Publish and perish

The combination of a small professional college and the allure of the printed word has a strange effect on Unitarian Universalists: a writer can adopt a good reputation (or bury a bad one) by getting books published. It is a dire shame there are so many sloppy works out there, by which I include substance and style. A sloppy production job cheapens a good idea. I’m thinking of a perfectly adequate liturgical work published by one of the UU professional organizations so riddled with typos — was it proofed at all? — that halfway through skimming it I picked up a pencil and added typographical marks.

Which leads me back to Will Shetterly’s post about self-published works that started me thinking about this. At Day Job, I work with the production (less) and sale (more) of books in a not-for-profit organization, and know first-hand that producing and promoting good books takes more time and money than most imagine. A good but plainly unprofitable work will not get published by an established press. Sometimes the market is too saturated, or there’s no clear audience. If a press won’t take the work on, pity the self-publisher who tries.

That said, there is a place for works too marginal to be profitable, and I wonder if online versions or PDF versions won’t increasingly fill the gap. That said, most of the work that would do into the production of a good book would also have to be put into a good PDF, save the actual act of printing and mailing printed copies. Shared proofreading and editing, honest feedback, and a cultivated eye for plain-if-honest style would go a good way to making self-published works bearable. Asking the hard questions with candor — does anyone care? or need this? — would save later hurt feelings. Finding one’s audience before the effort is made is even more important. Small publishers often ask authors for the names of two hundred or more likely customers before they even accept the manuscript for review.

Thus some resolve: I’m thinking of creating a couple of PDF books of important Universalist documents, but I’ll see if there’s interest here first.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I would be VERY interested in some Universalist stuff that I can’t obtain elsewhere in print. Which titles are you thinking about publishing as PDF-docs?

    As far as self-publishing goes… While it is often viewed as vanity publishing, I do believe there are some valid reasons to use self-publishing outfits.

    (1) The commercial market is VERY small. This is especially true of poetry these days. But it can also include public domain works that are out of print, and which no commercial publisher wishes to re-print.
    (2) Items of very local interest. Local church histories. Biographies of persons of mostly local interest. Family genealogies and histories.
    (3) Items of very specialized use. Manuals for specialized and/or proprietary technology. RE materials for a narrow population (eg. African-American Quaker teens). Custom hymnals designed to meet a special needs congregation (eg. a small UU fellowship without any access to musical accompaniment – thus a collection of very easy hymns that can be sung acapella).
    (4) And the occasional controversial work that no publisher wants to pick up. While this can easily lapse into vanity, quite a few liberal theological texts/tracts originated this way, with the author printing and distributing the literature.

  2. Is it really true that self-published books are pointless? I have been working on a book about my view of Christian Universalism, and I pretty much know and accept that I won’t be able to get a commercial publisher to publish it. (After all, it’s virtually impossible for a new author to break through, and I am not a professor or something like that.) I figure I will have to use a self-publishing company and then just promote the book through my website, and hope it will spread by word of mouth if people think it’s a good book. But just because I realize how hard it is to get published does not mean I won’t bother to try to write books if I feel I have something valuable to say. In this day and age, anyone can get something into print and promote it through the internet. You don’t necessarily sell a lot of copies that way, but people who are truly interested in the subject matter will be able to find it and buy it. Isn’t modern technology great? I don’t think the stigma against self-published books is that strong anymore, as it used to be. At least I hope it isn’t, in this age when self-publishing has become ubiquitous in cyberspace. If anyone can create a website, why can’t anyone publish a physical book? I honestly don’t even see the point of traditional commercial publishers, to tell the truth. Nobody actually gets things published that way anyway, unless they are famous or extremely lucky. What’s the point of sending off a manuscript to 50 publishers only to get 50 rejection slips, when there is a cheap and easy “vanity” press just waiting to print your manuscript. Just a few thoughts….

  3. I sure think that you’ve found a very good thing in publishing Universalist texts on line.
    The other thing that I’ve been thinking about is publishing online the whole of the meditation manuals. The Strangeness of This Business by Clarke Well(s?) is just so great. It would be interesting to see how language, images, style, etc changed over the life of those meditation manuals.

    Sign me up as one of your 200 interested customers.

  4. I think that you either publish to make money, or you publish to make public (which is where the word comes from, after all).

    The most cost effective way of making a book public is to put it online, both as pdf and as html.

    I have been tangentally involved in legal publishing and expensive print based reports are giving way to freely available online documents because it is more important that these documents be public than they be profitable to the publisher.

    Btw, if the works are out of copyright, I would suggest giving them to Project Gutenberg as well as putting them on your own site. There is great synergy in what they are doing.

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