Self-Publishing Before E-Readers And Apps: 1998-2006

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In the early years of the internet, before Amazon was open to self-publishers, distribution for independent authors was very limited.

Print was still king. Ebooks and Audiobooks did exist, but they were quite niche. Tech-savvy people might read a PDF on their computer. There were no smart-phones or tablets, and laptops were a rarity. There were no apps. Sony produced the world's first popular e-reader device in 2006, with Amazon following that up with its Kindle in 2007. Barnes & Noble was late to the game, offering its competing Nook in 2009.

In the late 1990s through 2007, Audible was a boutique company that had yet to be purchased by Amazon. Its selection of audiobooks was even more limited than what you could find at your local Barnes & Noble. Since audiobook production runs to many thousands of dollars per book, it was prohibitively costly for small presses and independent authors, and besides, Audible only bought from major New York producers who worked with the Big Six.

So in the brand new internet era, print was still the most desirable format.

If you lacked the patience or the desire to impress big publishers in New York City, might there be another way to get your books into print and into bookstores?

Enter print-on-demand services.

A tech-savvy author-entrepreneur or a small press could use Adobe QuarkXPress (the precursor to InDesign), or freeware tools such as Sigil or Calibre, to format their manuscripts for print (and for e-reader devices, once those became a thing). That author could then upload the PDF to a niche retailer for independent books, such as JukeBox or NoiseTrade. One of the largest was a site called Lulu, a darling of micro-press and small press publishers, which survives to this day. Once your book became part of the Lulu catalog, it had a sales page. It could be purchased, printed, and shipped to a paying customer.

Independent authors began to take advantage of these services.

They were shy about it, at first. Self-publishing had a major stigma attached to it, since at the time, it was synonymous with so-called "vanity presses."

A Vanity Press meant pay-to-publish. No publisher would admit to being a vanity press, but in plain English, they only published paying customers and they did not pay royalties. In other words, the money flowed from the writer to the publisher, instead of from the publisher to the writer. This arrangement was fine for mom's cookbook, or for dad's book of nature photos and poems, or for grandma's genealogy book. If you wanted a nicely bound version of those books, someone had to provide it.

But for fiction? No. Booksellers steered clear of anything printed by a vanity press. If you published your romance or your science fiction with a vanity press, you would never receive royalties. You would never get it into bookstores. The venture could only lose you money. Fiction books from vanity presses were sneered upon as the province of complete failures.

[As an aside, the business model for vanity presses is evolving along with the rest of the industry. I will try to cover this topic in a later chapter.]

Print-on-demand services such as Lulu were a new thing. They offered fiction writers the services of a vanity press without the downsides, and—many hoped—without the stigma. You, as an author, did not pay Lulu. Lulu simply hosted the file of your manuscript, and if a customer bought it, the customer paid for printing and shipping. That lent self-published books an aura of legitimacy.

It was supposed to, anyway.

Unfortunately, many author-entrepreneurs in the brave new era had never tried to improve their craft. They were hobbyists or amateurs, their books never workshopped or edited. Some weren't even proofread. This was before proofreading tools such as Grammarly existed.

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