My Secret Life as a DIY Publisher

In Pittsburgh on March 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

When I woke up this morning, was advertising a sale: A full 20% off everything on their site. Usually I delete these notifications. I’m not a compulsive shopper. Most of my friends are not compulsive shoppers. But Lulu peddles a different kind of stock: They are a DIY publisher, and I am responsible for four of their books.

Four books? you might exclaim. When did you have time to write four books?

I should clarify that I only wrote two of these volumes, although I’m very proud of them. When I discovered Lulu in 2006, I decided to dabble in DIY publishing. In the past, the world reviled “vanity presses,” both for the con artists that ran them and their clientele of desperate weirdos. But print-on-demand has jumbled the rules. Lulu’s quality is excellent. Set-up fees can be scraped out of a glove compartment. And Lulu has seeped into giant distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, just like any other publisher.

So I played around. I wanted to give handsome gifts, and I wanted to see what my words looked like as custom-made paperbacks. When my first experiment arrived in the mail, my jaw dropped. It looked like any other book. And when an actual press published a version of my first book, The Iron Mountain, in 2007, and I frowned, because I preferred my own (except for all the typos, the downside of line-editing one’s own prose).

I’m not the only author who’s fond of Lulu. When one of my Pittsburgh heroes, John Edgar Wideman, used Lulu to publish his short-story collection Briefs, the site gained an acclaimed new champion. Lulu may not replace larger publishers, but experimental authors have found a powerful new tool.

My Lulu Books

 So what are these four titles?


The first is The Legend of Pangkor, one of my favorite early achievements. Pangkor is a collection of stories and essays I wrote in my mid-twenties, about all kinds of things—a heroin-addict I dated, a massage in Vietnam, a rare game of golf, life as a bike messenger, and the resplendent landscape of Iceland. The title essay is, and may always be, my very favorite story, about getting lost in the Malaysian jungle on my 21st birthday. They’re clearly the works of a young, self-edited writer, a Pittsburgh beatnik with many roommates and lots of half-baked dreams, but as my Mom said, it’s full of surprises.


The second volume is Light, and Other Plays, and I absolutely love this collection. IfPangkor is a fun experiment, Light is much more serious—these were my best one-act plays, at least the time of publication. I have since written and staged several new one-acts, but these are the formative pieces, the stuff that really defined me as a playwright (I know, who but an Arthur Miller says “the stuff that defined me as a playwright”? Just go with it). I absolutely love how this turned out. I even love the cover. When I showed it to my publishing professor, Mike Simms, at Chatham University, he described it as “beautiful.” Six months later, Simms published my actual book, The Archipelago.


The other two projects are a little more eccentric: I put together a collection of my friend’s plays, Purgatoriography, for that same publishing class. Let me put it this way: Joe Lyins is, without question, the funniest man I have ever personally known, and his plays are sheer joy. With titles like The Unbearable Lightness of Eating, these plays make me want to vacation in Joe’s head. The fact that we’re veteran comedy partners and he’s one of my closest friends biases my opinion, but not much.


Finally, there’s A Moment in Time. This book helped save my sanity, for unexpected reasons: I had to take an intro-to-journalism course in 2011, because it was the only class that fulfilled my final MFA requirements. Because I had already worked as a freelance journalist for 10 years, I felt that an “intro” class was a little superfluous. Luckily, Abby Mendelson is a really cool guy and a fun instructor, and my classmates were all wonderful people. To keep from nodding off in class, I offered to collect their nonfiction features into an anthology—a kind of post-class gift. No one was more enthusiastic than Abby, who bought several copies for friends and colleagues. A Moment in Time is no contendor for the Peabody Award, but it was fun to put together. And I’m fond of the cover photo, which (a) I shot in Phipps Conservatory, and (b) flaunts the Steelers’ black-and-gold, which is always a nice wink-nudge to Pittsburghers.

There were other works as well, smaller and less presentable, and I have since taken them down. Even a DIY publisher must be choosey. But I’m delighted that some still float around the internet, waiting to be read. Sometimes I think of them as cute little projects. Other times I think, These aren’t half bad.

Especially at 20% off.

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