Wednesday, March 30, 2011
I was having lunch with an old friend of mine yesterday, and the conversation turned to writing, editing and publishing. This was hardly surprising, since she's a professor of English at a nearby university, and I'm returning to contract teaching after a long stint as a book editor and designer. (I'm not quitting; in my life jobs tend to accrete rather than change. Now I'll be a book designer and editor who also writes books and teaches College Writing.)
I had taken along a book published on CreateSpace, and as we talked she flipped through it. "Beautiful pictures," she said. And they were. Furthermore, the type was clean and crisp, the production values of the book (things like overall print quality, straightness of crops, color balancing, and so forth) were excellent.
"I have a friend who might be interested in self-publishing," she said. "But it's just text. How does that compare?"
I picked up one of the mid-grade paperback books she had brought along to read in slow moments (we're Those Kind of People) and said, "The book quality would be indistinguishable from a book like this."
Those of you in the printing and publishing world know what a milestone this is. For those of you who aren't, consider this:
When I switched from being an editor who designed stuff to being a designer who edited stuff, color tabloid-size prints had to be done on special paper. Letters were fuzzy. And they cost around $20 per page.
When I wrote and illustrated my first children's book the only way I could demonstrate what the finished product would look like was to get color prints, trim them with an e-xacto knife, do some really hinky stuff with various types of tape, do MORE hinky stuff with spraymount or hot wax, trim the pages again, build a cover and do yet more hinky stuff to get it attached. And when I was done, all I had was a "comp"--a designer's composite approximating how the piece went together. No one could possibly have mistaken it for a "real" book. And it cost well over $100, just for the prints.
Getting a sample book printed just like the one I brought to show my friend would have entailed every step of the printing process, up to and including actually going on press--for a single book. It would have cost thousands.
The complexity of that process is, in part, what drives publishers to select the books they will produce with a careful eye to sales and market trends. Producing a single book like the one lying on the table between my friend and me would have involved large investments in both time and money from at least four industries--five, if the book warranted a book tour or marketing campaign.
While printing technology has evolved a great deal, the fact is that producing a book by conventional means still requires a large investment, which means that authors get a smaller piece of the pie, and the books chosen for publication are most often those with either a proven track record, or a provable market appeal.
And that's why the increasing sophistication I see in CreateSpace's book quality and distribution channels is so exciting. I produced a sixty page book with a nice cover, color throughout, and full bleeds throughout (something that's still difficult to get from traditional book printers), and I did it for less than $50 total for two books--my proof, and the copy for the intended recipient. If I choose to print more, I will pay less than $10 per book. That's quality printing, trimming, binding, and shipping. And that's amazing.
So what does that mean? It means that in a world increasingly driven by the bottom-line mentality, it is now possible to publish books and make them available nationwide--or to one person--for the love of it. Never before in history has it been possible to produce high-quality books from exciting new voices so cheaply and easily.
Which isn't to say all of those new voices will be voices worth hearing. As with any major innovation that gives broad access to a formerly costly and complex process, there will be those who see self-publishing as a shortcut, and an opportunity to skimp on the areas of book production where money is well spent--areas like editing, proofreading, design, and marketing. Many terrible books are being produced even as we speak. But here's the thing: there are wonderful books being produced, too. And now we have the opportunity to read them.
Note: The images in this post are spreads from the book used as the example in this post--a book that would have been impossible to produce for less than thousands of dollars not so very long ago. I've reduced the images substantially for use on the web, so pouf goes the quality, but if you'd like to see the actual images email me and I'll send some full-size photos.
Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.