Blog: Self-Publishing, Print-on-Demand, and Classics

Compositing Bench

Traditional presses play a vital role in classical studies. Nevertheless, many scholars have written a book that may be better served by other means. For some, this book is a monograph, a collection of essays, or a revised edition that a publisher did not consider financially viable. For others, it is a much-needed commentary or translation. For still others, it is a collaborative research project created with engaged students. There will always be high-quality books that traditional publishers consider too costly to produce. Self-publishing and print-on-demand offer classicists a suitable alternative.

As the author of a self-published book in classical studies, I exercise almost complete control over my work. I have the power to sell my book at the price I choose; if I wish to change the price from $20 to $15, I can do so with a single click. If a reader notices a typo, I can make the correction at my kitchen table and guarantee that a revised paperback will be available within twenty-four hours. If I decide to rewrite several paragraphs, or update the book to reflect the most recent secondary literature, those changes will appear within a day. As author and self-publisher, I am not worried that a book to which I devoted several years of my life will go out of print. I alone make that decision, and it costs nothing to keep a book available. If I want to publish a second edition, that too is my call.

This freedom costs me as little as $250. For the price of a two-night stay at the annual SCS conference, I retain control of the copyright, pricing, and distribution of my own work. The process that makes self-publishing so inexpensive is called print-on-demand, or POD. Before desktop publishing, printing a book was too costly for most individuals, so publishers paid these expenses, and in exchange asserted control over the copyright, pricing, and distribution of books. They, rather than the author, decided what was to be published.

POD, however, eliminates all of these initials costs and allows an author to publish without the need for a traditional press. There are no physical books printed in advance. Instead, when a customer orders a book and pays for it, the bookseller sends the order and most of the payment to the printer, who then prints the book from the PDF and sends the volume along to the customer. The printer then takes a share of the payment and passes on the rest to the author. The customer, instead of the publisher, pays the cost of production.

You need only three things in order to become a self-publisher and distribute your books in the U.S. and Europe: (1) a press-ready PDF of your book, (2) an ISBN number, and (3) a PDF of the cover that meets the printer’s template. The owner of the ISBN number is de facto the publisher of the book. If you go to Bowker.com, you can purchase and register an individual ISBN for $125 (10 for $295). Because of the technical requirements of book covers, most authors will turn to a graphic designer, who takes the printer’s template and creates a basic cover for as low as $99, and a more elegant design for more. The only additional cost is $20 for the printing and mailing of the proof.

There are a number of POD printers, including Createspace.com, IngramSpark.com, and Lulu.com. Createspace, a subsidiary of Amazon, offers the easiest set-up and immediate access to Amazon markets in the U.S. and Europe. IngramSpark offers greater distribution, but charges additional fees. Although these printers create and distribute the books, as author and owner of the ISBN, you are the publisher and owner of the copyright.

The final task for POD authors is editing and peer review, and here traditional presses have the advantage, at least for now. As a self-publisher, you must either pay a professional editor or enlist the help of colleagues. The lack of peer review before publication is the most serious limitation of self-publishing, but in my view it should be seen more as a problem to be solved than an insurmountable obstacle. Classicists are accustomed to editing and reviewing for traditional presses without significant compensation; there is no reason that this model cannot be adapted for POD. Indeed, Open Book Publishers in Cambridge, UK, uses a traditional academic peer-review process in a non-profit business model that takes advantage of the low overhead of POD.

Perhaps the clearest indication that this new technology can complement traditional publishing is that some of the most successful self-publishers in classical studies have published books with traditional presses and hold academic appointments. Juan Coderch is writing a series of POD Greek and Latin grammars with exercises; Paula Debnar recently published her Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue as a POD book; Laura Gibbs has published several Latin readers including Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop's Fables in Latin; and Stephen Nimis and Evan Hayes have published a number of their own, and other scholars’, commentaries via their POD imprint Faenum Publishing. As these examples show, authors can continue to uphold the ideal of peer-reviewed scholarship and at the same time acknowledge a place for self-publishing in Classics.

(Header Image: "Compositing bench." Photo by Brian Smithson, via Flickr.com. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Geoffrey Steadman teaches Latin in Cincinnati, Ohio. His first self-published book was a commentary on Plato’s Symposium. A PDF of the volume can be downloaded from his website. He can be reached at geoffreysteadman@gmail.com.

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