What Is Self-Publishing “Good For”?

An image with three book covers: Hugh Howey's Wool, Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and Andy Weir's The Martian -- two self-published books that became big hits, and the biography that created this cultist approach to literary success in the first place.

I’m thankful for how much time I spent, as a grad student, in the realm of medieval studies. It’s actually not that hard to dismantle most myths about the “Middle Ages”, but we’re a rather self-satisfied modern civilization, inasmuch as we’re happy with anything that makes us look good in contrast. Those poor blighters lived in “the dark ages,” after all: a time when people denied scientific discovery to the detriment of communal health and progress. Those wretched folks were yoked to feudalism, never able to get out of their debts, and without access to adequate healthcare.

Thank goodness we now live in a more advanced time!


But some of my favourite myth-busting around the Middle Ages relates literary practice, with important lessons for folks involved in e-publishing today. (And so, yes, I promise, the title of this post has not led you astray!)

For instance, it’s simply not true that the Gutenberg Press was invented, and then a demand for books ensued: quite the opposite, actually! There was a massive rise in book culture — among the clergy, the universities, and related book fairs — prior to the refinement of this invention. However, hand-written books were painstaking affairs, and with demand rising for such content, the emergence of a new vehicle for literary production was only a matter of time.

Similarly, to be “a writer” of medieval manuscripts was fascinatingly different from the way we view an author’s relationship to text today. This is because, as with many art forms prior to the Renaissance, to be an artisan — a valued and respected form of labour! — was once seen less in the West as a process of creating something original, and more as a process of dedicating oneself to artistic production. As such, medieval writers were often scribes who dedicated their time to writing out variations of stories found in other books, sometimes without so much as leaving their own, full name on the page.

Can you imagine? Writing a whole manuscript of chivalric romances, saint’s tales, and chansons de geste, one delicately inked page at a time, and then leaving… maybe only the slyest hint as to authorship, a pair of initials at most, before you send it off to its new home?

But then again, if it wasn’t really “your” story to begin with… if the story itself was just a foundling of wonder that you’d riffed on a bit, in the construction of your own, commissioned collection for, say, some middle-class woman who wanted something thrilling or spiritually fulfilling to read between the recipes for medicine and food also found in many of those volumes… why would the scribe’s name need to hold such prominence on the manuscript page?

Are the women of that middle-class medieval household hopping onto “Goode Redynges” to leave their reviews of that writer’s work?

Suffice it to say, our thinking about literary production differs vastly from that of many who wrote over 500 years ago. What we call “plagiarism” today belongs to a different literary context, one in which an “author” is to be praised for originality and exceptionalism: a being whose worth is measured by their ability to earn accolades as a distinct brand, rather than through rote labour.

The cult of the artist, in the West, is attributed by many to the likes of Giorgio Vasari’s biography, Lives of the Artists (1550), which filled in some vivid, often salacious details about the lives of painters, sculptors, and architects of Vasari’s era, and launched a whole way of thinking about art in relation to the celebrity of its creator. The “myth of individual genius”, as it were.

It’s no wonder, then, that many enter artistic professions today hoping to become celebrities in their own right. To become popular through their creativity — and to make money while doing so.

And it’s equally no wonder, then, when this whole notion of creativity being a practice of exceptionalism (instead of, say, something that everyone can enjoy) turns against them. When it turns out not to be enough to feel exceptional. When one comes to understand that traditional publishing often involves a whole host of other steps somewhere been “I have an idea!” and “My idea has made me rich!”

Traditional publishing takes time — a lot more time than even avid readers often realize. And it involves a significant amount of networking. And it has gatekeepers. And trends come, and trends go, and there are absolutely no guarantees within the whole, fascinating mess of the venture.

This, then, is where that technological myth from the Middle Ages comes into play, because for many people, raised up in a culture laden with such “tech-first” stories of individual success (perhaps no better summed up than in those immortal words from 1989’s Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come”), the idea of self-publishing comes to many creators as an easy scheme for becoming rich and famous.

And yes, there are certainly some “success” stories by these measures. In SF&F, we’ve got “rags to riches” tales like Andy Weir’s self-published The Martian, and Hugh Howey’s self-published novella, Wool. But those outlier stories of breakout authorship are dangerously appealing, because in light of them, it’s easy to make the same mistake that Orson Scott Card did, in Ender’s Game, when he imagined an internet community wherein extremely well-reasoned online comments about politics would grant their anonymous authors the keys to empire.

(NB: XKCD’s “Locke and Demosthenes” is a pleasurable take-down of that massive misstep.)

Put another way, a lot of folks enter the self-publishing “game” with an outsized conviction that their brilliant words will surely rise to the top of the heap if they just put them out there — and especially if they make use of all the latest nifty tools, programs, and business strategies to do so. The tech exists! My fame and fortune should clearly follow!

(This is also, by the by, why you see a lot of self-published authors simply spamming their feeds with little more than the same book cover and blurb — because that’s supposedly “Marketing 101”. Many forget, at the same time, how little they in turn ever enjoy having the same random ad blasted at them. They’ve forgotten, that is, that what works for them — having a story around the product they’re selling — is also more often what will work best for others, too.)

Now that I’m entering into self-publishing myself, to learn more about e-publishing while I wait out my visa situation (after which I can take more ambitious actions toward the development of Sí, Hay Futuros as a thriving press), I’m of course thinking a great deal about motivations, undue expectations, promotional strategies, and realistic outcomes.

And obviously, as a writer, I hope that folks who read Third Planet Fall Down, and the rest of the Menagerie Mysteries as I release them in the coming months, will enjoy that SF-mystery story.

But mostly, as I near the December 14 release-date for this first of four novellas, I find myself wondering about the satisfaction of a medieval scribe, upon completion of yet another manuscript.

What must it have felt like, to finish telling an old set of stories in new ways, in a volume that he or she knew full well that only a precious few people would probably ever read?

I imagine that there must have been some great relief, and pride, and wonder, to look upon those dried and assembled pages, and to think to themself: I did this. I added to a stream of storytelling that started centuries before me, and will surely carry on for many centuries yet.

But maybe that ancient scribe then looked up from these assorted pages — at the sound of an animal lowing in the fields, or cawing from a neighbour’s rooftop. And maybe they noticed how the morning’s rainfall still sat heavy upon the fattest blades of grass, or how the afternoon sun was now warming the windowsill, loosing lignen-scents throughout the room.

And then, perhaps not even bothering first to clear all the ink smudges from their hands, and arms, and neck, and nose… they stretched, and stood, and set out to experience those many other pleasures in which, centuries later — for all the commercialization pressures on ever so much of our time alive — it is still not essential to personal thriving, that everyone be made to know your name.

May you wander well and wisely, wherever your own creative practice takes you.

Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take) and Gumroad (100% author take).

You can read the first three chapters here!

M L Clark reflects on self-publishing’s allure, in light of medieval writing’s very different aims.


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