They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Publishing a book is one big adventure

Publishing a book is one big adventure

By Edgardo Civallero
Translation by Sara Plaza

Let's see if the following words remind you of something... We sit down in front of the papers, the keyboard –or the typewriter, since still there are many who maintain such a healthy custom–, and begin to write all the words that we have been building through several months (or years) of experience, research, discovery and failing. All those many words we have been looking for, chewing, digesting and thinking out inside us before being able to tell them to somebody else.

We all know that any researching process is hard and hazardous, even for the most accustomed and best prepared professional. Sometimes it leads to walk in circles, to get lost among one's own and somebody else's doubts, to get disillusioned, to spend days and weeks reading and noting down, and to steal hours from our work, sleep and family time. Writing in order to be able to show the result of our research –the final step of this process– means, for the researcher / writer, to put into words everything we have learnt and found. Anyway, we do not have to forget that those who decide to write are not only researchers: novelists, poets, essayists, teachers and anyone who has something to tell ends in front of a piece of paper developing their talent as writers. For all of them it was also necessary –I would say even "vital"– the process of searching (the words) and maturing (ideas and feelings) with all the problems and risks connected.

Then we begin to write. And nobody –not even oneself– knows how much time this task will demand. To put into words what our thought dictates is one of the biggest challenges for any human being, a process through which we have to take off the accessory clothes of what we think and turn it into word, into written word in fact, into orthography and grammar. I believe Plato was the one who wrote that when we turn what we think into word we lose almost everything, and when we pass from the spoken word into the written one we lose much more. Only the greatest ones in the art of writing know how to counteract (wonderfully, by the way) the effects of what seems to be a universal law.

Let's presume that the process of writing –with its high dose of emotion, effort, fear, tiredness and unpleasantness– has already finished. We have the manuscript in our hands, the product of our work. Congratulations! At that very moment we have to answer the big question:

"And now, what am I going to do with this?"

In order to be read –the aim pursued by the majority of those who have decide to write– it is necessary to multiply our manuscript by ten, hundred or thousand, and put it in our readers' hands. Being aware of the business that those following steps might represent, publishers took a step forward in the direction of their own benefit.

No, I am not going to criticize publishers in these lines. Business is business, and this is one of the many that "inhabits" our world (less condemnable than others such as health, education or law). What I am intended here is to describe, in short, the adventure of getting your book to be published.

The very first step: find out a number of publishers. There are international, national, regional and local publishers; they can be bigger or smaller, famous or unknown... There is a wide range of possibilities so it is important to have the ability to make a sensible decision after carefully considering all them.

Let's say that we are looking for a publisher that publishes LIS texts (I am so sorry, this is "professional deformation"): the spectrum gets drastically reduced. There are not so many, neither are they very well-known. Their lines of business –more or less specific– are collections and books about librarianship, documentation and information sciences.

After seeking and finding them –with names and surnames– we have to review their proposals, their collections, the titles they have published, which should be announced in their catalogues (usually online). And now it is time for a second judgment: does any of them publish books on the subject of our work? If none of them do it, welcome to the club of those who keep our manuscripts in a drawer! However, if any of them deals with our topic, we will have to propose the text for its edition, telling to the publisher about our work and also about us. This last point is very important: both in sciences and in literature, it can be said that on many occasions it sells more the name than the content. Once more we have to remember that this is business and "nobodies", despite the quality of their production, sometimes do not sell...

The publisher may give us different answers. For a start, they can ask us for the original in order to have a look at it; they can also refuse our offer... or they can say to us that they do not publish anything concerning the matter (despite the fact that our topic appears in their catalogue), which, far from being a contradiction, is a simple and quite diplomatic way of telling "we are not interested in you nor in your production".

However, if by chance they accept the original for its examination, we send it to them, always thinking and remembering (this is the case of the suspicious authors like me) that there are some examples of publishers, which decided to go on publishing very interesting texts with other name, forgetting the true author's, who, by the way, did not have his work protected by copyright. Sometimes, it might happen that in addition to request the original, publishers want to know our opinion about the market for our book, and they might also question us on the reason they should publish it for (this is to get their work done by someone else).

Anyway, a few weeks or a couple of months later (it all depends) you receive their assessment of your book. If they reject it, we can try with another publisher, and if there are not more options... again, welcome to the club of those who keep our manuscripts in a drawer!

On the contrary, if they decide to accept our work, they will send a contract to us. The terms of this document may be very different depending on the publisher, and once more, we do not have to forget that this is business. Generally speaking, the publisher holds the copyright on the author's work: s/he has to make it over to the publisher for a period of time. If the author wants to do something with her/his own text after having signed that contract, s/he has to ask for their permission to use it or any part of it (and publishers may give it or not). In addition, the publisher establishes the number of copies that they will publish (which use to be limited to 200 or 400 in the case of LIS texts) and the quality of those copies (in general the most economic, that it to say, the one that cost less to the publisher in terms of paper, ink and binding)

And finally, the bonus has to be decided also in advance: how much money the author will receive after publishing her/his book. Broadly speaking, the percentage is about the 10% of the selling price (at least in my own experience, but this amount may be different as well). This point can be illustrated with an example: after two or three years doing research and writing a book on the results got from it, I send the original to any publisher that wants to publish it. They print over 200 copies (very simple ones) that will be sold, let's say, for 10 U$S each. I will receive 200 dollars, while they will have earned 1800.

We have to admit that both novel researchers and writers –the ones who make such low number of copies– do not seek a healthy profit on what we write. We would like to be read. After months and months moving from one publisher to another, being badly affected by their unpleasant comments, lies, silences, tricks and so on, one ends up asking him/herself if the fact of seeing your book printed onto paper is worth so much effort when there are a few more options that we can choose in order to be read.

One of them is called POD, Print on Demand. It consists of companies that print a small number of copies of your book at a very reasonable price, according to the author's interests. The books are not of very high quality but... sometimes, the product of the big publishers is not good either. The author (sometimes the publisher itself) has to request the ISBN (a very simple step) and get the copyright for her/his work, and once the copies are ready (the minimum number of copies is about 30), s/he can present the book personally in libraries, bookstores, meetings or conferences.

The other is the ebook, in whose elaboration there is a number of enterprises working nowadays. For many people, an ebook is a book that does not exist. Nevertheless, it is one of the most versatile forms of spreading knowledge. In this case the author does not pay for the printing but for the design. S/he requests the ISBN, gets the copyright and then is able to do with her/his book whatever s/he wants (since s/he never hands her/his copyright over anybody else, neither the publisher): to spread it on the Internet, self-archive in Open Access portals, upload it to different websites, send it, store it in virtual libraries, sell it or even print it on demand. And those readers who want to have it printed onto paper, can download, print and use it (being always respectful of the conditions imposed by the author on her/his rights). In the case that the author wants to sell the book, all the profits made on the deal will be for her/him (though we should admit that try to sell our own work is not that easy).

Will the publishers disappear? No, I do not think so. We all enjoy and take advantage (intellectually, I mean) of their work. However, it is probably that we, authors whose material is not exactly "profitable" or "likely to be sold", begin to explore new possibilities, consider different spaces and open doors never knocked before. And I believe that it is necessary that something of the sort happens. Because if things continue to be as they are at the present, we will continue to read only what is business. That's all. In my opinion that will be really worrying.

Best wishes from behind this keyboard, where I have not got tired of writing yet. Outside, behind the window and the smoke of my pipe, the world blooms in spring....