At the start of this year Rachel Manija Brown and I decided to self-publish Hostage, the second book in our YA dystopia series. The long explanation is here.
Some people applauded, others shook their heads, but most discussion has not been about our books so much as about publishing in general. Underlying that I think is the anxiety many us writers feel about how fast publishing is changing, and what it all means for each of us.
Maybe it's just because I've always been a history geek, but the more I talk about this stuff, the more I'm reminded of the ways people dealt with the rapid changes of publishing during the wild days of the early novel, specifically in England. (Yeah, I know that Cervantes, and Madame de La Fayette, etc, were all early novelists, but I mean the eighteenth century when novel publishing went from a few to hundreds and beyond over a matter of decades. Kind of like genre books went from a few a year during the fifties and sixties, to hundreds a year, and then thousands.)
The way I see it, right before that, England's (after 1707 the UK's) publishing history divides off from the rest of Europe with two big changes: after 1695, the Licensing Act was let lapse, and in 1709 the first copyright law passed. Before then, like the rest of Europe, political ups and downs were reflected in the struggle between printers and booksellers for ascendancy in restricting or promoting publications, while the government tried with varying success to control the whole.
That's not to say that after 1695 the English government didn't give up oversight. They brought the hammer down against blasphemy, obscenity, and seditious libel--in 1719, the last man swung from the gallows for printing Jacobite material--but it was increasingly a rearguard action.
Like now, there were ripoff booksellers masquerading among the legitimate ones, though today's scammers (see Writer Beware) are rarely as colorful as the rascally Edmund Curll -- printer, pirate, and pornographer. He stole material with flagrant disregard for copyright. As soon as some prominent person died, he collected gossip -- it didn't matter if it was true -- for a biography, and if he didn't have enough material, he made it up. Prominent people reportedly dreaded dying because of what Curll would do to them. A faint echo of the Curll treatment occurred a couple weeks ago, when Colleen McCullough's obit started off by noting how fat and unlovely she'd been.
Curll churned out so much X-rated stuff under various guises that the word 'Curlicism' became synonymous with porn. Prison, a stint in the stocks, even being blanket-tossed and beaten by the boys at Westminster school not only didn't stop him from theft and libel, he turned them all into marketing opportunities. Even when he was convicted of libel and forced to publish an apology and a promise to stop printing, his repentant words touted his latest books.
He's best known for the twenty-year running duel with the poet Alexander Pope, from whom he not only stole, he lampooned under his own name and with sockpuppets. It began when he first pirated Pope, prompting the poet and his publisher to meet Curll at the Swan, where they slipped a mega dose of "physic" (think ExLax) into his drink. He turned that, too, into a marketing event, once he'd recovered from the extremes of ejecta; when Pope published a couple of triumphant pamphlets, claiming Curll was dead, Curl came right back with new material demonstrating that he was very much alive and up to his usual racket.
Their history--and there are other equally crazy-ass stories--remind me of the whoops and hollers of internet feuds and FAILS now, among writers, editors, publishers (some individuals wearing all three hats).
Aside from the Curlls, most booksellers, the publishers of the eighteenth century--like the editors working at traditional publishers now--were hardworking people who made careful decisions about what to publish because they were the ones fronting the costs of printing and of copyright.
The booksellers of Grub Street were all about copyright. For most of the eighteenth century, they met yearly, over sumptuous dinners, to hold a copyright auction that was exclusive to the booksellers. Interlopers were unceremoniously chucked out.
Of course for every success there were misses, such as booksellers refusing refused to pay the asked-for five pounds for the copyright to the satiric poetry of the rakish clergyman Charles Churchill--who then self-published his Rosciad, clearing a thousand pounds in two months.
Most of the time the booksellers knew a good bargain when they saw it, such as John Cleland's lubricious Fanny Hill, whose copyright sold for 20 guineas. The Griffiths brothers, booksellers, cleaned it up a little, turned around, and raked in ten thousand pounds' profit -- before they all were arrested. Then, of course, it was pirated.
In 1740 Samuel Richardson's mega-hit, Pamela, started out as a work-for-hire piece jobbed out by booksellers Osborn and Rivington, who wanted a series of morally instructive letters. It quickly turned into a phenomenon reminiscent of reality TV, complete to heavy merchandising: Pamela fashions, dishes, etc.
In 1809 Jane Austen, using a pseudonym, wrote a crisp letter to Benjamin Crosby of Crosby and Sons demanding the return of the early version of Northanger Abbey when the bookseller lagged without printing the book for six years. His answer back was equally crisp: pay me back the ten pounds I paid for the copyright and it's yours. (She wasn't able to do that until 1816, not long before she died.)
The easiest way into print was through the periodicals, but self-publishing could be accomplished by anyone who managed to beg, borrow, or buy a printing press, like Horry Walpole, who was such a snob that he had to do everything himself to insure his printed matter came up to his standards of good taste; he dismissed with lofty contempt the very idea of making feelthy lucre off his books, which he largely gave away. For those who couldn't buy a press and had no issue with feelthy lucre, there was always the subscription method, which today we call crowd-funding.
Early in the century Grub Street was an actual place (Milton Street in the Moorfields part of London), most booksellers having their shops in that part of London; by the end of the century publishers were everywhere. Adventuresome booksellers in Ireland energetically competed with those in England, such as when a team of covert ops printers scored the sheets to Sir Charles Grandison from Richardson's own press and smuggled them to Dublin, where the book came out before its author published his legit edition in London. Copyright theft was flagrant -- especially in the nascent States: Frederick Marryat talks in his memoir about the stinging irony of fans coming up to him in New York to rave about his books, for which he never received a penny. His daughter, a generation after, expressed the same regret in her memoir.
Piracy -- copyright -- how one got into print all seems to me to reflect patterns, then and now. But there's more. Until the eighteenth century, art (which included literature, which in turn was beginning to include literature's raffish bastard, novels) had been the preserve of kings and church. During this century it became the property of a larger public.
At the same time, a revolution in perceptions of privacy was also going on. The tension between the interior self and the public face, what is art and who gets to define it, is still going on three hundred years later. We call that outing and doxxing. There is also -- still -- a tension between originality or novelty and the sure sell; a struggle between what is literature and what is trash, who claims authority to establish standards, and how all these are marketed.
One heat-inducing question that has come up again in recent years is the question of patronage. Patrons have a tendency to want to get their money's worth, if they aren't tampering with the products they patronize, at the very least by only choosing works that appeal to their tastes.
In the 18th century, not surprisingly, wealthy noble patrons favored work that supported the aristocratic ideal, claiming that this was art as opposed to popular trash. If patrons didn't actually contribute cash to needy authors, they could influence the marketplace by using their rank, wealth, and position in promotion.
Jump up 300 years to genre.
It's tougher to sell mixed genres to traditional editors today, though it's happening, whereas it was nearly impossible twenty years ago. I don't believe the reason is fear of taking risks -- there are some terrific books coming out from all the major publishers that push boundaries all over the place -- so much as the question of marketing is for them still tied to the printed book, specifically to slots at the bookstore. Where do you put something you can't easily categorize?
But this has got pretty long. Rachel is going to talk more, specifically self-publishing and why people do it, on the 11th.