04 August 2004


Further comments/update on 11 August 2014.

I have had it with boosterism of self-publishing. I can't honestly call it fraud, because it doesn't meet the legal definition: Stealing a writer's dreams does not count as depriving him or her of a property interest. I can call it "intellectually dishonest" at best… and much nastier things, too. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

You could stock a superb college library or an incredible bookstore just from the books written by the some of the authors who have chosen to self-publish: Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, William Blake, Ken Blanchard, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Spencer Johnson, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L'Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Robert Service, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf.

(name withheld to protect the guilty) Notice the most obvious logical problem with this listing: It implicitly extends the cachet of an author's complete oeuvre to one or two works. For example, the cachet of the Oz books (L. Frank Baum) seems to be extended to his chicken-farming manuals, which he did indeed self-publish. I've seen used-car salesmen who didn't display this slickness in false comparisons. It's rather like claiming that "street ball" is the best preparation for an NBA career and listing, say, Isaiah Thomas as an example. Sure, Isaiah played a little "street ball" before he came to prominence; nobody can really argue, though, that "street ball" is at the root of his success.

Let's step through this list of fifty-two examples and see what happens, though; keep in mind that we've been provided only with the authors' names. Many of these efforts have more than one logical or factual disjuncture with reality, so adding up the numbers won't be all that meaningful.

  • For a number of these authors, publication of their works in "commercial" form would have been illegal, usually because those works met the definition of "obscene." Lawrence, Nin, Stein, and Woolf fall in this class; perhaps a couple of others do, too, but because the works in question were not specified, we can't determine that definitively. 8%
  • Far more significantly, it's not fair to laud "self-publication" when there is literally no chance at anything comparable to commercial publication because, at that time, commercial publication as we know it didn't exist. Blake, Browning, Byron, Crane, DuBois, Dumas, Franklin, Hardy, Hawthorne, Kipling, Paine, Poe, Pope, Service, Shaw, Shelley, Tennyson, Thoreau, Tolstoi, and Whitman definitely fall in this class; several of the others may also do so, because their books may not have been of the nature handled by their contemporary commercial presses. 40%
  • Neither is it fair to laud "self-publication" when the publication "event" was a corollary to another profit-making activity. If a book is created as an adjunct to or course materials for a thousand-dollar-a-day management seminar, or for academic purposes, calling that book "self-published" is a bit disingenuous. Strike that; more than a bit disingenuous. Blanchard, Peters, and Strunk absolutely fall in this class; depending upon exactly what works are at issue, so may Bly and a couple of others; because that's not certain, though, I'll be generous and pretend that objection doesn't apply. 6%
  • A considerable number of these authors are poets. Poetry is not now, never has been, and probably never will be a commercial subject, with the occasional unpredictable exception to keep up the hopes of poets everywhere. Blake, Browning, Byron, cummings, Eliot, Kipling, McKuen, Sandburg, Shelley, Tennyson, Thoreau, and Whitman absolutely fall in this group; several others probably do, but again I'll be generous. 24%
  • Other "success stories" include highly specialized works that are (or were) outside of commercial publishing's perception. Atwood (if it's the book I'm thinking of), Baum, Cather, Ferlinghetti, Jeffers, Muir, Potter, and Rombauer all fall in this group. 16%

That's enough for now. Absent greater specificity of what books are "success stories"—and keep in mind, too, that some of the "self-publishing" efforts may not have been at all successful, despite the authors' fame for other efforts—note that five minutes' thought has struck 78% (after allowing for the overlaps) of the "success stories" alluded to in this list, without looking up anything in any reference work at all. Fifteen sounds a lot less impressive than fifty-two, doesn't it? And that's without having the opportunity to examine the books for other, obvious reasons that they cannot be considered comparable to that unpublished author with a mystery novel that just hasn't sold to a commercial publisher.

This last point is the most important one. Perhaps self-publishing has been successful, for some authors. It does not follow, though, that it therefore holds out any reasonable possibility of success for authors who are competing against seasoned commercial publishers for the same market niche. And the less said about "vanity press" success stories the better.