400 Years Of Publishing and Hardly Anything has Changed for Authors!

We live in a world of progress, from the Pony Express to Skype; from covered wagons to planes and drones; from long hand-written scrolls to today’s instant messaging through texts and e-mails. I’m sure our ancestors would faint from shock at traveling down the highway at 80 MPH, or being able to talk to a loved one through cell-phone face time, or share pictures and news through Facebook. I used to wonder at all the progress my own grandmother witnessed in her lifetime, and now I realize how much I’ve seen in my own lifetime. My grandsons actually ask me what it was like before TV or computers – (and yes, TV was in its infancy when I was born – and I wrote my first few books by hand and then with an old-fashioned typewriter). Things happen so fast nowadays that two days after you buy a new computer it’s already out-dated. There is a reason most appliances come with just a one or two-year warranty. It’s because they are considered “old” anyway after that length of time.

Then, of course, even certain ways of life have greatly changed – dress codes – the words we use – the rules of dating – how we cook/eat – how intimate and explicit we get with movies and writing – the list is long.

Recently I was looking through some of my hundreds of resource books, and I came across one I have had for years but have hardly ever used. It’s called the FAMILY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN HISTORY and was published by Reader’s Digest in 1975. As I fanned through the book, I saw that it listed everything from famous people (like Samuel Adams), themes (like Agriculture), and events (like the birth of AA) … to Frank Lloyd Wright, Working Man’s Party and World War II. Then I came across a subject that surprised me regarding how we, as writers, have made little progress in how we are treated/paid for our unique talent.

(I should note here that the following facts came from the above encyclopedia, so in a few places I have used these facts word-for-word.)

As an author, one of the headings in this encyclopedia - Book Publishing - attracted my eye. It covered the history of publishing, and I was amazed at how little has changed for authors when it comes to publishing and payment, even though the first book published on the continent of America was a Spanish catechism issued in Mexico in 1539 on a press brought overseas from Spain. For years most books published involved religion, and gradually, as publishing came to the Colonies, Philadelphia became a center for publishing (circa Benjamin Franklin and his 1700’s print shop that put out books like POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC).

By 1762 books were being published in all thirteen Colonies, and although still mostly about religion and law, genres were moving into the “delicate” and (for some) “forbidden” topics of things like MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE (also known as FANNY HILL) by John Cleland. (And they claim romance and erotica are something new!) In 1817 James Harper opened a print shop in NYC, and in 1840 George Palmer Putnam also opened a publishing house there. Today, as we all know, NYC is the primary center for publishing houses. The Book-Of-The-Month Club was founded in 1926 and the Literary Guild in 1927.

Putnam was one of the first publishers to offer a royalty to writers, at that time 10% of the price of the book. Just that one piece of information should be a clue to where I am going with this blog … In the 1840’s authors were being paid 10% royalties, while today the average royalty is 8%, and for some, only 6%. Little to no progress!

In the mid-1800’s books were mostly printed according to number of actual orders rather than printing however many a publisher “thought” they might sell. (Sound familiar? Think “print on demand” from Amazon as opposed to print runs based on “hopeful” sales). Again, little progress.

Until the mid-nineteenth century most American authors published at their own expense. (Sound familiar? Think independent authors writing for Amazon and spending their own money on promotion.) Yet again, little progress.

When American publishers finally began to publish books at their own risk (expense), they were generally paid no royalties until they first sold enough books to recover their initial investment. (Sound familiar? Today, many authors get no advance at all, and if a writer is lucky enough to get one, they must earn out that advance before they are paid any additional royalties.) Thus, most writers for traditional publishers wait anywhere from six months to two years or more to see any more money for their book other than that initial advance, which is why – if you are offered an advance - you should get as much money as possible “up front.” That’s where a good agent can be a big help. Still, little has changed in that department.

In the 1970’s the trend toward “bigness” took hold and smaller publishers sold out to bigger ones, while smaller, more local distributors sold out to much bigger distributors. (Sound familiar? There was a time when most authors knew their local distributors and established a relationship with them.) I remember when I could go to a distributorship and sign 300 – 400 books so they could advertise them as “signed copies;” and days when I would set up signings at numerous book stores through a local distributor. Try finding a distributor anywhere near where you live today. I have no idea where, how and through whom my books are distributed any more. And sometimes if I can find that info, it’s a distributor I’ve never heard of and they are too far away to go there and meet anyone. In this case, we have gone backward rather than forward.

I found it interesting that in over 400 years of publishing, royalty percentages have actually gone down, or in the best case, stayed the same; and that 200 years after most American authors published at their own expense, a good many of them are doing so again today! Amazon has it right – print a book BASED ON ACTUAL (PAID FOR) ORDERS. No guessing. And authors are better off writing independently. The big difference between today and 200 years ago is that we have a magnificent venue for promoting our books … THE INTERNET!! We have Goodreads, Facebook, web sites, Twitter, Snap Chat, Instagram, blogs (including bookstore blogs and fan blogs), on-line newsletters – the list is very, very long. So although little has changed in how publishers choose to pay us, or even in turning to self-publishing, we enjoy one thing that is the result of all this tremendous progress … Cyber World, Amazon, e-books, e-readers, and a hundred different ways to reach readers all over the world!

I can’t even allow myself to dwell on where my sales would be today if I’d had all this free “world-wide” advertising back in the 80’s and 90’s! It’s too depressing to think about. But at least today I find my numbers through Amazon far exceed my sales through traditional publishers. Some things never change; but thank God, because of progress, it’s simple circumstances and opportunities that change.

Yes, there are many, many more books “out there” now, making it harder to be “discovered,” but then again, “back in the day” our promotional options were next to zero, and what options we did have (like magazine advertising or the media) were horribly expensive and/or time-consuming. Some of us who have been around for many, many years remember constantly staying in touch with book stores and distributors in an effort to set up book signings as a way to reach the public. For the most part, signings are pretty worthless today as far as promotion. If you aren’t Nora Roberts, your signing will do little in promoting your sales. On top of that, the number of book stores has dwindled, so your choices of venue have also dwindled.

We are in the age of the internet, and although I remember once thinking e-books would go nowhere, and thinking a web site was not necessary, today I am one hundred per cent in favor of using every internet option possible to promote my books. Who cares if traditional publishers haven’t changed in all these years? Our publishing OPPORTUNITIES have changed. Today’s new authors have opportunities we “old gals” never had. And apparently the publishing industry itself hasn’t changed in hundreds of years and probably won’t change much in the future. So, TAKE ADVANTAGE of all the new avenues out there for getting published and being successful at it. GO FOR IT! And good luck!

Are You a “Writer-Holic?”

I’ve always had a somewhat addictive personality, which is part of the reason I don’t drink. I quit smoking about 50 years ago (boy, that’s a hard one!). If I have surgery or some other reason for pain pills, I stop taking them as soon as I can. I once took pills for depression but didn’t like what they did to me (no feelings at all!), so I weaned myself off of those too. I’ve never EVER tried street drugs because I’m terrified what they would do to me. I’ve never even smoked pot, and I come from the 60’s generation. I also tend to be a “shop-a-holic,” and I actually turned to shopping once when life handed me a big blow that was hard to deal with. Shopping helped me forget my troubles and new clothes and jewelry made me feel good … but the shopping got me into credit card trouble, so I’ve stopped that too … well … at least not the big stuff. It’s still hard for me to turn down a great deal!

When life hands us some unexpected events that are hard to deal with, it’s so easy to turn to whatever makes us feel great and forget our troubles. I can most certainly attest to that. But there is one habit that comforts me that I’ll never give up, and that’s WRITING! I recently posted a blog about how writing can be a catharsis, a form of meditation and medication. I guess this blog runs along those same lines, but it’s because writing is something I could NEVER give up, I’ve realized that it’s another one of my “addictions.”

And what a wonderful, pleasant, soothing addiction it is!! Something recently gave me another blow to my emotions – such a blow that for the last two months I haven’t written a word. But things are better, and time is a BIG healer. I am treading lightly as far as feeling confident our troubles are over and taking one day at a time, rejoicing in each good day. For a while I thought I might never write again … but how can I stay away from the most wonderfully healing habit I have? WRITING!

I’ve been posting weekly excerpts from THE LAST OUTLAW, my fourth Outlaw book coming in September, and that has been a big help in making me want to get back into writing. I’m having fun reading through the MS and looking for some good excerpts to share with my readers. As I do so, I find that revisiting one of my stories has reawakened that need to write. I am planning the first chapter to a new book I proposed to my publisher (still waiting to hear from them) and I’m ready to work on some books I want to write strictly for Amazon. My Amazon book CAPTURE MY HEART sold in really great numbers, so now I’m excited to write more books strictly through Amazon rather than a publisher. I hope to continue with Sourcebooks and that eventually they will take a fifth Outlaw book, but whatever happens, I will KEEP WRITING as long as my body and brain allow it. Of all the addictions a person can have, I can’t imagine any as wonderful and fulfilling and comforting as WRITING.

Are you addicted to writing? More power to you! Don’t break the habit!

Writing Can Be Your Meditation

At first I was going to call this blog Writing Can Be Your Medication, but I realized that meditation is a better word. I can’t count the number of letters and e-mails I have received from grateful readers who have told me that reading my books helped them through bad times, whether emotional upheaval or surgery or an illness. I am always grateful in return to hear their comments. It makes sitting for hours at a time in front of the computer and pulling ideas and plots from my often-tired brain worth the effort.

The Dangers of Writing a Series

Anyone who has been reading Rosanne Bittner for the past 30 (+) years knows how much I like to write series-type stories … family sagas that take you through 30-45 years with the same hero and heroine and their family. My first series was SAVAGE DESTINY, seven books about the settling of Colorado and how white settlement affected the Southern Cheyenne. Through writing those books I fell in love with the hero, Zeke Monroe, and he has lived in my heart ever since.

Retaining Your Inspiration

The Free Dictionary describes inspiration as “the excitement of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity.” Nothing could better describe the feeling a writer has when a new idea hits, or he or she comes across a specific subject or character they just know they should write about. I have always said to “write from the heart,” because it is in our hearts we harvest the inspiration for the stories we want to write. And the more “inspired” you are about your story, the better it will be. 

PTSD – Yes, Even Writers Get It

Image result for writer emotional

Fellow Mid-Michigan RWA member and good friend Lucy Kubash recently e-mailed me a copy of an article by author Jeanne Kisacky, who writes non-fiction and teaches college. The article was called “Writer Unboxed: Post-Project Depression and Recovery.” She posted it on her blog February 21, 2017.

Oh, Mighty Mountains!

High! Rise high, you mighty mountains!
Reach for the heavens, you bastions of the West!
Undefeatable are you! Magnificent! Stalwart!
Your granite rocks and shale walls live on!
Through war and pestilence, through famine and flood, 
Through crime and hate, through bloodshed and death, 
You live on!

Whispers of Summer

I have many more poems to share over the next several weeks, but since it is winter here in Michigan, I decided on this one for now. I wrote this while working for the manager of the D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, Michigan. There was a time when big companies had their own small newspapers or newsletters. At that time they were called House Organs. Wherever I worked I always contributed to the company house organ because deep inside, years and years before I wrote books, I had that need and desire to write, so I started with poems, which is why I have so many of them. This one fits the season.

Whispers of Summer

I walk knee-deep in the snow and gaze at black, naked trees.
And, as the sharp winds they blow, I think of daisies and bees.

I close my eyes and I think of green leaves, grass, and sand,
Of fragrant roses of pink, and peaches freshly canned.

I brush the snow from a bike and see my child riding free,
Sweating and laughing and playing, with glee!

I dig to find dirt ‘neath the snow, But it’s frozen and hard and dead.
Then I think back and I glow with the thought of warm earth instead.

As the gray clouds break apart, I raise my face to the sun;
And with a slightly sad heart, I see days of swimming, cookouts and fun.

How sweet the bird when he sings! How lovely the scent of a flower.
How nice to smell the sweet spring, and to lie in the grass by the hour.

That first snow is exciting and fun, and for Christmas we want it around,
But then we remember the sun, and soft, green grass on the ground.

It’s now, when we’re tired of the snow, that whispers of summer will call.
They nudge us, and taunt us, to show us that summer’s the best time of all.

© Rosanne Bittner 2016

Days Gone By

For some reason I have always been fascinated with the past, or rather, what might have been or could have been … what has been lost through progress … the mystery and memories of those who once lived. The following poem reminded me of how nostalgic I am about the subject, which is probably why I prefer to write historical rather than contemporary stories. This is another poem I wrote a good 45 years ago, and it shows me that even then I was imagining what life was like in days gone by. I think it’s sad that too many people have been forever forgotten.


I saw an old, old house today.
The wood was worn and weathered gray.
In the gaping windows there was no glass.
It seemed a monument to the past.

I wandered to the barn out back
With its sunken roof, tar-paper black.
The weeds grew to my waist, and bees
Buzzed by to rest on sweet-flowered weeds.

I dared not go into that barn,
But I saw signs of a one-time farm.
An old, rusted plow sat just inside,
With harnesses for horses that long-since died.

All was peaceful and quiet there.
No worry, no hurry, not a care.
Not a thing was heard for miles around.
The birds and the breeze made the only sound.

I wondered who had once lived here,
Perhaps with family they held dear.
I tried to vision things way back then,
Who toiled on this old farm, and when?

Progress never will replace
That special look on an old farmer’s face.
It cannot bring back, with its fast, new pace
A people and heritage so silently erased.

© Rosanne Bittner 2016

War's Children

I wrote the following poem in 1981, 35 years ago, and in reading it I realized nothing has changed in all those years or even in the last 500 or 1,000 years. Man always seems to find a way to make war, and the primary victims of war are children … children! Those in power seem not to care about them. When our own government made war on our Native Americans, too many children were simply shot down as though they were nothing more important than rabbits. Recently we’ve seen the horrific suffering of children in Syria … unforgivable abuse and annihilation. It blows my mind what some men can do to children without concern. As you can see from this thirty-five year old poem, nothing has changed. The sad part is, it probably never will.

War’s Children

I saw a little boy one day …
His clothes were torn and dirty gray.
His feet were bare and looked so cold.
An old, broken toy his hands did hold.
His many tears had made long streaks
Of salty pathways down his cheeks.
A look of fear shown on his face,
Where laughter should be … there was no trace.
His little body looked hungry and sore.
On neglected wounds, ragged gauze he wore.
He was lost and alone, nowhere to go,
His little face had lost its glow.

He had no family, no next of kin.
They’d all been killed, except for him.
He sat alone, so very confused.
No one had claimed him, hospitals refused.
I wonder if he’s still alone,
That little boy just barely grown.
Somewhere tonight a child will roam,
No food, no clothes, no love, no home.
How many others are there like him?
Small ones who suffer from our sin!
War has its price for everyone …
But not so costly as for the young!