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.

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.

Learning from the Late Greats: Johannes Gutenberg edition

There’s no better moment to dabble in time-travel than at the start of a new year; our sense of reality is skewed, anyway, by a solid season of interrupted work schedules, an exoticized diet, and upbeat television specials featuring exuberantly optimistic actors and singers.  Why not take the holiday nostalgia one step further by actually crossing an event horizon and stepping into 1439?

Consider the setting: Established by the Romans as a military outpost in 12 B.C.E., Strasbourg in the Fifteenth Century had a long and rich history of latinic and germanic occupations, as the remnants of the Roman empire duked it out with the Alemanni, Huns, and Franks.  It had a history, too, of internal conflict, with the citizens outmaneuvering their bishop and winning the status of an Imperial Free City in 1262, courtesy of King Philip of Swabia.  Within a century the city had been wracked by revolution, the bubonic plague, and exceptionally brutal pogroms, in which Strasbourg’s entire Jewish population was either burnt to death or forcibly expelled from the city.  The year of the pogroms is also the year in which Gutenberg is reported to have begun building his printing press––1439––and one has to wonder if there isn’t something more than coincidence at work here.

William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen. Published in 'The Graphic' in 1877; now in the Public Domain.
William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen. Published in ‘The Graphic’ in 1877; now in the Public Domain.

“Okay––” I hear you saying.  “Okay, so Gutenberg did some cool things, reinventing existing technologies in a frenzy of progress, like some Steve Jobs of medieval France.  But what does that have to do with self publishing, promotion, and me?”

Quite a lot, actually.

While we don’t know a lot about Gutenberg––including, for example, how he felt about the pogroms and expulsions and social constructs of his day, and even the exact year he was born––we do know rather a great deal about his legacy.  His celebrated press was in full operation by 1452, less than 13 years after its conception, which is actually quite impressive given the materials he had to work with and his somewhat unpredictable financial situation (he was eventually bankrupted in a court case by his sponsor, the wealthy Johann Fust).  And in a time when books were still for the most part produced over the course of painstaking months of fine brushwork by dedicated monks, he put more printed materials into the hands of more readers than any westerner before him.  He was the definition of the foolhardy entrepreneur, borrowing money, racking up mammoth debts, quitting Strasbourg in disgrace, and setting up shop elsewhere, repeatedly.

He may have been born into a different time and a different world, but we intrepid few (the self-publishing few) can still learn two very important things from this early icon of self-publishing:

1) Use the tools at hand, and use them well, but don’t become shackled to any existing paradigm.  Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, as much as westerners like to think so.  That honor goes to Bi Sheng in 11th Century China, or perhaps even an earlier inventor of cluster of inventors of whom we know nothing.  What Gutenberg did that was so impressive is that he seized on the tools available to him––newly minted methods for punchcutting, matricing, and so on––and repackaged them in such a way as to make them efficient and therefore affordable enough to outdistance his competition––the monks––in both speed and quantity.  He didn’t invent the wheel, but he did put a motor on it and send it speeding into the next century.  He knew when to let go, too, and answer to no other voice but his own vision for publication.

2) Pay attention to the market; listen to both your readers’ needs and those of your own practical enterprise.  Gutenberg didn’t just print the sacred texts for which he is famous.  In fact, the bible-printing business drove him into the ground––or underground––and he lost so much money that even his astute early decision to print more lucrative materials (latin grammars, indulgences, pamphlets, and a dictionary) was not enough to keep him (even remotely) afloat.  Listen to your readers, and pay attention.  We live in a day and age where it’s feasible to customize your approach to the market, whether in terms of the format or formats you use to reach the most readers with the most net profit, or in terms of the kinds of events, interviews, and other promotional efforts you coordinate to spread the word.  You don’t have to be the victim of your own art, as Gutenberg was; you can stick to your vision and reinvent yourself, all at the same time.

Johannes Gutenberg’s story is equal parts inspiration and cautionary tale, but there’s so much more to him than I can sum up here.  It’s only fitting that one of the world’s largest, oldest, and most comprehensive volunteer-driven digital enterprises is called Project Gutenberg, and is dedicated to the distribution of free ebooks.  Next week, I’ll examine another titan of Ye Olde Selfe-Publishing Impulse.  Will it be Jane Austen for her efforts with Sense and Sensibility, or Ezra Pound, or Emily Dickinson, or Virginia Woolf?  Check back next week to find out who!

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.