A history of publishing through one author’s books


It’s 2016, in case you didn’t notice. That means I’ve been a so-called published author for 42 years: I’m a walking talking piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c’est moi.

Publishing poetry collections: fun or none

From 1975–1988 five poetry books were published by small-press poetry specialists, and my Selected Poems by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a marvellous book designer, educated me in the publishing process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, layout, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it’s still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could make a gorgeous book, I loved the creativity and control, and I could make a profit.

A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, “Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?” So I self-published that book too and was thoroughly satisfied.

Publishing fiction: turbulence and change

My first three novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and Humming by another publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. With a professional designer the process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, Scarlet Heels still made money.

Slowly I’m now republishing the best of my work as ebooks, and have made about $3 (stet: three dollars) so far. I enjoy extending the life of my backlist this way.

My latest novel is Fixing Mrs Philpott (2016). A handsome paperback, it was published by a small Indie press and I will make a small profit.

Non-fiction: the plot thickens

Between 1980 and 1999 I had ten non-fiction books published by mainstream publishers. Since then I’ve personally published four books for the corporate market and one or two for writers. It’s my self-published non-fiction books that brought me a satisfying income over many years.

My publishing history is every author’s publishing history

To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 most of my books were published on paper by conventional publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. But since 2005, all my books have been self-published or indie-published.

I see the same pattern the world over: don’t you?

  1. Publishing has never been an easy industry and e-books ate the profits.
  2. Mainstream publishing companies shrivelled or merged until only two medium-sized fiction publishers remain in New Zealand.
  3. New technology increased the cost-effectiveness of small print runs.
  4. Small companies sprang up to enable anyone to self-publish.
  5. E-books came to dominate the market; real book sales reduced and then began to recover.

It’s not the books, it’s the industry

Now you may be thinking, “Apparently Rachel’s writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable.” Indeed, that’s what publishers often imply. After waiting for months for a response, you will probably be told, “Sorry, your book doesn’t fit with our marketing plan.”

What this really means: “We can only afford to publish a handful of books each year. As for fiction, we only publish guaranteed best-sellers. Anyway, our list is filled for the next 18 months.”

My attitude? Never say never, but I’m happy to carry on self publishing. It’s fun, it’s empowering and it’s profitable. I can live with the occasional sneer from people who don’t realize that these days, almost every New Zealand novel is self published.

Why am I sharing these gory details?

To encourage you, if you’re a writer struggling to find a mainstream publisher. To provide a reality check: times have changed! To reassure you that a rejection slip is not necessarily a reflection on your book. To inspire you, if you are looking for an alternative route to publication. And to remind you that writing is a reward in itself, and you can share it in many other ways.

8 thoughts on “A history of publishing through one author’s books

  1. Val says:

    Since my health problems began my writing days are pretty much gone, but I’m curious – how, with self-publishing, do you earn enough from it? What type of publicity and distribution do you use?

    1. I don’t earn a living but I don’t lose money either. I take an interest in publicity but not for long. Events, readings, plays, workshops sell books. Up to a point.

  2. Incredible! (Hope you didn’t spend that $3 all in one place 😉 )

  3. Joared says:

    We derive such pleasure from reading what others write, artists draw, music is performed but seems only a few actually make a living doing so. Is something wrong with this picture? Interesting to read about the evolution of publishing.

    1. I have never felt entitled to earn a fortune with my books. In retrospect, that was lucky, wasn’t it?

  4. Val says:

    Hope you’re okay, Rachel. Am missing your posts. x

    1. Val, thank you for asking. Quite the contrary! I was busy finishing my first ever video course. More later when I have found out how to make some coupons so that blog readers can do it free.

      1. Val says:

        Sounds good!

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