Privashing: A Primer

Posted by on Nov 17, 2014 in On Publishing | No Comments


By Joseph Harrington.

. . . the pretentious, universal gesture of the book . . .

– Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

“Thank you for the opportunity to review your manuscript. We received over 500 submissions for the 2 books we publish annually. There were many outstanding works among them, and the decision was extremely difficult. Unfortunately . . .”

I won’t ask you if this sounds familiar, because I know the answer. But here’s the thing: what they’re saying is true: the supply of fantastic book-length (or even chapbook-length) literary manuscripts far, far, outpaces the financial ability of publishers to get them out into the world. True, a lot of back-scratching goes on in this business. But that doesn’t mean they don’t mean it when they say they wanted to publish your manuscript, too.

I know I know: that and $8.50 will get you a small cappuccino in Brooklyn. With the number of writers increasing (thanks in part to MFA programs) and the funding for literary publishing decreasing, what’s an author to do?

Self-publishing has become an increasingly popular option that has become increasingly easy with print-on-demand. Some of us read and admire self-published books (remember that Whitman guy?); but, alas, many readers look down their nose at self-published books – and not in order to read them first. And for some authors, publishing their own manuscripts sounds like an admission of defeat.

But back in the day, many writers didn’t publish as we understand that term: rather, they followed the custom of circulating their work hand-to-hand or by reading aloud to small groups of friends and acquaintances. In other words, they didn’t publish, they privashed: they gave their work away to people they knew who actually wanted it. And those people in turn gave it (or showed it) to others.

I don’t want to put medieval and early-modern Europe forth as the Good Old Days. In part, the practice of circulating holograph manuscripts pre-Gutenberg resulted from the high price of commissioning a scribe to produce a spiffy, professionally-made manuscript – and, by the same token, the paucity of a literate audience. One can’t conceive of modern fiction without the printing press. Moreover, in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, privately circulating poems also derived from a certain hauteur on the part of the courtiers: publishing is so . . . well, so public – crass, commercial, common. Your friends might publish your work – against your strenuous objections, of course – or after your death – but a gentleman or lady never would (vide Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book”: “my blushing was not small”).

Plus la change: in 2014, the price of publishing a manuscript is high, the literate (paying) audience is small, and the process of submitting one’s manuscript for publication, often humiliating.

Privashing never went away (remember that Dickinson lady? There have been lots of others after her). But the institutionalization of creative writing, along with a few big, high-profile payouts by the commercial publishing lottery, have made book credits seem de rigueur for “serious” authors. And besides, there are so many small presses . . . each publishing one or two books per year.

To wit: I propose a renaissance of privashing – or at least, a proliferation and legitimization of same.

So, how to privash? Here are some guidelines (which I’m making up as I write):

1.) Offer to give a few people a copy of your manuscript. For instance, this might mean proffering a PDF or sound file to your Facebook friends, or a hand-copied paper version to your friend friends, or some combination thereof. Some people only show poems to relatives (another shout-out to Emily!). The important thing is that it be (a.) gratis (b.) not advertised to people you’ve never heard of (though if somebody you’ve never heard of subsequently contacts you from out of the blue to request your work, by all means send it).

2.) Make it clear that recipients should not publish the manuscript, or not publish any of it without attribution. But also make it clear that they may (and should) give or show a copy to anyone who expresses an interest in it. That’s the “circulation” part. You can ask readers to send you suggestions for revision, if you want them. You might even take the “archivist’s-nightmare” approach and have multiple versions in circulation.

3.) Read manuscripts by other privashed authors. Receive and ye shall give. And don’t foist. People should request to read the work, not the other way around. An offer is not a foist, just as a statement is not a question.

I should issue some caveats, however:

1.) If you are an untenured academic, do not attempt this at home. Publish a book with an academic press. If you can. Or, better yet, get a job that pays more, like waiting tables. Then you don’t have to depend on publishing at all.

2.) Do not expect this to make you famous, let alone rich.

3.) Mayhap no one will want it. But (a.) that’s a risk in publishing, too; and (b.) if your friends and family don’t want it, you should get new friends and family.

I should also point out that privashing carries some distinct advantages:

1.) There’s nothing to stop you from publishing the work, too. If it gets “picked up,” that’s gravy; having it in private circulation might make that outcome more probable. You can even submit the work for publication at the same time that it is in privatation. But the bottom line is that you will already have an audience.

2.) You may feel less psychological pressure to publish. I mean, why bother? You’ve privashed. Fit audience though few, baby! As a result, you can concentrate on the work itself and not spend time trying to find an agent or be your own agent. I mean, why are you writing, anyway? If you want to make money, be an investment banker. This attitude might be a kind of reverse hauteur. Or it may be just “fuck-it”-eur.

3.) No tug-of-war with editors; no proofs; no contracts. No delayed release dates; no waiting for reviews; no book tour at your own expense. No worrying the price is too high for your friends to afford. Or for you to afford.

So, that’s privashing in a nutshell. Do, don’t, or permute – but for crissakes, have fun!

Joseph Harrington is the author of Things Come On (an amneoir) (Wesleyan), a mixed-genre work relating the twinned narratives of the Watergate scandal and his mother’s cancer; it was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Bombay Gin, Colorado Review, The Rumpus, 1913: a journal of forms, Tupelo Quarterly and Fact-Simile, among others. He is also the author of a critical study, Poetry and the Public.