The New Samizdat

What does censored Soviet-era literature have to do with starting a new independent publishing house? Quite a lot, actually.

Samizdat is a sexy word borrowed from Russian, as its foreign-to-English consonant cluster zd unmistakably signals. But its literal translation renders a very unsexy, even dopey, notion in the anglophone world: self-publishing

Your cringe is audible all the way over here. “Self-publishing” is a polite euphemism for “vanity publishing,” which means 1) you are such a terrible writer that you couldn’t persuade even the newest, poorest, most-desperate-to-prove-herself New York literary agent to shop your manuscript around, and therefore 2) you shelled out several thousand bucks to a parasitic scammer who feeds off fragile egos and probably has a brother in the bail bond business, with the result that 3) you can hold a copy of your own hardcover, yes, but with such unbelievably lousy cover art and an unforgivable font, not to mention the too-thick, stark-white, badly laid-out pages within, that only your mom and a handful of friends highly susceptible to guilt trips are going to buy it. But they sure aren’t gonna read it. (Well, maybe your mom will.)

The funny thing is, the samizdat’s endearing virtue was precisely its shoddy production quality. In the censorious and surveilled Soviet Union, non-state-approved texts could only circulate by being re-typed with carbon paper onto wispy tissue paper, discreetly folded, and passed around to a trusted few. That’s how Dr. Zhivago began its life, and The Gulag Archipelago, too. Poland and Czechoslovakia had samizdat movements as well. In time, the very awfulness of the product became a badge of honor: proof that you were too edgy for the party-line publishers to approve.

Here’s another funny thing about the samizdat. It got famous in the West because it was the one place dissident thoughts could be expressed, and it wasn’t long before translated collections of anti-Soviet writings (such as this one from 1974 and two from 1977; see also an online archive here) got a very enthustiastic publication in the one place they couldn’t do much good other than survive—which, admittedly, is no small thing.

But samizdat wasn’t only political; or, to make the point in a Communist kind of way, it was also political precisely by also distributing explicitly non-political texts. Political extremism such as the USSR represented would not allow any corner or fragment of life not to be politicized. Hence the suppression of useless, non-political, escapist genres like science fiction, detective novels, poetry, erotica, religious works, and even accounts of UFO sightings.

I know what you’re thinking—uh, the free distribution of info on UFO sightings is not what was going to bring down the Soviet Union’s totalitarian hegemony.

But I’m not so sure.

Let me clarify: I have zero interest in UFOs. I don’t think free information about them, as such, can accomplish much if any good. But the problem lies precisely in the question of who gets to decide what counts as worthwhile information.

So, yes, there are absolutely tons of things in print (and online) that I find despicable, and even more that I find useless. I’m convinced lots of people waste lots of time reading lots of dumb shit. And yet, I champion their right to do so. Not because I think it’s a good use of their time, but because, in the end, no one else has the right to tell them how to waste their time, least of all the state, whose distinguishing feature is the monopoly on violence. I especially don’t want the violence-monopolist telling people what they can and cannot read.

Now let’s transpose some of these same issues into our own time and place.

First things first: there is simply no moral equivalence between the USSR and (for example) the United States. Hell yes, the US has done lots of terrible things in its history. It still doesn’t compare. Freedom of speech and press is encoded in the American founding documents, and it is still more successfully defended and entrenched in the culture of the US than anywhere else. Given human nature, there are always surges to shut it down, whether through the aforementioned monopoly on violence, or through social-pressure censorship, or through self-censorship. But it matters a heck of a lot whether or not you’ll be put in jail for reading Dr. Zhivago.

And yet, the nature of the beast is that power is always unequal, rents are sought, gatekeepers and tastemakers arrive to serve public and personal interests—and are accordingly limited and even blind. This applies to the publishing world as much as anywhere, and it’s extending into both audio and video media as well. So we now have the strange situation of not too little content circulating in a censorious state, but too much content circulating in a competitive state.

Various mechanisms arise to vet and promote this vast proliferation of content, but with wildly varying outcomes in terms of both quality and profit. Publishers are essentially venture capitalists or hedge fund managers, with the same rate of success: extremely low. Most traditionally published books never sell more than 500 copies. (Even mom has her limits.) The occasional insane bestseller, plus steady sales of classics and cookbooks, fund the failed experiments.

Which is why it’s time for the new samizdat. Or rather, the already well-established world of “self-publishing” could stand the rebranding moniker of “the new samizdat” to give it the sex appeal it deserves.

Here’s the thing: YouTube’s displacement of network TV and podcasts’ displacement of broadcast radio are well known and valorized. But for some reason, the older and stronger displacement of print media by “self-publishing” remains largely invisible and still has the air of shame about it. You’re cool if you start a podcast; you’re a loser if you “self-publish.”

But the tide is turning.

First, let’s acknowledge that there is a lot of shoddy self-published stuff out there. There is also a lot of shoddy traditionally published stuff out there. Yes, there are terrible cover designs. But that didn’t stop samizdats, and even they wanted to improve their look after very little time. Likewise in the capitalist world of self-publishing, where there is a booming business of freelance designers and artists doing stellar work (for example, the Reedsy marketplace), many of them refugees from an office job with one of the big-five publishers (which is down to about the big three by now!).

In fact, it was two major technological revolutions of the past few decades that made high-class self-publishing possible. The first was print-on-demand, which dropped the cost of producing even a single volume to an unbelievably low rate. And guess what? Most mainstream publishers use POD now, too. No more limited-run editions or oppressive storage costs or pulping fees for unsold volumes. From now on, nothing will ever be “out of print” again.

The other revolution was, of course, online and social media. It used to be that you needed a major publisher’s major budget to promote your work. Now you have to be a Stephen King or a J. K. Rowling to get a marketing budget at all. Most writers wanting to break in to traditional publishing will have to prove that they already have a successful platform before their manuscript will even be considered.

In other words, traditional publishers no longer have the monopoly on the print technology, and not only do they lack the monopoly on marketing but they expect the writer to provide it. In return, they will return to you about 6% of your profits. Isn’t that nice of them?

Now, if the idea of figuring out the mechanics of book layout and design and distribution depresses you, or you can’t bear the thought of hiring freelancers, or you don’t want to be your own venture capitalist so you’re happy for the publisher to keep the 94% of the profits in return for a paltry advance because after all your book is probably going to sell only as much as your mom will buy, there’s no reason not to go the traditional route. Assuming they’ll take you, of course, which is a big if.

Or you can plunge into the cheerful world of the new samizdat.

Here’s another point of connection to the old samizdat: there is no doubt a whole world of dissident political thought self-published these days, but the real driver of the self-publishing world from the beginning was genre fiction. That term of opprobrium means pretty much anything that isn’t the sort of boring literary novels that people pretend to read but don’t. The books people actually read, like romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thrillers, etc. are never in adequate supply, as far as the fans are concerned, so supply has risen to meet demand in the astounding fecundity of self-published genre writers.

Instructional and self-help nonfiction are big sellers too, allowing real experts to market their knowledge directly instead of going through a profit-grubbing middleman. (N.B. Middlemen are great when they’re actually necessary—and often they are. But they are no longer necessary in publishing.) The self-published authors who manage to hit big in both genre fiction and helpful nonfiction—such as the beloved guru Joanna Penn—earn salaries that would make a middle manager gasp.

One more bit of good news: the new samizdat is just as friendly to the 500-copies-sold-or-less book as to the outsized bestseller. Traditional publishing is always going to lean toward the latter—insofar as they can guess—and eschew the former for financial reasons. But if you’ve got a passion project and, say, three hundred people out there whose lives will be changed by what you have to share: wow! that’s three hundred lives changed. And your book published. The new samizdat loves niches and fosters uniqueness. Mainstream publishing can’t even seen niches and fosters conformist faddism.

So what we’re saying here at Thornbush Press is, hurray for cranker-outers of escapist fiction. Three cheers for readers who love the world of imagination and refuse to let their minds be colonized by what they’re told is responsible, important, and mandatory. Sure, some of it probably generates complacency and passivity—but does elite-approved, institution-sanctioned lit actually resist those vices? No way. That problem can’t be solved by restricting or enforcing what people read.

The new samizdat is the best option for ongoing freedom of thought, speech, and press.

Proponents of this new model of writing and publishing generally like to call it “independent publishing,” which does stress the note of freedom-from-constraint over vanity, and all to the good. That should probably be the standard term, burying the tarnished “self-publishing” forever.

But we’d like to urge all independent writers and readers out there to give a nod in the direction of the samizdat. Writing and reading are acts of freedom, whatever you write and whatever you read. You can compromise, you can cave, you can obey in your reading and writing life. But the actual process still takes place in the free privacy of your own mind. Freedom always starts there and works its way outward.