Sattre Press - An Essay

April 24, 2002.
revised July 31, 2006.

The Plan

I started a small business recently, a book publishing company called Sattre Press. Yes, I should have a real job instead but I can't find one at the moment. My wife is infinitely patient and supportive, and in return this is what I am doing to try to keep from becoming a bum.

I've always been a bookish person, so it was perhaps inevitable that I should come to something like this eventually. I've sold boxes of used books through Amazon over the past few months, and have found that making a sale via the Internet is something of a thrill. The problem: I have access to only so many undervalued books. Where to find more? The solution: print them.

I am starting out by reprinting public domain titles that are not covered by other publishers. Some will require extensive annotations, and then I hope to branch out into new material. I'm not a graphics designer, so my early efforts are heavy on the "text": fiction, histories, etc. I am working on some astronomy books which will require both photographs and line-art -- all new to me.

My first title is The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories first published in 1895 that is always going in and out of print. It is a minor classic among science fiction, fantasy and horror readers.

Since this effort is funded from savings, I am trying to make it go on a shoestring budget. I do as much of everything myself as I possibly can. I'll farm out the pieces if I actually make money.

I give the costs of doing a one-man internet startup below. But first: a long detour through books and technology.

Typography

I began with intensive study of typography and book design. I exhausted the interlibrary loan slips at the public library and raided the stacks at the local liberal arts college. For the sort of titles which interest me, a rather traditional approach to typography suits best: I found Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style and Jan Tschichold's The Form of the Book to be most valuable.

Typography is endlessly fascinating; one could come to care about very little else! I've found that too much time with it makes the student rather opaque to other people. It is a strange art: the practitioner strives for invisibility, for total anonymity. (Which is good, in that no one notices or cares about his efforts).

Somewhere I read advice that seemed good to me: rather than experimenting with hundreds of fonts, pick one or two and learn them well before moving on. After much indecision I chose Adobe Sabon as a good "workhorse" font, suitable for both fiction and nonfiction, and well-liked by reviewers. It was created by Jan Tschichold, mentioned above.

Later I added Adobe Jenson for Pagan Papers. It is an elegent "venetian" typeface. Next, I would like to try a Baskerville.

Computers

For a typesetting tool I chose TeX, a system I knew by reputation but had never used. It is a document processing language over twenty years old which I suspect will be going strong for another several decades. No need to walk the upgrade treadmill; it is available in several free versions and has an active user community.

The most popular TeX system is a macro package called Latex, but I had heard good things about a newer alternative called ConTeXt, and am now using it for my books. It is under rapid development and is a bit "bleeding edge" (in particular the documentation has not kept up with the software) but with help from the mailing list I have accomplished everything I've needed so far. In gratitude for the help I've received, I've been maintaining a ConTeXt Help Page where I provide some assistance for the parts I found difficult.

TeX provides some advanced typographical features: for example, "margin kerning," which allows characters to protrude very slightly into the margins, giving better "optical" alignment than purely mechanical justification.

These days the book printers take PDF files directly to the presses. No camera-ready copy required. TeX can produce PDF files with all the required characteristics, and I use it for both the body text and the cover art.

All my computer work is done on SuSE Linux. It is the only Linux distribution I have used, but I'm sure I would be happy with others, or with varieties of BSD. I confess I have an aversion to all things Microsoft, both on the desktop and definitely on the server side, where I spent many years of working life. Since I am no longer playing Dilbert, I use the tools that suit me.

The advantage of TeX is that its documents are just plain text files marked up in a certain way, meaning they can be sliced, diced, searched and replaced with the standard Linux tools, or with little utilities I write to make life easier. If I were using a product that kept its files in some proprietary binary format, I would be cursing more and producing less.

An example usage: IBM's ViaVoice is free on Linux. I use it to proof-read documents; the computer speaks the text while I read along on the printed page. Because the TeX markup is also just plain text, I can make my little utility speak the typesetting commands, meaning I can proof the layout by ear, as well as the content.

All my little utilities and applications are written in Python, a language I was looking for for years before it was invented. It's free, too. "Little utilities" include applications to update the web pages as needed and html generators that operate from templates, so all the book titles in the catalog can have a consistent, easy to maintain design. Also batch mailing labels, history of sales, etc.

If some of this seems like an "experts-only" effort, I would point out that everyone encounters projects where expertise is required; at such times you need the expert's tools. I have selected the systems where my efforts are rewarded; that hasn't always been the case with closed-source, proprietary software I have used.

In brief, I use my system (Linux and TeX) because:

Printing

Book printers have setup costs which make it expensive (per copy) to print small quantities. Once you get to the 1500 - 2000 copies range, the economies of scale kick in. But I didn't want to risk that amount of money for my first titles, so I went with a "Digital Print on Demand" printer: Bookmobile in Minneapolis MN. I was able to visit them and had a nice tour. The first project came through quickly and was of excellent quality. If you register at their site you will find an online cost estimator.

Some print-on-demand businesses are more like publishers and will do prepress and distribution. So far I am handling all of that myself. I am having batches of titles printed and am storing and shipping them from my home.

Advantages of Digital Print on Demand:

Disadvantages: If I find that some title is selling well, I will move to a traditional printer for higher volumes and lower costs.

I would like to offer hardbound titles, but quality is an issue. Many of the samples I have seen are actually perfect-bound ("glued") bindings with hard covers. I have to wonder how long these will last, and if they might actually be more fragile than paperback books?

"Library bindings" imply sewn signatures; the traditional printers I talked to were reluctant to even give me quotes. I still have to find (a) a printer who is willing to take my PDF files and produce folded, gathered signatures in small quantities, and (b) someone who can do the binding.

Limited edition leather bindings might be an option for some of the titles; a luxury good at appropriate prices.

Business

I expect that most of my books will be sold through distributers and online stores, but I wanted to have my own web presence with a shopping cart for those might want to buy directly (which is more profitable, by the way). Here are the costs: Some notes on the above: With the above arrangements I am not tied to any Internet Service Provider or credit card acceptance company, but can move things around as needed.

I also spent $166 on the Adobe Sabon expert font. All the other software I needed either came with my Linux distribution or was downloaded for free.

I bought a set of International Standard Book Numbers. ISBNs are issued by Bowker, a monopoly in the US, and cost $225 for ten, the only way they are sold.

Web Design

I write my html by hand; it's not that hard. The book title pages are generated from a template, and I can recreate the whole site from a script.

The design is plain and simple. On the one hand that is all I've had time for so far, and on the other I like it that way. I find very elaborate web pages to be unappealing. All of the examples in the Web Design Wow! Book are of this nature. Advertising is always ugly. The world is drowning in commercials; I don't see what good I would do by adding to the ocean.

I did find some good advice, at an elementary level (just right for me), in the The Non-Designer's Web Book, by Williams & Tollet.

Marketing

This is the final frontier for me. All my time so far has been absorbed in the technical details of creating a book and having it printed. Now I have to sell it. Not much to say here, yet. I know how to get titles into Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and have to develop other outlets, while at the same time (1) operating the business, and (2) working on new titles.

I began this because my experience in selling used books showed that there is a world-wide market for even obscure titles. I've shipped books I never thought anyone would want all over the US and Europe, as well as to South America and Australia. I am operating on the assumption that I can test market digitally printed titles, moving them to higher-volume printers if any "take off".


Bill McClain
Sattre Press
info@sattre-press.com