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May 21, 2003

Hanging out in someone else’s argument
Posted by Teresa at 10:31 PM *

It started with an insight-challenged article called Start the Presses in PC Magazine, which began:

Have you ever dreamed of publishing your novel, poetry, or memoir? The process can be daunting, but we have good news: Self-publishing has gained respectability in the past few years (we don’t say vanity publishing any more) and is cheaper than ever, thanks to online services.
Does that make you want to start throwing crockery? It does me. In a little click-through box to the side of the article was the first sentence of the first response to it: “The assumptions in the article are breathtakingly ignorant.” The comment was from RealityChuck, who is really Chuck Rothman. Here’s his opening paragraph:
The assumptions in the article are breathtakingly ignorant. No, they don’t say “vanity press” any more—but neither does Vantage Press, and that doesn’t keep them from being a vanity press. Of course, they don’t use the term; it would scare people away.
You may imagine the conversation got lively after that.

Jim Macdonald mentioned the discussion to me, and once there, I couldn’t resist joining in. If anyone’s interested, the thread starts here. My posts are nos. 32, 38, 40, 43, 46, and 51 in the thread. Keep an eye out for Chuck Rothman and Jim Macdonald, who both make a lot of good points.

Comments on Hanging out in someone else's argument:
#1 ::: Elise Matthesen ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 01:54 AM:

Gracious, that is quite the conversation, isn't it? Educational, even. And some of the writing is quite nice.

However, for sheer poignancy I think my favorite paragraph so far is this:

I am for good PODs because I would never see a book in print if not for them. Also, because, like Walt Witman, Viginia Wolfe and many others authors, sometimes you got to do the leg work yourself. You got to get books published yourself and sell them yourself. Then, years from now, you can have huge book deals and other things.

There is a great deal of hope in that paragraph, and I cannot but think the writer will be seen as a splendid mark by certain of the firms in question. Something about it bothers me. Perhaps I'm insufficiently Darwinian about the whole vanity publishing publishing thing; certainly, judging by some of the comments, the vanity publishers are not.

#2 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 06:39 AM:

There are many new businesses that have a lot to gain from propagating this general meme, the gist of which is that the aspiring author should pay for whatever portion of the publishing process is being sold.

One of the more pernicious versions I've encountered was that you the author need to get your book edited by a pro before it can be submitted. A friend of mine was told this by an "agent" who would only take him on if he first worked with the "editor" she recommended, who wanted $5,000 for her services.

My friend wanted to know if he should take out a loan for the $5,000.

In my view, this is even worse than straight out vanity publishing, because there is no particular reason that his $5,000 would increase the chance of the book being accepted by a major publisher; in fact a wrong-headed private edit could have him revising it out of publishable shape. At least if he'd been working with a vanity press, he would have had a finished book at the end of the process.

Looking at her web site, I noticed that the editor in question also had another business: a vanity press. I think if he had signed up for her editorial services and was infinitely gullible and could pay, he would have been sold every step of the publishing process individually.

#3 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 06:48 AM:

(I should add that twice I have been retained as a freelance editor working directly for an aspiring author. I don't do it anymore, because there is too big a spread between the desires of aspiring authors and the requirements of the marketplace.)

#4 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 09:35 AM:

An excellent discussion indeed. Having gone this route with one of my 4 tomes, I can say the biggest drawback is that no matter how good the quality, and even assuming they threw in some real copy-editing etc., POD Vanities can't produce books for the kind of competitive pricing that the big houses do. Case closed.

No one is going to shell out a minimum $12.95 for a short trade paperback by Jack E. NoOne, when Penguin is selling them by reputable authors for $8.95. If these PODs can't produce your book to sell at those prices, then the whole thing is a waste of time. And money. At the writer's expense.

I guess if you have just one book in you that you want to get out of your system to show friends and relations, fine. How To Make Your Own White Picket Fence in Three Easy Steps. That sort of thing.

If you're a writer and sweating out the whole life/vocation, living and dying by your acceptances and rejections, this shit is Mephisto waltzing up to throw you off the chosen path.

Okay. My rant is over.

#5 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 01:47 PM:

There are small exceptions to the vanity press rule. Highly specialized technical manuals are one of them. My mother's a ski instructor, and wrote a book on how to teach skiing--practical tips and patter to use on the slopes, as opposed to high level theory. We printed a very small first edition of 60 copies, which she hand-sold to other instructors at her resort, soliciting comments for a second revised edition she plans next year. She'll probably go with the copy-shop binding again, but if the book proves popular enough, we may look into finding a small press with a competitive price for a small edition of 500 or so.

It's not a subject that would ever do well in regular bookstores, but is of interest in the specialty market.

#6 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 01:59 PM:

Everything useful doesn't have commercial potential; that's what self publishing is for, when you've got something that is entirely worthwhile but just doesn't have a big audience because, well, not very many people raise Tibetan Snow Leopards in apartments or whichever.

The problem with vanity publishing is that it imputes commercial potential, and the possibility of reaching a wide audience which that implies, when no such potential and no such possibility actually exists.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 02:15 PM:

Just so, Elise. Being a hopeful but hopeless writer makes a person terribly vulnerable, but it doesn't make them fair game.

Kathryn, the "additional options available for a fee" publishing model frequently appals me. One of the publishing outfits mentioned in that thread charges authors $75 a pop for assigning one of its ISBNs to their books, though they do tell them that they also have the option of buying their own ISBN sequence from Bowker. I'm not cut out for this business. It would never have occurred to me that ISBNs are an extra you can charge for.

I've decided that "No publisher will look at a manuscript that hasn't first been professionally edited" is as clear a sign of a scam agent as claiming that they can't tell you who's on their client list because it's confidential information. If they don't have their own editing service, they infallibly turn out to know someone who does, to whom they can refer you ...

The complete shearing and skinning operation is one that charges their writers for agenting, arranges for them to pay for a very expensive editing job, then triumphantly places the manuscript with a vanity press with which the agent has close business ties.

You may be wondering how an agent collects 15% of a deal where the author does the paying. The answer is that the agent charges the author a 15% surcharge on the amount they're paying the vanity publisher.

Cute, isn't it?

Have you ever run into the Lee Shore Agency? The woman who owns it doesn't tell her clients that she also owns Sterling House, which is a vanity press; but it's remarkable how often Lee Shore's clients' books wind up at Sterling House.

John Farrell, you're a better writer than that. I'm frustrated on your behalf, though I'm sure I'm not nearly as frustrated as you are.

Kevin, my only objection to the use of vanity presses for highly specialized books is that aside from getting an ISBN and an online listing, a good print-and-bind outfit can do everything they need, for less money, and they'll leave out the moonshine and hot air.

If a straightforward book manufacturer augmented their operation with user-friendly front-end software for designing and transmitting books, and charged a reasonable price for things like proofs and ISBNs, I'd think they were an honest operation, and might well bookmark their site against some future need.

In a free society, "because I want to" should always be sufficient reason to put one's book into print.

#8 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 03:00 PM:

One of my authors here, a while back, was asked by an editor of a small [unnamed, at least to me] press how much of an "honorarium" she needed in order to provide a blurb. The editor told her that "many authors said that they would not consider giving their time to read the book and write the blurb without compensation."

The author (who does blurb, though not often; and has lengthy publishing experience) was baffled, naturally, and wondered if this was a recent development in publishing. I (and several others) quickly assured her I'd never heard of such nonsense. Accordingly, she said she'd let the editor know that this particular expense could safely be removed from his operating budget.

I found this fascinating: a case where a publisher, and not an author, was the one seemingly being scammed.

In the context of this discussion it strikes me as one additional way in which an author, however, could be further soaked by these rackets -- "We can provide blurbs [from other POD clients, doubtless], you'll just need to provide the authors with an honorarium..."


#9 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 03:05 PM:

Am I a horribly snooty person for thinking that a publisher who wants his/her publishing business to come off looking good should have basic spelling and punctuation down pat? Especially if the professionalism of that house and its ilk is under question in the first place?

#10 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 03:16 PM:

For some reason, PC thingummy can't write web sites that let me get to the discussion. Perhaps I'm using the wrong browser, or the wrong operating system, or not paying Microsoft enough.

But, reading between the lines of what they write, and looking at the discussion here, it seems pretty damn obvious that nobody in their office realises what they're reviewing. I started with the hope that they were not talking just about vanity publishing outfits, but it all pay in advance and get a royalty. It all looked bogus.

There must be scope in the print-on-demand business for a company to combine the printing business with at least some of what a publisher does, and there's a long history of honest self publishing. There's been a lot of role-playing games which have been published that way. Local history is another staple. And it blurs into the micro-publishers who might be seen at SF conventions.

But these guys, they didn't see the warning signs. They don't know that they don't know.

#11 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 03:53 PM:

aside from getting an ISBN and an online listing, a good print-and-bind outfit can do everything they need

Supposing, then, that I just have to publish my magnum opus, How To Collect Bellybutton Lint -- I know how to get it printed and bound, how would I go about getting an ISBN? (I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "online listing", but could that be approximated by becoming an Amazon.com Z-shop in order to sell it yourself?)

#12 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 04:51 PM:

It is instructive to note that the people who argue most passionately in favor of the value of vanity presses are their current and future victims. Even the representatives of the vanity presses themselves do not throw themselves into the argument that passionately. Vanity press reps and agents are more likely to become abusive, although I've seen plenty of wanna be's go that route, but usually the scammers leave the argument early, most often flouncing off in a huff of self-righteousness.

It's kind to try, but you can't keep someone from conning themselves. It reminds me of spiritualism, tarot cards, and channeling. Desire is more than a match for the real world.

As for small print run self publishing, I've bought a number of invaluable reference works in comb bound editions. Presumably the pages were Xeroxed at the nearest Kinkos. The classic book on how to repair fountain pens by an acknowledged master is sold off his website and is exactly that. $15 plus postage. I have no idea what it would have cost him to go through a vanity press or a POD shop, but I'm guessing that a couple hours at Kinkos was a lot less hassle. Actually, comb bound is an advantage for a how-to book becausee it lies flat.

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 04:58 PM:

If you can't read the discussion any other way, some people have reported success by going to http://discuss.pcmag.com/n/main.asp?webtag=pcmag&nav=start&msg=22530 with Lynx.

#14 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 05:21 PM:

Who still reads PC Magazine?

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2003, 06:04 PM:

Poetry chapbooks and specialized non-fiction are the perfect fit with self-publication. For example, there's the memoirs of a gent who spent thirty years at the weather station atop Mt. Washington -- available, so far as I know, only at the gift shop atop Mt. Washington.

Those who are interested will spare no expense in obtaining specialized non-fiction. They will go to any lengths.

People who are making books primarily to sell from the back of the hall when they are making speaking appearances at the front of that same hall will want to consider self-publishing.

The person who has written a massive fantasy novel shouldn't try to self-publish it.

#16 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 01:46 PM:

Dave, I was not able to get to open the link directly to the discussion, but the link to the article worked fine, and I got into the discussion from there.

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 02:00 PM:

Thanks for the tip about reading the discussion.

I'm succeeding with an ancient copy of Netscape.

I don't think I'd trust PC Mag on a review of anything to do with writing web pages.

#18 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 02:26 PM:

The new F&SF has a review of several "independent" books. No punches are pulled.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 02:51 PM:

Lydy, the wanna-bes who so passionately argue that vanity presses are so real publication are defending their idea of who and what they are. The cost of putting out a vanity press book may not be worthwhile in terms of publishing, but what it's really selling them is their self-image -- for a while, at least.

Is that a bad thing? I have to think it is. Unless it's truly and permanently enough for someone to know their words were made into a book, even if it was a book no one ever read, vanity publication is one of the innumerable varieties of fairy gold: very pretty stuff, undeniably attractive, but it won't bear close study or the touch of cold reality. Life is long, and we can't afford to set our hearts on things that aren't there.

It's better somehow if make our delusions ourselves, though I can't quite put my finger on the reason why.

#20 ::: Kathy Li ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 04:45 PM:

Lydy, just as a sidenote, Frank Dubiel collects Gestetners as well as fountain pens; there's no copyshop involved in production of Da Book.

#21 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 05:30 PM:

A slightly different (but concurring opinion) from someone who used to work in the printing business. (OK, in IT, but I got into pressrooms a lot -- some of my favorite places.) Until last summer I worked for a leading business printer (not in the top 10 but in the top 100 nationally) that did work for insurance and high tech firms that ranged from business cards to annual reports.

One of the problems that I saw with the PC Mag article was the confusion over the term print on demand (POD) which is a business model, not a technology. A large POD operation like Lightning Source (Ingrahm) does not use any technologies that more "conventional" printing firms don't use, often extensively. My former employer ran (among other things) purpose-built systems documentation plants (largely for a couple of large software firms and one huge hardware manufacturer) concentrating on short runs of perfect-bound manuals, in less-spoken languages, or for older products. We stored the documents in optical jukeboxes and printed them either on Xerox Docutechs (as we put it, God's Own Laser Printers) or Heidelberg offset presses, depending on the size of the run, then bound them. For proprietary reasons I won't say where the breakeven was, but we switched up to offset far faster that most people would think -- it just costs so much less per click than any e-print technology. When in the late 90's the combination of CD drives on all PC's and the Internet killed off dead tree docs, we looked at a variety of POD models, as we knew we had the plants for it, ready to go. After we checked the market and ran the numbers, we laughed our heads off and closed the plants. Maybe Ingrahm can make it pay . . .

When I left we had a couple of top of the line color facilities build around a common digital format and software architecture (Creo/Scitex and .pdf) that allowed us to digitally accept, preflight, proof, and estimate just about any job, then choose the technology to create the document. In one building we had stuff ranging from the more rugged cousins of HP desktops, Docutechs, Indigos (short run specialized chemistry digital offset -- supports variable content) and some spectacular 6 cylinder Heidelbergs self cleaning and designed for fast turnaround and equiped with DTP (digital to plate) technology that allowed us to simply send the .pdf to the Hedelberg console, set it up and proof it, and get the presses running without making plates. (Being a six cylinder, they supported Hexachrome hi-fi six color process -- simply to die for.) It's a lot of capital but if you have the business, it's surprising how few copies you need to make it worth going up to the big iron.

The key technology has nothing to do with the imaging (printing) itself -- its in having a completly digital content architecutre, and most printers of any size are moving to that, if they aren't there already. We worked with a number of small presses making short run books (the binding was a buyout), and I know that several of our reps were open to working with self publishers. If they did not need to much handholding and were flexible on schedule (like being willing to wait for a really slow time of the month to fill in a shift) our rates would be competitive and if they wanted enough copies, it would not be as good as offset, it would be offset, printed on the best presses made.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 06:10 PM:

Kathy: Gestetners and fountain pens? That is so logical ...

I have fantasies about the Junkyard Wars episode where the teams have to make a machine that will print fifty legible copies of a given text plus a small illustration.

#23 ::: Bill Higgins ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 08:19 PM:

TNH writes:

"I have fantasies about the Junkyard Wars episode where the teams have to make a machine that will print fifty legible copies of a given text plus a small illustration."

Since we're daydreaming-- who's on your team?

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 12:00 AM:

Claude: You've worked in printing? That makes me want to say something tactless and easily misunderstood, like "My god, you're real."

As you said:

One of the problems that I saw with the PC Mag article was the confusion over the term print on demand (POD) which is a business model, not a technology. A large POD operation like Lightning Source (Ingram) does not use any technologies that more "conventional" printing firms don't use, often extensively.
Well, yeah, kinda. What happened was that the original Lightning Print guys brought one of their machines to a big trade show at Javits, and it blew everyone away. I suspect that a lot of the most blown-away types were people who'd never thought about the actual physical process of printing and binding, but who could now watch a single machine turn digital files into plausible trade paperbacks. It made a deep impresion on their imaginations, and they've been thinking in those terms ever since.

(A naif who suddenly imagines that he or she now understands how publishing ought to work is only slightly less dangerous than a first lieutenant with a map and a compass, and that's only because no live ammo is involved.)

I could make the useless and irritating argument that in that sense, all publishing is POD, and the new technologies have merely reduced the setup costs for short runs. There'd even be a grain of truth in it. But the fact is, you're right. One of the supposed POD outfits being hotly defended in that thread has a 25-copy minimum order for books, so you know they're not using Lightning Print-type machines.

A lot of different models are getting munged together. The easier it gets to make books, the smaller and less clueful a company it takes to make them. There's no structural difference between a front-end-only POD publisher and a fly-by-night vanity press.

My theory about why there's so much clueless semi-publishing going on: It's relatively easy to imagine how publishing ought to work. You don't need to know much to construct a nice little working model of it in your head. It'll be reasonably logical, maybe even elegant. It will be satisfactory. Trouble is, the way publishing actually works is nothing anybody would ever invent from scratch -- downright counterintuitive. The guys who're sure they've come up with a brilliant new way to remake publishing are equally sure we're just trying to maintain our unjust and heavy-handed hegemony when we tell them how this, that, and the other thing won't work the way they think it will.

My former employer ran (among other things) purpose-built systems documentation plants (largely for a couple of large software firms and one huge hardware manufacturer) concentrating on short runs of perfect-bound manuals, in less-spoken languages, or for older products. We stored the documents in optical jukeboxes and printed them either on Xerox Docutechs (as we put it, God's Own Laser Printers)
Oh, yeah.
or Heidelberg offset presses, depending on the size of the run, then bound them. For proprietary reasons I won't say where the breakeven was,
(mumble two digits or three mumble)
but we switched up to offset far faster that most people would think -- it just costs so much less per click than any e-print technology. When in the late 90's the combination of CD drives on all PC's and the Internet killed off dead tree docs, we looked at a variety of POD models, as we knew we had the plants for it, ready to go. After we checked the market and ran the numbers, we laughed our heads off and closed the plants.
Hey, you really do know what you're talking about!

The profit margins in book publishing would make a dog laugh.

Maybe Ingram can make it pay . . .
My theory there is that Ingram bought Lightning because running it themselves was easier than trying to keep track of all the flaky ephemeral publishers that use Lightning to run off their wildly miscellaneous books. Look at Bowker -- they wound up being the Lords of the ISBN because they were putting out Books in Print every year, and needed to keep all the titles sorted out.
When I left we had a couple of top of the line color facilities build around a common digital format and software architecture (Creo/Scitex and .pdf)
(starting to breathe faster)
that allowed us to digitally accept, preflight, proof, and estimate just about any job, then choose the technology to create the document.
Ooooooh.
In one building we had stuff ranging from the more rugged cousins of HP desktops, Docutechs, Indigos (short run specialized chemistry digital offset -- supports variable content) and some spectacular 6 cylinder Heidelbergs
Don't stop.
self cleaning and designed for fast turnaround and equiped with DTP (digital to plate) technology that allowed us to simply send the .pdf to the Hedelberg console, set it up and proof it, and get the presses running without making plates. (Being a six cylinder, they supported Hexachrome hi-fi six color process -- simply to die for.)
I love it when you talk like that.
It's a lot of capital but if you have the business, it's surprising how few copies you need to make it worth going up to the big iron.

The key technology has nothing to do with the imaging (printing) itself -- its in having a completly digital content architecture, and most printers of any size are moving to that, if they aren't there already.

Yeah. What's a mechanical but a constant source of grief and sorrow, and a place for Murphy to spill the coffee? Every time they come up with some new digital way to do things, I reflect that some old specialized skill is going away; and boy, do I not miss it.
We worked with a number of small presses making short run books (the binding was a buyout), and I know that several of our reps were open to working with self publishers. If they did not need too much handholding and were flexible on schedule (like being willing to wait for a really slow time of the month to fill in a shift) our rates would be competitive, and if they wanted enough copies, it would not be as good as offset, it would be offset, printed on the best presses made.
That's remarkably attractive. Is the operation still in business? It sounds like the sort of bookmaker I've been advocating for incipient self-publishers for years now: no hot air, no moonshine, just good solid production values. If you need more than that, you're not going to get it from a self-published book.

#25 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 12:34 AM:

Kathy, Of _course_ you would know about Da Book, and more detail besides. Gestetners, huh? Not a surprise, really.

Back when I was messing around with vintage postage cards from the Filmore and so on for shows from the Sixties, (preferentially Dead shows) the clueful sellers would list the card by its number in a particular reference work (the name of which I can't remember), which was also a self-published piece. I love collectors. They can be so...obsessive.

#26 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 07:20 AM:

Just a side note--my agent will NOT tell anyone who is on her client list and they include Newbery winners, National Book Award winners, bestsellers etc. So the claim that the big red flag goes up when an agent refuses to divulge that info...is not always correct.

By the way, I love the passion with which TNH greets print talk. Having watched a half dozen of my picture books going through the big presses, and also standing by the side of Harold McNeill as he ran off broadsides for Gehenna and Pennyroyal presses, I can appreciate the oooh-aaah.

Jane

Jane

#27 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 08:31 AM:

fairy gold

So true.

A few months ago I was at a "networking group" meeting. One man, middle aged, nervous, geekish, looking depressed, stood up in front of the group of some two hundred people and said that he had taken advantage of being unemployed to fulfill his dream - to become a published short story writer. Through an on-line vanity press.

It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen.

The genial con man in charge of this for-profit meeting praised our author, seeing a sure weekly-fee-paying mark for months to come.

#28 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 09:25 AM:

Ack! At least he didn't quit his job to do it. That's the only mercy there.

That brings to mind an episode, back before I moved to NYC, when I was giving a party for some occasion I can't now remember. The local fans all brought goodies with them, and between that and the food I'd already prepared, I had laid out a very substantial buffet.

We had someone at that party I'd never met before: a wiry little guy, new to the local SF scene. I thought he was quite charming. Then he pulled up a chair to my buffet table and proceeded to eat a significant proportion of the refreshments, just a huge amount of food. As he was finishing up there, someone else arrived, bringing with them a large pizza, so he ate some of that, too.

(Later I found him dawdlingly examining the contents of my refrigerator, looking just like a hungry teenager. I couldn't resist; I put on my Granny's voice and said "Shut the door! You're letting all the cold air out!" He jumped to attention, looking guilty, as he shut the door -- exactly like a hungry teenager. I fell over laughing.)

A day or two later, I was telling someone who knew him a little better than I did about his exploits at my party, and she explained that he was making a serious attempt to make his living as a short-story writer -- the real kind, not vanity publication. That put a completely different complexion on it. I told her to please send him back to me so I could feed him again.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 09:35 AM:

Jane, she really doesn't? That's baffling. Still, she's undoubtedly a real agent.

My big regret is that this recreates the Scott Meredith obligation. For years and years, whenever we've been explaining to the young that real agents never do fee reading, we've been obliged to append the formula, "-- except for the Scott Meredith agency." Now we're going to have to specifically except your agent when we tell them that real agents never refuse to reveal their client lists.

#30 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 05:16 PM:

I think that her client list--at least the real top of the line--are fine with identifying themselves as Marilyn's clients. She doesn't need to troll for new people. And if someone insists on knowing who her client list is, she's not interested in them. In fact, she rarely takes on anyone new these days anyway.

She's very old school. I always say that if she hadn't become an agent, she would have made a great Mother Superior.

I also call her the True North of children's books.

Jane

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 08:16 AM:

I, too, am baffled. If she doesn't feel like replying when Joe Schmoe from Buffalo writes to ask for her client list, that's one thing, but if Joe Big from Really Big Pictures says to his assistant, "I want to make a movie out of 'Piggins.' Get me Yolen's agent....!" what's the assistant going to do? Same when Bill in Accounting is trying to cut a check for Yolen's sales -- won't he be told where to send it?

I'd been under the impression that an agent was someone identifiable with a published address you could contact if you wanted to get in touch with a given author.

#32 ::: Jan Vanek jr. ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:09 AM:

Scott Janssens: "The new F&SF has a review of several "independent" books. No punches are pulled."

Which issue, June? And who is the reviewer? Just so that I know I have the right thing if and when they put it online.

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 10:01 PM:

The F&SF article is in the July issue (on sale until June 27). The author is Robert K. J. Killheffer, and its title is My Week as a PoD Person.

Pages 30-39 inclusive.

#34 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 02:39 PM:

Reading your reponse, Teresa, over the weekend -- I laughed, I cried, I blushed with shame -- do it again, harder . . .

Claude: You've worked in printing? That makes me want to say something tactless and easily misunderstood, like "My god, you're real."

Well, I worked for a printing company -- I'm a beat up old database geek. But I do tend to get involved in the businesses I work for (don't get me started about processing chickens, you wouldn't like me when I talk about processing chickens). POD "imaging devices" are basically really, really big computer printers (as in many of them have Windows printer drivers available), so we got pulled into working with them -- not that I resisted. But don't confuse me with a real, ink under the nails, hot metal burns on the forearms, paper dust breathing printer. I am still in awe of them, and will never, ever, again try to outdrink one. Talk about the real thing . . .

What happened was that the original Lightning Print guys brought one of their machines to a big trade show at Javits, and it blew everyone away. I suspect that a lot of the most blown-away types were people who'd never thought about the actual physical process of printing and binding, but who could now watch a single machine turn digital files into plausible trade paperbacks. It made a deep impresion on their imaginations, and they've been thinking in those terms ever since.

Trade shows can do that. There is nothing like a really wizard display to launch a thousand wacko ideas. And it appears that Lightning Source never used the gimcrak all-in-one machines (whoever made them) that have been all the rage on some sites. Today they use IBM InfoPrint 4100 digitial printers for text, a Xeikon for the color covers (nice choice) automated cutters and a Duplo perfect binder. Hell, we used some of that -- you will find everything but the IBM's at many other printers. It's not just the technology, its the business model and production process that matters. (And as you keep on pointing out, the model for a short run printer and a vanity press are completely different.)

My theory about why there's so much clueless semi-publishing going on: It's relatively easy to imagine how publishing ought to work. You don't need to know much to construct a nice little working model of it in your head. It'll be reasonably logical, maybe even elegant. It will be satisfactory. Trouble is, the way publishing actually works is nothing anybody would ever invent from scratch -- downright counterintuitive. The guys who're sure they've come up with a brilliant new way to remake publishing are equally sure we're just trying to maintain our unjust and heavy-handed hegemony when we tell them how this, that, and the other thing won't work the way they think it will.

Substitute the name of any number of businesses for publishing and you have my experience of the dot-bomb period in Silicon Valley. Start with subscriptions to Wired, Red Herring and the Industry Standard, add equal parts of hubris and ignorance, and fold in tens of millions of dollars from Sand Hill Road VC's. Heat until your burn rate gets over a million a year (I suggest really expensive software tools and Herman Miller chairs) and wait until everything crashes. What can I say, in the end reality wins. And the reality of any business always looks illogical and inefficent from the outside.

(mumble two digits or three mumble)

Let's just say in the low hundreds -- or less.

The profit margins in book publishing would make a dog laugh.

Printers aren't doing much better. The most dangerous place to be is in the middle, like my former employer. Either you're Donnelly or Quebecor, or you're a local or possibly a boutique printer. I remember when we suddenly became the biggest printer of our kind in our region when the two bigger firms went bankrupt.

>>Maybe Ingram can make it pay . . .
My theory there is that Ingram bought Lightning because running it themselves was easier than trying to keep track of all the flaky ephemeral publishers that use Lightning to run off their wildly miscellaneous books. Look at Bowker -- they wound up being the Lords of the ISBN because they were putting out Books in Print every year, and needed to keep all the titles sorted out.

Googling around I found this page by Morris Rosenthal (whoever he is). From http://www.fonerbooks.com/escrewed.htm, a few suggestive facts:

There are some peculiarities to the Lightning Source model. For one thing, a short run of 25 copies or more will cost you $0.015 a page, 0.15 cents a page more than you are charged for books sold through distribution! A 200 page book you publish and buy in a short run will cost you 30 cents more each than the distribution price. This makes me wonder if Lightning Source's business model depends on a cut of the profits from Ingram's distribution business. Also, their title setup estimate from reception to availability in distribution is 15 days. I'm a little surprised that those customers supplying a 100% digital submission and willing to pay an extra $30 for a proof aren't given a quicker setup as a bonus. Once the title is in the Lightning Source system, the standard availability is 48 hours, and it should appear as a 2-3 day ship on Amazon. Feedback from one publisher has already informed me that they are beating that 15 days.

Even better is this "reprint" (1998) from Seybold on Lightining Source's site (https://www.lightningsource.com/zNews990324-seybold.htm) which includes a fairly detailed discussion of this kind of an operation:

Cautionary note. This analysis suggests that a bit of caution is in order for those who want to follow in Lightning Print's footsteps. Lightning Print, as a business on its own, need not be particularly profitable in order to satisfy the business objectives of Ingram, IBM and Danka. We have no doubt that, as costs continue to come down, this style of book-on-demand production will become profitable. However, Lightning Print, because of its special circumstances, doesn't represent a true business test of the concept.

In other words, this started as a promotional project (great for trade shows) for the technology vendors and Ingrahm, with the potential to reduce inventory costs for Ingrahm when printing costs come down. IBM is using Ligtning Source as a case study in marketing the Infoprint units.

(starting to breathe faster) . . . Ooooooh . . . Don't stop . . . I love it when you talk like that.

Ok, I earned that. My mouth (fingers?) gets started easy, but doesn't stop well. But if you really like this stuff, wait till everybody goes away and I will whisper "dot loss vs. dot gain" into your ear . . . ;)

Yeah. What's a mechanical but a constant source of grief and sorrow, and a place for Murphy to spill the coffee?

You and I agree, but try to persuade some designers and customers of that. It's almost as hard as persuading them that the don't know how to pick paper stock.

Is the operation still in business?

Yes, but it is joined at the hip to the literature fulfillment business (which actually made the profits) so takes litte outside work.

It sounds like the sort of bookmaker I've been advocating for incipient self-publishers for years now: no hot air, no moonshine, just good solid production values.

Well, if Lightning Source does not work for you, are there any honest print brokers that might want this kind of business?

BTW, the new picture on the site is excellent -- somehow it matches your online "voice" well.

#35 ::: Derek Paice ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2003, 10:13 AM:

My experience is that that self published "niche" books, printed at somewhere like Office Depot, can be profitable for the soul and the wallet. Although I admit, my soul is more readily satiated than my wallet.

Reference books with comb binding(I've found multiple round hole type the best)are excellent. The books not only stay flat, but are easily updated and augmented for new editions. Booklets, prepared with Word Perfect software are low cost and excellent. They can simply be stapled.

If you want to succeed in the publishing market,low price has a high priority.

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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