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WITH A LITTLE HELP, my DIY publishing experiment

Publisher's Weekly just announced (on the cover, no less!) my forthcoming DIY short-story collection, With a Little Help, a print-on-demand book that explores pretty much every "freemium" model for turning a free, well-known digital object into a bunch of highly sought and profitable physical objects. There's four different covers on the print book, a hand-bound limited hardcover whose end-papers come from the paper ephemera of various writer-friends; a free audiobook read aloud by voice actor/writers and a for-pay CD-on-demand of the same thing; a donation campaign, and even a one-of-a-kind super-premium chance to commission a new story for the book for $10,000. All the financials for the book will be disclosed online and bound into the books on a monthly basis.

Here's the pitch: the book is called With a Little Help. It's a short story collection, and like my last two collections, it's a book of reprints from various magazines and other places (with one exception, more about which later). Like my other collections, it will be available for free on the day it is released. And like my last collection, Overclocked, it won't have a traditional publisher.

Let me explain that last part: Overclocked was published in January 2007, just weeks after Advanced Marketing Services, the parent company of Publishers Group West, which distributed Thunder's Mouth, the publisher for Overclocked—went bankrupt. You remember Advanced Marketing Services. What a mess. First, a senior executive was arrested and convicted of fraud for falsifying the company's earnings, then the company tanked, and the resulting whirlpool threatened to suck half of New York publishing down with it. As a result, Thunder's Mouth went though a series of mergers and acquisitions. My editor and then his replacement both left or were let go (I never found out which). By spring, no one was communicating with me.

Later that year, I did a kind of self-financed minitour, piggybacking on speaking gigs, and every time I went into a bookstore it seemed like I was seeing another edition of the book with a different publisher's name on the spine. The book's currently listed in Perseus's catalogue, for which I am glad. The royalty checks keep coming, and the book continues to do well, but I could no longer be said to have any particular relationship with this publisher. As far as I can tell, it is listing the book in its catalogue and filling orders, but not much else.

This makes Overclocked into a fine control for my little experiment. It is a good book. It sold well and was critically acclaimed. But it is solidly a midlist title, a short story collection published by a house turned upside down by bankruptcy. It will be the baseline against which I compare the earnings from With a Little Help. And those earnings will be diverse—like the musicians who've successfully self-produced albums in a variety of packages at a variety of price points (Radiohead, Trent Reznor, David Byrne and Brian Eno, Jonathan Coulton), I have set out to produce a book that can be had in a range of packages and at a range of price points from $0.00 to $10,000.

Doctorow's Project: With a Little Help


19 Responses to “WITH A LITTLE HELP, my DIY publishing experiment”

  1. Todd Howe says:

    Cory, great to hear about your experiment with 'freemium' - hope it works out as nicely for you as it has for Radiohead. (It looks like the Pumpkins are going to be leveraging this idea as well.)

    While we're on the subject, I'd really like to solicit your opinion on the essay I sent off to the ECopyright Consultation. It's pretty radical, I'm basically making the point there's no value-based justification for charging for anything that's infinitely reproducible, once it's divorced from matter. There's more to it than that, but that's the general idea:

    http://tehowe.blogspot.com/2009/09/cost-copyright-and-embodiment.html

    You've been thinking about this stuff for a lot longer than I have, so maybe you can throw in your two cents. Is this line of reasoning worth developing?

  2. [...] He finally shares details on his print-on-demand, short fiction anthology. [...]

  3. [...] called Doctorow’s Project: With a Little Help and this article on Cory’s blog called WITH A LITTLE HELP, my DIY publishing experiment for more [...]

  4. Tony McFee says:

    I read your article right after an article in Videomaker mag about fair use of trademarked stuff in photos and got an idea. Since you are using POD for the physical copies and the files can be easily manipulated, what about getting sponsorships? Say getting Coca-Cola to pay for product placement? For a fee characters could drink Coke or Pepsi or YooHoo for that matter, use an iMac, and wear Levi's. The company would pay for rights to be included in X number of copies. Next X number could be for a different brand. It could help offset production fees. Only drawback is the author would have to have a certain amount of clout to win such contracts.

  5. [...] sa Doctorow neobmedzuje na publikovanie cez klasického vydavateľa. Pripravovaná zbierka poviedok With a Little Help má byť publikovaná ako print-on-demand paperback prostredníctvom zaujímavej služby lulu.com. [...]

  6. Jayarava says:

    Yes. I imagine that for an established writer with a diverse portfolio of income sources, or someone Megafamous like Stephen King, giving away work may well work OK. You have a reputation that you can trade on.

    Would it work for a new writer? Is something like the Artic Monkey's MySpace success possible for a new author using POD? Would it be any worse that trying to get published through the usual channels I wonder?

    Coming to see you in Camb on 3rd Nov - look forward to hearing more about it.

  7. Cory Doctorow says:

    The thing is, there's no giant community of writers who have full time incomes from nothing but writing and there never have been. There've always been a few Norman Mailers or Stephen King, but most writers have *always* relied on multiple income sources. Larry Niven is the grandson of an oil billionaire. Joe Haldeman teaches at MIT. Vernor Vinge taught UCSD and Rudy Rucker taught UCSC. Nalo Hopkinson takes in pupils. John Scalzi writes for AMC. Bruce Sterling lecture-tours for GBN. Nancy Kress writes for Writers Digest. Jim Kelly is married to a judge. Michelle Sagara works at a bookstore.

    A career in the arts has never, ever been a realistic bet for anyone, and while millions have made the bet, most have lost and had to pursue multiple careers.

  8. [...]                 7th Son,                                        With a Little Help,   [...]

  9. [...] won’t reiterate everything Cory Doctorow has said (you can read the full details here), but the upshot, if I understand it correctly, is that he is giving away his new book in as many [...]

  10. [...] should be written, then pledge away. If you like Cory Doctorow’s books (who is also running a similar experiment in self-publishing), you will probably like Sundman’s as [...]

  11. I really hate to say it, but this thing is set up to fail. I'm not talking about the free samples part - I'm talking about you treating the printed books as though they're e-books.

    Well, they're not. And as a publisher myself using a PoD printer, I can tell you that if you implement your plan, the printed copies of your book will be unavailable for most of the book's lifespan.

    Basically, here's how it works. When a revision is sent to the printer, the printer will usually take the book out of production until the revision can be implemented. But, quality control requires that the revision file be checked, a new proof generated and checked, and then approved by the publisher. With Lightning Source (my printer) this takes about 4-7 business days, during which time the book is temporarily out of print.

    But you're not using a printer - you're using Lulu, which contracts out its printing to a company like Lightning Source (in fact, that might be the printer that handles your book, although it could also be ColorCentric). So, in addition to the time the printer spends working on the revision, there's also Lulu, which requires you to order and approve the proofs through regular channels (an additional 1-2 weeks), and then the book becomes available for sale upon order 6-8 weeks after the approval takes place.

    So, in short, every time you send in one of these revisions, your book could be out of print for over two months.

    I think that constitutes a serious flaw in your proof of concept.

  12. Well, one addendum. If you're lucky, then once the book is in the distribution channels the printer won't reset the cycle upon receiving a revision (I know Lightning Source doesn't). But this just means that the book is out of production for up to 3 weeks per revision, and with lots of revisions, you've still got the problem of the book being out of production for most of its lifespan.

  13. Cory Doctorow says:

    I don't know what your experience with Lulu is like, but I routinely -- and I mean, several times a year -- create Lulu books that I order the day I create them and receive 48h later. This just isn't remotely true of how they work.

  14. "I don't know what your experience with Lulu is like, but I routinely -- and I mean, several times a year -- create Lulu books that I order the day I create them and receive 48h later. This just isn't remotely true of how they work."

    Yes, but are those single or short-run books just for yourself, or are they books for wide-range commercial distribution? If you look at the Lulu website, once you get into commercial distribution, the story is a bit different.

    I think, regardless, the rapid revisions you're looking at are still likely to prove problematic - a printed book for retail sale is not an e-book, and I know for a fact that one of Lulu's printers is Lightning Source, who does take the book out of production while it is in revision.

    Looking at Lulu's website, if you're using the GlobalReach distribution, it's probably Lightning Source - the setup fee is identical to what I pay (I use them as a printer for my own business), as is the distribution package. And, I would point out, Lulu's own site gives a different picture than you've stated when it comes to actual distribution: http://www.lulu.com/en/help/distribution_faq#distro_process

    If you're looking to make this work for wide distribution (wholesalers), then there are two things I'd strongly recommend doing:

    1. Cut the middle-man out and deal with the printer directly. If nothing else, it will save you time on revisions going through, and Lightning Source, who'd you'd probably want to use for the worldwide distribution they offer, doesn't require you to purchase a new proof after every revision (you'll also find that the printing price per book is 60% what you'd pay at Lulu).

    2. Limit your revisions to one revision every two or three months. That would maximize your book's availability - otherwise, particularly if you're getting distribution through Ingram et al., your book is going to spend most of its time unavailable.

  15. Cory Doctorow says:

    Good thing I'm not doing wholesale deals, then. As the article states, fulfilment is via Lulu.

  16. Andbigdaddy2 says:

    I want one of those hard bound books (Premium hardcover edition: $250, limited run of 250 copies.) is their going to be a lotto system or fist come fist serve?

  17. Cory Doctorow says:

    It'll be first come -- I'm waiting to gwt word from my typesetter so I can schedule the printing...

  18. Bob Neilson says:

    Have you considered the ramifications with regard to ISBN numbering? Technically, you might require a fresh book number for each version of the book. I know that Nielsen, who handle book numbering in Europe, don't like changes to an edition without a new number.

  19. [...] This is not to say that distribution and other jobs not related to content creation are in jeopardy. After all, most authors are not going to be experts on how to design websites, content sharing platforms, etc (In other words, not every author is going to be Cory Doctorow – who’s stance on copyright and tiered approach to selling his novels is the best I’ve seen). [...]

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