Monday, September 17, 2007

Twain's Folly (Part One)

Don't forget the current Friday Challenge!

Like poorly refrigerated leftover chicken tetrazzini, one question keeps coming back up. With the commercial publishing world so hard to crack into in the first place and so difficult to survive in in the second, why not self-publish? Most recently, Joe Doakes couched it almost as a challenge:
Why can't you get Headcrash published so I can read it on paper instead of pdf? With computers and software as powerful as they are, aren't there places that will do small runs? I'd pay in advance if that would help.

Thanks for the kind offer, Joe, but as I've said many times before, what matters first and foremost is who controls the rights. In the case of Headcrash, the North American English-language print rights are still controlled by Warner Aspect — or rather, by the company that bought the Aspect line lock, stock, and barrel from Time Warner — and there are complications that prevent my recovering the rights, which we can go into another time.

(As an aside, though: we only sold the print rights to Time Warner. We never sold the electronic display rights to anyone, nor have I released an electronic version myself, so if you've found Headcrash somewhere as a pdf file, I'd appreciate knowing where.)

So in the particular case of Headcrash, I can't self-publish it; at least not without getting sued. But why not self-publish something else: say, Cyberpunk, or a collection of my favorite hot-dish recipes?

Well, in my never-ending quest to understand the publishing business, there are two books to which I keep returning. The first is Maybe You Should Write A Book, by Ralph Daigh, and I'll have more to say about this one later. The second is Mark Twain on Writing and Publishing, which is a collection of articles, essays, and excerpts from Twain's autobiography.

The autobiographical bits are both the most revealing and the hardest to follow, as Twain takes a long and meandering path through his story. But if you collect the pieces and fit them together, in time, the following story emerges:

Twain's first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, was originally published by American News Company, and Twain was well and truly swindled in the deal. He eventually lost over $2,000 out of pocket on the book (in 1869 dollars!), and as a result took his next books, starting with The Innocents Abroad, to the American Publishing Company. Of this experience he later wrote:
"Well, Bliss was dead and I couldn't settled with him for his ten years of swindlings. He has been dead a quarter of a century now. My bitterness against him has faded away and disappeared. I feel only compassion for him and if I could send him a fan I would."
Ergo, in 1884 Twain launched his own publishing house, Webster and Company, for the express purpose of self-publishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

And this time, instead of merely losing money, the experience nearly killed him.

To be continued