A Short History of [Self] Publishing by Kathleen Jones

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.


Lydia Bennet said…
a terrific post Kathleen. I knew virtually all these facts yet I'd never really looked at them together in this progression - fascinating what we are told is 'traditional' and right, when often it turns out to be recent - rhyming poetry is another example, we used to be told all the time that English poetry has always rhymed and therefore should, when in fact original English poetry didn't rhyme at all, for centuries. This blog post should be posted on other sites to make this vital point. I think Jane Austen also paid, or her family did, at least at first, and sold enough to make a little money back. Excellent argument backed up by history and fact as well as interesting examples.
Lev Raphael said…
It's good to be reminded that what seems eternal, hasn't been.
Like you, Kathleen, I've done legacy publishing (19 books) and indie (5). I've also had 7 agents over my career!

The first truly successful literary agent was Elizabeth Marbury, who represented famous authors like George Bernard Shaw. She was already active in the late 1800s and her partner Elsie de Wolfe was also an amazing innovator, in interior design. Elsie is a character in my self-published Gilded Age novel "Rosedale in Love."
Chris Longmuir said…
Brilliant post, Kathleen, it really throws the light on how writers have been conned into thinking legacy publishing is the only valid form of getting your books into print. However, we in AE know better, and thank goodness things are changing. Self publishing is the way to go.
glitter noir said…
Allow me to 'fourth' what the others have said. This post really is brilliant and it's provided a solid foundation for thoughts that I've been exploring for years. I'd like to see this one included in the next AE anthology. I'll be certain to draw on it, giving you all due credit, when I put out my fictional novel, Monster Time: The Horrifying Rise of Literary Agents. Due spring 2015. Cheers.
Excellent post and good to read it all of a piece. Robert Burns was another one who went in for subscription publishing. In fact he did it to get the cash to go to Jamaica but it was so successful that he postponed his trip, indefinitely as it turned out. Unfortunately, he went on to sell his copyright to an Edinburgh printer, and then went on to do an enormous amount of traditional song collecting and rewriting unpaid and - guess what? - died in penury.
Kathleen Jones said…
Glad you all enjoyed it! I'm sick of being told that 'indie' is just 'vanity' in another guise. It's just another case of industrial monopoly and time that fiction was exposed for what it is.
madwippitt said…
Great nose thumbing post!
Bill Kirton said…
Great take on the present situation and, as the rest have said, a terrific post. So we're not quite 'the oldest profession' but we're not far behind.
CallyPhillips said…
Great post. Isn't it surprising (not) that the current mode of publishing rose along with the modern rise of capitalism (well, with both surges - 14th c wool/printing press and 19th c publishing and industrial rev really taking off.
Lev - I believe that A.P.Watt was the 'first' literary agent - agency started in 1875 and still going - so I'm guessing pretty 'successful'. Maybe Eliz Marbury worked for/with them? Certainly A.P.Watt represented many of the 'famous' authors of the day - including many who are still well known and many who have been forgotten.
We should not forget that fashion drives a lot of things and perhaps hope that the 'fashion' is shifting in the direction of the 'indie' once more albeit in a different guise. Capitalism, I fear, is ever with us. From which we conclude, dear readers, that capitalism is so much more than fashion. Is it indeed a lifestyle choice? (laugh, sardonically or otherwise as you see fit!)
Dennis Hamley said…
An inspired summary, Kathleen. More evidence that we've been had for suckers all these years. I agree: everyone should read this. I'll send it out to a few who will lap it up.
julia jones said…
Always good to be reminded that what we accept as the norm historically isn't. I often think about that 1950s construct the nuclear family ...
Joni Rodgers said…
Fantastically interesting and well-written. I keep trying to push the term "corporate publishing" as opposed to "traditional publishing" - as the business model and values system in use now are anything but that. Thanks for the terrific post. Will share far and wide.
Susan Price said…
The critics rave! Another great post, Kathleen - thanks!
Kathleen Jones said…
Glad to have such satisfied customers! Up the revolution!!
glitter noir said…
I apologize to all for writing 'my fictional novel' above. More evidence that working night shift for three years has finally caught up with me. My nonfiction novel!
Myra Duffy said…
This is certainly one to share,Kathleen and a timely reminder about why so many writers are going back to their roots!

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