Category Archives: printondemand

borders self-publishing and the idea of vanity

Borders, in partnership with, has launched a comprehensive personal publishing platform, enabling anyone to design and publish their own (print) book and have it distributed throughout the Borders physical and online retail chain. Beyond the basic self-publishing tools, authors can opt for a number of service packages: simple ISBN registration (49 bucks), the basic package ($299), in which someone designs and formats your book for you, and the premium ($499), in which you get all the afore-mentioned plus “editorial evaluation.” According to the demo, you can even pay to have your own book tour and readings in actual Borders stores, bringing vanity publishing to a whole new level of fantasy role-playing. Writing and publishing, as the Borders site proclaims in its top banner, is now a “lifestyle.”
borderslifestyles.jpg A side thought. It’s curious how “vanity publishing” as a cultural category seems to have a very clear relationship with the print book but a far more ambiguous one with the digital. Of course the Web as a whole could be viewed as one enormous vanity press, overflowing with amateur publishers and self-appointed authors, yet for some reason the vanity label is seldom applied -? though a range of other, comparable disparagements (“cult of the amateur”, “the electronic mob” etc.) sometimes are. But these new labels tend to be issued in a reactionary way, not with the confident, sneering self-satisfaction that has usually accompanied noses snobbishly upturned at the self-published.
In the realm of print, there is (or traditionally has been) something vain, pretentious, even delusional, in the laying out of cash to simulate a kind of publication that is normally granted, by the forces of economics and cultural arbitration, to a talented or lucky few. Of course, so-called vanity publishing can also come from a pure impulse to get something out into the world that no one is willing to pay for, but generally speaking, it is something we’ve looked down on. Blogs, MySpace, personal web pages and the like arise out of a different set of socio-economic conditions. The barriers to publication are incredibly low (digital divide notwithstanding), and so authorship online is perceived differently than in print, even if it still arises out of the same basic need to communicate. It feels more like simply taking part in a conversation, participating in a commons. One is not immediately suspicious of the author’s credibility in quite the same way as when the self-financed publication is in print.
This is not to suggest that veracity, trust and quality control are no longer concerns on the Web. Quite the contrary. In fact we must develop better and more sensitive instruments of bullshit detection than ever before to navigate a landscape that lacks the comfortingly comprehensive systems of filtering and quality control that the publishing industry traditionally provided. But “vanity publishing” as a damning label, designed to consign certain types of books to a fixed cultural underclass, loses much of its withering power online. Electronic authorship comes with the possibility of social mobility. What starts as a vanity operation can, with time, become legitimized and respected through complex social processes that we are only beginning to be able to track. Self-publishing is simply a convenient starter mechanism, not a last resort for the excluded.
And with services like Lulu and the new Borders program, we’re seeing some of that social mobility reflected back onto print. New affordances of digital production and the flexibility of print on demand have radically lowered the barriers to publishing in print as well as in bits, and so what was once dismissed categorically as vanity is now transforming into a complex topography of niche markets where unmet readerly demands can finally be satisfied by hitherto untapped authorial supplies.
All the world’s a vanity press and we have to learn to make sense of what it produces.

emergency books

In the course of looking for something else entirely, I just stumbled upon Emergency Books. It’s a (slightly dormant) side project of Litromagazine, a freesheet that publishes and distributes short fiction outside London Underground stations. Emergency Books are, very simply, out-of-print texts taken from Project Gutenberg and dropped wholesale into a PDF template that makes them easy and economical to print on a standard home printer. They’re designed “for when you’ve nothing to read and a standard issue of Litro is too short”, the publisher (is that the right word here?) explains:

Each ‘double page spread’ fits nicely in an Acrobat Reader window, which results in minimal need for scrolling. On- or off-screen, the columns are relatively narrow and short so you don’t get lost in a sea of text (as you would if you simply printed direct from Project Gutenberg). There is little of the blank white space found in standard books – this is to get as much text on the page as possible thereby reducing the total number of pages required (for example, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, at 128 pages in book form, takes only 15 double-side printed A4 sheets as an Emergency Book – while being just as easy to read). This saves on resources as well as making the printed Emergency Book easier to fold and carry around.
If you are a ‘format purist’, you may well hate them. But if you love literature for the content, Emergency Books could be for you.

Of the small number who’ve saved Emergency Books on, one noted that Emergency Books are ‘for reading when you’re caught short. If that ever happens’. I like the idea of literature being, like cigarettes, something one can be ‘caught short’ without – for all that in this age of information overload the reverse more often feels true. There aren’t that many texts there at present, and I’m slightly baffled by the extant choice. But whatever you think of Conan Doyle, Emergency Books shows a refeshingly pragmatic grasp of the relation between digital and paper publishing formats, and represents an interesting attempt at minimising the downsides of each in the interests of guaranteeing the reading addict a regular fix.

build your own texbook

Peter Brantley pointed me to an interesting experiment from Pearson Custom Publishing, who is working with faculty at Rio Solado community college in Arizona to print custom textbooks assembled from multiple sources. Inside Higher Ed has details:

The result, in what could be the first institution-wide initiative of its kind, will be a savings to students of up to 50 percent, the college estimates, as well as a savings of time to faculty, who often find themselves revising course materials to keep pace with continuously updated editions.
…Professors can pick from among the books in Pearson’s library as well as outside sources in preparing their custom textbooks. For works not published by Pearson, there’s a limit of 10 percent of the contents, but the company will then handle copyright clearance.

I recently read in the Times about a similar service from Condé Nast for individualized cookbooks culled, à la carte as it were, from the recipe library.

publishing after publishers

Circulating briskly last week around the blogosphere was an interesting trio of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) by the thriller writer Barry Eisler pondering how various roles in the present-day publishing ecosystem might evolve – ?or go extinct – ?in the coming decades. He envisions a world (an America at least) where mega-chains and big box retailers have taken over most of the distribution functions of publishers. Each store powers a squadron of on-demand printers (like the Espresso Book Machine), churning out paperbacks from a limitless digital backlist – ?think of a Kinkos and a Starbucks fused together with a small browsing area in between. Direct dealings with authors, including editing, copyediting and packaging, have largely become the work of agents, who broker distribution with various on and offline retailers. Authors themselves have become the brands. In some cases retailers ink deals to run exclusive authorial product lines – ?like Tom Clancy’s “Op Center” or James Patterson’s various co-authored spinoffs – ?in their stores. Lesser known writers can make a living writing for these franchises, riding the coattails of tomorrow’s Dan Browns and Sue Graftons.

In a flat distribution world, retailers will need publishers less, perhaps, eventually, not at all (or rather, retailers will become publishers themselves). But they’ll still need someone to help them cut through the clutter. And someone will still need to represent authors to buyers. I expect agents will start selling directly to retailers, and that their business won’t be nearly as affected by flattening distribution as will publishers’.

Eisler is really talking primarily about blockbusters here, and within that limited scope his predictions seem sound (though I think he seriously underestimates the extent to which reading will go entirely digital). Authors in the “short head” of the curve are already essentially brands and it’s only a matter of time before they realize that their publishers’ services are no longer required and that they can keep a much bigger cut of the proceeds by going it alone. Eisler points to the situation in the music biz and Madonna and Radiohead – ?superstars who bucked their record labels in favor of independent distribution and have been wildly successful. But what does this prove? Blockbuster acts with legacy brands and massive fanbases can easily establish their own media empires – ?Stephen King toyed with the idea with his 2000 serial e-novel The Plant, which he sold directly to readers with modest success.
The point is that these examples shed little light on the future except for those few who are already at the top of the heap – ?that tiny heap which has become so disproportionately favored by an over-consolidated, bottom line-driven industry. Rather than heralding a new age of self-determination by artists, the Madonnas and Stephen Kings are the exceptions that prove the rule that, while distribution may have been radically flattened by the net, attention and audience are as hard (if not harder) to come by as ever. How the vast majority of writers will make a living, and how they might have to adapt their craft to do so, is far less clear (the R.U. Sirius piece I linked to earlier this month, which interviews ten serious midlist writers who have done a fairly good job of setting up online, “branded,” presences, is a good barometer of current anxieties).
Eisler’s right, though, that publishers need to start thinking hard about what they have to offer beyond distribution or else go the way of the dodo. But it won’t just be the agents that replace them but a melange of evolved Web impresarios: bloggers, curators, list-server editors, social bookmarkers and other online tastemakers. But writers too will have to change to survive. The digital medium will provide more maneuverability and more potential reach, but less shelter and less of the hand-holding, buffering and insulation from their public that publishers traditionally provided when once upon a time they managed the production and distribution chain. In many cases, writers will have to work harder at being impresarios, developing public personae and maintaining a more direct communication with readers. They’ll have to learn how to write all over again.

amazon on demand

CustomFlix, Amazon’s on-demand DVD distribution service, has just been rebranded as CreateSpace, and will now serve up self-published media of all types. Getting a title into the system is free and relatively simple. Books must be a minimum of 24 pages and have to be submitted as a PDF. Seven trim sizes are available for color interiors, five for black and white. Each title automatically receives an ISBN and is displayed to shoppers as “in stock,” available for shipping immediately. You set the list price on your media, Amazon sets the selling price. CreateSpace is listed as the publisher of the book unless you provide your own ISBN, in which case you can appear under your own imprint.
CreateSpace titles apparently are eligible for the SearchInside browsing program (I wonder what the threshhold, or price, for entry is). I assume they will also be open for reader reviews, ratings and such. One thing I’d be very curious to know, however, is whether, or to what extent, CreateSpace titles will get factored into the social filtering and recommendation engines that power Amazon’s browsing experience. In some ways, that would be the best indicator of how much this move will blur the lines – ?in the perceptions of readers – ?between traditional publishing and the new, less authoritative POD channels.
Obviously, this presents a major challenge to other on-demand services like iUniverse, Xlibris and Lulu. It will be interesting to observe how the publishing cultures on these sites will differ. seems to hold the most potential for the emergence of a new ecosystem of independent imprints and publishing storefronts, with the Lulu brand receding into a more infrastructural role. iUniverse and Xlibris still feel more like good old-fashioned vanity presses. Amazon theoretically offers good exposure for self-published authors, but again, as I queried above w/r/t social filtering, will CreateSpace titles be ghetto-ized in an Amazon sub-space or fully integrated into the world of books?

the future of print?

On Demand Books has installed an Espresso Book Machine in the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry, and Business Library and is offering to print books for anyone who comes by to request one. Their machine has been running since June (and will run until the end of the month), but the Internet seems to have only taken just notice of it and there was a flurry of publicity this past week. I went over to 34th Street to take a look at it on Wednesday afternoon (just after the New York Times visited, I think).
They’ve installed the machine prominently on the first floor of the library. It’s about the size of a small car and it looks like a bunch of laser printers were smashed together and a computer was stuck on top. Signs explain why it looks jerryrigged: this machine is a prototype, “On Demand Books Espresso Book Machine Model 1.5,” although the Model 2, about half the size and looking much more sleek, is on the way. While the press release suggested that anyone could come up and start printing out books, in reality the machine was cordoned off from the public and being run by an operator.
For this demonstration, there’s a list of 20 available titles: the usual assortment of out of print Open Content Alliance books (Dickens, Tom Sawyer, Beatrix Potter), a couple of scientific papers (Einstein, also out of print; a paper from the AMS), and two recent ones related to the venture: Jason Epstein’s Book Business, which made the case for machines like this being the future of bookselling in 2001, and Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. And one odd one: Faulkner’s Three Famous Short Novels, published by Vintage in 1942, which is still in copyright (and in print). The operator suggested that Moby-Dick would take too long to print – because it’s so long, it would be printed in two volumes – and tried to get me to choose The Long Tail, which is nice and short. I wanted something that I’d actually read and I was curious about how the Faulkner volume wound up in the list, so I went for it. Was I sure I didn’t want The Long Tail? I was sure.
The operator clicked a button on the computer’s display and the machine soon started making printing sounds. This continued for the next fifteen minutes. First the pages of the book were printed; they were printed on standard 8.5” x 11” paper, double-sided. The Faulkner book has around 160 leaves; this took a long time, and was exactly as exciting as waiting for a printer to print 160 pages. When all the pages were printed, they were apparently moved to another part of the machine where glue was applied to one edge. (While the machine has translucent sides, it’s hard to see what’s going on inside it for the most part.) They were moved down to another printer, this one color, which printed the cover on thicker stock. The cover was then glued to the pages and folder around them. Finally, the book was moved to the last section, where it was clamped down and rotated three times to cut off the extra trim, making a book that’s about 5” x 7”. The waste paper dropped down to a bin at the bottom of the machine; the newly minted book came out a slot in the front of the machine. The operator picked it up and handed it to me.
How does it look? It looks like a cheap paperback. My copy wasn’t quite cut right and there’s a little spur of excess paper rising from the top right corner, which gives it a modicum of uniqueness. Like the other Open Content-printed books that I’ve seen, the print isn’t wonderful: they seem to be working from screen-resolution scans of the books, and they appear notably grainy when printed. It looks very much like a book that someone photocopied on a copier with the contrast set a bit too high. But like a photocopied book, it’s certainly legible. It’s worth pointing out that this grainy quality is a function of the scan rather than the machine: a copy of The Long Tail looked just like a PDF printed through a regular laser printer would look. It still doesn’t look like a regularly printed book, but it certainly works as proof of concept.
More importantly, what does it mean? While there’s certainly work that needs to be done on these machines, they certainly seem viable. Epstein proposed these machines as a solution for a single problem: the unavailable backlist. It’s not hard to imagine, however, that a decade from now the entire bookstore will have been replaced by one of these machines at the FedExKinkosBarnes&Noble. Holding my copy of Faulkner in my hands, the overwhelming feeling was one of cheapness: the book had been reduced, finally, to being a disposable consumer object, available as easily as a latte at Starbuck’s. The books that the Espresso was putting out every twenty minutes existed for demonstration purposes: although passersby oohed and ahed at the possibility of the machine and happily took the sample books, I sensed that the books probably wouldn’t be read.
We’ve noted here how young people don’t tend to keep CDs: when they buy them, they immediately rip them into the computer, often throwing away the packaging and the CD itself. Over the past five years, music stores have been closing at a precipitous clip; so have video rental stores. There hasn’t been a tremendous outcry about this: we get enough out of the convenience of the iTunes store or Netflix that we don’t care that Tower Records went under and that Blockbuster is struggling. What happens if the book goes in this direction? It’s certainly technically possible – both Google’s book-scanning project and the Espresso machine demonstrate that. But technology has moved faster than our sense of how our culture will be affected. There’s a discussion here that needs to happen.

ron silliman: “the chinese notebook”

5. Language is, first of all, a political question.

The cover of Ron Silliman's _The Chinese Notebook_Like the problem of hunger in the world, the problem with publishing in the United States isn’t one of supply but one of distribution.

What’s worried me lately: that I go to airport bookshops and always see the same books. Because I live in New York, I can go to any number of specialized bookshops & find just about anything I want. The same is not true in many other parts of the country; the same is certainly not true in many other parts of the world. What worries me about airport bookshops is how few books they carry: how narrow a range of ideas is presented. May God help you if you’d like to buy anything other than Dan Brown in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. James Patterson is also available, as are the collected works of J. K. Rowling, and, for a limited time, those of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Into this emptiness is paraded the miracle of electronic publishing. As pushed by Jason Epstein, amongst others, the idea of print-on-demand will solve the question of supply forever more – you could go to a bookstore, request a book, and Barnes & Noble would print it out for you. (Let’s not think about copyright for the moment.) Jason Epstein believes these machines will be small enough to fit into an airport bookstore. This hasn’t happened yet, and I’m doubtful that it will any time soon, if at all. Booksellers have the supply & distribution issue down cold for Brown & Patterson & J. K. Rowling – they have no incentive to invest in these machines. When was the last time you, member of the reading public, went to complain to Barnes & Noble about their selection?

Until this marvelous future creates itself out of publishers’ good will towards humanity, people are presenting texts online, with varying degrees of success. If you have a laptop in the MSP airport (& a credit card to pay for wireless internet there), or, for that matter, any computer connected to the internet, you can go to and browse their archive of documents of the avant-garde. Among the treasures are /ubu editions, an imprint that electronically reprints various texts as PDFs. They’re free. I have a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Chinese Notebook, a reprint of a 26-page poem which originally appeared in The Age of Huts. Ubu reprinted it (and the other two parts of The Age of Huts) with Silliman’s permission.

6. I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another, would it be a different sentence?

/Ubu editions (edited by Brian Kim Stefans) aren’t really electronic books, and don’t conceive of themselves as such. Rather, they are a way of electronically distributing a book. This PDF is 8.5” x 11”. While you can read it from a screen – I did – it’s meant to be printed out at home & read on paper. That said, this isn’t a quick and dirty presentation. Somebody (a mysterious “Goldsmith”) has gone to the trouble of making it an attractive object. It has a title page with attractive, interesting, and appropriate art (an interactive study by Mel Bochner from Aspen issue 5–6; graciously hosts this online as well). There’s a copyright page that explains the previous. There’s even a half title page – somebody clearly knows something about book design. (How useful a half title page is in a book that’s meant to be printed out I’m not sure. It’s a pretty half title page, but it’s using another piece of your paper to print itself.) There’s also a final page, rounding off the total to 30 pages; if you print this off double-sided, you’ll have your very own beautiful stack of paper.

(Which is better than nothing.)

8. This is not speech. I wrote it.

Silliman’s text is (as these quotes might suggest) a list of 223 numbered thoughts about poetry and writing that forms a (self-contained) poem in prose. It is explicitly concerned with the form of language.

Karl Marx anticipating Walter J. Ong: “Is the Iliad possible when the printing press, and even printing machines, exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, that the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?” (The German Ideology, p. 150; quoted in Neil Postman’s A Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future).

17. Everything here tends away from an aesthetic decision, which, in itself, is one.

Silliman’s text is nicely set – not beautifully, but well enough, using Baskerville. Baskerville is a neoclassical typeface, cool and rational, a product of the 18th century. Did Silliman think about this? Was the designer thinking about this? Is this how his book looked in print? in the eponymous Chinese notebook in which he wrote it? I don’t know, although my recognition of the connotations of the type inflects itself on my reading of Silliman’s poem.

21. Poem in a notebook, manuscript, magazine, book, reprinted in an anthology. Scripts and contexts differ. How could it be the same poem?

Would Silliman’s poem be the same poem if it were presented as, say, HTML? Could it be presented as HTML? This section of The Age of Huts is prose and could be without too many changes; other sections are more dependent on lines and spacing. Once a poem is in a PDF (or on a printed page), it is frozen, like a bug in amber; in HTML, type wiggles around at the viewer’s convenience. (I speak of the horrors HTML can wreak on poetry from some experience: in the evenings, I set non-English poems (in print, for the most part) for Circumference.)

47. Have we come so very far since Sterne or Pope?

Neil Postman, in his book, wonders about the same thing, answers “no”, and explains that in fact we’ve gone backwards. Disappointingly, there’s little reference to Sterne in Postman’s book, although he does point out that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield was more widely read in the eighteenth century: possibly the literary public has never cared for the challenging.

Project Gutenberg happily presents their version of Tristram Shandy online in a plain text version: at certain points, the reader sees “(two marble plates)” or “(two lines of Greek)” and is left to wonder how much the text has changed between the page and the screen. Sterne’s novel, like Pope’s poetry, is agreeably self-aware: how Sterne would have laughed at “(page numbering skips ten pages)” in an edition without page numbers. There are a few lapses in’s presentation of Silliman, but they’re comparably minor: some of the entries in Silliman’s list aren’t separated by a blank space, leading one to suspect the pagination was thrown out of whack in Quark. When something’s free . . .

53. Is the possibility of publishing this work automatically a part of the writing? Does it alter decisions in the work? Could I have written that if it did not?

A writer writes to communicate with a reader unknown. Publishers publish to make money. These statements are not always true – there’s no shortage of craven writers if there’s a sad dearth of virtuous publishers – but they can be taken as general rules of thumb. Where does electronic publishing fit into this set of equations? Certainly when Silliman was writing this twenty years ago he wasn’t thinking seriously about distributing his work over the Internet.

(Silliman has, for what it’s worth, an excellent blog, suggesting that had the possiblity been around twenty years ago, he would have been thinking about it.)

56. As economic conditions worsen, printing becomes prohibitive. Writers posit less emphasis on the page or book.

Why does’s reprinting of Ron Silliman’s poetry seem more interesting to me than what Project Gutenberg is doing? Even the cheapest edition of Tristram Shandy that I can buy looks better than what they put out. (Ashamed of their text edition, one supposes, they’ve put out an HTML version of the book, which is an improvement, but not enough of one that I’d consider reading it for six hundred pages.) More to the point: it’s not that hard to find a copy of Tristram Shandy. You can even find one in one of the better airport bookstores. It’s out of copyright and any would-be publisher who wants to can print their own version of it without bothering with paying for rights.

I could not, alas, go to a bookstore and buy myself a copy of The Age of Huts because it’s been out of print for years. Thanks a lot, publishing. Good work. I could go to and buy a “used/collectible” copy for $113.20 – but precisely none of that money would go to Ron Silliman. But I don’t want a collectible copy: I’m interested in reading Silliman, not hoarding him. (Perhaps I start to contradict myself here.)

223. This is it.

But there are still questions. How do we ascribe value to a piece of art in a market economy? Are Plato’s ideas less valuable than those of Malcolm Gladwell because you can easily pick up the collected works of the first for less than 10% of what the two books of the second would cost you? when you can download old English translations for free on the Internet?

How valuable is a free poem on the Internet? How much more valuable is an attractive edition of a free poem on the Internet? even if you have to print it out to read it?

Why aren’t more people doing this?