Books are the new blogs

The New York Times’ Bits blog had an interesting interview earlier this week with James Morrison, an Australian editor and graphic designer who also runs Whiskey Priest, a tiny and very quirky publishing imprint that specializes in micro print runs of obscure, out-of-copyright books. Whiskey Priest’s biggest seller to date — the World War I novel “The Secret Battle” by now-forgotten English author A.P. Herbert — has sold all of 27 copies. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rarely performed play “The Vegetable,” a parody of Warren G. Harding’s now-forgotten presidency — has sold all of 2 copies for Whiskey Fire (the name is taken from the besotted character in Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”).

Morrison acknowledges that he does it largely as a hobby, with no real goal to make money from publishing. What makes it interesting is how he does it. Whiskey Priest relies on print-on-demand service Lulu to produce the books and sells them through Amazon. Here’s how Morrison describes the origins and evolution of Whiskey Priest:

For me it was a matter of there being books in the public domain that I wanted to read which were either not available as physical books, or were available only in staggeringly ugly and expensive editions. I originally intended to just design a cover I liked and then print a copy for myself to read, but it turned out to be an almost negligible amount of extra effort to make them available for others to buy as well, so I thought I might as well do so…

Lulu and Amazon take a cut of each copy sold but require no up-front listing fees or anything like that. The only money I spend is on ordering proof copies for myself, which is the production cost without anything else added on — about $8 for one recent title. To make a book available on Amazon, you need to order at least one physical copy yourself, check it, and then let Lulu know it’s OK to go ahead and list it. If you just wanted to list on Lulu’s own site, you don’t even need to do that — you could upload a thousand different books and make them available for sale via the Lulu site without ever spending a cent.

From print-on-demand to new digital publishing and self-publishing platforms, the tools for publishing book-length works — both in print and electronically  — are now well within reach of the hobbyist and amateur. The result has been an explosion of titles from both amateurs and professional writers originating outside traditional publishing channels.

It reminds me of the early days of blogging, when tools like WordPress and Blogger, along with low-cost web hosting, allowed a million new journalists/pundits/publishers/etc. to bloom. Those same tools now power professional operations like GigaOM, which has been able to grow and evolve without going through traditional media gatekeepers, but they have also brought chaos for traditional media outlets that now find themselves competing for readership and credibility against countless new entrants.

I think the “book” business is likely to go the same way.