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In a recent email to some of his supporters, Richard Nash (formerly of Soft Skull, now of Red Lemonade and Cursor) provided the following short history of desktop publishing. Richard, by the way, is a mashup kind of guy, so I’ve left his mashups exactly as he wrote them:

“When asked to discuss Publishing 2.0, as I often am, I immediately reply that we’re actually nearing the end of Publishing 2.0. Why? Because Publishing 2.0 begins in 1985, in July of that year to be precise, when Aldus Pagemaker, the first desktop publishing software solution, went on sale.

“Before Pagemaker, there was no way for a layperson to make a book. Even if you had the money, you didn’t have the language. The process of creating a book was highly technical and had in fact gotten even more technical over the 20th Century—talking to printers required a level of expertise akin to an architect talking to a civil engineer. The average citizen, even if s/he could pay a printer, simply couldn’t interface with them.

“[Then] Adobe invented the Postscript language, and its cousin, the PDF, and Aldus created Pagemaker, consumer software that could create PDFs. Suddenly, $3000 and a PDF got you two thousand books, just as if you were a publisher. Copyshops bought computers, installed Pagemaker and Adobe Photoshop and rented terminals for $6/hour. In more ways than one, they were the progenitor of the Internet café—bands created posters for their shows and cover art for their CDs, music fans created magazines in which they interviewed these bands, and other people started book publishing companies. I know this from direct experience because the publisher I used to run, Soft Skull Press, began life in one of these copyshops, the Kinko’s near the New School University in Lower Manhattan in 1993!

“Why is the forgoing microhistory important? Because most of the significant change that has occurred in the publishing industry is in fact a function of this desktop publishing revolution, not of the Internet. In 1990, 25,000 books were published in the U.S. In 2010, one million. Those are print books, not eBooks. We’ve already had our supplyside revolution in book publishing and it pre-dates the Web.”

If desktop publishing cracked the door open to self-publishing, e-books and print-on-demand blew the hinges off. Now writers can find their way into print without even bothering to walk down to Kinko’s. In fact, they don’t have to change their underwear or leave their room.

Is this a good thing? Possibly not. The mind strains to locate an analogy for the effect of ebook self-publishing on the general publishing enterprise. It’s as if half of all people who could boil water decided to open a restaurant. The problem is that patrons may not know it’s amateur hour until they’ve committed to the meal, and now they won’t be hungry again until tomorrow. Bad books can crowd out good books simply because the reader’s time is finite and it’s so hard to tell what you bought until it’s too late.

Yet it has been well noted that self-publishers do not have a monopoly on bad books. Even houses that claim to be among the most discriminating sometimes publish tripe, though they often get the benefit of doubt from reviewers and the media.

How does a person who attempts to find a third way — between self-publishing and mainstream publishing — navigate this minefield? Well, for one thing, by drawing some distinctions between what we’re doing and preconceived notions of publishing options.

I noted in another post that the Verbitrage model costs more than those methods we now label self-publishing. This may be a bad thing for the brilliant author with zero access to capital, but (1) life is unfair and, more important, (2) expense forces self-discipline on the aspiring author. If all you need to do is tap a few keys and — voila! — you’re published, you have every incentive to throw your most contemptible garbage on the world. If it’s costing you fifty grand in cold hard cash, on the other hand, you’ll think twice.

So Verbitrage is similar to self-publishing in that the author (or his friends, family or patrons) is on the hook for his own investment. No publisher is reaching into its stash to fund your book. But Verbitrage differs from most self-publishing because it sets the barrier to entry at a great height — not artificially, mind you, but as a consequence of the requirements that best-in-class publishing imposes on the enterprise.

Here are the six main ways that Verbitrage distinguishes itself from self-publishing:

1. Most books agented.

I’m not playing gatekeeper — I’m too busy with my own work — but neither am I interested in having my books appear alongside those of authors who can’t write but happen to be rich enough to invest in themselves. Reputable agents remain the first line of defense. That said, unagented authors with whose work I am familiar and know to be first-class may get a seat at the Verbitrage table, if they desire it.

2. All books edited.

The print-on-demand outfits offer editorial services. Not to take anything away from those cats, but I doubt they’re providing the quality of editing I’m talking about. A central proposition of Verbitrage is that there is a great deal of best-in-class talent on the street. In the case of editorial, I’m talking about people who have edited the books of accomplished authors on behalf of established publishing houses. For example, Primacy has been edited by Patrick LoBrutto, who has previously edited novels by Stephen King, Eric Van Lustbader, Isaac Asimov, and many others. A commitment to professionally edited books is the second line of defense, as it were, against less than excellent product reaching the marketplace under the Verbitrage imprint. A truly professional editor won’t allow that to happen.

3. All books designed to sell.

Anyone with Photoshop on her desktop can put together a book jacket. If you don’t believe me, knock around the print-on-demand websites and take a look at what passes for book art these days. The consumer may not know the technicalities that distinguish a best-in-class book design (jacket/cover plus interior), but they know it when they see it. And, conversely, they know when something looks unprofessional, too. The book jacket for Primacy has been designed (on his personal time) by a senior vice president at Random House. It’s not just the talent involved; it’s years of experience knowing how to communicate a book’s message in visual shorthand to the intended audience.

4. All books offset printed.

Print-on-demand technology has come a long way, but offset printing still looks better. To the degree that the book-as-object will persist, small distinctions like this are important. Furthermore, offset-printed books are cheaper to produce on a unit basis, though they involve a greater total investment up front. The economics lead to very important Distinction No. 5…

5. All books distributed through trade channels.

Bookstores may be dead one day, poor bookstores, and so might other brick-and-mortar merchants. But they’re not dead yet, not by a long shot. These stores offer thousands of potential merchandising locations and tens of thousands of potential retail advocates. In addition to offering ebook versions, Verbitrage’s relationship with a distributor gives all paper books under its imprint the potential to reach the maximum number of outlets available today.

6. All books marketed.

The aspects listed above include certain elements of marketing: packaging and visibility, for instance. Other means of marketing books have historically been a hit-and-miss affair, which explains why mainstream publishers nowadays often rely on the author and at best will “chase” his or her efforts. Verbitrage pursues a different proposition: find the marketing hook, work it, adjust it, stick with the book for a longer time than most publishers ever will. That’s no guarantee of success, but it’s a commitment that one rarely sees these days.

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 4: Money Where the Mouth Is

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 6: People Smarter Than Me

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

9 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 5: Six Distinctions Between Verbitrage 
and Self-Publishing

  1. Art Edwards says:

    Fascinating to watch Verbitrage come to life, J.E. I look forward to Wednesdays.

    “The problem is that patrons may not know it’s amateur hour until they’ve committed to the meal, and now they won’t be hungry again until tomorrow.”

    This is entirely true. The problem for traditional publishing comes when the general reader can’t tell the difference in quality between the self-published and traditionally published book. (To continue your food analogy: imagine a buffet of cheap, low-grade fair that merely serves to sustain the reader.) It isn’t a given anymore that trad. publishing can trump self-pub to the reader’s eye.

    I always hope readers go for quality over “just something to read,” but I’ve been disappointed in the reader before, dating back to before the internet.

    Thanks for making this type of discussion part of TNB.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what some — referring to light reading fare — call popcorn. Not every book must “sustain the reader” nutritionally. The key is to meet or exceed expectations for whatever you’re “serving.” I recently read one of those self-published $1.99 e-book jobs. I didn’t expect great literature. Still, once I came to the last page, I felt that I was overcharged.

  2. Loved the bad restaurant analogy! Of course, I spent years in book publishing and witnessed first-hand some absolute tripe getting published, but if it’s money-making tripe, then that’s excusable, I suppose.

    Here’s to lovely writing finding a home, even if the authors have to buy and build those homes themselves.

    Best,

    liz

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      It’s important to remember that authors buying and building a home for themselves is actually a long tradition.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Excellent! I think one of the key elements missing in self-publishing is the editorial process; especially in the sense of working with an editor back and forth over a manuscript.

    Once again, wishing you success, sir.

  4. J.E. Fishman says:

    Sadly, it also sometimes seems lately that the editorial process is something missing in TRADITIONAL publishing. Not always, mind you, but more often than ought to be acceptable.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Fishman,

    I agree with you, from the point of a reader.
    It used to be hard to find a typo or a homonym mistakenly written.
    Now they are too easy to jump to your eye.
    In addition, there are whole sentences written in a different tense than what is needed.
    I don’t know how it can be so hard just to read the book after all the material corrections are made and find the diddly mistakes that anyone can see.

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