A Brief History of E-publishing, Part 4: Logjam!

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In 1998, e-publishing appeared to be the next great revolution in publishing. Within two years the “revolution” went bust.

So what happened?

The crash began with a logjam.

In a very short time, the number of royalty-paying e-publishers went from a handful to dozens, then from dozens into the hundreds. Why such an explosion in growth?

Because it was easy for people to set themselves up as e-publishers.

Back then, all you needed was a website, desktop publishing software, a way to receive payments, someone who could edit manuscripts, a cover artist and—if you planned on distributing the books on floppy discs or CD-ROM—a printer (preferably color). Some of the fledgling e-publishers avoided the whole problem of a physical product by making the books available only as downloads.

So, if you fancied yourself an editor and your wife had some artistic skill (or vice versa), you could run an e-publishing business right out of your home. Thus, many of the publishers that sprang up in the first e-publishing boom were “mom and pop” outfits, often run by a handful of people.

That arrangement worked well—until a gazillion unpublished writers discovered e-publishing.

Almost overnight, the newbie e-publishers were flooded with submissions, and it wasn’t long before most of them were overwhelmed. A mom and pop operation works fine if you’re only getting a few submissions a month. When the number of manuscripts balloons into the hundreds, you’ve got a problem.

What happened?

Quality went out the window.

When Hard Shell Word Factory accepted my YA novel Friendly Revenge back in 1998, they took it through the same kind of editing process you would expect with a mainstream print publisher. An editor reviewed my manuscript and suggested changes. I did rewrites and submitted them for approval. They proofread the book and sent me a proof copy to review. We haggled over the book’s title. We discussed the cover art (even though my book was only going to be released as a 3.25” floppy). I was very pleased with the final product.

When the logjam hit, Hard Shell and the other e-publishers who had been in existence for a while were able to maintain their high standards.

Many of the others were not.

Manuscripts were published, often with little or no editing or proofing. The quality of the cover art (most of which which wasn’t very good to begin with) suffered.

Basically, many of the fledgling e-publishers couldn’t keep up.

Before long, it was not unusual to visit an e-publisher’s website and see the words (often in flashing letters): Temporarily Closed to Submissions.

Some of the publishers folded. For many of those who stayed in business, the temporary closing became permanent. (Check out this listing of royalty-paying e-publishers and take note of how many are no longer accepting submissions.)

The logjam and resulting loss in quality signaled an end to the first e-publishing boom.

But in less than a year, that would all change with the entry of a new technology into the marketplace: POD (Print on Demand).


(Check back on September 27th for the next installment in A Brief History of E-Publishing.)

7 Replies to “A Brief History of E-publishing, Part 4: Logjam!”

  1. That’s very interesting. I’m glad we’re experiencing a resurgence, I think e-reader devices have a lot to do with that. As a hopeful e-published author I’m really excited to get my work out there and seeing what opportunities await. Thanks for the post, I’m looking forward to reading the next installment

    1. Thanks for commenting, Pearson.

      E-readers definitely have played a significant part in the resurgence of e-publishing. I’ll go into more detail about that in some later posts, but for a little background, check out my post about the Rocket e-Book.

  2. Thanks, Jim.
    This was a great recap of the history of e-books. I had to find all four parts and catch up on your posts. I look forward to future posts. I’m hoping you will write about the reviewing process for e-publishing (or lack of). The whole phenomenon is fascinating.


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