Comparison of two book printing experiences

For winning Camp NaNo in July last year I got a coupon for a discount on one printed copy of a book from BookBaby. When I won NaNo in November the year before that I got a coupon for a free book from FastPencil. Now that I finally have my copy of Wind Age in the flesh, I want to show you both of them.

FastPencil’s process was very simple: upload a file of your cover, upload a file with your book, specify the size of pages you wanted, insert payment information, and wait. It was your responsibility to make sure covers were the right size and books had no typos and such. Nothing wrong with that, either. It’s another illustration of why a good editor (and graphic designer) is so important for self-published authours. To be clear, I wasn’t publishing, just collecting a prize.

Unfortunately, FastPencil’s directions were extremely unclear. Perhaps they assumed anyone using their services would be a professional at publication, and would therefore know everything already. We didn’t. There were some instructions even our father, who works with computers for a living, couldn’t interpret. After weeks of frustration, we clicked “submit” and prayed everything would turn out okay.

We wait. No notices from anything like quality control — so things must have been fine.

The Great Day arrives. We get a package from FastPencil. It’s a rather big box for just one book that’s supposed to be around six inches tall, but perhaps that was the smallest size they carry. After all, they’re used to much larger orders.

We open the box. Olivia had sized the cover for a 4×6 book, but here it was, staring at us, blown up to 8.5×11. It looked like an Impressionist painting, and in fact the picture only became clear when you were too far away to see details. Olivia pronounced it extremely pixelated. Surely, surely someone handling the book in its final form would have noticed this. A rational human being would have concluded that the designer did not intend such a result. A kind one might have let us know.

But no. So we were left with a book whose cover had been designed, and text formatted, for 4×6, but whose actual size was 8.5×11.


(Here you may see how, er, generous my margins turned out — with room for plenty of notes, not that I intended to put that many in. A proper scribe, seeing such waste of valuable paper, would have fainted, gone into a tirade, or sat down and produced plenty of marginalia and/or borders according to the Insular style, according to his temperament.)

In the last week of December last year I discovered the coupon for a discounted copy of my book, from a different company. With the deadline looming (it expired on the 31st), Olivia and I got to work.

We found out at once that BookBaby is not like FastPencil (or, as it has become known in our house, SlowBrokenPencil). Their directions were endless with detail and clarification. We still had to ask our father for help understanding some of the terminology, as the directions were for people who already knew their stuff, but even when Olivia had to get up the courage to contact an employee they were helpful and willing to spend valuable time working to help out a teenager who was only ordering one book.

She had no end of trouble meeting the guidelines for the cover work, though. The template required Photoshop in order to work, and we didn’t have it, so she had to ask for help from a friend of ours who did — and that was chancy in itself, with the deadline so near, because we knew he checks his e-mail very rarely. Negotiations this way and that over the cover took between two and three weeks. Fortunately they came to our attention after we finally managed to submit the order successfully, so as we’d ordered the book before the deadline, the coupon was still good. BookBaby’s prices are significantly higher than FastPencil’s, and I wasn’t up for spending forty dollars on a single copy of a book I knew would change a lot during revisions. Nine dollars for the book wasn’t so bad. . . twice that for shipping on a single book is, I think, extravagant. Not every customer will be a self-publishing bestseller.

But the order finally went through, in January, and we had again to wait. Waiting was worse this time, because we were already nervous about the result on account of our previous experience. Furthermore, enough problems had already come up that we were worried something glaring would meet our eyes when we opened the box. Either it would be of excellent quality, we said, when we were inclined to look on the bright side, or it would be awful.

This is what we got.


Here are Wind Age and Of the North together, for comparison. Of the North doesn’t look so bad in this picture because you’re not close enough to see the pixels as large as they appear in real life.


Olivia’s skill has improved since Of the North, too. In that cover the human figure wasn’t even in the picture she took, but edited in — a job that wouldn’t be so obvious if the picture weren’t immoderately blown up to fit the book. Nothing is inserted into the picture for Wind Age: I was really there. (That’s me, in my early-period garb, in our grove. Not shown: the blue rubbers I was wearing. The “garb” I’m wearing in Of the North‘s cover was my first. I’ve improved too since then.)

If I do go the self-publishing route, which I might, I’m much more likely to use BookBaby for printing (since I don’t intend to do ebooks or anything that requires a screen), even with the price.


(What appear to be typos in some of the words of the second quotation are, in fact, the result of the cover obscuring the beginning of the lines, because it wasn’t open very far, and the cover is white inside, so it’s hard to tell there’s anything blocking the words.)

There’s something magical about a print book. Scenes you’ve seen so many times in the document that you scroll past them take on new interest when there’s actually pages to turn. The weight of it in your hands, or holding down a stack of paper, gives your dream more reality. The book doesn’t yet fall open to a certain place, and the pages don’t smell of anything but paper yet, but those will come with time and love. And, maybe, a little frustrated editorial scribbling in the margins.

* * *

Apologies in advance for any surviving typos. I’m writing this post on a library computer, with which I’m not yet well acquainted, and this particular one doesn’t like to capitalize.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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9 Responses to Comparison of two book printing experiences

  1. parkhurstj says:

    Ah, my friend, you remind me of the thrills of receiving one’s own book in the mail, which also serves to inspire me to keep slogging ahead on the revision process for my own stories. I’m glad to hear you had much better results the second time around. Likewise, the skill of the photographer has much improved. I may have to enlist her skills at some point as well! 😀

    As a side note- use of margins for notes, editing, and the occasional bit of marginalia is a thoroughly acceptable use of the extra space. I’m always curious to see what others’ marginalia turns out to be- mine is far too cramped to be of much help.


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      It’s surprising how much motivation holding your book can give you.

      I saw somewhere a picture of a manuscript where the vellum had torn, and so it wasn’t usable for text and had to be part of a margin. Some scribe had drawn a face around it so it turned into the open mouth of a man with staring eyes. I wonder how many giggles that occasioned, especially when his co-workers noticed.


    • Olivia White says:

      I’m willing to be enlisted by you! 🙂 We might want to wait till it’s a bit warmer out, because even though you may wear garb, I will not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations on the delivery of your most recent book! I appreciate hearing of, and being able to learn from, your struggles as a writer and as a family in this venture. May the LORD richly bless you all as you seek to bring Him glory.


  3. thegermangolux says:

    Oh, big margins. Good. Now you could even write another book within that book, to save paper. At any rate, you can leave copious notes, and when Of the North becomes a bestseller, you can pass on that book to your grandchildren as the original copy, signed and annotated by the author. Bit of a sidetrack, but I love buying books with someone else’s notes in the margin. Whether I disagree with the notes or not, they often provide useful insight into the book, and they give it character; it makes the story even more like a person than it already was. I have a treasured copy of Shakespeare’s Principal Plays, published in 1914, and it has quotes from Harper’s Weekly on Woodrow Wilson scribbled in the back cover, as well as the evidences of schoolgirls writing each other notes in a dull Literature class.

    Kudos to both you and Olivia for pulling that off, though. Olivia, if you’re reading this, the cover on Wind Age looks amazing. Well done.

    When you say self-publishing, do you mean ordering bulk books from BookBaby or SlowBrokenPencil to sell as books, or ordering the occasional copy so you can have print versions of what you write?


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      I’m not very proud of that one as an original copy, not only aesthetically, but because of the quality of the writing. It could do with a lot of improvement. Grandchildren? Nephews and nieces, more likely. Olivia wants me to write a book of bedtime stories for all her kids.
      I’m curious about the notes the schoolgirls were scribbling in class. It all sounds like material for a story.

      I think, though of course I haven’t tried it yet, the printing part of self-publishing can be done on demand, so if someone buys a book, they print a copy, or so many at once — BookBaby’s default number for an order was 200, which nearly gave Olivia a heart attack when she saw how much the order was going to cost — and then shipped out as they’re sold, or shipped to you and you send them to people who buy. It depends.


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