Shortwave Magazine

NonFiction / Publishing

The History of Indie Publishing, Part 2

a look back over the decades
by David Niall Wilson

October 10, 2022
2,730 Words

"That’s not a real book..."

This article is part of a series. → Read Part 1

Before the actual crash of the midlist, the Internet was truly coming into its own. Online communities popped up everywhere: AOL, COMPUSERVE, Genie, and so many others. Smaller websites were able to code, or borrow code, to create message boards for groups of like-minded fans and authors. HTML became an accessible tool to a wider audience. Authors (particularly aspiring authors) began offering short stories on their websites, hoping that the blood-dripping and blinking font designs they created would help them find the readers they failed to reach by submitting to print magazines, anthologies, and publishers.

In those early days there was a lot to learn. Formatting things to be read on a computer screen in the days of early color monitors and low resolution was a problem. Readers shook their heads and ignored the digital offerings. There were minor successes, and those more adept at HTML were able to create files that could be sold and read in a more palatable format. It quickly became obvious, though, that if money was to be made for publishers and authors, there had to be a way to control it. A story posted on a web page could simply be cut and pasted into a word processor and shared.

I’m not going to go through the entire history of digital books. Project Gutenberg began scanning and providing (mostly academic and scholarly) books in the 1970s as text files. There were a number of initiatives that created books and hardware for accessing them. Sony created a Data Discman that could read books stored on a CD. None of this early stuff had any real impact on publishing. Websites, small presses, and authors began selling protected .pdf files as eBooks, but the problem with a .pdf is that it is locked into its format, font size, etc. (particularly in those early days).

Then, in 2000, Stephen King released Riding the Bullet exclusively online and sold half a million copies in less than two days. My guess is that a lot of those naysayers downloaded and read that. King has continued to be a supporter of new media and technology, but he showed that digital could provide a serious income stream, and everyone wanted to be the next to do so.

Enter In 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle Device and began selling eBooks through their website. Amazon has been a retail version of the comic book character Juggernaut since inception. The ability to carry around a single fairly slim device, the size of a trade paperback that could hold a lot of books accessible anywhere and anytime quickly grew in popularity. Many predicted it was a fad that would disappear. Others spent hours and hours on message boards jumping on every conversation that mentioned eBooks to explain why they would never buy them, and why they weren’t real books.

Don’t get me wrong, Amazon was not the only game in town. Sony had already released versions of eBooks that could be read on their Palm devices and quickly followed with a more robust device. Google was in the midst of falling into their first big copyright lawsuit by planning to scan major libraries. Much like they have done in other situations, though, Amazon focused on customers, the retail experience, and volume of content. The reason none of the other devices like Nook or Kobo have been able to grab a larger portion of the market is that Amazon started out with an overwhelming amount of content and has continued to dominate that. There is little available on any other platform that is not also available on Amazon, and often for less money.

Again, this is just background that most people already know. Let’s talk for a while about what was going on for authors and publishers at this time. It was both wonderful and ugly as hell, depending on your situation.

One thing was true then, and is still true now: if you are famous and have a huge following, innovative technologies and methods work for you. If you are unknown, you have the same issues in a digital world you had in the print world, except, there are more options. Remember, in part one I mentioned how expensive and difficult it was in the pre-digital days to self-publish, and how lucky and absolutely ruthlessly ambitious you needed to be to succeed.

No one knew the exact way forward. A few early adopters had some immediate success. Some continued, business as usual, but here is where the first big pitfall of eBooks raised its ugly head. Several of those folks set themselves up as gurus. At first, that worked for them too, because the market was very new, and their own success allowed them to push the success of acolytes. The modern flood of services, gurus, marketing services, and a dozen other “features” pounded away at the inboxes and social media feeds of new, aspiring, and even traditionally successful authors with no clue what the new digital world was about was born in those early days. The thing is, what worked for those early adopters who already had a fan base almost never worked for those without. Only the few who could be individually lifted benefited, but hordes of followers tried to reinvent those success stories.

That’s a simple truth of publishing. If someone writes a thing and it does very well, you can bet a thousand similar things will follow, some good, some awful, some parodies hoping to slide along for the ride. The best bet has always been to study the field, do what you can that makes sense, and write.

Other online eBook retailers followed Amazon. Overdrive was providing titles to libraries for download. And there were the ezines. The simple web pages shortly gave way to slightly more professional sites. Some of them were online magazines, offering stories and articles. Eventually some of those markets paid good rates and managed to earn enough in online advertising to stay afloat. A lot of authors either designed their own or got someone to design eBook editions of their older works and offered them on their personal websites for sale. There was a very steep angle of improvement in online commerce and delivery platforms. Mostly, though, this turned out to be a lot of work for little return because, as always – the important thing is a reason for people to actually search for or go to a website, and bigger sites, backed by bigger money, won that war before it even started. Visibility isn’t cheap.

Digital publishing had a rough road to acceptance. There were no NYT bestselling eBooks in the early days. There were no really good promotional opportunities either, but there was a lot of work put into creating them. Everyone knows about blog tours, and when they started out, you could get onto a blog with a decent following, or several, and they worked. A mention on one of the popular websites, Boing Boing, for instance or popculture, could lead to a lot of sales. The goal was to get people who had a large Internet following to mention you, post a link to your book, or sell you an advertisement. The road to success was paved in clicks.

Other changes took place during this period. A large number of semi-professional magazines fell by the wayside. The comic book distributors either asked for too many copies for which they would not pay for six months, and only for those not returned. The number of distributors dropped. The Internet stole a lot of attention and subscriptions dropped. Not all of them disappeared, but the huge list of viable markets dwindled to a few.

Specialty publishers were selling to an ever-shrinking market. They had signed limited editions, anthologies, and novellas, but mostly from the same old list of names out of the midlist, or from people no one outside the genre fandoms recognized. Publisher after publisher closed their doors. The authors who had ruled horror were as confused as everyone else by the suddenly non-extant midlist. A few NYC publishers kept the horror world alive, but the advances on those novels dropped down, and titles tended to disappear from shelves far too rapidly. That gap – that midlist – separated the Stephen Kings and Dean Koontzes from the rest of the pack with a very thick wall. There was still a lot of horror being published, but it was often shelved as Dark Fantasy or Thrillers. The section that used to hold all kinds of neat, raised foil titles shrank to reprints of all of the titles from the big names. It was not a great time for horror.

New publishing models surfaced around that time as well. I was a part of all of that. My company happened because I was able to write HTML code and create eBooks from a few of my own backlist titles. When I did this, other people noticed, and asked if I could do it for them. I said yes, but not for free. The thing is, I didn’t want to be like NYC, so I decided that 20% of what was made was fine. Most of the money should go to the author.

Most eBook publishers did not feel this way. Agents nabbed the rights on backlist titles from their clients. Some created their own eBook companies. They charged for covers, formatting, and anything else they could make seem beyond the author’s ability, and mostly only paid if there was a profit made, which, they didn’t really care about because they got paid up front, and then, if something came of it, they were keeping inordinately large percentages of the royalties. Publishers were not better, particularly the NYC companies. Battles over the rights to older titles became fierce. Some publishers actually did quick scans of books with no proofreading and created eBooks so they could claim a title was in print, because many of their contracts said as long as the book remained in print, they still had the rights. They also made certain to price eBooks very high so that they would not interfere with their traditional print sales. Those older contracts never mentioned electronic rights, because there was no such thing when they were signed, and these grabs were greedy, unfair, and really didn’t even give the publishers anything in return. Pro tip: those publishers didn’t care. Nor did the agents, who saw the digital world rising to allow people to bypass them and panicked.

Authors could publish directly to Amazon in digital (this started in 2007). As other retailers opened their doors, they added similar platforms. You didn’t need an agent. You didn’t need anything but a computer and the ability to do a basic format for a book. Most of what was published that did not come from NYC at that time was awful, but there were exceptions, and those exceptions were the gateway drug to independent publishing as we know it.

A lot of older authors, or authors published in the ‘70s, ‘80s and earlier ‘90s had boxes of books in their garages and attics. Many didn’t have a digital file, had not saved a manuscript (I’ll never understand this) and did not notice what was going on around them. This is how another branch of the “screw the authors” club was born. Services. We’ll format your book, publish it for you on retail platforms, even get you a print edition (still vanity at that time) all for insert exorbitant number of dollars. There were varying levels of this: “publishers,” doing books in digital, but not paying royalties until they’d collected money for covers (that sucked), editing (that rarely happened), and formatting. Bigger publishers rushed to get backlist titles into eBook and started selling, still counting sales against the advances they’d paid originally, and expecting no one would notice or call them on the fact that they had no digital rights. As I mentioned was ugly. It was also a sort of great awakening. The old model encouraged authors to write, submit, have a book published, and then leave everything from then on to the agent and editor while they wrote the next. Backlist titles were a thing the publisher simply owned, and so the draconian terms of that ownership rarely came forward.

Writing communities grew. People continued to try and find ways that eBooks could be marketed. There were print on demand publishers starting up – as usual considered stepchildren, somehow inferior to ‘real’ publishers, but they were there. In 2011, Audible formed the ACX system for audiobook production. At that time, I had partnered with narrator and now producer, mentor, and all around Mr. Audiobook Jeffrey Kafer of High Gravity Productions. We developed our own royalty sharing model. I’m still not sure ACX didn’t notice and copy it. Independent audiobooks almost require their own article, there were so many ups and downs, shifts and changes. Suffice it to say that audiobooks, previously either borrowed from the library, or bought at exorbitant prices on CD were a market that Audible owned. Their digital downloads were affordable, and they (like Amazon) grabbed a huge majority of content up front, making it almost impossible to assail their walls with a new system. ACX was the doorway allowing those without access to huge bucks and professional studios a gateway to the game.

The thing about the old publishing model is that it is designed so that you absolutely cannot succeed without a lot of money behind you. To keep the price of a book down, you have to print a certain number of books and pay for them. To do that, you have to have a viable, robust distribution system, and a way to know for certain that you will profit from the sales you manage, and the returns you have to eat. This was true of print titles, audiobooks, the most successful of the early eBooks – anything that could be published and profitable rode in a compartment of that same big money boat. Sadly, a large number of new and small publishers knew no other model and tried (with varying levels of success) to emulate the original model. The list of publishers who disappeared, quickly, in ugly fashion, or gradually is long and very depressing.

But something vital had changed. The old assumption (supported heartily by agents, editors, and big publishers), that independently or self-published works were inherently lower quality had been blasted to the dust of nonsense. Believe me when I tell you, the arrogance that used to be the norm was ridiculous. If it didn’t go through an agent to an editor in NYC and then on to the shelves of Barnes & Noble, it was clearly amateur, and only took the independent route because it wasn’t good enough. The volatility of online publishing randomly presented homemade bestsellers to the world. eBooks started to compete – and reluctantly – Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, and other review sites began to pay attention. The playing field was far from equal, but in a war with the status quo, independent publishing had managed to make it a game. Before you knew it, NYC publishers were sniping new authors and titles right off of the bestselling independent lists. This caused at least a mild panic with agents, who were finding sales of new authors’s works more difficult, because they were often not part of these successes. A publisher would contact the author, suggest an agency they worked with comfortably, and a once indie author went mainstream quickly.

There were some heroes during this period, authors like Brian Keene who stood up to the dying imprints and made a dramatic difference, fighting for rights, unpaid royalties, and exposing the darker side of that troubled time. That’s not my story to tell. For more information on the fall of Leisure Books, one only needs to google Brian Keene vs. Leisure. They will find several links to the blogs of other authors who went through the same thing - it was just that Brian stood up, took the heat, and fought the battles.

Partnered with David Dodd, and with Patricia Lee Macomber editing and supporting, we set off on our own publishing road. As usual, it wasn’t long before everything changed.

This article is part of a series. → Read Part 3


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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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