About Blue Ear Books
Blue Ear Books publishes selected new and reprinted nonfiction books of particular global or topical interest, with a special interest in personal accounts by military veterans. Our ethos is hospitable, driven by the specific interests and priorities of the authors we publish, yet at the same time selective and rigorous in maintaining high standards in editing as well as book design and production. 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.
How and, more to the point, why Blue Ear Books came into being is a long story. The gist is that in the 1990s and early 2000s I found myself ill served, as an ambitious young author, by the business side of the publishing industry as it was traditionally structured. I also felt that the industry’s gatekeepers, especially in the United States, lacked sufficient editorial imagination to publish much-needed books on international and global subjects. This myopia is exemplified in my memory by the literary agent I told, circa 1993, that, since I was going to be based in Bangkok as a journalist, I wanted to travel around Vietnam and write a book about what I saw and learned there. Such a book might be published to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I suggested. The agent replied that he didn’t mind if I gave it a try, but I should be warned that American readers had little interest in “foreign topics, especially non-European topics.” I never wrote that book. I wish I had, because it would have proved a point.
The name Blue Ear Books is an homage to 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. In an article about Blue Ear published in 2001 in Dateline Bangkok, the in-house magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, I wrote:
I came to see my high-mindedness … as at once an asset and a problem, since it left me vulnerable to being exploited and patronized by editors and publishers whose motivations were more businesslike.
Writers, I concluded, are like Third World countries that export “primary commodities” like grains and unprocessed ores. If you’re, say, Vietnam, and your major export is rice, then you have to compete, from a position of weakness, with the United States and Thailand, both of which export better rice and have been doing it longer. … I got tired of perpetually being pitted against innumerable other writers, all vying for the limited and fickle attention of Western editors.
What Blue Ear achieved in its day is most fully expressed in the book 09/11 8:48 a.m., an 80,000-word anthology of writings that I compiled and edited in ten days – the first-ever book published about the events of September 11, 2001. The media critic Jay Rosen of the Department of Journalism at New York University (very near the site of the attacks, in downtown Manhattan) was my de facto co-editor on that project, and the book was brought out – on September 31, 2001 – by BookSurge, a company specializing in then-novel print-on-demand (POD) technology. I had met BookSurge’s executives earlier that year at an industry conference in Brooklyn, and they asked me to edit it on a ridiculous deadline to show “proof of concept” for POD. BookSurge later was bought out by Amazon and merged with CreateSpace, which in turn was merged into Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
About 09/11 8:48 a.m., John Sutherland wrote in The Guardian:
[Casey and Rosen] have functioned like conductors of an orchestra, blending others’ talents into unity. One is obliged to think analogically, because there has been nothing quite like this before. … The content of the 320-page book (a traditional ink and paper job) is choral. It brings together dozens of witnesses, weaving their voices into a complex narrative. … On one level, 09/11 8.48am looks like a spontaneous reaction of the kind that led bereaved New Yorkers to plaster city walls with posters, advertising missing loved ones or mourning their loss. But this book has been subjected to stringent editing. … It is something complete – more complete (because truer to the event) than if it arrived next Easter.
Over the two decades since then, modern printing technology and digital communications 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 relatively efficiently and inexpensively, not only in print runs, but also using now-mainstream POD technology. At the same time, 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 of a book needs to be driven by its author. Blue Ear Books provides 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 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 also arrange and oversee cover and interior design, in consultation with the author. Authors pay modest negotiable 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 printing. For example, a print run of 2,500 copies of a 250-page trade paperback book currently costs about $5,200 plus the cost of shipping. A print run of 1,000 copies currently costs about $3,500. Costs as well as lead times for print runs are variable and have been negatively affected by economic disruptions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, the unit cost (cost per copy printed) goes down as the number of copies printed goes up. But the cost of printing can be rendered effectively zero by POD, print-on-demand technology. POD is entirely mainstream now and makes the most sense for most book projects, unless there is a strong prospect of immediate sales or pre-sales of at least several hundred copies.
If you are, or want to be, an author and would like your book to be considered for publication by Blue Ear Books, I’d be glad to hear from you.
– Ethan Casey, Blue Ear Books publisher, February 15, 2023