All posts in Articles

Online Self-Publishing: My Experience

Today I visited the Kansas City Art Institute and spoke with a zine-making class about self-publishing through online Print-On-Demand services.  While the class was focused on more DIY publishing routes and many of the students were not currently intent on going the POD route, I was able to give them a rough overview on what’s involved and answer a few questions.  It’s always great to be able to share knowledge with young artists and hopefully offer some guidance.

My personal experience with PODs go back about 4 years, though I’ve been aware of their existence a bit longer through my involvement with online writing communities.  In the fall of 2009 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Hugh Merrill exhibited a 40-year retrospective of his studio and community artwork.  For this exhibition, titled Divergent Consistencies, I designed PDFs and infosheets detailing his career ad specific bodies of his work, which Merrill eventually decided to publish in book format.  After seeing a student’s book published through Lulu and researching a bit about the company, he decided that self-publishing through a POD was the way to go.  The entire process of getting the book to print took another year, as Adelia Ganson edited the text and wrote supplementary material, and I gathered high res images and learned how to design according to Lulu’s standards.  In 2011, the book was finally published and has since sold nearly 300 copies, mainly to college libraries and museums.

Since then, I have designed two publications for Chameleon Arts & Youth DevelopmentPortrait of Self details the community arts curriculum used by this non-profit, while Camera Dance is a photo essay book by Director Hugh Merrill.  Earlier this year, we began planning another book on social arts practice, but we are currently seeking a traditional publisher.

One thing I noted during my talk was that Lulu and similar services like Xlibris are not technically POD publishers.  They might better be described as POD facilitators, doing all the dirty work for you so you can get your book printed and distributed as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.  Lulu actually prints the books through other companies, which ship the final books directly to you.  There are very few actual PODs in the US, the main ones being Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightning Source.  Each of these services comes with its advantages and disadvantages.  While many beginning self-publishers love the convenience, the final books often retail at a higher price.  Creators get a discounted price, but it is often higher than the typical wholesale percentage of 50%.  Basically, Lulu offsets the initial costs you might pay with other services, into the final price.  This is why we’ve been looking into printing a second edition of Divergent Consistencies through Lightning Source, which has a significantly lower wholesale and retail price for its books.  (And according to some accounts, better quality).

The other thing I covered during the talk is ISBN, which I have recently been learning about in more detail than before.  An ISBN is required of most books distributed through major retail channels, bookstores, libraries, and so on.  Lulu offers a free ISBN, which they own–a fact that may be problematic for anyone who wants to be viewed as a legitimate owner of their work and freely distribute the title.  ISBNs in the US are purchased through Bowker.  A single ISBN costs about $100, but they offer packages of 10 for about $200, etc.  The fact that Lulu is technically the publisher of our books is not something we had investigated very deeply before publishing, and is something I urge potential self-publishers to understand before beginning the process.

One of the students asked about self-publishing a chapbook as an e-book.  I recommended a service like Smashwords, which sells only e-books.  A similar website would be Book Baby.  Both of these have specific formatting requirements and are not ideal for anyone wishing to publish a book with images, like this student wanted.  It’s important to be aware that many people downloading e-books will be using an e-reader, which is often not ideal for viewing images.  Obviously, the best option for image-based books is to offer the e-book as a PDF download, but I haven’t done enough research to know whether there are services like Smashwords to better facilitate purchase of these.

The students passed around a copy of Divergent Consistencies and seemed pretty engaged with the book, which I take as a good sign of the quality of content and design.  The quality of the interior color printing through Lulu is in my view quite solid, though I find the color on the perfect bound covers to be too saturated and the finish too glossy.  Research on Lightning Source tells me they do a better job.  Nonetheless, to see the quality of what can be done through a POD (or facilitator) opens many people’s eyes up to new possibilities and at least offers another venue to consider in getting the work out there.