Learning from the Late Greats: Summary edition

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!

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.

 

Learning from the Late Greats: Beatrix Potter edition

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!

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.

Learning from the Late Greats: Henry David Thoreau edition

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!

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.

Learning from the Late Greats: Alexandre Dumas edition

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!

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.

*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.