Paper Houses

Diana Kimball is a writer, thinker, and all-round enthusiast. Paper Houses was originally written as a research paper, on the problem of credibility in self-publishing. She has kindly allowed me to republish the entire essay here, on Novelr.

Early in autumn, in the year 2000, members of the American Printing History Association gathered at the Rochester Institute of Technology to consider the precipice between centuries. The conference: “On the Digital Brink.” Among the figures invited to address the assembly, Robert Bringhurst stood apart. As a typographer and poet, Bringhurst was intimately acquainted with the forms words take, and the ache that accompanies shepherding one’s own work toward print. Asked to issue an epitaph for the twentieth-century book, Bringhurst approached its apparent demise with caution; sensible, for at the turn of the twenty-first century, the book in its familiar form retained a certain indeterminate allure.

On a Friday evening in October, Bringhurst issued a forecast. “The book,” he first said, “is poised to move, in the coming century, from its familiar paper house to a kind of handheld movie screen.” But, he continued, “I assure you that I see no reason to be worried by any of this. For while it does look to me like a part of our future, I expect that part to be short-lived. Wherever human beings live their own lives instead of somebody else’s, stories form in their hearts and in their heads.” Finally: “stories and people nourish each other. Where that occurs are the seeds of the book, some of which are certain to sprout.” Expressing sympathy for the impulse to publish while remaining vague about what form that impulse would come to inhabit in the future, Bringhurst drew his epitaph to a close. Stories, he suggested, were going nowhere. But nowhere did he promise that the houses they inhabit would not change.


In 2005, a scandal broke. At issue was the definition of “tradition”; the controversy involved a print-on-demand publishing outfit called PublishAmerica, a mass of frustrated authors, and the troubled state of the novel in a digital age. PublishAmerica, The Washington Post reported, had lured authors to sign over rights to their manuscripts with the assurance that their work would be produced by a “traditional” publishing house. PublishAmerica identified itself as “traditional” to distinguish itself from vanity presses, which—historically—charged authors for the privilege of seeing their work in print, rather than paying authors for the privilege of publishing it.

PublishAmerica did not charge, but it barely paid, either; worst of all, authors who believed they were legitimizing their work quickly discovered that they had instead condemned their manuscripts to collective disdain. When one PublishAmerica author stopped by a local bookstore to schedule a book-signing, “an assistant manager checked her computer, ”˜looked at [the author] and said, “That’s POD,”’” a compact and often derisive acronym for print-on-demand. The author was told that the bookstore did not do signings for POD authors. She was devastated.

Technology complicates tradition. The publishing industry as it existed in the twentieth century was a masterpiece of systematized inefficiency. Publishing houses routinely printed thousands of copies of a book so that enough people would see it that a few might choose to buy or read it. The enterprise was, of necessity, surrounded by an ecosystem of quality control and promotion devoted to recouping the massive cost of that inefficiency. This ecosystem included the apparatus of the book review, the role of the editor, and the specialty of creating cover art. Bookstores, given limited shelf real estate, carefully chose which books to stock; publishers, given the tremendous cost of publishing a volume in quantities that would enable certain economies of scale, took great care to bet only on books they thought bookstores might stock. The advent of online merchants such as altered the equation slightly, offering a new outlet for books unconstrained by the limitations of physical display space. The ease of desktop publishing, and the undeniable efficiency of print-on-demand technology at managing supply and demand, hold the potential to alter the equation further.

Yet norms of approbation and evaluation are stuck clinging to a bygone matrix of scarcity, in which only books mass produced on paper at the expense of a third party have a shot at fair consideration. For many, though, the paper book as a recognizable end-product of this process remains the tangible goal they strive toward. Persuaded by outfits such as PublishAmerica that their dreams are within reach—wanting to believe that norms can change, that the long tail exists, and that meritocratic success is possible—some sign away the rights to their work, convinced that they will be happy just to feel the heft of their words on paper. “People who just want a book to hold in their hands, who don’t care about having a career as an author, do okay with PublishAmerica,” commented A.C. Crispin, the chair of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams. But “for many, ”˜after a while, they realize that what they really wanted was to be read.’’


Particularly for novelists and memoirists, who pour their imagined worlds and private memories into volumes that they then nervously expose to appraisal, just seeing their work “in print” falls short of the fantasy they held close: that people might enter those worlds by choice, and pay for the privilege, thereby validating the creative mind that constructed them.

For writers, technology-enabled shades of gray in the publishing industry have proven dangerous, seductive, destabilizing, because: for them, paper artifacts have long been the mark of success.

The dream of becoming a “published author” is haunting. Becoming one, for most of the twentieth century, was a worthy goal because it was incredibly difficult to achieve. To achieve it meant conquering all of the obstacles put in place by the publishing industry to keep unmarketable or uninspired texts from reaching bookstore shelves. In a sense, it meant winning—over other manuscripts and other authors, but also over one’s own self-doubt. It did not, of course, always or even often translate to riches. But to become a published author at least meant that someone else believed in a work enough to bet on its success.

As paper-based business models confront the digital age, the function of the physical book shifts and mutates. Meanwhile, the familiar bundling of validation, distribution, and promotion afforded by advance-paying mass-production publishers becomes even more of an elusive and alluring goal through its comprehensive authentication of the authorial voice. Self-publishing, by violating these standards through the vehicle of a potentially identical physical product, illuminates their presence and challenges their endurance.


Self-publishing outfits transgress publishing industry norms on a number of fronts, complicating the assumptions of quantity as an assurance of quality, production values as a competitive necessity, and business models in which publishers assume the financial risk of printing a book. The disjunction between what self-publishing authors think they are accessing and what they are in fact accessing shows that the physical book carries with it certain powerful expectations that can be easily disappointed.

The significance of paper books is further complicated by the explosion in online publishing over the past ten years. In an age when anyone can, and most people do, instantly publish their thoughts in one form or another on a near-daily basis, the paper book has come to represent not only an antithesis to unpublished manuscripts lying in desk drawers, but an antidote to the flimsy ephemerality of thoughts beamed up into the digital ether, as well. Paper, in any form, is in fact an increasingly inefficient medium for the transmission of information, especially up-to-the-minute information. Books, then, must provide something better than up-to-the-minute information, or at least something different: cohesively imagined worlds, strong narrative, well-considered characters, immaculate copy-editing, readability, portability, and mastery of the long form.

Most of all, books offer the promise of durability; there remains something unsatisfying about purely weightless words. “Weren’t writers supposed to be bypassing publishing houses and dead-tree technology by now?” asked Paula Span in The Washington Post. “Shouldn’t the industry have evolved to something other than the book as Gutenberg knew it? Somehow, though,” she answered, “writers’ most potent fantasies still involve pages between covers, not e-books and blogs.”

When asked why this might be so, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors’ Guild, suggested that “the immortality of the book, the permanence of the book draws people in.” Though the paper of books may be fragile, the objects themselves have a habit of sticking around—resurfacing at opportune times, persisting as reminders of the words within. For aspiring authors, the tenacity of that finished product is appealing and comforting: unlike screens, which start each day anew, paper cannot so easily forget the words it holds.

Ironically, appropriately, the same technology that enables words to be published weightlessly allows them to be published physically at will. Armed with print-on-demand technology, self-publishing outfits can flourish. All offer to transform digital files into bound volumes; they differ mainly on the degree to which they prey on aspiring authors’ dreams. Blurb, for instance, makes few promises; PublishAmerica implies many, without guaranteeing any. Yet each, operating on the premise of print-on-demand, manages the eternal problem of matching supply to demand by literally supplying only the books that are demanded, printing each volume only once it is ordered online. In so doing, the services violate another twentieth-century publishing norm: mass production as quality insurance.

Mass Production

Books constitute one of the few arenas of art where mass production enhances value rather than diluting it. The words within are uniquely affirmed by the magnitude of their reproduction. Recorded music provides perhaps the closest analogy; and yet songs, like paintings and unlike novels, can be fully enjoyed just by being in their presence. (Standing in front of a portrait at the museum; swaying to a rock song at a concert or in a dorm room.)

Henry Baum, editor of, has written that “it takes all of two minutes to listen to a song, as opposed to investing real time in reading a book.” Furthermore, “writers can’t sell out a rock club the way an unsigned band can.” Because the worlds inside books are so interior, and require attention rather than simple ambient presence to access, the best guarantee a potential reader has of quality is the confidence with which a publisher invested in that interior world. For according to the business model of publishers such as Random House or Simon & Schuster, a book could never be published without being read by a number of discerning individuals. The risk would simply be too great. And so a book’s presence in bookstores assures potential readers (and purchasers) that they are about to invest in a collection of worthwhile words.

The problem with self-published books, for authors and for potential readers, is that the physical book no longer signifies that anyone has read it. In fact, the physical fact of a self-published book is far more likely to signify that astonishingly few people have read it.

This is not a tautology of the form. Rather, it is a pattern that affects the reputation of the entire enterprise. The very exclusivity of traditional publishing houses means that their approval retains substantial meaning; moreover, it commands at least some respect. Since the rubric for success as an author is part of popular culture, “published authors” do not have to advocate for themselves in social situations to the extent that “freelance writers” often do. Social status is so often simply a function of whether or not strangers are impressed.


For authors, though, the true mark of success is whether or not strangers read their work. One of the major disappointments cited by authors who have self-published is the failure of their work to filter out beyond their personal social networks. In the self-publishing universe, according to Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio, “the overwhelming majority of sales are to the friends and family of the authors.”

A 2002 article in The New York Times noted that “unless authors make extraordinary promotional efforts on their own, most print-on-demand titles typically sell just a few hundred copies.” Most book-buyers do not walk into bookstores, or embark upon browsing through, thinking about metrics of approbation and the business models of various publishing houses. They are looking for something to read.

Without paper copies of a book inundating physical stores and crowding their shelves, countless opportunities for real-world serendipity are lost. It is almost impossible to accidentally collide with a print-on-demand book, because the book would first have to be demanded. For all its astounding resource inefficiency, the publishing industry’s system of mass production is quite expert at populating shelves in enticing ways. Without admission to that physical matrix, self-published books lose out on the production of consumer desire—a production process that is mimicked, not subverted, on sites such as

The supreme downfall of self-publishing, though, might be its reliance on the self. Untested authors, when they are desperate for approval, long to be discovered—to be spontaneously recognized by a respected stranger as having talent, promise, value. They ache to be believed in. Friends and family, while supportive, lack the capacity for the kind of recognition that these authors desire, for they are already invested in the person behind the words. To be recognized for words alone is a pure, unimpeachable form of affirmation.

Marketing oneself can be painful and humiliating; marketing one’s words, exposed for all to see, can be even more difficult. Without external affirmation, all confidence feels like vanity. For most self-published books, The New York Times mentioned, “marketingis up to the author, which is one reason why most do not sell.” Furthermore, “too often, writers who use print-on-demand services do not put enough energy or money into their efforts, expecting that somehow their work will become known.” People who gravitate toward print-on-demand, a self-published author added, “are very frequently planning to fail.”

A crisis of self-confidence can undercut a book’s success completely. Longing to be discovered, authors balk at producing serendipity for themselves. “With the availability of print-on-demand services,” the Times concluded, “the issue is no longer whether one can get a book in print but only whether anyone will notice.”

* * *

On the digital brink, would-be authors face the dissolution of publication as a unified goal, and thus a disruption of the meaning of paper books as unified products of that system. As familiar business models for selling fictional words fall apart, the book’s role as signifier alternately deteriorates and stiffens. Yet, in spite of everything, “people keep on hankering to write and publish books,” Bringhurst reflected. “It seems to be the way we are. People keep on wanting to make love in spite of overpopulation and wanting to write books in spite of overpublication.” The way we are, and what we long to become: one who leaves to the world something worth believing in.

diana-kimball.jpgDiana Kimball lives in San Francisco and works in technology. She writes at and collects thoughts at @dianakimball. In general, she is an enthusiast. “Paper Houses” was first published as a blog post based on a research paper, in May 2009.

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