Saturday, March 8, 2014
Self-publishing Before It Was Cool: A Tale from the Old Days
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!
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.