“Ulysses” by James Joyce is considered one of the most innovative, if not one of the greatest, English language novels of all time. Joyce did something that no one else had done at the time and his work was considered highly experimental, totally at odds with what was considered “Literature” at the time of its publication. Now it is the epitome of “Literature”, a classic, a work of art.
“Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust, another highly respected and influential mega-novel, one that touched nearly everyone who read it (or even part of it), a novel that inspired most, if not all, Modern writers of the time--and even today in some quarters (myself included). Again, a highly experimental work for its time, taking the novel places where it hadn’t gone before.
“Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, considered an American Classic. Ernest Hemingway considered this book the “greatest American novel” of all time and concluded that everything that had come after it owed a debt to this novel which had been taught in schools for decades.
“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, considered classic American poetry. Whitman’s influence on American letters has been immense, affecting everyone from the old masters all the way up through Allen Ginsberg and beyond. Considered one of the all time classics in American literature.
What do all these books have in common? They were all self-published. Other writers who self-published include Gertrude Stein, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandberg, Ezra Pound, Stephen Crane, Anaïs Nin, e.e. cummings, Virginia Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Atwood to name just a few.
Back in those days, self-published books were commonly known as “Private Editions”. Most of the time, they were works that were considered experimental and out of the “mainstream” of the time. It made sense to do it this way, being that the powers that be did not see the future sitting right in front of them. It was only over the course of time that these books, as well as many others, received the recognition that they deserved. Of course, if this were done today, they would have been considered “Vanity projects” and dismissed by the powers that be, and even some readers out there. Self-publishing has always been looked down upon by many because the conventional wisdom is that if it was self-published, it can’t possibly be good. The “real” publishers didn’t see their worth so therefore why should we?
Since the 1960s, there have been many authors and poets who published their own work. Mostly for the same reason as they did in the past. The major publishing houses wouldn’t even consider the work of these writers because it was considered either really bad or too out there for them. “It wouldn’t sell” was and is the usual mantra. In New York City at the time (as well as other major cities around the United States) an underground network emerged to give these writers a venue to publish their work. Some of them started by the authors themselves. (For a great book on this subject, I would highly recommend “A Secret Location on the Lower East Side” by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips). In the 1970s, there were others and it continued through the 1980s all the way up through today. Now, with the internet and many other on-line sources, the avenues for writers to get their own work out there has increased ten-fold. However, it is still looked upon by some writers, and especially publishers, as being merely “vanity projects”, something not to be taken seriously.
They do have a point in some cases. A lot of self-published books aren’t up to snuff. But that’s all a matter of the opinion of the individual reader, anyway. Some of these really bad books are enjoyed by many. However there are plenty of wonderful books that come out this way as well and all because they are self-published, they are unfortunately not given the recognition or the attention they deserve. One book that immediately comes to mind is Stephen Siciliano’s “Vedette”. This was a superbly written novel that could have easily have been published by any major publishing house. However it was self-published, so therefore many would not even give it the time of day. It’s sad because it was truly a great book (Follow the link if you are interested in checking it out. I recommend it highly.)
During the 1980s, when I was coming of age, there was a whole independent network for music, literature, films, and just about every art form you could think of. It was an exciting time, and proof positive that there was so much more going on than the “legitimate” avenues would want you to believe. Musicians released their own records, started their own labels; authors published their own books, started publishing companies, etc etc.
Here’s what I find interesting: When musicians release their own music, it is called “Independently Released”. When filmmakers finance, shoot and make their own films, it is known as “Independent Film”. When theater groups get together to put on their own performances, it’s known as “Off Broadway” (or “Off-Off Broadway, depending on the venue), but for some reason, when authors put out their own books, it is known, and dismissed as, “Vanity projects”. Why is this? Why is literature relegated to the realm of “vanity” when everyone else is designated “independent”? Perhaps it’s still the one industry in the arts that still has the ear and the influence over many who desire to write and to publish. The musicians, actors and painters and whoever else already figured out what a load that all is. Why not writers? Something to think about.
Personally, I find no shame in self-publishing. I’ve done it myself over the years, many times. I’ve also published through small independent presses, which consisted of no more than one to three people who were dedicated to putting out writing they felt was important enough to be read that the major publishing houses would never touch. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to going this route.
The advantages: You have total and complete control over your work. You could do whatever you want, be as experimental or as mainstream as you want. Whatever money you make is yours. There is no one telling you to change what you don’t want to change and you can remain true to your vision.
The disadvantages: You won’t get rich. Your reach is limited (although with the internet and social networking sites, that is slowly changing). You are responsible for promoting the book yourself. There is no one behind you to help you do this. It may take years to sell your books and you may not sell that many at all.
For those who still think that self-publishing is only for those who “aren’t up to speed” with regard to their writing abilities or the quality of their work, consider this: Snookie from “Jersey Shore” just got a book deal for a novel. Meanwhile, many talented writers out there either choose or are forced to go the independent route. So according to the logic of some, Snooki is a “legitimate” writer while the independents are not. A load, if you ask me. The major publishing companies know they’ll make loads of money off of Snooki’s book. That’s the bottom line. Why would they take a chance on someone who is “untested”? It’s a sad situation, really. But to be fair, who knows? Perhaps Snooki has a winner there---but somehow I doubt it. I’m sure her book will do very well though, being that the fan base for that show is immense.
Of course this is a topic open to intense and endless debate. I say, if you are a writer, or any artist of any stripe who decides to go the independent route, go for it and the hell with what “conventional wisdom” says about it. Think of the authors mentioned at the beginning of this post. Think of how they would have been viewed today had they released these books in the 21st century rather than in the beginning of the 20th. Even publishing with a major house does not guarantee success. Many authors are published by major publishers and wind up languishing in obscurity and never making a living off their work anyway, and many “mid-range” authors wind up getting bounced for not “selling enough”, just like in the music industry, where musicians who don’t sell enough wind up being bounced from the label.
Naturally, this all depends on your point of view and in the end, that’s all it is. A point of view. I’m all for artists going their own way. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it work. To dismiss independent artists simply because they went their own way is to potentially deprive yourself of some interesting work going on out there. Be open and give it a chance. Sometimes, something will surprise you and may actually inspire you to do something of your own. You don’t need some college graduate who landed a job in some publishing company to dictate to you what’s “worthy” and what isn’t. They are just people after all, with their own tastes, opinions, points of view. Make up your own mind and decide for yourself. It’s a different world now and there are far more opportunities out there to take advantage of. As you can see from the authors listed above, the experts in their time couldn’t see the writing on the wall either.