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The publishing world catches up to technology trends

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

When my friend David Peyton and I wrote our first computer book 30 years ago this summer, we kept a dirty little secret: Our editors at Bantam Books made us promise not to tell the cool kids online just how low-tech the publisher's offices were. 

The books Dave and I wrote for Bantam were filled with news of exciting new communications technologies on the horizon, but Bantam and all of the other New York publishing giants of the mid-1980s were not yet part of that revolution. 

Far from it. While they published the books that inspired and instructed a budding computer community that would go on to make huge changes in how we all talked to one another in the years running up to the new millennium, the publishing houses themselves were stuck in a century-old world that still measured words by the pound. 

Dave and I loved the irony. Here we were singing the glories of electronic mail, real-time chats and error-free file transfer, but we had to send our manuscripts to New York as a mountain of paper. An option to turn in a manuscript on discs was still several years away. And submit by email? Oh, forget that! At the glacial speed of 1980s modems, such an upload would have taken weeks. 

Of course, Bantam and the others in Big Publishing ultimately embraced all things digital, but neither they nor we could have predicted how the same technologies ultimately also would completely change how books were produced and read everywhere in the world. You don't hear much about "paradigm shifts" anymore but that is precisely what has happened to most forms of communications during the lifetime of today's graduating college seniors.

 

  • Their budding bands no longer have to woo those cigar-chomping record company executives for recording contracts in order to be heard. They just use the Garage Band program to record their future hits on laptops, then promote the heck out of the tunes through Twitter and use Bandcamp or CD Baby for distribution.
  • Want to make a movie? Sure, you could still hoof to Hollywood. However, why not save time and do it yourself. Edit the film with Final Cut or iMovie, then use YouTube or Vimeo to build an audience, joining the raging indie film world.

 

It has taken a little longer for publishing to join the new digital democracy, but now that it has, there is no stopping it. For the past few years, I've been working with writers locally and across the country to get their manuscripts into print — in paper and/or electronically as e-books — using an Amazon.com service called CreateSpace.com. This subsidiary was born in the very revolution we are talking about. Launched as BookSurge in 2000 by a small group of writers wanting to create opportunities for authors to not only publish their works, but to also retain their content rights and sales profits. It grew to offer complete self-publishing, on-demand printing and online distribution services. Five years later, Amazon bought BookSurge along with a DVD on-demand company called CustomFlix, combined the two ventures and launched the new service in 2007.

These days CreateSpace enables computerists to sell books, CDs and DVDs at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing. And, more importantly, it provides the tools and templates for creating the content yourself. And CreateSpace can just as easily turn that manuscript into a Kindle- or Nook-ready e-book. 

Profits are a big incentive for using CreateSpace. Consider this: Your book can be found and ordered online through Amazon.com, which then prints it on demand. In other words, each copy is specially printed for that customer. As the author, you set the price of your work, based on Amazon's fixed price for the printing. For instance, a 500-page book might cost Amazon $5 or so to print; if you set your price at $15, your royalty is $10 a book. That is considerably higher than most traditional publishers can offer, because old-school publishers still have extensive overhead in the mass production, promotion and distribution of their products. 

But while the money is good, another obstacle has hindered us graying authors — those born 50 or 60 years ago — on our march toward loving this technology, namely, the stigma that we have always associated with the notion of self-publishing. The term "vanity press" first appeared in mainstream publications as early as the 1940s to describe the subsidy publishers who catered to authors willing to pay to have their books published. Newspapers and magazines generally would not review vanity publications, and serious authors routinely snubbed those who paid to be printed. But the perceptions are changing rapidly.

 

  • Nearly 400,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012.
  • Last year Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet stunned many when he announced he is self-publishing nowadays. "Publishing is like Hollywood," he groused to The New York Times. "Nobody ever does the marketing they promise." 
  • Finally, of the 80 million e-books purchased last year, at least one in five was self-published through services like CreateSpace.

 

It may be the big secret that Big Publishing wants to keep these days is that Big Publishing itself is no longer the only route to getting words in front of readers.