Diversity & Self-Publishing (ep. 2)

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Last week, I launched a series of questions addressing the nature and role of diversity in publishing, specifically within the self-publishing industry.  Before I return to those questions, a quick proviso: there’s been a lot of mud-slinging on both (or all?) sides of this debate, which can be both wild and wonderful (and occasionally, deeply problematic for all of us involved in getting words out of our heads and dispersed into the world).  But we’re not here to sling mud at anyone.  We’re here to ask questions and, hopefully, to listen.

Some of the mud-slinging can be interesting to read, or in some cases, listen to: just last month, NPR and Intelligence Squared U.S. hosted a debate over Amazon’s incredibly complex role in the whole mess of traditional versus self-publishing paradigms.  As I sat listening to the podcast this last week, I found myself both shocked and perfectly unsurprised at the ferocity of the debate––shocked, because we’re not used to our literary spokespeople literally shouting each other down on the debate floor, and unsurprised because, well, we’re talking about books and reading and literacy and therefore something both deeply, intensely personal, and also universal.  The debates over diversity in publishing are proving equally impassioned, and rightfully so.  Which brings me to last week’s first question:

What’s the track record of diversity in publishing?

It’s not a good one, particularly if we’re talking about publishing in the Western tradition, what with it being so interwoven the various other Institutions (with a capital “I”) that shape and influence society.  Which is not to say I advocate treating publishing artificially as if it has been cut away from every other element of life––not at all.  I do advocate paying close attention to how the social, political, and cultural institutions interact.  Hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks have evolved beyond mere declarations of personal unhappiness to creating safe spaces for ongoing discussion about these complexities, and the data being mined is revealing.

Take the University of Wisconsin’s article on “Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States,” which shows that of the 2,500 children’s (trade) books published in the United States in 1985, only 18 were written by African Americans.  When you consider the demographics of the United States, wherein African Americans represent 13.1% of the population, that number should have been a lot higher.  Closer to 325 books.  Progress has been made, along all sorts of vectors, but of the 5,000 trade children’s books published in 2014, the CCBC reports that only 84 were written by African Americans and 180 were written about African Americans.  The percentages of other minority groups––ethnic, religious, gender, and others––show similar levels of underrepresentation.  Right now, a debate is raging over the representation of mental and physical well-being, and the current ways in which the publishing institution reinforces ableism and neuro-normativity.  Young Adult (or “YA”) literature has proven to be a particularly rich medium for addressing these growing concerns.

What about within self-publishing, specifically?

I’m so glad you asked!  Self-publishing (and all of its hybrid forms) has proven to be another haven for the marginalized author and all sorts of minorities––both in terms of authors and readers.  Because one point of the publishing triangle has been erased––or at least drastically altered––there has always been more room for the nonconformist, the outcast, and the malcontent within the welcoming arms of the self-publishing industry than there has been elsewhere.  Without fear of expulsion, ostracization, or censorship, the self-published author can write what needs to be written, and publish what needs to be heard!  The welcoming legacy of self-publishing is one I’ve examined before––in fact, many of the Late Great authors I’ve written about over the last few weeks either found themselves unwelcome within, or otherwise distanced from, traditional publishing.

I don’t have any numbers for you about diversity in self-publishing.  It’s practically impossible to collate the data, given the diverse forms and outlets and types of self-publication out there.  Many self-published works aren’t catalogued the way traditionally published books are, and so the data set just isn’t there.  But as Daniel José Older writes so beautifully in his BuzzFeed article (“Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”), “it’s not just a question of characters of color, [and] it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. […]  We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture.”  Suffice it to say, it seems as though the self-publishing industry has provided a platform for diverse voices to be heard, and diverse readers to be reached.  There are ways to change the institution from the inside, but in the meantime, authors can count on finding at least a modicum of representation within the self-publishing industry.

These thoughts barely scratch the surface of these questions, much less the conversation as a whole.   As I ponder how to go about touching on the other questions posed in last week’s blog post, please drop me a line in the comments section below with your own thoughts or suggestions!  And of course, check back next week as we explore still more of this complicated tangle!

 

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

What do you need to know about diversity in self-publishing?

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The matter of diversity in the book industry, particularly in the arena of traditional publishing, has been discussed by many fine people in many fine articles.  (You’ll find a few of them here, here, and here.)  But what about self-publishing?   I’m not going to lie: even with a somewhat narrower gaze, there’s still a lot to take in––and a lot of opinions to consider, agendas to juggle, and complications to navigate.  But this is February––and therefore, this is officially Black History Month.  It is a month where we pay our respects to the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement (or movements), and pay close(r) attention to the justices and injustices enacted within the United States.*  It is right and good that we turn that same lens on the self-publishing industry that we know and love.

But how do we even begin this conversation?  First, we have to start asking the right questions.  Mine are by no means going to be the only ones worth hearing, or worth answering.  Which is why right now––right now––I’d like to open the floor (or rather, the comments box) to you, our dear readers.  Pose a question, or two, or three, connected to this issue of diversity in self-publishing, and I will pull together a few voices that (hopefully) speak to them.

Here are a few questions to get us started:

  1. Broad brush strokes: What’s the track record of diversity in publishing?
  2. What about within self-publishing, specifically?
  3. Are there differences, and why or why not?
  4. Why does diverse representation in literature and the industry matter?  Why should we authors and readers and (self-)publishers care?
  5. What could healthy diversity actually look like?
  6. Who benefits from diverse representation, and who benefits from a lack thereof?
  7. Can we make it happen?
  8. Should we make it happen?
  9. How can we better foster a self-publishing community that welcomes diverse authors and readers?

And because we normally dedicate our Wednesday posts on this blog to strategies for self-promotion, I think it’s fair to ask:

  • In what ways can diversity be both a selling point and a barrier to new readers discovering our work?  And how can we take advantage of the former while overcoming the latter?

Maybe we can answer all of these questions quickly and easily, but my gut instinct is that easy isn’t a word we can throw around when it comes to fair representation of any kind.  But this, too, is fitting: Black History Month started as a single week (the second week of February) and has happily spread to take up more of our year, and also, more of our hearts and minds.  Maybe one day we will be able to say with perfect sincerity and disingenuity that every week, and every month, and every year is packed with conversations in which diverse voices are heard.

*  It is worth noting that the USA is not the only nation to celebrate Black History Month––it is officially recognized in both the United Kingdom (UK) and in Canada, and is celebrated unofficially in many other nations and communities.

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

Learning from the Late Greats: Summary edition

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There are a lot of reasons why looking to the past for role models can be problematic, particularly (in our case) when looking for legendary figures for us to admire as self-publishing authors.  For one thing, the world simply looked … well, different back then.  Whether we’re talking about Gutenberg and the Fourteenth Century or Austen, Dumas, Thoreau, and Potter in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth centuries, we must admit that the everyday fabric of human existence has been altered––and therefore, the nature and appearance of the publishing industry.  Calling certain (late & great) authors “self-published” is unlikely to do justice to the whole picture. 

But let’s take a second to look at those points, two per author, which I plucked from each (late & great) author’s life story and publishing history.

From Johannes Gutenberg, we learned to:

Use the tools at hand, and use them well, but don’t become shackled to any existing paradigm.

Pay attention to the market; listen to both your readers’ needs and those of your own practical enterprise.

From Jane Austen, we learned to:

Adapt as you go.

Use what you have.

From Alexandre Dumas, we learned to:

Own it.  Bring it.  Fight for your place in the sun.

Flee to Belgium when you need to.

From Henry David Thoreau, we learned:

Optimism is a discipline, not a fragile state to be moved through and discarded.

We must write what we feel compelled to write.

And (last but not least) from Beatrix Potter, we learned to:

Not let others change you without your permission.

Keep it relational.

Are these points still valid, when pulled out of context?  Factually, I think they are.  They may sound a bit like lines from the latest cheer squad movie, or chapter titles from a self-help book, and I’m okay with that.  Because you know what?  We can all do with a little direction, and a little encouragement.  (I’m most definitely the proof in the pudding.  And of course, I’m *completely* objective about my own opinings, right?) 

Loosely, these ten points fall into one-word attributes: flexibility, attentiveness, adaptability, pragmatism, determination, forgiveness, optimism, fidelity, authenticity, and relationality.  These qualities are timeless; they will always, always, workin your favor as a self-published (or self-publishing) author.  No matter what century you’re born into.

Of course, when it comes to interpreting the past, any decent scholar and historian can tell you that the act of interpretation says far more about the interpreter than the interpreted.  It tells us what we need, rather than what really happened.  (It might also show us what “really happened,” but that’s secondary and beside the point.)  So I suppose this list tells you what I, specifically, need to hear when it comes to icons of self-publishing––and, more broadly, what the culture that produced and sustains me probably also needs to hear.

The point of looking back is to look forward, with a clarity of vision and insightfulness of spirit.  Each and every one of the five authors I have examined over the last five weeks was human, and therefore not always liable to be warm and fuzzy when dispensing with advice for other and future authors, but they were also rather generous and kind to those they knew would pick up the torch of literary ambition.  They each would want you to persevere, to exercise wisdom, and above all, to write. 

And of course, to see your writing through, from beginning to end––dream to publication.

This concludes my series on the Late Greats of self-publishing!  If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for future series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!

 

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

Learning from the Late Greats: Beatrix Potter edition

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Sometimes, the fiercest battles are fought over the sweetest of rabbits.

Ah––and there you have it, my fifth and final late great champion of the self-published or otherwise non-traditional author: Beatrix Potter.  A titan in the world of children’s books, Potter’s hand-illustrated flights of fancy have found their way into the homes of millions––millions––of readers.  The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone has sold over 45 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages*––and it all started as a quiet private venture, financed by Potter herself.

Beatrix Potter’s legacy is a rich one.  She was a rather wealthy heiress, and waited until 47 to marry––a radical choice for the time.  She was also a dedicated, if amateur, environmentalist.  Mostly, today we remember her for her books, but we also remember her for her mammoth lifetime work of preservation; it is in large part because of Beatrix Potter, and her dual income as both an heiress and a successful children’s book author, that we have England’s Lake District National Park.

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While we know her mostly for the products of her lifetime labors, I might suggest that we remember more than just the books themselves, but also the place which they occupied in Potter’s life.  As both author and illustrator, she was responsible for more than just the text on the page; she was responsible for its artistic direction, and in many ways, its actual production.  And then there’s the small matter of financing; while her later books were picked up rather quickly, Potter had first to overcome extreme prejudices against both her gender (women were discouraged from involvement in the business side of publishing, at the time) and her vision for the book (which was exacting, down to the page number, the types and quantity of illustrations, and the physical dimensions of the page).  She operated in somewhat of a vacuum, without the enormous mechanism of the picture book industry as it exists today.

And yet, she persisted.  With a little help and quite a lot of her own money, Potter printed 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, produced to her exact specifications.  The book was so popular that within a year, she was approached by one of the publishing companies who had turned her down and forced her into self-publication.  By the time of her death in 1943, she had radically reshaped the author/publisher relationship––rather luckily for us, in the here and now––into something much more like a partnership than it had been.  There are manifold lessons we can learn from Miss Potter, but here are the two that rise to the top:

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Don’t let others change you without your permission.  The publishing companies that Potter attempted to sell The Tale of Peter Rabbit to had plenty of suggestions on how she could make the book better––or rather, more salable.  They suggested she cut down on the number of illustrations, and alter the book’s size and the number of pages.  She stuck by her guns, self-published her book, and later of course history has proven that her vision for children’s book was the future of the industry.  You too must stick by your guns, when it comes to the fundamental elements of your book that make it, well, yours.  This isn’t to say you shouldn’t listen and internalize the suggestions of others––specifically, publishers––but remember, they’re in the market to sell books and make a profit (or as many companies might say, to recover their investments).  A self-publisher chooses to cover those initial expenditures, and retain the work intact.  That’s both a radical and rewarding idea.  The danger for self-publishers is just as great, however, when it comes to finding themselves on the firing line for making bold (or distinctive) artistic, aesthetic, or other content-related choices.  You’ll receive a lot of advice.  It’s important to give yourself permission to not follow those suggestions that lead you away from your own vision.

Keep it relational.  Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit for an acquaintance’s sick child, and published it because she felt that the scope of the book might touch the lives of others.  She was briefly engaged to one of her eventual publishers at F. Warne & Co., (Norman), who died of leukemia less than a month after they announced their engagement––but she stayed with that publisher afterwards, and even left her collected manuscripts and so forth in trust to them after her death.  Which is to say: she found her people and built a lasting legacy with them, one that continues to bear fruit, generations later.  (The 1989 edition of her Peter Rabbit collection sitting on my bookshelf is proof of that.)  She didn’t just write to write, or publish to publish; she wrote and published in partnership, in response to, or conversation with, the lives of others.  They enabled her to write more of what she wanted to write, and that’s not always an easy groove for a writer (or illustrator) to fall into.  We all know that self-publishing can be an exhausting experience, and it’s easy to find yourself carrying the burden of responsibility alone.  In the spirit of Beatrix Potter, I encourage you to find your people.  Find those kindred spirits, whether fellow self-publishers or lay editors or bloggers or random accidental acquaintances (we’re here for you, I promise), and let them engage with you as a writer and as a person.  You don’t need to go through this process alone.

This is the last author in my current series (previous authors have included Johannes Gutenberg, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, and Henry David Thoreau).  Check back next week as I wind up the series by recapping the ‘greatest hits’ of self-publishing inspiration, so to speak, that these authors have provided!  And then––in two week’s time––drop on by as I launch into a new series!

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

Learning from the Late Greats: Henry David Thoreau edition

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This morning marks the fourth installation and therefore the fourth author in my ‘late greats’ series.  I’ve already examined the lives of Johannes Gutenberg (b. ca 1390), Jane Austen (b. 1775), and Alexandre Dumas (b. 1824), with a specific eye for the ways in which these authors do or do not conform to the archetype of the self-published author, and an ear for lessons they have to teach us in the current world of self-publishing. 

This week, I want to examine someone a little more … controversial.  A lot of names get thrown around in the self-publishing world as antecedents for us to look up to, glittering stars on the horizon that prove it can be done, it will be done, and thou shalt do it too—but often, it seems as though we play a little too fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to provide a sense of solidarity and affirmation.  (And indeed, the knowledge that one’s favorite author or authors have gone through the same struggles can be a powerful incentive to carry on.)  You might not, then, be surprised to find out that the case of Henry David Thoreau (b. 1817) has provoked claims that he is both the prototypical self-published author—and that he is no such thing at all, but rather an incredibly mainstream example of the traditionally published author.

Thoreau, circa 1856

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to clear up the matter, even with all of the facts in hand.  Thoreau’s earliest publications were comprised of a motley mess of short pieces, of which some were published (anonymously) in respected print journals and some were (sort-of?) self-published in Dial, a local Concordian Transcendentalist journal with only two editors, of which he was one.  For the majority of his life, he was known mostly for his impassioned speech in defense of the violent abolitionist John Brown—and for his equally impassioned delivery of “Slavery in Massechusetts” at a rally in Framingham.  He then published a whole clutch of articles and essays and books around the same time, of which he self-financed at least one (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers).  But the waters are muddied when it comes to public lectures and rally speeches: where do they fit on the Traditional vs. Self-Published spectrum?  We may never have a definitive answer to that question.

At the site of Walden Pond (courtesy of Wikipedia)

So if the waters are muddied, what can we learn from Thoreau?  I have two primary takeaways from the Thoreauvian saga, both of which I hope embody the spirit of his work as much as the fact:

1) Optimism is a discipline, not a fragile state to be moved through and discarded.  “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world,” wrote Thoreau in his conclusion to Walden, “and yet we tolerate incredible dulness.”  His primary interest—or rather the locus of this particular chapter—was political in nature, but what element of life isn’t?  (In some small way, at least.)  And yet for Thoreau, admitting the nature of politics and even our stagnant investment in politics was not a cause for ultimate despair.  Invoking his own amazement, he writes also that “We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind.”  The implication being, of course, that such a tide does indeed rise and fall—in you.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite resist such a potent call to arms! 

To be clear, Thoreau didn’t equate optimism with naïveté or ignorance.  It was a virtue to be cultivated, as a mental and physical and even spiritual posture.  He wasn’t a success by worldly standards, particularly as a writer, and he knew it.  But instead of succumbing to a broken system with its equally broken standards of success, he chose to reframe and redefine both system and standard.  He operated on the assumption that humanity is a force of nature, and that we therefore have the agency to invest our choices with meaning.  That sounds about right to me.

2) We must write what we feel compelled to write.  Thoreau didn’t believe in catering to trends, or to any external systemic expectations.  This isn’t to say he endorsed opposing every element of the system simply to oppose it; but he did believe in acting according to individual conscience (“…I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject…”), in questioning everything (and I mean everything), and in seeking out a richly textured life. 

Our interests may indeed align with those that have reached critical mass at the popular level—which currently includes Young Adult literature, dystopias, romance, and a number of other genres—or they may not.  We must allow ourselves the opportunity to color in and outside of the lines—and live in fervent belief that we define the framework of our own success (as self-published authors, among other things).  This is Thoreau’s legacy, as muddled of a self-publishing icon as he may be: writing is not a game of comparison, in which we win or lose.

Thoreau’s fusty vocabulary and complex argumentative structure might prove a barrier to a modern reader of Walden, but it has routinely defied the odds and repeatedly surged in popularity.  This is a book that hasn’t been out of print since 1862, the year of Thoreau’s death.  (It was originally published in 1854.)  Still, he rattles off a few zingers that leave me breathless.  I’m going to close today’s blog in his words—and in what I think makes for a resounding metaphor for rejecting any institution—including, perhaps, the institution of traditional publication?—that has lost touch with its participants:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.  I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.  The hospitality was as cold as the ices.  I thought that there was no need of ice to freeze them.  They talked to me of the age of the wine and the fame of the vintage; but I thought of an older, a newer, and purer wine, of a more glorious vintage, which they had not got, and could not buy.  The style, the hosue and grounds and ‘entertainment’ pass for nothing with me.  I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality.  There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree.  His manners were truly regal.  I should have done better had I called on him.”

* NOTE: all quotations sourced from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I (2008 edition).

 

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!

 

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

 

Learning from the Late Greats: Alexandre Dumas edition

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Alexandre Dumas is the comeback king of French literature, the popular novelist who dared his detractors to make his race an issue and survived the bloodbath of Napoleon’s rise to power and outlasted his own reputation for profligacy and womanizing.  Celebrated from the moment his first play was brought into the public (at the tender age of twenty-seven) until he died (aged sixty-eight), and perhaps even more so today (with more than 200 feature films adapted from his works), Dumas stands in for the epitome of success, or what we perceive as success, when it comes to self-published writing.

Dumas began with the stage, and his early profitability as a playwright left him financially settled enough to write full-time.  And when he began to write full-time, he slipped directly into writing novels and nonfiction, most notably his travelogues and his posthumously published Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (released in 1873).  Many of his works were produced and published in an oddball or nontraditional fashion.  But this is all old news.  What you may not know––what I didn’t know until I dug into my Norton anthologies this last week––is how absolutely fierce this fellow was.

Alexander Dumas [père] (1802-1870) / Alexandre Dumas

Take the (possibly apocryphal) story in which he faced down the condescension of a particularly loathsome aristocrat by owning his heritage: “My father was a mulatto,” he said, “my grandfather a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey.  You see, sir, that my family starts where yours ends.”*  He was also keen to own the fact that his mother was a humble innkeeper’s daughter.  Given his rampant popularity among the elite, not just in France but in Belgium and Russia and Italy (where he sheltered from the threat of Napoleon’s displeasure), we must assume that his readers were willing to transcend a few of their (misguided) proprieties in order to lose themselves in the worlds embodied within his works.  That is, they got past and over all the fiddly bits, and the politics––and ultimately, got over themselves—because they were transported by truly superior craftsmanship.

You may have guessed my takeaway points for the week already:

1) Own it.  Bring it.  Fight for your place in the sun.  Too often we writers surrender to the fear of our own inadequacies, and our voices are lost in the general clamor of a hundred thousand thousand other writers and media content producers out there.  But know this: you have a right to be heard, and not just that—you have something to say that is worth hearing.  And sometimes, what you have to say might be countercultural, as was Dumas’ witty repartee with his aristocratic detractors.  Other times, you might have something to say that’s a little less like a firebrand and a little more like a spring-fed creek or a salty splash of ocean spray.  All of it is beautiful.  All of it needs to be said, and needs to be heard.  Your ideas live in conversation with the ideas of others, and if you seek to start or enter these conversations with unapologetic grace and authenticity, then the world will be enriched.

2) Flee to Belgium when you need to.  Or rather: know when to retreat.  Dumas’ removal from France was motivated by something more powerful than just a simple need to kick back and re-establish healthy boundaries––Bonaparte had a nasty habit of killing off people who were a little too honest about his doings—but I think it goes without saying that Dumas picked his time well.  He rode out imperial disfavor and was able to return to Paris some six years before his death.  His sense of timing was always impeccable, and not just in his travels; he knew when to take up a new project, and when to let a long-lasting one go.  So: the plays.  So: the novels.  So: the independent newspaper (appropriately name L’Indipendente) he founded and ran during his Italian exile.**  Whether you’re looking to dodge a dictator or simply take a few deep breaths to figure out who you are again, value and protect your means of retreat.  I encourage you to think of ‘retreat’ not just as a hypothetical or abstract term, but as a concrete time and place.  (I will not write or take phone calls or read emails or chip away at my work-work on Saturday afternoons, for example.  Saturday afternoons are for me and for one particular little park near my home.)  There’s been a resurgence in popular respect for introversion (see Susan Cain’s Quiet for a far more excellent and thorough discourse), but even the most outgoing and energetic extrovert needs the security of a physical as well as emotional retreat.

Last week I looked to Jane Austen for a few pointers.  The week before, I delivered a few tidbits of wisdom in the vein of Johannes Gutenberg.  Now Dumas has had a moment to shine.  But what about next week?  Stick around for the penultimate author in my series of late great self-publishing entrepreneurs!

 

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015 as I blog my way into better acquaintance with these legendary figures of self-publishing!

 

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

 

*It is also worth noting, I think, that Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre, must have been truly a figure of interest quite apart from his famous son (and famous grandson, since one of Dumas’ sons also became a rather popular novelist).  Thomas-Alexandre was born a slave, and became the first man of Afro-Antilles origin to become a general in the French army, and the first man of color to reach the rank of general-in-chief when he served as such in the Pyrenees.  He was taken prisoner for two years, and died of cancer.  All of his exploits were his own doing; he achieved all of them long after breaking with his father, the marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie.

**I must beg ignorance when it comes to Dumas’ numerous love-affairs; I have no idea if his astute professional boundaries had private parallels.

Learning from the Late Greats: Jane Austen edition

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Wait a second, did I just drop (arguably) literature’s greatest name into this conversation? 

Why yes, yes I did.

Here’s a fact: Jane Austen was self-published, too.  Not only that, but she chose to self-publish after repeated attempts––and failures––to break into the book market the traditional way.  Now, before I get started praising the genius of this oft-before-praised titan (with her wit and her two inches of ivory), I should note that “traditional” publishing methods were somewhat more loosely defined in her day and era than they are today; unlike its modern incarnation, the Regency route didn’t include the literary agent or agency.  In fact, there were simply fewer people involved in the publication of a book then, period.  Authors in Austen’s time brokered their own deals directly with their publishers, often bypassing editors, marketers, early readers, and/or the other such ancillary folk who make up the traditional author’s team in 2015. 

Austen, circa 1810-1815

On the one hand, knowing that Austen wrote and published in a different world from ours may make it easier to dismiss the decisions she made as irrelevant to the modern self-published author.  On the other hand, the world in which she wrote and published was in some ways more hostile to the new or nontraditional author than ours is, so the fact that she succeeded––that she persisted until she succeeded––should be cause for encouragement to her fellow-strugglers.

Every one of Austen’s works has a unique publication story.  Of the four books published during her lifetime, three were self-published, or approximated self-publication.  Her first novel, Northanger Abbey, didn’t see daylight until after her death in 1817, when it was published together with Persuasion, her last finished novel.  The only works she did see were Sense and Sensibility (nontraditional: her brother Henry and her sister-in-law the Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide paid Thomas Egerton to publish, retaining copyright), Pride and Prejudice (traditional: purchased outright by Egerton, including copyright), Mansfield Park (nontraditional: Austen herself paid to publish), and Emma (nontraditional: published at her own expense).

Jane Austen’s decision to self-publish Sense and Sensibility (albeit with the financial backing of close family) is perhaps the most understandable of her decisions: as a woman and author with limited social and literary capital to trade on (at that point), she couldn’t hope to receive generous offers from publishers.  Sense and Sensibility‘s success guaranteed that her chances would improve with her next book.  But once she’d tasted even better success with Pride and Prejudice, she’d seen inside the system, and she knew she could do better––that she could get a better return on her investment of time and energy than the 110 pounds Egerton paid her for Lizzie and Darcy.  And thus the return to self-publication, more profitably managed this time, and in the case of Emma, with a royal seal of approval.

So, what are the takeaways from Jane Austen’s story?  I have two.

1) Adapt as you go. Jane Austen changed her strategy with each book published, and the dual release of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion would have followed yet another path.  And if Jane Austen can do it, then you certainly can.  The moral of the story isn’t that you should alter your publication method with each book (which could prove exhausting and unprofitable), but to shape each publication path to the market forces, your readership, and your own needs.  (This requires staying in touch with your readers and the market, of course, and that can be another job in and of itself.  So: balance.  See last week’s post, point #2.)

2) Use what you have.  Austen had family.  An interested and loving father, who wrote a (rejected) query letter on her behalf for Northanger Abbey, years before she was actually published, and who fostered her early attempts with a receptive fireside tradition.  An energetic and knowledgable brother, who spent many hours in close consultation with both Austen and her publishers in order to see her novels come to print.  A wealthy sister-in-law who was also a believer.  This much was providential.  (Her persistence and dedication was self-taught, and practiced.)  You may or may not have a support system as providentially put together as hers, but no matter what, don’t be afraid to utilize your network.  It’s not mercenary to know of your possibilities and to ask others to get on board.  No matter how you choose to move forward, by means of traditional or self-publication, your book will only succeed as a team effort between you, your network, the staff of a publishing or self-publishing company, and your readers.

Jane Austen’s story might seem equal parts inspiration and a daunting mark to live up to, but she’s also one of the great lynchpins to the whole story of publishing, traditional or otherwise.  While Austen lived, the “novel” was still what the word itself implies.  Sure, humanity had been writing lengthy works for centuries, even millennia prior to her birth.  But the English novel, that thick and weighty tome of imaginative and fictive impulses blending the real world with something new––that arose somewhat less than a century before Austen died.  The fact that the publishing industry went one way (“traditional”) in the years following rather than another (“nontraditional”) doesn’t mean that the seeds for a self-driven, self-realized, self-published authorship weren’t planted there at the very beginning.  We have a heritage!  A pedigreed heritage.

Check back next week as I examine a third legend of Ye Olde Selfe-Publishing Impulse.  Will it be Charles Dickens, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, or Virginia Woolf?  I’m going to leave you in suspense.

** NOTE: All information drawn from Deirdre la Faye’s collection, Jane Austen’s Letters.

 

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015 as I blog my way into better acquaintance with these legendary figures of self-publishing!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

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