Novelist Jacqueline Signori at a reading to promote her new novella, Ada, recently self-published through lulu.com.
There’s a new trend in publishing, and one local author is leading the way to creative empowerment by self-publishing her novella Ada. Jacqueline Signori, an English instructor at Kirkwood Community College who also teaches private fiction classes, clued me into the enormous possibilities offered by the digital marketplace of www.lulu.com. She underscored the revolutionary nature of this creative community by pressing a copy of Ada into my hand, with the remark, “It cost me less than $200 to publish, including the ISBN.” Having the Library of Congress’s unique book number will allow it to be sold through amazon.com and other online bookstores.
The 81-page, 6-by-9-inch volume with the bright yellow cover is no stapled together chapbook that a poetry class might run off. It is perfectbound, with a flat spine bearing the title at the top. The paper is not the rough stuff you find in romances and cheap detective novels, but the solid quality of a trade paperback—like the latest business book.
Now I’m intrigued. “You paid how much?” I needed to know.
It turns out I had a prepublication copy that Jacqueline had used to get the kinks worked out of the page layout. Ada’s actual “first run” of 25 copies cost the author maybe $6 each, allowing her to sell them at $9 and keep 80 percent of what the publishing business refers to as “creator revenues.” With a traditional publisher, that would be flipped around, with the author getting 20 percent or less over time in royalties and the publisher keeping the rest to pay back the risk of investing in this author.
Now, most writers I know, whether they admit it or not, would love to publish a book. The phrase “published author” announces that you have something to say to the world. In Jacqueline’s case, she wrote this book as her master’s thesis five years ago, so for her years of literary effort there was just one copy on the shelf of the University of New Orleans library. Believing her novella about a widowed art teacher in 1974 Washington deserved a wider audience, Jacqueline decided to become her own publisher.
So how does self-publishing through Lulu.com work? The author, artist, poet, or other creative soul creates an account at lulu.com, which is password protected. From there, the creator uploads files (retaining the copyright to all material) and selects desktop publishing options from the menus. The site displays an instant estimate for printing costs. The book is available to print on demand as soon as the creator approves it, which means surfers looking for books in that topic can find it during a search and buy it for the retail price. That single copy would be printed and shipped within two weeks, connecting author and reader as efficiently as possible, without the old-fashioned investment of several thousand books in inventory, back when people had to set each page of type.
If the creator just wants some nice copies to share with friends or family, then the process is done. But for anyone willing to do a serious marketing effort to sell to libraries and bookstores, lulu.com offers various additional services like professional reviews that may be purchased here, too. Some authors even make their work available as ebooks, so the reader pays to download a copy to read on a screen and cuts out the middle man completely, along with the collateral dead trees associated with all paper-based communication.
But is the work really published? Poet Dora Maleck replied to the concept, “It sounds somewhat snobby to say there’s a stigma about self-publishing. For poetry, it would take somebody with more self-confidence than I have to do it, because they value their own work so highly.” In Dora’s case, some of that external validation came from The New Yorker, which published her poem “Here Name Your” on April 28.
As for the traditional publishing houses, the rationale they have always used for keeping such a large chunk of the creator revenues was that they assume the financial risk of the print run and then work to promote the title to bookstores. But how much effort do they usually spend on a first-time author?
Back in the 1990s, Elizabeth Rose wrote I Speak and Heal for the Angels, which she sold to New Leaf, a small press in Arizona. “When I made the agreement with the publisher, who ended up being just the printer, I thought she would handle all of that,” meaning the details of getting the manuscript word processed, copyset, bound, and distributed to bookstores. While Elizabeth holds no resentments, she invested $2,000 and ended up doing much of the work herself, like self-published authors do. It took about three years for her to wholesale all the copies and realize a small profit, with help from some friends around the country. Elizabeth’s story seems sadly typical of first-time authors.
Hope Burwell spent two years researching and writing Beyond the Pale, a nonfiction work on the ecological, social, and economic effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “It has been turned down by more than 20 publishers,” she says, “even though they write me the most wonderful rejection letters, saying things like ‘beautiful writing. We all cried, but nobody will want to buy this book.’ ”
Despite such pessimism from the publishers, every time Hope speaks about Chernobyl to progressive social groups and churches, people ask to be notified when her book is published. So a small investment in a print-on-demand solution would seem to be an answer to her prayers. “The only reason that it’s not an answer to my prayers is because it requires a technological learning curve on top of the 10,000 other technological learning curves that I have currently,”
she says, “so I’m reluctant to tear myself away from my other writing projects [like the carbon footprint of bananas] to drag myself back to radioactivity.”
What is the future of lulu.com and other sites like it? For millions of creators who are finding appreciative audiences online, the answer is as clear as ink on the page.
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