9. SELF PUBLISHED BOOKS
Why were most of your early books self-published?
In 1977 I gave up a small business and a motor vehicle to commence a private research project. By the time I gained admission into Cambridge University Library (CUL), I had been without income for over three years. The direction of my studies was changing, becoming increasingly broad in scope. Study had become compulsive, but I was not eligible for any grant or subsidy. I had to study at my own expense while living on a shoestring budget.
When I had accumulated a few manuscripts, I found that academic publishers would not even look at the work of a non-academic, according to long established convention. Ironically, I was considered much too academic by commercial publishers; they did not want works with annotations. One manuscript was just too long for budget calculations. No publisher ever saw any of my manuscripts; their decisions were made solely according to format criteria I described. New authors were viewed as a hazard if they lacked commercial attractions. I was not impressed by the stereotyped replies, and did not again contact publishers for many years (except for a liaison with Philosophical Press in the 1990s).
Anything resembling a Ph.D. thesis was considered very undesirable. There were many academics who could not get their doctoral (and masters) theses published (no matter how excelling these were). In Cambridge that problem was well known. One academic friend of mine complained bitterly that his lengthy thesis would never get read; he had to be content with a microfiche status very rarely consulted. Some academics had a very low opinion of publishing firms, and would pointedly jest at certain levels of output favoured.
My realistic recourse was to self-publish and hope to survive against the severe and prohibiting competition. That was why my second and third books were relatively short and easily readable; I retrieved these from a stockpile of earlier (pre-CUL) manuscripts and added notes. I did not have the means to advertise, and relied upon the core support from academic library buyers (via library suppliers), who had more knowledge of books than the commercial retail bookshops. There was also assistance from certain overseas book distributors. However, the cut price terms common in those channels entailed a very small return. So I still ran at a loss, and could never have survived without a generous private loan, at a critical juncture that was later surmounted. Support from some independent booksellers was fairly strong, as distinct from the retail chains that developed over the years, giving priority to the publishing giants.
I learned a great deal about the publishing industry, educational channels, and the shelf content at CUL. In the late 1980s, I was obliged to conduct another small business in order to compensate for publishing losses. Fortunately, this development made me independent, and I was able to recoup the losses. I did not need to pursue publishing profits. My principle in publishing was to recuperate costs, and to keep prices low. I cultivated a serious readership, not a general one.
My “thesis” Psychology in Science appeared at the end of 1983. The plain black and white jacket was considered very severe by commercial bookshops. They noticed that no photograph of the author was included; the pictorial element is often a selling point. I maintained this rather austere format in all the later Anthropographia books. None of my self-published books ever carried my image, despite advice to the contrary. Only once did I select a paperback edition, and the cover then remained a dour black and white that was offputting to the commercial market. I was determined not to relent in certain basic respects. My outlook was averse to the contemporary presentations of persona that are nowadays taken for granted.
My image did not appear in public until the Citizen Initiative (CI) website was launched in 2007. At that time I was advised to include several photographs to confirm identity; a technician friend helped me with this recourse. I have learnt that if an author chooses to maintain a low profile, there are people who will accuse him of being off the map and of no consequence whatever. In my case, American cultism on Wikipedia was a problem in this respect, as the CI website attempted to indicate.
However, I should add here that two American distributors helped to circulate several of my early books. They did so in accordance with the book trade temperament in America. One of the most encouraging features of that phase was the time when an enthusiastic distributor arranged for certain of my books to be visible at a prestigious American book fair in the 1990s. I was then treated to an enlivening description of the reactions. I can easily credit that the American outlook is receptive and outgoing, despite flaws in the modus operandi of the American book trade, which tends to opt for sensational presentations.
Commencing in 2014, three of my new books were published in New Delhi by a third party publisher. I did not have to contact them; Sterling contacted me with an interest to publication. The Asian market is very different to the British and American. Sterling sold books in India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. The Chinese dimension is potentially significant for the future of the book trade.
The principles which run the retail book trade in Britain are as ruthlessly commercial as any other branch of contemporary “progress.” See further Publishing Retrospect. Surviving independent booksellers in Britain have been complaining at the increasing monopoly of retail chains. Despite the size of some chainstores, many books are only available to customer order, including very numerous academic books of note. The books on the shelves are too frequently discrepant with educational priorities. In so many respects, the retail book trade supplies an undiscriminating demand encouraged by purely commercial influences.
Complaints made about British chain bookstores have been met with excuses that say much about the flaws in policy. Over ten years ago, an unofficial survey was conducted in relation to responses on the part of book buyers in one British retail chain. The results were predominantly negative with regard to serious books, which tend very much to be relegated to customer order as distinct from stock. A summary of that survey was submitted to the management of the chain, who were markedly evasive, furnishing one or two standard excuses of the type which informed assessors find totally unconvincing. For instance, they have to stock what is in demand, a theme which means that large quantities of serious books are relegated to a vacuum. The consumers may never hear about, or see, the displaced content.
Commercial forces in the British marketplace probably do have a bearing upon the trend to illiteracy in some schools, where a knife is preferable to a pen for some pupils. The British government has permitted dubious literature in the “easy read magazine” category, where anyone can find, for instance, photographs of hideous wounds that accompany nudes and football stars. Commercial forces have no interest in education, only in the subversion of what might lead out of media hell. Exploitation is too often the name of the game in the inverted “more choices” panacea for a sick society.