Report from rab school, nine months in.
First Monday of ordinary time

The chaplainbook story

Several people have asked me to blog about my experiences assembling and publishing chaplainbook. This is a bit removed from my usual subject matter, so it may not be of interest to all of you.

I'll put the story beneath the "Continue reading..." link (though that won't impact folks reading this via aggregator or livejournal) -- anyway, if you're not interested in laupe house, or my thoughts on the long tail, the ramifications of print-on-demand publishing, and how I think POD relates to the blogosphere, kindly skip this one. I'll post about Judaism again soon!


How the chapbook, and the imprint, came into being

I wrote a lot about clinical pastoral education during the time of my extended unit: blog posts, my on-call journal, and poems. Fairly early on, I decided I would collect my chaplaincy poems at the program's end as as a gift for my fellow chaplaincy interns.

This spring, as I worked on editing and revising the poems, I came to think that these poems might merit a larger audience than just the AMC chaplaincy staff. Around this time, a conversation arose within a group of blogging friends -- writers and artists who span a wide range of professions and life-experiences -- about the fantasy of starting our own press someday. We call ourselves the laupe community, after the short essay Are you a laupe?, published on now-defunct blog the vernacular body back in 2004. (I should note that though we claim the label, we diverge from the description in almost every direction. I think defying description is part of what makes a laupe, really.) Anyway, I showed my nascent manuscript to the group, and there was wide agreement that chaplainbook should be the first work released under the laupe house imprint.

Though many of us have joked about buying a letterpress someday if and when we win the lottery, none of us owns a printing press. How would the collection see print? Using a local print shop was one option -- but since we're a geographically-dispersed community, it made sense to find a web-based printer to work with. One of our members owned a few chapbooks printed by Lulu and said they had done nice work. Why not print the book on their machines, under our own cooperative press imprint?

Traditional publishing vs. print-on-demand

Many people have qualms about print-on-demand publishing. The major gripes are that there's no editorial oversight, which leads to inadequate editing and lack of selectivity; that costs may be high, and returnability low; and that amateurish practices, including lack of marketing, may prevail.

As a poet, though, I'm used to having a small audience, and happy to promote the collection myself via readings and word-of-blog. Printing via Lulu cost me nothing (about which more anon.) And editorial oversight came in the form of the group of astute readers who looked over the collection while it was in-progress, and agreed that the work was good and that they wanted to put our imprint on it. (I should also tender my thanks to Sandy, who proofread the manuscript early in the process. A good proofreader is worth her weight in gold.)

Amusingly enough, I've already made more money with chaplainbook than I did with either of the previous two chapbooks (the skies here, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995; and What Stays, published in the Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series in 2002.) Not significant money -- "take my husband out to dinner" money, at best -- but it still says something interesting about poetry publishing, and about the potential benefits of POD.

Poetry publishing and the long tail

Poetry publishing is a long tail situation. A scant handful of poets have name recognition and get stocked by bookstores and maybe even make a buck; the rest of us make up the long tail. POD can be good news for denizens of the long tail. "Where the opportunity cost of inventory storage and distribution is high, only the most popular products are sold," Wikipedia explains. "But where the Long Tail works, minority tastes are catered to, and individuals are offered greater choice."

The traditional poetry publishing model suggests that competition is healthy and that the best manuscripts will win. I'm not sure the model was designed to accomodate quite this much competition, though -- according to Ed Ochester, as many as a thousand manuscripts may be submitted for a prestigious first-book contest like the Starrett Prize at Pittsburgh University Press, though only one can win. My friend Richard Berlin submitted his excellent collection How JFK Killed My Father more than 200 times before it finally saw print. For many of us who haven't yet made it big in the poetry world, the traditional model may be frustrating at best.

POD offered an alternative, a way for work I think is good to find its audience. I think print-on-demand has fascinating potential for poetry chapbooks in particular -- small collections with small audiences which nonetheless deserve to see print. Most small poetry presses struggle financially, and might not be willing or able to take the risk of publishing something like chaplainbook. And forming a cooperative imprint and using POD replicates the DIY ethos of blogging, which charms me as a blogger.

So I uploaded the manuscript to Lulu, spent a few days tweaking settings and margins and putting a cover together, and ordered a sample copy to see if I liked their work.

My impressions of Lulu

I liked Lulu from the start, for two reasons. One is their business model. It doesn't cost anything to work with Lulu. When copies of the chapbook sell, I get a little royalty, and so does Lulu. (Had I opted not to earn a royalty myself, Lulu would have sold the books at cost.) And because each copy is printed as the need arises, the chapbook will never go out of print. That feels luxurious to me. the skies here sold out its first printing within a year of publication, and I'm hoarding the remaining copies of What Stays to sell at readings. Other plusses: I had complete creative control over chaplainbook, and all rights remain with me. (They gave me the option of choosing a Creative Commons license, too, which made me happy.)

The other reason I liked Lulu is that their interface is easy to use. They have a ton of FAQ pages and instructions which walk the careful reader through the process of formatting a manuscript for publication. At any time, manuscripts can be revised and republished, a perk I've already taken advantage of: once I got my first copy and saw that their print quality was high and their workmanship was good, I added the laupe house logo and an ISBN number, republished, and made the collection available to the world.

(For what it's worth, other folks who have historically been skeptical of POD seem to appreciate these things about Lulu, too -- see Jeffrey Yamaguchi's Print-Non-Demand.)

I'm not sure what or when the next laupe house title will be, but I think odds are good that we will continue to work with Lulu. They're easy to work with and they do solid work at reasonable prices. And that made it possible for this little bundle of my beloved poems to journey out into the world.

And that, my friends, is the chaplainbook story. Thanks for reading.

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