Publishing 40 Years Ago

Yesterday I gave a talk on the changes in book publishing over the last 40 years. Preparing for the talk was like a walk down memory lane.

Forty years ago I decided I wanted to write a book. I lucked out and found an agent who saw something in my writing worth nurturing. She worked with me for almost three years (editing my early stories, teaching me how to write a synopsis) before I/she made a sale. Can you imagine an agent doing that today?

Most agents nowadays want writers to have had a professional editor go over the work before sending it to them (the agent). Oh, there are still a few who will work with a new writer, but lately I have been hearing more horror stories (about agents) than praise.

I started writing romances at a wonderful time. The “Women’s Movement” was in full swing. We’d burned our bras and were tired of writing about the helpless ward who needed a man (who always seemed angry) to save her. Sex no longer needed to occur behind closed doors. Women were looking for partners—equals—not Lords.

This was when Harlequin Temptation came into being, and I just happened to have an agent who knew I had a story that fit that line.

But Harlequin wasn’t the only publisher who put sex in its romances or realized how popular a genre the romance novel would become. There were dozens back then: Zebra, Dell, Silhouette, Bantam, Avon, Avalon*, Ballentine and more. And most of them didn’t require an agent. A partial (a synopsis and three chapters) would usually get you onto the slush pile where one of the first readers would search for stories to send up to the editors. Back then, most editors only required three chapters and a synopsis before going to contract. (That changed when writers polished those first three chapters, received a contract, and then couldn’t produce the rest of the book.)

Nowadays most of the publishing houses I mentioned above, including Harlequin, have been bought up by the “Big Five,” and cuts in personnel have been made for the sake of the bottom line. Agents have become the first readers, editorial staff has been cut, and sales numbers are all important.

Back during the ‘80s, publishers held reader parties; had mail-order book clubs and regularly gave gifts to those members; advertised their lines in slick magazines to lure in new readers; and wooed distributors and bookstores with perks. (We also had lots of distribution centers across the nation, places where writers could go and sign their books, and bring donuts to the men delivering their books to grocery stores, book store, airports, and so on.) Yes, the publishing house was the brand, not the writer, but we all benefited . . . and, the sales were great. Back then a writer had time to write two or three books a year because she (or he) wasn’t busy marketing those books.

In many ways I miss those days, but all wasn’t perfect. I started with a typewriter and cut and paste was cut and paste; I mailed off a query letter or proposal and waited for weeks (unless I received a phone call) for a response. Back then I had little to no control over what my book looked like, when it was released, or how much pr it received. The marketing department basically told the editors what types of stories sold and what didn’t. Readers received what they expected. A few writers broke free from those restraints, but only a few.

Computers and the Internet have made a big change in publishing. I’m only now venturing into self-publishing, but I like that I can receive 35% or 75% when I sell a self-published book, not 6% or 25%. I also like that I can now write the story I want to tell not what I’m told to tell, and that I have control over my covers . . . and titles. I don’t like marketing my books, and I’m not any good at it, so my bottom line suffers. Maybe if I were younger I’d work harder at it, but I’m not, so I don’t.

So, what will publishing be like 40 years from now?

The answer to that question is for other writers (writers much younger than I) to tell.

*Avalon’s were known as “sweet” romances–no bedroom scenes.

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12 Responses to Publishing 40 Years Ago

  1. Thanks for the history, Maris. I never wrote romance and have only worked with Harlequin in its Worldwide Mystery line, but I had colleagues writing romance who were happy with their situation. Few writers today feel they have steady work and a definite career path. We’re all stumbling forward waiting for the next surprise.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. Stumbling forward is a good description. Some writers seem to have found the right path, but most seem to be trying different possibilities, hoping one will be the perfect one.

  2. Maris,

    You told it honestly. I remember those times very well. I was happy when we were able to start using computers to send off our work. But there are some very unpleasant factors for writers these days.

  3. Vicki Batman says:

    Publishing has really changed since I began writing fifteen years ago. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Vicki, as I started putting together that talk I gave, I was amazed by how much every area of the publishing industry has changed. And, of course, I wonder what the next ten years will bring.

  4. Nan Lundeen says:

    Maris, I agree marketing is a huge challenge. I’ve self-published four books, 3 of them poetry, which doesn’t sell worth a hoot. One of them continues to sell–The Pantyhose Declarations–I think because it is humorous & I have a video of me reading it on my website. Have you tried offering audio books yet? That’s my next project on a how-to-write handbook.

  5. susan payne says:

    I was one of those who kept Harlequin et el in business buying & reading over 50 (mostly romantic genre) books a month. Problem is they all began to read alike what with publisher’s demand of set formats. almost killed the love for me…but I persevered and continued to read. Now I write but as you know haven’t tried publishing yet. You let me know I was correct on what was happening out there. Maybe together we can change it again.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Bantam’s Loveswept line was where I found the most freedom, Susan. But, alas, that line was dropped the end of the ’90s. The Internet and POD are now giving writers an opportunity to break out of the mold.

  6. Maris, you obviously love your craft and I am grateful for the encouragement and enthusiasm you pass along to me and others regardless of the amount and kind of publishing that comes from our writing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Joe. Some days I’m more enthusiastic than others. It usually depends on if the writing is going well or not. I must say these last 40 years have been interesting ones, filled with ups and downs.