One of the hallmarks of maintaining a competitive edge in any business is the difficulty of entering into that business. Once you are there, great. But is the barrier of entry for others high or low? How easy is it for others to slide into your livelihood? For book publishing, that answer is careening in one direction like a wild car chase in a James Bond movie.
Software, the Internet, and print-on-demand technology has pummeled the barrier and opened the floodgates to independent publishers and authors who choose to self-publish. As the managing director of a thriving independent publishing house, I understand this. I also welcome it. But there is a learning curve, as one author recently discovered.
I received a call last week from "John," whose manuscript I had turned down last year. His research was very strong, his writing less so, but his work merited publication because of its unique topic. But it was not something Savas Beatie was seeking to publish. "John" decided to publish his book on his own. (I advised him not to.) He called to tell me the book was in the mail. (I thanked him.) He was sending me a copy as a way of saying thanks for some of the guidance I provided him.
The book arrived. It looked as I thought it might: self-published. The paperback boasts a mediocre cover design even though it was "professionally" done. The type size inside the book is 1-2 points larger than it should be, and the font is not one I would have selected. The headers are cringe-worthy, as are the margins and choice of paper. The text reads well because he hired a capable editor (at my suggestion).
I called John this morning to thank him for the signed book. He acted embarrassed, and told me as much, because the book did not turn out as nicely as he had hoped. One early review crucified his effort. I immediately decided to put him at ease. Our conversation went something like this:
I can't believe how awful it looks . . .
Look, I wince on occasion when I pick up and flip through some of our inaugural titles from the early 1990s. Book publishing is not an exact science, and there is a steep learning curve for anyone who wants to get involved and do it right.
I tried to do too much myself . . .
Those who have never ventured into this morass we call publishing have little idea what it entails. All the pieces have be in place--from designers and editors, to printers, suppliers, distributors and, of course, buyers. The other day I picked up one of our recent titles, and the first thing I spotted when I opened it was a small mistake in the text! Authors, editors, designers, indexers, and proofreaders scrubbed it, and yet a mistake slipped through. Alas, it is the nature of the beast.
But the review really hurts . . .
It is easy to lampoon a book for this or that fault or mistake--especially when you don't have to produce one yourself. It's the cousin of blasting another's labor in a public review, without ever having written one yourself to fully grasp the difficulty involved. I offered Tim Smith's bestselling Champion Hill as an example. Lauded by nearly everyone, a lone reviewer trashed it. We later found out he was deeply involved in researching the battle and our book preempted his efforts.
John hung up relieved (I think). And I'm relieved, too. As soon as our conversation ended, I reached over and opened our latest book and spent twenty minutes scanning for something amiss. I closed it with a smile.