I’ve never self-published my own work, unless you count my undergraduate honors thesis — a portfolio of poetry — which is bound in the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. But, I know that self-publication is increasingly an option for authors, and that it is stirring controversy.
On the way home from work today, I was thinking about books that have changed my life and the lives of the people around me, and how they were published.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be born into a family that valued poetry. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother self-published a book of their poetry. The poems address their love for each other, their families, the experience of being a young man during WWI, commentary on local politics, celebrations and griefs. Reading the book is a tour through their lives from youth to old age.
My grandfather gave me a copy when I was a little girl. He wrote poetry also, and often read poems at family celebrations like birthdays. My father wrote his share as well, and in the same mode of honoring milestones like graduations. I grew up believing that celebrating milestones with verse was as natural as celebrating emotion with song in a musical. Poems from my great-grandparents’ book are read at every family wedding and funeral. We all have copies of the book.
I know that book of poems made my young girl self believe that I could one day publish something that I wrote. I never paid any attention to how it was published. I’ve written poetry my whole life. I wrote sonnets and read them at both of my grandfather’s funerals.
I know that when my grandfather died, the family found in his papers an unpublished manuscript of poems. He never published it, though we know he sent it to editors. We’ve circulated copies of his poems on loose pieces of paper in the family, but it seems far less likely to me that the poems will survive for generations in that form. Which is sad.
Books aren’t just publications. They can be artifacts.
Personally, I am still planning to keep sending my pieces out to publishers since I enjoy the process and I like seeing my work married to other stories and poems in anthology and themed magazine formats. I like the thrill of competition, and knowing that my piece was chosen. Seeing all the different perspectives on the same idea or theme is such a pleasure. I enjoy reading all the other stories in a given anthology.
But, I would never look down on an author for choosing to self-publish something of their own if their goal is not to seek broader audiences, but is rather to capture something for those that they hold dearest. There’s nothing wrong with that.
If we want to create generations of readers, it helps to have books that families treasure and value. It helps to teach children that written expression is a powerful way to measure and celebrate the passage of life.