Friday, May 27, 2011

If an old book can't be cured, maybe it should be allowed to die

The Complete Guide to Self Publishing has been promoted as "The Bible of Self-Publishing," and criticizing it is almost like criticizing the Bible. In fact, the book is almost as old as the Old Testament. I'm exaggerating. The first version, written by Tom and Marilyn Ross, was apparently published in 1978, when self-publishing was very different from today. 

I bought the out of date 4th edition in 2008, and the new 5th edition in 2010. It's also out of date, and was out of date when it was printed. It was adapted and updated from the earlier versions by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier.

It's advertised as "Completely revised and updated," but it needs more updating.

Many thousands of copies of various editions of this book have been sold, and it has received many good reviews and blurbs. Like the Bible, there are problems with this book. People get into trouble if they rely on books with good reputations that provide bad information.

  • The discussion of discounts shows a range of 40 to 67 per cent, but there is no mention of the 20% discount prevalent in online sales.
  • The book shows a chart of quantity discounts, but this is meaningless unless the self-publisher maintains and ships inventory -- which is uncommon in the era of print-on-demand.
  • The section dealing with the cost of "subsidy and POD publishing" states that Lulu charges about $853 for 100 books. That price is too much to pay, and no author should order 100 books from Lulu.
  • The quoted price of $8.53 to $13.19 per book from CreateSpace is much too high, and the real CreateSpace prices do not mean that "you'll lose considerable money on each sale."
  • The discussion of POD print quality is out of date and unnecessarily negative.
The glossary needs work.
  • It includes "Click-through rate." "Click-through ratio" is much more common.
  • "Cataloging in Publication" needs more explanation.
  • "Cropping" refers to using a pencil or crayon -- but not digital cropping.
  • It says that LCCN stands for "Library of Congress Card Number." It's "Control" number.
  • It says that a modem is used with a microcomputer. Modems are nearly extinct. Microcomputers are completely extinct. The term was replaced by "PC" around 1980.
  • The definition of "net receipts" uses the quaint and legalistic plural "moneys." "Money" would work just fine.
  • The definition of "photostat" is wrong, and the term is irrelevant to self-publishing.
  • The definition of "platform" is a computer operating system, but there is a much more common use in publishing. An author's platform consists of all of the connections an author uses to reach readers, such as a blog or speaking engagements.
  • The definition of "POD self-publishing" is unnecessarily negative.
  • "Posting" mentions ancient newsgroup submissions, but not blogs.
  • "Proportion wheel" is a tool of ancient paste-up page formatting, not modern electronic formatting.
  • "Public Relations" is not in the glossary or the index.
  • "SASE" is probably a waste of space and does not need to be there.
  • OTOH, "Self-publishing" -- the subject of the book -- is not in the glossary.
  • "Slug" is an ancient printing term which could have been eliminated. However, it has a meaning in journalism, even in the 21st century, which could have been included.
  • "Stripping" is another ancient printing term which should be dropped.
  • Defining "telecommunications" is a waste of space.
The book definitely shows its age. It sometimes seems to regard the Internet as a novelty.
  • The recommendation that web pages must load in eight seconds or less was appropriate in the age of modems, but not now, with ubiquitous broadband.
  • Ancient fan-boy jargon like “surfer,” and spelling “Web site” instead of “website,” and uppercasing “Net” and “Web” make the book seem like a 90-year-old in a nursing home dressing like a teenager.
The book needs a front-to-back revision and elimination of ancient artifacts. It’s silly to show a letter (seeking permission to use copyrighted material) that refers to a book coming out in 1985, and apparently composed with an ancient typewriter. Another letter includes “news” of upcoming events in early 2001.

The front cover looks absolutely ancient -- but not funky-ancient, just dull-ancient. There is poor contrast between the type and background, and when the cover is shown as a thumbnail on, only the word “SELF” can be read.

I am extremely disappointed with the interior design. The book is just plain hard to read.

The text type is small. The ink color looks more like gray than black, so there is not nearly enough contrast against the cream-colored pages. White would have been better.

The italic captions are even smaller than the text, and words within illustrations are nearly illegible. The fly-turd-size italics in the index are almost useless.

Chapter names are in tiny italic type in the page footers, and my baby-boomer eyes had trouble reading them with my new glasses. (For the record, I have no trouble with newspapers, magazines or most books, and my PC monitor is set for “normal” size type.)

I recognize that there's a lot of material in this 556-page 6 x 9 book. If it had 7 x 10-inch pages, the type could have been larger and the thinner book would be easier to keep flat for reading and annotating.

  • Even with the present page size, the leading (space between lines) could have been reduced a bit to allow larger type.
  • The index needs a thorough pruning. By eliminating terms like “Homer Simpson,” “Pegine Echevarria,” “FAO Schwartz” and “J.C. Penney” -- which NO ONE would search for in a book about publishing -- some space could be rescued for enlarged text.
  • Also, I doubt that readers need separate listings for Tim Zagat, Nina Zagat and the Zagat survey -- which are all on the same page in the book.
  • Suggestions that the reader kill time by looking at Hubble space telescope images, or use Google images as monitor wallpaper seem inappropriate -- and waste space.
There is a tremendous amount of valuable information in this book, but it simply is not ready for 2010, or 2011. It is past-due for a complete remaking -- or maybe it should just be allowed to die gracefully.

It could continue as an artifact of the way things used to be, like The Compleat Angler. That book was first published in 1653, but you can buy a freshly printed copy on Amazon.



  1. Aaron Shepard admits that his books on self-publishing are out of date as soon as they are published. But he tries to update them whenever something major changes.

  2. I agree, the advice that they give is good-- but as you said so aptly, it need updates-- or needs to be allowed to die. If they are suggesting websites loading times, and other small facts, they could at least look into what was good for 2010.

    Brandon makes a good point about Shepard, and I've heard that comment as well.

  3. Yes, Michael--I get it. You hate the book. I'm not even going to bother getting into the design issues. I disagree with most of your comments in that regard, and with a traditionally published book--which ironically The Guide now is--authors don't generally have a lot of say in how a book looks (reason #456 for self-publishing rather than going the trad route).

    But I certainly agree with you on many points, including that the book had out of date stuff in it the moment it was published. If ever there is an argument for self-publishing, this book is it: Writer's Digest is the publisher, and their production timetable was interminable. (Seriously? Four months for page layout?!?!) I did the vast majority of the updates a full year before the book came out. As we know, that is like centuries in today's day and age. Thankfully, now is also the day of the blog so readers who want to stay abreast of current trends can check out my blog at

    As you also point out, there is a lot of good stuff in the book. I stand behind the work we've done in updating it, and it's helped--and continues to help--many authors over the years. It is still steering authors into the right direction. And I am proud of my effort.

    We are working on a follow-up edition to Ross's Jump Start Your Book Sales. This will be self-published and will be kept up to date since we will be able to offer online updates--something we are contractually unable to do with The Guide.