Book Publishing Before the Internet

When I first started working in book publishing, Amazon was a river in Brazil and social media was a radio DJ holding a dance party at the local mall. The word “internet” either didn’t exist or was possibly some sort of technical term known only to commercial fishermen.

Did the publishing industry actually exist in any meaningful form before 1995?


Certainly, the publishing landscape has changed dramatically in the last twenty years with online selling, digital printing, social media and e-books.

But while the surface changes, what is underneath is still driven by core principles, which have not changed. (And I am not talking about publisher entrenched processes which drive everyone crazy.)

If you understand the underlying core principles of something, you can make more sense of the seemingly ever-changing world. Here are the never-changing aspects of book publishing:

The Author

They still need to study writing, know grammar and proper spelling. Nothing will take the place of human creativity. Computer tools speed up the process, but writing 70,000 well-crafted words still takes time. A lot of time. Without the time investment, writing is simply words on a page.

Computer word processing changed the need for certain writing skills. Prior to computers, authors needed to spend more time outlining and pondering their work before they wrote. Cutting and pasting involved actual cutting and actual pasting, with all the toxic glue fumes accompanying the process. (Which probably explains some of the titles published in the 60’s and 70’s)

Some feel it is self-publishing which made book publishing available to all, but really it was the computer and word processing software, which made the writing of books accessible to more writers. Prior to word processors, the tedious manual requirements of writing by hand or typewriter sifted out the casual writer who found the process of creating a book downright withering.


The need for an author platform has always existed. This is not a new thing. I’ve stated this before, but 100 years ago, newspaper and magazine columnists held much of the power in the author community. There were millions of people reading their columns, so books were a natural extension. These were high-platform authors of an earlier era.

If you think the discussion of platform is a new thing, you would not be accurate. We discussed the same issue for authors in the 1980’s and actually used the term. We simply didn’t have Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We had newspaper or magazine circulation numbers and radio/TV listener/viewer ratings.

High platform authors have always received preferential treatment over unknown writers. It is just the definition of what comprises a good platform, which has changed.


This is a hot term in publishing circles these days, but honestly, it is the publishing equivalent to calling a chef a “gastronomic artist.” It is a high-tech sounding term for the 21st century where we ride in self-driving cars and communicate with wrist phones.

How people really find out about a specific book and make a buying decision has always been the same no matter what era you investigate.

  • Recommendation from a trusted source (friend, spouse, pastor).
  • Review from a respected source.
  • Written by a known author.
  • Meets a felt need or desire of a reader.
  • A great title/cover/package.

Everything I can think of falls into one of the above categories and all five of these existed long before computers gave the impression they didn’t matter any longer. Computers and everything, which followed, simply added new elements to the five foundational stones.

One of the most significant changes from 30 years ago is the one which allows readers to connect directly to authors. Thirty years ago, authors might get a half-dozen letters from readers. The process of publishing put a wall of mystery between the author and the reader. The publisher decided what got through to the author, usually nice things, shielding the author from angry comments and bad reviews, or the very least, re-framing the negative comments into positive action.

Now, the direct line from the reader to the author is not only the norm, but it is encouraged. And it is not always positive. Being directly exposed to reader comments and online reviews, both good and bad, is an emotional challenge for any author.

Today’s post was just an attempt to remind us everything new is not necessarily new, just renamed and reframed.

(Feel free to recall the Bible verse about new things and the sun.)

8 Responses to Book Publishing Before the Internet

  1. Michael Emmanuel October 11, 2016 at 3:23 am #

    Treating highly sensitive topics regarding publishing with a dose of humor endears me to Dan Balow’s post. I’m always glad to visit the author, via the website.

    BTW, would the above line make a huge review (assuming the writer was a best-selling author and Dan Balow was an upcoming one)?

    • Bill Nichols October 11, 2016 at 5:55 am #

      Excellent and much needed reminder.

  2. Davalynn Spencer October 11, 2016 at 7:34 am #

    How true. Writing is so much more than “simply words on a page.”

  3. rochellino October 11, 2016 at 9:02 am #

    Writing by hand downright withering, whaaaaaaat!

    The tactile feel of the pencil and paper, the smell of fresh pencil wood left by the hand crank sharpener, the little bits of spent eraser littering your writing area. For me, this is time honored real deal writing. The tradition and history of making physically manual marks on medium transports one back centuries along an unbroken lineage into times and authors unknown.

    The thought of humans pecking on a device that aligns electrons into a recognizable and coherent pattern is something that scribes of times not so distant found unbelievable and futuristic. They never thought they would live to see it. A number of them have, some still cling to their paper and pencil. Your expertly written blog elucidates the bridge that has been crossed. All too soon the torch will be passed. Great job Dan!

    God Bless!

  4. Carol Ashby October 11, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    Your blog triggered memories, Dan. I started publishing professionally just before everyone had personal computers and wordprocessers. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis (all 250 pages) by hand. My husband typed it on a typewriter using white-out for every correction while I applied all the mathematical symbols as wax rub-ons.

    I remember when the internet was born as milnet to help communication between defense organizations (and Al Gore really had nothing to do with inventing it). When I wrote my GaAs book on a computer, it was so easy to create outlines, generate figures and tables, and flip outlines into prose. My coauthor, Albert Baca, and I shipped drafts back and forth between us by email, polishing the manuscript until we felt it shone. Albert and I never thought about “platform” and “discoverability” since we were asked to write the book because we were already known in our field.

    But how does a new author of fiction get the equivalent of invited talks at meetings and many other researchers citing your own work? I see mountains and canyons between me and discoverability in an internet world. This blog and others have taught me what needs to be done and, to some extent, how to do it using the internet. You’ve put me in a Jeep Wrangler instead of a Honda Civic for the journey, but there’s serious four-wheeling ahead. My first novel is about to come out, but my first internet marketing will be for my history website for teachers related to the time of my novel. Time will tell whether its links to my author blog and books lead to readers who care.

    I can hardly wait to have personal contact with readers who found pleasure spending time with my characters as they struggled toward their goal. I may just frame my first fan letter (email?) as a reminder that it’s the people who count, not just the sales numbers. Of course, that assumes someone actually discovers my book and reads it! Deep ravine, lots of boulders in the path to that!

  5. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. October 11, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    Dan, thanks for telling us “the way things were” back before today’s world of publishing……as a newbie, it’s interesting to get some new information about the days of yore.

  6. Peter DeHaan October 11, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

    Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Amen.

  7. Dean Ortner, Ph.D., Ph.D. October 13, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    (Feel free to recall the Bible verse about new things and the sun.)


    (Feel free to recall the Bible verse about old things (wineskins) and new things (wine) and the sun.)

    I heartily concur with Peter!

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