Yesterday I described the moderately mixed success my grandfather and my father had with self publishing. My grandfather used a traditional vanity press, and my father began by using a commercial printer and transitioned to doing it all with his own computer and printer. Dad’s cruising guides used a very simple binding technology that was easy to do at home: a spiral binding, which has the advantage of lying flat when in use. This post will describe my experience with on-demand publishing, a development that allows an author to publish a hardcover or paperback book without paying for a print run up front or investing in expensive printers and binding equipment.
The post WWII years were a time of radical changes in the way Americans interacted with the natural world. Our pioneer heritage taught us that the wilderness should be conquered and civilized. In the 1950s boy scouts still went camping in what is now the Indian Peaks Wilderness area and cut branches to lash into camp furniture, proudly leaving their mark on the land. A major influence on the transition from an attitude of conquest to one of preservation was the development of lightweight camping gear. I knew this connection first-hand from accompanying my father, Gerry Cunningham, as he gave talks and demonstrations promoting the “Leave No Trace” philosophy and showing how our family used Gerry equipment to backpack carrying less that 20 lb. each. After I moved back to Colorado in the late 1990s I realized that there was little awareness in Colorado’s outdoor community of the history that led to our strong outdoor culture. The history of the “Lightweight Revolution” on the GoLite company’s Web site at http://www.golite.com/about/history.aspx?e=8 is a prime example of how oblivious today’s outdoor enthusiasts can be. I often thought about researching and writing about some of these developments. Then a man named Bruce Johnson with a passion for the history of outdoor gear appeared, and I no longer worried about this history being lost.
Bruce has a Web site with extensive information on a wide range of gear pioneers at http://www.oregonphotos.com/Backpacking-Revolution1.html. He has written books about three gear pioneers: Dale Johnson of Frostline Kits, Gerry and Ann Cunningham of Gerry Mountain Sports, and Roy and Alice Holubar of Holubar Mountaineering. He is using http://www.blurb.com, a publish-on-demand site to publish them. I have all three, one in paperback format and two in hardcover.
The books are thoroughly researched and well written, though not as polished as books that go through the traditional editing and publishing process would be. The layout is attractive and the reproduction of photos is excellent on the glossy paper stock. The paperback binding is well glued. The hardcovers have a sturdy cloth cover with sewn pages and a colorful dust jacket. Paying a vanity press up front for a small run of each book would require the kind of money most aspiring authors don’t have, so print-on-demand seems like an ideal solution. So what is the problem?
Price is the problem. The paperback editions are $27.95 plus s&h and the hardcovers are $39.95. Bruce Johnson’s books have achieved a certain amount of recognition (he was honored by the Boulder Heritage Roundtable on May 10, 2010) and are found in a few libraries with a particular interest in this field. However, most libraries won’t order them because they are expensive compared to other similar books from traditional publishers and because there is no discount available to libraries. Readers browsing the book sections of outdoor stores like REI would probably be interested, but these stores will never carry them because of the price and lack of distributor discount. I think it would be possible to find a traditional publisher, but that involved a huge investment in time and plenty of persistence. Right now Johnson’s time and energy for this project are taken up with his ongoing research. He is all too aware that time is running out for primary source research. Of the subjects of his first three books, only Dale Johnson is still living.