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section heading icon     DIY

This page considers self-publication.

It covers -

     history of self-publication

Given the utopian rhetoric about the death of mediation in much writing about online self-publishing it is useful to remember that it is situated in a historical context that encompasses the emergence of commercial publishing houses over the past four centuries, changing attitudes to authorship and differing perceptions of 'vanity publishing' (including assessments of legitimacy and quality).

As suggested in the complementary profile on print & the book and the Intellectual Property guide elsewhere on this site, publishing in the first decades after Gutenberg was often quite informal. Authors frequently paid printers to transfer their writing from manuscript to type, sometimes disavowing any involvement (in order to avoid charges of vanity) or claiming - typically in the preface of the book - that they had sought publication only to avoid misrepresentation by unauthorised manuscript/oral transmission or by unscrupulous printers using pirated copies. Getting into print frequently involved paying a publisher (sometimes on a speculative basis to attract the attention of a patron) and then handling distribution.

The growth of copyright and respect of authors as creators went hand in hand with the emergence of commercial book and serial publishing and increasing sophistication in distribution. Authors who handled their own work or paid a handler included Blake, Poe, Elizabeth Browning, Tennyson, Byron, Pope, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Crane, Shelley and Alexander Dumas.

The modern publishing regime in Western economies essentially dates from the late 1880s, with establishment of publishing houses that

  • had capital and expertise,
  • were concerned with publishing rather than primarily with printing,
  • would pay authors and
  • would see a work through a production cycle that extended from initial commissioning or acceptance to editing, printing (generally often by a third party), promotion and distribution.

That was reflected in an expectation that authors would be paid by a specialist publisher - albeit often little, sometimes late - rather than having to pay the publisher or printer, the basis for contemporary scepticism about vanity publishing - perceived to involve works of inferior quality.

Since the turn of last century much writing - including some of ongoing cultural significance along with ephemera such as Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun - has been self-published, whether by the author paying a printer (or a vanity publisher) or by setting up as an independent publishing house. Examples include Virginia Woolf with the Hogarth Press, Marcel Proust, Patrick White (The Ploughman & Other Poems, 1935), ee cummings, Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit), Ezra Pound, Mary Baker Eddy, Deepak Chopra, Anais Nin, Margaret Atwood (Double Persephone in 1961), Willa Cather, RK Narayan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Pictures of the Gone World). In 1977 Charles Andler claimed that

For intellectuals, the other profession that they should always practise alongside their own is surely that of printer. A time will certainly come when writers and scientists know how to operate a linotype. If they wish to publish a book, they will be able to rent a rotary press, just as one hires a motor car to drive oneself.

Marx had famously self-published The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847, selling a mere 96 copies by the end of that year.

Recent examples of self-published works that were subsequently taken up by mainstream publishers include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard & Spencer Johnson, Winning Through Intimidation and Looking Out for #1 by Robert Ringer.

An historical overview is provided by works such as
Ink On The Elbow (New Castle: Oak Hill Press 2003) by David Esslemont & Gaylord Schanilec, Published in Paris: American & British Writers, Printers & Publishers in Paris 1920-1939 (London: Garnstone 1975) by Hugh Ford and Books: The Culture & Commerce of Publishing (New York: Basic 1982) by Lewis Coser, Charles Kadushin & Walker Powell.

The literature on self-publishing philosophies and issues such as promotion and distribution is uneven. Much of the writing about fine presses assumes that printing/binding is an end in itself, an attitude shared by some bloggers. Small print runs of works with exemplary production values are necessarily not intended for mass distribution. Perspectives are provided in Beauty & the Book: Fine Editions & Cultural Distinction in America (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2000) by Megan Benton and Roderick Cave's The Private Press (London: Faber 1971).

At the other extreme much writing about print zines devalues print quality in favour of mass access to self-consciously countercultural content. One example is Merritt Clifton's The Samisdat Method - A Do It Yourself Guide to Printing, usefully offset by Tyler Cowan's In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1998) and Clarkson Potter's Who Does What & Why In Book Publishing (New York: Birch Lane 1990).

A somewhat uncritical list of authors who have self-published is here.

     from online to print

Works that have made the transition from online self-publication to commercial print include -

Eric Raymond's The Cathedral & the Bazaar : Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (Sebastopol: O'Reilly)

The New Hacker's Dictionary (Cambridge: MIT Press) edited by Eric Raymond

C Programming FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions (Reading: Addison-Wesley 1995) by Steve Summit

C++ FAQs (Reading: Addison-Wesley 1999) by Marshall Cline, Greg Lomow & Mike Girou

Computers and Typesetting, Volume B, TeX: the Program (Reading: Addison-Wesley 1980) by Donald Knuth





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