My media director recently received an invitation asking if I was available to participate in a book signing and writers’ panel in New York. I would be joining two accomplished and successful science writers, one of whom is a personal friend of mine. It sounded great! In the email, the organizer wrote: “I normally don’t invite self-published authors to my events, but made an exception in Mr. Notkin’s case.” [The italics are mine] I do appreciate that this was almost certainly intended as a compliment, but it also unintentionally illuminated a buried vein of snobbery that exists within the strata of contemporary writing: the idea that a self-published writer is, somehow, not a real writer.
Some sweeping elitist views contain at least a nubbin of truth; could this be one of them? In a hi-tech world where Macs and page layout programs can be acquired cheaply and easily, and where print-on-demand (POD) outfits and vanity presses will happily crank out your life story, American novel, or self-help guide, almost anyone can be an author if they have spare time and some extra cash. Painfully simple paint-by-numbers design programs like Microsoft Publisher mean even a smart 10-year-old could theoretically put out an (admittedly short) autobiography grousing about how his parents forced him, daily, to suffer at a proto-Fascist private school, while forbidding him to stay up late and watch the sexy and alluring Diana Rigg in The Avengers on TV (I am quoting from my own childhood here). How tedious would such an account be for the average reader?
I doubt a lad with only a decade’s worth of life experience could share much in the way of insight or enlightenment, and consider how poor the design and typesetting would be. Actually, I don’t have to consider that because I’ve seen plenty of self-published books that have been put together so horribly I likely could have done a far better job myself, even as a ten year-old. Yet, I maintain that there is nothing wrong with self-publishing; quite the opposite in fact. It is a homespun artistic uprising akin to the magnificent and tumultuous punk rock revolution of 1976. Punk was a generation-defining social movement which accidentally gave birth to the fanzine—a Xerox-nourished zygote that slowly grew and mutated—decades later—into independent publishers and POD. The startling realization that you could do things yourself—put out your own record or publish your own counterculture “magazine” (I use the term loosely as most fanzines at the time were hand folded and stapled stacks of photocopied pages)—was fueled by the true original indie labels like Stiff Records in London. Without Stiff we would not have the punk anthem “Neat, Neat, Neat” by The Damned or My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello, and that would be a loss to the arts too bitter to contemplate.
Improved tech, and advances in low-cost printing allowed this proletarian putsch to alter the way in which words on paper were made available to the public, as did the epiphany that—truly—everyone has a story to tell and anyone can write a book. Well, I take that back. I’m not sure that many of today’s American high school teenagers can complete a sentence without using the word “like” at least twice, but you get my drift. Self publishing means Random House or Penguin don’t have to sign off on your book in order for it to live.
Passionate though I am about giving freedom to words, and much as I delight in the nuances of the English language, and even though I have encouraged many friends (and my World War II veteran father) to record and preserve their unique experience of existence through do-it-yourself literature, I will also be the first to admit that many self-published books are not that good. In fact, many are downright diabolical. Hence, no doubt, the comment from the nice lady organizing the authors’ event in New York. In the old days, if a publisher went to the considerable expense of putting your book out, some professional, somewhere, with some knowledge of writing thought it was good, or would at least make some money. To self publish a book today, the only person who needs to think it’s any good is the author, and that can be dangerous.
I could have replied to the New York book event lady and listed the 100-plus articles that I’ve written for “real” publications, or my contributions to other “real” published books, but why bother? I also might have explained that I could, quite easily, have found a recognized publisher for my recent book: Meteorite Hunting: How To Find Treasure From Space, but I didn’t want to. There were three reasons for this hard line attitude: artistic control, timetable, and money.
As the first two seasons of my television series Meteorite Men started airing around the world and we began the preliminary plans for a third season, I realized there was one thing that many or most of my viewers wanted. They yearned to find their own meteorite. After being deluged with literally thousands of emails from hopefuls who thought they had discovered a valuable space rock in their yard or driveway, we put together an online guide to meteorite identification in the hope that we’d be able to curtail those inquiries through education. Answers to basic questions about meteorites, along with simple tests that the would-be space rock hunter could carry out at home, were clearly presented on my flagship website. The idea backfired disastrously. The meteorite ID guide became so prominently indexed by Google that it did nothing but generate more inquires. Lots of them. So, if all these people wanted to find their own space rock I would show them how to do it, and how to tell the difference between valuable meteorites and common terrestrial rocks.
Between the end of the Meteorite Men Season Two premieres and the start of production for Season Three we experienced a lull back at company HQ. A lull for us is much like a busy 40-hour work week for your regular office employee, but—by our standards—things were quiet. My staff amuse themselves by pointing out that every time we appear to have things under control at Aerolite Meteorites LLC, and our work load slows to a relatively normal pace, I quickly dream up a new and massive project which, once more, puts us back under the gun. And so it was with the book. I can’t help it. I don’t like to be idle.
I would be on a tight timetable. If I was going to produce a book, it was vital that it be in hand by late January of 2011, when the annual gem show opens in Tucson. Tens of thousands of rockhounds would descend upon the Baked Apple during those first two glorious weeks of February; many of them would be Meteorite Men fans and, hopefully, some of them would want my book. So, I rose early each morning during that comparatively lazy December and January with the firm intention of writing two chapters per day. Some days I only managed one chapter, and some days I edited existing chapters, but I worked at a furious pace, and I got it all done, start to finish, in 31 days. As I am a contrary fellow, the very first thing I did was design the cover. The first chapter I wrote is the last one in the book. Next, I wrote the Afterword and then the Acknowledgements, which go at the beginning (some writing teachers like to poke fun at would-be authors who write a list of “thank yous” first and then never get any further with their book, so I did that just to spite them), and finally the middle part, which required some real work.
My editor friends, Dr. Larry and Nancy Lebofsky, kindly agreed to suspend their own personal lives in order to assist me in completing my high-speed magnum opus. I gave them just over a week to work through the entire manuscript, and I felt that was a bit like dropping an anvil on a friend’s pet, but I’d made up my mind that the book’s official publication date would be February 1—my birthday (you can do fun things like that when you are the publisher). The mother of my Director of Operations is an English teacher who happens to be a hell of a good copy editor. She went over the manuscript three times (I did pay her), and my excellent friend Chris Cokinos, author of the brilliant work The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History Of Shooting Stars, wrote a marvelous introduction pretty much overnight. My Meteorite Men co-host, Steve Arnold, read through the whole thing in a day or two, made some helpful suggestions and wrote a fabulous back cover blurb for me. My friends really pitched in to help.
Imagine having an agent take your manuscript to one of the big publishing houses in New York and say: “Hey guys. I need you to have this edited, typeset, and printed in a few weeks. Get to it.” That’s an amusing mental image. The major publishers take months, or sometimes years, to move a book from manuscript to final product. It’s okay, they’re big companies, I’m not knocking the way they run their businesses, I just don’t want to deal with it. The typical first-time author will be assigned an editor which he or she may or may not like, and a cover will be designed by some in-house artist who does nothing but dream up covers for books he or she hasn’t read. If you are lucky, you might be shown the design before it goes to press, but as a new author don’t be under any illusion that you’ll be asked for input on how your book should look. This fact, more than any other, explains why I do things myself.
In addition to being a television personality and a science writer, I am an art director. I have a degree from New York’s famed School of Visual Arts, and I started publishing underground fanzines way back in the punk era. In all modesty I already have all the skills: writing, photography, design, typesetting, indie publishing experience, and something of a knack for guerilla promotion. As such, why on earth would I turn my book over to some big corporate entity, let them re-write it the way they want, and decide on a cover design they like. If I did sign away by book, I would then hope desperately that some publishing exec might choose me as one of the few authors they would bother to actively promote that quarter and, finally, I would sit around and wait for a meager royalty check to maybe arrive one day. Forget it. I demand complete artistic control over my product and—in the event that it is successful—I want the money too.
And there—would-be self publishers—is the canary of truth in the coal mine. You do the work, you take the risks, you make the money; if your book sells. And mine did, eventually.
I have a great print manager; really great. His name is Guy Rovella of Aardvark Press here in Tucson. If you want to print business cards, flyers, brochures, a lithograph, a laminated card with a wacky hologram on it, or if you are a detail-oriented perfectionist publishing a complex full-color book about how to hunt for meteorites, you should go to Guy. He is the best.
Guy shopped around and got me a super deal on printing my books. With 100 pages, full color throughout, a glossy and hefty cover, lustrous paper, and full bleeds, I wasn’t cutting any corners. I could have done the job for less in Hong Kong, but I believe in keeping work here in the USA, and I wanted to be able to sign off on proofs and be in regular contact with the printer. The last time I was involved with a job that was printed in Hong Kong, we received 1,000 expensive, seawater-damaged hardbacks that some wastrel had stowed in the bottom of a leaky old freighter. You get what you pay for.
I am very meticulous, and all my design projects have to be “just so,” or they have to be redone. I don’t accept jobs that are “okay.” I expect them to be as near perfect as can be. In this instance, I was particularly concerned about certain matters related to the binding and positioning of some images, and I distinctly remember Guy talking to the printer by telephone, while he and I were both in my office looking at the color proofs. “Please tell them to pay particular attention to these issues,” I said, and Guy relayed that to the printer in front of me. “Oh yes, we’re aware of those things, everything will be fine,” the printer replied, and then—about ten days later—when 2,000 copies arrived on a big palette in my driveway, everything was not fine. Numerous copies had been misprinted, many were poorly bound, and some were missing pages. I wanted the entire run reprinted, but I had a serious problem: the gem show was opening in a few days and I absolutely had to have copies on hand for that. I told the printer that I wanted the job redone, but that I would pay for the good copies I had received, of which there were enough for us to get by. No, that wasn’t going to work, the printer said. I had to either keep all of the books, or reprint all of them and there wasn’t time to get reprints to Tucson for the opening of the show. There was some talk of lawyers, and I think someone discussed visiting the printing plant with a sledgehammer (not me), and we eventually arrived at a semi-amicable agreement: I would keep all of the 2,000 books, pay a reduced price for them, discard the misprints, and the print shop would do another run of 2,000 for the original agreed-upon price. I didn’t really want to order that many books, but the plan reduced my per-copy price, so it seemed like a workable idea. Imagine my surprise, then, when the second 2,000 books arrived and exhibited all of the same flaws as the first batch.
Eventually, after much negotiation, and some books being trashed and some being reprinted, I ended up with about 4,000 copies at a rather favorable price. The print shop people actually were very nice, and mistakes do happen. You just don’t want them happening when you’re on an extra-tight deadline, and footing the bill yourself.
The response to Meteorite Hunting at the gem show was splendid. I did two book signings, and Steve Arnold was kind enough to sit in on both of them. We sold many copies, and received only one complaint. A 50-ish rockhound guy with sunken cheeks, and stringy grey hair that looked like seaweed, came into the showroom and complained to me about the $25 cover price. “That’s a lot of money for a 100-page book,” he griped. I was into, probably, my eighteenth consecutive 14-hour day in the showroom by that point, and may have been a bit cranky. “Really!” I replied. I vigorously explained to him how many mega thousands of dollars it had cost me to print the book, not counting the expenses related to editing and photography, the 31 consecutive days I spent writing it, the problems with the printers and defective copies and reprints, the rush to get the project done in time for the gem show, and I likely would have carried on for quite a while longer, but he was—by that point—already cowering, and attempting to slink out of the showroom. “It’s cheap at the price!” I barked after him as he disappeared through the showroom doorway. Not our finest customer service moment, but really, we are usually much nicer, and I suppose the incident illustrates that I may not take criticism very well when it comes to a labor of love, and I am over tired. Oddly enough, he came back the following day and bought two copies, at which point we shook hands, I gave him a little free meteorite, and all was well with the world.
A distribution company specializing in science and natural history books asked to work with us, and they are now getting copies of Meteorite Hunting into mom and pop rock shops and indie bookstores across the company. They are good people and have already moved 1,200 copies. More power to ‘em. Readers liked the book and I was pleased. I collected a page full of unsolicited customer testimonials which we put on the website. We are most of the way through the 4,000-ish copies that we ended up with. I suppose I shall have to reorder soon, and will doubtless go over some other hurdles to keep the title in print, but it was so worth it—expenditure, long hours, headaches and all. I have three other book ideas in the works, and two friends now want me to publish their titles.
Should the giant publishers be the arbiters of taste for all of us? Certainly not, but they are important businesses, struggling to stay afloat in a digital age of video games and texting, and they have helped shape and educate our world by making great works of literature, science, travel, memoir, history, and humor available to millions.
Should Mrs. Beck from upstate New York be allowed to self publish her possibly dull memoir about a barefoot-and-pregnant housewife shacked up with a cheating husband, even though she hasn’t taken any formal writing classes? Should the 40-something nerd living in his mom’s basement have the opportunity to save up some bucks from his job at the fast food dump and self publish his ten-years-in-the-making fantasy epic? Of course they should! Will these books be any good, or sell any copies? How the hell should I know?
The beauty of self publishing is you get to do it the way you want, when you want. In the unlikely event that your book is a big success, the money will also go into your pocket instead of into the corporate vault of some major publisher who probably views your life’s work as nothing more than this month’s product.
As it turned out, I couldn’t attend the book signing and panel in New York anyway, as I was committed to appearing at another promotional event at the same time. Long live the revolution.