When I hear of the books in the history of publishing that were self-published, I react like Lenin, who, on hearing of the 5,000 print run of Mayakovsky’s poem 150,000,000, scoffed that it was “a colossal waste of paper.”
E.E. Cummings, for instance, published The Enormous Room at his own expense, petulantly dedicating it to the 15 publishers who had binned it. Publishers turned down Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull 140 times? It only makes me wonder where he had found so many publishers. Stephen King’s Carrie? Rejected 40 times, which sounds like a compelling argument for the soundness of America’s cultural fabric. Harry Potter? Twelve times, and all to the good, no doubt, though I must admit to not having read a single word.
It is when one leaves the purlieus of the modern that doubt begins to nag. The tale of Nietzsche’s essays in self-publication—which I know after reading William Schaberg’s The Nietzsche Canon—rivets attention like an adventure story. One comes across such queries in Nietzsche’s hand as,
Please force yourself to remember who has copies. My memory tells me: Lanzky, Windemann, Fuchs, Brandes, most likely Overbeck . . . How many copies were there? How many do we still have? A few may be in Naumburg.
Schaberg’s meticulous research allows the reader to keep track of nearly every copy sold or given away by Nietzsche better than the author could, as none of Nietzsche’s works, not even Zarathustra, had a print run in excess of a few hundred. In all, 15,150 copies of his works circulated during the author’s entire lifetime, and at most a third actually sold.
For that dream dealer to have garnered world fame and perennial influence by means of such paltry sales—these days, 5,000 is the print run of a gardening book written by a divorcée whose homely appearance has precluded her from sleeping with somebody important in television to secure a tie-in—the world had to have been a better place. Or at least a smaller place, where a thinker’s message could spread directly through readers’ brains, interconnected as these were by the optic fibre of European culture.
Success, in today’s terms, means numbers. There are no Nietzsches, no exceptions to the rule that only sales in the millions will hold aloft a work over the waters of oblivion. A book, an author, a thinker may be self-published, of course, but to make any sort of mark he must “go viral” like the mysterious Harry Potter—and the same is true of what is churned out by the publishing industry, whose captains rise and fall by the same hope of the big score.
All of this is an improvised preamble to a story I want to tell. A few years ago, just when Harry Potter was becoming mysterious, an acquaintance of mine in England, a lady with grown children, sat me down by the fire with a large whisky and the manuscript of something she had written. What was it? A children’s book, she said.
Such incommodities are the lot of literary men, or at least of men who never found other means of subsistence and have to rely on their gift of the gab for the occasional single malt. A children’s book! What, like Harry Potter? Actually, rather the opposite, said Marita.
What lent the episode piquancy, and the disavowal credibility, was that Marita Phillips is neither a jolly housewife, of the variety that the internet has made synonymous with writing, nor a grim bluestocking, of the kind I suspect, perhaps wrongly, J.K. Rowling of being. She is a direct descendant of the Russian poet Pushkin on one side of her family, and of Czar Nicholas I—Pushkin’s patron, admirer, and censor—on the other. A work of the imagination engendered within that genetic microcosm, albeit a “children’s book,” was something I was curious to read.
Now a copy of The Dream Dealer by Marita Phillips has arrived in the post, and I hasten to inform this magazine’s readers with children aged 5 to 55 that it has been published by Neve Press, 53F Lancaster Gate, London W2 3NA, England, where they should write to order copies. That the book is self-published—yet carries a message that isn’t so socially pernicious that anyone’s hope of it “going viral” may be realized—only adds intellectual lustre to this brilliant fable of modern life.
Instead of citing an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, as Tom Lehrer might describe the self-published title’s usual reviewer, The Dream Dealer’s back flap is given over to excerpts from reviews by children who have read it. “The story feels like you are playing the parts of all the characters,” Giorgia Wolman, 10, has written. “This is one of my favourite books.”
Somehow I think that Nietzsche never had it so good.