04/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Long Tale of Publishing: One Sale at a Time

"I have to tell you," the clerk said, leaning over the counter like he was about to whisper a secret, "That's a print-on-demand title. That means it could take two weeks to arrive." He then asked me if I still wanted to place a special order for it; I replied affirmatively. True, I could have ordered it online. I didn't expect to find a book on the nautical history of Newark Bay on the shelves. Yet the way I support small bookstores is by special ordering through them, so that they can profit from the sale, too, which is why this entire exchange surprised me. Here I was, in one of New York's best independent booksellers, and their staff was effectively talking me out of a purchase because it was POD.

Truth is, it didn't surprise me that much: the perception of POD clings to its "Vanity Press" roots, even though the technology and means of distribution -- not to mention the freedom it offers authors -- have evolved significantly. I deal with it all the time as co-founder of a small company called Outside the Box Publishing, which utilizes POD. While in the music industry being an "independent" artist -- producing, releasing, and distributing your own albums -- is now viewed as a sign of integrity and strength (and often supported simply because the artist is "indie"), in accordance with the antiquated publishing model it is treated as a weakness, of having given up or of never having had "it" to begin with.

This, too, doesn't surprise. While at McNally Jackson that evening, I picked up the March issue of Harper's, due to the cover story: "The Last Book Party: Publishing Drinks to Life After Death," by critic Gideon Lewis-Kraus. There have been numerous articles of late regarding the shift in publishing, as well as the uncertain nature of e-books, Kindle, and print-on-demand technology. These meditations on the future of publishing are also pointing toward a similar long tail as is befalling the music industry: less million sellers, more ten thousand sellers. This, in my eyes, is a very good thing.

Books are not like music, however, in that music can be listened to and consumed in many and varied manners: in iPod buds while commuting, as background noise at work or home, in clubs, as an object of study and devotion. There are innumerable means to enjoying sound. Books are an investment of another sort. You can listen to ten albums in a day, but most likely you cannot read ten (or even two) books in that time frame. For some, a book can mean a month. Thus, the purchasing power of books is much more limited, in some ways making it an even more cutthroat industry than that of music.

And, it should be added: dated. That's the sense one gets reading Lewis-Kraus's partly enlightening, predominantly pedantic and self-involved story. Perhaps it was my expectations that were amiss. I was hoping to read something new or important about publishing; instead I was fed the expectable drivel we can only hope to evolve from: more self-involved men and women trying to maintain their grips on this industry by coveting the likes of Paulo Coelho and Lauren Weisberger. The article was written in the tone of a dirge, though by obsessing on every character's apparel choice and the author's mission of outdoing NY Times reporter Motoko Rich at every turn, it read like any plain gossip column.

I suppose we should expect nothing less; I would only hope for more from the bookstore clerk who, instead of feeding the illusion, helped to correct it. I understand the pitfalls from both a business standpoint and on an emotional, artistic level. For one, the in-between companies that utilize this technology, like iUniverse and Outskirts Press, charge outlandish rates for services and handcuff writers with very limited options. This is why I learned book layout, graphic and print design, and web design, to cut out that in-between. This gives me the option of allowing "returns" on my orders, which POD companies do not offer. (Bookstores will not shelve books that cannot be returned, due to a tax law that prohibits them from using inventory as write-offs, once a common practice.) I print with the same company that these and many other POD companies use without the hassle of dealing with them -- and with much more freedom, creatively and economically, for my company. I've read many a frustrated report from authors who used such companies and felt shackled, with little or no money in the surplus column to show for it. Like any industry, however, self-empowerment is essential.

A very common perspective I've come across is that authors should be compensated, and well, for their writings. At first reading, of course I'd want the same. Yet I have to face the paradigms shift in publishing. Involved in magazine freelancing and editing for fifteen years, I've had to adapt and evolve with the times. Most of the print magazines I've written for no longer exist; even a few of the paying online sites are gone (or their budgets are). I feel fortunate in that I do get paid on a weekly basis to blog, yet these rates pale in comparison to what I once brought in. My income is mainly derived from teaching yoga, as well as supported by my endeavors in music producing, DJing, lecturing, and event production.

The completely self-supporting author is rare indeed, although that lifestyle is still possible. Even the writers I know who live from the fruits of that occupation have had to evolve, blogging for free to spread awareness of their work, and producing multi-media events where music, yoga, video, and other arts become living testaments to the words on their page. Publishing cannot remain an industry removed from the rest of the arts, as it has been treated at times in the past.

While all things do change, some remain very familiar. The challenge today for writers continues to be in the marketing: creating a "buzz" about the book. Technology's ease of use doesn't make it infallible. In fact, it opens the door for more mediocrity than ever. But what it also does is widen the ability to engage in dialogues with an ever-broadening range of people. It empowers those who are unafraid to express their creativity, whether or not they are writing a "hit" book, however slowly a process that may be. What I've learned (and am constantly relearning) is that in this realm books are sold one at a time. I wouldn't expect Harper's critics to understand that quite yet. For now, I can only hope that independent booksellers come around, and support the efforts of the too often romanticized "indie" author who happens to use the latest technologies in their craft, one sale at a time.