Lost Art: The Private Collection

by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)

I just lost my quarterly royalty check on the way to the bank. It was stuffed into my beige cargo pants’ leg pocket when I climbed onto my motor scooter but gone as I approached the pretty young bank teller. An hour later, my publisher’s representative agreed telephonically to put a “stop payment” on the check.

She had one question, “Would you like us to issue a new check or carry this over until the next quarter?”

“Carry it over, please.” Thank God my budget does not include book royalties. What for? They are chump change.

Over the past decades I have rubbed elbows with both renowned and unknown artists, some of whom have earned some bucks. One water color painter bought a house with cash, then earned next to nothing from painting sales for the following decades. He still owns and lives in the home but gave up painting long ago. Almost all of the artists I know (writers, painters, photographers, musicians) earn their daily bread at a job and moonlight as an artist, living frugally. The majority of writers teach.

Work is nothing to be ashamed of. Harvard University once offered Wallace Stevens (recipient of the National Book award and a Pulitzer Prize) a teaching job which he declined because he did not want to leave his employer of forty years-an insurance firm. William Carlos Williams practiced medicine. Jorge Luis Borges was a librarian. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a journalist. William Faulkner wrote screen plays. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sold cars for a short while. There are many other examples. However, it is intriguing how many people believe that authors are rich. Many novice authors believe that they will acquire riches and glory with their first book. A rookie lucky enough to sell the rights to his or her first book to a commercial publishing house will earn between $3,000 and $7,000 as an advance on future sales. Small presses pay less, usually with a few free copies of the book. Self-published books average sales of between 50 and 100 units, most of which are to friends and relatives.

About 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2012, one fifth of which were self-published at the author’s expense. Self-publication is not new. What has changed is the cost. Today it costs about one tenth of what it cost four decades ago. As the price dropped and computerized distribution became possible, the number of self-published books increased astronomically. The 2012 self-published books alone represent more words than the entire Alexandria Library collection in the ancient world. We are now living during the most important book publishing renaissance in history, yet it does not change the basic arithmetic that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to earn much moola as an author. I am not trying to dissuade aspiring authors from writing and publishing, just ask them to get real.

We write for the same reason that children leave handprints in wet cement, as a testament, and we write to share.  The real question is the size of your audience. If it is limited to friends and family, do we really need to produce hundreds of books? One of my favorite authors recently complained that his children will probably inherit a garage full of books. Even Print-On-Demand (P.O.D.) is now costing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars for which you receive a few “free” books.  Although a Peace Corps experience memoir has a niche audience, are you willing to spend time and money to promote as well as edit?

So, count those important people. If the tally is less than 50, you may wish to limit the number of copies. Maybe you hate crabby-appleton book reviewers and crass promotion. With the advent of computerized writing programs, anyone can now produce a manuscript just as pretty as anything on the bookstore shelf, even with photos and illustrations. Since photocopy machines have likewise been improved exponentially, one can copy in clear type on non-acidic paper which should outlive the author. Your book can be bound in spiral or Velobind for pennies. Twenty copies of a two hundred page manuscript, copied double sided on normal 8 ½ by 11 inch paper bound with a spiral will probably cost about $260 (so long as text and illustrations are in black and white). Twenty copies of a forty-eight page manuscript, copied double sided with different margins to produce four pages per sheet folded and bound with staples (pamphlet) would cost about $60. How important are they? Look carefully at history books’ footnotes: over and over you will see the words, “Private collection.”

My favorite “private collection” book began as a Master’s thesis in 1963. Over the next three years, the author rewrote and edited, as all careful writers do. He then used a very simple (now prehistoric) photocopy machine to create books which he bound with plastic spirals like we still do for reports. Free copies of this book were sent to libraries all over the country. I read a copy 21 years later in the San Francisco State University library. The pages were already beginning to show signs of acidic deterioration-brown splotches and the print was beginning to disappear. The photo quality from that old machine was horrible but William M. Denevan’s book was brilliant. Today it is the most cited work about ancient Bolivian settlements. Denevan taught for a living.

Now the confession. I too have a private collection which will only interest my descendants. There is my family history (250 pages), my wife’s family history (which I co-authored, 200 pages) and a collection of my personal correspondence (900 pages). What are they worth? Each time my sons check those letters for exact dates, or a family member quotes my history book at a reunion, they earn a smile.

Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir.