Most people think that self publishing is a relatively new thing. With the advent of the internet (and eBooks), self publishing is definitely easier than ever. But it’s not exclusively an internet generation undertaking. In fact, people have been self publishing books for centuries.
When did self publishing start? A history
Of course, books in early history were mainly written by scholars and read by educated people. It wasn’t commonplace to read, or have time to read. And, until the printing press was invented in 1440, it was pretty hard to get writing into peoples’ hands anyway.
It didn’t take long for that to change, though. From about 1500 onward, book printing exploded. Apparently there were some 9 million books already made by that time! The companies that owned printing presses became the book publishers of the time, and got to pick and choose what they would print.
A new normal of reading occurred thanks to improved education and increased access to libraries. By the time publishing had hit the 1800s it looked a lot like it does today. You had to convince the publisher to print your book and they had to be confident it would sell. Then, they would promote the book and split the profits with the author, just like today.
Early examples of self publishing
Back then, if you wanted to be self published you pretty much had to buy your own printing press and start a company.
Another way authors managed to ‘self publish’ was to convince printers to create their book at their own expense. Jane Austin did this to get Sense and Sensibility on the market after being rejected by publishers. It did sell, and she continues to be one of the most celebrated authors even today.
The poet Emily Dickinson also tried to self publish, but with less success. Her ‘books’ were just folded pieces of paper bound together with string. She wrote copies of her poetry inside the pages. These were found in her room after her death, and were later published.
Self Published Books Often Had Low Quality
Even when people were able to publish their books on their own they were easy to identify because of their printing quality. Well that, and the quality of the writing (which was often without editing or proofreading).
They were published through something called “Vanity Press”, which was unfortunately named due to the motivation for people to take advantage of those services. Usually books that couldn’t be published by traditional publishers were done so just for vanity reasons alone.
Self publishing was also prohibitively expensive during that time, requiring a one-time payment to print several hundred copies of your book that you were then stuck with to try and sell.
Print on Demand Technology for Self Publishing
So, for about 500 years people had pretty limited options when it came to publishing their books. Either sell your manuscript to a publisher (and possibly get a bad deal when it came to royalties), start your own printing press (not accessible to most people), print at your own expense, or write out copies by hand.
Even the invention of the typewriter and home computers didn’t really help this much; it’s not like you could easily type out multiple copies of your book. And printing at home didn’t come cheap enough to make it even remotely worth it; never mind figuring out how to bind and sell your book on your own.
Thankfully, computer and printing technology improved enough in the 1990s to finally give those wanting to self publish a viable option.
Enter: print on demand services (POD). With print on demand, authors were able to print off small runs on their books at near equal quality to traditional publishers. It was accessible from a cost perspective, and also helped people compete in the market on their own.
When did eBooks come out?
The first eBook actually released in 1971 when Project Gutenberg got started in an effort to create a large digital library of books. (Today they have over 60,000 documents that you can read online for free!)
Then in 1992, Voyageur Co. released several books including Jurassic Park by Micheal Crichton on floppy disk, meant to be read on the computer. Besides that, the first dedicated eBook reader came out in 1998 and Sony made some eBook readers in the 2000s that had the first electronic ink technology in them.
Online publishing is arguably the biggest contributor to the growth of the self publishing industry. Although self publishing started long before the internet existed, the real answer to ‘when did self publishing start?’ is in 2007 when Amazon launched their kindle. It sold out in just five and a half hours.
Kindle Direct Publishing launched with it, giving wannabe authors a whole new world of publishing opportunities. It continues to be one of the largest libraries of self published books today.
What self publishing looks like now
Since 2007, self publishing has only improved. Some of the stigma from self publishing is starting to ease, especially as self published books like 50 Shades of Gray find their way into the mainstream.
Amazon has expanded their publishing to include print on demand, which is great for authors who want to order or sell physical copies of their work. Other print on demand services, including a printer that actually binds the book in the same machine, have come out too.
Self publishing is more accessible than it ever has been; and that’s disrupted the entire publishing industry.
The future of self publishing
If you’ve been on the fence about self publishing your own book, you’re probably trying to predict what the future publishing landscape will look like. The hard truth is things are changing far too quickly for anyone to make any judgements; including publishers.
What we do know is that self published authors are earning more and more profits as self publishing gains in popularity. eBook sales have been increasing steadily as technology improves. Plus self published authors are starting to learn about the industry more before taking that leap, rather than just hitting ‘publish’.
Considering self published books earn the authors a high percentage of the profit, and are often free or inexpensive to release, there’s no reason why more and more people won’t choose self publishing in the future.
Maybe the question we should ask isn’t, ‘when did self publishing start?’, it’s ‘when will traditional publishing end?’