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!

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