The history of self-publishing, like that of publishing itself, is a history of access. Who has the opportunity, skills, and resources to write, design, lay out, print, and distribute a book? And who has the means to alert an audience that a book exists, or the business savvy to make it profitable?
From the dawn of publishing to Brandon Sanderson’s record-smashing Kickstarter campaign, established authors have always enjoyed an advantage, though that didn’t make the process easy.
In 1843 Charles Dickens, dissatisfied with his payout earned from Chapman & Hall for Martin Chuzzlewit, self-published A Christmas Carol, selling out an initial print run of 6,000 copies in just weeks at five shillings a pop. Yet freed from publishers’ penny-pinching, Dickens designed so gorgeous a book—fancy bindings, gilded pages, lavish illustrations—that, despite it being an instant hit, the author barely broke even.
In the early years of this magazine, independent author-publishers occasionally received notice for their monographs, small-batch books, and privately printed volumes. But from its first “number,” in 1872, right into the late 20th century, this “weekly trade circular” mostly covered self-published work when it broke through to audiences, got purchased by a major house, or in other ways demanded attention, as in the January 1878 announcement that James Bradley Thayer’s The Letters of Chauncey Wright, with Some Account of His Life, “a privately printed volume of much interest and value,” had been placed on sale “with Henry Holt & Co., in New York, with Little, Brown & Co., in Boston, and with Charles W. Sever in Cambridge.” Sever won the bidding war, and the publication was announced in PW’s February 18 issue.
Similar success stories stud the PW archives. In 1932, in a roundup column reporting recommendations from bookstores across the country, Chicago’s Concord Bookshop touted Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, published the year before by A.C. Clayton of St. Louis in a print run of 3,000, declaring its cover “attractive for any shop specializing in gastronomic literature.” In 1936, the rollout of that epochal tome’s breakthrough second edition, published by the Bobbs-Merrill Co., caught the attention of PW’s Helmut L. Ripperger, who recounted this promotion for the soon to be bestseller: at Fox’s department store in Hartford, Conn., the book was displayed “bearing a neatly lettered card which read ‘Recipe for Orange Bavarian Cream served in our lunch room today is contained in this book.’ ”
From The Tale of Peter Rabbit (picked up by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902) to The Celestine Prophecy (bought by Warner Books for $800,000 in 1996) and Rich Dad, Poor Dad (in 2000, PW noted one million Rich Dad books in print from Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter’s Tech Press), success as an independent throughout the last century demanded putting together some kind of team, as even the most driven author can’t whip up Orange Bavarian Cream for every potential buyer.
What fascinates today is how PW’s coverage of independent and small publishers over 150 years finds the size and scale of those teams dwindling, as digital technology enabled author-publishers to take on more of the work themselves.
The Desktop Publisher Era
A turning point came in the 1970s, when self-published books, along with those from small presses, thrived on PW’s trade paperback sales charts. By June 1976, The ‘Official’ CB Slanguage Language Dictionary—first privately printed, then published by the remainder dealer Louis J. Martin Associates, had hit #1, beating out The Joy of Sex and Our Bodies, Ourselves. Indie paperbacks on niche hobby and counterculture subjects thrived, led by the likes of the enterprising Dan Poynter of Santa Barbara’s Parachute Press, which achieved success in the 1970s with titles like The Parachute Manual and Hang-Gliding—and then pointed the way forward with 1979’s The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book.
“The gaps left by the ‘mainstream’ of the industry are there for the filling by ‘little guys’ like Dan Poynter, who as author and publisher reaps all the profits,” Patricia Holt wrote in her August 1979 “View from the West” column in PW, which noted the increasing professionalism and salability of self-published books and the phenomenon that entrepreneurs like Poynter “instead of insisting that they be somehow incorporated into the mainstream of the industry, [now] insist on staying out of it.” Poynter’s Parachute Press had over a million copies of its 12 titles in print in 1979. Holt noted that the secret to his success was not just hustle and a sure sense of his market. It was technology: desktop computers with word processing and layout software. Holt concluded, “Today the lesson for anyone with something to say, the right perseverance and sense of adventure is that publishing, especially at the smallest level, is anybody’s game.”
Poynter and other ’70s self-publishers—like The Antique Doorknob author Maudie Eastland—solved the problem of reaching potential audiences by targeting hobby shops, conventions, and publications around the country, often bypassing bookstores altogether. Of course, not every independent author could pull that off: James and Peggy Vaughan’s Beyond Affairs, described in PW in 1980 as “their joint account of coming to terms with James’s infidelities,” cost its authors $25,270 to print 10,000 copies, which they then failed to get into bookstores. (Inspired by Poynter’s work and Richard Balkin’s A Writer’s Guide to Book Publishing, James Vaughan tried to get the word out, but had little luck cold-calling B. Dalton.) Persistence paid off, however, as reviews in PW (“a candid, articulate evaluation of motives for having affairs, and of their positive and negative results”) and Kirkus gave the book legitimacy, and the Vaughans scored a couple of local media appearances that captured the attention of Phil Donahue’s producers. As soon as their Donahue appearance was announced, the Vaughans found themselves hard-pressed to meet booksellers’ orders.
The Early Digital Era
Tech companies and boutique publishers have continually made it simpler and quicker for independent authors to get their work into print—or onto screens. The digital revolution didn’t begin with AOL or the smartphone. For self-publishers, it was well underway long before Adobe introduced the PDF file format in January of 1993.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, occasional hits like Richard N. Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute? and Matthew Reilly’s Contest vaulted from the ranks of the self-published into bestsellers from the big houses. But these Cinderella stories, often cited in the books and sites and seminars selling guidance to authors, were (and are) exceptions, and not necessarily representative of what self-published authors were aspiring to.
For every breakout like Jeff Smith’s Bone (independently published then picked up by Scholastic), tens of thousands of authors have self-published memoirs, novels, hobby books, screeds, tracts, and more, including vital titles (like Leslea Newman’s 1989 Heather Has Two Mommys) that major publishers wouldn’t touch. Upstart self-publishing print-on-demand businesses like Xlibris and AuthorHouse (both founded in 1997) and iUniverse (founded in 1999) weren’t in the business of selling books; instead, they sold publishing, offering authors an easy way to get a book (technically) into print.
Facing indifference from traditional publishers, the bookseller and novelist Susan Taylor Chehak (best known for Smithereens) published her nonfiction Don Quixote Meets the Mob with Xlibris in 2001. In a PW bookselling column, she described the company’s services: “I supply the manuscript, the cover art, the jacket copy, and the author photo, and they construct a PDF file that gets listed at Amazon.com, B&N, Borders, and more, and can be ordered by bricks-and-mortar bookstores through Ingram or directly from Xlibris. It would be printed on demand, as the orders came in, one book at a time.”
In her essay, Chehak exults in the ease and freedom of the arrangement, but strikes an elegiac note when considering what services she’s not getting: “What Xlibris doesn’t do is edit, publicize, or market any of the books it prints. The author is on her own. No lunches with an editor, no book tour schedules with chaperones, no TV, radio, or bookstore appearances, and no publication parties....”
That model sounds lonely, in Chehak’s cautious telling, and it hasn’t always proven profitable for self-published authors. But ’90s self-publishing certainly proved remunerative for companies printing the books, enough so that by the early 2000s Borders, Random House, and other major players had purchased stakes in these companies—or launched their own operations. The New York Times reported in 2004 that Xlibris, iUniverse, and 1st Books (which later became AuthorHouse) had “produced more than 45,000 titles so far, at a cost to authors of from $459 to $1,900.”
Independent authors still needed a team, but it was getting cheaper.
The Kindle Era
Looming over all of this history, of course, is Amazon, that disrupter of disrupters, whose soon to come dominance over this sector is undersold by the Sept. 10, 2007, PW headline “Amazon to Try Self-Publishing.” Amazon, which launched its first Kindle device just two months later, started with a somewhat traditional print-on-demand service through its CreateSpace e-store, offering authors print copies through its Books on Demand service, marketing and design help from its BookSurge service, and a promise to take only 30% commission on net receipts.
The megaretailer was experimenting with Kindle Direct Publishing, a service that allowed authors to upload e-books into the Amazon ecosystem to be purchased for Kindle devices (and, later, for Kindle apps). E-books in general (and KDP in particular) liberated authors from the expense of printing, upending a self-publishing business model that had only been around since the late ‘90s. KDP didn’t sell authors the opportunity to have a book in print; instead, it takes a cut when an author’s e-book is actually purchased.
Suddenly, a booming business boomed even more so. Bowker reported in late 2012 that the number of self-published books published in the U.S. had risen by 287% since 2006. Soon, a new contingent of self-publishing companies and platforms dominated: Lulu debuted in 2002, followed in 2007 by Scribd, Authors Solutions, and Amazon’s KDP, soon followed by competitors like Smashwords in 2008, Ingram and Lightning Source’s IngramSpark, which formed its current iteration in 2013, and the now-defunct Apple Books, which launched in 2010 and shuttered in 2018.
As more self-published titles (Christopher Paolini’s Eragon; E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey; Hugh Howey’s Wool; William P. Young’s The Shack) became bestsellers, the number of authors choosing to share their work on these platforms surged. In 2017, Bowker tracked over one million self-published titles. Some of that flood of titles have been profitable for their authors: Amazon reports that more than 1,000 KDP authors earned royalties surpassing $100,000 in 2020.
To keep up with these trends, PW instituted its PW Select package in 2010 and its BookLife program in 2014, which offers authors information about creating and marketing books. The annual BookLife Prize and the Selfie Awards followed in 2016 and 2020, respectively, and the BookLife Paid Reviews kicked off in 2019. On March 19, PW launched its first Indie Author Forum, a daylong digital event dedicated to “Expert Advice on How to Self-Publish Your Book.” One strategy the panelists covered is the lesson Dickens learned almost 180 years ago: just because you have access to a platform doesn’t mean you don’t need help.
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