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Originally published January 9, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified January 11, 2011 at 12:15 PM

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Lit Life

Author Matt Briggs' journey to print on demand

Seattle author Matt Briggs has lots of publishing horror stories to tell. This time around, with his novel "The Strong Man," he's experimenting with print on demand — as practiced by Publication Studio and the Espresso Book Machine.

Seattle Times book editor

On the Internet

Publication Studio: www.publicationstudio.biz.

Author appearance

Matt Briggs

The author of "The Strong Man" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; free (206-525-2347 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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Lit life |

Seattle area writer Matt Briggs has published six books. In 1999 his first novel got a half-page review in The New York Times Book Review, the literary equivalent of winning the lottery.

That's the good news. Here's the rest of the story:

• The initial print run of his first book, "The Remains of River Names," was 600 copies. Because of the national exposure it immediately sold out, but the publisher never printed another edition.

• Briggs' novel "Shoot the Buffalo" was accepted by a prestigious New York publishing house. Then the publisher changed its mind. In 2001 another publisher, the now defunct Oregon publisher Clear Cut Press, picked it up, but it took until 2005 to see publication. In 2006 it won the American Book Award.

• Before "Shoot the Buffalo" was published in this country, Briggs had sent it to a literary agent in Northern Ireland. He never heard back, but two years later he got an after-the-fact contract — the book had been published without his knowledge. "Someone had gone through the book and inserted physical descriptions of the characters. I was horrified," he recalls. He had to threaten a lawsuit to halt its publication.

Briggs still writes books. But this time around he's trying something different — for his new novel, "The Strong Man," set during the first Gulf War, he's being published by a Portland-based publisher called Publication Studio with a very stripped-down business model.

Here's the way publishing used to work, when it worked well: Author writes book, gets an agent. Agent submits book to publisher. Publisher likes book, pays author decent advance, prints up copies of book. Reviews ensue. Book can be found in bookstores, readers buy books. Readers (hopefully) like book and tell their friends. Author and publisher make money.

This model has been fractured. Advances are anorexic. Bookstores are thinner on the ground. Newspaper reviews, once the mainstay of highlighting a book, have declined. There are now thousands of books blogs, but a relative few of them can get the word out to more than a few readers.

Publishers print thousands of books, but they don't get sold. The unsold books are returned to the publisher. Lots of bother and waste, and no one is happy.

Publication Studio is a variation of print on demand, in which a publisher only prints the number of copies that have been requested by readers. Print on demand has been used for years in the self-publishing business — in traditional self-publishing, anyone can publish their memoirs or novel.

But with Publication Studio, books are chosen by Matthew Stadler, a literary novelist and publisher with a national reputation. The published books are bare-bones; the covers are recycled manila folders; the cover consists of the title and author, affixed with a rubber stamp. There's no printing on the spine.

The books are published in one of two ways; either in Publication Studio's Oregon office, or on the Espresso Book Machine at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (the bookstore's editions actually have cover art and the title on the spine, in deference to the way books are displayed in a bookstore). In both cases printing takes under an hour.

How do people hear about Publication Studio's books? They might go to a reading (Briggs has one Friday at Ravenna Third Place Books). They might read about them on the web, then go to Publication Studio's website. There, they can read the book for free (and even annotate it), but Stadler says most visitors to the site choose to buy the book. Authors are promptly paid for the numbers of books sold. Stadler says he's trying "to use print on demand to drive a curated, editorial driven publishing house. ... we're trying to understand, how do you make and circulate books to people who understand and care about them, and how do you make money?"

At this point, the house is making money. There are two paid employees, and authors have been paid $8,000 to $10,000 in royalties.

Much of what Publication Studio is trying to do is counterintuitive, says Stadler. He's not trying to sell thousands of books; he's trying to sell fewer books to people who want them. "Our challenge is to print few enough copies, rather than a large number of copies," he says. "All my impulses about giving significance to a book, having it have a presence everywhere, having everyone talk about it, don't work."

The jury is out on eventual success; Stadler was also publisher at Clear Cut Press, and he went broke trying to make it work. But, it seems like it shouldn't be so hard to get a good book published. Maybe books with manila folder covers, printed only for people who want them, represent one part of the future of publishing.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/7598353

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