Pit Schultz on Mon, 1 Jun 1998 20:53:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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!go there - good site!



It's 1883, and a Connecticut eccentric with an assumed name -- whose
scribblings strike his more Puritanical peers as degenerate and obscene
-- asks a favor of a friend with access to a printing press at West

Hey, the writer pleads, if it's not too much trouble, and if no one's
looking, would you mind running off 50 copies of a short story for me,
so I can mail it to a few people? (This being the 19th century version
of imposing on a pal who works at Kinko's for free color xeroxes.)

The friend hesitates. The story has been sitting around unpublished for
six years, and is odd by any measure. Written in mock Elizabethan
dialect, its author wants it printed in an archaic ftyle, replete with
Capitalized Nounf and esses that looked like effs. More to the point,
the action consists almost entirely of fart jokes told by Shakespreare,
Bacon, Raleigh, the Queen, and assorted randy courtiers.

In the end the friend relents, agreeing to print 50 copies of 1601:
Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the
Tudors. The author after all was Samuel Clemens, a/k/a Mark Twain.


In a world so full of angst over the growing concentration of media in
the fingers of a few moguls, it's strange that people still sneer at
vanity publishing, more neutrally known as self-publishing. One has to
wonder how they're defining "vanity."

If vanity consists of paying to have one's point of view disseminated,
then many legit presses and magazines could considered vain. The New
Yorker, for instance, is known to be losing millions per year as a
loss-leader for Advance Publications.

Of course, profit and loss statements are not the source of this
widespread disdain. It's the perceived lack of quality -- the absence of
screening and editing. Ah, but is having an editor and an advance any
guarantee of a readable finished product? (If you answered yes, go read
Bitch, for which Elizabeth Wurtzel was advanced $500,000, then come
back. Or better, go read the Finger's bitch-y review of it in the
current issue of Detour.)

An editor friend naturally disagrees. "Look," she says, defending the
relative virtues of the winnowing process, "99% of everything sucks." We
couldn't agree more, unless she amended that figure to 99.9%. Of the
estimated 800 trillion books published last year by the major houses,
there aren't a dozen this Finger will ever care to thumb through again.
Throw a dart in Barnes & Noble and you're going to hit trash.

The same goes for magazines, which despite lavish spending on writing,
rewriting, editing, copyediting, design, redesign, photography, and
photo retouching, manages to let countless inaccuracies and typos filter
through their narrow-pored sieves -- while generally boring the hell out
of anyone with more grey matter than a learning-disabled pigeon. The
worst zines in the world have better excuses for living than the best
issues of Swing and Maxim.

Yes, anyone who's ever ploughed through a slush pile -- the towering
stack of unsolicited manuscripts received by magazine and book editors
-- knows that the tally of bad unpublished manuscripts out there is
rivalled in mind-bogglingness only by the particulars of the defense
budget. But the 99% rule cuts both ways. Say you read some 1,000
articles, stories, and books last year, and only 10 of those were true
keepers. If even 1 of the 10 was self-published, then the vanity presses
are clobbering their legit opponents in slugging percentage.

And if not, what harm are self-publishers really doing, compared to the
mass-marketers of pedigreed schlock? Twain put it maybe a bit too
cruelly: "Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us
could not succeed."


Poe, Thoreau, Joyce, Hemingway, Kipling, Shaw, Whitman and of course
Twain: vanity presses delight in reeling off all the famous people who
were once self-published. It gives their potential customers hope and
comfort, just as failed artists console themselves that Van Gogh went
unrecognized in his lifetime, too.

William Strunk, we learn, printed copies of his Elements of Style to use
as a college teaching aid. Only when The New Yorker's E.B. White decided
to spread his former professor's wisdom did it become a classic
reference book. Gore Vidal, in his badass 1988 essay "The National
Security State," touted H.R. Shapiro's privately published Democracy In
America as "a masterly work, 14 years in the making."

Of course, for every Elements of Style or Democracy In America, there's
a Celestine Prophecy or What Color Is My Parachute, or worse. And The
Finger harbors no illusions that those vanity presses which advertise at
the back of Harper's and the Atlantic probably have quantity, not
quality, uppermost in mind. Anyone considering paying to print their own
book would do well to approach a nice smalltown printer, and steer clear
of organized vultures looking to do bulk business off of frustrated

Admittedly, a lot of self-published work succeeds only when graded on a
curve. Shoddiness, amateurishness, irrationality -- all these weaknesses
become strengths if one takes a voyeuristic view. But as often as one
runs across a great new work of literary fiction from Knopf, one can
find an amazingly-executed zine or self-published book which takes
liberties and risks without sacrificing quality, expanding the range of
possibilities for paid and unpaid writers alike. And when self-published
works fail -- well, it's pretty pointless to shoot small fry in a barrel
when the little fish already compete at a huge disadvantage.


It makes us happy to imagine some determined guy on a self-appointed
national book tour of Mr. Carnegie's libraries, driving around in a
beat-up Malibu with a trunkful of paperbacks. On a high shelf of each
stone temples he slips a copy alongside a sympathetic neighbor -- Paul
Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, let's say. He has a right to exult in this
secret mission, knowing that one day years hence some likeminded soul
will happen upon his self-published words, and devour them like a
personal message from a minor deity. Look down your nose all you like.
The last laugh is his, and a genuine one.

"There are no grades of vanity," Twain the self-publisher said, "there
are only grades of ability in concealing it."

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