November 23, 2010

Adventures in Self-Publishing Part IV

A few last words on the Espresso Book Machine (EBM). One of the things that interests me about this form of publishing is that it's non-exclusive. In the recent past when we've talked about self-publishing vs. trying to publish with a trade publisher or small press, we usually meant one form of self-publishing. But the plethora of formats today means that potentially an author could try out a variety of options simultaneously.

She could, for instance, publish a book using the Espresso Book Machine, publish another edition with FastPencil or Smashwords, and a third using a short-run printer. The first version might be used just to stir up some interest, the second to make the edition available for e-readers, the third to actually get into bookstores and libraries. Once the book is written, edited, and proofed, that work is done (except for revisions and additions if necessary). The formats, however, can be experimented with, sometimes with relatively little further financial investment.

The several main drawbacks I see with publishing with EBM are these:

1. It has a fairly expensive unit cost (around 4 cents a page, including pages with no text). At just under 150 pages, my book cost around $6.00 per book to publish, plus tax. But many novels and memoirs are at least 300 pages. The production cost would then be twice as much. This is doable if an author is just printing relatively few copies and selling them herself; but pricing a novel high enough to cover the cost of printing and then accounting for a hefty bookstore discount would be a challenge (and most likely a money-losing proposition). For the record, were I to do a short-run book of 150 pages with Gorham Printers, the unit cost would be around $3.00 a book, if I did a thousand copies, or $4.00 for 500. (But also remember, this unit cost doesn't include a possibly substantial outlay for the author in editing and proofing fees).

2. Next spring it's rumored that there will more EBMs in more bookstores and there will be a central data base, so that it's possible a reader could print out an author's book at another store. But for now, the author is responsible for getting her book into bookstores on her own. Just because you print your book at a store with an EBM doesn't mean that your book goes on their shelves.

3. The design costs of working with the individual in charge of the EBM at each store are quite reasonable, but it's worth noting that the text/graphic design is based on a particular individual's skills with InDesign, rather than, say, a knowledge of fine book or graphic design and a familiarity with Chicago. An author can always hire a book designer to create PDFs of the text and this might be especially important if the book has a more complex design or uses a lot of graphics and/or photographs. An author could also, as I did, ask a professional graphic artist to design a cover.

For my purposes, none of these drawbacks was particularly significant, though I didn't know about all of them when I began the process and had to learn as I went along. It's been useful for me to realize that I can't recommend the EBM to every author I know who is thinking about self-publishing. For authors who want their books available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Ingram,  it would probably be better to go with either a short-run printer or with a company like iUniverse or Trafford, which makes marketing and distribution part of their services.

But for authors who are sitting on the fence about whether to contact an agent or try a small press, it has occurred to me that creating a limited run of a book could have a lot of advantages in that it may allow the author to "see" a finished book and to use that sample book to give to friends to read or possible agents/publishers. The EBM might be a real boon to poets and essay or short story writers who so often participate in readings and whose books very often go out of print quickly. And certainly, as in my case, the EBM could be perfect as a starting place for a book that has a relatively small target audience or is to be used as a text in a class.

Barbara Sjoholm


  1. Barbara, thank you for all the information about publishing through an Espresso Book Machine. This will be hugely helpful if I someday work with an author who wants to publish this way.

    This chart of electronic publishing options on Wikipedia ( makes clear how many choices there are right now. The research it would take to make an informed choice seems rather daunting. If we share the information each of us has (with EBM, Lulu, etc.), then we're building up our knowledge base.

    That said, I think it will be a long, long time before I will feel comfortable making any recommendations. I'm really more interested in text than in production--but there may be a great deal of room out there for interested editors to act as publishing coaches and consultants.

  2. I recently posted an interview with Tera Kelley, the coordinator of the EBM department at the UW Bookstore in Seattle. Many of my readers at, an online instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience, were impressed with the uses and capacity of the machine and with the outlook of those who support the writers using it. You can see comments people made about this on the blog discussion for this article at I think the space to help those writers who have special audiences is fabulous--many of us write for our students, our families, our colleagues, and those with interests in the same niche areas. Many of us have speaking engagements or hold events where we can sell these books--and that includes town farmer's markets and bazaars.