Shortwave Magazine

NonFiction / Publishing

The History of Indie Publishing, Part 1

a look back over the decades
by David Niall Wilson

October 3, 2022
2,275 Words


Publishing in the Darker Ages

The face of publishing has been completely erased and redrawn many times in the last three or four decades. The basic structure of publishing, with much groaning and stretching, has shifted in ways that render it barely recognizable to those of us who were around during its earlier iterations. This is the first of three articles intended to be a high-level overview of change. I’m certain I will miss things. I am equally certain things that I will say will not make some people happy along the way, but these are my experiences. My first sale was somewhere around 1987, a poem titled, ironically, “A Poem,” sold to a mimeographed ‘zine titled The Body Eclectic. I was paid a dollar, and a copy of the issue it appeared in. I was very, very pleased.

In the mid-1980s, the traditional publishing model ruled. You needed an agent unless you met or knew someone and were incredibly lucky. Those agents, and editors, determined for generations what America would read, and who they would like. You only need to glance at the numbers of books currently being written and published in these days of print on demand and self-publishing to understand how many were lost during that period, or never written because the odds were so stacked against new authors.

The contracts were draconian. Rights were grabbed for ridiculous lengths of time. Authors were dropped midway through trilogies and series and were never able to regain the rights to their earlier books, leaving them unable to finish their work (and gaining nothing for the publisher who was just hedging bets against some never-to-happen movie deal they might cash in on). That was the big publishers. What happened was, authors, writers, and creatives started to connect and branch out. The tiny, mimeographed magazines were joined by better formatted versions, and then new semi-professional markets with colorful covers and distributed through the same venues as comic books. I was part of that – I published a Magazine called The Tome in the early 1990s, but more on that later.

Writer’s organizations began to grow and flourish. The SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) was an early entry, founded in 1965. In 1985 they were joined by the Horror Writer’s Association (Originally HOWL). It was filled with the bestselling horror authors of the day. Early presidents included such names as Dean Koontz and Charles L. Grant. I joined around 1987 after taking a course with author J. N. Williamson through Writer’s Digest Magazine.

Much like it has in the present paradigm, short fiction became the route to success. Anthologies abounded, often with a couple of well-known names as anchors, and they sold to the major publishers. At the same time several specialty presses surfaced, building their reputations and business through signed, limited editions by famous authors, and bringing in new names as authors made reputations writing for the suddenly burgeoning magazine market, and in the glut of anthologies. Horror was hot.

Along with the big organizations, a smaller, but very important one came into being. The SPWAO (Small Press Writers and Artists Organization). This was early community. This was the Twitter and Facebook of its day. There were message boards, and people were beginning to use home computers and modems to connect, but there was a huge web of snail mail, phone calls, conventions, and local writers’ groups drawing on one another for support.

Let me put writing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in perspective for you: If you wanted to submit to a major publisher, you needed an agent. You could send an un-agented manuscript in, but it would sit – forever – until you got a form rejection, or they admitted they lost it. There were, of course, exceptions, but their rarity is what makes them exceptions. There was a path to publication, but it began in the small press.

The horror boom of the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s helped with this a little. With Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and others suddenly breaking sales records, horror was hot. Publishers rushed to put together new imprints with crazy skull images and gaudy raised foil covers. The quality of the writing varied widely because this was a key break in the traditional publishing machine. This was the point where marketing and sales took the reins. They needed books, and they needed them fast. Some of them caught on and hit big sales numbers, others sold enough on their covers to make money for the publisher and be pulled within a few weeks of release, but it was big business.

I’m not going to go on at length about this. It both boosted and killed horror over a period of years. It was a lot of fun. A lot of people made a lot of money. The midlist authors of that day were making more than enough on a couple of books a year to survive. Unfortunately, marketing and salespeople were a poor choice to steer the ship, and quantity over quality eventually bottomed it all out. I’ll insert one quick personal note here, because I have a good example of the situation.

My early writing career took off while I was still serving in the U.S. Navy. I published my magazine The Tome from the decks of the USS Guadalcanal. I wrote my first novels and tons of stories on that ship. And, at that time, I had an agent. That agent mostly dealt with romance, but she handled some friends of mine, and they made the introduction. Then I went to sea. In the middle of the ocean, with a finished manuscript sitting at my house. I got a letter from that agent. “Do you have anything? Anything at all that’s finished? I was just talking to an editor, and they have a slot…”  A slot. Not, they are interested in you – they need a good book – but a slot. I missed that slot, and who knows? I might have been one of the midlist authors who weathered the storm… I might not have been. As it turned out, that agent never sold anything for me, which is good. She was embezzling from her clients and wound up in prison. I could do an entire article on my relationships with the various men and women who “represented” me but that would be a very depressing bit of writing. The point is, the midlist died because, despite the many very talented people involved, there were a lot of other people involved, and to put it bluntly, they were not very talented. People noticed, and slowly sales fell off. Sales and marketing turned toward “the next big thing,” and horror returned (for a while) to the back shelves.

Getting back to the life of a writer in those times, though, let’s talk about the markets. To find markets looking for fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or whatever, you needed to subscribe to one of several newsletters. Janet Fox’s Scavenger’s Newsletter. Kathy Ptacek’s Gila Queen’s Guide to the Markets, and or several others. Writer’s Digest published annual market lists, but they were notoriously out of date and not very reliable. At about this same time, bulletin boards like Genie and services like AOL became home to authors, artists, and publishers. I sold my Star Trek novel because I happened to be online when editor John Ordover announced they were looking for books for the new series, Voyager. I got in way ahead of the rush. Things were slowly changing but…

The world of a writer in those days was one of printed manuscripts, manila envelopes, self-addressed stamped envelopes, and waiting. There were no e-mail submissions. There were even markets that would not accept your manuscript unless you paid what amounted to a lot of money in those days for a better-quality printer. If you couldn’t afford that, you had to use a typewriter to type the manuscript, be it short story or novel. You had to correct using white-out, unless your typewriter was modern enough to have an auto-correct function. Once you had that manuscript in as clean a form as you could get it, you hoofed it on down to Kinkos or some other print shop and paid to have copies made. You had to have a quality copy at all times so that, if you needed it, you could make another copy, because the alternative was typing the entire thing again.

The reason that standard manuscript format has always been double-spaced is because agents, editors, etc. needed the extra room to hand-edit the printed manuscripts. Taking a story as an example, you would type a cover letter to whatever market you wanted to submit to. You would place that letter with the printed manuscript in an 8 ½” by 11” manila envelope. Depending on whether you needed that copy of the story back, you would either include a folded, self-addressed manila envelope with postage for its return, or would include a letter-sized envelope for their response (also stamped and self-addressed). Response times varied, but you were looking at weeks at a bare minimum, and often months.

While that story was out, you wrote more. Constantly. I remember having as many as twenty-five stories circulating, moving from market to market, editing things if I believed feedback was valid. That was the grind. You had to train yourself not to obsess over the mailbox, but to keep working. It’s a philosophy that would also serve well today. Even when you got an acceptance, most of the magazines were quarterly. About half of them, maybe more, paid on publication, not on acceptance, so you might get your acceptance and still wait months to be paid. You just kept writing, and each time the mailbox coughed up a positive, you cheered inwardly, celebrated briefly, and rolled on.

That is a very high-level overview of a working writer’s life. It was largely solitary, with huge bursts of inspiration and community coming from conventions. That was the positive side. There is always a negative. No matter what period of publishing you are talking about, there have always been a large number of parasites hanging on, trying to take advantage of those who only want to create. In those days, the biggest offenders were vanity presses, and manuscript services. The back of Writer’s Digest magazine was filled with advertisements for them. They showed up in major publications, sometimes in your mailbox. There were also a lot of “contests” that cost money to enter, and even big poetry volumes you got accepted to, but had to pay to get a copy.

The vanity presses called themselves publishers, but they charged exorbitant fees for every aspect of the process. People were suckered in for thousands of dollars, and what they got in the end was a book with no promotion, no distribution, and no chance of ever recouping their loss. Manuscript services promised to revise, copy-edit, proofread, and prepare your manuscript. They did all of this, for a price. They charged as much for their services on a short story as a new author could expect for a novel advance, and they operated just within the limits of the law, making it impossible in most cases to free yourself from their contracts. A lot of those vanity publishers and services are still in operation, and people are still getting suckered, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, self-publishing was not the option that it is now, and a great number of authors were drawn in and nailed to the wall.

To publish a book in paperback or hardcover on your own, you had to have it printed by an offset printer. You had to get your layout done using much more difficult software than is available today, like Quark, or PageMaker, neither of which was cheap, or user friendly. You had to provide photo ready copy and a cover or pay the printer to help you create it. There was usually a minimum number of copies you could print, and you took them all at once (which is how so many garages around America filled up with boxes of unsold books). Then you had to sell them.

There was almost no way to get any sort of traditional distribution for an actual book, unless you were at the very least a small press publisher with an agreement through Diamond (a comic distributor) or several other smaller companies. Your best bet was to get copies of lists of addresses, and mail queries and copies to booksellers. You could travel to conventions and peddle them from a dealer’s table, but most conventioneers wanted autographed books from guests of honor, not a self-published book by someone they did not recognize. It was a serious stigma to be self-published in those days, because the product and writing were almost universally considered to be lower in quality, and the price you had to charge just to break even was higher than a mass-produced New York City publisher. In other words, unless you were incredibly dedicated, had the money to see it through, and the time to self-market, it was not a real option, though many people pursued it. There were more boxes in more garages.

It was a very, very different publishing world back then, not harder, really, but the challenges were different. The mindset was different. The expectations? Probably about the same, but there is just no clear comparison. This will continue in part two, the rise of digital publishing, with its new pitfalls, dangers, success stories and growing pains.  Thanks for reading.

This article is part of a series. → Read Part 2


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About the Author

David Niall Wilson is a USA Today bestselling, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of more than forty novels and collections. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association and CEO and founder of Crossroad Press Publishing.

His novels include This is My Blood, Deep Blue, and many more. Upcoming works include the collection The Devil’s in the Flaws & Other Dark Truths, and the novel Tattered Remnants. His most recent published work is the novel Jurassic Ark – a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story… with dinosaurs. David lives in way-out-yonder NC with his wife Patricia and an army of pets.

Copyright ©2022 by David Niall Wilson.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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