Resistance is futile
Click to enlarge the images. These shots were taken in the same direct lighting, with the same camera, using the same focus and resolution settings. Can you distinguish a digitally printed page from an offset-printed page?
Prompted by a teeny link to the new Espresso Book Machine at Ron Silliman's blog the other day, Curtis Faville & I got to talking about whether or not print-on-demand (strategy) and digital printing (technology) are "cheapening the process" of publishing poetry.
I think Curtis makes many good points (as he often does), but I disagree with him (as I frequently do) that writers and publishers who opt to employ POD strategies and digital printing technologies are taking any less care with their work. In fact, I'd propose the exact opposite! Small, micro, and self-publishers who take the production process in hand exert complete control over the process and particularly in the case of self-publishers, are spending more time and effort on the presentation of their work than employees or authors of a large publishing house. They are taking full responsibility for the presentation of their work. Self publishers are extending the writing act to its furthest conclusion, all the way to the book in the reader's hands. (Control freaks rejoice!) Nothing at all impersonal about that--it's intimate even.
Anyway, both Curtis and I stray (really far) from the ostensible topic of the book machine, but since our remarks may be of interest to readers of this blog, I've cleaned up (oh the comment-stream-hasty-typos! the typos here are *much less hasty,* ahem) and expanded my remarks a bit and am reposting them here, in a slightly different form. (I do this not to joust with Curtis at all, but simply to take the opportunity to, well, pontificate further on a personal obsession.)
Argument: "Print-on-demand technology* will be a boon to those for whom the act of publication and reading is the merest convenience."
Reponse: Many so-called mainstream publishers also use print-on-demand strategies and digital short-run technologies and they have been doing so for at least a decade now.
There are many economic and environmental incentives for publishers--no matter their size--to switch from traditional offset printing and traditional print-run guesstimates to produce their books. A few of these are: 1) Because it's no longer necessary to guess at how to supply an undetermined demand, print-on-demand publishing saves the (sad) waste of returns and remaindered copies having to be pulped (more about this later), 2) it saves lots of shipping and warehousing costs (both economic and environmental), and 3) it usually does not require large outlays of cash upfront for struggling small presses. None of these justifications for going POD in any way compromises the literary merit of the work inside the books.
Additionally, I believe there are several artistic advantages to adopting POD and digital printing methods, because the reduced expense and reduced waste results in a relative freedom from the fairly crippling economic concerns poetry publishers (and poets as a result) have come to face, and because it allows poets to produce their own books free from interference of any kind, should they choose to do so. POD allows publishers who focus on genres other than those that go blockbusters (such as poetry) to take more risks on work that might not otherwise make good business sense. They need not worry *primarily* about whether a book will sell. They can feel confident that making a great book available will not break the bank if it proves not to fly off the shelves in the requisite numbers. For these reasons, it's very good news for poets and their readers that the options are getting better all the time.
Argument (not Curtis's, by the way): Self publishing is crass, illegitimate, vain, or what have you.
Response: I don't think this prejudice has quite the stranglehold it may once have had, and actually don't even know why I brought it up in the thread. Still, it bears repeating (perhaps ad nauseum) that I think the tendency to look down on self-published work is an outdated snobbery, and one that doesn't hold up when looking back at the history of poetry publishing in this country. I imagine most readers of [Ron's] blog (just for example) could name dozens of "famous" poets from their personal pantheons who self-published (or coterie published). That's how American avant-garde poets (and other writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc.) have long made space for themselves. The publishing "industry" will not, and frankly, that makes perfect sense, for some of the businesslike reasons already discussed.
One of the arguments I frequently hear from people objecting to self-publishing is, to paraphrase rather crudely, Editors know better than Writers. To which I always say, oh freaking spare me. This "gatekeeper theory" is generally espoused by those already within the gates, or those who possess an unshakable self-confidence in their own worthiness to reside within those gates at some future date. I applaud their confidence I guess, & being chosen by an editor is really nice--it feels good--but it doesn't mean all work that isn't chosen by an editor is automatically crap. Editors are wonderful, smart, dedicated people, by and large, who love the work they publish. But the reality is that to be an editor at a major publishing house in NY all one really needs is a BA, a willingness to work long hours for crappy wages, and the ability to develop a thick callus over one's artistic ideals. I say that from experience. I quickly learned at my first job something that for some reason isn't so obvious to most writers: Publishing is a Business. Every decision is based on the bottom line, not literary or artistic merit. That's not to say--of course--that some fine literature doesn't get published; economic and literary concerns do frequently overlap! But since that's most often not the case for poetry, according to the publishing industry itself, that's not the kind of gatekeeping poetry needs.
The Editors Know Better assumption also begs the question which editors? I believe editors and publishers who are poets themselves are the best editors and publishers for poetry. They must at least be avid readers of poetry--and how many avid readers of poetry do you know that are not also writing poetry? That might sound inbred, but if an editor or publisher is not immersed in the stuff herself, please explain to me how in the world she could know best. If poets make the best editors and publishers of poetry (they do), if publishing is an economically beleaguered business (it is), and poets are more likely to have MFAs than MBAs, do the math: less financial risk for poetry publishers is one of the best things about POD publishing.
Argument: Faster, cheaper production methods and self-publishing flood the field with too many throwaway books.
Response: My feeling is that if POD strategies can relieve some of the purely economic considerations keeping good books from finding readers, I'd much rather sort through a thousand piles of "cheapened" "trivial" POD books to find those stunners than wait for the publishing industry to hand them to me prestamped with their approval. Because terrible poetry isn't scary. It's really simple to protect yourself against a bad book: you just close the cover.
Argument: "[R]ejecting traditional publication because of the the "bottom line" is NOT justifying poor quality and bad writing. Simply because you can literally produce a paperback book for $1.75 (at least for the moment) doesn't say anything whatsoever about its contents; and I would argue that that facility cheapens the process, both because of materials and because of a lack of responsibility."
Response: I agree with the first half of this argument, particularly that the cost of production says nothing about content. I disagree that the facility (as in ease, not as in the physical printing facility, to clarify this out of context) has anything to do with cheapened materials (those are getting better all the time, more about which below), or that the relative ease of producing a book lessens anybody's responsibility. I've already sort of addressed that assumption above, saying that when poets take control of the production of their books they are exercising more responsibility in the presentation of their work, which is factually true.
The Xerox DocuTech 6180 printers and Xerox IGen 3 color process create really impressive pages, and I say that as somebody who is trained in letterpress printing. The text is clear and crisp, and though it is digital, at 300 dpi there's no discernable smushiness or pixelation. [Note, I followed the lead of another commenter and used "IBM Docutech" in the original thread, but wanted to be more specific here. IBM is the manufacturer and Xerox is the brand, 6180 is a model number and IGen3 is a proprietary name for this particular Xerox color press processing. These are the printers used by Lulu.com, Amazon's BookSurge, and other POD printers. They are high-tech, "profressional" machines, no doubt about it.]
Of course, it depends on how the digital files are prepared. Some POD or digitally-printed books don't look so hot because they are designed by folks who have not taken the time to learn about digital production. There's no "easy" way to lay out a digital manuscript and prepare it for printing. I mean, making a decent-looking book is not just a matter of dumping poems into a Microsoft Word document and clicking print. While some POD books may not be well designed, or may be inexpertly laid out, the same can be said of many books produced by other means. In other words, complaints about the design of a POD book ought to be registered with the designer of the ugly book, not blamed on the machines that designer used to make it. In other hands, the same machines are fully capable of producing books of what some people like to call "professional quality."
Generally speaking, POD publishers either hire designers or make the effort to learn the design fundamentals and software required to do it themselves. Self-publishers are successful designers insofar as they have taken the trouble to learn the same skills. Again, this amounts to more effort, more responsibility, and greater care.
POD companies are also introducing new paper stocks--heavier weights, recycled options, bright whites and creams, acid-free choices, etc. They only thing I'm personally still disappointed with is the choice of cover lamination--my service of choice (Lulu.com) does not offer matte covers. Other services (Cafe Press, for instance) does not seem to use lay-flat lamination and those covers can curl in humid conditions. I'm not aware of any POD service that offers uncoated or specialty cover stocks. But it's only a matter of time. The more publishers to use these services, the better they will get. (And that's where capitalism can actually help out. The POD services will supply if publishers demand.)
Argument: "You could even say with justice that ease of access encourages mediocrity."
Response: This argument is related to the one above, and maybe I've already covered it? The idea is that if publishing is DIFFICULT the books will be BETTER. That's just funny. (Please do see Anne Boyer's Poetic Nonaction, on difficult ways to publish poetry!) Getting a first book published is harder than hell and still crappy ones come out all the time. How much harder does it need to be to keep all the Crappy Poetry from reaching us? (See above: don't be alarmed. Just read something else.)
Making new printing technologies accessible to the Rabble is Bad because some of the Rabble Suck? I can't really argue with that. I'm sure some of the rabble do suck. But many of them are probably also brilliant, and we get to find out.
Maybe I should point out that I have worked in publishing for nearly 13 years (OMG), in about every conceivable position from publicist to book designer to editor to publisher? So when I say the traditional print-run model is wasteful, I know what I'm talking about. Yeah publishers based their print runs on their best guesses about demand, but those guesstimates are notoriously off the mark (and FYI, almost never what the publisher says they are--they artificially inflate print-run numbers as a matter of course to "generate buzz"). To say overprinting "doesn't happen often" is inaccurate. Overprinting has been the default practice for decades. It's actually less expensive (bottom line) to print too many than to print too few, from the perspective of the big publishing houses. Printers, binders and trucking companies offer volume discounts. Going back for successive small printings, which would be less wasteful, is more expensive because the volume discounts don't apply, there are more shipping costs, and the printers and binders charge set-up fees for each print run.
Ever seen a dumpster behind a bookstore that sells mass-market paperbacks? They don't even bother to return and pulp those. They strip the covers and throw them in the landfill. By the 1000s...and 1000s. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers are returned (see, more shipping = more waste/environmental impact) then the publisher has to pay to have them pulped (more waste/environmental damage) and recycled (more waste/environmental damage). Those $5 hardcopies on the discount tables at the chain bookstores? Those are so-called remaindered copies, sold in prepicked lots (meaning the bookstore chooses by general subject category rather than choosing individual titles) in a last ditch effort to avoid having to pulp them. They’ve been shipped probably 4-5 times each: from the printer/binder to the publishing house (or its distributor’s warehouse), from the warehouse to the bookstores that placed orders, back from the stores to the warehouse, from the warehouse again in the prepicked lots after markdown. Those things weigh a ton. That’s lotsa Middle Eastern petroleum.
It just seems pointless and uninformed, frankly, to resist a decade-old technology that's already become the Way It Is, particularly when there are many benefits to leaving offset printing and overprinting behind. (Again, I don't just mean Curtis, but resistance at large.) Very soon there will be no discernable physical difference between a book produced digitally and one produced using offset printing plates. We're talking strictly about how the ink reaches the paper here, y'all. Offset printing is almost completely digitized these days anyway--the cylinders are created from digital files eliminating the need for film at all, and those files may or may not be stored on servers at the printing facilities for future reprints. That's just another way of saying POD, people! Offset printing continues to make good sense for high-volume projects where the expense of the set-up is outweighed or justified by the greater number of copies produced, but even in those cases, offset printers have another drawback that digital printers alleviate: once the cylinder plate is created, if there's a typo found or some other change that needs to be made, it's got to be scrapped and a new one must be made. (If an error is found in late stages in digital production, it's much easier/less expensive to fix.) Take a look at the photos at the top of this post. Click each of them to see a full-sized, high-resolution photo. Each page was photographed under the same conditions, in the same lighting, with the same camera using the same settings. The fonts are all classic-style serif book fonts. The paper is of four different types, and you may be able to discern some textural differences there. But check out the type (the center of each image will be most focused)--crisp, clear, no pixelation. Can you spot the digitally printed page?
Did anyone make these same kind of arguments about the advent of movable type? "Movable type and the printing press means instant books can be produced in 1000 hours vs. the usual 10000000 it takes Irish monks to hand-illuminate them. It's cheapening the process!" Grumble, grumble. I think any letterpress printer (bless their hearts and gorgeous work) will tell you that to print complete books by that method you must be kind of insane. They'd also tell you their goals and concerns have very little to do with the market. As it should be. Treating the book as a fetish object is natural for people who love books--why shouldn't they be as beautiful as possible?--but that kind of bibliophilia is AT ODDS with the sort of bibliomania that compels us also to find and read as many good poems as possible. (My solution for this particular schizoid rift is to release books in both the best-looking digitally printed version I am capable of producing as well as a limited-edition handmade version, so people have a choice. Other presses do this too--Tarpaulin Sky, for instance, did Jenny Boully's latest book that way.)
Offset printing was the "new" "cheapened" technology at its introduction too. The suggestion that just because a book is faster or cheaper or easier to print (and bind) its author or publisher took less care with it is pretty ridiculous. The text reads the same--which is the point, let's remember--whether it's offset in a print run of thousands, digitally printed on demand one at a time, or stapled fresh from Kinko's, and whether or not it has any branding stamped on the spine. (My most insistent point is always that the poem is primary but the rest is necessary.)
I don’t know how much this stuff matters to most writers, but the publishing industry has decided that Poetry is not worth bothering with from a business standpoint because they can’t sell enough copies to justify the expense and hassle of producing them. The way I see things, there are (at least) three ways to remedy that situation: 1) circumvent the publishing industry, 2) lower the cost of production, and 3) reduce the hassle of production. POD and services like Lulu.com (my current fave) allow individual poets and poetry publishers to do all three, and take some of the kinks out of the Problem of Distribution too. (A whole nother kettle, about which we've already talked lots before, yes?) (DIY publishing + a website or blog with a PayPal button is another strategy that also accomplishes all three.)
It seems to me poets would do well to embrace ANY technology or publishing method that might free them from the economic concerns that hobble the publication and distribution of their work, whether it’s handmade DIY chaps, blog-posted poems, internet journals, or digitally printed POD books.
* Note: On this blog I try to be careful about conflating POD with digital short-run printing, but the two get a bit mixed up fairly often, including these remarks. Briefly, print-on-demand (POD) is the publishing strategy of producing books only on an as-ordered basis, rather than in bulk. Digital printing is the technology whereby digital files (in the form of PDFs, Quark, InDesign, and other formats) are stored on computer servers accessible by digital printing machines like the Espresso Book Machine or the Xerox DocuTech printers like Lulu and other printing companies use. Though many print-on-demand books are produced using digital technologies, not all digitally printed books are POD and not all POD books are digitally printed. Our coeditor Sandra Simonds, for example, produces a handmade magazine that is essentially POD, in that she makes copies on request, not in a print run of a set bulk number. However, in general usage, "POD" usually refers to books printed one-at-a-time using machines like the IBM Docutech printers, after being digitally retrieved from a storage server. Whew.