Postscript: my lecture on self-publishing (November 2011)


Talk about serendipity – just after I published this post I discovered that the entire lecture is now on Youtube. So I’ve embedded the vid below. Personally, I won’t be watching all eighty minutes of it – after all, I had to fricking live it the first time around.

In November 2011 I gave a lecture at BTH on the subject of my PhD thesis. Below I’ve posted some of the introductory remarks I made, as well as a link to the Powerpoint presentation I used. Enjoy!

Hi everyone, and thanks for coming to my lecture today. As you’ve just heard, I’m a post-doctoral researcher here at BTH, working on the ELMCIP project. In order to become a post-doctoral researcher, I of course first had to complete a PhD, which I did at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

The title of my thesis was Bonfire of the Vanity Presses: Self-Publishing in the Field of Australian Poetry. And it’s this thesis that I’m here to talk to you about today. Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about the best way to introduce myself to you. And I first thought that I could start off by introducing a series of anecdotes about my life, in the style of an old school professor.

If I were to make such an introduction in front of a group of students and staff from a programme in digital culture, I’d probably begin by recalling the first time I ever used a computer, which was the Commodore 64 computer in 1980 at the age of 8. I’d then go on to recall my experience of watching The Return of the Jedi at roughly the same age, on pirated video.

I’d maybe even throw in a couple of references to other old school technologies – like the fact that I lived in a small country town which was the last place in Australia to be hooked up to a manual telephone exchange, complete with an operator who knew where everyone was at any given time of the day, and who would have to manually connect calls using various plugs and sockets.

I’d then go on to describe, fondly, my memory of the first time I ever saw an automatic teller machine. My father having worked as a bank manager, I’d then mention the fact that all of the computers used in the bank were supplied by the Burroughs company, one of whose beneficiaries was the (some would say great) writer William S. Burroughs.

I’d then try and make some connection between all of these things and the fact that I typed my first story on a computer at the age of ten, and have been using computers in one way or other ever since. Nevertheless, I’d conclude my opening remarks by saying that despite all of the changes that have occurred over at least the last twenty years in the way we use technology to make creative works – stories, poetry, music, motion pictures, photography, LOLcats – I still believe in the magical power of the printed word, and the symbolic power of books.

But in the end I decided not to go with such an introduction, and so instead we’ll start here.

What followed was based on an earlier rant entitled Notes Towards an Imaginary Thesis: Stanzaland, which I posted back in 2009. As part of the lecture, I also read a number of poems from The Happy Farang, We Will Disappear and Dead Poem Office. The Powerpoint presentation mostly contains images and probably doesn’t make much sense but I’m making it available here as a PDF, for posterity’s sake.


Humility Publishing

so far i’m my only reader but i like what i see
writing becomes much easier when you can
focus on present company though it be poor

Prater, D., ‘Humility Publishing, Shampoo, 2002

When I began researching the field of self-publishing in Australian poetry in 2005, I envisaged a grand, sociological study in the style of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984), punctuated with graphs and tables, statistical analysis and interview data, an extensive bibliography of self-published books by Australian poets, and more. In hindsight, it is easy to scorn my own youthful optimism that an entire ‘field’ of self-publishing could thus be summarised in one vast yet mature and restrained tract of epic academic vigour, which I might then go on to self-publish, or even to disguise the extent of my own involvement in.

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Notes Towards an Imaginary Thesis: “Stanzaland”

The book bore no title but might have been a diary or notebook, or else an anonymously published novel. Though slightly incongruous – those familiar claws clutching the little red book to his chest, the plastic eyes looking straight at those of the viewer, or ‚Äòreader’ – it could even be read as a representation of Yoda the self-publishing author.

A novelist perhaps, posing as if about to hand over his collected works: juvenilia, a Western, a war novel in progress. Or else, yes, a ‚Äòslim volume of verse’, in fact Yoda’s debut collection, of which only several hundred were printed, in a small 24-hour printery somewhere in the mists of the Dagobah system.

Yoda the Self-Publishing Author

While information on this poster (produced as part of an annual reading and literacy campaign by the ALA, whose alumni include a host of other celebrities) is scant and my discovery of it was serendipitous, its existence is nevertheless important to any study which seeks to describe the world of self-publishing – a world in which self-publishing authors – be they poets, biographers, historians, fiction or travel-guide writers – produce and disseminate their artistic works independently of (even at odds with) other sections of the book publishing industry.

Further, while introducing such a poster may seem spurious, it is also relevant as a symbol of what is routinely left out of traditional cultural analysis – that is, the liminal, the marginal – in other words, “the rubbish”. As Tanner (1982) states in his analysis of rubbish in the works of American novelist Thomas Pynchon, “what we regard as valuable and what we regard as rubbish are culturally determined” (year, page). Tanner is here employing Michael Thompson’s “rubbish theory”, arguing that “… the boundary between rubbish and non-rubbish moves in response to social pressures”.

To make reference to this theory is not to argue that self-published books are rubbish, or conversely that they are inherently superior to other kinds of books. In the context of Australian literature this thesis is concerned with a variety of publishing actors and activities, including self-publishing, vanity publishing, subsidy publishing, private publishing and so on – terms used equally in the pejorative as positive sense in writings on the subject of self-publishing, ranging from academic articles, library and writers centre newsletters and journals, definitions and quotations in dictionaries and encyclopaedias, interviews with writers and editors, biographies and histories of publishing companies.

For archiving institutions such as the National Library of Australia, collecting this rubbish might be seen as part of its mandate, according to this interview with one of its collections officers:

As well as collecting every book, magazine and newspaper published in Australia, the library must also collect items that represent a “cultural record” of Australia — which can include cartoons, maps, paintings, photographs, oral histories and artefacts, as well as less highbrow publications. “We try to be comprehensive, so we try to collect trash,” says Ms Burn. “Romance, self-published family histories, vanity publishing, as well as the mainstream and respectable.” (Gilchrist, 2004, emphasis added)

This other land – this Stanzaland, perhaps – is a vast landscape, or field, dotted with an array of writers and creators producing self-published books. These books, together with their authors, bookshops and outlets and other informal structures of dissemination and communication often operate alongside or within mainstream book distribution channels, for example in small or independent bookshops.

Their aesthetic is almost oppositional, even when it comes to the binding of these objects. In this land, a stapled chapbook is an altogether different thing from a book with ‚Äòspine’; for the collector or fan, there is a kind of detective joy in seeking out these rare objects, often in re-mediated circumstances:

When I go to second-hand bookstores and look through the poetry shelves, it’s the books with staples, as opposed to spines, that catch my eye. To me the staple is the mark of the self-publisher, and self-published work, in my mind, is more likely to have that spark, that frisson of passion that really lets you see into the mind of the poet. (Ford, 2001)

A fuller understanding of this field depends somewhat on information gained from informal or unofficial sources, from lesser known writings and unpublished materials. Stanzaland is a world in which a poet such as Walt Whitman, whose book Leaves of Grass had been originally self-published, could go on to write favourable reviews of his book under fictitious names, in order to promote its sale, and then quote from these reviews in subsequent editions of the book (Reynolds, 2000).

A strange and puzzling world in which Coleridge and Wordsworth could publish the first edition of Lyrical Ballads anonymously, and through a third party [REF]. A puzzling and frustrating world in which journalists write articles praising self-publishing, only to emphasise its importance as a stepping-stone to mainstream (read: culturally acceptable) publication. A shameful world in which one learns that the career of Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was kick-started by his own mother, who paid for the publication of his first book of poems (Marr, p ).

This thesis seeks to navigate this terrain, not in an attempt to produce an authoritative “encyclopaedia” of self-publishing (although an international Self-Publishing Hall of Fame has already been attempted – see REF); rather, as a means of interrogating sanctioned versions of literary history. While its citizens’ tone may appear aggressive and their bias sometimes seem to be in favour of self-publishing as a legitimate cultural activity, it is hoped that the visitor will excuse this enthusiasm and focus instead on the literary works and authors described.

While it may be impossible to map every creek, valley and slope of the literary field, to attempt to do so and fail is surely better than to gloss over this world of “rubbish”, of “how to be a successful self-publisher” manuals (references), of self-publishing competitions organised by state writers centres (Arabella – personal communication), of strange and eccentric self-publishers such as Frank Nimrod, who engaged a vanity publisher to produce his apocalyptically-titled “The Last Judgement as Final Control of the World History” (Armstrong, no date). Or Sandor Berger, a ‘Hungarian poet and enemy of psychiatry’ who was renowned as a public poet and speaker in the Domain in Sydney in the 1960s: ‘he’d put together his poems in typescript, cobble them into books, and sell them on street corners’ (Georgeff, 2007, p 135).

Stanzaland is also a space of unpublished works, in the archives of selected libraries – the complex, vast and often unnoticed world of non-publishing. The classification of these objects thus becomes more complex for archivists and librarians, who are faced with a mountain of chapbooks, ‚Äòzines, broadsides, pamphlets, private presses, political tracts, pirated versions, spoofs, photocopy art and other arcana – books found only in truck stop cafeterias, collections of bush verse sold only in south coast souvenir shops, available via mail order, distributed via the Internet, passed from hand to hand or hidden, only to be found amongst a writer’s private papers when posthumously donated to one State library or another.

Stanzaland may well be too vast to even begin to categorise or catalogue but aspects of it will be familiar to most, if not all of us. The travelling evangelist handing out copies of the Gideon’s bible to schoolchildren or university students; the Hare Krishna cookbooks (ostensibly available for free) distributed by street hawkers who nevertheless seek a donation of some kind; the Jehovah’s Witness network of ‚Äòpublishers’ , a highly trained army of distributors just like the chapmen of old; the mad poets with their photocopied collections printed out of frustration or the desire to make a few extra dollars ; the mildly vain seeking validation or connection with a community that instead ignores their existence. A kind of anti-world whose borders are visible and quantifiable; likewise the spectrum of ‚Äòpositions’ available here can clearly be seen; it should not however be thought that the ‚Äòliterary field’ itself is not subject to pressures and influence from other fields, or agents moving in those fields. Therefore any analysis of the literary field in Australia needs to recognise their roles and actions.

These agents might include (but are not be limited to) arts funding bodies including the Australia Council for the Arts and equivalent State agencies; writers’ associations including State-level Poets’ Unions and the Australian Society of Authors (ASA); professional industry organisations including the Australian Publishers Association (APA); State and Territory-based Writers Centres and advocacy groups including the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance; the National Library of Australia and State Libraries; individual poets and authors with (or without) experience of self-publishing; judges of literary competitions and festival organisers; editors and reviewers; publishing houses and so-called “vanity presses’; literary critics and academics; readers of poetry, as well as booksellers and retail bookshops.

If we can speak of this many different kinds of agents in the Australian literary field, then surely it is redundant to speak only of ‚Äòproper’ publishing (as alluded to in the title of Johnathon Clifford’s Vanity Press & the Proper Poetry Publishers) to the detriment of everything else. If Stanzaland were a kind of Chaucerian narrative, or indeed a pack of tarot cards, its characters might include the Mainstream Publisher, the Subsidised Publisher, the Independent Publisher, the Small Press, the Academic Publisher, the Journal Publisher, the Clandestine Press, the Self Publisher, the Vanity Publisher , the Performance Publisher, the Co-Publishers, the New Media Publisher, the Private Press and, finally, the Private Poet.

It is this last figure whose real identity is the subject of this thesis – the private, lonely and anonymous poet, without whom the Australian literary field makes no sense whatsoever. Private poets of the field. This strange character ghosts the media; the news story of the unknown poet elevated to a position of status within the field, usually by way of a prize or award of some kind. The case of David Rowbotham, winner of the 2007 Patrick White Award , is a perfect example. Sorensen (2007) documents a quietly seething, self-confessed ‚Äòloner’ who has written fifteen books (including four chapbooks he self-published in response to commercial disinterest and small press ‘elitism’) might be characterised as ‚Äòvirtually unknown’ within the field. (Check Aus Lit database)

And yet this private poet’s circumstances, his family’s railing against ‚Äòsnobbery’, his avoidance of literary cliques, his almost defiant acts of self-publishing, the status elevation implied by the Award and the eternal question of the value of poetry (though nowhere is mention made as to the quality of Rowbotham’s verses, or any critical appraisal of his books referenced) combine in a kind of triumph against all odds, a fact cemented by the Award’s implicit bestowal of literary immortality:

If you’re poor, your world is restricted and you know there’s another world out there but you know you’ll never enter it … People were not kind, and rebellion builds up in you. I did have some anger, and I have thought, ‚Äòwhat is the point of writing poetry?’ but this (award) puts everything right.

Finally, however, we must recognise the character of the Non Poet, sometimes identified as The Reader, The Audience, The Customer, The Client. The living, breathing field in which poetry either thrives or wilts. The people. As Ko Un states, with typical understatement:

People in Korea are a poetic people, like the people in my home town, even the way the people speak is in itself poetic – all you have to do is write it down and you have poetry … but I wouldn’t want a people who only write poetry. You need a time when poetry is rejected and despised. Then you also need a poet who writes poetry in solitude and defends poetry alone. You don’t just have poetry in paradise – you also have to have poetry in hell (Donegan, 2005, p 39).

Welcome to Stanzaland.

Bonfire of the Vanity Presses: the article

My article on self-publishing, entitled “Bonfire of the Vanity Presses” has been published in the latest issue of the Weekend Australian. Unlike Justin Clemens’ review of my book We Will Disappear, which was published in last weekend’s edition, this one is available online and you can now read the whole thing, in all its ragged glory [Wayback archive].

As is often the case, I now find myself unable to read the article itself, mainly due to the fact that I wrote it at least six months ago and I’m no longer sure what I was thinking about back then. In addition, the argument I make, which was at the time central to my PhD thesis, has now been superseded. Or maybe I’m just trying to have a bet both ways.

Nevertheless, as it’s an article written as part of the Weekend Oz’s “Forum” (aka “What Cheeses Me Off”), I suppose one should read it as an attempt to be provocative, and to generate discussion. Which is a shame, as there’s no opportunity for others to do so via the News Limited website.

I did notice, however, that the’ve installed a neat little set of buttons whereby “you can use the Social Web links to save Bonfire of the vanity presses to a social bookmarking site”. So, here’s hoping somebody does.

Your comments are of course welcome here, as ever.

In Defence of Poetry (and Poets)

Recently I came across the following quotation from a newspaper column written by Irish novelist and satirist Flann O’Brien in the mid-1940s:

Having considered the matter in – of course – all of its aspects, I have decided that there is no use for poetry. Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life. But a better case for the banning of all poetry is the simple fact that most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five may be eatable. Furthermore, poetry has the effect on the negligible handful who read it of stimulating them to write poetry themselves. One poem, if widely disseminated, will breed perhaps a thousand inferior copies. The same objection cannot be made in the case of painting or sculpture, because these occupations afford employment for artisans who provide the materials. Moreover, poets are usually unpleasant people who are poor and who insist forever on discussing that incredibly boring subject, ‘books’.

How to dignify such toejam with a response? Where to begin? Perhaps with the obvious: that at first I was struck by this piece’s wit, its ‘droll humour’ already familiar to me from my reading of O’Brien’s novels, including The Third Policeman, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth. Shortly after, however, I started to seethe inside. Despite the influence of the voice of reason inside me whispering Mate, it’s what they call a joke, I began to recall the many and various occasions previous on which I had been told the same thing by some insufferable goon puffed up with self-righteousness, two glasses of clearskin wine and a pathological loathing for “the Left”. I recalled also an observation made by Pam Brown, namely: “Poetry is the only art form that is constantly asked to assess its relevance.” Clearly, one person’s joke is another’s insult; and clearly, also, O’Brien’s ‘droll’ – no, acerbic – wit, while moderately humorous, is representative of a systematic bias against my profession that I no longer find funny.

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