When there is no book, what is a press? (1 Viewer)


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Print-on-demand is great technology and the Internet and e-books are great technology, but together they are effectively making the publisher unnecessary. 20 years ago if I wanted to read some poetry I needed publishers to make it available to me. I could be relatively certain that the publisher believed in the work because there was an expense in time, labor and money involved in getting the work into my hands. Those expenses have all but been eliminated, so when there is no physical product, no book or magazine, exactly what is a publisher? The question a lot of writers are (understandably) asking publishers is, "What do I need you for?"

A traditional "major" publishing house can sell some books for you based on their name. To the reading public that name says that "professionals" have endorsed this as a worthwhile book. But now, even when those major houses publish a book by a writer without an established fan base, the first thing they ask is, "What are you going to do to promote it?" The days when a publisher would pay actual money to advertise and promote a book are over for all but the authors who are the biggest moneymakers.

Seeing as the responsibility for writing and promoting the book fall on the author these days more often than not, and the distribution is overwhelmingly electronic, it makes sense that a writer would question the role of a publisher. Because outside of having a name like "Random House" or "HarperCollins" on your book, there is absolutely no benefit to the author. The publisher is just another hand in the pocket, taking most of the few pennies the book is going to earn.

This isn't a criticism of Silver Birch Press or anyone else in particular. It's just what's happening whether we like it or not. Poets never get paid, but at least in the past you could amass a stack of books and magazines and point to them and say, "There, look at that, I am a published author." What does a writer have now? Their email inbox? There's little incentive to contribute to such publications.
This isn't a criticism of Silver Birch Press or anyone else in particular. It's just what's happening whether we like it or not.

I understand your concerns -- but feel you are judging the new model (ebooks and print on demand) by the old model (i.e., using a printing press). I assure you there are many expenses and much time that go into establishing a press -- untold hours on book design, editing, proofing, reading manuscripts, working with authors, writing a daily blog and other promotional activities. The "press" is basically what the publisher choses to publish -- his or her taste in literature. There is prestige by association when multiple authors are published...I would never try to convince anyone to publish with us -- and in fact encourage many to self-publish.
I [...] feel you are judging the new model (ebooks and print on demand) by the old model (i.e., using a printing press).
If I am it's only because most of the new model publishers don't distinguish themselves from the old model publishers. They would have you believe they are one in the same, that a publisher's role hasn't changed, and I think you would agree that it has. If you look at it objectively you have to admit that it has diminished. Significantly.
The "press" is basically what the publisher choses to publish -- his or her taste in literature.

I'm just pointing out that a press or publisher under the new model has significantly less skin in the game, as the kids say. Especially when we're talking about POD and e-books, in which case the press or publisher's role doesn't realistically consist of anything the author couldn't do themselves (and as I pointed out, most publishers now demand that the author do most of those things themselves anyway).

As for "prestige by association," when you can have your book sold on Amazon or iTunes - right next to every other book in the world - without the benefit of a publisher, the prestige of an imprint is vastly less relevant. Ask any 15 year old which record label their favorite squeaky, autotuned singer is on. They'll probably ask, "What's a record label?" The same thing applies to electronic books. I read a lot of them, and I couldn't tell you who published most of them. Because it doesn't matter.

Again, not picking on you or your press, but the world is changing, and unless a publisher is in what is now the niche market of hand-crafted books printed on paper, they are rapidly headed toward extinction. Whether we think that's good or bad, it is happening right now.
Your view of editing and publishing and mine seem to differ. Yes, these days, anyone can "do it themselves" -- and should! But if they want to do it right, they will hire a book designer (big bucks), and a copy editor (more big bucks). This is what traditional publishing and editing is all about -- at no charge to the author! What kind of "skin" is involved in this kind of time-consuming, labor intensive work? Publishing isn't printing -- it's selecting, editing, designing, and promoting.
I am staying out of most of this as my target audience is very different, so it is apples and oranges, really, but want to make a couple points:

1) You do not need to hire an expensive book designer if you have imagination and an idea of what you want the thing to look like.
2) If we are talking about poetry, there is not a hell of a lot of editing that needs to be done. More like proofing. Prose is a whole different thing and all prose books could do with professional editing...

With a $200 printer and some time and love, you can make something tangable. Of course, if you are talking about several hundred pages, then that is not realistic. Still, there are companies that will print and bind as few as 100 copies of a book for far less than POD pricing.

This is what traditional publishing and editing is all about -- at no charge to the author!
You're kidding, right? Of course there is a charge to the author. It's called the publisher's cut.

Please don't play the martyr. It's unbecoming. We're all trying to comport ourselves in a dignified manner here. Good lord, man.
Personally, I think you're undervaluing a writer if you can't give them a contributor copy. Yes it can be expensive, but you should factor that into the price you sell your books for. If you can't sell enough copies to cover your cost then maybe you shouldn't be printing anthologies. The journal for my press is a cash cow and the next issue may well be the last, but I will only continue for as long as I can give the contributors a free copy.

As mjp said, for many poets the only reward is a nice little book to look at and say "I'm in there."
Truth is, there really aren't enough sales to worry about. Of anything. Ever. And maybe that's what presses rely on...

Presses dream up a publishing model and do their best to break even. Shit's not easy -- I get that. Unfortunately too many don't include "paying the writer" as part of their initial cost equation. Some presses pay in copies, and invite author's to sell them for whatever they can, if they can -- but, again, now the author is selling and distributing...not writing.

I think people often get into it for the right reasons...but the cold, hard financial reality of the situation makes them quickly forget their priorities. I've worked with a great handful of presses -- and I worked with them because they wanted my work, and each did some things I believe in. Some pay royalties; some a little advance; others pay in copies. I don't know what the perfect approach is. But Bottle of Smoke gets first look at easily half my work because they do it up right. And unless presses can do some of the truly wondrous things BoSP does, I have to agree that writers have less and less reason to work with them.

Sounds like Silver Birch is talking about an anthology -- which is its own set of concerns, for sure. Maybe a great question is who is doing anthologies right? And why are they good at them? The best ones I can think of get grant money.
Sort of related. A big downside to the POD model is that all the books look alike. Those cheesy glossy covers. No matter how good the art, they look like crap. That would put me off a bit if I were an editor. Does the "publisher"/printer (Amazon, Lightning Source, whoever) offer any matte papers, anything thicker? Anything with character?
This is what has always annoyed me with perfect bound. There's absolutely nothing at all perfect about it. Gloss = cheese; no doubt about that. And for the record, publishing is printing or else you've lost me as a potential customer forever. Isn't that what you're trying to avoid? Or is it "get the word out there within budget and hope enough people latch on?" Why publish then? It's worse than printing as a labor of love and at least producing something tangible.
Perfect binding is just a printing term for gluing the signatures together. It isn't related to whether the cover is flat or glossy. It Catches and Crucifix are perfect bound. But not cheesy. For the most part.

But publishing = printing, yes.

publishing = a tangible thing, yes.
I was talking to someone the other day about perfect bound books. Bloodaxe, for instance, seem to produce ugly books, but often the content is very strong. I have a copy of Fred Voss' 'Goodstone' which he kindly signed for me at a reading last year, but how I wish it wasn't such a bastard ugly thing. I'm of the opinion that you should work with the writer(s) to produce something which best presents their work. For novels I see that as less important, but for poetry I think it should be vital. Look at the old bindings on the works of Shelley, Thomas, Coleridge. They knew they contained beauty and they wanted the book to tell you that before you opened it.

You can save a perfect bound book by producing a handsome dust cover though, like with the one Bill and Lead Graffiti produced for Al Winan's book ("Drowning like Li Po in a river of red wine..") I have many other thoughts on this subject, but I also (sadly) have a day job.
[...] Or is it "get the word out there within budget and hope enough people latch on?" [...]

To some extent, I think that is the point, or at least part of the point. Aside from the beauty (or lack of beauty) of the physical product, or possibly making money as a writer or editor/publisher, there's the value of exposure, getting work into the hands of readers. That, to me, is the one plus on the side of POD: it makes it possible to very cheaply get the word out. I haven't explored the options available with POD. If the company providing the service allows a customer (the "publisher", not the book buyer) to upgrade the cover stick, that would be worth the extra cost, even if it means a higher cover price.
If you think POD printers or Amazon or anything else is gonna help you "possibly make money" -- spoiler alert: it won't. No one cares about us or our books except the 50 people who care. So our business plan should be simple: help those 50 people get the book. Maybe the 50 people will kick a few bucks our way...and maybe we'll be a handsome and lucky bastard who gets to work with Bill Roberts...

As it is, we're the least of their concern. So fuck it. Let's make a few great books for the sun to someday devour!
For me personally, I doubt it's even 50 people who care. 10? 20 at best. But some do make money through Amazon. One problem I see over and over with nicely made books from small presses is that they are usually expensive, and if an author has 50 fans, 25 of them can't afford the books although they are interested. That's where a deluxe edition at, say $50 paired with a simple paperback at $5 to $10 makes sense. There are several authors who I would follow more closely but it seems every new book costs more than the last at $50, $60, $100. Sure, they are incredible, beautiful, and worth every penny, but how can a publisher grow the market for an author with prices like that? The examples I'm thinking of are in the horror/weird fiction field, so nobody here should take this personally. I'm just saying.
I agree with David. For BoSP, I usually do a less expensive edition of a book, when possible. Graziano book at $8 for the paper (with 4 color full bleed letterpress cover), D.R. Wagner at $8, Neeli at $8. Still, when you are talking hardcover it can only be so inexpensive. For a book like Death at the Flea Circus, I did 3 editions; Paper at $15 (with 2 color letterpress printed wrap around DJ), Hardcover (1/4 bound in 180 year old vellum) at $40 and the super deluxe "bureau" edition at $650. For the record, I have sold more than 50 copies of all of these books. With the Pelieu book, I printed a LOT of paperback and have had surprisingly good sales given that it is an avante-garde cut/up novel which is not exactly your average beach read. The few times that I went without an inexpensive edition have mixed results. Athenaeum sold pretty well, but the Kerouac book did not sell well enough to even pay the up front costs and was cancelled.

Maybe the best solution is to release the book as always and then a year later release the book as an E-book, with all proceeds going to the author. I;d be cool with that. My problem is that I am not sure how that is even done.

In the end, if your e-book is not about teenage vampires it will not sell anyway with the masses. What we read will never be liked by the masses.

And that is what tells me that we are doing it right.
I think hardbacks, trade paperbacks, and a "presentation" edition is just about perfect. Something for readers, something for collectors, and something for the principles involved + maybe a few madmen, heroes, and/or dictators. EBooks after the fact is an interesting idea too, though, unless we're talking genre fiction (vampires, cops, lawyers...Bill's "beach reads" or what I call "airport books") I think you'll be lucky to find an audience. Small press fans are pretty stand-offish with eBooks, which I understand. We like the real deal, and someone somewhere said "eBooks will kill real books, so to save real books we can't support eBooks." Aside: I'm happy to help you put out your catalog as eBooks, Bill. We'll talk about it.

I think oceans of heartache swell and roil in the small press because people want to make money....as if making money means we're legit so we must make money! The only way to get over that is to stop fucking caring. Just write. Just make art. Just do what makes you happy. Fuck money. There's jobs to get -- brainless, uncomplicated jobs -- if money is what you need.


Do what you love because you love it.
I don't know. There's an audience for a deluxe version of just about anything. There are always people who will spend a lot of money on things, despite how badly the economy may stink for most.

There is a school of thought that maintains that when prices for a product in general are getting progressively lower (a race to the bottom or price war), that's when it's time to raise yours. It seems to me that electronic books are definitely a race to the bottom, in price, quality and user experience.

The rise of the "artisanal" book/press is inevitable as a backlash to all of that. Like people paying $40 for a new LP when they could get a CD or a download for $10 or $15.

Yes, the reality is those of us here and most of the writers we know are never going to make any money. But I don't think it's some sort of creative sin to aspire to make some money. To try different schemes or whatever. I find the process of selling shit - er, products - to people to be a fascinating science of its own.
Bill: you are not only doing it right; nobody does it better (as whatshername sang decades ago). Deluxe books are a good thing, hardcovers are a good thing. My only point was that when a small press doesn't have a modestly priced alternative edition/paperback, they may be limiting an already small audience to even fewer people. I know you get that, but I think some editors haven't considered it. There are readers who want to try an author but just can't or aren't willing to pony up big bucks for a nice edition. I love how you did Death At The Flea Circus. Very nice hardcover at a reasonable price. Very nice moderately priced trade paperback. Very expensive insanely deluxe super edition. All three serve a difference slice of the larger audience for the book. And a cheap ebook would sell to another crowd, I imagine.

For what it's worth (and this may be a closely guarded trade secret) for the past 9 months I have been selling about $30 worth of ebooks per month, mostly copies of the much lamented Charles Bukowski Spit In My Face.
I certainly wouldn't mind making money...but the idea that money is the only metric by which to measure artistic worth is what haunts people (myself included, for years). It wasn't until I realized that what I thought of as success when it came to "being a writer" was: to write what I wanted, how I wanted, when I wanted. And I realized...well, I'm there!

As for eBook sales: I consider those numbers to be a tremendous accomplishment, David. I think you should be very proud. I maybe sell 1 eBook every month or so...for anywhere between $.63 - $1.60/sale.
Hosh, I agree. Writing what you want, how you want, when you want -- that's the prize. While I'd doing that, I tinker (mostly unsuccessfully) with squeezing a little money out of it, but the money is never the deciding factor. I do consider my small but regular ebook sales something to be proud of. There are people making a lot more, but they are the flukes. Most ebook writers sell nothing, or next to nothing. In my case, people are buying a book about Bukowski, not a book by some guy named Barker. I should explain the numbers. It's a 99 cent ebook, so I get a 35% royalty per copy sold, a measly 35 cents. And I sell about one of those a day. But for some reason, every month a few people select it as their one free "library borrow" under their Amazon Prime membership, and for those I get about $2.50 a copy. They could be picking a $15 ebook for that one borrow, but they opt for a 99 cent book. Counter-intuitive, but it happens all the time. To them, they are saving 99 cents.

I just read over on Goodreads part of a discussion where they are calling POD print books "ugly" and "disposable books." So it's not just us book-sniffing bibliophiles who feel that way about POD.

Bill: do you mean just the paperback of the Kerouac book was cancelled, or the entire project including paperback, hardback, and deluxe edition bound in fabric from Kerouac's pants? Sorry to hear that, whatever it is. If the whole thing is cancelled, what will become of the pants?
The whole thing was cancelled. There may be a smaller project in the future, but I will not be publishing the full book of letters. There was just not enough demand for it. We sent out 400 prospectuses and got about 8 orders from that.

The pants were returned to the estate.

The book may come out in a trade edition, but it will not be from BoSP.

That is a shame, Bill. You would have done a glorious job. I wonder of it was a case of Kerouac being so huge a name that people expect there will be an inexpensive mass produced edition and balk at the deluxe price?

Did they let you keep the pocket lint?
I wonder of it was a case of Kerouac being so huge a name...
Or a case of Kerouac not being a name at all any more. That may be more likely.

If you think that's ridiculous and impossible, ask a random 17 year old to name all four Beatles.

A lot of things those of us born in the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century take for granted as cultural icons or touchstones are virtually unknown to most people under 30 today. The Internet was supposed to make everything available to everyone, to preserve things that might have otherwise gone on to a natural obscurity, and in a way, for some things, it has done that.

But also the sheer scope of the available information seems to have only created another ecosystem of obscurity for most of the information in it. Only it happens much more quickly now than it used to. 99% of art, music, culture - data - becomes irrelevant a lot more quickly. The old shit is buried under an increasingly unmanageable avalanche of new shit.

That's what it looks like from my corner of the 21st century anyway.
You might be right, mjp. My wife, who works in a bookstore, tells me that most people she meets under 30 don't know who Kerouac, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc., etc. are. Never heard of them. But you'd think there would be enough well off old people who would be willing to pay serious money for the kind of new Kerouac book Bill had planned.
MJP, you're wrong.
I teach and the kids may not know the name of all four mop tops, but they sure as hell know who the Beatles are. And the Stones. And Dylan.
Some of them at least.

And if they don't know the names they at least know some songs.
Thats a lot more than I know about todays pop groups.

Some have even heard about the Who, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, The Beach Boys, the Gee Bees, even ABBA! :p
I think the hardest part for any small publisher is getting people to see your books in the first place, as I don't think it is as much of as niche as we may think. I've sold books to people I wouldn't have expected just because they've had the opportunity to see the books in person. They also have an appeal in the same way artisan butchers/bakers/candlestick makers do. Also, the internet has opened up the world to tiny publishers like me. I've sold books to India, Australia, Israel, Sweden, Romania, etc as well as to the US and here at home in the UK. Now I'm sure there must be more than one or two people in each country who would be interested in buying small press books, it's just a case of them knowing they want to buy them.

I held talks with a gallery last week about installing a miniature library in a suitcase. They seemed very excited about the idea and for me I hope it will accomplish a number of things: promote the beauty of affordable small press books, promote lesser known writers, give visitors the opportunity to take a piece of "art" home with them. I think the problem is people know there are cheaply mass produced books, they know there are POD books, and they know there are books bound in goatskin and gilded in gold with a £2000 price tag; what I think people at large may not be aware of is that there are people working in the middle. I would love to be able to promote these books by introducing them, as opposed to some horrible scaled down version of what the big publishers do (i.e. tacky promo shit.)

This year Michael at Tangerine Press will be doing a book burning of any unsold copies of his books. It would be so sad to see even one of his beautiful books go up in flames, but to keep these presses going we need to find a way to get the word out there.
I was looking at Kerouac first editions on eBay last night and was shocked that prices seem to have fallen, and by a lot. Only a few years ago (last time I checked) a hardcover 1st with dust jacket of On The Road went for thousands. Now they are in the hundreds. Or maybe I am remembering something special, like $5,000 for a signed first, but still, I was shocked by the low prices. Maybe he is being forgotten by the masses.
Some of them at least. ...know some songs. Some have even heard...
Some. In Norway.

I certainly could be wrong. I usually am. But I base my observation on many years of asking kids about The Beatles. The general lack of knowledge was demonstrated last week when they made the kids on American Idol sing Beatles songs, and most of them had never heard the songs they were singing.

One of them summed it up when he said, "I've heard of them..."

Hearing of and listening to and knowing are very different things. The kids in Norway may be much more into the history of pop or rock music than American kids. That's also a possibility (probability?). We have very little respect for history here, not just musical history.

It's hard to blame the American kids though, since when I was 15 years old I wasn't listening to music made 30 years before I was born either. I was interested in the history of rock music, but I was a musician, so it's a little different.
You're kidding, right? Of course there is a charge to the author. It's called the publisher's cut.

Please don't play the martyr. It's unbecoming. We're all trying to comport ourselves in a dignified manner here. Good lord, man.
Not trying to play martyr. Poor choice of words (mine). Of course, you are correct about publisher's cut (if there is something to cut...)

...for the record, we have decided to create a BUKOWSKI ANTHOLOGY (instead of including the material in our SUMMER ANTHOLOGY). All contributors will receive a paperback copy of the book, which will be released in August (for Buk's birthday)..
I was looking at Kerouac first editions on eBay last night and was shocked that prices seem to have fallen, and by a lot. Only a few years ago (last time I checked) a hardcover 1st with dust jacket of On The Road went for thousands. Now they are in the hundreds. Or maybe I am remembering something special, like $5,000 for a signed first, but still, I was shocked by the low prices. Maybe he is being forgotten by the masses.

i didn't see any true first printings with original DJs for under $1500. a lot of them are later printings or facsimile dustjackets.

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