We Have it Pretty Good: What Writers Went Through in the 90s

Photo by Exsodus

When I went to my hometown earlier this year, I came across a Writer's Market guide from the late 90s stored in my old room. My mother bought it for me when I was in high school because I was into sci-fi and fantasy, and wanted to know which magazines would take my short stories.

Those teenage writing aspirations haven't died, of course, but I keep thinking about how much the publishing industry has changed since then, and yet, parts of it remain the same. Tell me if you can remember some of them below. Please note that these are my observations and opinions. Some are meant to be funny and all of them should be taken with a grain of salt. I don't expect everyone to agree with me.

Publisher directories were as thick as a New York City phone book.

Years before the Great Recession, the publishing industry was ripe with the big traditional houses, smaller upstarts, indie publishers, and niche markets. Enter the 21st century and many of those markets have disappeared due to corporate mergers, buyouts, and a fluctuating economy, along with other factors that are beyond the limits of my non-Forbes thinking capacity. Take a look at a publisher directory from 1999 and one from the past two or three years. You'll see what I mean.

Snail mail was the law of the land.

Oh, I don't think too many people miss this. In the days before the golden age of email, writers had to submit multiple copies of whole manuscripts to agents and publishers, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) for a reply and a bigger envelope if they wanted the manuscript returned. That wasn't too big of a problem for poets or short-story writers. Authors of 100,000-word manuscripts, however...

Office Max, Kinkos, and USPS must have made small fortunes off of the writing community.

With snail mail came the daily walk/jog back and forth to the mailbox. I did this so often I could count it as exercise. My first rejection letter for a short story arrived just after I completed the second semester of my college sophomore year, about eleven months from when it was sent out.

Email took time to catch on. In my old Writer's Market for Novel and Short-Story Writers, publishers explicitly stated that they would not accept electronic submissions or queries. Some did accept manuscripts on disk.

Fast forward 15 years later and many publishers take at least the first three chapters by email or have an electronic query form.

Do we writers of the 21st century have it easier? In terms of saving money on postage, I believe we do, but there's still a wait time for replies that we have to contend with. Those who published before the dominance of computers seem to possess a learned patience. I guess the old advice still holds true: Write while you wait.

The romance genre was starting to branch out its categories.

As paranormal and sci-fi/fantasy romance writers know, these sub-genres didn't hit it big until the start of the new millenium. I remember scouring the shelves of big franchise bookstores, only to find one or two vampire romances. Today, I can go to the local Wal-Mart and find series of them in a flash.

The Christian/inspirational market has expanded, too. Maybe not as fast as secular publishers, but we are seeing "edgy" romances alongside the sweet ones. Some of us write romantic suspense or high fantasy reminiscent of C.S. Lewis.

Best of all, our books are reaching the mainstream. Not only do we no longer have to go to a Christian bookstore to look for a positive read, but we have an opportunity to show people the love of our Lord Jesus in a way that teaches and entertains.

E-books were as foreign as eating a live eel.

Up until Amazon released the Kindle and Barnes and Noble debuted the Nook, few of us were keen on reading an entire book on the computer. In the late 90s, a couple of brave romance lines offered titles in PDF format to download. Now, nearly every major publisher offers books available on e-readers.

There is still a growing debate on paper versus digital that I will touch on in another post. For the moment, I will say that the technolgy has allowed us to reach a wider audience than ever before on e-readers as well as bookshelves. That's just my opinion.

A writer's platform was what an author stood on at a book convention.

Ok, bad joke. My writing how-to books of the 90s didn't speak in detail about marketing and promotion. Generally, they advised following the instructions of your editor, because marketing and promoting were mostly done after you were published.

Today, writers with hopes of publication have to show that they can function in a community. Whether you think it's a blessing or a curse, online social media is the new fact of life. It allows us to connect with other writers and readers, learn the ropes, and gain support for what we're doing. Two decades ago, that involved more time and travel. I've heard published authors in my writers' group praise the fact that they don't have to leave home as much to promote their books, but they can't seem to leave their computer, either.

While the publishing industry has changed with the rest of the world, there are practices that won't go anywhere. We still have to wait on queries and invest in resources that will help us become better writers. The time machine has yet to be invented that will make "having written" come before "to write".

This doesn't have to be discouraging. As Christian writers, we have the privilege of giving our work to God and trusting Him with the results. We can be assured that He will bring good out of it, some way, somehow. That's a fact that won't change with the times!

What publishing trends have you seen? Tell me, and I'll feature it in an upcoming post.