Nine years ago I did something scandalous, something that caused many of my colleagues to balk and wrinkle their noses in disdain. I self-published a book.
I have worked in academia since 1994, where the pinnacle of respect comes from articles published in the most highly acclaimed peer-reviewed journals. Self-publishing anything, let alone a “how to” guide doesn’t really result in respect. In fact, it results in quiet whispers of, “Who does she think she is, publishing her own work? We’re scholars, not peddlers. It’s just so… vain!”
I remember one particularly stinging comment of a professor who said, “Anyone who self-publishes their own work clearly has more ego than intellect.” At least he had the courage to say it to my face… and I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve always struggled with two seemingly disparate aspects of my character. One aspect is deeply curious, driven deep into research to the point of forgetting to eat, methodical and persistent, obsessed with learning, surrounded by books, and slightly susceptible to worshipping great teachers as heroes who have inspired me to be a voracious learner. That’s the scholar side.
The other side demonstrates all the classic personality traits of an entrepreneur: impulsive, headstrong, stubborn, relentless about progress and pushing the boundaries of new ways of doing things (often before I’ve considered all the risks), with a wildly creative spirit that flourishes in an environment where there are high levels of autonomy and self-determination.
When someone tells me that I can’t do something, my usual (though often unvoiced) reaction is, “Oh yeah? Watch me.”
Then I proceed to do it, come hell or high water.
I’ve run a marathon, gone “polar bearing” in Halifax harbour on New Year’s Day, done a Master’s degree in a language I didn’t really speak very well, then did a Ph.D. in a completely different field and started an educational consulting business. I’ve done these things despite the fact that at least one person told me I couldn’t do it… would never succeed. Or was it because someone told me I couldn’t do it? I’ve never really figured out which it was.
In 2002, I added “self-publishing” to that list. Very few people were self-publishing then. It was considered heinously poor form. The truth is, I couldn’t find a publisher for my book. I looked and looked. For months. No one was interested. “It won’t sell,” they said.
I didn’t want to let that stop me, so I hired an editor and a graphic designer to help me do it. Self-publishing taught me a great deal about the process of publishing a book. I still worked with an editor, a designer and a printer. My editor was relentless. Any ego I had before starting to work with her was undeniably and unapologetically crushed in the process. She reduced me to a pile of humble tired bones, pushing fingers forward on a keyboard. It was excellence or nothing. (She taught me that it’s free “rein” and not free “reign”, as I’d previously thought.) God, she was good.
I pushed myself to produce the very highest quality that I could and to learn not only about content, but also form, style and little details of the publishing process, right down to what kind of paper we would use and why.
The first edition of 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program ranked among DeMille’s Technical Books Top 10 Best sellers, reaching #1 on that Top 10 list on August 25, 2003. Now, being a best seller among technical books on a small list isn’t like being a #1 best seller on the New York Times or anything, but in its own way, it was a highlight of my career.
It was, however, a bittersweet victory. While I worked like a demon on the project, I often felt sheepish and ashamed in front of some my academic colleagues who found the whole prospect of self-publishing downright disdainful.
If you believe Wikipedia, then you might be as surprised as I was to learn that works by authors such as e.e. cummings, Deepak Chopra, Benjamin Franklin, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain were self-published. Though we need to be clear that there are thousands of people whose self-published work will never be elevated to such high regard. The fact remains that some pretty darn amazing writers went ahead and published their own work when no one else would.
Here we are in 2011, when there are 156 million public blogs in existence (as reported by “BlogPulse”. The Nielsen Company. February 16, 2011). Today, people self-publish every day, in every corner of the world. Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article about the rise of self-published books. Publisher’s Weekly reported that in 2009, 764,448 new books were either self-published or micro-published.
Suddenly, I don’t feel so alone any more.
I still struggle, on an almost daily basis with being an “academic entrepreneur”. Most of the time, I feel like I don’t fit properly into either world, and with fierce determination, I push aside the feelings in order to push forward with the work. For me, doing the work — and doing it well — has always been more important than how I feel about the work, because I rarely feel good about the work I do. No matter how good it may be, I always want to be better. It keeps me up at night… most nights, in fact.
I don’t know if e.e. cummings really did self-publish, but I do love his quote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” It takes courage to put yourself out there, to use your voice and do something a bit rash and a bit wild. People may sneer. (But then again… those same people would likely find something to sneer about anyway.)
Digital technology has democratized creativity and empowered anyone with a voice to use it. What have you done lately that is wildly creative (and even a little rebellious)? I’d love to hear your stories about how you’ve taken a creative risk and what you learned from it.
(Check out Part 2 of this post, where I talk about how I used what I’ve learned over the past nine years to help someone else launch into the world of becoming a published author.)
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.