“Why don’t you have print books?” Fran Bitney, a friend of mine, asked me.
I like Fran, she’s one of the local Keycon people. Very nice, very sweet person. Her mother is a poet. We’re on speaking terms, we have friends in common, no animosity, friendly enough. So when I say friend, that’s basically the category of people who don’t throw rocks and sticks at me when they’re sure I’m out of range.
Look, I take what I can get.
Anyway, Fran asked the question.
I’ve been doing eBooks. Been really fine doing eBooks. Been happy doing eBooks.
I have avoided doing print books.
Theoretically you can. There’s presses like Friesen that do small print runs. If you want to pay for a hundred or a couple of hundred and try and sell them, go ahead.
There’s Print On Demand (POD), and that’s getting better and better. There’s companies that do POD – Ingram Spark, Lulu.com, Amazon, Draft2Digital, probably others. There’s even POD machines in bookstores, McNally Robinson, the local independent bookseller had one.
I haven’t really been interested. The possibility is there, but so what?
Basically, if you’re self publishing 98% of your sales will be eBooks. That’s just how it is. You don’t get to be in bookstores, where print books are sold. You don’t get to have the commercial infrastructure of major or medium presses and publishers with their infrastructure to push print books. Print books are expensive, that’s asking people to take a big chance.
The only place you are really competitive is on streaming platforms, with modestly priced eBooks.
So I didn’t really see the point. Why do all the extra, and very substantial work, and eat all the extra expenses, of doing a print book which will represent 2% of my sales. It’s not like I’m selling hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands, or even thousands of eBooks. If I’m even moving hundreds, I’m happy. Hell for some books, dozens. So doing a print book, wasn’t making sense to me – lot of work, lot of money, no real return.
If there’s a choice between doing another eBook or doing a Print book, well, it’s no choice, in terms of what’s going to be cost effective..
So I explain all this to Fran.
And she says, “Well, I don’t like eBooks. I don’t read them. But if you do a print book, then I’ll buy one.”
I don’t know, maybe that’s straight up.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to read my stuff, and this was a good excuse. Honestly, I don’t push my books on anyone. But you know, I guess if you’re on vaguely friendly terms with someone to the point that you don’t actively attack them, maybe there’s a guilt in knowing someone is a writer and not reading their work. No skin off my teeth, my close family can’t be bothered to read my books, so it’s not like it matters.
But Fran is a really nice person, and maybe she felt guilty and this was a way out for her. A reason not to read which was impersonal and non-judgmental and had no aspect of “I don’t want to even look at whatever crap you shit out, you should just be happy I’m not throwing rocks at you!”
Well, bad news for Fran.
Scott Ellis is to blame. So here’s the deal. Scott Ellis is a friend of mine. He’s a brilliant writer and short story man, a decent poet, and a fairly astute cultural critic. Back in the day he was part of the Manitoba arts scene, he produced and sold some short stories, and he was part of my old writers group.
But he’s a slow writer, and the exigencies of actually making a living occupied him. I can’t blame him. Actually getting your work out there requires a lot of fixedness of purpose, an investment of time and energy that’s often substantial, and putting up with a lot of rejection.
But I’ve always loved his work.
In a fair and just world, some publisher would have come along, hired him to write novels, and kicked his ass until he produced them.
Instead, he looks after his cats and his garden, minds his house with his wife, Anna, and does surveys for Stats Canada.
Anyway, somewhere along the line, as I’m compiling my own body of work, and experimenting with getting some of it out into the world, I get the bright idea to talk Scott into doing it to. Pull all his stories together, and release an eBook. I’ve got the technical experience with the process, so why not?
In a more perfect world, of course, I’d drop the whole thing off on a real publisher who would embrace the brilliant stories of Scott Ellis with a glad cry, and take the baton. I did kind of try that, sending his draft collection to my publisher as reading material.
No luck. And no haste at all either.
Believe it or not, I’m not super-dedicated to self-publishing. It’s just a matter of slowly clearing out my hard drive of stuff I think deserves to be in the world but isn’t really commercial. It’s a now and then thing.
So, it was an occasional thing for me and Scott, my nagging (in a friendly way), and him slowly finding his work on old files, floppy disks, etc., sometimes buried as email attachments, in different word processor formats which we’d have to unravel.
Eventually, this year, we got it all together. It was enough for two substantial collections actually, I think about 130,000 or 140,000 words.
So I commissioned a cover, started formatting manuscripts, registered an ISBN, all the usual stuff, as we’ve slowly, slowly nailed it down. The galleys for the first collection are almost done. Soon I’ll be able to do final format and then the book, the first one, will be ready for upload.
Anyway, somewhere in the last six months, I started thinking. Scott’s a bit older then me, he’s more old school. An eBook is nice, but isn’t really part of that whole thing. It would be nice to do a print edition for him.
Look, he’s retirement age. His hair, once thick and curly is snow white and thinning, he’s had his knees replaced and he’s visibly slowing down. It happens to all of us. He’s not going to have the career he deserved, he’s not going to have publishers and bookstores. But he’s a really good guy, and he’s a really good writer.
This project is my tribute to him. It’s my gift to him, even if I’m kind of a demanding pain in the ass.
So, it would be nice to do a print book for him, something tangible he can put on a shelf, or share with family and friends.
That’s really what life is about. Trying to do stuff.
Anyway, I had no idea how to go about. Thought about commissioning or hiring someone to do it, even talked money with some people. Never got followed through, largely because the project has taken so long.
But now we’re getting close.
And I thought, I really want to do this for him.
So I thought, maybe I could learn. Why not? Seemed like a useful skill. How would I go about learning? I learn by doing. How was I going to figure out how to do a print book for Scott. I needed a practice dummy, a pilot, a test module. Something that I could use to work with and teach myself the rudiments of actually doing a print book, so I could do one for Scott.
Where would I get a practice dummy? Were there template manuscripts lying around? What could I use? If only there was something lying around that I could practice on? Like a manuscript or two?
At that point, I noticed I actually had eBooks of my own that I could learn on. A lot of them.
Eventually, I went with Amazon. I opened up Lulu.com looked around, poked at Ingram Spark, messed with Draft2Digital. It seems to me that most POD book formatting systems are largely similar, so figure out how to, do one, and the learning curve for another would be fairly short.
Of the systems, Draft2Digital feels must uncomfortable for a learning exercise. They have peculiar ISBN requirements, you can’t update a POD for six months, there’s a lot of pitfalls. It’s basically a trial program, so they’ve got their own bugs to work out on top of being user unfriendly.
Lulu.com was rated very highly. I struggled a little bit.
Having chosen Amazon, I started the learning curve. I figured I would do two or three print books.
The thing is, the first time you do something, you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just having the experience, without knowing what to focus on and how to do it. You’re feeling your way, so the experience is undifferentiated.
It’s repeating the experience that you refine, you figure out each time what works, you learn to distinguish the relevant from the extraneous, you get comfortable with the process. It’s this emerging capacity for distinction through familiarity that is the learning process.
So minimum two tries, maybe three.
I did a dozen books. More than that, counting failed tries, and other formats, maybe eighteen. Specifically twelve on Amazon. I really got it down cold. I learned the process, learned a lot more about using worked, figured out a bunch of things.
And I improved the books. For each book, I went through the manuscript, catching typos and errors, fixing things, correcting formatting errors (and probably introducing new ones), generally improving and tightening the manuscripts technically.
Look, I don’t have a copy editor. I hired one for one book. But frankly, I’m not making enough money on most books to justify an editor or copy editor, so I do it myself, imperfectly. And just for the record: An Editor or Copy Editor will not sell your books for you. A smashing good title will do it. A kick ass cover will do it. Rolling up your sleeves and do the work of marketing will sell your book. But not editing services, that’s on the other end of the process.
So the point was to put the time and effort into making each book as good as I could make it. There’s something final about a print edition, even if you can re-upload collected versions any time. The person who theoretically buys a print edition pays a lot more than for the ebook, five or six times as much. I feel obligated to try and give them the most polished book.
For each book, I stripped down to ASCII and reformatted completely from the bottom up. It’s a little more time consuming, but I recommend that. It saves you from rogue styles or formatting issues, or buried software glitches.
Why do twelve frigging print books? Particularly while embracing such a time consuming and meticulous process?
I dunno. I guess it just got away from me. I was going to do three or four, but then once I had, I figured I was getting the hang of it, and added five and six, found them easy enough. Thought might be nice to complete a series. Next thing you know, I’d done them all.
And from the description, it was indeed a shitload of work. Each book, with the new round of editing, and struggling with bits of the process, averaged two or three days, although towards the end it was down to a day or less. The core work was down to a couple of hours. Still, the project occupied a solid month or month and a half, full long days, late evenings, weekends, an obsessive degree of focus.
As I’ve said, sales would be about 2%. Hardly worth the time and effort. Putting that energy into almost anything else would have been more productive.
I dunno. Sometimes I’m like a dog with a bone. I start a project, and I work obsessively and relentlessly on it. Whether it leads to glory or catastrophe, I need to do it and finish it. I like being that way. I don’t like the whole ‘oh lets start something and get bored and maybe we’ll come back to it someday’ shit. I can leave something and come back to it later. But I’m a completion junky.
Maybe it’s nice to have something tangible for the work, I have a small row of books on my bookshelf. I can look up. There they are. Take them down. Open the pages. There’s a physicality to them that carries some tiny bit of satisfaction.
It’s nice to actually have something to give to my sister in Australia. She received it today, she absolutely loved it. To be able to give a physical set to my close friends, to be able to autograph and send the series to Brian Downey and the LEXX people. To give something physical and tangible. There’s a satisfaction in that.
As for the rest?
Well, I’ve met a lot of writers at Cons and Comic Cons, with their booths and tables selling their books. I suppose I ought to go through that rite of passage. Oh Joy. I’ll get to sit at a table with my books, and have 50,000 people walk by refusing to make eye contact. I can hardly wait. Really. rah. rah. bring it. yay.
Actually, here’s the truth: I had some health issues in May, and some disturbing results back. Things that implied there was a chance I might not be around much longer. Six months, a year. Dealing with possibly invasive or brutal treatment regimes. Not guarantee, just the chance, maybe a small chance. The end result was going for more tests, and biopsies, just checking up on things, seeing if there was actually something there, and maybe if there was, catching it early enough.
You get a little irrational with that. It’s a bucket of cold water in the face. It jolts you a little bit out of life. You end up going off the beam, you do reckless things, or stupid things, because somehow, it doesn’t matter as much, or it matters in different ways. For me, one of these things was to try and make my writing into something physical and tangible, just in case, in the end, that’s all that’s left – a little row of me, sitting on my sister’s and friend’s bookshelves.
Don’t get me wrong. I was still committed to doing a print book for Scott, still dedicated to learning that process.
It was just that without this jolt, I might have stopped at two or three, gone on to more purposeful work. Instead, I just bulled through with ferocious tenacity, and did them all.
Was it the best thing I could do with my time in June and July? Not even close. I should have tried working on salvaging my legal career. Work on cases. Write a novel. Started getting queries out to agents. Write short stories. Pretty much anything else would get me further long term. Short term? Go to the gym, clean the apartment, get out into the world, see people, connect, reconnect. This was kind of an escape from all that.
In the end, what does it amount to?
In the back of my mind, there’s always a relentless unforgiving voice. I did a book, a bunch of them, they’re physical, they’re nice. But it’s not really a book, is it. In the larger sense, a book goes beyond the physical. That physical book has a provenance, it has a publisher, there is an editor, a proofreader, cover designer, typesetter, there is an agent, there are contracts and schedules, there’s an entire infrastructure, a series of choices and decisions, people and processes that are incorporated in that book. The book has marketing, promotion, it ends up with booksellers, and ultimately in bookstores and book clubs. A book is not just a book, each real book incorporates an entire social infrastructure. There is a sort of web or tail, invisible but real, which surrounds and encompasses and permeates each real book, that makesit part of a world of books and part of the world.
My print books? None of that.
In a sense, my book, my books are no more real books than a hollow ceramic figurine is your child.
I don’t have books in that sense.
I have a replicas of books.
Hollow ceramic figurines, bereft of the social and economic and infrastructural content, a pretend book without agents or editors or proofreaders, without publishers, schedules or marketing or any of the thousand things.
Instead of a book, it’s really only just a printed pile of paper with a cheap cardstock cover. Meaningless. A pretend book, a tribute to my narcissism and vanity. A pretend book for a pretend writer. And isn’t that my whole life, just a pretend life, faking being a person. A replica of a human being, a pointless, futile facsimile of a life. All of it wasted and meaningless.
Yeah, I know. It’s so much fun inside my head.
That’s how it goes. The world is full of ugly truths, and you have to face them, accept them, and keep on going.
So yeah, it is what it is. I accept that. There are things I want, there is meaning I pursue, and this doesn’t get me anywhere. It’s just a pretentious, childish exercise in vanity, some reflexive spasm.
But hey, they’re sitting there on my shelf, that’s something tangible. My sister loved them to pieces, my niece and nephew in Australia loves them. That counts for a lot. It’s on the shelves of my close friends. It’ll be on Brian Downey’s shelf, hopefully.. So even if its meaningless and pointless, it’s still something. Even a tiny something is better than nothing. Even a tiny something can keep you going.
And who knows, maybe I’ll sell my novels to a traditional publisher, and I’ll be in bookstores, I’ll get reviews and resect and some money, and all those people buying my traditionally published books, some of them will think, “He’s really good, I’ve got to get the rest of us stuff.” Everyone has dreams. I buy lottery tickets too, and then for just a moment before I check the ticket, I’m almost a millionaire. You never know.
So anyway, Fran, no more excuses. You were the one that made a big deal out of this.
Buy a goddamned book.