Any way you want it, that’s the way they print it

Local writers who can’t get a foot in the door with traditional publishers turn to the on-demand model

Chuck “Chongo” Tucker in the Friendship Park reading room. You’ll find him here, at Java City in Midtown or inside the Central Library, working on his novels, which are available for purchase at <a href="http://www.chongonation.com/">www.chongonation.com</a>.

Chuck “Chongo” Tucker in the Friendship Park reading room. You’ll find him here, at Java City in Midtown or inside the Central Library, working on his novels, which are available for purchase at www.chongonation.com.

After spending a whopping 18 years brainstorming, writing and editing a novel, it took Midtown Sacramentan Jason MacCannell only three weeks to beat the living hell out of it.

“I was testing it, trying to destroy it in anyway that I could—breaking the spine, bending it backward,” says MacCannell, 35, of his 594-page debut opus, The Painted Sun. It survived the beat-down, though, and MacCannell was sold on the copy’s quality and durability. So he decided to publish his baby online at Lulu.com, a print-on-demand service.

New online presses like Lulu, iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Lightning Source sell books, but only print copies after an order is made, saving authors the trouble of having to pay for print runs that never sell.

MacCannell, after testing the hardiness of Lulu’s publishing job, opted to do-it-yourself publish—and he’s not alone: Easy-access, print-on-demand publishers make it affordable for aspiring writers to compete in an otherwise prohibitive market. Most Web-based publishing outlets charge a small one-time fee, anything from $100 to $800, for printing and shipping, handling royalties and getting listings in online bookstores.

But does print-on-demand publishing get writers noticed or convince people to buy their books—and are they any good, for that matter?

Crouched over his laptop at places like Sacramento’s Central Library and Loaves & Fishes, Chuck “Chongo” Tucker, 58, spends his days selling staple-bound handbooks on his Web site, www.chongonation.com. His business mimics a nonprofit: The little money used from book sales pays for Chongo Nation’s computer supplies and printing from Ms. Dragon Print & Copy in Altadena.

Tucker is a part of Sacramento’s homeless community, but spends 7 to 13 hours a day working on self-published books on topics such as conceptual quantum mechanics, relativity and wall climbing. He’s a well-known figure in the rock-climbing world and spent years living in Yosemite on the fringes of the law, he and others mastering tightrope walking from cliff to cliff.

Most of his book sales come in bursts after he gets press in climbing magazines. The New York Times, most notably, ran an extensive article about Tucker in September 2008. He says he doesn’t have time for self-promotion, but is dedicated to maintaining his Web site and is teaching himself HTML so as to create a new one. Before discovering rock climbing, he was a computer programmer for 15 years.

One of his goals, he says, is to someday escape poverty. “But my primary goal is to introduce an easy way to understand nature for people who would never have any other way to do so,” Tucker explains.

Tucker will have to do it one book at a time. According to Henry Baum, creator of Self-Publishing Review, a site that gets up to 700 hits a day, the chances to be published “traditionally” in the United States are slim, as publishers look for books that fit easily into a marketable genre.

“The main problem with self-publishing is that distribution to brick-and-mortar stores is much more difficult, [but] in-store purchases account for 90 percent of books sales,” Baum says.

“We’re heading to a future where a print-on-demand machine will be in every bookstore and everyone has an e-reader, but we’re not there yet.”

Baum’s site receives more than 25 self-published and e-books a month—and acknowledges that many are of poor quality. But, like with independent music, he sees self-publishing as a democratic and refreshing alternative to the mainstream with just as many gems among the bombs: “I’d love to see self-publishing have a similar vibe to it as punk rock: Anyone can do it.”

Debbi Preston is a testament to the self-publishing business model. AuthorHouse distributed her best-seller, 48 Dog-Friendly Trails in California’s Foothills and the Sierra Nevada, and all she had to do was drop a one-time $700 for their basic package, which included a professionally designed cover; a Library of Congress control number; U.S. copyright registration; page settings; online listings with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders; and an e-book, among other features.

Preston, 57, lives in Rescue near Cameron Park and has been hiking for six years with her dog, Toots, a malamute mix. Her book, which she released in July 2008, includes four-day hikes for each month of the year.

At first Preston was nervous about selling 250 books, the amount it would take for her to break even. “I would just stare at the six cases of books and think, ‘What am I going to do?’” she says.

A year later, Preston has sold roughly 2,000 books and regularly updates her Web page, http://48dogfriendlytrails.com. She recalls the marketing process as the most fun and rewarding part of the whole endeavor.

Her secret? Making connections with small, independent bookstores and other strategic venues. She also hangs fliers up at trailheads, and regularly gives hiking presentations and readings at places like REI, The Avid Reader, dog kennels, senior centers and small wineries. At most places, she was able to lock in distribution deals, which required a great deal of follow-up and, in REI’s case, a visit to the corporate office.

“Before you decide to publish, you should be a shopper at those smaller stores and get to know the owners and develop a rapport,” she advises. “You’ll make more money if you go and sell it yourself at events. Being social is really important. If you’re a closet writer, I don’t think you’ll do as well.”

Unlike Preston who plans to take her next book straight to AuthorHouse, POD is still all a big experiment back in Midtown for MacCannell. He refuses to all out abandon the traditional publishing model. “Right now I’m three quarters of a way done with a fantasy novel that I do have high hopes of publishing through traditional channels, and making money from,” he says.

His current novel, The Painted Sun, began as his thesis at University of Texas in Austin in the mid ’90s. It’s a Balzac-inspired tale featuring sex, drugs, scandal and 19th-century French painting, and MacCannell received plenty of positive feedback from university faculty as well as from his parents, who are also published authors.

Agents, on the other hand, ended up passing on the piece, because “though it was well-written, it wasn’t a good fit for them,” he says.

Since his book’s release in July, he has sold and traded almost 50 books online to friends and family. “It was a quixotic dream for a young man to have to be a literary writer in America in the ’90s and ’00s. It’s something that really doesn’t exist anymore, yet maybe it can be brought back to life through this medium.”