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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Publishing Without Perishing

In the old days, life for small publishers was a hassle. The economics were such that copies got dramatically cheaper when printed in bulk, but then the books had to be stored, which was expensive. Finding an audience was the hardest part; some independent presses took years or even decades to sell out a modest print run.

Now books can be efficiently printed in small quantities, like one copy. Amazon, meanwhile, is happy to do the job of fulfilling orders. The stage is set to allow everyone to become his own Alfred Knopf.

James Morrison, a 36-year-old editor and graphic designer in Adelaide, Australia, is an old-fashioned book enthusiast, with around 10,000 books in his personal library. In 2007 he began a blog, Caustic Cover Critic: One Man's Endless Ranting About Book Design, which showcases and evaluates new jackets. Like any inveterate rea der, Mr. Morrison would stumble across obscure books practically begging to be reprinted. For instance, he read an account by the historian David S. Reynolds of “the largest monster in antebellum literature,” which was “the kraken depicted in Eugene Batchelder's ‘Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or The Ichthyosaurus,' a bizarre narrative poem about a sea serpent that terrorizes the coast of Massachusetts, destroys a huge ship in mid-ocean, repasts on human remains gruesomely with sharks and whales, attends a Harvard commencement (where he has been asked to speak), [and] shocks partygoers by appearing at a Newport ball.”

Mr. Morrison concluded that “the audience for an 1850 book-length Monty Python-style doggerel poem about a socially aspirant sea serpent is probably just me,” but how could he be sure? The Internet is all about weaving people together with even stranger tastes.

The critic has published about a dozen out-of-copyright volumes using Lulu, which does the printing, and Amazon, which does the selling and shipping. He dubbed his venture Whisky Priest in homage to Graham Greene, himself an enthusiast of uncommon and unjustly forgotten literary efforts. On the Whisky Priest list are the Batchelder book; a collection by Edith Wharton; “Artists' Wives,” Alphonse Daudet's stories about the war between the sexes; and Storm Jameson's “In the Second Year,” a prophetic look at fascism.

At a moment when predictions of the demise of print are omnipresent, Whisky Priest seemed an indication that the future might be more complex than anticipated. Mr. Morrison answered some questions by email. What follows is an edited extract.

Q. Will the ultimate pleasure for lovers of the printed book be your own editions of your favorite out-of-copyright books?

A. For me it was a matter of there being books in the public domain that I wanted to read which were either not available as physical books, or were available only in staggeringly ugly and expensive editions. I originally intended to just design a cover I liked and then print a copy for myself to read, but it turned out to be an almost negligible amount of extra effort to make them available for others to buy as well, so I thought I might as well do so. It would be as easy to produce editions of things like “Moby-Dick” or “Pride and Prejudice,” but there are already hundreds of versions of those, some with fantastic cover designs, so it would be a bit pointless.

Q. How easy would it be for others to become a publisher the way you did?

A. It's very easy indeed, assuming you have some basic layout or design skills. Even without those you could still do it, though the book would probably not be so appealing. I'd certainly recommend it for people who, uns atisfied with the available editions, wanted a book they enjoyed having around the house. I wouldn't recommend it as a way of making money. I've spent slightly more on proof copies, etc., than I've earned through royalties. Partly this is because I try to set the book prices as low as possible (I make about $1 a book through Amazon, and a little more if someone buys the books direct from Lulu), since they're: a) books usually available free or cheaply in electronic form, and b) Print on Demand books, which are not quite as nice to hold and handle as conventionally published books, so it seems unfair to charge more for them.

Q. I was struck by how little capital you needed.

A. Lulu and Amazon take a cut of each copy sold but require no up-front listing fees or anything like that. The only money I spend is on ordering proof copies for myself, which is the production cost without anything else added on - about $8 for one recent title. To make a book available on Ama zon, you need to order at least one physical copy yourself, check it, and then let Lulu know it's OK to go ahead and list it. If you just wanted to list on Lulu's own site, you don't even need to do that - you could upload a thousand different books and make them available for sale via the Lulu site without ever spending a cent (though you'd never know what they looked like as physical books, of course).

Q. How have the books done?

A. Not vast numbers. The most popular has sold 27 copies. That, a little surprisingly, is A. P. Herbert's “The Secret Battle”: it's a very good novel by a once-popular and now nearly forgotten English writer, based on his World War I experiences, and about the way the English army would execute its own men for cowardice. Close behind are “Transfiguration,” a pair of novellas and some nonfiction by the great Austrian writer and suicide Stefan Zweig, and “The Dangerous Age,” a classic feminist Danish novella by Karin MichaÎl is. But then there are some which have done surprisingly poorly. F. Scott Fitzgerald's play “The Vegetable,” the only edition currently in print, has sold only two copies. But then I can't sell that in the U.S., where it's still in copyright, and that's probably where the main market for a parody on Warren Harding's presidency is likely to be found. Thinking over that sentence, maybe it's a surprise I've sold any copies at all.

Q. Who sets the prices?

A. The pricing is under my control, to a point. Basically, Lulu tells you the absolute minimum you can charge, which covers the production costs and their profit, and then you add to that whatever you want. For example, the Stefan Zweig production cost is $8.10 and then Lulu add a little to that to create the absolute lowest price, which is the lowest I could charge and still make them a little profit (they take 20 percent of any profit on physical books, or 10 percent for ebooks) - in this case around $9. I sel l it for $11.95, from which Amazon then takes a little over $3 (some of this may also go to Lulu or some other third party - Amazon doesn't disclose that), and I get 69 cents. If someone decided to buy the book from Lulu, which is less likely since they have to pay for postage and so on, I make $3.08 (and Lulu gets 77 cents); however, almost every sale comes via Amazon. But I could set the price at anything above that base cost of $8.10, like $25 or even $250, if I thought anyone was mad enough to pay it, and most of that inflated cost would come to me.

Q. How much have you invested in this overall and how much has it brought you?

A. I've only earned a few hundred dollars over two years, and have probably spent about $200 to do that, so I'm slightly ahead, but it's no way to make a living. Partly this is my own fault - I have no interest in marketing or networking, so I just publish the books and let them do their thing.

Q. Are others doing this?

A. T o my surprise, I don't know of anyone doing things in quite the same way as I am. Most publishers of Print on Demand classics seem to operate on a different scale: they make thousands of titles available, usually with identical covers and at eye-watering prices, or else they just sell them as ebooks. I suspect it's a matter of poor timing, technologically: the ability to print a whole physical book cheaply but at a decent quality has become available to everyone just at the same time as ebooks have started wreaking havoc with the market. It's a niche thing, I suspect, but I'm happy enough in that niche.

Q. I think this is just beginning. I envision a future where we will all have competing Stefan Zweig lines.

A. I hope this is the way it pans out.