September 18, 2004

Publication on $0 a Day

Chris Johnson of Midwest Conservative Journal recently announced that he'd written a book entitled Frank and I: The Final Disillusion of a Life-Long Episcopalian. Chris has been covering the long, slow meltdown of the Episcopal Church on a daily basis over the last couple of years, and the book collects a number of his posts. But given that I've already read most of them, what interests me more is how he got the book published.

When I first wrote Through Darkest Zymurgia, I had every intention of shopping it around, and I even went so far as to send to Tor Books. The rejection came back by return mail; clearly, they hadn't even read past the cover letter. I did a little nosing around, and some reading, and came to the conclusion that to get my book published the traditional way I'd have to work really hard and spend a lot of my spare time on it, and that even if I succeeded, which was unlikely, the chances of making serious money (by which I mean enough money to quit my day job) were slim and none. I wrote Zymurgia for fun; it simply wasn't worth my time to make the effort to get it published in the traditional way.

Now, there's an alternative of long standing for those who want to publish a book in the worst way, and that's the vanity press. And you really do end up publishing your book in the worst way--you pay them a lot of money you never get back, and you get boxes of books you have no room for. Now, some folks have actually made money this way--but they spend all of their time marketing their books. Let's say it together: "This is a hobby!"

More recently, the vanity press has branched into the world of publication-on-demand. There are (or, at least, were) several on-line firms where you upload your manuscript in electronic form, and they give it an ISBN and undertake to get it listed at and such-like places. Usually this costs you a "nominal" fee; plus they are happy to take more of your money by selling you "manuscript consulting" services. I looked into a couple of these places, and then I Googled them, and the impression I got was Not Good. I discovered a number of folks who felt ill-used, and that these outfits were not giving value for money--indeed, once books sold were not passing the money back to the author as they ought.

But Chris, now, Chris has published his book through CafePress. If you're not familiar with CafePress, they got started selling custom T-shirts and coffee mugs on-line. It's easy, and it's free. Here's how it works: first, you design the graphic you want to have on your T-shirts. Then you go to and "create a store". This is the website on which you'll sell your T-shirt. Then you use their website to upload your graphic position it on your T-shirt, jersey, handbag, coffee mug, frisbee, or a host of other things, and put them up on your store. And then you get to set the price for each item. CafePress sets a minimum price for each one; you can stick with that price, and sell your items at cost (I've done this), or you can set the price as high as you like.

The bottom-line is this--it costs you nothing to sell merchandise through CafePress. If no one buys your merchandise, no one buys it. You make no money, but also you spend no money. You've got no inventory, and no fixed costs. CafePress is willing to spot you the storage space on their servers in the hopes that maybe they'll make a few bucks off each item you sell.

Well, it so happens that CafePress is now in the publication-on-demand business, and works just the same as the rest of their services. You write your book, format it as a PDF file, create graphics for the book cover, and upload the whole shebang. And you set your price, and if anyone buys your book you get the difference between your price and theirs delivered to your bank account.

This is very cool, and it's the way it should be. And given that I've got a book or two in me that I'd like to see in print, I think I'm going to take advantage of it. And given that I've got a blog, I'm naturally going to document every step of the process.

Tomorrow: The Perils of PDF.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 18, 2004 07:25 PM

Trudy W. Schuett said:

THX for the 411! I've got three books in blog form, but there have been people asking when they can get the hard copy.

I'd thought about the iUniverse route, which is POD, but there are still initial charges. So maybe I might try CafePress.