Lots of books were published by the author him/herself back in the 18th century and earlier. The big difference between this and current self publishing is that in the past only wealthy people, or authors who could gather subscriptions from wealthy patrons could do this. Blake, though he had his backers, differed from most in that he did much of the production work himself. Now of course it costs next to nothing to get your book out there.

The “patron” might be an institution: at school we used German Grammar Notes, locally-printed by Titus Wilson in Kendal, a book arranged for, and written by, our German teacher A. E. Hammer. It was alleged that you could set your clock by Jack Hammer’s advance upon the school every morning alongside the cricket field: a kind of Yorkshire Immanuel Kant (Mr Hammer was a German too). Many years later, long after I’d left the school, a pukka edition of German Grammar Notes* was published by Harraps. We also had a locally produced French vocabulary picture book, compiled by J.H. Bruce Lockhart, an earlier headmaster of the school. I still tend to intone “une barbe de trois jours” when glimpsing myself unshaven in a mirror: B-L’s illustration showed a rather disreputable tramp — in those days you didn’t forget to shave. Apparently Strunk and White: The Elements of Style started out in life in the same way at Cornell. I’ve just been given a newly published illustrated tribute edition, signed by the illustrator, so I live in hope for Jack Hammer’s work. I long to see illustrated the “constellation” — that raucous party of three or four German verbs who at the end of a lengthy sentence, in long-anticipated bibulous song, together their voices may be found to have joined.

Until recently we had vanity publishing — for those who couldn’t collect enough cash from patrons, and were unable to find a publisher to front the cost. Vanity presses collected fees from authors and brought out their books in short-back-and-sides fashion. They were thus named because they’d take on anything regardless of quality — most such things being published to massage authorial vanity. Despite this prejudice, it must be the case that some good books made their way into the world by this route. The books were made available, rather than “published”, and any success would (as so often) depend on the author’s promotional vigor. It may be true to say that the main change this area is a change of nomenclature: surviving vanity presses have transformed themselves into independent publishers or publishing services companies.

Let us not forget that subset of patron-funded books which might be described as club books. One often meets these as cookbooks published by schools, churches, charitable groups. I even have one “Published by the Employees of Oxford University Press”, important as containing the recipe for Joellyn Ausanka’s locally famous Apricot Pecan Bars, which apparently evolved from her mother’s Date Walnut Bars recipe. Club publishing shades into such things as learned societies and academic research groups: one might include the Royal Society’s early publications, and certainly groups like the Roxburghe Club.

Paul Murphy at Huffington Post has some interesting comments about author earnings. Frankly I’m surprised that “almost a third of published authors earn less than $500 (£350) a year.” Does this not have to mean that ⅔ earn more than $500? That’s the bit that really surprises me. I think there must have been massive undercounting especially in the self-published ranks.

A couple of years ago McGill University’s Book History Group held a conference under the title “Self-publishing in 18th-century Europe : a comparative approach” lead by Dr. Marie-Claude Felton. You can listen to her talk on this topic at The Bodleian here. She tells us that in 1731 in London 30% of the pages typeset at one printing house were paid for directly by the author, while 31% of the books published in Paris in 1786-87 were entirely published by the author (financed and distributed). In fact these numbers may well understate the extent of self publishing: Alexander Pope self-published The Dunciad, although the book carries no indication of this. Obviously there might be many other instances where we do not have secondary evidence as we do from Pope’s correspondence.

Selling your book by yourself could be a complicated matter in the days before street numbers. Here’s Dr Felton’s showing of an involved set of “place of publication” directions for people wanting to buy M. Duplessis’ Archives mytho-hérmetiques.

See also Author as publisher.

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* Still available, in a sixth edition: