Roots: The spirit of self-pubbing

This spring I got a new position and accordingly my family moved to the south of the country but Tokyo still is, and will likely remain, very dear to my heart. The city really is something. And so this past weekend I was quite pleased to be there again for a conference. On my way from the airport to the hotel I spent some time at a very good record shop I know where I discovered this beauty tucked in amongst some studio albums (and apologies for the poor quality of the photo; it was taken by my crappy nine year-old flip phone as I refuse (for many good reasons) to get a smartphone):


The record is a fan recording of a show, and although there is neither date nor venue given from the set list and style I’d guess it’s from the late 70s. Taking it out of the sleeve you see that the record itself has nothing in the center section where the label goes and it appears to have somehow been re-etched onto an older record as scratched out type is just barely visible there. The Dead encouraged the “pirating” and sharing of their live shows and even had sections of the floor reserved for tapers so that as they stood there with mics high and magnetic tape running the best possible sound could be captured. It’s scratchy and there are all sorts of imperfections but listening to recordings like this is the next best thing to being there. Wabi-sabi comes to mind. On that, note the errant apostrophe in New Riders – and there’s a song title mistake in there too – but the whole thing is clearly a work of love. (Incidentally, it is considered to be against the tapers’ code of honor to sell such recordings (particularly to a retail place that will jack the price up) rather than to freely share them, but I was still happy to have found one in vinyl.) Now, at this point you might be asking yourself just what any of this has got to do with self-pubbing. On the other hand, if you suspect that I’m going somewhere with this, you might be thinking that I’m about to launch into a defense of pirating and sharing books. In either case rest assured, there is a connection to what we writers do and the control-C, control-V combo will not be lauded.

What I find underlying all of this is the ethos that says art is to be enjoyed, that it’s for the betterment of all of us and that – allowing for variance in taste – what knocks me off my feet and opens up my world might just work for you. No one celebrating this ethos talks about making money for big companies; they focus instead on the music, on the words, on the images, on the feelings, ideas, and experiences that are given and received. An artist ought to be able to live by their work, and given our current economic model this of course means making money, but within this context the many layers of middlemen are thankfully nowhere to be seen. Specifically in the case of the Dead, allowing the tapers and sharers their space and movement made the band immensely more popular than they would have been otherwise (free PR!) which fed back into attendance at their shows and album sales. Our era has downloadable sample chapters, file swapping, Kindle libraries, YouTube videos and the like but the same spirit animates all of that.

William Blake self-published all of his books in his own home, and that should hardly surprise us as prior to the 20th century the process of publishing is better described as printing. Authors, or in some cases their patrons, paid to have their works put on paper and either distributed on the street via any number of practices if the work was aimed at the general public (entertaining stories, theater tie-ins, sometimes political treatises), passed discreetly between known purveyors (secretive texts, intragroup sharings, pornography), or put up for sale at booksellers (academia, medicine, works aimed at the aristocracy). Self-pubbing was more or less the only kind of pubbing around, and even wildly unpopular books like Friedrich Nietzsche‘s still saw the light of day (and look at what’s become of him since).

There is a rich tradition to what we do, and we stand in a long and proud line of creative people who were concerned first and foremost with the production and dissemination of that which was inside them. I think this is the spirit that ought to live within our own writing, and if I someday come across a well-thumbed copy of one of my books in a box marked “FREE” that has had its original cover redone and gotten the title wrong I will grin and grin and grin. What matters most are the words, the music, images, ideas, and what they do for others; any Deadhead could tell you that.

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  1. Posted May 12, 2016 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I met the Englishman, Paul J. Rogers, I think, at Under The Bridge Guesthouse in Hongdae, Seoul, sometime in 2014.

    How are you mate?


  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 12, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Fine thanks, Richard, all things considered.
    Age grants a certain licence to be cantankerous, which, I believe, must be fully embraced.


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