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AKA, the seedy underbelly of book publishing.

I’ve always wanted to write a book. It’s a sci-fi novel with a twist. I even have a few pages done, and a tentative name. Then again, who of us haven’t wanted to write a book?

The number of books available are staggering, to the point it made an exasperated Martin Luther to exclaim, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing.”

Like any industry, the book publishing enterprise is not about spreading transcendental wisdom to the ignorant masses, but to make money of said masses of ignoramuses. Guess which retailer sells the most books in Canada? If you thought it was Heather Reisman’s Chapters-Indigo-Coles empire, you would be wrong. It’s the Loblaw’s grocery chain, followed by Walmart; Chapters comes third. Why? Never underestimate the power of pulp fiction and romance novels.

Philip Greenspun spoke of his battles in the 1990s with the publishing company in publishing “Database-backed Websites”. He had to sanitize his politically incorrect writings (including the title), and fight to nix the inclusion of a useless CD-ROM at the back cover, only to have the book languish in the back of bookstores due to laissez-faire marketing.

Alas, books are indeed judged by their covers. Fiction books penned by famous authors have their names in giant, embossed letters. Books are padded with rambling content, or if this fails, printed in thicker paper, to make the book’s spine more prominent on the bookshelf.

So if you’re last name isn’t Grisham or “Higgins Clark”, chances are your like the B-list author Salon featured in March. “What once was about literature is now about return on investment,” ‘Jane Austen Doe’ bemoans. “What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders — or doesn’t move at all.”

Philip Greenspun credited the reviewer feedback at Amazon for getting his book off the shelf and into people’s hands. But even there, authors resort to desperate measures. We caught a glimpse of this when an Amazon.ca glitch revealed the names of its anonymous reviewers. Several glowing incognito reviews turned out to be penned by the authors themselves.

And then there are the British authors faking blurbs on fellow authors’ books, even if they were terrible. As one author figured, if she scratched their back, maybe they’ll scratch hers.

Fortunately, it’s not all skullduggery and greed. The Internet has made book promotion much easier, as Greenspun has noticed. Places like Lulu.com – a CafePress for books and music, as it were – has poured ice water on the sleeping self-publishing movement. While admittedly most self-published material isn’t worth lining the birdcage with, it is not without its gems. Matt Brasham, a technical educator, just published a Cisco CCNA book. The electronic version is free. The print version is modestly priced at $20 US, compared to Cisco Press’s $100+ training tomes, and it comes in a higher quality binding (Lulu.com has prided itself in printing on high quality papers).

It’s also critical to remember, in the end, Greenspun achieved some financial success, if not a spiritual one. Thanks to word of mouth and reviews on Amazon and Slashdot, he sold over 7,500 copies, and was eventually given a very generous offer at another publisher to write a second book.

The story doesn’t end there. The true gem is the secret Greenspun’s ex-Acquisition Editor reveals in a comment at the very bottom of Greenspun’s page, ten years after the fact. He had worked behind the scenes to get a competing publisher to give Greenspun the environment he richly deserved for his second work. In the end, sometimes all it takes is to write a good read.

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