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Arts

Button pushing

Will print-on-demand technology save publishing or deliver its final death blow?


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Or you can eliminate the middleman completely and publish your book yourself. As more people choose to do this – self-publishing portal Lulu.com adds around 20,000 new titles a month – POD will begin to erode the stigma of the so-called vanity presses. Artists with a need for creative control, writers who can’t stand pesky copy editors or, well, your Viking-loving neighbor can go to sites such as Lulu or CreateSpace (an Amazon offshoot), upload text and pick preferred page sizes, binding styles and cover templates. Soon enough, they’ll have a book available for purchase.


Baltimore-based author Elena Johnston used Lulu to publish her 2006 La La Land, as well as to reprint another book (Paper Kingdom) after it sold out of its first two print runs. With a subject too narrow to attract a traditional publisher and without a huge start-up fund, Johnston found POD almost perfectly suited to her needs. The downside, of course, is that Johnston had to not only format her own layout but also promote and sell the book herself. If traditional publishing employs a phalanx of copy editors, graphic designers and PR flacks to create a final product, POD self-publishers have to take on all those roles themselves. In her Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book, Lupton offers a test case of POD publishing via Lulu. The advice on formatting and design is specific and helpful, but the underlying message is also clear: This kind of publishing takes hard work and, more often than not, community support. “When you do it yourself, you have to find your network,” Lupton says during a recent phone interview.


But there’s no question that some self-published POD books are, frankly, disasters. This is partly because now that anyone can publish a book, it’s starting to appear like everyone is. While back in the day “to publish a book used to be a pinnacle of something,” as Breier puts it, POD’s enabling of the self-published is eroding the cultural cache of the published book – not necessarily a good thing. There are economic concerns as well. In a May 26 New York Times op-ed, Garrison Keillor predicted that the future of publishing was “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”


Even Lupton, an enthusiastic champion of DIY publishing, admits that it’s usually not enough just to be a writer. “If you just do POD on Amazon, no one’s going to know about your book, because there are millions of books,” she says. She suggests pairing a book with an exhibition or a lecture series in order to reach an audience. To her, it all comes back to community – it’s important to “design things that have an audience you can reach,” she says, even if “it might not be a huge community.”


But POD’s effect on the industry – whether liberating, dire or both – mostly remains to be seen. Ultimately, though, Lupton is optimistic. “The tools don’t make the need for skills disappear,” she says. “Anyone can push a button and print a book, but that doesn’t make it a good book. But 20 years ago there wasn’t a button to push.” These days, thanks to that button, “if you’ve got the will and the ability to work really hard, you can come up with something


quite beautiful.” 


A version of this story first appeared in Baltimore’s City Paper.

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