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How many readers do you need? Kierkegaard only hoped for one

From Copenhagen on his 30th birthday (May 5, 1843), Kierkegaard wrote the following in the Preface for his first book, Two Upbuilding Discourses:

Although this little book… only wishes to be what it is, something of a superfluity, and only desires to remain in secret, as it came into existence in secret, I still have not said farewell to it without an almost fantastic hope. Insofar as it, by being published, is, figuratively speaking, starting out on a kind of journey, I let my eye follow it a little while. I saw, then, how it set out on its solitary way, or solitary set out along the highway. After one and another little misapprehension, when it was deceived by a fleeting resemblance, it finally met that individual whom with joy and gratitude I call my reader, that individual whom it seeks, toward whom, as it were, it stretches out its arms; that individual who is benevolent enough to let himself be found, benevolent enough to receive it, whether in the moment of meeting it found him happy and confident, or "melancholy and thoughtful." On the other hand, insofar as, by being published, it in a stricter sense remains quiet without leaving the place, I let my eye rest on it for a little while. It stood there, then, like an insignificant little blossom in its hiding place in the great forest, sought for neither for its showiness nor its fragrance nor its food value. But I saw also, or believed that I saw, how the bird whom I call my reader, suddenly fixed his eye upon it, flew down to it, plucked it off, and took it to himself. And when I had seen this, I saw nothing more.

Two Upbuilding Discourses

If one person reads your blog, that should be enough to keep you going.

If ten people read your blog, you should feel privileged and extremely motivated to give them better and better work.

If a few hundred people read your blog, this might seem like a trivially small audience relative to social media celebrities but it’s a large audience relative to many great thinkers in history! As I wrote about in Lessons from Nietzsche’s Awful Publishing Results, his book Human, All Too Human only sold 120 copies in the first year.

Lessons from Nietzsche’s Awful Publishing Results

“…the marketbell—The Daily Press—is only run for their own clique and not for the proud and solitary One.”

Nietzsche’s publisher Schmeitzner on the complete failure of Thus Spake Zarathustra

Independent intellectuals today should study closely one of the most profound and impactful thinkers in all of modern philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche. I’m not referring to his ideas (although one should study those, too). I’m referring to the difficulties he faced publishing his books, and their utter failure in his lifetime. All the historical facts and figures below are drawn from Schaberg’s The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography.

If you’re an independent intellectual, a review of Nietzsche’s publication history should fill you with a profound sense of gratitude and potency.

To start, consider Nietzsche’s book Human, All Too Human. When it was first published, one thousand copies were printed and only 120 were sold in its first year (1879). And that’s with the benefit of public controversy around Nietzsche’s break from Wagner and the scandal of being banned in Russia! Imagine today publishing a truly brilliant and original book, having a public and talked-about controversy with a famous and influential philosopher such as Slavoj Zizek, and only selling 120 copies! It’s unthinkable. Today, if there is anyone at all talking about your book, you will sell 120 copies at the very least. There are many reasons for this, most of them now banal (speed of information transmission, density of social networks, etc.). The comparison, however, is profound.

Next, consider that the reception of Nietzsche’s books got worse over time, which is the opposite of what happens to contemporary indie authors if their systems are set-up even 50% correctly. Nietzsche’s first book, Birth of Tragedy, made a splash: It received a polarizing but lively reception and sales were presumably healthy (I could not find quantitative sales data for that book). By the time of Zarathustra at the end of Nietzsche’s publishing career, however, Schmeitzner would write in a letter: “There is no question that the distribution of your books is getting worse.” Schaberg reports that Zarathustra was never acknowledged by “the press, the public, or [Nietzsche’s] peers.”

Thankfully, if you’re a blogger or indie book author today, it is nearly impossible for the sad fate of Nietzsche’s late works to befall your late works, unless you have zero systems in place. When you sell an indie book on the internet, you don’t just receive a bit of cash; if you sell through a platform like Gumroad, you gain a personal contact, an email address. And if you’re an open, generous person sincerely interested in your readers, many contacts even become genuine personal relationships. For these reasons, every new book by an indie author should sell at least as many copies as the previous work, and typically more. This, by the way, is why I published Based Deleuze on Gumroad first, and only published on Amazon after Gumroad sales plateaued.

But maybe Nietzsche’s small fanbase was super passionate, you think to yourself. Continuing with Human, All Too Human as an example, Schaberg documents precisely four instances of positive feedback. Two of them were personal friends of Nietzsche (Rée and Gast) and one was a lady he flirted with at the Bayreuth Festival. The only legitimate positive feedback from an objective and significant third party was from Jacob Burckhardt (most famous for his study of The Renaissance). Notably, Burckhardt called Nietzsche’s book a “sovereign book,” which would “increase the amount of independence in the world.” Personally, I think that’s wonderful praise, but even this is a backhanded compliment! He’s not saying it’s good; “independence” or “sovereign” is a praiseful way of calling Nietzsche bonkers.

On this point, the lesson is that you should prepare for nobody to care about your book, except your friends. Consider yourself blessed if you encounter even one polite negging from one smart and disinterested reviewer. Of course, you may very well enjoy more of a splash, I'm just saying you expect and prepare for... crickets.

The first year of Nietzsche’s Observations book saw “200-250” copies sold, then about 30-50 copies per year. Schmeitzner refers to this publication glowingly, suggesting that it was probably Nietzsche’s high-water mark. Based Deleuze has already beat Nietzsche’s high-water mark.

Nietzsche had to spend 881 marks of his own money to print 600 copies of Beyond Good and Evil. That’s somewhere vaguely in the ballpark of $15k in today’s US dollars. He must have turned over in his grave when Amazon first introduced print-on-demand publishing. It is now utterly unremarkable to note that anyone can publish and sell thousands of books for an up-front cost of zero dollars. But compare yourself to Nietzsche to see things with a new light. If that doesn’t give you a real jolt of intellectual virility then nothing ever will. If Nietzsche could follow through on more than 10 books, remind me again why you’re still struggling to publish one?

And then, all the little things.

To publish a book, someone like Nietzsche had to hand-write at least dozens of letters back and forth with his publisher, via snail mail. What a pain in the ass!

When there was an error in a published book—as there was with Human, All Too Human—someone had to go through all the printed books and fix the mistake with a pen, by hand. Today we just edit the file once and re-upload it to Amazon or Gumroad.

Nietzsche frequently dictated his writing, which means that another person was required to type as he spoke, often for about 2 or 3 hours every day for months at a time. Whether he or his publisher(s) paid for this labor isn’t clear. Regardless, we now benefit from computers, which can, for pennies, automatically transcribe spoken words at about 95% accuracy.

Don’t even try to tell me it’s difficult to write or publish a book, don’t even try! I will send you this blog post to shame you!

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