Self-publishing, bibliomaniacs and what editors can learn from both

Bibliomania
Was bibliomania just an idiotic folly, or something we can learn from? Image courtesy of STML/Flickr/Creative commons

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the rise of Bibliomania – or ‘book madness’ – during the 18th and 19th centuries.

‘Book collecting,’ wrote Henry Howard Harper, ‘is undeniably one of the most engaging pursuits in which refined and artistic taste may be indulged.’ Although many descriptions of the bibliomaniac are satirical in tone, many also contain clear indications that the ‘gentle madness’ attached itself to only certain classes in society. As late as 1843 Thomas Frognal Dibdin – the man who popularised the term bibliomania – wrote that:

‘the bibliomania has almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex, and, among these, to people in the higher and middling classes of society, while the artificer, labourer, and peasant have escaped wholly uninjured. It has raged chiefly in palaces, castles, halls, and gay mansions; and those things which in general are supposed not to be inimical to health, such as cleanliness, spaciousness, and splendour, are only so many inducements towards the introduction and propagation of the Bibliomania!’

Here we see lines being drawn not only between men and women, but also between the upper and working classes. And while it’s easy to suppose that these attempts to draw lines between different groups of readers was simply a response to the rapid social changes brought about by the industrial revolution, it’s difficult to deny that the debate echoes similar struggles over cultural authority in the digital world today.

‘Self-published authors are destroying literature,’ writes Michael Kozlowski and countless other commentators, decrying that ‘you can’t browse Kobo, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon without running into a maelstrom of poorly written and poorly edited books.’

It’s an interesting debate, and one that doesn’t promise to settle any time soon. But what can editors learn from it? On the one hand, there is weight to the argument that self-publishing produces an unimaginable amount of new writing every day, it does also pose an interesting question about cultural gatekeeping and cultural authority, and force publishers to reflect on the criteria we use for excluding specific kinds of writing.

So, in the interest of learning from what’s often a loud and heated debate, here are three things that upcoming editors can take away from it:

  1. Set yourself apart by maintaining a professional portfolio.

Much of the criticism directed toward self-publishing (just like much of the criticism that was directed towards the growing number of mass-produced ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 19th century) is that they were not written in the same spirit of professionalism that drives the creation of literary texts.

  1. Don’t overlook the importance of fact checking.

One of the most problematic, even dangerous, things about self-publishing is the absence of an editor to fact check. Of course, when established houses fail to fact check and publish books that could compromise not only their reputation but also people’s health it’s not surprising that fact-checking may be overlooked. But prioritise it, at least for your own professional interests.

  1. Look for work in other places.

It’s not uncommon for students trying to make their way in the publishing industry to express doubt at the prospect of finding a job. Although freelancing may take a bit of organisation, many self-published authors are eager to make their book as good as it can be and look for a professional editor to help them do this, so it’s always worth looking in non-traditional places for work.

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