Thomas Paine produced Common Sense himself, and half a million copies contributed significantly to sentiment for the Revolutionary War. Henry David Thoreau published Walden, and before E. B. White edited the book and found another press, William Strunk published Elements of Style himself. John Bartlett printed his three volumes of Familiar Quotations. When a publisher saw Beatrice Potter’s illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, he turned down the book as too expensive. Potter financed it herself, and, after brisk sales, he changed his mind.
According to a self-publishing hall of fame online, novelists who paid for their first work include Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Roddy Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Terry McMillan, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. The list of poets who bankrolled volumes is longer: Margaret Atwood, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T. S. Eliot, Nikki Giovanni, Lord Byron, Robinson Jeffers, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman.
e. e. cummings’ book, No Thanks, started with a list of the thirteen publishers who rejected the book before he funded its publication.
Yet, the label “Vanity press” may say all that needs to be said. Though it’s impossible to measure authorial hope against authorial disappointment, I have to guess the historical balance sheet for self-publication is still in the red. Thoreau reported that his library included “Nearly nine-hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
Self-publishing will never have the caché of published work. You cannot call yourself a “Published author” if you fill both roles. An Author once told me he disapproved of blogs because, “I like to be read by strangers who pay for the privilege.” Purchasing a book ratifies the writer. With books you publish yourself, recovering costs is the only redemption. Most authors reach the hall of fame because of sales. Then they experience real success with real publishers.
As I prepare my own book for an online vanity press—and gulp over the expense—it occurs to me that a publisher would be nice, that I’m cowardly not shopping the book around, that I shouldn’t be so impatient, that I’m denying myself the chance to discover if my writing is any good, that my efforts should have material value, that no one will really admire or respect the book (or the time I’ve committed) without authentic approval.
Still, I’m going ahead. Why?
I like to think E-publishing and publication-on-demand improve the process. Now writers can regard publication as another sort of marathon, an accomplishment you invest in for personal reasons. Of course, it helps if you can station a few allies along the route, but people who run marathons simply look for their best effort. Only the elite look for money, and I’ve long been fine with not being the elite. As when I ran road races, I need a public event to fulfill my commitment. That’s all. It’s not about winning.
There’s an added benefit. Though I can’t imagine a market for lyric essays in 243 parts, publishers would likely want profits. They would design the cover, dictate the book’s layout, and haggle over its content. Then I’d hawk the book. I escape all of those elements by taking them on myself. The hawking part, thankfully, disappears altogether. And anyone who buys the book will be spared another marketing campaign, which seems kind. I remain an anonymous artist, a committed amateur who’s not famous, not rich, and not busy worrying about the next networking connection to assure his continued livelihood and/or sense of self-worth.
This week I finished the first draft of The Lost Work of Wasps, and now I’m into the next stages of revising, editing, polishing, laying-out and publishing. I won’t look back anymore. What I produce, good or bad, will be my work. As a visual artist, I’m excited to marry composition and design, my two abiding passions. It’s important the book be beautiful and reflect my aesthetic, especially as I’ll give most of the books away—with no expectation of return—to friends and supporters. They, after all, give as freely. I really rather doubt you’ll find me in any hall of fame, but I’m okay with that. If we can chat in your front hall, I’ll be happy.