Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there were no publishers. This may come as a terrible shock, but until only a little while ago, everyone published their own books. When the book was first invented, there wasn't any alternative; you copied them out by hand on papyrus or animal skins, or inscribed them onto clay tablets, or carved them into rock. The modern printed paper book, as we know it, started back in 1456 when Gutenberg turned out the first bible. For several hundred years after that, there were only printers - no publishers, no agents. No middle-man at all. You just wrote your book and took it down the road to your friendly printing press.
Which was sometimes operated by women!
You had to have money, of course, to pay the printer, but if you knew lots of people you could do a bit of crowd sourcing and get all your friends and family to stump up the money for the book in advance and it was called Subscription Publishing. It was very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a subscriber you got your name listed at the beginning of the book, often rubbing inky shoulders with royalty and the aristocracy - getting your name on the lists became a method of social climbing - people subscribed just see their name on the page. Some of our most famous authors were published by subscription Milton crowd-sourced the first edition of Paradise Lost and Fanny Burney's novel, Camilla, was financed in the same way.
Mark Twain's books were subscription published, and in the US this meant that they were sold door to door rather than through a bookshop. He made so much money he wrote to a friend that "Anything but subscription publication, is printing for private circulation." That was by-passing the bookseller and the early subscription companies were as hated as Amazon is today.
Back in the 16th and 17th centuries all you needed was a purse stuffed with cash and a printer. William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle printed his own book on horse management and training - with wonderful illustrations of himself on horseback - which became a best seller. He also paid to have his wife's books printed (she wrote more than 20 of them) but they didn't sell quite so well. The works of Margaret Cavendish, particularly her autobiography and her 'Sociable Letters', are now collectors items. She even had her author picture inside the cover - it's a touch gloomy, so she was obviously not very media savvy!
Booksellers soon had the idea of printing books they thought their customers might like, and they became some of the first 'publishers'. Coleridge and Southey owed a lot of their success to a bookseller called Joseph Cottle, who at one point offered Coleridge a guinea and a half for every hundred lines of poetry he produced. I suppose it was an early 'writer's advance'. Unfortunately he spent it on drink and drugs.
People were still self-publishing though. In 1776, Thomas Paine published 'Common Sense', which it certainly was, because it sold more than 100,000 copies in the first few months. The first indie-author success story?
Modern publishing as we know it, didn't evolve until the 19th century - defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as 'selecting, editing, and designing the material; arranging its production and distribution; and bearing the financial risk or the responsibility for the whole operation'. It became just another manufacturing industry. Agents followed hard on the heels of the publisher - anxious to get a slice of the pie by offering a service to hard-pressed authors. The Agent-Publisher model we're now so familiar with has been around for little more than a hundred years and it's only in the last few decades that it's become a closed shop, attempting to monopolise our intellectual property. Given that the history of books and their production is more than 4,000 years old, I don't think that gives these new arrivals the right to sit in judgement.
From the Greek author copying out his codex to pass around, to the author loading up on Smashwords, Self-publishing has been the norm, not the aberration we're all told it is. It was the industrialisation of the process in the 19th century that changed our perceptions and made sure (as in most other industrial processes) that the producer of the raw material (the author) got paid the least. The accusation of 'Vanity Publishing' was a neat marketing manoeuvre to protect their bank accounts. The sooner we all get back to normal - the better!
Kathleen Jones has both traditionally published and self-published books which you can check out at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
She blogs at www.kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com
And has an Amazon author page on this link.