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Essay

The Dragon Liberator

A quest towards self-publication: entry 4

Frank Ryan 7 January 2007

www.lablit.com/article/195

Frank Ryan

Is Print-on-Demand the Fir Bolg battle-axe that will free our dragons?

Editor's note: LabLit.com is pleased to continue our weekly blog from Frank Ryan, a scientist, doctor and best-selling author who is currently attempting to publish and promote his latest novel (written in the lab lit genre) via an untraditional route.

We are seated cross-legged before the blazing fire, this powerful trinity of forces, with the crystal sphere dead centre on its plinth of jade.

‘It is fitting in this first council of war,’ I announce portentously, ‘that we select our champions.’

‘But granddad – I haven’t had my chocolate yet.’

‘Okay!’ I acquiesce, aware of the dictum that armies march on their bellies. ‘Chocolates all round!’

I curb my impatience as the repast is laid out and considered – certain items are half opened to be nibbled and discarded – while the precious sands of time trickle through the glass.

Apprentice 1 is still chewing contentedly as I offer her the choice: ‘Sorceress – or warrior queen?’

‘Sorceress and warrior queen!’

‘Very well – it is noted!’

The choice is unnecessary for Apprentice 2, who is already sword fighting imaginary foes in the enchanted air. All that is left is to cast lots to complete the metamorphosis and identify, by name, the warrior duo who will accompany me on this perilous quest. Will it be Barb Arian, who drew tribute from the might of Rome, or Des Troyer, who, with his twin sister, Ber Serker, is credited with the ruination of Ur and Mesopotamia, or Van Dal, who laid waste half the known world?

The voice of augury has spoken. It will be the Valorous Kyrie, Val to her comrades, and the Terrible Minator, Teri among friends.

The Council moves on to the choice of weapons. A broody silence intervenes. Val Kyrie is picking at her left nostril while Teri Minator casts longing glances at the box of chocolates. ‘The orange brew for my fellow warriors!’ I wave a desultory hand to the serving wench, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my wife, the beloved “B”. ‘And a tankard or two for this thirsty knight!’

So it is duly decided, over refreshment, that daggers and broadswords will be the weapons of choice for my fellow warriors, but it must be a battle-axe for me. A very special battle-axe, and one to which I have been giving a certain amount of thought. I place an arm round the shoulders of Teri Minator. ‘You remember the problems with the Frisbee?’

His eyes widen.

We all remember how the Frisbee was apt to go anywhere but straight – to be followed by the hazardous and laborious business of retrieving it from bushes, or rooftops, or – through direct subterfuge – from neighbours’ gardens. How perilous would such delays prove in the heat of battle! ‘What if I miss the enemy with the first cast? You wouldn’t expect me to run after it – not with this wound of former battles I still carry in my right knee.’

‘I’ll get it for you, granddad.’

‘Ah – very decent of you, Val Kyrie, but such generosity would be at the risk of your own life and limb.’

I already have the solution in mind – we will reconstruct a Fir Bolg blade. This, as I patiently begin to sketch onto paper, is a double-bladed axe, warded and runed with magic, the geometry of the curved blades cunningly devised for aerial return. ‘Where else do you imagine the Australian aborigines got the idea for the boomerang from? If you throw it at your foe and miss, it just flies right back to you so you can throw it again.’

There is awe in the rounding of four youthful eyes.

‘Oh, yes, my fellow warriors! Our task is to reconstruct the greatest battle-axe there ever was. And let me suggest that we already know its name – The Dragon Liberator!’

‘Granddad – can I throw it?’

‘I want to throw it first!’

‘Later – you’ll both get plenty of practice beheading warlocks out in the garden. But first we must get our hands on the raw materials for its reconstruction. The blade will be cast of Sheffield steel, the carbon extracted from the ground-down bones of titans and ogres, such as King Kong and Genghis Khan…’

‘I like King Kong.’

‘Okay – make it the giant at the top of the beanstalk.’

Val Kyrie is looking a trifle dubious. It would appear that beanstalks are old hat for six-year-olds. Fortunately we have a four-year-old warrior among us. I jump in quickly.

‘The beanstalk giant will be the quest of Teri Minator. Is that acceptable to present company?’

A wry smile appears on the face of Val Kyrie as she glances over at her fellow warrior, but still the decision provokes a nodding of heads.

‘After all,’ I wink to Teri Minator, ‘this is a giant who’s been after the blood of an Englishman for centuries. It’s about time an English warrior taught him a lesson.’

A broadsword lofted is answer enough.

‘Meanwhile, your task, Val Kyrie, will be to fetch me a bone, or even the merest fingernail cutting, from the venerated relics of Genghis Khan.’

‘How do I find it?’

‘That is where your knowledge of sorcery comes into the picture. All you need is the magical spell.’

‘Like abracadabra?’

‘Exactly! Meanwhile my quest will be the bones of a certain Christian Brother, named Baldy Muldoon.’

There is an outbreak of laughter. ‘Granddad, you’ve just thought him up!’

‘Oh, I assure you – Baldy Muldoon is as real as any King Kong, or the giant at the top of the beanstalk.’ I pause, to allow the responsibilities of war set in. ‘Do you, my fellow warriors, anticipate any remaining problems in obtaining these essential ingredients?’

A communal shaking of heads: no problem.

‘There is the additional consideration,’ I hazard sotto voce, ‘that one of the ogres might still be alive.’

I have in mind that if Baldy Muldoon still draws breath – my spies report that he may have found a temporary sanctuary in a cave in the foothills of Table Mountain – I might have to undertake a sub quest of my own. Maybe indulge in a little axe practice...

‘Granddad – your eyes are closing. You’re falling asleep.’

‘Just day-dreaming, sweetheart – I mean, fellow warrior, Val …’ Oh, the glorious pleasures of schaudenfreude! With what reluctance am I obliged to drag my dizzy senses back to the present considerations!

‘We’re talking about The Dragon Liberator.’

‘So we are! Okay, now I have it in mind that this here,’ I sketch in the centrally-placed hilt of the battle-axe, ‘should be carved from the canine tooth of a Tyrannosaur.’

There is a clapping of hands. ‘Where do we get it?’

‘That task will be mine. Also the gold for the fastenings – I have in mind a certain Celtic torc that belonged to Brian Boru, the last high king of Ireland, but which was taken, together with his head, by the retreating Vikings. ‘

Smiles and low-fives are exchanged. I believe we are we making progress here…

**********

I have received an order for a paperback copy of my thriller, Tiger Tiger, a tale first published by Coronet, some sixteen years ago, and subsequently re-released as a Swift publication. In bartering terms, the price has been set at a modest £6.99. If only we could conduct our affairs in the traditional fashion, with the communal spit and handshake, all would be well. Alas this mercantile venture is altogether more labyrinthine. I am obliged to make use of the services of the Post Office Limited, which is demanding new terms. A few months earlier, it was weight, and weight alone, that decided the fare. No problem with this tale, which weighs a trifle. But now we must consider its geometry. In length and breadth of cover, this isn’t a problem. In trade parlance, it is a B-format paperback measuring 198 x 129 millimetres. But we are also obliged to consider what the Mayor of Hamelin referred to as his corporation. And therein lies my problem. Where hitherto, it would have been whisked to its destiny with next day delivery for 80 or 90 pence, today the equivalent is a hefty £1.70, with a slower second class service priced at £1.39.

I argue the principle of it. I am shown the measurement yardstick, a card bedecked with orifices to measure corporations. I collect my proof of posting receipt, for what good that does me, and head for home, with the mathematics of loss winding up the adrenaline. Small publishers, like me, are obliged to use reputable wholesalers, such as Gardners, Bertrams and Amazon, who in turn have to turn a profit when they sell on to smaller booksellers. On this occasion, the order has come through Bertrams, who expect 55% discount. If we add postage of £1.70 to cost of jiffy envelope (30p), this leaves me with £1.15. If this were a Swift title by some author other than myself, I would also pay the author 56p (8%), leaving me with 54p. In this case, since I am the author, I retain all of the £1.15. But from this I must deduct the costs of editing, cover design, production, storage and wastage, before I can consider my profit margin.

Ha-hah!

There’s an exclamation I recall from the oeuvre of Billy Connolly – at the denouement of one of his tales of youth, when his transgression is so grievous that pain is imminent. The exclamation will be found in no dictionaries but it is common to every language, customarily accompanying the thumb in the mouth. It goes something like…

‘Nnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggg!’

Of course it would have been more efficient if I had sent the package second-class, when the return, prior to deductions for editing, cover design, production, storage and wastage, would have amounted to a princely £1.46. It would have been better still if the wholesaler had ordered half a dozen – or, most ideally of all, half a hundred. And it would have been better if I had been fulfilling an order from an individual bookseller, or a library supplier, or best of all an ordinary reader who purchased it direct from the Swift Publishers website. Alas, this single order from a wholesaler is typical of a back-list title. And – nnnngggg! – it is not altogether atypical of the curmudgeonly pattern from the bookselling trade when it comes to a new book published by a hitherto unknown self-publishing author. What then is the answer?

I frequently hear the mantra of salvation uttered thus: “Print on demand – POD – is the self-publishing writer’s best friend”. Is POD the Fir Bolg battle-axe that will free our dragons? Perhaps it is time we took a look at the arithmetic.

Welcome – do come in! Sit yourself down and make yourselves at home. A little spiritual refreshment? You don’t drink Jamieson Irish whiskey? No problem – a G & T? Or a nice dry white wine? Or perhaps, on such a sober occasion, you’d prefer still water? You’ve glimpsed the mathematics I have begun to draw on the flipchart? You’ve changed your mind? Oh, make it the peaty elixir! What – a double? Certainly! You’ve got it! Hey, baby – make it a treble! Let’s have ourselves a ball!

Glug…

What about this mantra:

If ye would free yere dragon from the stone
Think POD, my friend
And ye’re not alone…

Fact 1: My novel-in-progress, my dragon in the stone – I volunteer the initials of the title, “TDG” – runs to 522 pages in Word. Convert to printed page – assume 4/5ths condensation – 417.6 pages. Work to the nearest multiple of 16 (the smallest block printers will allow) and we can assume 416 pages in print.

Fact 2: This will be a self-publication. Author advance – Nil.

Fact 3: Cover design and artwork costs. If author-originated – nil. If professionally originated, anything up to £1,000. Let us assume a professional figure of £750.

Fact 4: Editing costs: If author-originated – nil. If professional, let us assume a figure of £500, mainly copy-editing.

Fact 5: Figures in text: In fiction, such as TDG – Nil.

Fact 6: Production costs: The advantages of POD are obvious. You only print books when you know you have a buyer. This eliminates the cost and potential waste of bulk printing – and it also eliminates the inconvenience and cost of storage. But it also carries the disadvantage of high cost of individual book production. I have investigated various sources of POD that would be particularly suitable for an experienced self-publishing author, and have chosen a single example:

WRITERSWORLD (www.writersworld.co.uk) professes itself to be the leading self-publishing print-on-demand book publisher. I have read through their on-line information, which is clear and reasonable. In essence, if you really are a beginner and you need help throughout the complex process of preparation, editing, cover design, promotion and sales, they do all of this for you. They register your book with Nielsen’s Book Data. They ensure it is registered with the British Library, which is obligatory in the UK. They provide you with the requisite publisher’s ISBN, supply copies for Amazon and Google search-inside-the-book programmes, supply author’s copies of the book at production cost plus shipping, and they distribute your book world-wide and pay you 100% of the royalty income. All of this is comprehensively explained on their website. But what kind of royalty can you expect from this exercise?

Let me be clear about this: there are many different aims when publishing a book and POD may be ideal for certain very specific aims. I shall discuss some of these alternative aims later. But in this case I want to publish a B-format (198 x 129 mm) paperback novel as a trade edition – this is book trade parlance for a popular work of fiction or non-fiction aimed at a broad readership. TDG will have to compete in the open market with other works of fiction in the same category. It will need a competitive price. In the current market, I judge this price to be £8.99 (US$16.99).

‘Oh, oracle of bullshitometry, are you prepared to advise me on this endeavour?’

The blessed tome appears before me, silver-tongued within its oblong of carmine lips, unpretentious in its puritan-black hue, its comely corporation a mere 68 numbered pages. ‘I am!’

‘Pray turn to page 6 – the fine distinction between bullshit and humbug!’

The pages flip, with a wearily ascetic sigh. ‘I have it, Sire!’

‘Very well – let us examine approximate production costs, per book printed, if I were to submit TDG to the WRITERSWORLD POD production programme, with standard four-colour soft cover (£1.00 per cover) and 416 pages at “just over” £00.01p per page.’

‘This would amount to £5.16 per book.’

‘The truth, as Wittgenstein probably said somewhere or sometime, is indeed to be found in the mathematics.’

‘Wisely said, Sire!’

‘So, the book retails at £8.99. Most books will sell through a wholesaler, who will ask for a minimum 50% discount. The return from the wholesaler will be a maximum of £4.50 per book. WRITERSWORLD will charge for mailing. It is entirely possible they will be able to reduce the mailing costs, through bulk delivery. But let us assume packaging and mailing are cut to, say, £1.50 per book. I am now down to £3.00 return per book. Less £5.16 POD production cost. Which leaves us with …’

‘A net loss in excess of £2.16 per book, Sire.’

Glug, glug, glug…

‘And this does not take into account costs such as cover artwork, editing, or POD setting-up costs. And it doesn’t take into account wastage through book returns…

‘No, Sire!’

Glug, glug, glug, glug…

‘Your judgement, oracle, if you please?’

‘Sire, we find ourselves in a situation that confounds the paradigm of capitalism, the making of wealth, health and happiness through profit.’

Glug, glug, glug, glug, glug…

‘What would the oracle advise?’

The black covers close, a sardonic smile crinkling the carmine lips. ‘In the best tradition of bullshit, I recommend we publish precisely a dozen copies, thus establishing preening rights among friends and acquaintances, meanwhile aiming to sell as few books as possible, thus claiming it was a modest high-brow success. The ideal, if I might venture to point out, Sire, would be to sell no books at all.’

‘Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg!’