01 July 2010

Self-publishing Blurb

There are at least four threats that academic publishers, mostly in common with traditional publishers, are facing. The first is, naturally, the internet, which allows anyone to publish anything to everyone for free. The second is a decline in academic library purchasing and changing acquisition strategies, described partly in my previous post. The third is open access initiatives and university archival repositories, which are initiatives to make published research publicly accessible and (in cases) keep it under the control of sponsoring bodies. Universities are sick of having to, e.g., pay $10,000 a year to subscribe to a single scientific journal so that students can access the work their own faculty have published in it. They want to quit giving their intellectual property away.

Finally, there is the unstoppable tidal wave of self-publishing. Laura Cerruti of UC Press threw out this terrifying statistic. In 2009, 288,355 titles were published by US publishers, but an additional 764,488 titles were self- or micro-published. From other statistics I could quickly find, this is apparently about a 270% increase over 2008 totals, which had increased 132% over 2007. In 2007 traditional publishers were still publishing most books. In 2009 they were fighting to retain 25% of exploding booklists. UC Press is themselves shifting their resources into assisting (on a contract basis) UC units in self-publishing their research. That's clearly where the action is.

The gamechanger here is the plummeting cost and rising quality of print on demand (POD), which revolves around self-contained printing/binding machines that can produce bound books on a per copy basis very cheaply. The U of U's Marriott Library has one and are rapidly moving to the point where students can use ebooks online and, if they want a print copy to use, just hit a "Buy" link, type in their account code, then walk down to the Espresso POD machine and pick up it up. The library will add books to their own print collection in the same way.

Traditionally POD books are ugly and cheap paperbacks, the product of a fancy copy machine, but there are commercial-grade POD presses that can produce high-quality hardbounds. In fact, many commercial presses are moving to POD-only printing (most everyone will eventually), since it eliminates too-large press runs and warehousing. Third-party services will proxy for individuals wanting this same quality for their personal publications. The cost is shockingly low.

I read an article today on one such service specializing in full-color art and photography books, Blurb. Per unit prices for 7x7 color start at $12.95. They provide tools for online promotion of your title and a bookstore to sell it in. The quality is 100% commercial grade. Of course, editing and design is up to you, but all profits from sales are yours, too. Services like this are why self-publishing is going through the roof, and publishers are very, very worried.

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