Learning from the Late Greats: Jane Austen edition

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!

KellyABOUT 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, kellyschuknecht.com.

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