Everyone is an Artist: The Rise of Self-Publishing

"Everyone is an artist" can be taken two ways: as a lament (in which case the phrase is said sarcastically with requisite eye roll) or as a celebration (in which case the phrase becomes more of a mantra one lives by, one would think, rather than spoken). In a sense, the phrase encapsulates a dilemma at the center of art's role in the marketplace. Everyone can't be an artist in the conventional model, for such a situation would no doubt collapse the value system used to stratify art. If a particular piece of art is to be meaningful, it is much more likely not to appeal to a wide audience, and if it does, the artist has sold out. Or, do as Jonathan Franzen did, and condescend to the millions of readers who found The Corrections through Oprah's book club.

But meanwhile, that conventional model may have already changed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of self-publishing. A recent New York Times article points out that the amount of self-published books increased by 181% from 2008 to 2009 for a total of 764,448 titles (by comparison, 288,355 titles were published by conventional publishers).

But it's not just the numbers that have changed (for everyone is an artist, aren't they?); more importantly, the stigma attached to self-published titles is changing as well. Virginia Heffernan writes:
In this time of Twitter feeds and self-designed Snapfish albums and personal YouTube channels, it’s hard to remember the stigma that once attached to self-publishing. But it was very real. By contrast, to have a book legitimately produced by a publishing house in the 20th century was not just to have copies of your work bound between smart-looking covers. It was also metaphysical: you had been chosen, made intelligible and harmonious by editors and finally rendered eligible, thanks to the magic that turns a manuscript into a book, for canonization and immortality.

And self-published books are not just winning in terms of numbers but also making up ground in cachet. As has happened with other media in this heyday of user-generated content, last century’s logic has been turned on its head: small and crafty can beat big and branded. As IndieReader, an online source for self-published books, puts it, “Think of these books like handmade goods, produced in small numbers, instead of the mass-marketed stuff you’d find at a superstore.”
The changing face of the literary marketplace will undoubtedly have an impact on canonization and criticism in general. But what direction will this impact take? Without expectations, rules and a jury of your peers, can anyone be an artist?
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  1. This is an interesting turn that seems to mirror what is happening in mass-media in general; this trend of increased numbers of self-produced media, whether it be bloggers, tweeters, music sharing, and now self-publishing that eats at the very fabric of mass-media production that has had power and control for centuries. I wonder if this is truly a revolutionary time upon which we will one day look back in awe and reverence.

  2. I really like your perspective on this -- especially being a self-publisher in print & online myself!


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