In this episode, I talk to writer, publisher, musician, and lunch lady Ryan Werner. He is the author of Shake Away These Constant Days, Murmuration, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train, and Soft. He plays guitar in Young Indian and numerous other bands. He also runs Passenger Side books.
In this episode, I talk to writer and poet Timothy Gager. He is the author of thirteen books of poetry and fiction, including his latest book of poetry, Chief Jay Strongbow is Real. He’s also the host of the Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I’ve been obsessed with print lately, which is a real kick in the ass, because I sell almost no print books these days. I can sometimes get a few people to kick in a buck to look at my stuff on the kindle, but sales of the dead tree counterparts have been absolutely abysmal. If it wasn’t for the kindle, I’d probably be learning to crochet instead of still picking at this, so that’s a good thing, and I really do like it when people read my books regardless of price or format. But there’s something about print books that really pulls at me.
I just read this book the other day, by RE/Search, which was essentially a two-hour phone interview of Henry Rollins by V. Vale. Rollins had some good stuff to say, and it’s always fun to catch up with his projects. But one of the things that made me really love this project was that it was a pocket book, a little 4×6 inch book, maybe 125 pages, but a little thing that felt good in your hands and just screamed “collectible” even if it was not an ultra-rare numbered limited edition. There’s a certain tactile pleasure in having a book like this, and I don’t know what it is. It’s small, and an odd size, not like the usual trade paperback. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of a diary or a little book you’d get as a kid. Maybe it’s the fact that it could go in a pocket easily, although I didn’t take it out of the house or bring it on the go with me. But something about it made me appreciate it more than if it was an industry standard 5.06×7.81″ book. It’s the reason I made the print version of Fistful of Pizza the size it is, although only a couple of you actually have a print version. (The kindle strikes again!)
There are some issues with doing a perfect little book like this. Lulu has a pocket size, which is 4.25×6.87. The problem is that it’s Lulu, which means fulfillment is just a little bit off, and price is higher. Createspace supposedly does custom trim sizes as small as 4×6″, although custom sizes are only available from amazon.com (which is fine – it’s not like a brick and mortar shop is custom-ordering my books.) The only issue with that is POD books are always priced per page, regardless of their size. So if you had a 40,000-word manuscript and you put it in a pocket book, it’s going to cost way more per copy than a 6×9″ book with the same font size, since there are going to be more pages in the pocket book due to fewer words per page.
Another thing I wish you could do is have some pages color, and some black and white. You can make a whole book color, but for a hundred-page book, you’d have to make it $13.99 to break even. (You can make a hundred-page black and white book $3.99 and you’d still make a quarter per book.) I would love to have a book that had eight color plates in the middle, but the rest black and white, but that’s not possible with print on demand.
I don’t even have ideas or projects for this crap; I just think of sizes and colors and formats and wish I could do something with them. Like, I’d love to do either a DVD or a CD that was encased in a book. I don’t know what I’d put on them — maybe some kind of spoken word experimental garbage. Createspace has POD CD and DVD offerings, but they don’t have books or booklets. It doesn’t matter, because I don’t know how to record a book on tape that doesn’t sound like hell, and I don’t know what I’d add to a book in color, other than pictures of my cat or something. But it always has me thinking.
No, iUniverse isn’t going out of business. (Well, maybe they are – I haven’t checked.) I’ve just decided to pull my books from iUniverse.
I’ve done three books with them, and the idea of print on demand radically changed my writing career. I mean, I have not made millions from it, but prior to the advent of PoD, I thought the only way I’d ever hold a printed copy of my book in my hands would be if I wrote a million agents and publishers and found one willing to print it, or if I payed thousands of dollars to fill my garage with a short print run, or maybe if I went to Kinko’s and printed my own copy.
Someone told me about iUniverse back in 99 or 2000, and this was around the time Summer Rain was close to done. It was an incredibly revolutionary idea back then, this thought that I could get real copies of my book, and get them in Amazon and other book stores, and even have it so brick-and-mortar book stores (remember those?) could order copies through Ingram.
There were a couple of issues with PoD back then. One was cost. Summer Rain was incredibly expensive compared to the per-unit cost of offset printing a few thousand books. There wasn’t the setup, and you didn’t have to produce a bunch of books at once and then warehouse them, which was awesome. But selling a paperback book for thirty bucks was never easy.
The stigma was the worst part. Back in 2000, everyone looked down at PoD as hackneyed and just another extension of vanity presses. The party line was that real writers don’t self-publish, and you weren’t shit unless you had a book deal. The irony of this is that the proponents of this attitude are the same people who can’t shut the fuck up about the kindle revolution. (You know who I’m talking about.) To some extent, this didn’t matter to me; I had a copy of my book on my shelf at home, and friends could buy it and read it, and people enjoyed the work. That’s all that ultimately matters to me, but there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my head when the “real” writers talked shit about self-publishing.
I also didn’t have high hopes that PoD publishing would reap all of the rewards that getting a book deal with a Big 6 publisher would. There was a lot of PoD backlash from people who dumped a book onto a PoD publisher, and then bitched and moaned when it didn’t take off. I never saw iUniverse as anything more than a printer, and didn’t expect them to do anything more than fulfillment. But some people thought you would just upload your PDF and your book would suddenly take off like a Dan Brown release. Truth is, PoD involves just as much hustle as printing off copies yourself and trying to sell them one by one.
So, why am I dumping iUniverse? A few reasons:
When I first started, there was almost no initial setup fees – I may have paid some trivial amount, like a hundred bucks, but it wasn’t much. This fee went up and up, and after my third book, Lulu came on the scene with no setup fee, and that was the end of the line for me and iUniverse. Now, their most basic package is $899, and the “Book Launch Premier Pro” is a whopping $4499.
All I really wanted was fulfillment and distribution. iUniverse tried to differentiate themselves with all of this “value add” stuff that was mostly useless. I have no need for bookmarks, press releases, book signing kits, or other crap I could get online for a dollar. (Vistaprint is your friend.)
Without asking, iUniverse decided they would create e-book versions of my books and price them the way they wanted to price them. And they made it damn near impossible to remove those versions. So while I made a new version of Rumored to Exist for the kindle and priced it at $2.99, they made a crappy version and priced it at $3.99.
The per-unit pricing was too high. Summer Rain was $29.99 on iUniverse. The lulu version was $14.99. The createspace version will be $13.99. My profit is roughly the same on all three.
All of the processes at iUniverse are antiquated. To find out your royalties, you have to wait for the next month’s statement. To pull a book from publishing, you have to write them a god damned letter. Ugh.
One of the things iUniverse had over createspace was that createspace is part of Amazon, which meant you wouldn’t get into B&N or brick-and-mortar stores. With iUniverse, you could get into anyplace that used Ingram’s database. In practice, 99.99999% of my book sales are through Amazon. I don’t know if I’ve ever sold a book through a brick-and-mortar store.
So I wrote a letter to iUniverse and pulled my books. (Seriously, a letter?) There are currently only three books on there: Summer Rain, Rumored, and Tell Me a Story About the Devil, which is a journal archive from 97-99 that none of you ever bought. The first two are already moved to Amazon/createspace. The last one can die on the vine. If you’re really desperate to get any of the iUniverse editions before they go away, I think you probably have a few days to grab them. But the newer versions are not only better, but cheaper.
Next up will be hemming and hawing about what to do with all of my books on lulu, and if they should also get moved. I should probably stop screwing with all of this and actually write new books, though.
I am publishing a book of short stories momentarily. [Edit: I just did. Go here to check it out.] The initial thought was to pull together a bunch of the stories I’d published elsewhere, and make a nice little 99 cent download on the Kindle. And I’d make that a free download on the Kindle, but you can only do that if you’re a publisher, and even though Bowker thinks I’m a publisher, Amazon doesn’t. Fair enough. But I also have this strange affinity for dead trees, and I gauge my success as a writer by the number of books on the Konrath shelf of my library, so I wanted another volume in there. Also, enough luddite contrarians have bitched about my last eBook release that I thought I’d throw you all a bone and do a print version, too.
So I just switched to using Lightning Source for print-on-demand. But that costs money in setup fees, and I didn’t want to pay a ton up front and then have to spend the next three months hustling copies to break even, especially if the print edition wasn’t my target in the first place. So I decided to go back to lulu for this one. And man, I forgot how much I hate lulu.
Here’s a list of the various annoyances I had putting this one together:
First of all, Lulu’s web site sucks. It took me roughly 20,000 clicks to find out how their ISBN/distribution options worked, and each page load takes as much time as it took me to download those Cindy Crawford Playboy GIFs back in 1996 on my 14.4Kbps modem. They could solve all of this with the one-two punch of some content delivery network like Akamai and a real CMS like Jive. But they won’t.
There’s always the decision between a one-piece and a three-piece cover. Their new three-piece cover wizard is garbage, but they’re honest enough to almost cop to this and give you the option of using their old wizard. With that, you can just upload PNGs of the front and the back cover and be done with it. What you can’t do is upload an image of the spine, which means you’re stuck with their fonts on the spine, and you can’t do something like put your publisher logo on there. I get it, the spine thickness varies, but you know the number of pages and thickness, so why not just tell me, “upload an image that’s x by y pixels” and let me do it? So I decided to do a one-piece cover, which I’ve never done before with Lulu.
If you do a three-piece cover, they give you templates for the front and back cover, and they have guides for the bleed and trim and usable space and all that jazz. If you do a one-piece cover, they give you vague instructions of what pixel rows and columns these are. So yeah, I took 9th grade geometry and can figure this out, but it would be much nicer to have a solid PSD template with all of this predefined to make sure I don’t screw it up.
There are two fundamental changes in this book over the others I’ve done on Lulu: I’m using Scrivener for the source, and I’m doing a pocket book, which is an oddball size, or at least not 6×9. And I struggled on how to get this laid out correctly. I normally would use FrameMaker to belt out a 6×9 book, and maybe export the Scrivener into RTF and paste it in and go. So I designed a 4.25″ x 6.88″ book in Frame, but could not figure out a way to get the Scrivener-generated RTF into Frame without losing all of the character-level markup, like italics and bold. The problem is, Scrivener doesn’t export those as character styles, they do it as font property changes. So when I exported, pasted, and changed the fonts, I lost all of the character style stuff. Which means I had to, ugh, I don’t even want to say it…
I ended up using Word to lay out the inside of the book. Word is not a publishing platform; anything longer and more complex than a grocery list in Word quickly becomes a world of hurt. But lulu has a template for Word for their pocket book format, so after some gymnastics with pasting the Scrivener RTF into a third Word document to knock it down and strip out half of the font stuff, I got it into Word. I then spent the next seven hours trying to figure out how the hell to get the page numbering and section breaks and paragraph styles and everything else to behave.
There’s also this issue that Mac-produced PDF may or may not work with Lulu. Of course, there’s no information about this on the Lulu site, or if there is, it’s buried and mixed together with out-of-date information from 2004. You can do a google search on it, but the top hits are wives’ tales from a half-decade ago, and very little solid information. The Mac uses Quartz to produce PDF natively, and not Acrobat. So it might embed fonts correctly, it might not. And I’m using a weird font for headings, so that’s a big deal to me.
A site told me to download the actual capital-a Acrobat reader from Adobe, uncheck the “use local fonts” option, and look to see if all of my special fonts suddenly looked like Klingon. They didn’t. But, and this is much worse, I had to install an Adobe product on my system. This means that even though I checked the box that said “DO NOT INSTALL THIS SHIT IN MY BROWSER YOU DOUCHEBAG”, the next time I opened up a PDF in Safari, it sat for a long Adobe minute, churned and beachballed, and I got the ugly Adobe bar and crap display. And of course, now every time I get up from my computer to get a drink of water and come back, there’s a notice on my screen asking if I want to install the latest Acrobat update.
Okay, so now I’ve got a one-piece cover and a PDF. I go to lulu, upload everything, and step one of the wizard says “do you want an ISBN? you can totally add it later if you like.” And I say no, add it later. Rookie mistake.
I get all the crap in, and then order a proof copy. $7.50 for a 150 page book; it would have been $2.85 to order it on Lightning Source. But Lightning Source has the setup fees. And they don’t have that wonderful cover wizard I avoided like the plague.
The worst part is $3.99 shipping on a $7.50 book for the slow-boat-to-China USPS shipping. Amazon Prime has spoiled me.
So then I decide to add that ISBN like I mentioned. One click done, right? No. There’s no option. There’s no help. There’s nothing, and I finally just say fuck it and delete the whole thing and start over to see why it won’t let me add it.
Turns out that if you do a one-piece cover, you have to select that ISBN option, download a bar code, and add it to your cover; it will only overlay the bar code if you did your cover with the wizard. Fine, I’ll download it and add it.
I download the PDF of the bar code block. Lulu insists on 300 dpi covers, which is par for the course, but this PDF is 72 dpi. If you import it into a bitmap editing program like Pixelmator and jack it up to 300 dpi, it becomes all blurry. I thought about just leaving it like that because, seriously, every brick and mortar bookstore with a scanner is going to be out of business by the time I get to step 5 of the wizard. But I play nice and spend an hour fucking with this thing until I realize that GIMP handles EPS natively and let me easily blow up the size without distortion. I think Photoshop does that too, but until one of you pals of mine with an educational discount sends me a $5 copy of CS5 for the Mac in exchange for a bunch of books in trade (hint), I don’t have Photoshop.
Click, click, click, and we get to pricing. Um. To make a long story short, I had to price the book at $12.49 retail so Lulu could pay the Amazon tax, then set a 30% discount on Lulu. That means if you buy the book on Lulu (which nobody ever does, because of their shipping and that involves three clicks instead of one), it’s $8.74. On Amazon, $12.49. On Kindle, $.99. BUT WHAT IF YOU DROP YOUR KINDLE IN THE BATHTUB? WHAT IF YOU WANT TO BUY A USED COPY OF A BOOK? WHAT IF BLAH BLAH DRM GEORGE ORWELL AMAZON IS HITLER GLGLGLGLGLGL.
I then had to order a second proof, so another $11.49 there.
OK, end of bitchfest. More details on the book when I get a proof in the pony express mail, which will be in 5-244 days.
[Note: The book is done. It’s called A Fistful of Pizza, so go read about it and check it out!]