I regularly hear people bashing self-published books as universally “crappy.” Many independent writers do publish books with amateurish covers and poorly edited text typeset with a word processor, but there are “crappy” books released by major publishers, and high quality books released by unknown, do-it-yourself writers. Generalizations don’t do much to help the overall standards of quality.
Yes, there are certainly plenty of crappy books out there—much like all the crappy home-made websites (and the majority of professionally-built ones). We also have crappy banks, crappy insurance companies, crappy politicians and crappy schools that make the self-publishing world look like a model of perfection, but there are two good sides to the state of self-publishing: we live in a world where the common person has unprecedented power to publish, and where there’s mediocrity, there’s the challenge to rise above it.
I worked very hard to get my self-published fiction books as close to a 1920s standard of book design as possible, but I have the advantage of having owned a design studio for fifteen years. If I had to pay $1000+ for a good cover, $20+/page for editing and $4+/page for typesetting, my two (soon to be three) novels would simply have never gotten published. It’s just too high a cost to indulge in something that’s a risky business proposition on one hand and not much more than a personal art project on the other. Using POD (print on demand), I get a cloth-backed hard-cover book with a beautiful dust jacket and a foil-stamped spine for an initial cash investment of under $200—and I can retail that book through Amazon for $20 and give them 20%.
There is a middle ground between hiring a professional and doing it yourself. As a self-publishing educator, I’m one of the very few who offers any support whatsoever for using a Vanity Press. Many are scammers, and there are disadvantages regarding rights ownership, etcetera, but for the author who would otherwise slap together a bookblock typeset with MS Word and a cover rendered in PowerPoint (yes, I’ve really seen this), a Vanity Press will assemble a fair-to-middlin’ book at a reasonable price, handle the distribution and prevent the project from being a complete disaster. I’d prefer to take the high road and strictly encourage new writers to start their own excellent publishing companies, but if you have to choose between mediocrity and scat, the choice is obvious.
Big publishers have their own concerns that compromise the design of books. Had I worked with a traditional publisher, my books would have smaller margins, smaller type and tighter leading. After all, if someone were to invest in 30,000 copies of one of my novels to launch me as a new author, the savings in paper and printing costs offered by more efficient design would be huge (and justifiable). Because my books are POD-printed, I don’t have the up-front investment. For the almost-negligible cost of an extra forty pages or so, my books have classic margins and comfortable leading (line spacing) rarely found in trade-published books.
Trade publishing is a risky game. It requires a large investment in a cheap product that sells through retailers at 50-55% commission. There are those who have the cash, warehousing facilities and connections to play that game well, but it’s not about art, literature, culture, communication or building a better world; it’s about moving product. Profit depends on selling in large quantities. The very fact that trade-published books aim for widespread acceptance suggests that little risk will be taken on esoteric subjects, fringe interests and unknown authors, especially with regard to fiction. The position that trade publishers are the only true arbiters of book quality is equivalent to the suggestion that only major record labels can judge good musicianship.
It’s true there are a lot of very poorly produced books out there, but only twenty years ago, there was no internet, no POD publishing and no way for millions of people to share their thoughts, ideas and inspirations. As a designer, I’m as painfully disappointed as anyone at the lack of craft in contemporary communications, but being critical of one category of publishing or another will only serve to distract us from putting our energies into what this brave new world really needs—leadership.