Back to StarMerrow Essay Index











Rob Loughran


                  Cleanly shaven, dressed in a tuxedo and ready for work I opened the day’s mail.  Today’s postal booty contained bills, a Victoria Secrets catalog, and an SASE with a rejection slip telling me, “Sorry, but there is simply no market for joke books.”

                  I stabbed the rejection on the letter stake in my office (convenient and cathartic) and drove to my night job.  The first couple I served at the bar was talking about taxes so I smiled and hit them with a couple of trinkets from my  recently rejected joke book, A Man Walks Into a Bar…. :

A man walks into a bar with an alligator on a leash.  He says to the bartender, “Do you serve IRS agents here?”

“Of course.”

“Great.  I’ll have a Bud and get a coupla IRS agents for my gator.”


How are dealing with the IRS and wearing a condom similar? 

                  With both you are screwed with no sensitivity whatsoever.

                  “We love jokes,” says the couple, “but we can never remember jokes.”  I’ve worked 30+ years in the restaurant biz, joking and bullshitting my way through shift-after-shift and whenever I tell two or more consecutive jokes I ALWAYS get the above response: We can never remember jokes…. 

                  We’ve all heard:  The map is not the territory but on this night it really hit home.  Here I am, working five nights a week in a restaurant, serving upscale clientele with disposable income that, I know from experience, not marketing surveys, enjoy jokes of every type—from silly to sick—confess to not being able to remember jokes, and yet the publishing powers that be insist that there is no market for joke books. 



                  There is a lingering perception that self-published books are like the world’s tallest midget.  Even though they are printed and sold successfully (see sidebar), self-published books are perceived as inherently inferior: as the world’s tallest midget is, still, just a really, really, really short person. If they were “real” books, wouldn’t they have been published by a “real” publisher?

                  Good question.

                  The publishing industry itself has, for years, consciously perpetuated this notion of inferiority by dubbing the self-publishing industry: Vanity Press.

                  The book (A Man Walks Into a Bar…) I was attempting to sell is a comprehensive, encyclopedic volume of jokes. In the restaurant biz you are constantly hearing new jokes.  Twenty years ago I started writing them down on bar napkins and beer mats which resulted in, as it reads on the book’s eventual back cover:  “The definitive single-volume collection of modern American adult humor.”

 It had become obvious (after years of submitting book proposals) that no agent would agent the book and no publisher would publish it. So I began research into what types of self-publishing were available, and, how much it would cost.


                  If you have $10,000 dollars stashed in your messy sock drawer you can go on-line, find a Vanity Press publisher, pay them and mail away your manuscript. They will proof the manuscript, format it into book form, and produce a handsome volume all ready for you to market. (more on that later)

                  But in my messy sock drawer I have enough spare change to (maybe) spring for lunch at the local taqueria, a foul tip baseball hit by Willie McCovey that I caught at Candlestick in 1967 and, well, socks.

                  I researched which publisher offered what.  There are a plethora of legitimate and affordable self-publishers, but man, I was broke.  I’m working fulltime as a waiter and my two published novels were selling like George Bush campaign memorabilia in a Baghdad mosque. I happened upon Café Press, who publish you for free, but you have to upload the manuscript in PDF format.  I understand this is easy on a Mac but my computer doesn’t have this capability so I kept surfing and scrolling various websites.

Then I found Lulu Press.

They will publish your book for free.  As a point of copyright law, when you work with Lulu, YOU are the publisher and retain all rights.  They offer, again at a price, editing and formatting services. But they also have an informative FAQ page that refers you to Internet sites offering self-publishing techniques and advice.


I went to Lulu’s testimonial page and, to the company’s credit; they printed a few not so complimentary letters.  One letter excoriated the company for producing a shoddy and inferior product. I looked up the book and read a sample.  The margins were ragged, the text ran into the book’s gutter, and it looked like an 11th hour junior high school project. But another book’s sample chapters couldn’t be distinguished from a Random House Vintage Contemporaries edition.  The margins were crisp, every new chapter started on a facing page, the front matter (dedication, copyright, table of contents) imminently tasteful and professional.

Obviously, if you uploaded skunky material it would stink and if you uploaded a gem it would glimmer.

So it was time to subject my 1,100 page A Man Walks into a Bar…manuscript to an extreme makeover.

                  The first thing I did was print it out (cost for an 1100 page manuscript, paper and ink cartridges, about $45. Ouch.) and proofed the hell out of it.  Then I sent the monster to my poor critique group.  They sent me chapters from novels in progress and I sent them each 350 pages of misspelled, smutty, indecent jokes.  (I owe them dinner. Dinners.) Then I applied their corrections and proofread the book again. 

                  This took about three months and as it turned out, was the easy part.

                  I downloaded all the “Manuscript Transformation” information from the recommended sites and I couldn’t make it work.  Formatting the manuscript for publication had become a HUGE endeavor. I called a few friends and they said, “Simple, go get Quark.”

                  Quark is a program specifically designed to manage gutters, margins, pagination, headers & footers, etc. but costs $800. 


                  Instead I hit the Internet (the electronic equivalent, I’ve decided, of a garage sale for discounted merchandise and emotions) and I found an article in the Publishing Marketing Association newsletter by Aaron Shepard entitled, Yes, You Can Use Microsoft Word to Set Type That Looks Professional.         

Happy days are here again!

                  But I couldn’t make Shepard’s advice work, either.  I was at a loss, particularly when it came to pagination, calculating gutter offset, and proper design of the front matter. Then, following Shepard’s advice I read a fantastic and informative book by James Felici, Complete Manual of Typography.  (This book isn’t optional.  You need to understand why you’re manipulating the text. And, self-publishing is not a snap.  I liken it to tending a backyard garden: a lot of work, but it’s your garden, and you really don’t want to cut corners.)  After studying Felici’s book I was ready to proceed, but my manuscript (nearly 200,000 words) was so hefty and unwieldy that computer commands took TIME TIME TIME to execute and even longer to correct. 

                  And I made a heapin’ helpin’ of mistakes.

                  Then my wife suggested I publish the book chapter-by-chapter:  separate books for  Doctors and Lawyers, Blondes, Religion, Dirty Johnny, etc. Each chapter was 9,000 to 15,000 words so I worked on a series of short (70-120 page) joke books. This took the pressure off and allowed me to familiarize myself with the process of turning a Word document into a formatted book, simply by doing it again-and-again.  I also learned (through repetition) the Lulu process of designing a cover, placing a blurb on the back cover (tricky), and pricing the books.  All of these skills were necessary to turn the Big Daddy, 1100 page manuscript into a viable volume.

                  So a process that I thought would take a month or two took seven months, countless hours on-line, but resulted in 11 little books and one 700 page book in print.


                  The new Print On Demand (POD) technology is incredible and opens up new avenues for all writers. By printing a book only after it is ordered the start-up expense of printing a first edition run of 20,000 books is avoided and will provide unpublished (and published) writers a new “in” to publishing. 

But what about the marketing a “legitimate” publisher provides?

                  They do indeed provide marketing.  The publisher of my first novel provided  none; the publisher of my second, less than none.

                  I’m not blaming them; I just wish it were different.

But their marketing attitudes (again, understandably but lamentably linked to their purse strings) are like someone who does 25 push-ups, 35 sit ups, runs twice around the block and says, “There. I’m in shape. I’ll never have to exercise again!”

                  To expect more marketing support (unless you are already famous and bankable) from a publisher, I’ve learned, is naēve and foolish. When your book is published, legitimate or Vanity, the responsibility of marketing is ultimately yours. 

                  At Lulu you can spend $34.95 and receive an ISBN number for your book which will list it on Amazon and allow your local bookstore to order, stock, and sell your baby. 

But beware! 

Amazon takes a 20% commission off the published price and that will bump your book out of the normal book buyers comfort zone.  At Lulu my big book lists at $26.95, which I think is fair for a book of that size.  If I paid $34.95 for the honor (I didn’t) of having it listed on Amazon the tome would have to be priced at around $43.00 (before shipping) and I’d earn $4.12 per book.  Without the ISBN, after Lulu takes their 10% cut off the pre-royalty price I make $6.82 per volume.  It’s nice to be listed on Amazon, but realistically, no stranger is gonna plop down $50 (with shipping) on a book that doesn’t even have any pictures. 

After further research, it’s obvious that I needed to explore and utilize new avenues of on-line marketing. My next adventure is to establish a “Joke of the Day” blog, visit related sites in the Blogosphere and try to market my menagerie of mirth in that manner.

Quick recap: You brainstorm the book. You research it. You outline it. You write it. You rewrite it…. You edit it. You format it for publication. You self-publish it. You promote it. You market it. You sell it.  And then, and only if it’s successful, do you have a shot at a major publishing house and any hope of national marketing support and distribution.

You know, I really hadn’t anticipated this much peripheral bullshit when I checked the little box next to Writer on Career Day at St. Vincent’s High School in 1971.


With the advent of POD it’s a new world (we truly aren’t in Kansas anymore) and writers aren’t stymied by the dilemma of depending on a lucky break or paying thousands to self-publish.

A well written book, properly proofed, formatted and published using POD technology might well have all the grace and grandeur of the Emerald City.  But a sloppily written, self-indulgent, error laced book—although in print with a shiny, shiny cover—will do nothing more than reveal the short, sad, impotent wizard behind the curtains.

                  While I am pleased and proud of my self-published encyclopedia of filth and scatology, I really don’t know if I’d self-publish fiction.

                  When I’m writing a novel I am absolutely the worst judge of its worth.

My joke books fill a niche market that publishers (I’ve been told time-and-again) refuse to believe exists, and the books, like Aesop’s tortoise will be successful slowly and eventually.  But fiction and other genres are so tricky and subjective.

                  Don’t simply take your memoirs or poetry or novel or collected short stories and assume that they are viable books simply because they are book length.  Never trust your own judgment: most newborns look like Peter Lorre but all mamas think their babies are beautiful, angelic little gifts from heaven.

                  So it is with our books.

More often than not, objectivity is numbed when reading our own stuff because, dammit, we’re human. Utilize critique groups.  Re-re-re-read.  When you think there are no typos, set it aside for a month and go back to it. 

                  Then do it again.

                  I ordered proof copies of each of my Lulu joke books so I could read them ONE MORE TIME before I offered them to the public.

I’m glad I did.

The final proofing before publishing at Lulu is done on your computer screen which is difficult. While proofing an actual book you can hold, many glitches, oversights and boo-boos will suddenly appear.  Ordering a proof copy gives you ONE MORE CHANCE to not make an ass of yourself.  Readers are, rightly so, quite critical: don’t give them fuel with misspellings and shoddy grammar.  Most readers are also non-writers and they think writing a book is as easy as scarfing down four bowls of Alpha Bits, sticking your finger down your throat, and typing out the regurgitated gift bestowed upon you by your Muse. They have no appreciation for the process and effort of writing. Respect your reader, order that proof copy and scour it for slip-ups. Make it perfect.

Lulu’s software, on the bright side, makes it easy to upload a corrected PDF file to an existing cover.  It’s a pretty zippy arrangement, so use the built-in ease and flexibility to your advantage.

                  The main drawback, personally, in self-publishing is that it’s not writing.  In the time I spent researching and implementing these publishing procedures I could have cranked out the first draft to another novel.  But, the world is changing and it is wonderful that writers like us who must look up to see the bottom of the literary food chain can, with an investment of time and elbow grease, see our books in print.  And as Gene Perret says, “Admit, though, that no one cares as much about your writing as you do. So, once again, it’s your career; you take charge of it.”


                  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the books printed by Lulu. On three books I used stock covers that Lulu offers, and for the remainder I used a simple, austere, classy (without a doubt the classiest thing about these filthy little volumes) single color covers.  For more photographically and computer savvy folks Lulu offers the option of uploading a custom made one-piece cover with your own art work or photography. Again, amazingly, the process is free.

                  But the thing that surprised me the most about self-publishing was sales. I contacted oodles of people who were interested in my jokey-jokey projects and they lapped ‘em up, ordering direct from my on-line storefront.  I’ve honestly made enough money in the past six months to retire tomorrow and live comfortably for the rest of my life.

                  Provided I die next Tuesday.






                  John Grisham, A Time to Kill was originally sold out of the trunk of his car.

                  William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style.  This classic volume was self-published in 1918 for use at Cornell University.

                  Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.  Yes, Sam Clemens self-published the original edition of this great American novel.

                  Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Self-publishing for poets has had, through the years, fewer negative connotations.

                  Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence. He sold 25,000 self-published copies in a year; Warner jumped on it and sold 10 million more.

                  L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics. Originally self-published, it’s been in print 45 years and sold 20 million copies in 22 different languages. 

                  Irma Rombauer, The Joy of Cooking. Self-published in 1931 and sold to Scribners after its initial success. Today, still sells 100,000 copies a year.

                  Richard Nelson, What Color is Your Parachute? Twenty-two editions, 288 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 5 million copies sold.

                  Ken Blanchard, The One-Minute Manager. The self-published edition quickly sold 20,000 copies before being sold to William Morrow.  It’s now in 25 languages and has sold 12 million copies.

Rob Loughran's books on writing and his joke books, including his comic science fiction novel, Teenaged Pussies from Outer Space, are available at Rob's Lulu bookstore.