My friend Anne and I are self-publishing a book. It’s a beautiful story about a kitten named Tapioca, who is looking for a home. Anne first told me about the book a year ago. A friend of hers had begun the story and illustrations with her son, David*. And then Anne’s friend died.
“I’d like to finish this for her and her son,” Anne told me, “but not quite yet.”
A few months ago Anne brought up the story again. “I think it’s time,” she said. “If I send you the notes and sketches, can you use them to finish the story and illustrations?”
I agreed, and in due course the package arrived–a half-written story, pages of notes, and sketches. I looked at everything, then started keying the story into Word so I could begin working with it–and so I could see where it needed to go. When I got to the end of her notes, I had enough to know how the story should end.
I sent it down to Anne. She enlisted her husband Geoffrey’s editorial eye, and we revised–but not much. This was a book for an audience of one; it was important that we retain as much of the writer as possible. I started work on the illustrations, basing then on the sketches and notes Anne’s friend had left.
Anne provided art direction. I revised, and last night I finally sent the finished files off to CreateSpace. We’ll have our proofs in a few days.
Making the book for David has felt like a good and right thing to do–but behind the “feel-good” part of the story lies the technological advances and falling production prices that make it possible for people like Anne and me to create a book for an audience of one without beggaring ourselves. This story would not have been possible five years ago. Anne and I are both designers. We might have made the book, printed out the best color copies we could afford, and laboriously glue the whole thing together. We’ve done such things in the past.
But we could not have had a high-quality, professional-grade book available not only for our audience of one, but for a world-wide audience for around $50. It just couldn’t have happened. But now it has. We will review our proofs in a few days. If all is well, I will click “OK” and the book David and his mom started and Anne, Geoffrey, and I finished will available to David–and to anyone else to whom we choose to make it available.
It boggles the mind. One of the major barriers between writers and published authors has just melted away.
Good thing, right? Well, in some ways. Like any business, publishing must pay homage to the bottom line. Books that get published are books that publishers believe will sell. Many good and worthy books are refused because publishers believe they won’t appeal to a broad enough audience. Now, all those books can be published.
Before we break out the champagne, though consider this: the increased ease of publication means that many books get published that probably shouldn’t be–books that have been poorly conceived, sloppily written, insufficiently edited and critiqued, and badly designed and covered. In the past, the high cost of book production and the very process of editing ensured that before books went on press they underwent a certain amount of scrutiny–the editor, the art director, the designer, the typesetter, the proofreader, the printer, and the author all had the opportunity to look, to see, and to correct. A lot of money was riding on getting the book right.
But now that barrier is gone. As Anne, Geoffrey and I have just proven, it is possible to take a book from concept to completion for less than $50. But that’s only because all three of us were willing to donate our time, and because among the three of us we had the skills to ensure that the book we produced would meet the need of its one-person primary audience. To say that it is possible to produce a high-quality book for $50 as a general rule is no truer today than it was five years ago. Good books still require skilled editing, proofreading, and designing. Books that sell also require skilled marketing.
Take, for instance, my last novel, Good On Paper. Counting all the proofs, I paid about $150 for book production. I paid ten times that for editing. It would have been more had I not had a good and dear friend who produces magazines volunteer to proofread for me. And it would have been more yet had I not happened to be a typesetter and book cover designer.
What it comes down to in the end is this: The drop in self-publishing costs is turning book production into a cottage industry. But publishing a quality book is more than just putting ink on paper. A quality book results from major investments of time, skill, and money. The best writer in the world needs a good editor. The best editor in the world needs a sharp-eyed proofreader. The best book in the world needs an experienced, savvy designer.
So here are the questions: How good do you believe your book is? Is it good enough to stand up to editing? Does it deserve the time it’ll take for one more read-through to polish the ideas and phrasing? Does your book deserve to be proofread? Does it deserve to be given its best face? Does it deserve the marketing necessary to reach its intended audience? Just how good is your book? And how good do you want it to be?
*Not his real name