Chris Brickell explores the possibilities of “democratic publishing”.
In a pair of old buckram photograph albums from the 1880s, men pose proudly, touch gently, frolic indoors and out, and dress up in male and female costume. Their lives depart from our usual impressions of settler men: stoic and stern, rough and ready. These Masterton men were charming and handsome, their lives curious and compelling. Those who see the photographs want to know more. Walt Whitman would have recognised these men’s comradeship immediately. The American poet eloquently described the tactile masculinity of 19th-century comrades. In his much-expanded and endlessly reprinted collection Leaves of Grass (first published in 1855), Whitman “resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment”.
These Wairarapa fellows, photographed by English immigrant Robert Gant, made an appearance in my book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand (2008). Yet there is so much more to tell about their cultural and geographical context, their rich biographical detail, and the contribution they make to histories of masculinity, sexuality, and New Zealand community life. But a book on them and their photographs is seen to be too specialised, and publishers aren’t keen.
I want to tell these men’s stories, though – to elaborate their significance in our history – so I’m borrowing a trick from Whitman and his contemporaries. Several editions of Leaves of Grass were privately printed. So too were other classics of male intimacy and eroticism: Heinrich Ulrich’s pamphlet series The Riddle of “Man-manly” Love (1864-1879), John Addington Symonds’s A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883), and Jack Saul’s wonderfully raunchy memoir Sins of the Cities of the Plains; or, the Recollections of a Mary-Ann (1881).
With the help of an experienced publishing project manager, and an award-winning designer friend, I am going independently to publish a book on the dashing Masterton men. This volume, Manly Affections, will greatly expand upon the Gantish discussion in the first chapter of Mates and Lovers. How did I get to this point? Faced with “mainstream” publishers’ lack of enthusiasm for this particular project, I embarked on something of a voyage of discovery. I quickly found the “second sector” in New Zealand publishing.
Things have changed a lot since Walt Whitman’s time. Technology has improved in leaps and bounds, as Brent Coutts’s digitally-printed books illustrate in vibrant colour. Most are A5 in size and feature the work of gay New Zealand artists. Crossing Mali is one. This beautiful production draws its inspiration from a trip through the West African country in the mid-1990s. A collaboration between Coutts and Gavin Hurley, Crossing Mali brings together art and poetry. Some of Coutts’s other books display the luxurious, colourful male nudes of Dunedin artist John Z Robinson, dancing across the pages.
When digital machines are used, black and white images and text cost the same to produce. Colour pictures cost a bit more. Authors can write, design and print small runs of 20 books or a few hundred, and sell them wherever they can. “That’s the beauty of how publishing has become so democratic,” says Coutts.
The self-publishing companies offer a more closely-guided option. They facilitate and project manage, offer advice, and provide editing and printing services. Authors consult a schedule of fees, and pay for as much or as little help as they need. Some self-publishing companies sell authors’ books on their websites.
Co-operatives occupy a non-profit space between private printing and the commercial publishers. Wellington’s Rebel Press produces mostly anarchist books. Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill’s Ashes in New Zealand has a stunning red, black and white cover in a lino-cut style. Its beautifully typeset pages tell of the afterlife of Hill, an early-20th-century Chicago unionist and songwriter. There are other examples. The Big Idea website describes Rim Books as “a specialist publishing venture solely run by artists and authors”. Rim recently published Damian Skinner’s The Passing World: The Passage of Life: John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai, which won the non-fiction illustrated category of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Quality varies markedly in the second sector. Some books are poorly edited and full of typos, but others are highly polished. Some are quick and dirty productions, with clunky layouts, low-resolution images and roughly-formatted text. The best examples, though, are lovingly prepared and carefully printed on high-quality digital or offset machines in New Zealand or overseas.
No discussion of democratic publishing would be complete without mention of the eBook, that elephant that stampedes into any conversation on publishing nowadays. eBooks are not for the commercial publishers alone. Almost anyone can publish in this format. Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad provide direct interfaces for self-publishers.
Smashwords styles itself “the leading eBook publishing platform for indie authors and publishers”, servicing all corners of the globe. It charges nothing to convert files into eBook format, and takes a small commission to sell the books on its own website. For a larger share of the sale price, Smashwords sells to the large online booksellers. Readers, not publishers, judge the quality. “Our mission is to give every author and publisher a chance to find their audience,” says the website. “At Smashwords every author or publisher has a right to publish, and it’s up to readers to decide what’s worth reading.” Ultimately, the democratic solution calls for a vote – and the ballot paper is very full indeed.
My own profession – academia – has made relatively little use of independent publishing models. The usual example is the “working paper”, where draft research findings are assembled into documents prepared on a photocopier and cheaply bound. This is often a stepping-stone to something more professional-looking and permanent, a volume produced by a commercial publisher or a university press.
That last step can be tricky. Many academic topics are highly specialised, and will not sell the one-to-3000 copies that university presses and commercial publishers find viable. Sometimes a subsidy to a publisher helps to ease the way, if an author can raise thousands of dollars from their university or external sources. In the current economic climate, this isn’t easy. But a specialised project is not necessarily a culturally or intellectually irrelevant one. The vast bulk of academic publishing takes place in intellectual journals, many of which have small, highly-targeted readerships and survive on library subscriptions. Although authors are unpaid, and their articles read by relatively few people, no-one seriously disputes the journals’ contribution to the academic debate.
But there are opportunities here too. Peer review, the pre-publication scrutiny of our colleagues, is the cornerstone of academic publishing. We ought not – and usually we cannot – leap into print without taking others’ feedback into account. But peer review is based on the non-profit co-operative ideals of collegiality and reciprocity. These ideals are highly compatible with democratic publishing models. Groups of scholars could pool resources, arrange peer-review, copy editing and indexing. They might pay for a designer or typesetter to use the layout software – or upskill and do it themselves. The costs of digital or offset printing could be underwritten by the author or the collective. An eBook option would entirely remove printing costs from the equation.
In this way of working, no-one can corner the market. Any group of people can convene, choose their field, and work in whichever way they choose. In a digitally-connected world, global co-operations are possible as well as local ones. These kinds of arrangements might provide an alternative to the specialist global academic publishers, some of whom charge very high retail prices. Many authors work on a project for years only to end up with a short-run book that retails for up to $150. Like the journals, these books are aimed at the academic library market. Unfortunately, their price means they find few buyers among the authors’ peers. But collaborative digital or eBook publishing may facilitate more affordable books.
Marketing and distribution seem the hardest nuts to crack. A great many books compete for public attention and few, even those published commercially, receive much airtime. Once again, though, technology offers some options. Websites dedicated to a book or a publishing venture, social networking sites, blogs and specialist email lists offer a way in; niches can be worked and likely audiences targeted. What about sales? A specialist book distributor may take 20 per cent of the recommended retail price, leaving the author with only 35 per cent when the bookshop’s discount is factored in. Many second sector authors use other sales modes instead: they sell direct to independent bookshops and on their own and others’ websites.
If it takes a community to make a book, much as it does to raise a child, those communities take various forms. They might involve a commercial publisher, as Mates and Lovers did, or the second sector, where authors join a co-operative or draw from the talents of their friends and networks. Democracy, comradeship, small-scale publishing and, soon, another book whose pages overflow with “manly attachments” – I reckon Walt Whitman would approve.