Jeffrey Yamaguchi of Stroboscope Productions: An Indie Publisher Interview By Sean Carswell

A few months ago, I asked a handful of independent book publishers nine questions about the state of independent publishing. I used the responses of those interviews to help shape the article on indie books that I wrote for issue #7 of Razorcake. In issue #7, I also promised to post the actual interviews on the web. It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally getting around to posting these interviews.

The first interview is with Jeffrey Yamaguchi of Stroboscope Productions. Yamaguchi started Stroboscope to publish the best of his wry, cynical, and funny-as-hell zine, Working for the Man. Building off the success of his book, Working for the Man, Yamaguchi is currently publishing his newest work, the Get the Word Out project. To learn more about about Yamaguchi and Stroboscope, go to his website, www.stroboscope.com. Or just read the following interview.

Sean: What’s the difference between DIY publishing and vanity publishing?

Jeffrey: As I have come to understand it, vanity publishing is when you pay a “publisher” to publish your book. The reason it has a bad reputation and a negative connotation is because these so-called “vanity publishers” often make all kinds of promises about distribution and promotion, and they never really deliver. Making the situation worse is that these vanity publishers often charge very high fees, or in the case of print-on-demand companies, offer very low prices but don’t deliver on service. The negative here focuses on the shady operations that are the vanity publishers, and has nothing to do with the authors who publish through these types of publishers. The authors are just trying to turn their work into a book that people will be able to buy and read. Technically, I would have to say that vanity publishing is a form of DIY publishing, but using a vanity publisher is a horrible route to go, and I absolutely do not recommend it. When I think of DIY publishing, I think of a person who writes or puts together a book, lays it out himself, gets it printed up by a printer, and then does the best he can to sell it and get the word out about it. I feel that’s a very positive route to go.

Sean: What’s wrong with mainstream publishing?

Jeffrey: Mainstream publishing is now controlled by a very small number of conglomerates / media empires. These corporations have bottom line expectations, and the focus on profit leads to less challenging, cutting-edge work, as well as work of lesser quality. It’s not just the slew of celebrity bios or books about WWF wrestlers that diminishes mainstream publishing. Publishers, because of profit pressure, do not back talented but lower-selling authors over the long haul. There is no loyalty, and therefore no payoff of a great work due to a nurturing and supportive long-term publishing relationship. If an author’s first book doesn’t sell, well, he’s out the door and he’s going to have a hard time getting another book published. The first thing an acquiring editor does is punch up sales history on earlier books. Bad sales usually means no deal. And in terms of quality, all we have to do is look at the current Stephen Ambrose debacle. Not only is he guilty of plagiarism, but he’s getting facts and details wrong. No one is checking his work. He’s not even checking his work. The end result is books sold, but shoddy, unethical work. In the long run, Ambrose’s books will be remembered more for their flaws than anything else. But Simon & Schuster, owned by Viacom, was able to tell its shareholders it was a good year. I have no doubt that Ambrose and the people at Simon & Schuster care about important historical works of non-fiction, but they obviously care more about money. That said, there are still great books being published by mainstream publishers. There are a lot of talented people who work for mainstream publishers, and great writing – not all of it but always a good amount – will always break through and get published in books by the mainstream publishers, despite these publishers’ flaws and shortsightedness.

Sean: What were the largest obstacles you had to overcome to enter the world of publishing?

Jeffrey: Well, my book, Working For The Man, started out as a zine, and then it became a website, workingfortheman.com, and I took all that material and put it in a book. Over that time I not only built up a good collection of work, but I also built up an audience. That took time, and that was the greatest obstacle — the amount of time it takes to build all that. Making the book and putting it out there, there were ups and downs of course, but it’s actually pretty simple. It’s what it takes to get to that point, to know you have something worth putting together, and know that you have at least some people out there who will be interested in checking it out.

Sean: How difficult is it for a new publishing company to get their books in bookstores? How do you distribute your books?

Jeffrey: It’s usually pretty easy to get your book into the independent bookstores in your hometown area. I’ve lived in the Bay Area (San Francisco and Oakland) and now New York, so there are actually quite a few outlets. I know in other parts of the country, it would not be so easy. Independent bookstores in general are usually very cool about carrying independently published books. The chains require a distributor, and getting a distributor is fairly tough… usually you have to publish at least 3 books a year, sometimes more. And the smaller distributors, well, there’s a good chance you might not get paid. Using a distributor also introduces the possibility that many of your books will come back as returns… It’s industry standard that bookstores can return unsold books. I sold my book through independent bookstores I had built up relationships with from my zine publishing days, directly through my website, and through Amazon.com’s Advantage program. Amazon.com’s Advantage program is specifically for DIY publishers, and I’ve had a really good experience with it. My book is also sold online through Powells.com, and my experience with Powells.com has been great.

Sean: Where did you learn how to put together a book?

Jeffrey: In college, I worked on the newspaper. We used Macs, and the Pagemaker layout program. Now I use Quark, like most people… But that’s where I cut my teeth in terms of learning computer design. If you know Quark, then you will be able to handle the production of a book. In terms of getting the word out and distributing my book, I learned a lot from doing zines. I also worked in the marketing department at a publishing house — the indpendent, non-profit The New Press — which helped me understand how book publishing works, from basic terminology to getting press.

Sean: Why did you decide to publish your book yourself? Are you inspired to do more?

Jeffrey: Mainly, I simply wanted to do the book. Again, it was built up over time, starting with the zine and then growing with the website. All the while I had gotten more and more interested in independent publishing, was talking about it more and more, and finally got to the point where I realized I needed less talk and more action. So I did the book. In terms of deciding to publish it myself, that was the original path. I never saw it any other way, though I must admit that I’m pretty sure no one else would have published it. At least not the way I was planning to do it. I am definitely inspired to do more, but I’m also inspired to get published by a publisher. It all depends on subject of the book. Right now I am putting the finishing touches on my Get The Word Out book — it’s a book with insights, information and interviews on how to get the word out about independent projects. It would be absolutely hypocritical to have a publisher publish that book. I’m doing that one myself. I have another idea for a book, and I’m pretty sure that no one else is going to want to publish it… so I’ll do it myself. But one of my other ideas, I’m hopeful that a publisher will take it on. But you never know. One thing I do know, however, is that if I ever have a book that I want to do, and no publisher will take it on, I will go forward with the book on my own.

Sean: Do you find that people are prejudiced against your book or that they somehow dismiss it because you published it yourself?

Jeffrey: Sure, there’s a little of that. Part of what helped my book was that it was closely affiliated with the workingfortheman.com website, and that website has been fairly successful. DIY websites are looked on as cool, whereas with DIY books, there is this stigma. DIY poetry books will suffer the worst, then novels, then non-fiction. There’s not much you can do about this — the stigma is there. Persistence and a solid, confident effort to get the word out about your book helps break down the stigma.

Sean: Who is your audience?

Jeffrey: For the Working For the Man book and and the workingfortheman.com website, anyone who wants a good laugh about the world of work. For Bookmouth.com and the Get The Word Out project, people who are interested in books, publishing, independent projects and the DIY effort in general.

Sean: What is the future of independent publishing?

Jeffrey: Oh man, it’s wide open. It’s a beautiful thing, really, because the future is in the hands of anyone and everyone who gets to work and gets a book done. Sure there’s all this talk of e-books and print-on-demand and the web — all great new elements and developments that independent publishers can use and run with — but to me, it just comes down to the creation of cool projects that find their way through the cultural noise and the walls of the mass media, and there it is, something that just blows away the people who get their hands on it. Things are out there right now, things are being created at this very moment, and things have yet to be made but the seeds are germinating… that’s the past and present and the future, really. But I believe it’s building upon itself and growing and becoming more accessible, so to me the future for independent publishing looks very bright indeed.