In the modern publishing climate, there are two pathways to a humor book: Be famous or have a website. First, pull out your wallet and check your state issued I.D. Does it read “Adam Carolla,” “Stephen Colbert,” or “Chelsea Handler”? If not, you may want to go to Tumblr and sign up for an account.
However, while Tumblr may promise fame and a book deal (for some reason, people insist on saying the “deal” part, as if negotiations were cool), it doesn’t prepare you to write a book.
I started the Fake Science website in 2010. In the annals of internet history, that year will go down as the year of the fakes. Fake Steve Jobs, Fake Maury Povich, Fake Tuna Fish on Rye — everything was fake. It makes the joke kind of lame, but it protects against lawsuits and humorless people.
My site quickly became enough of a meme to secure an agent and a book deal. I thought my textbook Fake Science 101 would be easy to write. But it turned out that Tumblr didn’t prepare me as well as I’d thought. There are five main things that come to mind (which is fortunate, since this listicle is five items long).
1. Paper: Inedible, Yet Expensive and Confusing
Kindles be damned, intricate books like mine have to be made on a pulpy tree product called paper. Why does it matter? On the internet, you don’t have to think about pages. In print, it’s different.
I had to meticulously plan the design of my fake textbook, learn the publishing program InDesign, and chart out every page. I didn’t know any of the terminology: publishing includes bleeds (how far you can print from the edge of the page), “orphans and widows” (words at the beginning or end of the page), and “words” (series of letters that mean different things depending on their order). Many writers don’t have to worry about these layout specifics, but I had to learn it all to make a book with my complex layout.
More importantly, I actually managed to make my book the wrong number of pages. I don’t know exactly how the Chinese printer for Fake Science 101 cut my pages, but I do know that I had to scramble before publication to add four pages and a chapter opening. On Tumblr, you just muck with the code or don’t bother at all.
2. Pictures Are Expensive: Even The Ugly Models Don’t Come Cheap
Some mistakes are dumber than others. If I’d been a professional graphics guy, I never would have made the mistake of producing half my book’s images at the wrong resolution. On the internet, you can render images at 72 dots per inch, or "dpi." In print, you have to have 300dpi. This sounds like boring tech jargon until you realize you made your images four times too small. My textbook features many carefully Photoshopped images, so I had to redo two chapters’ worth. I was working at internet standards of quality for a print book.
I had to buy larger images to fix my mistake, which sent me three hundred dollars over budget. When you print a book with a real publisher, you have to license large and expensive images from stock photo sites. Even if your model looks like they need immediate medical attention, you’ll still spend a lot of money to get good pictures at high resolutions. On the internet, you can use creative commons photos, exploit freely distributed textures, and use works that have fallen out of copyright without proof. In print, you're creating a product for a large corporation that can be sued. You can’t cut corners.
3. Colors Cost: You Have to Mortgage Your Home for Lime Green
Tumblr has a blog called Pretty Colors. Each color costs the exact same for them. It’s not that way in publishing.
When you write a book, an agent shops a proposal to different editors. These editors decide if they want to buy the book or not. I learned that some editors passed because my full color book would be dramatically more expensive to print than a black and white one. That had never even occurred to me. Now I know it’s the reason that a lot of books, even ones by actual famous people, are produced in grayscale or two-tone (like black and red, as in Stephen Colbert’s excellent I Am America (And So Can You)).
My book had to be in color, but it probably cost me money and offers. On the internet, color is as simple as adjusting a Photoshop slider. On paper, it means mixing vats of red, blue, and yellow ink somewhere in China.
4. Speed: Gutenberg Doesn’t Drink Enough Coffee
I made my share of dumb mistakes when writing the book. But the internet also doesn’t prepare you for the entirely different timeframe of publishing.
When I do something on Fake Science, it takes me however long it takes me to create it, plus four seconds to press a button. I can make joke flyers, trailers, and posts and upload them instantly. I can tweet from my bed. I can put up a Facebook poll and, within a few hours, have eight hundred votes for who I should feature in my book trailer.
For Fake Science 101, I wanted to create an intricate book with hundreds of footnotes, tons of pictures, chapter quizzes, and a thousand other things to geek out about. It’s 272 pages and weighs the same as a 1.8 pound hamster. That takes time.
I rushed to turn in my first draft of the book a full year ago after submitting InDesign files and a Word document with identical material. It sat on a hard drive for a few months. Leaves tumbled from trees. A copy-editor read it. I reread and sent it back. More corrections were made. I reread again. Snow fell on the sidewalk. The process repeated. Spring came and bees and flowers reproduced, or whatever they do. I still hadn’t seen the book.
It takes so long for a lot of reasons. Publishers have to send books to various sales channels, which involves meetings, phone calls, and catalogs for all the books they’re going to publish. In turn, there’s a delay because the copyediting, layout, and legal work require labor from people who have many different projects. You are one of many. On Tumblr, you click publish and watch the notes flood in.
5. The Freedom: You Can't Make A Book Into A GIF
The hardest pill for the Tumblr writer to swallow is the lack of freedom. When my Tumblr first became popular, I assumed that every editor would want to make what I believed was an awesome book. The obvious proposal was for me to regurgitate entries from my blog, put them on paper, and await my words’ arrival in the bathrooms of America. I, however, wanted a book that eighth graders could read in bed with their flashlights. I assumed editors would agree that the second book was better.
I’d been able to do amazing experiments on the internet. I’d written hundreds of fake recommendation letters for readers, I’d played hashtag games on Twitter, and talked to real scientists on Facebook about hilarious tangents. I’d always believed that everything people said about a “website’s community” was BS from drinking too much marketing Kool-Aid (or appletinis, or whatever marketing people drink). But to my surprise, it seemed like people on the internet were willing to try my weird ideas as long as they were fun.
Some editors and publishers weren’t. For them, my site’s success wasn’t proof of my worth — it was proof that I’d stumbled on a meme that might make a profit when printed. And, considering the mistakes I made (see: every item above), maybe they were being rational. Perhaps they knew that I was the type of person who would be obsess over footnote consistency yet screw up image resolution. But I also thought editors would enjoy the project the same way the funny, intelligent people who read my site did.
I had one notable conversation with an editor who was considering my proposal. He begged me to put more pictures in the book, at random, to convince the sales people it was a worthy project. I told him it made no sense to randomly slap pictures onto a page. He sighed into the phone. “Chelsea Handler can do words. You need pictures. People like you need lots of pictures.”
I don’t necessarily blame him, and I don’t doubt that other factors played into his decision to pass on the book. In the past, he’d worked with an author who was far more talented than I am and who produced breathtaking visuals. Maybe that editor just thought I was too obscure or not funny. It was still discouraging. The internet made it easy to make something cool, but it seemed like some publishers didn’t have the latitude to do the same.
Instead of capitulating, however, my agent and I kept pursuing other publishers until we found one — with a very open and funny editor — willing to take a chance. That’s the good news about your meme of the moment. For all the things Tumblr won’t teach you about writing a book, it will encourage you to keep trying until something cool happens.
Phil Edwards works on Fake Science in Chicago. He has a headshot at his website and tweets once a day at @PhilEdwardsInc.