Introduction: Don't Do It Yourself: Start a Book Publishing Empire With Mechanical Turk

So you want to start you own book publishing empire. But who is going to write those books? And who is going to draw the illustrations? Let others do it for you! The anonymous online masses are brimming with stories waiting to be told and images waiting to be drawn.

Here are instructions on how to publish a fully illustrated coffee table book by collecting text and images with Amazon's Mechanical Turk, then printing the book on demand with This instructable covers how to source, edit, layout, print and promote a book that is written and illustrated by others, for you.

Step 1: Brainstorm Topics

How do you get other people to write and illustrate for you? Paying them helps. But you don't want to invest a fortune. The trick is to pay people a little for stories they want to tell anyways. They feel good for sharing their stories, you feel even better because you get content for your book.

First brainstorm some topics that people want to write about. My wife Tania suggested to make a book about pets. Specifically, cats. Every cat owner loves to tell you about how fluffy Zooey is, how cute it is when Gary drinks out of the sink, how amazing Socks' toilet flush trick is, etc.

In addition to thinking about topics for stories, also think about good visuals. Asking people to draw paper clips is unlikely to result in a lot of interesting submissions. If you ask them to draw a cutaway view of a combustion engine, they'll say no because that's too complicated. Babies, pets, stuffed animals, favorite places - keep it simple but emotionally rich.

Step 2: Create Mechanical Turk HITs

With your topic in mind, it's time to ask people to contribute. The most efficient and economical way to do this is through Amazon Mechanical Turk. The basic idea behind Mechanical Turk is that "requesters" post different jobs that "workers" fulfill. In turn, workers get paid by requesters. A job is called a HIT, for human intelligence task.

To become a requester, you need to create and account on the Mechanical Turk Requester Site and add some money to your account ($5-$10 should be enough).

So let's create our first HIT - the MTurk interface is really geared towards people who want to take big data sets of things and match them with big groups of people. For example, when adventurer Steve Fossett went missing, friends of his uploaded thousands of satellite images (the big data set) and got a big set of workers to look at each individual image to determine if a crashed plane was visible in the image. But that kind of functionality is not really what we want: we just want to ask one simple question, but get a lot of responses. So in the Mechanical Turk requester interface, we'll skip the default options and select the "Create HITs individually" link.

In the individual HIT creation form, enter a title, description, and keyword. For example:
Title: Tell a story about your Cat
Description: What's the craziest thing your cat has ever done? Write one paragraph.
Keywords: writing, cats, pets, creativity,
1 or 2 days should be enough as an expiration date. To collect stories, choose the "plain text" answer format. Then select how many answers you'd like. 50 to 100 is a good start. The going rate is around $.05 to $.10 for a story or a picture.

Submit your task, then enter another, asking for images instead of stories. For the second task, your answer type will be "file upload" - ask workers to draw pictures on their computer (or scan them in), then send those files to you.

Then wait for the answers to trickle in.

Step 3: Collect Responses. Edit & Clean Up.

Once your tasks have expired, it's time to download the responses. Mechanical Turk stuffs all responses into a CSV (comma separated value) file, which you can easily import in Excel or other spreadsheet programs. Most of the table is metadata we don't care about - for my example of cat stories, the last colum contains all the text participants entered. I copied the entire column into a word processor for editing.

Select the top stories.This is the time for quality control - just because you paid $.05 for a story doesn't mean it's good enough to be included. If you need more, just launch another task. Fix grammar and spell1ng errorz. Your name will be on the book eventually (as an editor), so take care of the details.

For illustration tasks, your spreadsheet will contain a column of URLs to download each file. As I found out, most people will just launch Microsoft paint and draw low resolution pixelated images. But those have a nice aesthetic of their own. However, to print those images in a book, you'll have to increase the resolution of the file without losing the boxy aesthetic along the way. Don't count on the printer to do this for you. The solution is to upsample the image using a "nearest neighbor" scaling. Photoshop offers this setting in its image size dialog (see screen capture)- other image editors probably have similar settings.

Step 4: Layout & Print Your Own Book. Wait.

Now that all the raw content is ready, it's time for layout. I recommend to keep it simple and stick with BookSmart, a free layout program from Blurb. Blurb is an on-demand publisher: you create your layour in their software, upload to their server, and 10 days later, a nicely bound full-color book arrives by mail.

When laying out a book of significant length, too many options are your enemy - with professional programs like InDesign I'd probably spend two days just putting templates together. In BookSmart, I laid out a 40-page book in an evening.

This is your last chance to double check graphics and text! Once you are happy with the preview, upload your book and order a copy for yourself. This is the priciest part, as a hardcover book + shipping usually costs $30-$40. You have to order one copy for yourself before you can sell to others. Sneaky, I know.

Wait for the book to arrive.

Step 5: Receive Book in Mail. Rejoice.

This is the best part: the book arrives - it's real! You can touch it!

You'll inevitably find typos and other mistakes - those are a fact of life. Move on.
Take some glamour shots of it before too many grubby fingers get it all dirty.

Step 6: Promote Your Book Online. Become an Instant Best Seller. Profit.

Finally, it's time to recoup all of your investments. Time to wear the self-promotion hat: Make a web page with pictures and back story about your book. Link to the book's blurb page on your site to let others buy the book. Then think about the right kind of blogs to advertise your book on.

Technorati's Top 100 Blogs are a good place to start. For my "Amazing but true stories about cats," I targeted BoingBoing, some pet sites, and some blogs about self-publishing.

Surprisingly enough, total strangers are perfectly willing to spend $20 to $30 on a neat idea. You won't get much of a cut per book from Blurb if you want to keep the book affordable - $1 to $5 is probably reasonable.

If you're diligent about promotion, eventually a royalty check from Blurb will land in your mailbox. I made $42.15 on the first check. That's barely breaking even, but all publishing empires start small...