Original DIY: A History of Artists Distributing Their Own Work

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Jim Gaffigan recently announced that he will be producing his upcoming comedy special without the help of a studio, having been inspired by Louis CK’s similar venture from a couple months ago. While this is now considered unusual, at least outside the increasingly inventive world of music distribution, back in the day many creative types chose not to rely on industry backing to get their material out to the public — and sometimes it even worked out for the better. After the jump, we’ll show you some of the biggest self-produced works from the 18th century through the present, from books to comics and even feature films.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

Probably one of the most famous examples of self-publication’s success, Common Sense had the largest sale and publication of any book in America at the time. The 46-page pamphlet pushing American independence went through 25 editions in its first year alone, and is partially credited with inciting the Revolutionary War. So, you know, no big deal.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Whitman is remembered as the father of modern American poetry, but people tend not to remember how much of a flagrant self-promoter he was. He published the first edition of Leaves of Grass at his own expense, and did all the typesetting himself. After Ralph Waldo Emerson received a copy and sent a letter back to Whitman praising the work, he immediately published a second, much more expensive edition that was covered in unauthorized quotes from the letter, much to the chagrin of Emerson. Luckily, the risky move worked out for Whitman, because Emerson doesn’t seem like someone you would want to piss off.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901)

Of all the authors to ever get rejected, can you believe that Beatrix Potter had issues getting published? We certainly can’t, considering it’s now one of the best-selling books of all time, but apparently her work was subversive in 1901 because it was about a misbehaving rabbit and not a good, little white boy, as was the fashion in children’s books then. She went ahead and self-printed it anyway, only to have it catch the attention of a publisher at Frederick Warne & Co, who reprinted it in a trade edition. Now it shows up as a gift at every baby shower.

Virginia Woolf, Hogarth Press

Readers — and especially publishers — weren’t especially keen on the stream-of-consciousness style that defines the early modernist movement, so Virginia Woolf (whose middle name might as well be “stream-of-consciousness”) and her husband Leonard hand-published many of her first works. The company they founded, Hogarth Press, went on to publish their books and the books of their friends in the Bloomsbury group, and slowly became a legitimate business when they switched to commercial printers. It went defunct in 1946, and most of the remaining copies of books are in the hands of museum curators and private collectors.

Howard Fast, Spartacus (1951)

Fast wrote a historical novel about the Spartacus-led slave revolt in Rome, but had a hard time getting it published in the midst of the McCarthy era due to his prior involvement in the Communist Party. Refusing to abandon the project altogether, he self-published instead, the book ended up being a great success, and he continued to publish through the blacklist under the moniker “Blue Heron Press.” Fast’s Spartacus also became the inspiration for the 1960 Kubrick film and the 2004 television series.

Harvey Pekar, American Splendor (1976)

Inspired by the Underground Comix movement of the ’70s, which was the counterculture’s answer to avoiding strict comic book codes, Pekar set about writing a series of comics about his own life. The series was drawn by a number of different artists, including Robert Crumb, David Collier, Chester Brown, and even Alan Moore. Pekar continued to self publish for 17 years, and even wrote some mini-series for Dark Horse and DC Comics. A movie was made about his life and comics in 2003, starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

Jack Canfield, Chicken Soup For The Soul (1993)

Canfield was a successful motivational speaker long before he conceived of the sugary, feel-good extended Hallmark card that is Chicken Soup For The Soul, but he and his partner, Mark Victor Hanson, were told by several publishers that no one would want to read their stories. This is especially funny now that there are over 200 different kinds of Chicken Soup books in 54 different languages. The moral of the story: Never underestimate the demand for sap.

Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ

When Gibson announced that he wanted to make a ridiculously violent religious film about Jesus, shot entirely in dead languages that nobody speaks anymore, producers balked. However, Mel Gibson is Mel Gibson (which in 2002 was still considered a good thing), so he funded the movie with his own production company and distributed it himself. This worked out remarkably well, due in no small part to the film’s heavy promotion by church groups.

Kevin Smith, Red State

Smith planned to auction of the distribution rights for this Westboro Baptist Church-inspired horror film at an event to be held after its Sundance screening. However, he changed his mind mid-auction and decided to self-distribute (selling to himself for $20), much to the chagrin of the rest of the movie industry. He went on tour with the film in 2011 and released it directly to DVD soon after, where it was met with unusually mixed reviews but still received several awards and supposedly earned back its budget before the tour even began. Not bad for the guy who popularized the phrase “snoochie boochies.”

Louis CK, Live at the Beacon Theater

Louis is no stranger to self-producing his own material — hell, he writes, directs, stars in, produces, and even edits every episode of his FX show Louie. But he made headlines this past fall when he released his latest self-produced comedy special as a $5 dollar download online. The industry flipped out, but fans jumped at the chance to easily and directly support their favorite comic, and Louis made about $1 million. It was so successful that people are now calling it the “CK model.”