Tuesday 17 May 2011

Self Publishing Is Nothing New

No matter what blog you read, or tweet stream you follow, the Internet appears to be buzzing with various proclamations about the state of publishing, ranging from the so-called death of print (which, technically, Dr Egon Spengler predicted in Ghostbusters, way back in 1984) to the so-called 'revolution' of self-publishing. I'm not quite sure how to break it to you, but self-publishing is NOT a new invention. Not only have people been doing it for years via so-called "vanity presses", but authors as diverse as Beatrix Potter, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy have all dipped their toe in the murky waters of self-publishing. The only thing different between then and now is the format - and I'm pretty sure that if Smashwords was around in 1901, then Beatrix Potter would have had The Tale of Peter Rabbit out in various electronic formats, instead of the 250 limited editions with which she had to make do. In many cases, these "big names" chose to initially self publish because they couldn't find a publisher who would take their work on. By contrast, many writers nowadays choose to self publish without even trying the traditional route first, swayed by the lure of the profit margin.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 1896
© The British Library Board
Other blogs are afire with talk of independent publishing presses, or authors setting up their own companies through which to publish their work. Again, this is nothing new. William Morris, a key player in the Arts and Crafts movement in Victorian England, established the Kelmscott Press in 1891 – over the following five years, it would produce 18,000 copies spread across 53 titles. He modelled the books on fifteenth century texts, with attention lavished on the relationship between type and illustration. Each element of production – the paper, the type, the letter spacing etc – was just as important as the next, and the books proved to inspire better production standards among the generally poor commercial presses. Some of the Kelmscott books were by the likes of Coleridge or Keats, making Morris an independent publisher, although some of the books were his own, making him a self publisher. Either way, the Press highlights the emphasis on artistry and aesthetics rather than the mass-produced or commercial product.

On Saturday, I went to visit his Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent - now cared for by the National Trust. He and his wife Jane lived there between 1860 and 1865, and the house provided a communal atmosphere for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This was an entire art movement originally founded in order to operate against the mainstream grain, to pursue its own ideals in the face of accepted opinion, and to place a belief in art above that of commerce. True, many of the artists went on to become rich or famous after the work of the Brotherhood became popular, but they never lost sight of their purpose – to create art that didn't necessarily conform to what the Royal Academy said could be art. Indeed, isn't that what independent publishers should be trying to do? Shouldn't they be trying to step outside the boundaries delineated by the established authorities, and using this reclaimed space to promote art?

I'm not for a second suggesting that all independent or self published titles need to be high literature, but art can and does mean many different things. Indeed, a pride in aesthetics, and care taken in quality control, would go a long way towards ridding the Internet of poorly formatted and poorly written self-published books which do nothing to persuade people that a self-published work is as worthy as one put out by a traditional company.

Fate, holding the Wheel of Fortune
Edward Burne-Jones
Indeed, if we're going to speak of William Morris, then we can't avoid the Arts and Crafts Movement, which is usually accepted to have lasted between 1860 and 1910. The Red House, designed by Morris and architect Philip Webb, is believed to be the first Arts and Crafts house. The movement was principally concerned with a fascination for days gone by, for times when skilled craftsmen would make buildings or furnishings. Of course, this was partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which divorced people from the idea of a "master craftsmen" since the new technological processes made people simply "cogs" in the machine. The Industrial Revolution made mass-production possible, but that just made the new products too uniform. The "human touch" was missing. The movement sought to restore this touch, and so get back to a more honest form of design that celebrated the skill of the maker.

Of course, many of today's self or independently published writers clearly desire commercial success and rightly so, yet the Arts and Crafts ethic can still be applied to contemporary endeavours. Write a book that is so fresh and so original that it towers above the “book-by-numbers” often churned out by the big names. Go for the handmade aesthetic but do it for the sake of the art, not because you’re trying to save money. Love what you’re doing and take care to do it well – don’t just slap something together because the Internet says you can become a millionaire with 99c e-books. With its “one click to put online”, e-books are almost mass-produced in themselves, so make sure yours is a well-made, well-presented and most importantly well-written BOOK rather than a poor quality commercial PRODUCT.

There's no reason why something commercial can't be art as well.


Unknown said...

I agree that self published does not mean a book is garbage. There is just a good chance of it. Before the digital revolution when people like Twain wanted to self publish, it was probably a tough process. He had to put boots on the ground and find a publisher (no google search) pay for the setting of type, and pay for the books.

Now, any idiot with a word doc can click a couple buttons and poof...they have a book.

So no matter how many people take the time to craft a beautiful piece of art, it will get lost in the sea of self published garbage. What I think is needed isn't everybody to only self publish good work, but perhaps some sort of goodhousekeeping or Underwriters Labs seal of approval for writers...

Great issue to bring up though! Thanks!

Larry Kollar said...

Great points here, and a lot of history I wasn't aware of. There were similar movements in the States, "form follows function" and similar things. A more recent personage described the difference between "high-tech" and "high-touch," in which the latter involves a more personal level of interaction.

I think the "seal of approval" Michael wants is at least partially extant, in the form of reviews on the various eBook outlets. It's up to authors to give our best, of course, but it's also up to readers to make sure the good work gets pointed out.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Michael - I wouldn't say there's a good chance it will be garbage - more a reasonable chance. I've bought traditionally published books that I've been riddled with typos and continuity errors, but it does seem more prevalent with the new "DIY" ethic. I'm not sure who exactly you would appoint to issue said seal of approval, how you would police it, how people would go about submitting their work...it would essentially create the same administrative nightmare, long waits etc. inherent in traditional publishing.

FAR - The "form follows function" movement started in the closing years of the nineteenth century and it was the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright that put it into practice. There's a difference between the FFF ideal and that of the Arts and Crafts Movement since FFF stripped away ornamentation unless it was integral to the actual purpose of the object, whereas A&C wanted things to be beautiful. Still, at their heart, they're both about the integrity of good design, whatever the outcome, and it should be that same integrity that we apply to our self-published output. As for the seal of approval, I agree, reviews can go a long way towards it - as long as people review the book fairly, and not just because they know the writer.

Jen said...

Thank you for the Ghostbusters quote. Every time I hear it (I guess I watch the movie too often...) it makes me smile. Oh Egon.

Great point, that the ease of self-publication can inspire a lot of not-so-great, rather than the avant-garde creations it used to produce. It's something to keep in mind, especially as like you say some people claim that if you put an ebook up at 99p you're going to rake in massive sales automatically--as if it's the magic number, rather than the product, that's being sold.

And I'm fascinated by the comment that asks for some filter to make sure what's published isn't garbage. That's exactly the kind of think that self-publication is kind of trying to avoid, most often.

As you said, I suppose.

Good points, well raised.

Carrie Clevenger said...

Love this! Especially the historical aspect of it.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Jen - Glad you agree! Egon was light years ahead of his time.

Carrie - I did the Pre-Raphaelites at uni and I've been in love with them ever since. I really admire their ethic.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Icy. I love your call for quality and art at the end. I think self-publishing is fantastic and it's a viable option for writers, but don't do it just because you can. Make it count.

kathrynjankowski said...

"Love what you’re doing and take care to do it well." Would that more artists took this to heart.

Tony Noland said...

Excellent post, Icy. The gatekeeping function of conventional agent-editor-publisher route is ostensibly a guarantor of a minimum level of quality, both artistic and technical. I'm not convinced it does that as well as the agents, editors & publishers would have us believe. The seal of approval that Michael is referring to is probably going to come as a crowd intelligence from the kind of reviews that appear on Amazon. A well-written book that's riddled with typos and formatting problems will be cited as such in the reviews.

Helen A. Howell said...

This was a very good article highlighting lots of different aspects. I found it of great interest as I am trying the traditional route to publishing but the waiting is so tedious for the publisher/s to reply that I am now considering self-publishing. But this is a new arena to me as is publishing in general. I think Michael made a good point when he said " but perhaps some sort of goodhousekeeping or Underwriters Labs seal of approval for writers..." because although there is a lot of very good writing out their in the self publishing arena there is also a lot of rubbish - how is the reader going to know which is which? This is a question that keeps going through my mind - still trying to work it all out.

Helen - from helen-scribbles.com

Icy Sedgwick said...

Danni - I think too many people get so caught up in the fact that they CAN do something, and they don't stop to question if they SHOULD.

Kathryn - If only. :-(

Tony - I don't think the conventional route is the best guarantor, considering how much mainstream rubbish is available, but then a lot of it comes down to taste. If readers make sure that they leave intelligible, fair reviews, then it should go some way to help regulate the self-publishing system.

Helen - I think word-of-mouth helps a lot. So if I read a self-published book and review it and say "It's actually ace" then hopefully that will help that book go from the "I'm not sure" pile to "I'll give it a go". It just relies on readers leaving reviews and helping each other out.

Patti Larsen said...

Great history lesson, Icy--especially considering, like most history, it's relevant today as it was to those who lived it. I wonder what will be said of our 'revolution' a century from now.

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