Writers Talk About Writing
Visual Thesaurus subscriber Julie Trelstad runs a company called Plain White Press that is re-imagining -- and re-inventing -- what it means to publish a book. Does a book's content need to nestle between two covers? Can you sidestep traditional publishers, do it yourself, and still make a splash at Barnes & Noble? We had a fascinating, enlightening conversation with Julie about this brave new book world:
VT: What do you mean by re-imagining publishing?
Julie: I was a book editor before I become a publisher, which is a very difficult business as you probably know. When I started in this business I came across a startling statistic: 60% of the population never goes into a bookstore. So the remaining 40% is buying a lot of books! A lot of people just don't have time to go, plus, there's the idea that our culture is becoming increasingly visual. So when I set out to create new products, I wanted to create things in a format that was more immediately useful because it was visual.
VT: Can you give us an example?
Julie: For instance, I developed a fitness card deck. The idea originally came to me as a traditional book proposal -- all words. But I thought, nobody's going to haul a book into a gym. People just need fitness cues, so probably the best format for this is cards. We thought really hard about how to organize it so that a reader didn't have to think too much. You could pick this thing up and it would show you what to do.
VT: Very cool.
Julie: When we published it we were reviewed against other fitness card decks. My beef with many card decks that have been published recently -- and they've gotten really trendy -- is that a lot of them are just published as books without the spine. The organization isn't really thought about.
VT: So how did you organize it differently than books?
Julie: Well, we used color, for one. We also thought about how to divide fitness into different workouts. Our cards are a lot like playing cards that are divided into suits. You know that all the pink ones go together, for instance. Then we created a color-coded key in a brochure that came with the cards. But rather than saying, "here are 20 exercises, go figure out how to combine them yourselves," we took it one step further than other fitness cards and said, here are the combinations and this is how you mix and match.
VT: You're making it simple for your audience.
Julie: We're letting them choose what they want to carry to the gym, and what they don't want to carry. If they're really only struggling with remembering what this one exercise looks like, they take just the one card instead of the whole deck.
VT: Can you apply this approach to other information besides workouts?
Julie: Definitely. In fact, I have a new project called "Perform at Your Best: Acting Techniques for Business, Personal and Social Success." I had purchased the rights to produce a card deck of a book that had already been published. We applied actual techniques that actors use, like warm ups and imagination exercises. Each technique became a "suit" differentiated by colors. We organized the cards to apply to different real-life situations, like what to do when dealing with a difficult co-worker. So this again was a way of coding the information to make it useful for people.
VT: When you first mentioned the title I thought, this sounds like a million other books out there. But you're taking the information and re-interpreting it in a powerful way.
Julie: That's right. It's organized so you can grab any card in the deck and use it immediately, or you can look for ones that just apply to the situation you're dealing with. If you want to, say, only study acting techniques, you can review all the ones about warm ups, for instance. We give you visual clues about how to access this information. If this were a traditional acting book, you wouldn't be able to absorb it or apply it the way you need it as efficiently and quickly as the card deck. The idea was to create a product that works on cues, essentially.
My struggle, though, is that to the outside world these look like ordinary gift cards. How do people know that there's this sophisticated stuff going on? That's our marketing challenge.
VT: Let me ask you about a different topic: Your company helps authors self publish their books. Has the climate changed for self-publishing? There's often a stigma attached to it.
Julie: Yes, there's certainly this stigma. I think the key is that it has to be published professionally. It's now so easy to publish your own book. In fact, it's way easier than waiting for all the editors from publishing houses to reject your book. It will take you much less time and much less grief to go publish it yourself. But a lot of people skip a really important step, at least from my perspective, and that is the editing. Maybe they'll get their work copy edited and get the grammar fixed but they don't get it edited.
VT: Editing with a capital "E," like at a publishing house.
Julie: This might be cruel of me to say, but publishing houses don't edit much either. I think editing is a truly lost art pretty much across the board these days. There aren't a lot of houses that do very much editing for the same reason it's a self-publishing problem-it's expensive.
Think about it. It took you hundreds of hours to write the book. Your editor is going to have to spend hundreds of hours thinking about the words. Even the least expensive editor is going to spend a couple hundred hours on your book. You have to realize that you need to pay for that. I think that if somebody wants to self-publish they should think of editing as if they were hiring a lawyer to protect their legal interests. They should hire a really good editor and a really good graphic designer, and then their book will be indistinguishable from Random House's from the customer's perspective.
VT: Say you create a professional-quality self-published book. What about the marketing?
Julie: The marketing really is up to you. There are so many ways to access a customer, starting with the web. If you want to put a lot of energy behind marketing your book or if you want to put up your own money hiring a publicist to put energy behind your book, you can be as successful as a traditional publisher at generating consumer awareness. An individual can get now their book into Barnes & Noble or Borders. They can have their book carried by Amazon. You don't need a publisher to get you there.
VT: How do you work with self-publishing clients?
Julie: We did a project recently for one client where we brought in professional editing and design to really enhance her 200-page book. It cost the author about $8,000, which is probably the least you can spend to get a professionally produced book.
VT: Do authors create their own "imprint?"
Julie: I actually created an imprint called the Plain Paper Press. This is what the Library of Congress uses as an imprint but we put our clients' own names on the spine. So their books look and feel like it comes from them, but if Ingram [the book distributor] wants to know who to call, it's me.
VT: What other resources are available for authors interested in self-publishing?
Julie: Check out Amazon's BookSurge service. You can send them your manuscript and they'll print it for you and distribute on Amazon. They also offer professional services like editing and design. They charge you the same hefty distributor rate that a publisher would get, 55%-but they cut out the publisher as the middle man. An author could go directly to Book Surge as if they were their own publisher. Then there's also lulu.com.
VT: What's lulu.com?
Julie: Lulu.com is really a print-on-demand printer masquerading as a publisher. But what's cool about Lulu.com is that I know Barnes & Noble looks at a lot of what comes out of there, and actually buys quite a lot of their self-published books. Lulu is the only place where you can get, as far as I know, your own solo ISBN (International Standard Book Number).
VT: Anyone else?
Julie: A company I really admire is Wheatmark. They will publish, basically, anybody's book, and do a professional job with it. The authors pay full freight but Wheatmark has a smart feeder program: If a book starts to do really well-I think you have to sell 2,000 copies-then Wheatmark will start chipping in for marketing and promotion. It's an interesting model.
VT: It's a whole new publishing world.
Julie: Well, I used to work at John Wiley & Sons, a major publisher, of course, which just celebrated its 200th anniversary. I read a bit about their early history and was surprised to learn that when they first opened their doors, Wiley was a company where authors would pay them to publish their books. So I think things are coming right back to where they started, where people with content are seeking out the best publisher for their work.
VT: Instead of the other way around.
Julie: Lulu, Book Surge, Wheatmark and my company are doing exactly that. And, honesty, if you want to get published by a big publisher you have to pretty much prove to them that you're going to spend quite a lot of your own money to market. You might have to prove that you're going to sell 25,000 copies of your book by yourself, without any help from the publisher. So it's really the same thing anyway, isn't it?