Recently, Mike Shatzkin wrote a blog post about "True do-it-yourself publishing successes" (which he thought would become more and more rare in future). As a long-time publishing guru, he is focused on best sellers, which, imho are irrelevant to the new world of indie publishing. (See Passive Guy's excellent response as to why he's wrong even if you do focus on best sellers.)
But the phrase "true do-it-yourself publishing" went ker-boing! in my head, because it brought to mind a book we had when I was a kid. It was a collection of tales by Nathaniel Hawthorn: hand-bound in red suede with interesting, rustic typesetting and illustration.
I never got into the stories, but the book itself was just plain COOL.
It was an artifact. A product of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which came to a head a little over a hundred years ago. (Think Tiffany glass, and those gorgeous bungalows in Pasadena, like the Gamble House.)
Now, the Arts and Crafts Movement doesn't seem like it would have anything to do with ebooks or indie publishing. It was anti-modern, anti-technology, anti-industrial. And they were all about hand-made craftsmanship. Weaving, glass cutting, carpentry, metalwork...and bookbinding.
For them, a book was an artifact, a work of art. Every detail of binding, paper, and printing took as much care -- and was as individual -- as the writing of it.
When I see things like Shatzkin's article, I stop and think what William Morris would have thought about this idea that an artist would have to put work into an industry system to succeed.
It's true, the Arts and Crafts Movement did not bring down industrialization. That wasn't their goal. Their goal was to promote something they saw as lost in the modern society -- human artistry in every day things. And both industrialization AND the Arts and Crafts folks thrived.
As a matter of fact, if you draw a comparison between the situation in publishing and the effect of industrialization on handmade crafts, it makes for a really great analogy:
Personal craftsmanship was first destroyed by industrialization, and then revived and blossomed when William Morris and a few other Pre-Raphaelites got together and realized they can do without modernism in the ordinary decorative arts as well as in high art. And now, publishing was hurt by the consolidation of the industry, but an awful lot of writers are getting together and realizing they can do without the publishing industry. That doesn't mean all of them will, just that all of them can.
That's the irony of modern technology, the internet, and of ebook publishing in particular: everything is possible. The field has widened so far beyond what it was, I don't even want to use the word "industry." We're well beyond the industry. As with the artists of the A&C movement, we don't have to limit our artwork to a canvas. Their art is on doorknobs and wallpaper and staircases and posters and rooftops and clothing....
I think Steampunk is an early indicator of our version of this kind of movement: it's not just a literary genre, it's a style. It's music and clothing and artwork. It's blogging and social events.
A lot of indies started out in completely different ways: via audio podcasts, via blog or even newsletter. For many of us, our blogs are a part of our art. There are people selling handmade books on Etsy.
And a few of us even see ebooks as artifacts. Virtual artifacts, but still something to fuss over, something to perfect as more than a collection of words. It's cover, it's layout, it's copy editing choices. And they are choices, not rigid perfection of manufactured goods, but true individual expression. Warts and all.
For me, the handmade love and care, by me, is important. The art, the blog, all of it. If I want to hit a best seller list, I would have to sacrifice that. Why would I consider that to be "success"?
I have the feeling that the reason Mike Shatzkin thinks "true do-it-yourself publishing success" is so unlikely in future is because he doesn't get what true do-it-yourself artisan success is.
See you in the funny papers.