Okay With It

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.



Filed under Aesthetics, Ego, Essays, Fame, Gratitude, Thoreau, Thoughts, Writing

9 responses to “Okay With It

  1. Peter Newton


    I haven’t even made it through your entire essay and already I’ve got a few things to say. Or, rather argue. You say “Self-publishing will never have the same cache of published work,” Your litany of early self-published (now canonized) authors refutes this statement.

    “You cannot call yourself a published author–” stop right there. Do not be so quick to cow-tow to the literary powers-that-be. An awful lot of creative talent is squandered by writers trying to get inside the circle of said School of Writing/ Grand Poobah Quarterly Journal, etc… You are what you do. You write, I mean a lot, so you’re a writer. You publish. You’re a published writer. This blog, for example.

    Lastly, for the moment, because I have to go to work– the Author who said he wants strangers to pay for the privilege to read him. Already, whoever he is, I don’t want to read him. But if I did I suspect it wouldn’t take long for his words to reveal that inner smugness that good writers avoid. Humility before the Muse, whatever that means. But it sounds right. And you know when it happens.

    And now to slip into bad writing: Nothing worthwhile comes easy. I look forward to your book.


    • dmarshall58

      You know Peter, I agree with you–I don’t think attitudes about self-publication are what they should be–especially with the technological opportunity of publication on demand. Every year, more deserving books make their way into the bigger stream of American attention. Having an opening past the corporate, sometimes elitist, world of literary notoriety is wonderful, and we have that now.

      Living in Chicago, however, I still sense a very real hierarchy. Few bloggers, if any, would be invited to speak at Printer’s Row. Maybe the powers that be think there are too many blogs to make distinctions of quality, but they’re not really attempting to make distinctions at all. In essence, we don’t rate. We don’t print.

      I haven’t tried to crack the publishing world at all, so perhaps I shouldn’t speak. Perhaps it’s my paranoia or my doubt talking, or maybe I’m just confused about what being a writer means, but I don’t see how people find time to do what seems required to continue being relevant as writers when, to me, so much of the networking and “getting yourself out there” seems absolutely unrelated to (and maybe detrimental to) the quiet working life I associate with being an artist.

      The writer whose statement you mention would say writers require a healthy ego. I’d prefer not to believe that–I’d never want anyone to call me “smug” (and would hate deserving the label even more)–but faith in your talent does seem helpful. That’s why I’m writing this book, really. I’d like to compose my thoughts in a public way, and I have to believe I have something to say, something worth publishing. Beyond that, however, self-promotion seems pretty odious to me. From my perspective, I’m just looking for the cleanest, clearest, least laborious way to produce a book, but, curiously, the author I mention might call that smug, behaving as if I’m above it all and being unwilling to get myself dirty for my art.

      People like you, Peter, are exactly who I think of when I write. Before widespread printing, writers used to circulate manuscripts, handwritten books passed hand to hand. That model inspires me. Quality beats quantity here. I don’t expect to recover the cost of printing this book, but that’s not my goal. I’d like to make something interesting and beautiful, period.

      I can’t wait to share my book with you and other people who have been so encouraging on this blog, but I’d better stop now. This comment is already the longest I’ve written!


      • Peter Newton

        E-mail me your physical address and I’ll trade you my book for yours, when it is done. I’m at Bread Loaf now so could probably ramble quite a bit about what it means to be a writer, in spirit and practice. I think in the 25 summers I’ve spent up here I’ve seen the full spectrum. From brilliant nobodies to nit-wit wannabes. Truth is: we are all somebody. Each with our own voices that need to be raised, nurtured almost, as if children.


      • dmarshall58

        I’ve been out of town or I would have responded earlier. Your exchange idea sounds really generous, particularly as I was planning to send you a book anyway. To get yours in return is more than I expected, and wonderful.

        Lately, I feel as if all I’ve been doing is nurturing my voice. I’m looking forward to finishing this book–I’m close–and forgetting about it until it comes back in a couple of months. Thanks for your offer, and I’ll follow up through e-mail.


  2. Good on you, David. The conventions of the publishing world can be limiting and it is good that one might be able to side-step the influence and decision-making of self-appointed middlemen who have at core the interest of the market rather than the integrity of the created work and the intentions of the creator. Making decisions yourself is a lot of commitment of your energies, however the end result will be one which you have completely orchestrated, and that is a huge accomplishment.
    I will want several books, so you’ll have to keep us all posted on the method whereby we can purchase copies. Waiting for my treasure…G

    • dmarshall58

      I will certainly send you a book if you will e-mail me your physical address. The will be available through Amazon, so you could order more books through them. It will take them a couple of months to format and produce it, and I still have a few more edits I’d like to do before they start sending me preliminary versions. I’m looking forward to the next stage. Though I’ve only been working on the book for a few months, it seems a long journey. Thanks, as always, for your support. –D

  3. Peter Newton


    Would like to go ahead and send my book your way now if that’s okay . . . while I still have copies, not something I thought I’d have to worry about. Guess I’ve developed a small fan base up here at Bread Loaf over the past 25 years.


    • dmarshall58


      Worrying about available copies is an exciting problem to have. I sent my address over e-mail this morning and look forward to hearing from you. –David

  4. ha ha! I’m having a book launch this weekend — with no books at all! (It’s a long and boring story.) If I ever have to self-publish again I think I’ll go paperless from the very start.

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