There’s a list in my desk drawer of all my favorite authors and beside each name is a number in parentheses. The number is how many times they failed before they made it. For example, Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected by twenty-seven publishers. J.K Rowling, she was rejected twelve times all while raising a child by herself. Steven King was rejected by thirty publishers. Other authors among this list; Margaret Atwood, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, J.R.R Tolkien, Herman Melville, etc. You get the idea. The reason I have this list, is to remind myself that greatness does not happen overnight, and that publishers aren’t as scary as I make them out to be. How embarrassed do you think those twelve publishers feel for rejecting Harry effing Potter? The point is, that list puts things in perspective for me. Because I also have my own inbox of rejections, I think the last time I checked there were eighty-some emails from employers, magazines, publishers, agents, universities, you name it. But it’s not all bad. For every ten “no’s” there’s a “yes”. And each “yes” has lead me to something wonderful. So, it’s hard to be mad about the “no’s”.
The most recent “yes” in my life was just few weeks ago when an old professor asked me to review a book for her. The author had reached out to her, but her busy schedule of being the best English Lit professor ever wouldn’t allow her time. So, she asked if I would take the project. And I was the one that got to say yes. The book; “The History of British and American Author-Publishers” by Anna Faktorovich.
It’s no “50 Shades of Grey” (thank God), It’s more of an academic book, but nevertheless it’s captivating. In fact, my reading of the book resulted in some over zealous highlighting. Oh well, forever the literature student.
The book is essentially a crash course in publication law and the cases that gave us the free speech both countries have today and then an argument for self-publishing and small press publishing. Faktorovich rages against the publication machine in a well-structured effort to advocate for the radical and often heavily rejected writers history has given us.
Faktorovich begins by discussing the four publisher giants and how they came to be. It was an interesting saga about how rich men, acquired less rich men and then did their best to screw over penniless authors like Herman Melville who wrote my favorite book Moby Dick. To put it as simply as possible, all these small independent publishing companies popped up around the world through history. In time, those publishing companies with more money and more influence started to monopolize the market. Eventually, if you weren’t being published by a large publishing house, your stuff wasn’t worth reading. Even then, if the big wigs at the publishing house didn’t find your work to their liking, they would ‘bury your book’ through a series of misprints, lack of marketing, and bad reviews. With enough bad press, the public wouldn’t like the book, and the author would have to pay back the money it cost to print said book. It’s like the publishing version of that movie The Producers.
Faktorovich argues that history’s most famous authors were widely rejected by the mainstream of their day. Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, John Milton, etc. All the authors that challenged the status quo, were punished for it. In turn, her thesis or grand conclusion is that independent publishing and self-publishing has created a niche for writers with a radical voice and is thus an act of rebellion and revolution.
Each author had their own problems with the status quo. Herman Melville was ridiculed for promoting homosexual relationships in Moby Dick. Everyone that Edgar Allen Poe ever loved died of tuberculosis and he married his child cousin, which people found creepy. Virginia Woolf was a woman, which is tragic enough, but furthermore she was molested by her step brothers and diagnosed with hysteria and dubbed insane by her own husband who was also incidentally her publisher. Authors like Earnest Hemming way, John Steinbeck, Voltaire, and Tolstoy were censored by the post office. The post office would refuse to ship books as a form of censorship. Politicians like John Wilkes and 20th president of the United States James Garfield werse not just censored, but targeted for their positions on certain policies. In fact, I think my favorite anecdote from the book is about how President Garfield’s doctor prescribed ‘rectum feeding’ as a way to treat Garfield’s lack of digestion, in a deliberate effort to torture him. In where the doctor injected a third of a pound of fresh beef and other food items into the anus of the president.
“[Dr.] Bliss catapulted food up Garfield’s rectum for at least a week, refusing to allow Garfield to eat anything by mouth, thus starving the President… The [President’s] autopsy showed that Bliss had created a false wound track with his painful probing. He had taken a three-inch entry wound and, in probing for the bullet, made a pus-infected wound track, twenty-one inches long.” (Pgs 100-101)
This story is…wildly disgusting, to say the least. But I share it because artistic and political sabotage knows no bounds. There will always be an opposition with an ironically sinister name. Virginia Woolf’s awful Dr.’s name was Dr. Savage. The jokes just write themselves really.
As always, where there is a literary disagreement, there is the church. George Bernard Shaw, who I like to refer to as George Bae-nard Shaw, used theology to fight the church on censorship, which is brilliant. British theater, and theater in general has always received scrutiny from the religious-rite. From the days of Shakespeare, to…well today, the church has argued that the theater is a house of hedonism, sex, and immorality. Today’s descriptions are a little bit subtler. I think the term ‘Hollywood Elites’ encompasses the disdain for the art of making movies, and those who do it. Essentially, Shaw references all the acts of rebellion in the bible as an argument that morality is equivalent to progress and challenging the establishment.
“…Jesus rebelled, against the Jews’ Moses concept when he said he was the son of God… Thus, progress only happens when people take innovative actions or make innovative, artistic creations. Therefore, for the sake of human progress, these initially immoral changes cannot be censored. ‘It is immorality, not morality, that needs protections: it is morality, not immorality, that needs restraint, for morality, with al the dead weight of human inertia and superstition to hang on the back of the pioneer, and all the malice of vulgarity and prejudice to threaten him, is responsible for many persecutions and many martyrdoms.’” (Pg 85)
Shaw argues that the point of writing, the point of theater, is to push the envelope, to consider the fringes of society and our own minds. To protect the radical, is to move forward in the world. As a writer, this speaks to me on a spiritual level. It tells me that all those notebooks stacked on my desk at home, are filled with relevant content… well most of it. Let’s never speak of my Twilight fan fiction days…shame on me.
This book is excellent. I found it to be informative, entertaining, and educational all at once. There are moments of rather extreme digression, where Faktorovich dives a little too deep into the research, but in the end, I enjoyed it immensely. Would I recommend it? That depends on who I’m speaking with. I would not, for example, recommend this piece of literature to my mother’s book club; bless their hearts. But I would recommend this book to anyone who loves to read and write. It’s a crash course in the history and economics of the entire field. And no surprise, it was published independently.