What is known today as “self-publishing” was known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century as “private printing.” This meant that an author, or an author’s family member, paid someone who owned a printing press to produce a booklet of the author’s work. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers defines the term “privately printed” as a self-funded publication that was “meant for private circulation, not public sale.”
In nineteenth-century England, privately printed books tended to be produced “at the expense of the authors or of the families most concerned, and distributed exclusively among friends,” usually with fewer than 100 copies and without indices, according to Edward Porritt in an article published in the New York Times on April 22, 1899. Porritt claimed that, as of his writing at the turn of the twentieth century, this convention was changing so that “almost all” memoirs and personal papers were going through traditional editors and publishers (although sometimes not until the subject’s death).
Porritt hailed this as a helpful development for academics. He cited frustrating examples of important books such as Harriet Grote’s "Life of Sir William Molesworth" (1866), which, despite the light it shed on “English politics and party history of the epoch-making period it covers,” was privately printed and did not arrive at the British Museum Library “until about 1894.”
“The idea at bottom of this old-fashioned exclusiveness,” Porritt wrote, “was apparently that with these papers and letters, even when they dealt with the highest affairs of State, the world at large had no concern.” He explained that the move toward traditional publishing was prompted by “the development of the newspaper press” as well as increasing interest in public affairs, in democracy in England, and in writing in general. Furthermore, he said, authors found that someone was generally willing to cover the publication expenses, given the demand for the memoirs of important people on the part of public library patrons.
Books produced in small numbers are, by definition, instantly rare, but this does not mean that they are always valuable to booksellers. Their value would be partly defined by their subject material and their physical condition, according to Jeremy M. Norman’s essay “What is a Rare Book?”
Sometimes groups reprinted copies of an existing work for their own use. "The Rubáiyát" was a work of Persian poetry originally written in the eleventh or twelfth century by Omar Khayyam and was first translated into English in the nineteenth century. In 1907, the Omar Khayyam Club of America privately printed it for their own use, facilitated by the Rosemary Press of Needham, Mass.
Sometimes a privately printed work went on to be accepted by traditional publishers. When D. H. Lawrence’s novel "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" was rejected by publishers in England and the United States due to its sexual content, he paid for one thousand copies to be printed by Tipografia Giuntina in Italy in 1928. Lawrence sold all the copies, yet traditional publishers were still unwilling to print the book until 1960. Today it is considered a classic. A copy of the first edition from 1928, signed by the author, is on the market in 2014 with an asking price of $18,500 USD.
Often, the term “privately printed” implied some level of sexual content or other type of forbidden material, as was the case with "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" and also with books about homosexuality such as John Addington Symonds’ "A Problem in Modern Ethics" (1896). Some publications, like the Panurge Press books which dealt primarily with sexual material in the early twentieth century, stamped "privately printed" clearly and proudly, advertising the books as limited editions "for private collectors of erotica." The term likely had some appeal for people who knew what they wanted to buy.
Some writers had to self-publish their work, not because social convention or the law objected to the content, but simply because publishers did not find it marketable. Gillian Sutherland’s article “Women Writers and the Nineteenth-century Marketplace” in The Cambridge Quarterly indicates that the demand for poetry in England began to slow in the 1820s. Thus the writer Alice Meynell, dually hampered by being a poet who was female, privately printed her book of poetry in 1896.
The term “privately printed” was occasionally used later in the twentieth century; one example is by a scholar who used the term to refer to Ruth Johnson’s "Patchwork: Early Pioneer, Indian, and Faith Promoting Latter-day Saint Stories" (1973). By this time, however, the terms “vanity press” or, more neutrally, “self-publishing” were beginning to be used instead, especially to refer to larger quantities of printed books that authors paid to produce and then attempted to sell themselves, usually unsuccessfully.
Today, writers debate the value of self-publishing in an ever-changing marketplace influenced by new technologies. Regardless of the varying opinions about whether self-publishing is a good choice, it is something that many writers have done throughout the years. Readers should be aware that copies of historical literature marked as "privately printed" are usually rare, may or may not have been printed at earlier or later dates by traditional publishers, and may or may not be valuable.
Originally posted Feb. 10, 2013 to Helium Network.