Adventures in self-publishing

Can print-on-demand and self publishing help feminists today continue the legacy of the suffragettes & the women's liberation movement? Deborah Withers considers the potential

debi withers, 10 March 2010

kate bush book coverI have recently set up a publishing and information initiative, HammerOn Press, to publish my book, Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory and empower people to self-publish their own work, through giving workshops and providing resources. I want to share with readers of The F-Word some of things I have learnt along the way and how I think my adventures in self-publishing relate to the history of feminist publishing.

For much of my activist life I have been involved with do-it-yourself (DIY) politics, and the publishing cultures they engender, such as zines and blogs. I see zines and blogs - which have shaped how contemporary feminists connect and communicate with each other - in continuity with publishing books. I don't think I'd have ever considered self-publishing my book, which is a creative and popular re-interpretation of my PhD thesis, had I not been involved in DIY networks.

HammerOn is a queer and feminist initiative, but it also links to a wider tradition of DIY cultural production. I am doing what people were doing in the late 1970s, but with books rather than records. Although feminism inspires me, I think economically it was a DIY/ punk ethic that pulled me through and said "yes, you can do this." Living in Bristol helps because there is a lot of support for alternative/DIY cultures here (for example, a feminist, queer vegan co-operative cafe).

Self-publishing provides an alternative for people not wishing to engage with the mainstream publishing industry, which of course is structured massively by capitalist market logics (what sells essentially is what gets published). There are massive barriers for voices that challenge the norms of society to overcome before they're seen as viable, publishable. The answer to this is: take it into your own hands and publish your work (either in a zine, blog or a book).

Using POD as a way of publishing and printing books could potentially generate a culture of collective working and skill-sharing that can help create the books we want to read

Setting up a publishing company was possible for me because of developments in digital printing, in particular print-on-demand technology. POD is a way of printing books using digital methods. It basically means that when a book is ordered, it is printed. It differs from conventional means of printing books where you would have to make a large print-run (of say 1,000 to 2,000 books) to stand a chance of recuperating costs. With POD you need very little money to start with, so you really can publish books on a low-budget. The cost per book of a POD printed book is, admittedly, more than a larger print run. This limits the possibility of your book ending up in a high-street store, as shops are less likely to buy it if the unit cost of the book is too high. Some people see this as a massive disadvantage of the POD method. However, as more people use POD as a method of printing books, the costs will also come down.

Other disadvantages include prejudice towards POD in the publishing industry because it is seen in connection with 'vanity publishing', or publishing a book just for the sake of it without editing it properly. This prejudice is arguably shifting as many high profile corporations, such as Warner Brothers, are moving their distribution model along POD lines. This makes titles, which have long been 'out of print' in the conventional sense, available again since they are stored as a digital file on a database, ready to be accessed when someone wants them.

POD also has advantages in terms of storage and waste, so it certainly could be seen as a green or ethical way of publishing since the carbon footprint is lower, fewer trees are used and there is no pulping and shredding of unwanted books. I also think that the more people who use it, the less it will have a bad name, but be seen as a viable option for printing and distributing books.

The specific costs will depend on which service provider you use, but some, such as Lulu, don't require any costs to begin with and even provide you with an ISBN (the classificatory mark you need to sell books and have them stocked in libraries). Unfortunately this means that they become the publisher, not you, and therefore have rights over your work. I would advise getting your own ISBNs so you can have full control and copyright of your work (they cost £112 for 10).

To create a file ready for printing you essentially create a PDF document of your book, designed and laid out as a book. This necessitates being able to use design programmes (such as Indesign). The PDF is then uploaded to the POD site who then print your book and voila! you have your own book.

While we have a method such as POD which is a walk in the park to use by comparison, why don't we have hundreds of feminist publishing houses churning out titles all the time?

POD is not necessarily easy - it is a method of printing which makes a form of media, the book, more accessible as a publishing option. When you prepare a book for publication it obviously needs to be designed well, and this takes skills that you may not necessarily have. I don't find design easy at all but luckily have been working with amazing designers who have made it look great. Also, writing books is not easy, nor is editing, proof reading or copy editing, but certain people do find these things easy, or simply have those skills and those skills can be shared.

Using POD as a way of publishing and printing books could potentially generate a culture of collective working and skill-sharing that can help create the books we want to read. It is important to not close your project off to peer support. Have as many people as possible feed into your book so it is the best it can possibly be as a reading experience. Also, make sure it looks good too, so it is taken seriously by people who are used to slick, capitalist products that we have been bombarded with. Although the latter point may seem like a shallow thing to say, we cannot discount how saturated by a product mentality most people in this society are, even so-called radical people who are aware of the way the market works! Radical literature needs to catch people by surprise. Make your product a good one with a snazzy cover!

Overall I think POD presents a real opportunity for people in groups working in low or no budget contexts to publish books. Furthermore, using the internet to sell your book and using tools such as social networking sites, enables you to publicise your book and target communities who may be interested in what you are writing about so you can potentially sell a few copies of too.

Publishing books is an opportunity to get radical political literature into the public domain. Think how technically difficult it was for women in the women's liberation movement to print and publish books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers and posters. But they did, and in mass volumes too. While we have a method such as POD which is a walk in the park to use by comparison, why don't we have hundreds of feminist publishing houses churning out titles all the time?

Many of the women involved in the women's liberation movement were concerned with creating what they defined as 'women's culture'

Women in the WLM published so much! From newsletters to political pamphlets, newspapers to magazines, posters to books, these women wrote, printed and published a wealth of material and on a wide range of topics too. Women's history, reclaiming 'lost' women writers, political philosophy, sexuality, race, class, religion and sexual/bodily health were all a part of WLM print culture, and more besides. Indulge yourself with a visit to the Women's Library or Feminist Library in London, or the Feminist Archive North in Leeds or Glasgow Women's Library to have a read through the various published material.

rollingowncover.jpgMany of the women involved in the WLM were concerned with creating what they defined as 'women's culture'. While the idea of a distinct 'women's culture' has been dismissed in certain areas as an 'essentialist' idea, this has meant that the politics of women's culture have been lost to time. Women's culture, in the context of the WLM, had specific political meanings: the creation of a self-organised, anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical, autonomous, women-positive culture which didn't seek to reform the dominant, patriarchal culture, but operated alongside it as its own legitimate cultural reality.

I will be exploring the issue of self-publishing, the histories of feminist publishing and collective working practices in an upcoming workshop at the Women's Library on Saturday, 20 March, called Self-Publishing and Liberation. The workshop is going to consist of a mixture of practical information, creative exercises and historical testimony focusing on the subject of self-publishing. The workshop has three aims: firstly, to arm people with the knowledge they need to self-publish in various forms. Second, to create space for exploring ideas about what kind of publications attendees would like to read, write and publish. Thirdly, to include historical testimony about the topic of women's publishing networks in the WLM, highlighting the importance of collective working. This is to create an opportunity to connect with an important legacy of culture making from the movement, and be inspired by the actions and working practices of previous generations of feminists. The workshop aims to shake things up a bit and get people dreaming, acting and researching the diverse histories of feminist publishing.

It is also my intention with the workshop to create a space for recasting, re-historicising and re-remembering generations of female work. I think it is in our interests to connect the current practices of self-publishing to feminist activities in the past - not only of the WLM, but to the suffragettes and even further back - it only makes feminist political actions stronger in the present. Knowing what strategies and issues were facing feminists in the past, and how they creatively dealt with them through producing their own media, may invigorate independent feminist media and publishing cultures further than what exists today.

Collectivity can lift barriers to getting our voices out there because it means that more than one person's skills are being used to steer and deliver a project

This is not to say there are not already noteworthy collective self-publishing projects within contemporary feminist networks. You need only to look at the mass of blogs whose very nature collects voices together in discussion threads, and the number of collective blogging, magazine and zine projects there are out there. Delving into feminist history repeatedly shows that feminist activists have always created their own media, because the mainstream media consistently misrepresents, distorts or simply ignores the messages of organised feminist political action.

It is therefore necessary to reinvigorate this memory and show how things can be done differently. It is important that we are not cut off from the past. There are ideological reasons why certain kinds of history are not part of what has been described as 'collective memory'. Collective memory is something that is shared and created amongst members of society, or particular groups. It is how society is constructed through what it knows is history, what it re-members. More often than not that memory reflects the interests of the dominant groups in society. That is why most public statues that you find in the UK commemorate the achievements of war-mongering men. It is not surprising then, that we continue to live in a society run by war-mongering men. I am being crude here, but public memory and history has a genuine impact on society and we need to complicate what we remember in order to realise lasting social change.

I think the current economic climate also presents a real opportunity for collective working practices of the WLM to be reinvigorated, as people struggle with the lack of professional opportunities and an increase in their spare time. Instead of getting exceptionally gloomy about this, you can instead get creative and share the skills you already have with others.

Collectivity can lift barriers to getting our voices out there because it means that more than one person's skills are being used to steer and deliver a project. Although some people are superpeople and can do everything, I think you'd be hard pushed to find someone who is brilliant at everything, and we all need a second opinion. Through working with others we become more than the sum of our parts, and hopefully we can set up informal learning structures so that specialisms are broken down and knowledge is re-distributed.

My aim with HammerOn press is to be very transparent about the process of self-publishing books in order to demystify publishing and make it more accessible to others. I believe that everyone is a cultural producer in their own right, they just may not be aware of it yet, or have found the right outlet. Knowing how to do something, or to realise it is possible, may push more people to go out there and do it.

* * * * *

Workshop details: 'Self-Publishing and Liberation' Saturday March 20th 2010 at The Women's Library. 10am-4pm.
The Women's Library, 25 Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT.

This article is the product of a written conversation with Melanie Maddison, editor of the self-published zine Colouring Outside The Lines.

About the author

debi withers

Deborah Withers is the author of Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory and founder of feminist publishing press, HammerOn Press. Later this year, Debi will be touring the UK with a performance lecture that translates material from her book into a live context. Debi is also a regular contributor to UK feminist and queer cultural activism, as singer and guitarist in the band Drunk Granny and a member of the Bristol-based queer organising collective Fag Club. Her upcoming Arts Council funded zine, Self-Publishing and Empowerment: A Resource Guide for Community Groups can be picked up at her workshops, and downloaded from her website

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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