Challenge,  Fun Stuff

Some Publishing History

I Tried And Mostly Failed…

To get the importance of publishing history across to the young fiction writers at Writers of the Future. Here is a tiny part of what I said in a rushed fashion, I am sure I was skipping parts.

Note: I am only talking about commercial FICTION!!

Note: I am only talking about distribution and business structure of commercial FICTION!!

In general, fiction publishing distribution patterns and delivery systems tend to run in 50 year cycles.

Post Civil War (in this country) was the Penny Dreadfuls, Dime Novels, and Journals. They were slowly being replaced with pulp magazines around 1900 and were mostly gone (with few exceptions) by 1920.

Pulp Era lasted from the 1910 or so to the last breath in 1958. The remains of the Pulp Era today are Analog, Ellery Queen, and F&SF and a few titles that take old pulp names and continue on at times like Amazing and Weird Tales. They are modern magazine formats, though, not pulp magazines.

The rise of the paperback era sort of sputter-started in 1939 but exploded in the late 1950s and lasted solidly until 2007. This was also the rise of the mega corporations controlling the upper levels of distribution of which 5 corporations remain now of the thousands and thousands in the 1960s.

In 2007 (actually the Kindle Christmas of 2008) the electronic era started. And traditional publishers ignored it for the most part and thus the rise of the indie movement to fill the gap.

Every transition in fiction publishing took about 25 years to go from the start of the new era to the major finish of the previous distribution and delivery to readers systems.

For example, paperback companies (and what became known as the trade channel) sort of started in 1939, grew through the war years, and then dominated by the early 1960s after the distribution collapse of 1958.

Even though electronic distribution was sputtering for years through the 1990s, the real start wasn’t until November 2007 and the real, real start wasn’t until Christmas season 2008.


In 2009, electronic distribution and indie publishing were maybe less than a fraction of 1% of how fiction readers got their books. But over the last 14 years it has grown by leaps and bounds as traditional publishing pushes more and more writers away and makes entry for new writers almost impossible.

And even worse, the traditional publishers far, far overprice electronic books in an effort to defend their big hardback books, thus pushing readers more and more into the indie writer’s hands.

Mass market paperbacks, once the dominate size for fiction, have become almost a laugh. Trade paper racks have replaced most of the mass market racks now. And the pandemic killed most indie stores.

In a recent study, Indie Writers are over 60% of all writers, publishing their own work, going direct in one way or another to readers, while a small fraction of fiction writers still go to traditional and another fraction have other smaller publishers publish them.

An estimate is that 75% of all fiction books published are now indie and indie writers are making almost double the amount of traditional writers.

We are about half way through the 25 year transition.

The writers sitting in that room at Writers of the Future are smack in the middle. And the war between old traditional methods and new indie methods of publishing fiction are fairly balanced. In other words, the future is at war in their heads.

The myths of those 50 years of traditional publishing are strong. The lure of indie publishing and control of your own work is strong.

Bu my prediction comes from studying history of publishing. 10 more years and the indie writers will dominate completely, the remnants of the traditional publishers will have pulled in on themselves or eaten each other. And the new world will be set for another 50 years or so, until the next disruption.

I really love history. Makes things so much clearer.



  • Philip

    One concern I have about an eventual full indie takeover is what it means for Amazon. Amazon is already the leading retailer, but if fiction becomes indie dominated, then Amazon may develop even more power as a distributor to the point of becoming a de facto publisher–essentially add new restrictions and become gatekeepers to where instead of a Big Five we have a Big One. I’m no fan of Legacy Publishing, but this is a fear I have. I believe one way to mitigate this is if more indies dedicate themselves to publishing wide instead of dropping their work into Select.

    In fact, I’m working on a debut western now thay I’m confident would generate more SHORT-TERM money in Select, but I will launch wide because I’m in this for the long haul and trust yours and Kris’s experience-based advice.

    • dwsmith

      To the indie myth mill, Amazon is big. But real indie writers only make a fraction of their money from Amazon. I think it is down around 5th or 6th place for us, maybe lower.

      Big money makers going forward will be the indie’s own store, various forms of crowdfunding and reader perks, mailing lists, international sales, and numbers of other things I know I am forgetting. Thinking of only selling through a bookstore is so traditional publishing thinking.

      • T Thorn Coyle

        Amazon is third for me.

        Working on boosting other sources higher over the next three years, so hopefully Zon’s rank will drop even further down as others rise.

    • Anthony

      If you’re not selling anything other than on Amazon – and chances are you won’t for years, if ever – and you’re selling less on Amazon, you’re not playing the long game. You’re just costing yourself sales.

  • Michael W Lucas

    Yes, all of this. And: It’s not just fiction, or just publishing. Go back 50 years. Look at the most common jobs in 1973. Compare it to today.

    You have to roll with the changes, or be left behind.

    My childhood dream of the big trad contract and the publisher being my personal lickspittle and hanging out with Heinlein and LeGuin and Philip K Dick are as dead as… well, as those authors. Life changes. You gotta update the dreams to go with them.

    But what I’ve got now is pretty dang good.

  • Vincent Zandri

    Even my agent, and he’s a good one, admitted the only clients he has left (he’s 65 now so only works with a select group) who are making a nice living are indie authors. It’s virtually impossible to get a sizeable traditional deal, and even if you do it’s one and done, wham bam thank you mam (or mister).

    I’ve been publishing new books and stories close to the rate of one per week so far this year, and everything, and I mean everything sells in one form or another. It’s also getting less expensive to publish a book which is even better for a low-overhead business to begin with.

  • C.E. Petit

    There’s a parallel issue that goes in along with this useful summary — one that applies not just to commercial fiction, but to all of trade publishing:

    Returns. Which also has some very interesting indeed quarter-century cycles (widespread initiation in the 1930s; development and adoption of reformed common law of contracts and the UCC in the late 1950s and early 1960s that changed lots of stuff; computerized accounting/reporting and inventory taxation in the mid-1980s; massive changes in fulfillment methods, reporting, and technology starting in 2008).

    Returns are interwoven with the other aspects of US commercial-publishing history that Dean mentions. They’re the tail wagging the dog of how commercial publishers (including, but not only, commercial fiction) manage inventory, taxes, cash flow, print runs, and acquisition decisions. They’re also almost certainly an antitrust violation but for nobody having both antitrust standing and a real incentive to complain about them.