President’s Post: The Fifteen-Minute High

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March 2013
by Florrie Binford Kichler

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Fifteen minutes.

That’s how long it takes to publish a print book—shave five minutes off that time for e-book only.

Upload the Word file, make a few choices as to trim size, cover template design, exterior color, and poof—you’re a publisher.

I know first-hand because, as a gift to my family, I just published my great-grandmother’s letters describing her experience teaching Pima Indian children in Arizona in the early 1880s. Transcribed from faded typewritten pages which were themselves copies of the original letters, the letters are now safely preserved (and backed up) for posterity in a Word file.

Which I transformed into a book in…

Fifteen minutes.

At no cost.

Granted, the cover is not custom-designed; the paper is a generic stock; and the interior format is…well…basic. And my technological skills are also…well…basic.

But it’s a book. A book that I published in…

Fifteen minutes.

At a production cost of zero.

Before you start wondering whether I just emerged from a nineteenth-century cave, I should note that of course I have been following publishing technology closely for years, partly as the head of a publishing company that has been in business since 1999 but also, if not more so, as IBPA’s president.

My job as your president is to keep watch on the latest developments in the book business so IBPA can continue to bring you the leadership and education you need to keep ahead of the publishing curve. Just like you, I’ve stayed abreast of the explosion in the number of small and self-publishers over the past few years and the ensuing gush of titles due to the ease of production technology.

As a small publisher myself, I’ve taken full advantage of short-run printing and print-on-demand to keep slower-selling books available, and I’ve converted every speck of content I own to every e-book format available.

But until several weeks ago, I had never done that myself.

Did I mention that it took me 15 minutes to bring a 170-page book into the world—for free? Those of you who do this on a regular basis have no doubt long since gotten over the “gee whiz” reaction to what is production at warp speed in comparison to the “old days” (say, for instance, 10 years ago).

It took me a while to settle down from the high of publishing my grandmother’s letters. But once the adrenaline rush of actually making my own book began to subside, a thought suddenly occurred to me.

Just because we can publish something, does that mean we should?

Granted, my home-grown book was created for, and will be of interest to, family members only, so a case could be made that none of you need to be concerned about the impact it will have on your titles’ discoverability. Or do you? Despite the fact that 99.9999 percent of readers will have no interest whatsoever in my book, it will still raise the count on all the major book databases and appear whenever anyone searches for U.S. or Arizona history.

Raising the Responsibility Issue

Are you inclined to remind me that technology has spawned a revolution in accessibility, leveling the playing field for smaller publishers, removing financial barriers and enabling us to compete effectively with the “big guys”? Rest assured that I agree with you. I also understand that writing and publishing are not the same thing (certainly it takes longer than 15 minutes to write a book) and that production and publishing are not the same thing either (just as certainly, it takes longer than 15 minutes to attract readers who are not intimately involved).

But I wonder—bear with me here–if publishing were just a little less cheap and easy, would the quality rise? There might be fewer titles, but would readers benefit because it would be easier to discover what interests them? Would more time be spent on writing and editing, resulting in a higher standard of excellence?

Yes, one approach is, “It doesn’t cost anything, so let’s just put it out there and see what happens.” But another is, “Does this help fulfill my responsibilities as a publisher?”

Whether they publish one book or many, independent publishers have historically been the keepers of the culture. As our founding and long-time Executive Director Jan Nathan said, “The independent press always has the first books out on any subject, and independent publishers will be the only publishers who keep on publishing and selling books on that subject after the fads have come and gone” (compare and contrast “What I Think Is Really Going On in Publishing” on fads, in this issue).

If culture is what remains after the fads have come and gone, then does it behoove us as independent publishers to look beyond expediency and cost and consider how (and whether) what we are producing contributes to the body of knowledge?

Technology has revolutionized the book industry by democratizing the process of publishing. That means that readers have access to a wealth of content that could not have been dreamed of even 10 years ago. But now that anyone with a computer keyboard and 15 minutes can publish a book, maybe the important question becomes not whether a book can be published but whether it should be.

Has the book been carefully conceived, thoughtfully written, professionally edited, painstakingly proofed, and creatively designed? Does it fill a need? Will it, somehow, help the people who are its intended readers?

It looks to me as if the way we define our responsibilities as publishers will go a long way toward determining whether the future wealth of content becomes a treasure trove or an avalanche.


Follow Florrie and IBPA on Twitter at twitter.com/ibpa, and on IBPA’s blog at www.ibpa-online.org/blog. Join Independent Book Publishers Association–IBPA group at linkedIn.com.

 

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