Self-Publishing Birders

Self-publishing acquired a vague, unpleasant odor somewhere along the way. Like a cowbird, it’s just not entirely respectable. That may be changing with the advent of new technologies that allow books to be published on demand. What’s more, the internet, fascinating blogs like this one, and the increasing difficulty of getting an old-fashioned publishing house to actually publish something you wrote may soon return self-published books to respectability.

Nowadays, it takes months or years just to find an agent whose job it becomes to deposit your manuscript with publishing houses. Gone are the days when new authors just sent off a manuscript to a publisher and waited for a response. Do that today, and your manuscript ends up in a “slush” pile where someone barely out of college and barely above minimum wage reads it before consigning it to history’s rubbish heap.

It’s a small step from the slush pile to the rubbish heap.

This week we acquired a new copy of Audubon’s Birds of America to sell at the store. It is a beautiful book and expensive. $175.00, if you must know, and worth every penny. Fine binding, high quality paper, and exquisite reproductions make it a marvelous book to have around. Ours is the Roger Tory Peterson edition published by Abbeville Press for the Audubon Society and known as a “Baby Elephant Folio” edition.

But the first edition was self-published by Audubon himself. In four volumes. If you could find those on the market today, they would cost a lot more than $175.

Known as the “Double Elephant Folio” and priced at $1000. when it came out, each page was 29 ½ inches by 39 ½ inches and just one of the volumes weighed fifty-six pounds. Printed from exquisitely etched copper plates, the images of the birds were life-size. Especially tall birds, such as the flamingo in the photo below, were painted with their necks bent to the ground so they would fit on the pages. Audubon invested about $115,000.00 of his own money to get Birds of America published.

After Audubon died, his widow sold his original paintings to the New York Historical Society for $4000. For the next 100 years the Society kept them in the basement. Many of the original copper plates from which the first edition was self-published by Audubon himself were damaged in a fire and others were given away. Some were sold to a smelter! Fortunately, the fourteen year old son of the owner must have been a birder because he realized what they were and saved about thirty-six.

About one hundred thirty sets of the complete first edition are still in existence, the others broken up. Twenty-years ago a broken set fetched $4 million at auction.

That’s why we always back-up our blog posts. You never can tell . . . .

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