Sunday, March 30, 2014

Case Study: Publishing a Chapbook
with Amazon’s CreateSpace

All those nights when you can't reach me?
I'm making these things.
When it comes to poetry chapbooks, I’m a DIY gal. So far I’ve self-published nine chapbooks at home using InDesign or QuarkXPress, a couple of desktop printers, and a huge stash of paper from a print shop that went out of business*. I edited books for a living for many years, and I still get a creative rush out of designing and assembling them. So if it means giving up a few evenings to print, fold, staple, and trim chapbooks while listening to Bollywood music, that’s OK. I like it. It’s fun.
        But recently I went a different route and published a chapbook through CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand program. A client had asked me to help him marshal his book through the CreateSpace process, so I decided to use one of my own chapbooks as a guinea pig first. I figured if things went badly, I could steer the client away from the mistakes I’d made. And if it went well, it would be smooth sailing for him…and I’d get a spiffy new book at the same time.

Something for nothing?
In a nutshell, CreateSpace works like this: You design the book (either by yourself, or with the help of their online templates and design services), and then Amazon prints and ships copies of the book whenever customers order them. If you design it all yourself and simply upload your PDFs to their system, it’s completely free and seems almost too good to be true. You do pay for any copies of the book you order for yourself—say, a few dozen for your own readings or book shows—but you buy them from Amazon at such a deeply discounted author price that it works out to about what you’d pay a local print shop to do them (for most chapbooks, a little under $3.00 per book, including shipping). And, unlike with a local print shop, your book gets listed on Amazon and is handled and shipped by them, which means your readers can find it easily and buy it while they’re shopping for frying pans, yoga balls, and Breaking Bad DVDs. I’ve got to admit that, even for an independent-bookstore lover like myself, it was all weirdly attractive.
The CreateSpace portal.
        To back up for a moment, let me repeat one point: CreateSpace is only free if you can design the whole book—interior and cover—either completely by yourself, or by using their simplest templates. (They also have fancier templates, for a fee.) Obviously it’s great to have InDesign or Quark to do the interior layout, but you could probably use Word, assuming you’re good at it (which I’m not) and your book is something simple like poetry or fiction. For the cover, you might be able to figure out how to lay it out in Word (again, if you have more prowess with Word than I do), but just about any graphics program will work, as long as you can save your final design as a PDF.
        If you don’t want to wade into the world of design on your own, CreateSpace can do that for you too, but this is where it can get pricey. They offer all sorts of professional services and packages, ranging from design and copyediting to help with marketing and publicity, costing anywhere from a hundred dollars to several thousand. And judging from the online forums that I’ve scoured over the past few weeks**, many authors do use these services, and some are perfectly happy with them. But I didn’t wade too deep into that; I figure that thirty years in publishing should have taught me a few skills. And besides that, I’m a cheapskate. I was going it alone or bust.

Enter the guinea pig
Editing—in my house, anyway—
still takes paper and patience.
For my test case, I decided to do an expanded version of my book Beautiful Brutal: Poems About Cats. I chose this baby for one reason: I sell a lot of copies of it. Now, I pride myself on being a real poet, but this little novelty book has turned out to be surprisingly popular—it always sells well at book shows and writers’ conferences, and people contact me out of the blue to order five or ten to give away as gifts. I spend a lot of time printing those little books.
        Beautiful Brutal started life four years ago as a palm-size nugget of a book, 5.5 inches high by 4.25 wide. So I took a couple of weeks to add a few new poems to it, revise some of the old ones, and do a little re-ordering. I also gave it a larger, airier trim size (6 x 9), fancied up the interior design, and built a new cover around a 17th-century painting*** by Georg Flegel that I particularly love and that is firmly planted in the public domain. Finally the files were ready, and I followed CreateSpace’s easy directions and made the PDFs.

The next step was to register the book with CreateSpace. This is where you let them know what you want your book to look like—page count, trim size, paper color (white or cream; I chose cream), cover finish (glossy or matte; I chose matte). At this point you also set up the book’s Amazon page, which entailed a couple of curveballs I didn’t see coming, such as deciding on a cover price and where to send the royalties, and that brought the process to a grinding halt while I pondered them. The toughest was the “book description,” that little marketing paragraph that you see on the book’s Amazon page. I tinkered with that thing for a long time, trying to make it descriptive but not dorky.****
        Filling out the online forms was fun, but then came the meat and potatoes: uploading the PDFs of the book. That part went quickly. I clicked through a few windows to send the files, their system processed them in just a few minutes, and then a digital proof of my book appeared on my screen. Many printers use online proofing systems, and CreateSpace’s is particularly attractive and realistic, with animated pages that appear to turn. My book looked fine—nothing had shifted or reflowed, and the fonts looked the way they were supposed to. The one hiccup was that the system froze up twice while I was sending the files, and I had to quit out of my browser and go back in. Also, they didn’t process the cover file right away, I presume because I asked them to insert the UPC barcode on the back (another free option). They finished it the next morning and sent me an e-mail; I looked at an online proof of the cover and it looked fine too.

The moment of truth
Sharp yet velvety.
The last step in the approval process was to order a print proof of the book. This is the only part of the process that cost me money, and the total was $5.74—about $3.00 for the book, and the rest for shipping. You don’t have to order a proof; you can just have them print the books without seeing a sample, but I wouldn’t recommend that no matter what printer you’re using. And I especially wanted to see how the matte cover and cream paper looked, since I’d chosen both sight unseen.
        The proof arrived in my mailbox about three days later. Just like in my book-editor days, I opened the package with a mixture of excitement and dread. I pulled the slim volume out of its little box, leafed through it and sniffed it. I scrutinized the cover: handled its silky matte finish, pressed my thumbs on it to try to make fingerprints, and lightly scratched it to see if it got easily marred. It passed all the tests. And I’ve got to say—it was beautiful. The matte cover felt velvety, the type was clear, the cream paper robust, the perfect binding elegant and crisp. I was pleasantly surprised. This system actually worked.

Next up
So now Beautiful Brutal has a new home on Amazon (see its page here). I like the way it holds its own alongside the Hawthornes and Lemony Snickets—there’s a wonderful sort of democracy at work*****, not unlike the internet itself. I also did a Kindle version (which you can see here) while I was at it—it was like, I’m in the hospital already, so while they’re fixing my knee, I might as well get my gall bladder out too. That’s a whole other story, which I’ll write up at a later date. And Amazon is a world unto itself, with author pages and analytics and keywords and search engine optimization, which I will also write about later. For the time being, I’m just trying to figure out how to get the print and Kindle versions on the same page. Apparently the Amazon robots, which take care of such things while patrolling the system like so many Skynet terminators, haven’t figured it out yet.

* That was like some crazy-sad dream garage sale. A local print shop, which had been in business for decades, was closing its doors and needed to get rid of a warehouse full of supplies. It was down to the stuff that they couldn’t sell—literally tons of paper, envelopes and hand tools—and they asked people to just come and haul it away. They even had two letterpresses, which broke my heart. Each was about the size of a Cabriolet convertible, and probably weighed more. I wished I had a house big enough for one of those beasts. Hopefully somebody did.

** There were many, many points in this process where I had to stop and look things up online. Amazon has plenty of instructions, but sometimes they get bogged down in legalese and make things overcomplicated. Plenty of bloggers and internet writers out there have used CreateSpace and have good advice, available at your Googling fingertips. This makes me a little misty-eyed about the democratic nature of the internet. I mean, look at us right now. I have written something that you are reading! And we’re real people with no editors or agents between us, like we just bumped into each other on the street. Doesn’t that just make your head go pop? Nutty good.

*** With this title of characteristic German precision: Zitronen in einer Schale, welche auf einer Käseschachtel steht, ein Korb voller Wal- und Haselnüsse, eine aufgeschnittene Zitrone, ein Messer, eine Maus, die von einer Walnuss nascht und eine Katze auf einem Holztisch. (Translation: “Lemons in a bowl standing on a cheese box, with a basket of walnuts and hazelnuts, a sliced lemon, a knife and a mouse eating nuts on a wooden table, and a cat.”)

**** It was late and I was tired, so I was tempted to stick something flippant in there, like, “These 22 poems are the best ones I could write.” But you know, thumbing your nose at Amazon on Amazon does not hurt Amazon; it just makes you look like an idiot. I ended up with “This graceful, unflinching collection of 22 poems explores the real cats in our lives—the companions, the hunters, the strays, the kittens who grow up and grow old with us. Beautiful Brutal turns the ‘sentimental cat poem’ upside down, reminding us of the deep, wild mysteries we seek in cats—and see reflected in ourselves.” It still feels over the top. But I can change it later.

***** I know—I’m totally missing the capitalism angle, the consumerism and instant-gratification culture and big-brother apocalypse. But I just had a baby (book). I'm emotional.