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State of the Art
January 2013
Written by
State of the Art
January 2013

Sarah Glazer Discovers Self-Publishing is Nothing New

We often talk as if self-publishing is something new. But as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, renowned British painters also turned to “self-publishing” copies of their paintings in order to to gain a larger audience for their work.

What made this self-publishing possible was a revolution in the ease of printing and engraving, which made it possible to distribute widely (and more cheaply) print copies of a popular painting.

I got to see some of the most famous prints in a wonderful show of some of England’s greatest landscape painters—the originals and their copies-- this week at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

In England, the pivotal year was 1761, when a London printing entrepreneur came out with an engraving of a painting by Richard Wilson entitled Niobe, named after the mythical Queen of Thebes, but whose drama comes from a jagged lightning-filled sky above a landscape of roiling water and rugged rocks.

The Niobe print went on to become far more famous and popular than the painting from which it was copied and earned entrepreneur John Boydell a record-breaking sum from its sales in England and on the Continent.

Eventually, engraving became so elaborate in its ability to imitate the textures and light effects of painting, that sometimes the prints were even more mesmerizing than the originals. Or so I discovered at the Royal Academy comparing Constable’s famous oil painting of a boat crossing a lock to the exquisite print next to it. (The Lock shown here.)

Some historians and legal experts point to the flowering of printing and art engraving as the source of our modern notions of authorship and the "cult of originality."

Before the era of printing, when works of writing or art could only be copied by hand, the ownership of books, for example, belonged to the holder of the copy, not the writer of the words.

As printing made wide dissemination possible, the writer (or painter) was seen as the true owner, and copies of their originals helped to turn them into celebrities.

I think we’re seeing a similar transformation now as writers increasingly become their own publishers.

Reading the “She Self Publishes” blog by Emily Suess about the basic steps an author must undertake to become her own publisher—editing, design, marketing and publicity-- I was struck by the many similarities to the artists who first took up printing.

Self-published authors, like those 19th Century painters, often get to control the artistic presentation of their works—including the cover design.

British painter Turner trained his own team of engravers to ensure that the prints made from his drawings and paintings met his exacting standards, rather that letting an outside printer make the copies.

To the extent that mainstream publishing has become an elite fraternity, closed to unknown yet talented writers, self-publishing allows authors to search out a different audience, sometimes through publicizing their work on specialized blogs and websites that publishers may be unfamiliar with.

In much the same way, painters like Gainsborough and Turner sought out customers beyond the wealthy audience that viewed their oils at the Royal Academy’s exhibitions by working with engravers to sell cheaper copies of their works.

Self-published authors also have greater editorial control than in a conventional publishing house, in much the same way that the tyrannical Turner insisted on overseeing the prints of his works.

Of course, some critics say this is also a major weakness of self-publishing. Where’s the editor who can exercise some quality control-- either in selecting the manuscripts that get published or in improving them before the reader sees them?

Yet I’m often surprised at how often authors published by mainstream publishers tell me that no editor ever red-inked their manuscript. As big publishers increasingly focus their efforts on just a few best-selling blockbusters, they seem to be removing many of the traditional services from their mid-list offerings. Publicity agents, copy editors and indexers now have to be hired and paid for independently by many authors.

Meike Ziervogel, editor and founder of Peirene Press, told me that this gap in editing has created a ready-made niche for small presses like hers, where she exerts her own personal aesthetic through exacting editing.

Each year Meike publishes only 3 books that fit into a chosen theme-- carefully hand-picked European novellas that she gets translated into English and which she edits herself. She also markets to a specialized audience that shares her tastes by offering subscriptions to the year’s entire series.

She Writes Press, pioneered by She Writes founder Kamy Wicoff, is doing something similar with its new version of self-publishing. It removes the stigma of  “vanity publishing” by providing the kind of quality editing and curating that’s getting harder to find at big publishers.

Self-publishing can also allow authors to capture a higher percentage of a book’s profits than traditional publishing royalties allow.

That, of course, can be a fraught enterprise, as Turner discovered. While some 19th century prints, particularly of exotic travel scenes were wildly successful, Turner’s published collections of print landscapes, I’m sorry to report, were not commercial hits.

But they’ve been highly influential on artists up to the present day, including some contemporary artists whose black-and-white work hangs in the Royal Academy's show. And today the rest of us get to appreciate those prints as works of art in their own right.

Just as more of us will get to appreciate self-published authors who otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

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