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Book Publishing

November 14, 2004

Back in the day, getting a book published was like winning the lottery. Most hapless writers got rejection slips, while a fortunate few collected book royalties. But just as I was despairing of ever seeing a book with my name on it, the small press movement bloomed, fanning the radical idea of writers banding together and doing their own thing.

With Larry Rottmann and Basil Paquet, I became a coeditor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans (1st Casualty Press, 1972), published out of my apartment in Brooklyn. Doing it our selves meant getting copy typeset, pasting up page boards and taking them to a printer, borrowing money to pay the bill, and handling sales of several thousand copies of a $1.95 paperback. It was hard work, but it worked. That book was reprinted by McGraw-Hill, sold a lot of copies for a poetry anthology and helped launch a literary movement.

Fast forward to the new millennium. It is still exceedingly hard for writers to get their work selected by commercial, university, and small press publishers. But advances in technology have made it possible for anyone to get a book in print and distributed, for not much money. And with luck, such computer-published work might get picked up by a major book publisher and widely distributed.

That’s what happened with Ben Sherman, a self-made author I met at a Veterans for Peace conference in Boston. Ben wrote a memoir of his war experiences. Looking to publish it, he researched the newly emerging print-on-demand business. He found that for a couple hundred bucks, he could zip his manuscript via the internet to a company called iUniverse that does a professional layout and cover and then prints out a paperback or hardcover copy of a book, competitively priced, every time an order comes in from a bookstore or an on line bookseller. And the author gets a royalty payment on sales.

Ben ordered some extra copies and took them around to bookstores in the Seattle area, where he lives, and laid them on people he felt might be helpful in finding a name brand book publisher. It worked. Ben Sherman’s memoir—Medic! The Story of a Conscientious Objector in the Vietnam War—was picked up by Random House and reissued as a mass market Presidio Press paperback in June.

Ben provides a fascinating look at how he got his book published the new fangled way and then the old-fashioned way in an interview posted in the Absolute Write Newsletter:

As it happens, I chose the same print-on-demand company, iUniverse, to publish a collection of my poetry, Earth Songs. I wanted to see whether this grouping of poems worked as a book. The result was a layout that improved on my Word document file and a cover that dramatically conveys what I had in mind. I liked the way it turned out. Interested readers have been able to order the book directly, without my having to fill the orders and lug packages of books to the post office, as in the old days.

And if I never get lucky, and no major book publisher ever calls, I have published a book that I thoroughly enjoyed putting together.

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