It has finally happened. We have decided to not only self-publish our book Crossing the Divide but also self-produce it. Technology is quickly changing the publishing industry. When we started The Dick E. Bird News in 1987 it was possible because an inexpensive Apple computer allowed a small press to easily typeset and quickly change its composition. It was the desktop publishing revolution. But we were still a long way from the desktop output revolution. In the early years I had to drive 250 miles south to Detroit with my electronic file to output it on a $50,000 linotronic machine. The Middle Eastern couple that owned it, didn’t know how to operate it. They told me to read the manual and print my own pages. With pages in hand I still had to cut and paste graphics. Pictures needed to be screened before using them. Eventually Apple came out with desktop laser printers and I found printing businesses within a 100 miles that would do our output. Finally I bought a black & white Apple Laser printer for $6,000 that would output pages right on our own desktop. I just threw that boat anchor away last year. If I would have bought Apple stock instead of Apple stuff, I would be rich today—But no, I bought STUFF!
Our first computer came with 1 MB of memory. You can’t even turn your computer on with 1 MB today. But in 1986 it was big time stuff. Eventually scanners replaced all the cutting and pasting and gave us control of graphics output. Broadband connections allowed me to stay in bed on the morning we went to press instead of driving 60 miles through early morning Lake Michigan snowstorms, dodging deer. Today we just push a button on the computer and the paper is delivered as simple as an email.
Desktop publishing still has a way to go before it allows the individual to truly be the Captain of his own writing craft. Several years ago we started hearing about POD (Print On Demand). In theory it sounded good but most companies offering inexpensive short run book printing, using new laser printing technologies, were nothing more than the old Vanity Press industry preying on people who wanted to be authors at any price.
Several things need to fully evolve before self-publishing becomes a reality. Some of those factors are now beginning to emerge. Quality full color desktop laser printers are now available for under $500. Everything you need to know about perfect binding a book you learned in kindergarten. Building a book is nothing more than a craft project. When building your own book you end up with better quality. Until I started exploring the possibility of manufacturing our own books, I had no idea that my books published by Doubleday and Warner were built using cheap paper and cost cutting methods that show up as faded and curled pages.
Once you get over all the hurdles of writing, proofing, typesetting, printing and binding your labor of love—you still have to market it. This has always been the Achilles’ heel of self-publishing. But take heart—things are changing.
First, a little history. I can tell you from experience that hooking up with the big boys is no guarantee your work is aggressively marketed or marketed period. I received six figures up front for my books published by Doubleday and Warner, Birdfeeding 101 and Nuts About Squirrels. That alone made me think the books would get proper attention, if for no other reason, to assure the publisher would earn a return on his investment.
I was totally shocked when the books were given zero exposure. The publishing industry produces books much like mud pies. They throw them all against the wall to see which ones stick. I never met my New York agent but eventually she stopped calling me—she said I "Vented too much." I had lost control of my babies—sold them actually. Although the money was great it still bothered me that my children were not being properly cared for. The only front and center attention my books would get turned out to be when I was baby-sitting them. Coming out of a Seattle Barnes and Noble store after doing a book signing I stood admiring the entrance tables decked out in Dick E. Bird Books. I said to the manager, "How long will this display remain here?" She laughed and said, "Until you leave the store." That is the reality of the book business. It’s like any other business venture— "What have you done for me lately?"
Book signing and speaking engagements are a great way to market your own book. Book stores are always looking for free entertainment. Setting up your own book tour is as easy as making a few phone calls and setting up a schedule. The downside is you have to answer every question your audience throws at you. I did a bird program and signing at Powells Bookstore in Oregon for kids once. One little guy was there with his mother and I could tell by his body language that he was full of enthusiasm. He had his hand up with a question before I even introduced myself. I called on him and he asked, "How come you’re so old and your wife is so young?" As his mother was dragging him out by the ear I said, "I think it has something to do with Miss Clairol."
The garden variety vanity press has always been good at convincing anxious writers that they can market books as well as the big boys. Well, that’s true. They’re lousy at it too. The vanity press business is called that for a reason. They know people want to see their hard work in print. They make money if the well produces oil or not. They are a packaged printing deal making their profit from printing, proofing, artwork and design services. But when it is all said and done, you have a garage full of books to sell and they are on to the next victim.
Emerging today is a smorgasbord of electronic book marketing programs that you can choose from to make your book available to the world. Don’t get me wrong. You still have to do all the leg work and market your own masterpiece. The difference is that if someone decides they would like to buy your book they don’t have to come to your garage to get it anymore.
Most Print on Demand pricing structures are too high, even in volume, to make any money wholesaling books to retailers. This leaves you one option—selling direct. Building your own books can make all the difference in whether you make any money in the small margin book publishing business.
So even though it is not a perfect publishing world yet, we have decided to push the envelope a bit and set up our own publishing empire. We are starting with Crossing the Divide. We also have the rights back to Birdfeeding 101 and Nuts About Squirrels. Then I was thinking a great title would be–Why Am I So Old, And MY Wife Is So Young.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird