In 1640, Stephen Day self-published the Bay Psalm Book, only 20 years after the pilgrims arrived in North America. Consider the self-publisher as the ultimate American underdog. Our history is pretty much filled with individuals who started publishing on their own, in somewhat obscure conditions, to become cultural and political leaders.
Ben Franklin self-published Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1732, well before he became known for his politics and diplomacy. Thomas Paine self-published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet that inspired the American revolution.
It makes sense that self-publishing would be a hotbed of interesting, radical ideas. If your ideas are truly radical and pushing the envelope, there’s a good chance they’ll scare off traditional publishers. We think this means you’re doing something right.
Mark Twain self-published Huckleberry Finn in 1885, one of the first books to seriously tackle racism in America. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a seminal collection of poetry that has inspired countless American writers, was also self-published.
What is it about self-publishing that attracts some of the best and most influential talent America has to offer? Hemingway self-published his first work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, in 1923. Perhaps it has something to do with the vanguard-status of writers who self-publish. Because they are often ahead of their time, traditional publishers may not feel ready to take a gamble on them. Perhaps because they consider what they have to say more important than definite material reward, they self-publish with an urgency and passion that they wouldn’t find at a publisher.
Thoreau, Stein, Crane… the list goes on. To consider self-publishing a new “trend” would be to ignore the very foundation of publishing and writing in America. In the Internet age, we’re given even more of an opportunity to put our writing out there, to publish it ourselves, be it digitally or physically, to connect with our readers and to make a difference in our world without a publisher, without an advance, without a care in the world.
The history of the American writer is really always the story of an underdog. No one is born a best-seller. Everyone starts as an underdog. There’s no bigger underdog than the self-publishing writer. And pretty consistently in America, the underdog makes a big difference.