestants didn’t get the prize instead). Yup. I could be a published author. It sounded swell, although I think there might be better ways than the one the flyer suggested.

Alternatives to the Mainstream

From time to time, breaking into the usual run of humdrum reference questions raised at a college library reference desk (“Do you have the APA style manual?” “Where are the books?” “Can I get change for the copiers?” “What does my prof mean by this assignment?”), comes the stray inquiry about getting one’s story or novel published. 

I like to field those questions. There’s something delightful about taking a neophyte author in hand and revealing the tools of the trade most useful to a beginner.

One of the great services of the small press, as most readers here well know, is that it provides a reasonably accessible means of publication for writers for whom the mainstream press proves an unlikely haven. It is especially receptive to new writers, and to those who for whatever reason cannot or will not write according to the commercial formulas that help assure the kinds of sales that mainstream publishers need to keep their balance sheets acceptable to the cartels that run them.

I bear no ill will, by the way, toward authors who master and use those formulas. In a recent stint of jury duty, I needed a book to entertain myself during the sporadic breaks and lengthy delays in the proceedings. The night before my first day of service, I bought a used copy of Stephen King’s novel, Gerald’s Game. The picture of a pair of handcuffs on the cover somehow linked with my upcoming civic exercise. 

The book was fine; it took my mind off the old, ill-padded chairs in the jury room, to say nothing of the tragic and depressing example of human misery revealed in the trial on which I served. I admired especially King’s facility with the tools of suspense, characterization, and pacing. 

(It gave me pleasure to see some positive comments on King in B.R. Myers’s incendiary assault on contemporary literary prose, “A Reader’s Manifesto,” in the July-August Atlantic. The last time I discussed King was with a professional consultant with a graduate degree in English. I told her I admired King’s work ethic. She told me he was “nothing but a hack.” I had an opportunity later to read a report she composed; she had trouble making her verbs and subjects agree in number. But I reckon she knows a hack when she reads one.)

I admire any writer able to hold a reader’s attention for the length of a novel. That’s hard work, whether conducted at the high end of the scale by the truly serious, or at the pop entertainment end. Uncle Frank would do it if he could.

The most likely source of a publisher for my disconnected works (or yours; I’ve a hunch that I’m not the only librarian around whose bottom desk drawer contains an unpublished novel or two) may well be in the small press, where there are many brave and adventurous editors willing to take a chance on writing that does not fit the requirements of such outfits as Doubleday, St. Martin’s Press, or Viking.

The On-Demand Route

There are other avenues to publication, too, and this is the matter at hand: publication on demand. (Sometimes Uncle Frank takes forever to get to the point. He can’t help it.) This does not mean that one gets one’s novel or epic poem or political diatribe published by showing up at an editor’s desk and saying “I demand that you publish this book!” Many writers have no doubt tried this tactic, to no good effect. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have been meaning to do so. Just because it hasn’t worked for anyone else doesn’t mean it won’t work for me. Those other authors probably didn’t bang on the table, and backed down when security was summoned. I won’t make those mistakes.

“Publication on demand,” as librarians generally know, means that the publisher keeps a master copy of a work, in print, on film, or in a computer file, and produces a single copy from the master when someone orders (demands) it. A company of longstanding service in this regard familiar to most librarians is University Microfilms.  U Microfilms maintains a huge file of doctoral dissertations, and will be glad to whip out a paper copy for any customer willing to spend about $30 for the service. 

A new kind of publish-on-demand entity has sprung up recently, and it has me a little concerned. 

At the bottom of the above-mentioned flyer, in black print, I saw the legend “iUnivers.com/The New Face of Publishing.” My attention secured, I flipped the flyer to study the backside. On the flipside, in bright red print, I learned that “In just about two months, you can be a published author!” Whee! Such a deal they offer: For $99, authors can submit a manuscript via the iUniverse Web site, and have the thing stored in the iU files, waiting for some eager buyer to order a one-off copy.  

iUniverse is affiliated with Barnes & Noble.com.  iU’s URL (www.iuniverse.com/publishyourbook) takes one to a page in the B & N Web site headed “PublishYourBook.” There one finds details on the various plans that iU offers. None of them entails any editorial review. 

Authors who can’t bear to see their divinely inspired verbiage sullied by cranky editors correcting mistaken verb tenses, misspellings, or gross inconsistencies could find this their meal on wheels. Nothing comes between the pure expression of the author’s voice and the eyes of the readers, if there are any.

Roll Your Own Promotion

There’s the other rub. In addition to absence of editorial assistance, authors who sign up with iUniverse will enjoy next to nothing in the way of the traditional promotional services provided by conventional publishers, including small publishers. Advertising in trade journals? Forget it. Copies of books sent out to review media? Uh-uh. Announcements mailed to libraries? Nope. iU does promise to secure a listing in Books in Print. That’ll help a lot, considering that no one is likely to consult Books in Print for a book whose existence has been noted nowhere. 

The marketing labor, as iU plainly states, will rest in the author’s hands. As anyone who has done it knows, book promotion, even on a modest scale, is time-consuming labor, and not cheap. If no one does it, the book might as well lie in a vault in Antarctica, because no one will know that it exists, not even the penguins that waddle above it, in spite of a listing in Books in Print. As the iUniverse flyer says, “You write it, you promote it, we do everything else.” 

Writer’s Club Press of Lincoln, Neb., is one of the iU imprints. A search of OCLC’s WorldCat for Writer’s Club Press as a publisher and Lincoln as place produced records for 48 books from the press. Of these 48, 37 were owned by not more than two libraries. None of the books appeared in as many as 10 libraries’ records. In contrast, Brad Leithauser’s novel A Few Corrections, just published by Knopf, already appears in over 300 library catalogs.

 Hmm. Looks as though some authors with dreams of fame, riches, and influence are not following through on the “you promote it” angle.

Does Anyone Notice?

I noted the first dozen books in the Writer’s Club group of 48 published in the year 2000, and checked the Gale Group’s Book Review Index for citations to reviews. As librarians know, if a book published in the U.S. fails to turn up in any review sources covered by BRI, its existence has gone generally unobserved. Not one of the dozen Writer’s Club books I checked receives a single review citation in either 2000 or 2001. Oh, but it’s early! Why, the reviews could come pouring forth in late ’01 or in the first few months of ’02.

They could, but I’d bet otherwise. (By the way, Gale sure isn’t wasting space taking into consideration the eyesight of middle-aged readers: That’s mighty teeny print in BRI.)

It’s easy to argue that authors choosing this publication route are looking for nothing but the satisfaction of handing a few copies of their books to family members and friends. That’s a harmless if inane indulgence of personal vanity, and friends and family are under no obligation to read the stuff. They can always lie when quizzed by the authors about what they thought of it:

“Oh, I thought it was… it was very interesting, dear. Very… thought-provoking.”

It’s harmless, but it’s also pointless. The only good reason to write is to communicate. Presumably, one’s friends and family already know one’s ideas reasonably well. The task, then, is to spread them around among a wider circle of readers. Whether the iUniverse publish-on-demand program is going to do very much to widen that circle is a dubious matter.

Which is not to say that the iUniverse approach is necessarily ill advised. It could work, and it does offer a genuine route to putting into print writing that may be worthwhile, but simply can’t find a home another way. Making it work would be another matter. Persuading people to read a book published this way would require tremendous after-writing effort on the part of the author, and it is unlikely that most authors turning to iUniverse will have the knowledge, experience, or time required to make their effort productive.

To say nothing of money.  iU does provide some marketing advice–the “simple marketing plan” described in its “Author Toolkit” refers to a $20,000 marketing budget (that’s pretty darned realistic, don’t you think, for a first-time novelist working part-time in a bookstore, library, or restaurant whose “office” is a bedroom closet in a two-room apartment?)–but how many authors will follow through on it? Judging by Book Review Index, the answer is not encouraging.

Which brings us back to where we started: the small and independent press. There are good reasons why a writer, any writer, has an advantage in publishing through a traditional publisher–the kind of place that employs editors and proofreaders and such. (Of course, at many small publishers, the editor is the proofreader and such.)

Any writer can profit immensely from independent editing. Only nitwits believe that their work is too good for editing, and even the best writers make bad mistakes. Once a manuscript has been through a few drafts, the bad mistakes are probably embedded for good (and for bad) unless an editor who is not the author, and not closely related to the author, can examine the work. 

Then there’s that promotional work. Some writers have an aptitude and a taste for it. Some would rather go in for a root canal. Writing a book, even a bad book, is taxing; many authors would rather do anything after finishing a book than think about it, including thinking about selling the thing. They simply are not equipped temperamentally to pursue a demanding marketing program.

Pack a Lunch and Wait

Real publishers do marketing. If they don’t, they go out of business. So, librarians, if you or a patron have a book but don’t have a publisher, why not head for the latest edition of Dustbooks’The International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses? There you’ll find good self-descriptions of book publishers, including what they want, how to send submissions, & whatnot. The current Writer’s Market also covers many smaller presses. 

New writers should try to hook up with people who will pay attention to what they’ve written, rather than simply treating their work like one more widget that just dropped off the end of the assembly line, to be thrown into a package and filed in the warehouse, or on a floppy disk, until someone, somewhere, decides to order it.

On the other hand, you can send your book out for on-demand publishing, and sit back and wait for the orders and the royalties to roll in. But pack a lunch, and take something to read, because you’ll probably have a long wait. It will probably be a lot longer than Uncle Frank’s recent jury duty. And don’t expect Uncle Frank to lend you the 20 grand for your marketing budget.

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