To Thine Own Self Be True

Do you even need a publisher today?


In recent years, a growing number of Vineyard poets and authors have begun to publish their books themselves. Some create their own books, some print them on old machines, some use online publishing platforms, still others use the services of local printers and print brokers, while many use on-demand or self-publishing service providers.

I reached out to a number of Island writers — Justen Ahren, Thomas Dresser, Jib Ellis, Ingrid Goff-Maidoff, Barbara Hope Peckham, Lara O’Brien, Ann Lister, Fan Ogilvie, Amelia Smith, and Dan Waters — to ask about their experiences in self-publishing.

Roots of self-publishing

German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing movable type and changing the course of publishing history, leading to the first mass production of books and, eventually, mass literacy. His Gutenberg Bible, which sold for the equivalent of three years’ salary for the average 15th century clerk, survives today in 48 substantially complete copies, two of which you can view online at the British Museum website.

There is a considerable distance between the Gutenberg Bible and “Grey” by E.L. James, which is currently topping the New York Times bestseller list. The “Fifty Shades of Shades of Grey” franchise has already sold more than 125 million books in 52 languages around the world. Whether that constitutes mass literacy is debatable, but there is no question that publishing has become a hits business. What, then, to do if you’re not a best-selling author, or you’ve written a book that doesn’t feature bondage?

Self-publishing is not new. A few hundred years after Gutenberg, the printer and inventor Ben Franklin was self-publishing “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” Laurence Sterne was self-publishing his classic nine-volume opus “Tristram Shandy,” and, a few years later, the poet-painter William Blake was self-publishing his astonishing artistic oeuvre. To this list of distinguished self-published writers we can add Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Beatrix Potter, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Zane Grey, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, John Grisham, Derek Walcott, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King.

Do you even need a printer?

Ingrid Goff-Maidoff sells her handmade books at the Night Heron Gallery, Bunch of Grapes, and the Vineyard Artisans Festival, and her print books on Amazon. She recalls how she began: “I wrote my first books when my daughter Rose was 2. One was a book on mothering wisdom, which contained words I had mostly needed to hear myself, and the second was a book of graces. After that, books seemed to pour out of me the way songs did when I was a younger woman. At that time, I owned a small bookstore and also worked as an artisan. It didn’t occur to me to do anything other than to hand-produce my books. As the years went by, I’d created over a dozen titles, and continued to hand-bind these books. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted more people to be able to have them, I would have to pursue creating more commercial versions of the books.”

A sense of artistic control is what motivates many local independent writers to self-publish their work. Dan Waters also sells his work at the Artisans Festival. He prints his own poetry books, broadsides, and cards on an antique German press: “I set the words in hot type, casting them from molten metal on a 2,400-pound Linotype. I hand-carve my illustrations out of battleship linoleum. My best books are hand-sewn, and many of them use paper that’s decorated by me, either by marbling or block-printing. Knowing all this work will go into the final product makes me especially particular about each word I put down.”

Jib Ellis published his adventure novel “Bandstand: The Search For Oak Island Gold (Vineyard People)” on CreateSpace (, and is readying his book of short stories the same way. Amelia Smith publishes her science fiction print books on CreateSpace and ebooks on Kindle Direct. Kindle Direct is the platform that launched the rocketing ebook careers of Amanda Hocking, author of the YA paranormal romance series “Kanin Chronicles,” and Hugh Howey, author of the science fiction series “Wool.”

I have personally used a web-based printing and publication platform to self-publish four novels and three books of poems. Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are entirely free. You can upload your book in a template that Amazon provides, and order just the number of copies you’d like, whether one or two or a hundred. Kindle Digital is similar. Upload your book, and it goes on sale the next day on

Concierge publishing

The self-publishing method preferred by most Island authors is what I would call concierge publishing. Two prominent local poets, Fan Ogilvie and Justen Ahren, worked with Xlibris. Fiction writers Lara O’Brien and Ann Lister used Sleigh Farm. And nonfiction author Tom Dresser has done several of his books with Publish America and Red Lead Press. Local printers DaRosa’s and Tisbury Printer are also popular choices.

Justen Ahren chose concierge publishing so he could both have control of the final product and take advantage of the marketing services the publisher offered, including cards, bookmarks, and a website.

Fan Ogilvie explains her motivation: “I used a self-publishing model to make the book read and look exactly how I wanted it, including pastels of punctuation marks to separate the sections. I don’t have the temperament to receive the many rejections à la Gertrude Stein to paper my bathroom, nor the shredder treatment I would have to accept if a publisher accepted it. And so it goes with the new poems I started writing in 2009. I am working with Tisbury Printer and Janet Holladay. The press is local, but extraordinarily professional and supportive.”

However, as Lara O’Brien explains, even with concierge publishing, the author still has a lot of work to do: “One of the best experiences I have had. Not for the faint of heart, though, and there are many pluses and negatives, but overall you are learning a new trade and taking a step in the right direction as a writer — only if you get to learn what else is needed to be an author in 2015, and that’s any author, re social media, blogging, etc. Saying that, you also understand it’s a time-intensive occupation, and time invested equals sales.”

And not all concierge-publishing experiences are positive ones. As Barbara Hope Peckham notes, “I had two very different experiences. The first book I published with Tisbury Printer with Janet Holladay, and it was great. I could meet with her, look at choices, discuss them, etc. We were able to look at the pictures together and decide which would work … The second book I did with AuthorHouse online, and found it very difficult. They have different departments for each step. So you are constantly dealing with someone new … One reason I did the second one online was because they would put it on Amazon and other book sites.”

So how much self is there in self-publishing?

All the authors I spoke with agreed there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing. Whether your books are handmade, or you print them yourself on an old Linotype, whether you format and upload your books to a web platform, or use a concierge publisher, you still have to promote and publicize, even hand-sell your wares. Self-publishing may give you control of your final product, but you will still have to work hard to get it into your readers’ hands, hearts, and minds.