Jane Austen, self publisher

Jane Austen, self publisher

When, at the beginning of the month, I am dejectedly refreshing the sales figures at my Kindle store, I take some solace that like me, Jane Austen was a self-published author. It helps take the sting out of looking at that big fat zero that greets me on the first day of the month to consider my kinship with Austen, who I imagine probably pestered Thomas Egerton, who printed her first three books, for her latest sales figures.

It’s a natural temptation to compare my experiences with self-publishing with Austen’s and it’s also very tempting to imagine what Austen might have thought about our modern topsy-turvy take on publishing.

I imagine that Austen’s manuscripts were largely self-edited. She was notoriously secretive about her writing and so I doubt many people proofread her stories before she submitted them to Egerton. Her family and friends were familiar with her novels, especially her early works, because they were read aloud at family gatherings, but she wouldn’t have had copies to distribute. Some of her letters talk about friends borrowing her manuscripts but I have to think Austen was nervous the whole time it was out of her hands.1

My first book, Good Cop, Dead Cop, was largely self-edited but my other two books, were read by a number of friends, my husband and even by people I met on the Internet. Because my books are available either as print on demand or as an e-book, I can make my corrections instantly, ensuring future purchasers will not know what mistakes I made.2

It’s fun to speculate if Austen, connected to the world wide web, would have asked others to proofread her work, and would someone have suggested the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice be altered to: “Everyone agrees rich bachelors need to marry.”

Austen’s manuscripts were presumably edited by her two publishers (first Egerton and later John Murray) because those editions fixed her penchant for mixing up the “i” before “e” rule. Professor Kathryn Sutherland has famously identified William Gifford as Austen’s editor at John Murray, leading to some debate as to how much credit to give Gifford.3 I had no final editor other than my husband, who, despite—or perhaps because of being a newspaper editor—is not a rigorous observer of grammar and punctuation rules. (My friends Susan and Lee often tried to get me to change sentences they thought too cumbersome, but I would stick, thinking those sentences my most Austen-like. In the same way, I don’t see Austen taking lightly to any wholesale changes.)

Of course in Austen’s day, any author had to be a self-starter because the publishing industry as we knew it for most of the twentieth century didn’t exist. There were no literary agents so every author worked directly with a publisher. What differed with each were the terms under which a book was published. Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, was published essentially as a vanity press. For those too young to understand that term or those so old as to have forgotten, it meant that Austen paid a publisher to print her book and hopefully sold enough copies to cover the cost and make a small profit.4

Today the vanity press business must be in even worse shape than print journalism, because anyone with access to a computer, the Internet and a basic word-publishing program can self publish. An impressive book cover might be beyond the ability of most people, but there are thousands of under-employed graphic artists who advertise that service for a modest cost. Were Jane alive today and exploring self-publishing, she might ask her sister Cassandra for help in designing the cover. OK, Cassandra would also have to be alive and familiar with PhotoShop, Illustrator and InDesign, but you get the idea. We know that Austen was very much involved in the design and production of her first book, to the point of obsessing about the type size and leading (the amount of space between lines of type) in order to reduce printing costs.

I’ve had to make the same considerations when balancing the cost of printing each book versus the amount for which I can sell the book. Some of my friends—all women of a certain age—have complained the type is too small. To modern eyes, of course, original Austen printings appear to have huge type, but it must be remembered she was designing her books to be read by firelight or rush light or candle light or while in a bumpy carriage.

One wonders what Austen would have made of ebook readers like the Kindle. I don’t know how entrenched the cult of the book had become by her time, but it must have had some currency in Austen’s day. Certainly there’s an appreciation of the library at Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s hard to compare a hardcover book of today with the books sold in Austen’s day. Books back then were often sold unbound and it was up to the purchaser to choose a nice cover—but no dust jackets. Still, I imagine Austen looked with pride on her father’s library of 500 books. She probably liked the smell of them and the feel of their bindings.

What a loss it must have been, then, when the family moved to Bath and her father sold or gave away his library. Had her father’s library been on his Kindle, it would have survived the move to Bath and maybe Austen’s impression of that city would have been slightly less sour.

Whatever her feelings about ebooks, however, I’m sure Austen in the present day would opt to release her novels as physical books. No matter how enamored one might be with ebooks, a novelist wants to hold her work in her hand. So I’m sure she’d opt to sell a soft cover bound book through a service like CreateSpace, which I use to print my books.

The Austen of Regency times would have be delighted to discover that today her upfront cost for the print-on-demand service would be minimal, the only absolute cost being the printing of one physical proof, which with shipping and a decision to publish her novels in one volume with modern typesetting, would probably cost considerably less than $20 (and that’s with next-day shipping).

In contrast, her costs to publish Sense and Sensibility in 1811 were much greater, easily exceeding her annual income. In fact her brother Henry probably advanced the money and most likely Henry, who had been in the Oxford militia, was the source of the connection to Egerton, a military publisher.

Austen’s cost of publishing an ebook today, however, could be zero. Amazon and other ebook publishers take their cut from the royalty paid to authors. I think she’d heartily approve of this scheme. One great advantage of ebook publishing is you don’t have to factor in the cost of actually printing the book. Instead, you publish your ebook and start counting the money as it comes rolling in … just like me, endlessly refreshing sales reports, hoping that zero will disappear.

Of course if you think it silly that Jane Austen in the present day would need to self publish her books, it might surprise you that like me, Austen might have found it difficult to find an agent or publisher. In 2007, the director of the Jane Austen Festival at the time sent Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and finally Pride and Prejudice, slightly altered, to publishers and agents and every recipient rejected the manuscripts, and only one noted the similarity to the original novels.

All this only strengthens my kinship with Austen. I can see her asking my advice on whether she could use a service like Smashwords to convert her Word document to an EPUB or whether the original Kindle supports dropcaps. After all, the Regency world of Jane Austen was very much a do-it-yourself time and I think she’d be comfortable with HTML markup and cascading style sheets.

She’d still sell a lot more books than me, however. Oh look, someone in France just loaded my book on their Kindle as part of the Kindle Lending Library. I think I get paid 0.11€ for that.

1 None of the manuscripts Austen delivered to her publishers survive, so we don’t really know how good she was editing her own copy.

2 My biggest mistake in my first book related to a technical issue with the M1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic, a mistake Austen would never have made because of her choice to write only what she knew. I’ve never held or fired the M1911. I wonder if she’d have known how to load and fire a Brown Bess.

3 We know that Austen corrected proofs of her own books, so any criticisms of her poor spelling or inconsistent punctuation might merely be the difference between a first draft and a finished manuscript.

4 I believe Austen (or her family) published all her books at her/their own expense except for Pride and Prejudice, the copyright to which she sold to Egerton. I think she came to regret the decision to sell the copyright, for it went through several printings during her lifetime.

7 Responses to Jane Austen, self publisher

  1. Thank you for such an informative post. I had heard about the sending of the slightly altered manuscripts to the publishers. It just goes to show that a wonderful piece of literature can be passed up. I honestly don’t trust a publisher making a decision onwhat is acceptable. I prefer making my own decisions, which is more possible with being independent authors like Jane was. And I am sure she regretted selling her copyright.

  2. Diana, it’s interesting to note the good editor Kathryn Sullivan talks about is probably Giffords, who did not to my knowledge edit her first three books. Of course there might have been a good editor at Egerton as well, but I still think a good editor can improve a good book, not make a bad book good.

  3. I was out of pocket yesterday but I found this article today and just had to drop in to say I never thought about Jane been self-published. It does make one feel a kinship when you realize that, for had I not self-published I have no doubt I would never have my books picked up by a publisher. Thanks for the lovely read!

  4. Oh, I thought I commented yesterday! I have often considered how rough Jane Austen had it but didn’t realize that her first was self-pubbed. You learn something new every day, right?

    I remember awhile back when some lady tried to make a case on NPR that Jane’s excellence was due to having a good editor, but then a bunch of scholars blew that theory out of the water. It was an interesting debate to follow.

  5. I love to have books on my Nook (and the Kindle app now that I have an iPad) so that I can have multiple books with me wherever I go. It improves travelling with books exponentially. However, I am that person who loves the smell of books. The weight of the books in my hand, the smell of the paper and ink, just walking by the bookshelf and running my hand down the spines makes me happy. SO I usually buy both the ebook and the print book. I hate book jackets though. Those slick paper covers just keep me from feeling the spine of the book so book jackets are lost on me. At one point I had a paper box packed full of book jackets (just in case), it eventually got tossed. LOL I cannot imagine the stress of self-publishing. I guess it’s just as well I can’t write a story. I wish you success with your numbers! I’ll just be the girl (eventually) buying 3 copies of each book. :-p

    • Thanks, Stephanie! I may have slightly exaggerated my woeful state of affairs! And yes, I agree having both physical book and ebook is the best of all possible worlds and I sell my physical books that way, with a free ebook included if bought through Amazon. I especially like having the ebook when my book groups are reading a novel, because it’s a lot easier to copy interesting passages for later discussion.

Your thoughts are precious!