Robert D. Sutherland



Talk to Friends of Milner library (October 20, 1980)
Published in Friends of Milner Library Newsletter, #22 (1981), 3-6

    It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity of addressing the Friends of Milner Library on the occasion of the publication of my novel Sticklewort and Feverfew. As the title of my talk implies, the novel was nine years in preparation. It is a fantasy in realistic mode—in the neighborhood of 110,000 words (355 pages in book-form)—able to be enjoyed by persons of all age groups, containing 74 original pencil illustrations and a map. The book went through four complete writings, and I began drawing the illustrations in 1970–71, finishing them only last October. The novel was originally conceived as a book for children—specifically for my sons David and Allan (9 and 7, respectively, when I began writing). I wanted my sons to have the experience of watching a book take shape, and of participating, through their comments and suggestions, in its creation. However, as the book progressed, it evolved into a work capable of being enjoyed not only by children, but also by adolescents and adults. A teacher/friend of mine, Francis Irvin, read the entire manuscript to his class of fourth-graders at Heyworth Elementary School (in twenty-minute increments for two months). He relayed to me his students’ comments and reactions, which I took into account in preparing the third-draft version. A number of my own students at Illinois State University read the manuscript at various stages of its composition, responding enthusiastically; and I kept their comments in mind while preparing subsequent drafts.

    When, at a late stage of composition, I began seeking a commercial publisher, I sent the manuscript (with photographs of the illustrations) successively to Atheneum, Harper & Row, Random House, David McKay, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Each in turn rejected the book (with no reasons given for their decisions), and each took several months to let me know. Since the publishers who were my top choices rejected the book, I was faced with a choice: either continuing to send the MS. around to publishers who were not my top preferences (expensive in money and time), or leaping into the unknown and attempting to publish it myself. I chose the latter course and soon found myself embarked on an adventure which proved to be interesting, exciting, monetarily expensive, and extremely rewarding with regard to what I learned, the people I met and worked with, and the satisfaction of seeing through to completion a self-initiated project which ten years before I would not have conceived myself capable of undertaking.

    Before I recount what the project entailed, I’d like to outline briefly why I think that self-publication may of necessity become a widely practiced mode for disseminating works of serious literature. Big-house corporate publishing has changed radically in the last ten years. A host of influences—among them the troubled economy, the desire of large multinational corporations to diversify their activities through forming conglomerates of profit-making subsidiaries, and the shrinking profit-margins obtainable from trade books—have resulted in widespread mergers and takeovers of previously free-standing publishing houses. Increasingly, oldline humanistic editors have been replaced by corporate managers with balance-sheet priorities whose policy formulations and decisions regarding which books will be published are influenced not so much by questions of literary merit as by which books can be turned into profitable commodities through skillful promotion, marketing, and the milking of lucrative subsidiary rights. Textbooks, popular non-fiction, how-to-do-it and self-improvement books have taken precedence over fiction: and—in the case of fiction—books guaranteed to be instant best-sellers through pre-publication hype and puffery (with good potential for mass-market paperback reprint success and film sales) have taken precedence over serious, innovative, or experimental works—particularly those by new or relatively unknown authors. If, as spokesmen for Simon and Schuster said two years ago on the Dick Cavett show, a book is assumed to have a “life” of three months before being remaindered, the decision-makers simply can’t afford to risk printing what might prove to be a slow-moving title—no matter how substantial the work might be as literature.

    Concurrent with the change that has taken place in big-house publishing, there has been the rapid grass-roots growth of an extensive network of small presses, little magazines, and independent publishers dedicated to the publication of serious literature. Though many of these ventures are short-lived, there are, in any year, hundreds of independent publishers and small magazines which provide launchpad exposure for new writers and outlets for non-commercialized work by established authors. In 1977, James Scrimgeour and I co-founded Pikestaff Publications, a not-for-profit corporation organized exclusively for literary and educational purposes. We publish two magazines, The Pikestaff Forum and The Pikestaff Review, and, under the imprint of The Pikestaff Press, a line of books: to date, a poetry chapbook and my novel. When I decided to self-publish Sticklewort and Feverfew, I did not intend to bring it out through the Pikestaff Press—for Jim and I did not create the press to be a vehicle for our own work. Rather, I intended to create my own imprint and “go it alone.” Scrimgeour, however, urged me to use the Pikestaff imprint, saying that since I would be putting up the novel’s production costs, Pikestaff would not be out anything, and, if the novel was well-received, Pikestaff could only gain from the venture.

    Accordingly, I worked out a legal contract with Pikestaff Press with the following provisions: Pikestaff would publish the book and serve as the sales outlet for mail-order purchases, turning over to me on a monthly basis the mail-order proceeds; I would pay sales tax and return to Pikestaff a flat commission on every copy sold. A word should probably be said at this point to clarify the distinction between “vanity publishing” and “self-publication”. In both, the author underwrites the cost of production and is responsible in large measure for promoting and distributing the book.

    In “vanity publishing”, the publisher is usually a company that produces physical copies of books for pay (sometimes with little regard for the literary merit of the work) while taking little or no responsibility for promotion and distribution; these jobs fall to the author, who, having little by way of experience, know-how, and contacts for distributing the book, is frequently in the position of having to give copies away to friends and relations.

    In “self-publication”, authors usually create a unique imprint (thus creating their own publishing companies), pay to have their books produced, and then handle promotion, distribution, and sales as a business, assuming responsibility for the fulfillment of orders, tax collection, inventory management, and accurate book-keeping.

    Throughout much of the twentieth century, authors who paid for the publication of their works have labored under a stigma. There has been a pervasive assumption on the part of the general public, too frequently shared by authors themselves, that if a work were good, it would be taken on by a commercial publisher to appear at the publisher’s expense; that if a commercial publisher did not take it on, the work couldn’t be any good (else, they would have). And further, that if a book were published by a commercial publisher, it must have merit (else, why would they have published it?). These assumptions were based upon another: that commercial publishers could be relied upon to accurately judge a book’s merit and to have sufficient concern for literary culture to want to see a good work published. I trust that my comments regarding the state of commercial publishing at the present time has revealed the fallacy in those assumptions. And why should there be a stigma for underwriting the cost of one’s book? Self-publication has a long and honorable history, and the self-publisher finds him or herself in distinguished company, rubbing shoulders with Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Benjamin Franklin, Robinson Jeffers, Mark Twain, and Beatrix Potter, to name just a few.

    When my turn came, I wished to have Sticklewort and Feverfew produced locally so that I could exercise control over its preparation and appearance, and monitor its progress. I obtained estimates from various commercial firms and settled on the following vendors: Mike Robinson Typography, to typeset the entire text; Bloomington Offset Process, Inc. to photograph the 74 illustrations and do the printing; Pantagraph Printing and Stationery, to do the binding. All of these vendors did superb work, taking great pains (I was the customer, after all, paying them directly for a job well done) and allowing me to oversee the project as I desired.

    What did I learn from my part in the production process? Foremost, an intimate knowledge of the steps by which a manuscript becomes a book. Since design of the book was my responsibility, I learned a great deal about fonts, layout and design (of page, and of volume as a whole), copy-fitting and copy-editing, preparation of dummies, determining where illustrations would fall in relation to text, opaquing of negatives for the illustrations, working out enlargements and reductions, cover and jacket design. I was present when photographs were taken of the pencil renderings, evaluating exposures and tonal qualities, was present in the pressroom when sheets were coming off the press, watched the sheets being folded into pages and the book being gathered into shape. By doing so much of the designing, opaquing, and dummying-up myself, I not only acquired knowledge and some useful skills, but also saved a great deal of money (with the additional benefit of knowing that things were precisely the way I wanted them; no New York editor was telling me how things would have to be).

    Even so, the project was expensive—in the neighborhood of $18,000 for 2,000 copies of the novel: 1,400 quality paperbacks (selling a $9), 600 hardcovers (selling at $16). To finance the project, I borrowed against my life insurance policy, took out a sizeable loan at the Illinois State University Credit Union, and used up most of the savings my wife and I had accumulated through years of frugal living. (I’m grateful to Marilyn for her enthusiastic support of this venture.) I was fortunate in having the financial margin to make the investment possible. I had decided to go “first class” with a fully typeset, handsomely produced book—both because I felt that the book warranted it, and because I thought it would pay off in the long run. I feel this decision was wise. The book is handsome and compares favorably with the products of commercial publishers. So far, sales have been brisk; orders have arrived from all over the United States, from Japan, Great Britain, and Canada. Had I not had the margin to go “first class,” I would have scaled down the expense of production. One of the advantages of self-publication is the possibility of choosing the level of production expense which is commensurate with the money one can afford to spend. If one has little, the text can be mimeographed or reproduced by photocopying; binding can be done in a variety of ways—by oneself if need be: stapled, hand-sewn, glued, etc. The range and flexibility of self-publication is appealing. If the book does not undergo changes, many of these set-up expenses will not have to be repeated for second and subsequent printings: typesetting, photography, stripping of negatives, and plate-making may be one-time-only costs; future printings may have only the additional expenses of paper, press time, and binding (and, of course, inflation!).

    In promoting and distributing Sticklewort and Feverfew, I have become a small businessman. I am learning marketing techniques, book-keeping, and advertising strategies. My personal finances have become enormously more complicated, and I’ve had to hire an accountant to help prepare my income tax returns. But, as regards distribution, I’ve once again been fortunate. Over the nine years of the book’s composition, many friends and students have taken a keen interest in the work; and many of my first sales were from the order-blank flyers I mailed to them. In addition, the Pikestaff Press had already established a nationwide network of contacts and correspondents, and notice was sent to those people and organizations. Copies of the book have been sent to a number of influential review outlets: in children’s literature, educational media, librarians’ magazines, and major newspapers. Reviews may help to sell books (they at least help to inform potential buyers that the book is available), but—for the long haul—the best promotion of course comes from word-of-mouth recommendations from enthusiastic readers.

    In the last year I have become a strong advocate of self-publication. It’s fun and challenging; there is much to be learned, and a great deal of satisfaction in doing-it-yourself. Moreover, the book is in print indefinitely, should one wish to produce subsequent printings; it will not be remaindered or pulped on the whim of some faceless corporate publisher. There is a lot of hard work involved in self-publication, as well as a commitment of time and money; the technical matters of book design, layout, and copy-fitting can either be hired out or learned. Distribution is certainly more of a problem; but with energy, diligence, a methodical approach, and a willingness to experiment, even that problem is not insurmountable. There are a number of handbooks now available which outline the ropes and give suggestions.

    In closing, I wish to say that, for the foreseeable future, I firmly believe that the best hope of serious literature and the contribution it makes to the vitality and growth of our culture does not lie with the large corporate publishers to whom literature has a marginal value at most, and then only insofar as it will tender a quick-return profit. Rather, that hope will be found in the growing network of small, independent publishers and among those authors who self-publish, taking pride and pleasure in doing-it-themselves.




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