Saturday, March 8, 2014

Self-publishing Before It Was Cool: A Tale from the Old Days

In 1855 an obscure poet named Walt Whitman self-published his first volume, Leaves of Grass. A classic was launched.

A hundred and nineteen years later, in 1974 an obscure writer named Joe Cottonwood self-published his first novel, The Naked Computer. Different outcome.

Well, okay, semi-self-published. At a San Francisco book fair I met a bearded, bespectacled young man (let's call him Manny) who was hoping to become a small publisher. Manny had just bought a used letterpress and was anxious to try it out. He would set the type himself at no cost. I would pay the other expenses: ink, paper, glue. He'd get half the books and try to sell them; I'd do the same.

By the 1970s most books were printed by offset printing, with letterpress reserved for artisanal, high quality, limited editions by small publishers. Here was an offer to produce my novel in a letterpress edition with a small publisher imprint at a very low cost. I was delighted.

So Manny went to work. Badly. With difficulties. The letterpress, in a damp corner of a garage in San Francisco, required hot metal typesetting. A flaw in the Linotype machine allowed hot metal to drip onto the feet of Manny as he was sitting at it, composing type.

Until he could repair the machine, Manny told me the book would be indefinitely delayed. Meanwhile, he showed me a few already-composed pages which contained numerous typos. When I pointed out all the transposed letters, he couldn't see them. He was simply blind to them. In retrospect, I think he was dyslexic. (At the time, I'd never heard of dyslexia.) Reluctantly he agreed to fix the errors.

Months passed. Manny could not repair the Linotype. I gave up on the book and was busy writing another. And then one day Manny called to say that his mother had flown out from Brooklyn, bringing chicken soup, and she had repaired the machine. He printed 400 copies of The Naked Computer. I paid him, as I recall, something like $450.

In classical bookbinding, several pages are printed onto one large sheet of paper, called a signature. When properly folded and combined, these signatures become the leaves of the book. Manny, I learned, was signature-challenged. Due to faulty folding, about half the copies had their pages in the wrong order or else some pages were simply missing. The remaining 200 copies were smudged and off-center. Typos everywhere. It was embarrassing.

A few copies sold at City Lights Bookstore and other shops. I even got a few fan letters. It was my first novel, and it was crappy but had (I believe) flashes of brilliance. The plot, by the way, is about a man who falls in love with his computer, which has been programmed as a female personality. Bear in mind that this was 1974!

My plot preceded Her, the Spike Jonze movie about a man who falls in love with his computer, by forty years. In fact, Spike Jonze was four years old when my book came out. Scarlett Johansson, who is the computer's voice, would not even be born for another ten years. And oh the irony—the script won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

I'm not accusing Spike of stealing my idea. I'm sure he's never heard of The Naked Computer. I'm sure many writers have had the same idea of a seductive siren-computer. But I may have been the first.

Some lessons learned. If you write a novel that is forty years ahead of its time, write it better. Avoid dyslexic typesetters. Wear shoes while operating a Linotype. Bless all handy mothers from Brooklyn.

There's one copy of The Naked Computer for sale on the Internet. The price is $131.50. Maybe I should put my two remaining copies out there. Who knows—I might yet break even.


  1. Welcome to Hollywood, Joe. An old friend of mine (40+ years) who works in the trenches with me has a story to tell. His dad was a struggling screenwriter here in LA who sold just enough to keep the mortgage paid, with the help of odd jobs here and there and a wife who worked. A studio took an option on one of his screenplays about two cowboys at the tail end of the Old West who made a career of robbing trains. You might recognize their names -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When the option year was up, the studio didn't renew it... then a couple of years later released the movie we all know by that same name.

    Who knows what really happened here -- maybe the studio screwed my friend's dad and maybe it just happened. Similar ideas do sometimes arise at the same time from disparate vectors of our collective cultural unconscious --which means sometimes a convenient coincidence really is just that -- but the timing there was awfully suspicious.

    Still, I'd say your lessons drawn from "The Naked Computer" are worth remembering...

  2. Thanks for the perspective. The timing on Butch Cassidy does seem suspicious... In my case, 40 years would be a long time for an idea to percolate through Hollywood.