A short history of Self Publishing

A choice of self-published academic titles :  Self publishing : pros and cons  How to self publish Some sample academic titles

Do it yourself publishing from monastery to modernity

A short history of self publishng

Contrary to  common belief, self publishing is not new. It is the oldest form of publishing, and predates the later and currently dominant system of publication, which is publication through specialist publishing houses.  Before the printing press came along, all books were self published, and each new copy was made from scratch by a scribe or a monk working on a single new and generally unique copy of a work. Academic treatises were produced in the same manner in places of learning, which at the time were staffed by monks and priests.

   Then along came Gutenberg, Caxton and the printing press, and commercial publishing was born.  In the early years of publishing, publishers were just the printers to whom authors or patrons gave books to be printed, or who themsleves produced or chose books to be published. Print runs were generally low, as each plate was hand crafted and hand printed; but it is estimated that mechanical printing presses could produce up to more than 3000 sheets in a day.

   In the late eighteenth century, huge changes came to the world of publishing, with the invention of rotary presses which allowed serious mass-production of books and pamphlets; and with the development of mass production came the need for mass distribution and marketing. The age of the powerful publishing house had begun, and very rapidly virtually all publishing became concentrated in the hands of large publishing companies, with small specialist companies carving out their niches and often fighting for survival on the sidelines.

  Self publishing was not however dead, though at the time it was known as private publishing. It was an alternative means of publication that was used by the wealthy to produce their own titles, or by those who wanted to  avoid the constraints of mainstream publishing, and publish their own works in their own way. The most famous private publisher was William Morris, whose Kelmscott Press produced limited editions of illuminated print books; but apart from William Morris, who was a special case, quite a few 19th century and early 20th century authors, including Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Walt Whitman, all published some of their own books.

   The invention of duplicating machines and mimeographs from the end of the nineteenth century provided a huge boost to private printing, but without the technical and visual sophistication that could be achieved through traditional publishing. Duplicating was the means of publication generally chosen for all kinds of limited-run and locally distributed books, bulletins and magazines. It was cheap and easy to set up, allowing short print runs which were not economically viable for commercial publishers using traditional flatbed or rotary printing.
    By the 1970s,  cheap 'n' cheerful duplicating machines, with their typographical limitations, were going out of favour with the arrival of the next big new development, the Xerox photocopier. Black and white photocopiers, and then subsequently color laser photocopiers, allowed  the publication of books and pamphlets with quality and costs comparable to those of traditional printing, and in the case of short print-runs, costs considerably lower than those of offset printing. This new form of publication was soon given a major boost by the arrival, first with the Apple Macintosh computer, then with Windows based computers, of  DTP - Desktop publishing - software.  By the turn of the century, writers could produce and self-publish their own books, obtaining more or less the same quality as that offered by traditional publication. A new age of publishing was dawning.

   Self publication, however, had major drawbacks, the biggest of which was distribution. In the year 2000, it was possible, using desktop publishing software and the local print shop, to produce professional quality books; the problem was letting other people know that they existed.
   It was hard, but not impossible. Since the mid twentieth century, a new breed of publisher had appeared on the market, commonly referred to as "vanity publishers". With traditional publishing, the publishing house accepts a title for publication, signs a contract with the author including royalties or a flat fee, and then takes care of everything else - publishing, printing, marketing, distribution, and advertising. Vanity publishers, and along with them a new variety known as hybrid publishers, did it differently; instead of paying authors for the right to publish their works, they asked authors to pay them for publishing their work, in exchange for which they, the publisher, would do the marketing and promotion.
   Vanity and hybrid publishers still exist, but in terms of result, many publishing experiences reported by authors using this type of publishing seem to be negative, with reports of publishers taking money but doing little or nothing in exchange in order to ensure the book's success on the market.
   However, vanity and hybrid publishers have had to change their ways and methods - at least in part - to remain active in the  radically changed publishing environment that has emerged since about 2010.
   "Print-on-demand"  began to develop from the beginning of the century, and in doing so turned the economics of publishing on its head. With books stored digitally instead of on offset printing plates, print-on-demand has abolished most of the fixed costs of printing (setting up the press), and books are only printed once a customer - trade customer or private customer - orders them. Spotting the new opportunities, companies like Blurb or Createspace quickly developed, offering quality self publishing with no minimum print run requirement. The new age of self publishing had dawned.

   Today a dozen or more publishers, some operating worldwide, offer self publishing opportunites to writers (and even other publishers) who either do not want to publish in the traditional way, want to retain personal control over their books, or else cannot find a publisher willing to take their work.  The third of these reasons applies particularly to the authors of academic titles which may have a very limited specialist readership which is spread over a wide area.
   By far the largest of today's self-publishing platforms is KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing, now owned by Amazon. Publication of a book on KDP is completely free .

For an example of a self-published academic title with complex layout, see A Descriptive Grammar of English  published using the KDP platform, and also, with its grammar and style guides, a useful handbook for any academic writer.

List your self-published academic title

In order to illustrate the range of academic titles now being self published by their authors or academic institutions,  is happy to list a selection of representative titles in the discipliary fields of arts and cumanities, economic and social sciences, and  the sciences.  To submit a title for listing, please use the contact information indicated below.

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