Blue Ear Books is a vehicle for publishing and disseminating selected new and reprinted nonfiction books of particular global or topical interest. Intended to be at once selective and hospitable, it’s an outgrowth of my personal decision as an author, circa 2009, to take control of the publication and promotion of my own books, rather than remain subject to the whims and vicissitudes of a perpetually changing and distracted publishing industry. (You can read more about my own background on my author page.)
Modern printing technology, digital communications, and related sea changes in book publishing as an industry have made it both possible and necessary to write, publish, and promote books in new ways. Books that would not have been commercially viable in the past can now be made available to their core audiences, as well as any other interested readers, relatively efficiently and inexpensively, not only in print runs, but using now-mainstream print-on-demand technology. The writing and publishing of books is inherently not primarily a commercial business, but rather a set of mission-driven cultural vocations. As the legendary editor Jason Epstein argued in an influential series of lectures at the New York Public Library in 1999:
Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal these people would probably have chosen other careers. They might, for example, have become literary agents. … But most publishers and editors I have known prefer to think of themselves, as I do, as devotees of a craft whose reward is the work itself and not its cash value.
There is never any better salesperson for any book than its author, thus marketing needs to be driven by the author. Blue Ear Books exists to provide a community and an infrastructure of support to authors we find congenial, but the business side of every book should be controlled and led primarily by its author. This principle is reflected in the business model of Blue Ear Books itself, in which authors bear responsibility for publishing costs and logistics and, by the same token, also reap most if not all of the financial upside (rather than, as in traditional publishing models, periodically receiving usually small royalty checks). The main costs of book publishing are:
- cover design and art
- page (interior) design
Blue Ear Books arranges for these tasks to be done, on an agreed schedule and to high standards of quality. I edit most Blue Ear Books books, hired personally by each author on a negotiable basis, depending on the scope of the work needed. Other editors are also available. We take care to pair an appropriate editor with each book and author. I prefer to edit books that are well written and whose authors are self-directed and can work with me smoothly and companionably, in a spirit of shared purpose and mutual respect. I am happy to contract on a personal basis to edit books, without a presumption that they will be published by Blue Ear Books. But if authors want to publish their books with us, then I also arrange and oversee cover and interior design, in consultation with the author. Authors pay modest fees directly to the cover and page designers and any artists, but final decisions on both the specifications and the schedule of design work are made jointly by the authors and me as publisher. This responsibility is shared in order to maintain the high standards that are a hallmark of all Blue Ear Books work.
Other than editing, the highest cost in any book publishing project is usually printing. For example, a print run as high as 5,000 copies can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 including shipping costs. A print run of 1,000 copies might be between $3,000 and $5,000. Typically, the unit cost (cost per copy printed) goes down as the number of copies printed goes up. The printing cost can be rendered effectively zero, though, if the author opts for a print-on-demand option. Print-on-demand technology is entirely mainstream now and makes the most sense for most book projects, unless there is a strong prospect of immediate sales or presales of at least several hundred copies.
Blue Ear Books recalls the ethos of Blue Ear (1999-2005), a pioneering online periodical that I co-founded with Steve Lanier, praised at the time by James Fallows as “ambitious” and “innovative.” The original Blue Ear’s aspiration was to explore the potential of the Internet as a publishing medium capable of reaching readers instantly worldwide with minimal distribution costs – at a time when that was still a novel phenomenon – while maintaining a high level of intelligence and taste through editorial moderation, and leaning away from the often tiresome usual obsessions of American society and its self-regarding domestic politics. This is what Blue Ear Books still does, now primarily in the form of printed books (but also via occasional digital-only documents like Dennis Rea‘s PDF-format short book Tuva and Busted, which is available online free of charge). The subject matter and themes of Blue Ear Books are, broadly, those that interest me and that I believe in enough that I’m willing to invest my time and effort in helping make them available to readers.
– Ethan Casey, Blue Ear Books publisher, October 19, 2021