My Book, by Me

How to subvert an industry for under $30.

"Getting published" has always meant something special to us writer types; a book with your name on it says you've arrived. And now, thanks to the Internet, I'm a genuine published author. My publisher? Me.

It took all of a day, using a new online service called Blurb. Its approach is remarkably accessible. You choose a theme, page layout, picture and text sizes, and fonts from a range of options. The software is easy to navigate, if frustratingly slow at times. I uploaded image files from a CD, dragged pictures into place, and watched pages fill up with my original work.

Blurb gives you the choice of writing directly onto your book page or pasting from another document. My passages kept exceeding the standard layout, and reversing that process was tedious. (Blurb says it's fixing this.) That hurdle cleared, though, I previewed and priced my book, then sent it off to Blurb's contract printer. My collection of journal entries and photos from a year in Spain is now España, the book.

Mom is so proud. But the bigger question is this: What does it mean that, for less than $30, a relative novice can publish a single copy of a commercial-quality book? Blurb and its ilk are democratizing a tired oligopoly, opening up the pipes to… everyone, really. Want to publish your treatise on the government's extraterrestrial conspiracy? Sure! Your kid's refrigerator art? It's a coffee-table book!

It's not as if there aren't enough books out there already: Nielsen BookScan reports that 1.2 million titles were sold in the United States in 2004, and just 2% sold more than 5,000 copies. Says Patricia Schroeder, CEO of the Association of American Publishers: "It's going to be very hard to organize this new load of information." The blogging phenomenon, though, offers a telling analogue. Just like Blurb, Web logging offers individuals easy access to a medium previously controlled by a select few. Now, some 75,000 new blogs crowd the Internet every day, according to blog researcher Technorati. Out of all of those, just 3 are among the top 33 news and media Web sites.

But that doesn't represent a market failure. Rather, blogging has made it economically viable for writers to reach very narrow audiences. So it will be, say some, with books. "Mass market has been replaced by a mass of niches," explains Jeff Jarvis, a former print editor who now blogs and consults at BuzzMachine.com. "The old media term was 'fragmentation.' The new term is 'choice.' The book doesn't have to be big, just big enough."

Blurb and others are greasing the wheels by creating their own alternative marketplaces, like an Amazon for everyone. BlurbNation hooks up authors with proofreaders, editors, and marketers, letting them bypass established publishers and still reach the right audience. So while I don't expect there will be much of a market for España (honestly, I'm not even sure the title deserves italics), I can still try. The book-world establishment may not be happy with that--but as I say, my mother is thrilled.

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