My name is Kay Lorraine, and I have been publishing since the early 1980s. The first book that I published was an anthology of poems and writings by students (including me) in the German department at my college. The department wanted to produce an anthology of writings by their students, but they weren’t sure how to do it. I raised my hand for the job, collected the writings, and I produced what was admittedly a humble publication n 8 1/2 x 17″ paper, saddle stitched. I did the whole thing myself, including the illustrations which I drew by hand. This was 1984, after all. The finished product was pieced-together typewritten copy that was laid out by hand and photocopied on both sides. – a very common approach back in the old days.
That was before we had computers on every desk, before people even had email. It wasn’t top-of-the-line, but I have to say it was a pretty decent product, considering the technology – or lack thereof – at my disposal at the time.
Compared to some of the other books that were being produced by similar means, mine actually looked great.
Let’s fast-forward a few years to 1992– I guess that’s more than a few – more like eight – when I decided to start my own publishing company. I was a poet and novelist, and I wanted to get my work out there quickly and without having a lot of roadblocks in the way. Back in the day, again before email and before the Internet, the process for submitting your manuscript to publishers was long and laborious and involved a whole lot of postage. It also involved a lot of copying. If you can imagine, if you had a 200-page manuscript, you had to make multiple copies of it, ending up with a massive stack of paper (sometimes you had to send more than one review copy). You then had to stuff that ream (or more) inside a mailer and send it off to a publisher, often paying a princely sum for the postage, with no guarantee of your work even being accepted.
Like so many other authors, I received a lot of rejections. Either the work didn’t fit, they didn’t care for my writing style, or they just didn’t have a place for me in their upcoming publication calendar. I believed in my work, and other people who read it thought it was fantastic, but for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t get placed with a regular publisher. Even the small independent publishers were dead ends for me. One of them actually signed a contract with me, but then were forced to revoke it when their business got into financial trouble.
I couldn’t fault anyone for passing on my work. Back in the day, old-style publishing required that you print an initial run of 10,000 copies in order to make publishing economical. You had to have an almost guaranteed audience or pretty sure sex appeal – literally or figuratively – in order to get picked up.
This was before the many, many independent publishers on the scene today. Before on-demand printing made it possible to publish work that was experimental or fresh or by authors who didn’t have a huge following already.
Yes, it was depressing – but the most frustrating thing about it was that the whole process was so inefficient, so time-consuming, and you could lay your heart on the line, invest so much time and energy, and really put yourself out there at substantial cost yourself… with absolutely no guarantee of any return on that investment. In terms of business acumen, the whole process made no sense if you weren’t a popular, up-and-coming writer, someone with an established following, or you weren’t writing according to a formula that other people were almost guaranteed to buy.
Now, you could say that that just meant that I needed to work harder, I needed to find a niche, that I needed to make compromises with my work in order to appeal to a broad audience. But to me, that made no sense. If I made those compromises, how could I really be sure that my own true voice was really coming through? Plus, what I really wanted to do was write experiment pieces, including poetry, and not be constrained by having to worry about whether or not somebody else would instantly love what I did. Of course, it’s always great when authors can become popular and sell a lot of books – that’s the goal, right? But at what cost? Frankly, I wasn’t writing to get rich, but every publisher whom I approached (obviously and for very good reasons) had profitability in mind.
So, for me the clear choice was just to publish my own work. I didn’t want to work with a “vanity press,” because for me it wasn’t about vanity. Plus, when I saw the books that were produced by a lot of vanity presses, I was pretty horrified. The quality of the print, the typeface, the quality of the binding, the cover designs, everything about those vanity press books just screamed low-budget, rip off, and no respect for the art. For me, the quality of the tangible book itself – the print, the font, the weight, the feel, the cover – in short, the entire experience of reading that book – was every bit as important as the content. I’m not a shallow person, and I do respect the Word. I just really love a good design. And good design was not what I was seeing from the vanity presses.
So, I published myself. I can’t say that my first books were the finest quality in the world – especially the ones that were perfect bound. But at least I knew that they could be better. And I kept looking for new options and new ways to publish independently. My poetry chapbooks I was very happy with, because I figured out how to arrange the text on the pages so that they would be properly paginated, so the headings were properly centered the page numbers were properly placed, and all of the spacing between the different elements was pleasing to the eye and aesthetically enjoyable.
What’s more, I came up with consistent designs that really truly looked fantastic and had a “signature feel” to them. Even if my poetry chapbooks were saddle-stitched copies created on the self-serve copiers at the local copy shop, they still looked great, on the outside and the inside. The cover stock was just right, and the cover designs were exactly the way I wanted them to be. The interior layout was pleasing and contributed to the experience of reading my words. And the product was all mine. I had done it myself, and it was something I could really be proud of.
At the time that I was publishing my own chapbooks and getting book design ingrained into my DNA, an amazing thing happened – almost right before my very eyes. I was calling around to different book manufacturers – the printers who created the actual books themselves – hoping to get pricing on a run of 1,000 copies (not the usual 10,000), and my account rep started telling me about the new way the books were being produced. It was called print-on-demand, and it offered unparalleled flexibility and adaptability to publishers who wanted to print short runs of books – less than 10,000 copies at a time. According to the rep, the quality was just the same as if you were using an offset press, but the cost was actually lower, and I could place smaller orders that wouldn’t bankrupt me.
Even though this was new technology, I didn’t need much convincing. I knew from the very start that this is going to be revolutionary. The account rep waxed eloquent about the flexibility in the power of this new approach, and I was on the same page with her, right from the start.
Before I could place my first order of 1,000 copies, I relocated from California to the Boston area, and had to rebuild my life from the ground up. So my publishing went on hold for a few years. But before long, I had to get back in the game. I had to start publishing again. It was in my bones. In my blood. It was part of my DNA. Ever since I’ve been in college, even when I was out of school and “jobbing around”, just trying to make rent, my heart was still in publishing. My first real job out of college was actually at a little publishing company, which printed and distributed business literature to small and medium size businesses. I remember fondly the Tuesday afternoons that I spent with my coworker, Dot, as we proofed bluelines – the old-style proof copies of publications that need to be checked before they were printed and final. To be honest, I really miss those days sometimes. Call me a publishing geek, but I love proofing bluelines.
When I got back into publishing in in the early 2000s, I looked around for on-demand publishing that wouldn’t break the bank. And I stumbled upon an option that truly revolutionized my publishing activities. I could publish on-demand at no upfront cost. With a properly formatted manuscript and promotional text for the back cover, I could produce a trade paperback that was professionally produced and looked fantastic, which could actually be sold online at no actual cost to me. The only time that money changed hands, it was when someone bought the book from me – or if I purchased proof copies to make sure it was perfect before I put it on the market.
Having been through so many requests-for-quotes from manufacturers, having done so much production in print and publishing in past years, and having really struggled with the idea that I would have to fork out hundreds, even thousands of dollars before I could have my work out there, this was truly revolutionary for me. I wasn’t the kind of writer who was looking to change the world, or chasing after bestseller results. I simply wanted to do right by my work and have it go into the world in a format that was every bit as pleasing to the eye and to the hands that held the book, as the words were to the mind of the reader.
Fast forward again. It’s been over 10 years since I start first started publishing online with that print-on-demand publisher. I have turned stacks and stacks of paper into more than 20 published books. One of my books got some international press and got a fair amount of coverage, and a national radio personality complemented me on the excellent quality of the book itself. “It looks just like a professionally published book,” he said/ That was the best complement I could ever ask for.
My bookcase at home is stacked with copies of my own books. Other people have read my works, and I’ve been told that my words have changed people’s lives. I might not be a bestseller, and I might not be in the New York Times Review of Books, but I know for a fact that my work has had a personal impact for other people, and that’s the greatest reward I can ask for.
But even more than that the greatest reward to seeing that all of the stacks of paper – in some cases onetime typewritten sheets that I tapped out on my old electric typewriter – are now trade paperbacks with ISBNs, on Amazon, and one of my books is even in the top four in its Amazon category. That is incredibly satisfying, especially knowing that I can keep replicating this process over and over throughout the coming years. I know how to do it, I have done it, and I’ve also taught other people how to do it as well. One of my clients published her own memoir and was subsequently picked up by an internationally renowned publishing house. The process of working with her was incredibly satisfying – most of all because she had a finished product at the end that really looked fantastic. It was every bit as professional as the book that was eventually produced by the international publishing house.
I could keep on about my passion for publishing and great book design. I love to go into bookstores just to see what books look like, these days, what innovations are happening in the publishing world, as well as what changes are happening in fundamental design. Things like font size, margins, front matter, and the placements of testimonies peak my interest and keep me coming back for more. Yeah, you can call me a publishing geek, but that’s what lights up my life, and that’s what really brings me joy. And the great thing is nobody these days has to go through the same pain and suffering that was once standard operating procedure or from any hopeful writer and wishful publisher.