Self-Published Authors
in the Printed-Paper Era

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


November 2009

Print it yourself; but for whom?

There is quite a prejudice against self-published works, and reasonably so. Professionals — writers, editors, publishers — long have agreed with the reading public that if a writer's books, articles, or stories are published by themselves, or even by a small press, they obviously are not as worthy as works distributed by a large and important publishing company.

This is generally true. We may venture that most self-published books range from fair, to poor, down to awful. But with a bit of perspective, that's not so far from what we might say about about the output of mainstream or traditional publishing from the famous imprints. In a qualified defense of science fiction against its critics, Theodore Sturgeon riposted with Sturgeon's Law, which concedes that ninety percent of science fiction indeed may be no good; but then ninety percent of anything likewise is no good. If you look not just at old publishers' lists, but at best-seller lists from twenty or fifty or eighty years ago, you may well be amazed at what trivia and dross not only were printed, but printed in huge quantities, awarded prizes, and critically lauded as books for the ages.

Perhaps at some future date I will drag out a selection of those dead horses and beat them in public, to emphasize that point as fully as it deserves. But that's for another day.

Returning to the rarer intersection of good and self-published, I offer a handful chosen off the top of my head. I may add more later. This list is merely a sketch, just a few important authors who managed some of their own works into print. It is not an inclusive list of their self-published items. Some handled their own first books when unknown and rejected by publishing gatekeepers, or later works when famous; in some writers' careers it was their major books, in others their minor pieces.

Short list of self-published writers
  • William Blake (1757-1827):
    Engraved and printed (and hand-colored) all his "illuminated" books: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; Jerusalem; Milton; etc.
  • Mark Twain (1835-1910):
    Clemens founded his own publishing firm for Huckleberry Finn, 1885; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, 1888; etc.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
    Privately printed Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, distributed to friends in 1885; complete book, 1892.
  • A. E. Housman (1859-1936):
    Published A Shropshire Lad with a commercial publisher but at his own expense in 1896.
  • Fergus Hume (1859-1932):
    Published The Mystery of a Hansom Cab at his own expense in Melbourne in 1886. After the author sold the rights for £50, it went on to sell a million copies in Britain, America, and Australia: Australia's "first international bestseller" and "the best-selling detective novel of the nineteenth century".
  • Beatrix Potter (1866-1943):
    The Tale of Peter Rabbit, written 1893; privately printed 1901; commercially printed 1902.
  • T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935):
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom, privately printed in 1922, abridged 1926; further abridged as Revolt in the Desert, 1927; standard commercial edition of 1926 text, 1935.
  • Ayn Rand (1905-1982):
    Articles in her co-owned The Objectivist Newsletter, 1962-1965; and in The Objectivist, 1966-1971; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 1967.

By self-published, for the purposes of this list, we include writers who financed or published at least some of their own professional-level writing, or had substantial ownership in a publishing company that printed and issued their works. By printed-paper era we denote generally the age between manuscript distribution and electronic-print distribution: the five centuries or so in which the printing press has been the predominant factor in spreading created works.

You can't judge a book by its cover.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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