My DIY publishing experiment, WITH A LITTLE HELP

Publisher's Weekly just announced (on the cover, no less!) my forthcoming DIY short-story collection, With a Little Help, a print-on-demand book that explores pretty much every "freemium" model for turning a free, well-known digital object into a bunch of highly sought and profitable physical objects. There's four different covers on the print book, a hand-bound limited hardcover whose end-papers come from the paper ephemera of various writer-friends; a free audiobook read aloud by voice actor/writers and a for-pay CD-on-demand of the same thing; a donation campaign, and even a one-of-a-kind super-premium chance to commission a new story for the book for $10,000. All the financials for the book will be disclosed online and bound into the books on a monthly basis.
Here's the pitch: the book is called With a Little Help. It's a short story collection, and like my last two collections, it's a book of reprints from various magazines and other places (with one exception, more about which later). Like my other collections, it will be available for free on the day it is released. And like my last collection, Overclocked, it won't have a traditional publisher.

Let me explain that last part: Overclocked was published in January 2007, just weeks after Advanced Marketing Services, the parent company of Publishers Group West, which distributed Thunder's Mouth, the publisher for Overclocked--went bankrupt. You remember Advanced Marketing Services. What a mess. First, a senior executive was arrested and convicted of fraud for falsifying the company's earnings, then the company tanked, and the resulting whirlpool threatened to suck half of New York publishing down with it. As a result, Thunder's Mouth went though a series of mergers and acquisitions. My editor and then his replacement both left or were let go (I never found out which). By spring, no one was communicating with me.

Later that year, I did a kind of self-financed minitour, piggybacking on speaking gigs, and every time I went into a bookstore it seemed like I was seeing another edition of the book with a different publisher's name on the spine. The book's currently listed in Perseus's catalogue, for which I am glad. The royalty checks keep coming, and the book continues to do well, but I could no longer be said to have any particular relationship with this publisher. As far as I can tell, it is listing the book in its catalogue and filling orders, but not much else.

This makes Overclocked into a fine control for my little experiment. It is a good book. It sold well and was critically acclaimed. But it is solidly a midlist title, a short story collection published by a house turned upside down by bankruptcy. It will be the baseline against which I compare the earnings from With a Little Help. And those earnings will be diverse--like the musicians who've successfully self-produced albums in a variety of packages at a variety of price points (Radiohead, Trent Reznor, David Byrne and Brian Eno, Jonathan Coulton), I have set out to produce a book that can be had in a range of packages and at a range of price points from $0.00 to $10,000.

Doctorow's Project: With a Little Help


  1. Love “All the financials for the book will be disclosed online and bound into the books on a monthly basis. ”

    When comparing the results against your baseline, I think you should consider the relationships between 1st and 2nd collections that are commercially published. Like, if you are a really dreadful author and your second book comes out really profitable that is a great example of the power of your publishing model.

    Unfortunately, for the sake of this experiment, you are not a dreadful author. Infact, after reading “Little Brother” I would buy your hard copy “With a Little Help” in a ‘wander-b[u]y’ while shopping.

  2. I thought I would mention that Lulu, the book “publisher” just moved their offices into a new building in Raleigh, near NC State University. They took over an old warehouse previously used by a heavy equipment rental company (North Carolina Equipment).

    It’s a great reuse of space in an urban area of Raleigh (they were in a distant warehouse space near the sprawl by the RDU airport). They even kept the funky tractor sign on the roof. From the front it still looks like an industrial building, from the side and back its modern offices.


    Lulu’s CEO, Bob Young, seems to be a pretty good citizen as well as entrepreneur. He seems happy to work on projects that will take a while to take off.

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