[ First posted on Peace Corps Writers in September, 2008, Lawrence F. Lihosit pushes and shoves RPCVs towards sharing their experiences in print.]
You Can Publish It
By Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
Within three years, this nation will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception with parades, speeches, and book sales. It is very rare that a government program captivates the American imagination. In the first half of the twentieth century only two programs did, the WPA and the CCC. In the second half, it was NASA and the Peace Corps. As we near this anniversary, there will be incredible interest in the program and us, the foot soldiers. If you have a story to share, this is a great time to write it down.
Keep your dreams humble. After all, you write for your children and grandchildren. If you really cared so much about fame, glory, and riches, you never would have joined the Peace Corps. In fact, commercial publishers reject ninety-six percent of all submissions not because ninety-six percent of the writers are that bad but because they are just not bad enough. How else could we explain the publication of a book about life in the White House supposedly written by George Bush Sr.’s dog, Millie? Or the publication of a book of how to kick cloth sewn around beans (the hacky-sack)?
Once you have a book and assuming that you, like the majority of authors, search for an alternative to commercial publishers, consider self-publication. It is cheaper than you think. If you smoke, quit. In one year you will have enough to publish 300 copies of a 96 page chapbook. If your house needs painting, put it off for a year. That money will pay for 500 copies of the same size book. If you decide to self-publish you will join many other Americans including, to name a few, Zane Grey, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Upton Sinclair, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Virginia Wolfe. More recently, best selling self-published authors have included; Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy), and J. Michael Straczunski (Babylon 5). You will be the project king or queen. Servants will do your bidding.
Who is your audience?
That is easy, your friends, family, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who now number more than 180,000 ( . Then, there are local unions, fraternal organizations, community service organizations, local writing groups, regional and national groups directly related to your topic, and even local flea markets. One RPCV author I know sells an average of ten copies of his book each time he sells at his local flea market. Do you have any skills or talents that can be used in public presentations? If you play the accordion, schedule a gig and sell books afterwards.
Who will print your book?
Be aware that the computer and the internet have spawned a new industry called Print-On-Demand. Most of the books reviewed by “Peace Corps Writers” are actually Print-On-Demand books. You pay a fee, submit your literary work electronically, and they create books for you. You receive a limited number of copies in exchange for the company having the right to publish and distribute your work for an agreed-upon time. They pay a set amount to you for each copy sold, called a royalty. Since everything is done electronically, these publishers no longer need warehouses because they can literally create your work one book at a time. They will have a web page and will also be listed on large chain bookstore computers. As the orders come in, they sell. It has proved successful enough that Barnes and Noble has its own Print-On-Demand company. If you never aspired to be a king or queen, this might be your choice.
However, you can actually do this yourself. If this appeals to you, there is a bit of business housework to tackle.
1. You must decide on a business name, fill out the paperwork and publish the required public notice in a newspaper.
2. Visit your local planning department and apply for a Home Occupation Permit and Business License.
3. Rent a private mail box so that your address will not be “Post Office Box” but rather “Suite.” It looks better.
4. Set up a business checking account.
You may wish to do a few other things like print up business cards, letterhead, and envelopes. Create a web page. Connect to an internet outlet for sales (Amazon.com, E-bay, or Pay Pal).
Of course, this will cost a bit of money. This is called start-up cost. You are now a small business person. As such, you are entitled to file a Schedule C with your federal tax return to deduct business expenses related to this publishing. In fact, the I.R.S. generally permits a business to lose money while deducting expenses for three years. This can sometimes be extended if the business can demonstrate progress towards a profit. Keep receipts and be honest.
Avoid legal pitfalls
You are now ready to begin the pre-publication stage. Take your manuscript out of the desk drawer or that old trunk and reread it. Pay close attention to what you have written because as the author/publisher, you are the sole responsible party.
If you have written fiction then the characters should not resemble anyone. If you have written non-fiction and mention the names of real people be careful, any damage to their reputation might result in a libel lawsuit. If your book describes embarrassing, unprofessional, or even criminal behavior why include names or even physical descriptions? The question should be, “Is this description central to my book?” If not, it might be easier to edit it. If you feel that it is central, be aware that sometimes even sticking to the facts has been construed by the courts as libel. Likewise, when writing non-fiction about a person who is not in the news, not a government official, and does not comment publicly, it is not enough to interview them. You must have a written release, signed by them.
Do not use copyrighted images without permission. For printed material, you have the right of “Fair Use” which is usually construed as including up to ten lines so long as the source is noted.
Aside from legal tweaks to your book, you probably need some editorial help. This is no shame. All major literary figures in the twentieth century had editors. Some of the relationships are legendary because famous writers did not and do not know how to spell or punctuate. Even Nobel Prize winning William Faulkner had an editor who did more than massage manuscripts. He operated on them. Find well read, competent editors. You need someone (or more) to review your work for clarity and style (content editing) as well as spelling and punctuation (line editing). The editor should be a well-read person, not necessarily a writer themselves. Where do you find an editor? Try community college or university campuses first. The instructors might help you, as might other students. It could be a friend, a peer, or a professional. The Internet can help with the professionals. Of course, they charge. Do not be intimidated. Better to rewrite now than to be embarrassed later. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “The art of writing is rewriting.”
At some point, your manuscript must be typed in MS Word because this is the program most accessible for e-mails (to editors) and the program generally used by printers. You will no longer mail paper to your printer but send an electronic version which he or she will adapt with another program, usually Adobe Pagemaker 7. This image of a book will be electronically sent to a machine which will create plates (signatures) containing sixteen pages on each side (thirty-two pages total) for actual printing. Hopefully, you have been working on such an electronic image with your editors, Otherwise, you will have to line edit once more.
Applying for notices and designations
According to the new copyright law, you need not apply immediately so long as the book is correctly labeled with the notice. If you wish to, use the Internet. The government will send you what is called a TX form to fill out. You will also use the Internet to follow directions for application for a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number. This is a preassigned number. Last, you will apply for an International Standard Book Number which is used by bookstores for ordering. If you contract with a Print-On-Demand company, these notices are all supplied by your contractor.
Shopping for a printer
At this moment, you are ready to contact printers and begin negotiations about materials, presentation and cost.
How much will it cost?
The largest expense is for paper. The cheapest paper is newsprint. However, be aware that newsprint is highly acidic and self-destructs. Within ten years, tiny brown splotches appear, then grow and multiply like a bad case of acne. Within a quarter of a century, the pages become brittle and crumble. Aside from coming in different materials, paper has different thicknesses (weight), colors, and even textures. You should discuss this with your printer and mutually agree on the paper that you like and can afford. The second largest expense involves how many colors of ink your book requires. Originally, Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury was typed with different colors of ink to denote generations. The publisher decided that this was too expensive to print and used black typeface only. Likewise, if you have included colored illustrations and/or colored photographs, your cost will increase exponentially. Black and white is the cheapest. The number of colors used on your cover denotes cost. Usually, printers will have an assumed cost for two colors, anything more is at an additional expense because they must run the covers through the press one time for each color. The more colors used, the more work involved. Last, the printer will ask you if you want a glossy cover. This is a chemical applied to make the cover resistant to fingerprints and stains. It costs extra. Most intellectual journals and art chap books do not have this.
Another important variable is the binding. Sometimes an adhesive Perfect binding is not perfect. For instance, if you have written a cookbook with recipes from the nation which hosted you, a spiral binding with wire is probably much better. We tend to set the cookbook off to one side as we cook. An adhesive binding means that the book will close. A spiral binding will stay open.
Aside from all of the factors mentioned, cost decreases as the number of books printed increases. If it costs $8 per book to print 300 copies of a 96 page trade paperback, a run of 1,000 will probably only cost $6.75 per book. Larger runs cost even less. Then again, your printer might offer you special discounts because of your RPCV status. This is not unusual.
Print-On-Demand is a different relationship. Although you self publish, they sell your book for a royalty (and often retain the copyright for electronic rights). You will receive an agreed upon number of copies and then offered a discount on any purchases which is exactly what a commercial publisher would do.
Other printing issues
You should know exactly what your book will look like and have a printing schedule before you agree. The schedule will depend upon the printer. Normally, printers are very busy between October and November, February and March, and again between May and June because of elections.
At some point, the printer will e-mail you a mock-up. This is your galley proof to review. Since your printer is working from an electronic image (not setting type), there will be no changes to your words. However, the actual location of words on each page might not be exactly as you typed. For some unknown reason, the computer programs will change placement a bit. This is called “scrolling.” The most important thing to look for is the spacing. If the galley proof unexpectedly breaks to a new page or adds three blank lines for no apparent reason, you must notify your printer so that he or she can fix the error. Also, if your book includes illustrations, are they printed where you imagined them? If your book includes foreign words and/or mathematical symbols, did they print properly?
Receiving the finished book
Within weeks or months, you will pick up boxes of finished books. Sometimes the printer delivers a bit less than ordered. During binding, the printer will ruin approximately ten percent of the books. If this is the first book that they have ever printed, they might not have taken this into consideration. Feel free to open a box or two at random to look at the product before paying. If printed as agreed upon, pay for the number of copies delivered.
It’s a book!
This is definitely a special moment, holding a book that you wrote and published, but it is not time to celebrate yet. You still have to sell those books! This is the last stage, actual publication. Set an official publication date, usually six months after you have received your books. If you have not already done so, set up a Web site and an electronic purchasing mechanism like Amazon.com, Pay-Pal, or E-bay. Consider ads in newspapers and magazines.
Send review copies to magazines and newspapers (especially PC Writers). Prepare and mail a pre-publication sale notice to friends, relatives, and peers. This includes your RPCV buddies. Offer them a discount if they purchase by mail within a specified period. Contact independent bookstores who might sponsor a book signing.
Contact other public places like restaurants and cafes who might sponsor an autograph party. Contact local television and radio stations, local groups where you might be able to make a presentation and sell books afterwards. Do not forget flea markets and book fairs.
The average self-published author sells between 50 and 100 copies. RPCVs consistently sell more. I have corresponded with many authors who have sold hundreds and a few who have sold thousands. Not bad when one considers that Nobel Prize winning Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s publisher never printed more than 1,500 copies of his books before he became famous.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is a city planner who has self-published nine books and seven pamphlets since 1993. Four are available on Amazon.com.