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On Writing: Self-Publication without Pretense
An essay by Teresa Nielsen Hayden

It seems inevitable that some writers will decide they want to self-publish their work. If so, they might as well do it without going through vanity publishers, subsidy publishers, "professional editorial services," and other sharks and scammers.

How? By going to a plain ordinary book manufacturing firm. Many of them have been in business for decades, making perfectly good books at wholesale prices. They may not offer book design and typesetting services, but the world is full of underemployed type designers.

The great thing about book manufacturers is, they'll only charge you for printing and binding your book, and you'll get all the copies you've paid for. Scammers will gouge you on the price, most likely while getting your book printed by those very same printers, and add charges for a host of other dubious services. Some of them won't even send you all the books you've paid to print.

In short, if you're going to self-publish, do it yourself. Go to a printer. Below is as much arcane knowledge as you need to get started.

1. Some identifying signs and marks of real book manufacturers:

They tend to belong to dowdy-sounding organizations like the Book Manufacturers' Institute.

One of the addresses they give is identified as the plant.

The copy on their websites emphasizes stuff like their broad range of services, reliable turnaround times, and competitive pricing—after which they dive into a small ocean of terms like pre-press, bluelines, halftones, negatives, positives, endleaves, stripping, trim size, 1- to 6-color printing, jacket stock, cromalins, soft or hard case bindings, shrink-wrapping options, etc. etc. etc. (Note: you don't have to understand all those bits.) In general, they give off that familiar reassuring whiff of "techie."

They talk about the newness of their technical capabilities, not their publishing paradigms. They never tell you that self-publication is a way around the dreary logjam of conventional publishing. They likewise don't mention sales, distribution, or promotion arrangements. They don't care about any of that stuff. They just make books. Their job ends when they ship you the cartons of finished copies.

(If you run across an outfit that simultaneously offers to handle sales and distribution and marketing, and is into heavy tech, what you have is a combination packager and book manufacturer, and all bets are off. Let me know if you find any.)

2. How to deal with a book manufacturer:

Know what you have and what you want: how many words are in your book, how long you think it should be, how much you want to spend, what kind of a cover you have in mind, whether you have cover or interior art, etc.

Phone the manufacturer and ask to speak to a sales rep. Don't be scared. The sales rep's job is to mediate between printers and normal people.

If you have an unsatisfactory experience, hang up and call another book manufacturer.

If three or four reps tell you that you can't get what you have in mind for the price you have in mind, believe them. They're working in a competitive industry that has tight profit margins.

3. Getting quotes:

Some book manufacturers have very helpfully put up web pages where you can input your production specs and get a manufacturing quote. If you don't like your quote, you can try a different set of specs and see what happens. If you can't tell what they're asking about, go back to your previous option and talk to a sales rep.

Doing your research first never hurts.

Here are three websites that will generate a quote:

Braun-Brumfield, Inc.
http://www.sheridan.com/about_us.html
Thompson-Shore (short-run specialists)
http://www.tshore.com/factory/factory.html
Victor Graphics, Inc.
http://www.victorgraphics.com/

Here are a couple of websites that list lots of book manufacturers and related trades. I don't endorse everyone they list.

Publishers Marketing Association Online
http://pma-online.org/
Publishers Association of the West
http://www.pubwest.org/

4. What you'll get:

When everything's finished, your book manufacturer will ship you howevermany cartons of books you've contracted for, plus your original materials. What you do with them after that is up to you.

Does that sound bleak? Maybe it is. Printing isn't publishing. If all you want is to see your book in print, this may well be the cheapest and most direct route. But if you wanted to be published—reviews in the papers, copies in the bookstores—this method won't do it. But then, working with a subsidy publisher wouldn't do it either.

Copyright 1999 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Used by permission.

 

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