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.

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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...

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    15 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    bpunkt, It has been over four years since you have made this book. Please update us on how everything turned out. Would you make this again? Has it been profitable? Thanks,


    10 years ago on Introduction

    How does compare to I've used lulu a bit and am really happy with it, but haven't done enough to know what's best.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    My dad now thinks everything has a virus, so I'm just wondering if it does. Please reply ASAP.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you So much for this instrucable! I'm not really planning on Turking it for content, but thanks to you I've found Blurb; which I think is a great way to publish a book online to sell! Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    thanks for this - i have only just been looking at via flickr, and up pops your instructable, nice to get another veiw and some tips on promoting ... did you get the 7by7 book ? xxx

    1 reply

    10 years ago on Introduction

    What about the issue of obtaining permission to use their material for your publication? Do you obtain consent? Thanks

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    IANAL, but it is my understanding that, by the standard contract, work that turkers perform for you is "work for hire." The requester owns the rights to the work afterwards. Being explicit about that fact in your task description is probably a good idea though.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Cool idea. I'm a bit worried about MTurks that take a shortcut and start copying from copyrighted works though.

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    jhaas: I believe the danger of running into copy-and-paste problems can be mitigated by 1) phrasing your task to emphasize that you want personal experiences. 2) doing a sanity-check after submission. For the cat book, I discarded any image that looked like it could have been scanned in or taken from a different context. Overall, this has not been a big problem. People want to tell their stories - you just have to ask nicely.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    They don't get paid unless you approve it, as I recall. Even if you don't, they don't know that ;-)


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I guess I'm an old fart. I'm writing my book in LaTeX. (But then, I need index, glossary, bibliography, figures, tables, lists of figures, lists of tables, embedded mathematical formulae, etc,) I won't claim an extraordinary expertise, but I've found that the simpler products only work well with the simpler projects. If you're producing something of complexity, you need something like TeX or FrameMaker.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    jdege: I think it's mostly about picking the right tool for the right job. When I do layout for our design magazine Ambidextrous I of course work in a professional tool like InDesign. But for a coffee table book like the one I described here, lack of options in the layout software is actually desirable for me, because I stay focused on the big point and don't get lost in details.

    Video editing is another great example: If you're making a feature-length movie, you'll probably want a professional package like FinalCutPro. However, if you're putting together a quick prototype or a short instructional video, something less featureful (iMovie, Camtasia Studio) will likely suffice and be much faster.

    Each tool brings with it its own work style. I like to find a good match between that style and the task at hand.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Nice suggestions here - I have completed books and workbooks using both self-publishing and the normal publishing-house method - self-publishing is definitely growing in popularity, but you've got to really hit on a major topic to compete with the $5000, $8000, and $12000 advances offered these days for non-fiction titles. It can be done (one of my self-published workbooks has sold around 500 copies at a $9 markup ($4500 profit) but that's only after 2 years of selling - you've got to have patience). I'll have to keep your Turk suggestion in mind for future work ideas... thanks!

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Hey did you go about self publishing your wife has one she finally finished and has been looking for a way to do it, but there are so many out there to work with and such, she doesn't know where to I thought of looking on here to see what I can find out for did you go about your self published on that sold 500 copies - feel free to contact me directly if you can. Thanks.