From the Archives: “Self-Publishing – A Growing Industry”

Welcome back to our new Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.

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[ Originally posted: January 11th, 2010 ]

Did you know that over 40% of all book sales in the United States last year took place online, through e-retailers like Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com? More and more people are becoming comfortable with (and even accustomed to) shopping online. What’s more, consumers are more likely to purchase lesser-known and self-published books, according to Inc. Magazine.

What does this mean for the self-published author? With the convenience of on demand-printing and full-service self-publishing options: Good things. Selling books online is more cost-effective than selling through a typical bookstore, and that means more money in your pocket. Again, make sure your publisher lets you set your own retail price, royalty, and discount to take maximum advantage of shifting consumer trends.

Just something to keep in mind as you write and investigate the publishing options best in-line with your goals.

Have fun and keep writing!

by Karl Schroeder

sales growth

Almost six years on from Karl’s original post, we now have the benefit of hindsight to apply to many of his predictions–and fortunately for all of us who happen to be involved in the self-publishing industry, most of them came true!  According to Statista.com, “some 41 percent of global internet users having purchased products online in 2013”–and the numbers have continued to climb steadily from there.  And in respect to total e-commerce sales, a separate Statista article shows that Chinese retail giant Alibaba had a massive 23.7% market reach (outright) in 2015, but that Amazon and its affiliated sites together had an aggregate market penetration of 39.6% (the affiliates earned 22%, and Amazon proper 17.6%).

Many companies might struggle to find their niche in a market so overrun by big business, but smaller, more nimble organizations (including hybrid and self-publishing firm Outskirts Press) have shown they’re more than capable of keeping their footing.  Outskirts, which ranked in Inc. Magazine‘s top 500 or 5000 for four years in a row starting in 2009, continues to ensure that its authors make waves in the Amazon bestseller listings–and get their books onto actual physical bookshelves, as well.

And Outskirts Press is just one company among many who are succeeding at delivering on the promises of self-publishing as laid forth by Karl in his article: convenience in on demand-printing and full-service self-publishing options, cost-effective marketing, and more money in authors’ pockets, not to mention control over retail price, royalties, and discounts.  Inc. Magazine and others have come forward to bolster our knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of the publishing and self-publishing business, with articles like “How to Self-Publish Your Book” (2011), “How to Self-Publish a Business Bestseller” (2012), and “Publisher’s Note: Celebrating the Power of Partnership” (2015) underscoring new ways to adapt in an ever-shifting landscape of opportunities and challenges.

Some things have changed since 2010: Barnes & Noble seems to be stuck in a slow and gradual decline, print books seem to be on the rebound after Hachette and the other Big Five traditional publishing houses won their battle in the Amazon price-fixing war, and so on.  But other things haven’t changed: self-publishing is succeeding where traditional publishing continues to fail–in providing vital and necessary services and support to authors whose books are too daring, too interesting, and too precious to fall through the cracks.

What does this all mean, though?  It means, as Karl’s article so eloquently stated, that self-publishing remains a “Growing Industry.”

 

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.

Diversity & Self-Publishing (ep. 3)

Week before last, I began to examine the ongoing conversation centering on diversity in self-publishing that has sprung up over the last couple of years, and only risen in importance and visibility since then.  Last week, I addressed two questions:

  1. What’s the track record of diversity in publishing? (and)
  2. What about within self-publishing, specifically?

This week, I want to address two more questions.  The first, as you’ll see, follows on immediately from number two, above:

Are there differences between the track records of traditional publishing and self-publishing in regards to diversity, and why or why not?

As MediaShift’s correspondent Miral Sattar notes in her excellent article for PBS, diversity has always had a little bit more of a foothold in the world of self-publishing than it has elsewhere.  In large part, this can be traced back to the blue-collar, anti-establishmentarian streak that gave rise to the self-publishing industry in the first place.  Wanting to place profits in the hand of an individual author as opposed to a company or a collective?  When it comes to books, that’s a radical idea.  Wanting control over the entire authorial, publishing, and marketing process?  That, too, falls outside the established framework provided by traditional publishing.  All of this independent thinking and hungering after self-realization has led to an environment that fosters rebels and self-starters and free-thinkers and otherwise marginalized peoples.  That includes, of course, people of diverse origins, pursuits, and identities.

In her article, Sattar mentions a whole host of self-published authors, including CJ Lyons, Orna Ross, Lara Nance, HM Ward, Kailin Gow, Margarita Matos, Abdul Qayum Safi, Lozetta Hayden, Manuela Pentagelo, Tejas Desai, and Aleysha Proctor.  And these are just a very few of a very great many self-published authors currently putting their books out there.  There are others: Mary Sisney, Liz Castro, Nadeem Aslam, Johnny Townsend, Qasim Rashid, and so, so many more.  The fact is, if you want to publish something that the mainstream publishing industry isn’t prepared to market, and which isn’t angling to be a blockbuster seller, then the generous spirit of the self-publishing world is always waiting.  We live in a day and age, thankfully, when the self-published book is no longer synonymous with “I’m selling this out of the trunk of my car” (although that may still be the case), and with a whole host of resources out there, from internet forums to hybrid publishing firms, the self-publishing author can count on sending a high-quality–if radically counter-cultural–product out there into the world.

Why does diverse representation in literature and the industry matter?  Why should we authors and readers and (self-)publishers care?

This fourth question is, in some ways, a much harder one to answer.  As with many things in life, it might seem easy to fall back on a rote answer (you either do or you don’t), or to fall into the trap of trying to heavy-handedly preach readers into one perspective or another (because I said so!).  The fact of the matter is, caring about something as radically life-changing as diversity and representation is more than just a private act, but it’s also something you can’t just tell people to do.

When someone leans in over the dinner table and asks me why they should care about diversity–as has happened fairly often this last year–I fall back on a whole retinue of explanations: the statistics about social stratification and advancement or regression, the ethical and moral ground upon which we build healthy and just societies, and the anecdotes of people I know who have found themselves on the wrong side of the line when it comes to representation.  And of all of these arguments, the most effective one is, appropriately enough, one that requires a little imagination.

Imagine you are a child, any child who doesn’t look like a descendant of a hundred Caucasian family trees, who maybe doesn’t tip the scale quite to quite the same number as any of a thousand Disney Channel stars, who maybe comes from a faith background or an ethnic background that isn’t mainstream Christianity or undecided, who maybe has physical or emotional disabilities, who maybe identifies as something other than cisgendered or “straight” or is questioning their identity, who maybe comes from a dysfunctional family or society.  Imagine you have any one of these attributes, or a whole heady cocktail of them, and ask yourself this question: Have you seen yourself in a popular book lately?  How about on TV or in a movie–as the main character?  Have you seen yourself anywhere but in the bathroom mirror and have you seen yourself compassionately rendered there?

I remember the first time I found myself in a book, the first time I encountered a character who looked and felt and acted and believed like me.  It was absolutely, entirely, 100% life-changing.

Why should we care about diversity in publishing and self-publishing?  Because we want our children to grow up knowing that they don’t have to live in the shadows.  That they are lovable and loved.  That they don’t need to bleach their skin or get rid of their accent or faith or private struggles in order to be a whole human being.

Explaining to a child who has never seen a familiar face or life story told on television or in books or in music why they’ve never seen that story is absolutely heartbreaking, not to mention difficult.  One hopes that we don’t have to end that conversation with “…and it looks like it’s going to stay that way for a while.”  One hopes we can end that conversation with: “But see?  We’ve made progress, and here is a whole host of stories to get you started.”  Others have put together powerful arguments why diversity in publishing (of any kind) is important, too, so I think there’s a lot of hope we’ll see change within our lifetimes.

These thoughts barely scratch the surface of these questions, much less the conversation as a whole.   As I continue pondering how to go about touching on the other questions I posed two weeks ago, 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!

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.

Diversity & Self-Publishing (ep. 2)

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!

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.

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

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!

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: 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.